Apart from “Gareth and Lynette,” which is probably the most lighthearted of all of the Idylls, the tone of Idylls of the King is one big bummer: melancholic, mournful, sad, and even downright depressing at times. That’s probably because this story is all about how and why the fellowship of the Round Table failed due to the flawed nature of human beings. Yeah, that's a bummer right there.
Even seemingly happy moments can’t entirely escape the shadow of the Round Table’s coming collapse. When Lancelot and Arthur pledge their undying love and loyalty to one another, for example, it should be a happy occasion: “And Arthur said, ‘Man’s word is God in man; / Let chance what will, I trust thee to the death” (“Coming,” 132-133). But Tennyson’s audience would have known that Lancelot would go on to betray Arthur in the worst possible way, by sleeping with his wife, which makes this moment sad and a little bit ironic.
Another moment that pretty much sums up the tone occurs at the end of “The Last Tournament,” when, “in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom” (750), Arthur stumbles upon his court jester, Dagonet, in front of Guinevere’s bedchamber. When Arthur asks Dagonet who he is, his response—that he’s Arthur’s fool who “shall never make thee smile again” (756)—kind of sucks all the joy out of things for a while. The Idylls of the King are filled with moments like these, which make a sad story that much sadder.
Since it deals with the rise and fall of a kingdom over a period of many years, the scope of Idylls of the King is definitely epic. Tennyson’s approach to epic here is a little bit unusual, though, because he divides this epic into a bunch of short stories focusing on just one or two people, which emphasizes the point of view of individuals involved in their own personal dramas. That’s a very different focus than we normally see in epic poetry, which tends to place individuals in the context of the big picture rather than the little picture, as Tennyson does.
The Arthurian kingdom is doomed to fall from the very beginning by the human nature of the people who form it. What binds it together is the knights’ unity with Arthur, sealed with an oath. But despite Arthur’s belief that “man’s word is God in man” (“Balin and Balan,” 8)—that is, a man’s oath is an omnipotent power that binds him and rules all his action—most of the characters in Idylls simply aren’t able to remain true to oaths of any kind. This means that the fall of the fellowship of the Round Table is a foregone conclusion at its beginning, making the Idylls a tragedy, pure and simple.
Here comes the answer to the question you've been asking yourself the minute you decided to read this text:
The word “idyll” comes from the Greek word eidyllion, which means, "little picture.” Cute, right? The first idylls, written by the Greek poet Theocritus in the 3rd century BC, were just that: little word-paintings, meant to evoke a picture, in words, of scenes from Greek life. They were all about things like shepherds and shepherdesses, harvest festivals, and other scenes from rustic agricultural life—subjects literary types today call pastoral. Idylls are supposed to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, since they deal with people living an uncomplicated, innocent, and overall happy existence. In other words, they idealize the country life, kind of like today's country-and-western-songs.
Tennyson’s Idylls of the King borrow the little picture aspect of the idyll in that they present the story of the rise and fall of Camelot in twelve short narrative poems. Each one focuses on a different aspect of the story, like a miniature portrait of the events at hand. Okay, we realize that at over a thousand lines, some of these idylls don’t seem so short. But take our word for it: compared to other narrative poems, like Beowulf, Paradise Lost, or The Faerie Queene, they kind of are.
Also, Tennyson opens some of the idylls with a portrait-like image, like the one of Vivien lying at Merlin’s feet in the woods of Broceliande, or Elaine guarding Lancelot’s shield high up in her lonely tower. Then he expands on the hows and whys of these little portraits to structure the idyll.
On the other hand, Tennyson’s use of the term “idyll” to describe these poems is a bit ironic considering just how un-idyllic his Camelot is. Arthur tries to create an ideal world that adheres to principles of truth, justice, and the order of law—one in which the happy shepherds and shepherdesses of those Greek idylls might not seem so out of place. But his dream quickly dissolves into broken vows, cynicism, and violence. Though these idylls may be a little sentimental (this is Tennyson, after all) there’s nothing warm, fuzzy, or simple about them.
The last of Tennyson’s Idylls, “The Passing of Arthur,” finds Arthur engaged in an all out civil war with the forces that his nephew, Mordred, has ranged against him. This idyll details Arthur’s despair at the total dissolution of the fellowship he created in the first idyll, “The Coming of Arthur.” It also tells the story of Bedivere’s three attempts to fulfill his promise to Arthur to adios Excalibur into a nearby lake.
