Submerging the Subersive Pagan in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King – Handout

Jeremiah Alexander Henry | | twitter: @jhenry0302 |

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Common Mythopoeic Features: Movement from Chaos (Primordial) to Order | Ambiguous, Anomalous, or Unknown Creators

Selected Passages from Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction

Atum-Ra “acted as both father and mother by giving himself an erection, taking his ‘seed’ into his mouth, and spitting out the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut. . . . The androgynous nature of the creator was sometimes made clearer by personifying the hand of Atum as a goddess who united with his penis to create life” (Pinch 48-49).

Selected Passages from Metamorphoses (Book 1, “The Shaping of Changes”)

“Before the seas and lands had been created / . . . / Nature displayed a single aspect only / throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name” (6-9).

“Some god (or kinder nature) settled this / dispute by separating earth from heaven, / and then by separating sea from earth . . . “ (26-28).

Selected Passages from The Popol Vuh

“Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only the pooled water, only the calm sea, only it alone is pooled” (Tedlock 64).

“Only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. . . . and then humanity was clear, when they concedived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, in the early dawn, all because of the Heart of Sky, named Hurricane. Thunderbolt Hurricane comes first, the second is Newborn Thunderbolt, and the third is Sudden Thunderbolt. So there were three of them, as Heart of Sky, who came to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, when the dawn of life was conceived” (Tedlock 65).

Selected Passages from The Prose Edda

“’Niflheim was made many ages before the earth was created, and at its center is the spring called Hvergelmir. . . . First, however, there was that world in the southern region which is called Muspell. It is bright and hot. That region flames and burns and is impassable for foreigners and those who cannot claim it as their native land. . . . Just as coldness and all things grim came from Niflheim, the regions bordering on Muspell were warm and bright, and Ginnungagap was as mild as a windless sky” (Sturluson 12-13).

Selected Passages from Idylls of the King, “The Coming of Arthur”

“For many a petty king ere Arthur came / Ruled in this isle, and ever waging war / Each upon other, wasted all the land; / And still from time to time the heathen host / Swarm’d overseas, and harried what was left. / And so there grew great tracts of wilderness, / Wherein the beast was ever more and more, / But man was less and less, till Arthur came” (5-12).

“I know not whether of himself [Arthur] came, / Or brought by Merlin, who they say, can walk / Unseen at pleasure” (345-47).

“And Arthur and his knighthood for a space / Were all one will, and thro’ that strength the King / Drew in the petty princedoms under him, / Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame / The Heathen hordes, and made a realm and reign’d” (514-18).

“. . .he heard of Arthur newly crown’d, / Tho’ not without an uproar made by those / Who cried, ‘He is not Uther’s son’ . . .” (41-43)

“. . .‘Who is he / That he should rule us? Who hath proven him / King Uther’s son? For lo! we look at him, / And find nor face nor bearing, limbs nor voice, / Are like to those of Uther whom we knew” (67-71).

Then from the castle gateway by the chasm
Descending thro’ the dismal night – a night
In which the bounds of heaven and earth were lost –
Beheld, so high upon the drery deeps
It seem’d in heaven, a ship, a shape thereof
A dragon wing’d, and all from stem to stern
Bright with a shining people on the decks,
And gone as soon as seen. And then the two
Dropt to the cove, and watch’d the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
‘Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin’s feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried “The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!” And the fringe
Of that great breaker, sweeping up the strand,
Lash’d at the wizard as he spake the word,
And all at once all round him rose in fire,
So that the child and he were clothed in fire (369-89).
‘And there I saw mage Merlin, whose vast wit
And hundred winters are but as the hands
Of loyal vassals toiling for their liege.
‘And near him stood the Lady of the Lake,
Who knows a subtler magic than his own –
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the King is huge cross-hilted sword,
Whereby to drive the heathen out: a mist
Of incense curl’d about her, and her face
Wellnigh was hidden in the minster gloom;
But there was heard among the holy hymns
A voice as of the waters, for she dwells
Down in a deep; calm, whatsoever storms
May shake the world, and when the surface rolls,
Hath the power to walk the waters like our Lord (279-293).‘There likewise I beheld Excalibur / . . . / rich / With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt, / Bewildering heart and eye . . . / . . . / Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world, / “Take me,” but turn the blade and ye shall see, / And written in the speech ye speak yourself, / “Cast me away!” And sad was Arthur’s face / Taking it, but old Merlin Counsell’d him, / “Take thou and strike! The time to cast away / Is yet far-off.” So this great brand the king / Took, and by this will beat his foemen down’ (296-308).

