Study Guide

Idylls of the King Summary

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Idylls of the King Summary

In the first Idyll, “The Coming of Arthur,” King Leodogran of Cameliard has to decide whether or not to marry off his only daughter, Guinevere, to the newly crowned King Arthur. Arthur has driven the pagans (non-Christians) out of Jolly Olde England and re-established the rule of law among the warring smaller kingdoms within it. He now rules with the consent of most of his subjects, but a small group of Northern kings are a wee bit PO'd, and believe that Arthur is decidedly not the former king’s legitimate heir. This bothers Leodogran, so he asks for different opinions and hears differing stories regarding Arthur’s origins from Arthur’s knights and his sister. When he has a dream that seems to confirm Arthur’s future success, he decides to go ahead and marry Guinevere to Arthur. At the banquet celebrating their wedding, the lords of Rome show up demanding cool presents, but Arthur sends them away empty-handed, announcing that a new order has arrived. Oh snap.

In the second Idyll, “Gareth and Lynette,” the youngest son of Lot and Bellicent wants to prove himself at Arthur’s court. But his mom is not exactly pumped about it, so she forces him to present himself there as a kitchen-hand in an attempt to deter him. When Arthur learns Gareth’s true identity, he promises to keep it a secret and to grant him a quest. That quest is to rescue the lands of the Lady Lyonors from four brothers who are holding her hostage in a tower as fairy tale supervillains are wont to do. Her sister, Lady Lynette, who has traveled to Arthur’s court in search of a knight, is terribly insulted when she is given a so-called kitchen hand, so she mercilessly mocks Gareth during their journey. But Gareth’s prowess eventually wins her over, and by the time he reveals the fourth knight, Death, to be nothing but a young boy, the two have fallen in love, and everyone swoons accordingly.

“The Marriage of Geraint” tells how Arthur’s knight, Geraint, met his wife Enid by fighting to win her the designation of “most beautiful damsel” in the Tournament of the Sparrow Hawk. By winning the tournament, he also avenged an insult to Guinevere and rescued Enid’s family and town from oppression by the tyrant Edyrn. Efficient jousting, no?

In “Geraint and Enid,” Geraint becomes convinced that his wife has been contaminated with Guinevere’s “taint” and is cheating on him. In what can only be described as a bizarre response, he forces Enid to put on her ugliest dress and ride behind him without speaking to him. Um, okay. Enid proves her devotion by telling Geraint about a former lover’s attempt to seduce her, weeping over Geraint’s body when she believes him to be dead, and refusing another man’s advances. Geraint reconciles with her and even allows her to hang out with the “tainted” Queen Guinevere again. Thanks?

In “Balin and Balan,” the rough-around-the-edges Balin attempts to act all civilized and fancy at court while his brother is away in search of a demon in the lands of King Pellam. He takes Guinevere as his inspiration for this feat. But when he witnesses a meeting between her and Lancelot one day, he flees Camelot in confusion—what has he just seen? In King Pellam’s woods, the sorceress Vivien fabricates a story that confirms his suspicion that Lancelot and Guinevere are having an affair. Hearing his howl of pain, his brother Balan mistakes him for the demon and attacks him. The brothers die in one another’s arms.

Vivien travels to Camelot in an attempt to poison the court with the rumor of Guinevere’s infidelity but becomes determined to seduce Merlin instead when he mocks her for these efforts. “Merlin and Vivien” is mostly made up of the dialogue between the two after Vivien pursues Merlin following his departure from Camelot in a fog of foreboding. Under a large oak tree, she wheedles out of him a curse that enables her to imprison him in the tree as though buried alive.

In “Lancelot and Elaine,” Lancelot travels to a tournament incognito, passing through Astolat on the way. While he's there he meets Elaine, who falls in love with him. Lancelot is wounded in the tournament and takes refuge in a hermitage near Camelot, where Elaine travels to him and nurses him back to health, falling even more in love with him than ever, the poor girl. Of course Lancelot is totally head over heels for Guinevere, so he doesn't return her affections, and straight up refuses to take her as his mistress. Elaine dies of her unrequited love and has her body sent down the river to Camelot in a barge bearing a note that tells her story. She’s the lady of Shallot, by the way.

Arthur’s knights embark upon an not-too-smart quest for the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper in “The Holy Grail.” While Arthur mourns the chivalric deeds that will go undone while they chase shadows, more than half of them set off in search of the grail. Three knights (Lancelot, Bors, and Percivale) have partial visions of the grail while only one—Galahad—manages to achieve a full vision, traveling to a “spiritual city,” never to return again.

A young, naïve knight’s devotion to a cruel woman is the subject of “Pelleas and Ettarre.” Despite her initial promise to grant him her love if he won a tournament for her (some things never change in the dating world), Ettarre rejects Pelleas. She thinks he’s naïve and, later, too good for her. Gawain promises to help Pelleas win Ettarre’s love but sleeps with her instead. Whoops. When the already broken Pelleas learns that Guinevere, too, is false, he becomes the “Red Knight of the North,” setting up a court that’s a parody of Arthur’s, peopled with (brace yourself) harlots and adulterers. Yowza.

Arthur rides with some of his knights to kick some Red Knight butt, leaving Lancelot in charge of the Tournament of Innocents in “The Last Tournament.” But the tournament goes wrong. Really wrong. People insult each other and break rules, and everything ends badly when Tristram, the winner, insults the ladies by refusing to grant any of them the title of Queen of Beauty. Harsh, dude. Tristram leaves Camelot in a huff, insulted by the court jester Dagonet. (Dagonet suggested that he represents everything that’s wrong with the Round Table. Ouch.) When he reaches Cornwall he presents his lover, King Mark’s wife Isolt, with the tournament prize. As he ties the jewel around her neck, King Mark slips into the room and slits his throat. Meanwhile, Arthur’s forces easily overtake the Red Knight, but their battle ends in slaughter, raping, and pillaging with Arthur powerless to stop it. The Last Tournament indeed.

“Guinevere” is about Arthur’s wife Guinevere, who's hiding in a convent after she and Lancelot have been caught in her bedchamber together. A rookie courtier drives her crazy by feeding the rumor mill about her infidelity. Arthur arrives at the convent and tells Guinevere that her actions have caused the total collapse of the Round Table and, with it, the ideal world that he tried to create. Yet Arthur forgives Guinevere and hopes they will one day be together in heaven. Touched by his faith in her, Guinevere devotes the rest of her life to doing good deeds.

After he leaves the convent, Arthur rides to what he knows will be his last battle. In “The Passing of Arthur,” he kills Mordred and receives a fatal wound in the process. He asks his last remaining faithful knight, Bedivere, to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Bedivere fails twice before finally managing to throw it in on his third attempt. Three ladies arrive on the shore of the lake in a boat in which Bedivere places Arthur at his request. Bedivere watches the boat disappear into the sunrise.