Bedivere fails twice, first tempted by Excalibur’s beauty, and then by the fact that it's basically the perfect symbol of Arthur's existence (and awesomeness). Both times he fails to chuck the sword in the lake, he lies to Arthur. Which is fitting, if you think about it. See, his failure continues the theme of broken vows and promises that has threaded through the “Idylls.” When Arthur figures out what Bedivere actually did, he thinks it's representative of the general faithlessness that's overtaken his lands—and the failure of the awesome authority he used to hold over his subjects.
Bedivere’s three tests also mirror the three tests with which Arthur established his kingship in the first idyll: the defeat of the Pagans, the creation of the fellowship of the Round Table, and his marriage to Guinevere. Ah, the full circle ending.
Bedivere's third attempt is a successful one. Which is nice, because it ends the final idyll on a note of optimism. As Arthur says, “A man may fail in duty twice, / And the third time may prosper” (297-298). Arthur’s faith in humans’ ability to redeem themselves and do what’s right, which he also demonstrated in his forgiveness of Guinevere, is finally rewarded in Bedivere’s success—just as it was in Guinevere’s repentance for her two-timing ways. And the final line of the poem, “the new sun rose bringing the new year” (469), sounds a hopeful note even as it mourns the passing of the old in favor of the new.
Arthur’s Camelot, for example, is a “city of shadowy palaces / And stately,” everywhere “tipt with lessening peak / and pinnacle” and full of “long-vaulted” halls, rather than the close and defensively-oriented feudal fortress of a historical medieval town (“Gareth and Lynette,” 296-297, 301-302, 312).
Though we’re in the world of Arthurian romance, this world is not the one you’ll find in romances actually written during the medieval period, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For one thing, there are few, if any, magical beasts and supernatural creatures here. Even when the supernatural makes an appearance, it’s more often in the abstract context of competing versions of reality—dream visions, madness, superstition—than as a concrete part of the plot.
The weather in the Idylls follows the course of the seasons over one year. Arthur’s birth occurs on “the night of the new year” in the dead of winter (“Coming,” 208), and the Idylls quickly transition into spring as Arthur’s knights flourish like so many flowers. Gareth makes his flight from his mother’s custody in a “showerful spring”(2).
The action of “The Marriage of Geraint” and “Geraint and Enid” occurs at the height of summer, as threshers bring in the hay. A spectacular late summer storm suffuses the setting of “Merlin and Vivien,” and Elaine’s brothers lay out her funeral barge in the light of “full-summer” (1134). The shift of seasons continues as characters in “Pelleas and Ettarre” wander through autumn fields being planted and “The Last Tournament” concludes with a “death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom” (750).
Finally, in “The Passing of Arthur,” Arthur fights his last battle “among the mountains by a winter sea” plagued with rolling mist and chilly winds (171). The passing of the seasons mirrors the passing of Arthur’s realm. As Arthur tells the Roman lords, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new” (“Coming,” 508), and the poem uses the changing seasons to mark this cycle.
These to His Memory -- since he held them dear,
Perchance as finding there unconsciously
Some image of himself -- I dedicate,
I dedicate, I consecrate with tears,
These Idylls. (Dedication 1-4)
Tennyson published four of his idylls—“Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere”—in 1859, two years before Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) died. Apparently Prince Albert loved the poems, so after his death Tennyson decided to dedicate all of them to his memory.
You might think that, being prince consort (a.k.a. husband) of the queen and all, the “image of himself” that Albert saw in them was King Arthur. But actually, as he makes clear in the rest of the 53-line dedication, Tennyson saw Albert’s image in Lancelot because of the knight’s absolute devotion to one woman—Guinevere.
The Dedication compares this to Albert’s total devotion to Queen Victoria. Of course, this comparison kind of glosses over the whole adulterous aspect of Lancelot’s love for Guinevere in favor of what’s noble and good about it: its unwavering nature. Never mind that it brought down a kingdom. And really pissed off the king.
Beyond this opening, though, the Dedication actually spends very little time talking about the poem, focusing more on whom it's to, as dedications usually do. At the end, Tennyson addresses Queen Victoria, counseling her to be strong and take comfort in the love of her family and subjects until the day she reunites with Prince Albert in heaven.