Works Cited

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Martin, Charles. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Trans. Byock, Jesse L. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh : The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

MA Literature Thesis – Prospectus



At its primary level, this thesis aims to explore areas of incongruity (or tension, “friction zones,” etc.) between the Judeo-Christian narrative and narratives that are strictly and decidedly outside of the Judeo-Christian narrative as they appear together in two representative pieces of Victorian literature: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (although, as required for additional context, this thesis will likely reference other primary works by these authors as well). In my survey of recent scholarship from this literary period, I believe the interplay of the Church and that which is decidedly not a part of the church (i.e. pagan and folk narratives and customs) is oft overlooked, yet its potential to reveal ambiguities in the literature and points of contention in the culture that has generated these texts cannot be overstated. Furthermore, seeing as though influences from 19th century British Empire continue to echo throughout its former colonies—including the United States—I believe this analysis has the potential to offer insights not only into Victorian culture but beyond it as well.

Chapter Outline

At this point in time, I see my thesis taking shape with four to six chapters as follows:

  1. An introductory section of (1-2 chapters) that
    1. clearly defines contentious terms (Judeo Christian Narrative, Pagan, myth, legend, folklore, etc.)
      1. Contextualize with historical moment of these terms – what do these terms mean for the Victorians?
    2. constructs the theoretical lenses that will drive the analysis of the subsequent chapters
      1. Methodological approach:
        1. Exegesis
        2. Hermeneutical (revisiting or revising this tradition of looking at literature from the viewpoint of interpretation)
      2. Theoretical approach?
        1. Historical? Cultural?
        2. Structuralist (myths have structures)
        3. Post-structuralist (structures exist and characters either exist within them and are accepted or can not)
        4. Terministic screens – language selects and simultaneously deflects reality
          1. Think about Tess and her terministic screens re: Angel’s parents.
        5. reviews relevant scholarship and anticipates entering into scholarly dialogues thereof
          1. Literature review and scholarly dialogue – incorporate into introduction of body chapters.
        6. A body section of 2 chapters
          1. Analysis primarily of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
          2. Analysis primarily of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
        7. A conclusion section of 1-2 chapters that
          1. reconciles and synthesizes analyses from the previous chapters including
            1. textual analyses that show not merely similarities but distinct differences within those similarities and the significance thereof
          2. (maybe, though this might be the labor of future work) push the overall thesis toward relevance in 2014
            1. narratives as flexible movements toward understanding, inclusion, and peace
            2. vs. narratives (JCN particularly) as rigid movement the Truth, toward inclusion (with a decided exclusion and thus separation).


Working Theses

Body Chapter 1 (Tennyson)

The importance of religion in both Tennyson’s day and the Medieval culture which he is invoking cannot be overstated. The culture that generated the Age of Chivalry which Camelot is intended to epitomize lived its religion in its daily life. Rituals, proselytizing, praying, and engaging in the sacraments were every day occurrences. Jim Rhodes explains that religion was “an integral part of work, play, and significant events in the calendar year.” Knights, who were at the center of the Arthurian milieu and the culture that generated it, held piety as one of the primary tenants of their chivalry. The Romance genre, including Arthurian Romance, was not merely escapist literature, either: Richard Kaeuper explains how Romance literature and the chivalry which it glorified was in practice a two-way exchange between authors and audience. “Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, show[ing] that they have read it by using it in their own writings.” So bearing in mind that a central tenant of chivalry is Christian piety—in the literary, practical, and social senses—the mythological and pagan images that contribute to the construction of Arthurian Romance while simultaneously contradicting its ideals deserve much more attention than they have received in recent scholarship.

