Wizards, vampires, zombies. Trends, or fads, in pop culture come and go all the time.
And in fact, they're nothing new. In the second half of the 19th century, all things medieval were all the rage in England. The Victorians just couldn’t get enough of swords, spells, and chivalry. Among things like mutton recipes and damsels in distress, this fever produced modern translations of medieval texts like Beowulf, Sir Walter Scott’s adventure stories, the Romantic Arthurian paintings of John William Waterhouse and, of course, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
Idylls of the King is a collection of twelve narrative poems detailing the rise and fall of King Arthur and the fellowship of the round table. Based on sources such as Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and the Old Welsh Mabinogion, the Idylls were Tennyson’s re-interpretation of the Arthurian story for the Victorian era (not to mention his attempt to cash in on the medieval craze).
Although the Idylls come today as a complete set of twelve, plus dedication and epilogue, Tennyson actually published them in sets, sometimes out of order, over a period of 30 years, from 1859 to 1885. The first four—“Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere” —all focused on Arthurian women. In later years, Tennyson would publish various Idylls in literary journals and with collections of his other poems, with the last Idyll, “Balin and Balan,” appearing in Tiresias and Other Poems in 1885.
Here's the crazy part. The Idylls weren’t Tennyson’s first stab at the Arthurian legend: as a young poet he published the short poems “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere,” “Sir Galahad,” and his most famous, the twenty-stanza ballad “The Lady of Shalott,” about Elaine of Astolat’s ill-fated love for Sir Lancelot. So you might say he had a bit of a thing for Camelot. But in the Idylls, Tennyson spent a lot of time and ink on the whole Arthurian story and painted a much less idealized, more complex picture of it than he ever had before.
Part of the allure of medievalism to the Victorians (besides the fact that medieval things like mutton are just plain rad) was that it seemed to offer a simpler, more straightforward world than their own. Advances in the sciences, upheavals in politics, and the industrial revolution’s creation of a new kind of urban poor presented the Victorians with a lot of hard-to-answer moral and philosophical questions. So it’s easy to understand the appeal of the medieval era, in which everybody’s loyalties were clear, “man’s word [was] “God in man” (“Balin and Balan,” 8), and knights kept their promises and the rule of law out of their pure love for an ideal woman.
Of course, this picture of medieval times was super idealized, and it was one that came from the longings and dreams of the people who created it. So part of what Idylls of the King does is to explore the collapse of this idealism and these dreams. Arthur tries to create a perfect world but fails when the human fallibility of his knights and subjects gets in the way.
Alas, humans are only, well, human.
In his Epilogue, Tennyson calls human nature “sense at war with soul” (37), which is a pretty good way of characterizing the conflict at the heart of many of the Idylls:
All of these dilemmas point to a division between what humans are and what they’d like to be—between the reality of human nature and its ideal. Some people think of the Idylls of the King as an allegory of Victorian society, with Arthur representing the ideal Victorian gentleman. If that’s the case, then the collapse of the world he tries to create is bad news for Victorian society. In that sense, we might read Idylls of the King as a pessimistic commentary on the Victorians’ attempts at progress.
When it comes to the other people in your life, would you say you’re an optimist or a pessimist? Do you expect the worst from others or are you one of those folks who manages to see the best in everyone, despite ample evidence to the contrary?
If you’re a pessimist, for example, you’re likely to require more than a promise to make sure you don’t get burned. Loaning money to a friend? The pessimist will ask for a written IOU, but, for the optimist, a promise of repayment—and maybe a secret handshake—is good enough.
The character of Arthur in Idylls of the King is an extreme optimist when it comes to human nature. He believes people are basically honest, with an unlimited capacity and desire for self-improvement. This belief prompts him to create a society based only on his knights’ promises rather than scary stuff like fear and punishment.
What’s great about Arthur’s optimism is that it makes him willing to give people lots of second chances. He’s sure that, if given the chance, everybody wants to improve himself. What’s not so great about this is that it allows people to take advantage of him. Lancelot and Guinevere can carry on an affair right under his nose, because no way would Arthur ever think to suspect them of such a betrayal.
When it comes down to it, Arthur’s optimism about human nature is based on his own nature. He really is fundamentally honest, principled, and all that good stuff. But for him to assume that everybody else is just as perfect is just plain naïve and leads to his downfall. If only Arthur had taken the time to assess people’s characters before he trusted them “to the death,” his story might have had a happier ending. So go ahead and lend your acquaintance that money, but unless you know them really well and they’re just as honest and principled as you are, maybe you’d better ask for that IOU.
This one's got it all: links to articles by literary scholars about the social and historical context of the Idylls, as well as interpretive essays, a Tennyson biography, and more.
A fun, accessible, and detailed Tennyson bio should do the trick if you're hungry for info.
Idylls of the King
Hungry to read it from cover to cover? You're in luck, as each and every one of the Idylls is available on Google Books.
This classic film is based on the 1960 musical of the same name. Shmoop promises: it's a delight.
This fairly straightforward retelling of the story is light on the detail, of course.
First Knight (1995)
Richard Gere plays Lancelot to Sean Connery’s Arthur in this film, which focuses only on the love triangle aspect of the story. High on drama, low on historical accuracy.
Tristan and Isolde (2006)
This is a fairly recent version of the story of star-crossed lovers Tristan (a.k.a. Tristram) and Isolde (a.k.a. Isolt), starring James Franco. Need we say more?
Here’s an e-text of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Morte d’Arthur, the book upon which much of Tennyson Idylls is based.
Morte de Shmoop
More Morte? Shmoop's got you covered.
Here's another of Tennyson’s sources for the Idylls.
The 1859 edition features the first four Idylls to be published: Enid, Vivien, Guinevere, and Elaine.
Idylls of the King by the BBC
A cast of British actors performed the entire Idylls for the BBC. The entire thing. Here's part one.
John William Waterhouse Paintings
Tennyson’s fellow Victorian medievalist J.W. Waterhouse did a number of paintings based on the story of Elaine of Astolat and the Tennyson poem “The Lady of Shalott.”
“I am half-sick of shadows, said the lady of Shalott”
Here's another by the late, great J.W. Waterhouse. This one's our fave.
"The Lady of Shalott looking at Lancelot"
The title says it all, no?
Tennyson in Full Beard Mode
The hat is simply the icing on this Victorian cake.