This address, and the praise the Dedication heaps upon the prince, makes it one big show. Tennyson's showing the public how much loyalty, love, and respect he's got for the royal family. As poet laureate—the “official” poet of England—that's pretty much par for the course. It was Tennyson's job to be the voice of Britain’s people. With his Dedication, he captures the sentiments many British people were no doubt feeling, thinking, and wishing they could express to the queen as the nation mourned Prince Albert’s loss.
The Idylls of the King are poetry rather than prose, which automatically makes them a little bit dicier to navigate, since you have to deal more than usual with things like extended metaphors and sentences that have been twisted around to fit the meter or just for poetic effect.
Plus, the Idylls are pretty long. You’ve gotta have focus to get through them, although keep in mind that it’s okay to take them on one at a time. Also, we can be grateful that the Idylls, unlike some other Arthurian literature, like Le Morte d’Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are in modern English—no weird spellings or out-of-date words.
Each line contains five poetic feet, or groupings of syllables. These feet are called iambs because they are composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. There are five feet and two syllables per foot, so ten syllables per line. Here’s an example from Idylls of the King to show you what we mean:
But still heard / him, still / his pic / ture form’d. (“Lancelot and Elaine,” 985)
You can see how this verse is made up of five groupings of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable (those are the ones in bold).
Iambic pentameter is the general pattern of meter in Idylls, but Tennyson’s iambic pentameter tends to be very irregular. He often disrupts the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables to create poetic emphasis or effect. Here’s an example from the same passage:
But when / they left / her to / herself / again,
/ - - / / - - / - /
Death, like / a friend’s / voice from / a dis / tant field
- / - / - / - / - /
Approach / ing through / the darkn / ess, call’d; / the owls. (“Lancelot and Elaine,” 985-987)
Look at how irregular the meter is in line 987: Instead of using an iamb for the first foot, Tennyson uses a trochee. He does this again in the third foot on “voice.” The stresses on “death” and “voice” emphasize that they are the most important words in this line. They also have the effect of making us experience death’s voice like an intrusion that breaks the flow of the poetry, just as Elaine experiences it as an intrusion on her solitude. Tennyson loves to use irregular meter in this way, to heighten the drama and make the sound of his poetry match up with its meaning.
As Bellicent tells the story of Arthur’s founding of the Round Table, she mentions the presence of “three fair queens / Who stood in silence near his throne, the friends / Of Arthur… / who will help him at his need” (“Coming,” 275-279). These queens are a constant presence in Camelot: their image is on the top of the entrance gate that’s named for them, silently greeting everyone who enters. When Arthur receives his death wound, they appear on a barge, ready to carry him off to the Island of Avilion. Nobody can shake the three queens.
Since they accompany him to the afterlife, it’s possible that these three queens represent the Three Fates of Greco-Roman mythology, three sisters who were supposed to determine the destiny of every living person. Or they could represent Faith, Hope, and Love, the three theological virtues. Since Arthur attempts to build his kingdom on a foundation of virtue, it’s fitting that they guard the gateway to the city he rules.
When Gareth and his servants catch their first glimpse of Camelot, it seems to shimmer in the mist and even to disappear at times. The city is protected by a gateway guarded by the Lady of the Lake and the Three Queens into which were “Arthur’s wars in weird devices done / New things and old co-twisted as if Time / were nothing” (“Gareth,” 221-223).
When Gareth asks the gatekeeper whether the city is real or not, he explains that it was built by fairies and that whoever passes through the gate will become a slave to Arthur’s enchantments, for he “Will bind thee by such vows as is a shame / A man should not be bound by” (266-267). As to whether the city is real or not, some say that the king is the only real thing in it, and others that the city is real and the king a shadow. So yeah, Camelot's a bit of a mystery no matter which way you slice it.
But it's more than just mystery. We here at Shmoop thinking Camelot most obviously represents the ideal society that Arthur is trying to create—a vision in the distance that fades in and out of sight, guarded by principles (the Three Queens), whose reality depends upon the purity of those who form it.