As other scholars have pointed out, at least part of Tennyson’s purpose in producing the Idylls is clearly aimed at social commentary. Perhaps as a reaction to Victorian anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty, Tennyson—through a re-working of nationally sacred narratives—explores these problems thematically and symbolically in Idylls of the King most specifically in the idylls “The Coming of Arthur,” and “Merlin and Vivien.” In particular, these two idylls reveal how the Celtic and pagan aspects of the Arthurian milieu are overshadowed and deemphasized—even marginalized—by the privileging of the impossible ideals propagated by the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and chivalry by the denizens of Camelot. I suspect that the un-sustainable nature of Camelot and her ideals, chivalry being a chief ideal among them, and the disproportionate valuing of the Judeo-Christian value system over paganism (in a culture that has its roots in Celtic, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Greco-Roman paganism and folklore) are interrelated, perhaps leading to the cultural system’s undermining and eventual destruction of itself. Exploring these tensions may reveal why there was such cognitive dissonance and anxiety in Victorian England’s national consciousness with regard to England’s own unsustainability during a period of vast and unprecedented change.

Body Chapter 2 (Hardy)

Subjection and oppression in Victorian England indeed happens on a variety of fronts, and I contend that Hardy exposes several of these fronts in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the subjection of women and their sexuality to Victorian cultural scripts is visible from the onset of the novel; there is the subjection of the natural world and rural landscapes (and the people who live and work there) to mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization (by the people who wield this new power); and there is the subjection of pagan values from country denizens like Tess by the Christian orthodoxy. While all of these aspects happen symbolically throughout the novel, I propose that each front is also figuratively represented by specific characters: Tess represents the dwindling rural and pagan world while Alec represents encroaching urbanization, mechanization, and a corrupted sense of the Christian orthodoxy. Hardy situates Angel Clare in the middle of this subject-object friction which shows that the only way to survive in the fault line of fin de siècle England is through close self-examination (demonstrated by Angel’s character growth throughout the novel). Ultimately, a synthesis of these distinct readings of Tess has the potential to uncover a crucial message embedded in Hardy’s narrative—that a sense of rape is occurring on all three of these levels. With this reading of Tess, Hardy forces us to reflect on the trajectory of 19th century sexuality, spirituality, industrialization, urbanization and their effects on Anglo Saxon and Celtic England, leaving us to question the nature of the existing and the emerging hierarchal power structures from his time.

A Note on my Intertextual Approach (working thesis for conclusion section)

An obvious point of inquiry I anticipate and wish to address is my choice to take with this thesis a comparative approach, and my reasons for doing so are multifold and will likely be made fully manifest in either a comparative chapter or a conclusion chapter . I want to show that this analysis is not just an esoteric peculiarity in one author and one point in time. By taking a comparative approach across multiple authors and genres, I hope to show that this analysis both deep and wide into the literature of the time. The two texts represent different points in time both in their content and in their publication dates. Idylls, published in 1859, concerns Arthurian Romance and legend, Tennyson’s oar in the conversation of the Victorian Medievalist movement. Tess, published 32 years later, concerns life mostly in rural southwest England (what Hardy refers to as Wessex) roughly during the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, i.e. relatively close to Hardy’s own time. Both texts, however, I would submit as being timeless in their own rights: Tennyson recounts narratives that are nationally timeless, and Hardy’s narratives—Tess being no exception—are frequently absent of specific date stamps, yet they use a sense of both the ancient and recent past to illuminate the narrative’s present. Thus I see potential in these texts’ ability to illuminate each other from the sense of their respective timeframes and their timeliness. Further, a textual approach to both texts has the potential to reveal complimentary connections between the texts’ forms (Idyll and novel) and their own intrinsic tension points between the Judeo-Christian narrative and non-Judeo-Christian narratives.

Working Bibliography

Ahern, Stephen. “Listening to Guinevere: Female Agency and the Politics of Chivalry in Tennyson’s Idylls.” Studies in Philology 101.1 (2004): 88-112. Print.

Allingham, William. William Allingham, a Diary. Ed. Allingham, Helen Paterson and Dollie Radford. New York, New York: Macmillian and Company, 1907. Web. 10-Dec-13.

Barnes, Ian. “Druids.” The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. London: Chartwell Books, 2009. 126-27. Print.

Bevis, Matthew. “Tennyson, Ireland, and ‘the Powers of Speech’.” Victorian Poetry 39.3 (2001): 345-64. Print.

Bonaparte, Felicia. “The Deadly Misreading of Mythic Texts: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5.3 (1999): 415-32. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.

—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California, 1966. Print.

Carroll, Alicia. “Human Milk in the Modern World: Breastfeeding and the Cult of the Dairy in Adam Bede and Tess of the D-Urbervilles.” Women’s Studies 31.2 (2002): 165. Print.

Davis, William A., Jr. “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law, and the Case for Sexual Assault.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52.2 (1997): 221-31. Print.

Ebbatson, Roger. “The Plutonic Master: Hardy and the Steam Threshing-Machine.” Critical Survey 2.1 (1990): 63-69. Print.

Gray, J.M. “Introduction.” Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’urbervilles. 1891. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Harland, Catherine R. “Interpretation and Rumor in Tennyson’s Merlin and Vivien.” Victorian Poetry 35.1 (1997): 57-69. Print.

Hughes, Linda K. “Illusion and Relation: Merlin as Image of the Artist in Tennyson, Doré, Burne-Jones, and Beardsley.” Merlin: A Casebook. Eds. Goodrich, Peter H. and Raymond H. Thompson. Arthurian Characters and Themes (Act): 7. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. 378-409. Print.

Humma, John B. “Language and Disguise: The Imagery of Nature and Sex in “Tess”.” South Atlantic Review 54.4 (1989): 63-83. Print.

Kaeuper, Richard. “The Societal Role of Chivalry in Romance: Northwestern Europe.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Krueger, Roberta L. Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cctl). Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2000. 97-114. Print.

Machann, Clinton. “Tennyson’s King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness.” Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000): 199-226. Print.

Moore, Dafydd. “Tennyson, Malory and the Ossianic Mode: The Poems of Ossian and `the Death of Arthur’.” Review of English Studies 57.230 (2006): 374-91. Print.

Nash, Tom. “Tess of the D’urbervilles: The Symbolic Use of Folklore.” English Language Notes 35.4 (1998): 38-48. Print.

Phillips, Catherine. “‘Charades from the Middle Ages’? Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and the Chivalric Code.” Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002): 241-53. Print.

Ramel, Annie. “The Other in Tess of the D’urbervilles: The Alter/Altar of Sacrifice.” Ranam: Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Américaines 36.1 (2003): 99-109. Print.

Ranum, Ingrid. “Tennyson’s False Women: Vivien, Guinevere, and the Challenge to Victorian Domestic Ideology.” Victorian Newsletter 117 (2010): 39-56. Print.

Rhodes, Jim. “Religion.” Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Ellis, Steve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 81-96. Print.

Roberts, Helene. “Divided Self, Divided Realm: Typology, History and Persona in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.” Pre-Raphaelitism and Medievalism in the Arts. Ed. Cheney, Liana De Girolami. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1992. 29-52. Print.

Schur, Owen. Victorian Pastoral: Tennyson, Hardy, and the Subversion of Forms. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989. Print.

Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. “Druids, Bards, and Tennyson’s Merlin.” Merlin: A Casebook. Eds. Goodrich, Peter H. and Raymond H. Thompson. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. 361-77. Print.