Of course suggesting that this world is created by fairies or enchantment implies that Arthur’s dream may be nothing more than a silly fantasy. The gatekeeper tells Gareth that the city is built “To music, therefore never built at all, / And therefore built for ever” (273-274). This music probably represents the principles or ideals by which men rule society, symbolized by the city. Since nobody’s perfect, this perfect city can never actually be completed. On the other hand, as long as people are trying to live up to their ideals, the city is “built for ever.” So there's that, at least.
Arthur has an almost superhuman capacity for forgiveness and an unfailing belief that other people can live according to the principles of justice, truth, and fairness. Guinevere calls him God’s “highest creature here,” the “highest and most human too” (651, 644), suggesting that Arthur is the purest expression of humanity, someone for whom “man’s word is God in man” (“Coming,” 132).
So, if you ask Shmoop, that makes our Artie a symbol for the ideal man. If honesty and truth are an omnipotent moral code that guides and rules a person’s behavior in the Idylls, then Arthur is the perfect person to uphold that code. Of course, the problem for Arthur is that he’s practically the only person in the Idylls who actually lives up to such high standards.
Have you noticed that Camelot seems rather full of weird, mysterious, even heavenly light? So what's up with that, anyway?
Light imagery in the Idylls expresses perfection and otherworldliness. And color and darkness, on the opposite end of the spectrum, represent humanity in its fallen state.
Need an example? Look no further than the good King. Arthur is terribly bright and shiny. Seriously. Not only is he fair-skinned (Bellicent contrasts his fairness “beyond the race of Britons and of men” with her own family’s darkness “well nigh to blackness” [“Coming of Arthur,” 330, 329]), but Guinevere compares him with “the sun in heaven” (“Lancelot and Elaine, 123). She complains that he is practically too bright to look upon and, in “Guinevere,” she says she could not withstand his “pure severity of perfect light” (641). To this she contrasts Lancelot’s “color,” and “touch of earth” (133, 134). While Arthur is all godliness and perfection, Lancelot is a flesh-and-blood, fallible man.
Ah, so that explains it.
Well, it's a bit more complicated than all that.
The third-person omniscient label applies to the parts of the Idylls narrated by the main speaker. He establishes his connection to Britain by referring to it as “this isle” (“Coming,” 5), which creates a sense of community between him, his audience, and the characters in the poem: they all inhabit “this isle.” This is a poem spoken by a Briton, for Britons.
But this speaker often hands over his narrative duties to the characters in the poem, letting them have their say. In fact, this is one of his favorite narrative techniques. To tell the story of Arthur’s origins, for example, he has King Leodogran include two different accounts of his birth—one from two of his knights and the other from his sister Bellicent. They tell completely different stories, which shows us that the Idylls are just as interested in different people’s perceptions of events as the events themselves. And of course, these perceptions are limited, rather than omniscient.
This technique of telling a story from the point of view of different characters is one that Tennyson borrows from the Victorian novel, which often uses devices like letters and stories-within-stories to narrate events. That’s why some people call Tennyson’s narration in Idylls of the King novelistic.
Everything is going really well for Arthur. He’s come up seemingly from nowhere to become the most powerful king Britain has seen in a long time. His energies have found a focus in his dedication to building an ideal society based on principles of justice and fairness.
King Leodogran agrees to marry his daughter, Guinevere, to Arthur. Arthur idealizes his union with Guinevere as a relationship that will enable him to turn his ideals into action. Without her, he feels lonely and useless.
But united with her in “one will,” he imagines having “power on this dark land to lighten it, And power on this dead world to make it live” (“Coming of Arthur,” 92-93). His marriage to Guinevere marks his commitment to create an ideal society based on principles of truth, justice, and fairness.
Balin’s belief in Guinevere’s infidelity causes him to go mad. Balin’s madness marks the beginning of the destruction that Guinevere’s infidelity wreaks on the Round Table. At first, this destruction manifests only as hints of doubt about the purity of Arthur and his knights and the truth of their vows.
But as the Idylls progress, the consequences of Guinevere’s affair become more and more serious, culminating in Pelleas’s total disillusionment with the Order of the Knighthood. His creation of an inversion of Arthur’s court, peopled with prostitutes and criminals, signals that the forces of destruction are almost complete.
As long as Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair remained only a rumor, Arthur could look the other way. Mordred’s exposure of it forces him to confront Lancelot, and the ensuing unrest gives Mordred the opportunity to instigate a rebellion that will end in Arthur’s death and the complete collapse of his kingdom.