Stevenson, Kim. “‘Crimes of Moral Outrage’: Victorian Encryptions of Sexual Violence.” Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, and Moral Outrage. Eds. Rowbotham, Judith and Kim Stevenson. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2005. 232-46. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

Tennyson’s Paganism in the Middle-Idylls

Tennyson’s Paganism in the Middle-Idylls

Heathen Malevolence or Pagan Benevolence?

I believe there are two fundamental questions that drive my reflection to the middle-idylls of Idylls of the King.

  • Why does Tennyson allow Merlin to be subdued by Vivien, a temptress and trickster?
  • The middle-idylls being primarily relationship-driven, why do the denizens of Camelot and the surrounding area continue to pursue matches they know are impossible while at the same time ignore what appear to be good matches?

Unlike my previous reflection, I feel like the Pagan undertones in the middle-idylls are subdued to the point of being virtually nonexistent. This puzzled me at first: perhaps this was a line of thinking that Tennyson only by hap wrote in to The Coming of Arthur. At first glance, there are only minor references to the Pagan under-culture surrounding Camelot, and they tend to manifest as malevolent forces that threaten Camelot. For example, when we’re first introduced to Vivien toward the end of Balin and Balan, she says to her squire, “This fire of Heaven, / This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again, / And beat the cross to earth, and break the King, / And all his Table” (450-53, emphasis added). Here Vivien presents old sun-worship—Paganism in a phrase—as a force to overtake Christianity by “beat[ing] the cross to earth” which threatens to destroy Camelot. This alone gives me pause because I personally do not like to think of Paganism as a malevolent, destructive force—whether it’s directly present or an obscure undertone; however, the malevolent presentation by Vivien can be a matter of perspective. After all, Vivien has a point: Camelot is ideal in theory but is being slowly but surely corrupted in reality, perhaps deserving to be exposed for what it is becoming and consequently re-shaped. In this way, I see eye-to-eye with Vivien, especially when she says to Merlin, “In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours, / Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers: / Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all” (152). Camelot’s façade failing (with the façade of Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship coming to light), Vivien’s actions may not be altogether malevolent—she’s pointing out the differences between what we see and what’s really going on. But that makes her seduction and subjugation of Merlin all the more complicated.

It may or may not be self-evident, but I take Merlin as the strongest Pagan presence in the Arthur narratives (along with Morgan le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in other narratives). It is so in Idylls of the King as well. At the beginning of Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson describes the setting:

A storm was coming, but the winds were still,
And in the wild woods of Broceliande,
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old
It look’d a tower of ivied masonwork,
At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay. (1-5)
The Beguiling of Merlin
“The Beguiling of Merlin” – Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The “wild woods” and “huge and old” oak tree invoke a sense of the ancient, the Pagan, while at the same time paralleling the appearance of ancient Merlin himself. “A storm was coming,” aptly foreshadows the dark age of Camelot, too. Yet the strongest pagan symbol in the narrative, one who is the master of his art, the seer, the sage, has his charm worked against him by the force in the narrative that wants paganism to destroy Camelot. How can a mere trickster overpower Merlin? This makes me think of a scenario where Shakespeare would have allowed Caliban to subdue Prospero. Preposterous! Perhaps. Might this because Merlin advocated a balance between the Pagan and the Christian, a balance that is failing? As the idylls reflect, the presence of the pagan in Arthur’s court seems to be vanishing (along with the ideals of knighthood and courtly love), so it makes sense that Merlin’s power would be waning as well, allowing him to be subdued by a stronger, more domineering pagan force like Vivien. Interesting that threats seem to be coming from outside of Camelot because the inside of Camelot is undoing itself.