The entirety of “The Passing of Arthur” deals with the circumstances of Arthur’s death. In his speech before the battle with Mordred, Arthur confirms that the world he created has now completely collapsed thanks to Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot. But the doubts of characters like Tristram—w ho question the right of a mortal man to require vows of other men and scoff at the basic honesty of mankind that Arthur believes in—suggest that the seeds of the Round Table’s destruction may have been present in Camelot from the very start.
Arthur has driven the pagans out of Britain, united the petty warring kingdoms, and formed a fellowship of knights bound to him by oath. Now he marries Guinevere, daughter of the powerful King Cameliard of Leodogran.
It certainly seems like things start out pretty well for Arthur, what with all his war victories and a seriously status-enhancing marriage to a beautiful lady everybody loves. But there’s also a lot of potential instability. His land has only recently been purged of its enemies and there are some northern kings just looking for an excuse to make trouble. And Arthur seems to have an awful lot riding on his marriage to Guinevere; he says it’s the only thing that will enable him to work his will.
Many of Arthur’s knights struggle against their bestial natures. They’re having a hard time reconciling this side of themselves with their desire to keep their oath to Arthur. But the strength of Arthur’s kingdom depends on his being the moral compass of his knights. If they revere their king as their conscience, so Arthur’s thinking goes, everything will turn out all right. Unfortunately, knights like Balin, Gawain, and Tristram struggle to align their wills with Arthur’s. They are too tempted by their bodily desires and the bad example of Lancelot and the queen.
Lancelot and Guinevere are having an affair. And since so many of Arthur’s knights depend upon their faith in Guinevere’s purity to inspire their chivalric behavior, the rumors of her infidelity with Lancelot have devastating consequences for Arthur’s fellowship, prompting the downward spiral of men like Tristram, Pelleas, and Balin.
Mordred catches Lancelot with Guinevere alone in her tower, and the public exposure of the lovers is also the confirmation of the rumors that have been swirling around them since the beginning of the Idylls. This physical manifestation of Guinevere’s lack of “oneness” with Arthur leads to the dissolution of his “oneness” with his knights, as they take sides in the ensuing fight between Lancelot and Arthur and then Arthur and Mordred.
Guinevere isolates herself at Almesbury Abbey with only a young novice for company. There, she waits out the outcome of the battle between Lancelot and Arthur, and the reader waits with her.
As the story nears its end, Arthur tells Guinevere how the battle between him and Lancelot ended. He forgives Guinevere. Arthur’s battle with Lancelot did not end well, with a faction of rebel knights who held with Mordred forming a continued threat to Arthur’s power.
It’s clear now that Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair has brought about the downfall of the whole kingdom. Arthur’s forgiveness of Guinevere and his hope that they will be together in the afterlife shifts the focus out of this world and into the next.
Although Arthur tells Bedivere that he’s going to the island of Avilion for healing, that barge looks pretty funereal to us. Arthur doesn’t return in Bedivere’s lifetime, since Bedivere tells this story long after he’s gotten old and grey. So Bedivere’s last glimpse of Arthur marks the end of his existence in this world.
Arthur drives the pagans out of Britain, unites the warring petty kings, and establishes the fellowship of the Round Table. His marriage to Guinevere solidifies his power.
Arthur’s knights embark upon various adventures. Gareth and Geraint win wives for themselves. Lancelot wins the tournament of the ninth diamond but refuses the love of Elaine. The wily Vivien causes the deaths of Balin and Balan and imprisons Arthur’s advisor Merlin in an oak tree. Poor young Pelleas goes mad when Gawain and Guinevere’s betrayals end his faith in the integrity of Arthur’s court. Many of Arthur’s knights undertake the Grail Quest, but only Lancelot, Bors, and Percivale have much success at it, with only Galahad achieving it fully.
Mordred discovers Lancelot and Guinevere alone together in her tower, exposing their affair. Lancelot flees to his lands, where Arthur pursues him and engages him in battle. Taking advantage of the discord, Mordred ranges a faction of Arthur’s knights against him.
Arthur pursues them to the western shore of Lyonesse, where he kills Mordred and receives his own death wound. After ensuring that Bedivere returns Excalibur to the lake, he boards a barge piloted by three mysterious women, heading out of this world into Avilion.