Camelot seems to be possessed with the habit of chasing after ideals that are, in reality, impossible. One of the thick threads causing Camelot’s implosion is the failure of ideally matched relationships and the refusal of potential and realistic relationships. Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship is clearly the flagship failure. According to cultural codes, they are a good match both in terms of intellect and class. Guinevere refuses—for lack of a better word—that relationship because she has fallen for Lancelot, and Arthur turns a blind eye to this. Lancelot essentially has his pick of any woman, including the well-suited Elaine (but perhaps for her youth as he claims, yet an older man paired with a younger woman was by no means out of the ordinary for both antiquity and the Victorians); however, Lancelot refuses Elaine and all others, preferring to pine away for the one woman he knows he cannot be with. Elaine also passes on a good match, Gawain being a good match her for. Like Lancelot, she holds out for someone who she knows she cannot be with and, like Camelot is doomed to follow, dies of a broken and lonely heart. In this, the ideal begins to destroy itself through a deconstruction of its own ideal nature, just like questing for the Holy Grail, another ideal in the space of symbols, contributes to Camelot’s destruction as well.

Spiritual Crisis in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur

Having read closely only Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Lanval, I feel my background in primary texts in the Arthurian Tradition is very weak, but I have read (and watched) a wide range of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legends. I’m also aware in how high a regard the figure of Arthur is kept in British culture (including its literary tradition). To the British, there are two seats of ideals higher than all others: the ideals of Christ and the ideals of Arthur. From this mindset, I make an immediate distinction between Christ and Arthur—not that Arthur is the Christ particularly of British legend per se but rather a Christ-like figure who serves as a sort of middle-ground between Christianity (re: Rome) and Celtic Paganism (re: Heathens). The majority of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legend position Arthur this way. Some pseudo-scholarly work even suggests that Merlyn [to adopt the Celtic spelling] was a member of the Order of Druids whose task was to teach Arthur to balance the values of the old with the new so the realm would not destroy itself. I say pseudo-scholarly because 1) I take anything published by Llewellyn Publications with a grain of salt—such that I would be, at this point, skeptical about citing The 21 Lessons of Merlyn and The Lost Books of Merlyn in any formal research project—and 2) Douglas Monroe’s books listed above are really works of fiction that attempt to pass themselves off as non-fiction, causing huge credibility issues for any scholarly purposes. Still, all of this is to take inventory of the things I think I know about Arthur and Merlyn and reflect upon them so I can have a better understanding of my initial perspectives in reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I am also happy to give a nod to the fact that Tennyson apparently visited Cornwall and Ireland in 1848, “taking up again the idea of writing a long poem on the Arthurian legend” (7). Not surprisingly then, Tennyson’s take on The Coming of Arthur seems to be in alignment with the idea of Arthur being a middle-ground or a negotiation between Christianity and Celtic Paganism.

Arthur and Merlin
“Arthur and Merlin” – Gustave Doré

I see Tennyson immediately invoking this perspective on the Arthur legend throughout the first (full) poem, The Coming of Arthur , placing Arthur as a clear and present middle-ground between the old and the new. He writes, “And still from time to time the heathen host / Swarm’d overseas, and harried what was left. / And so there grew great tracts of wilderness, / Wherein the beast was ever more and more” (8-11). The beasts, the wild, and the untamed are frequently used to refer to the pagan, so while Tennyson may literally be invoking a sense of untamed land full of wild stags and boars, he’s symbolically pulling in that pagan resonance (another example of this is the popular legend of St. Pádraigh having banished the serpents from Ireland, a metaphor for his bringing of Christianity to Ireland). Tennyson presents Arthur further as a Christ-like figure through his mysterious and miraculous birth, but Merlyn’s hand in this miracle mixes the Judeo-Christian narrative with a pagan narrative. Later when Arthur receives Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake, Tennyson describes the sword as being “cross-hilted,” which invokes one of the most important symbols in Christianity (285)—but it is the Lady of the Lake, a pagan figure who “Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord” who gives it to him (293). Finally, there also seems to be a value system that attempts to reconcile Christianity and secular beliefs, done so in a way that is in and of itself a middle-ground. Perhaps one of the most famous features of the Arthur legend are the Knights of the Round Table. The “petty” kings before Arthur, we might assume, placed themselves always at the “head” of a rectangular table in order to highlight their role as leader, as authoritarian. Arthur’s round table is different though: just like when Guinevere cannot distinguish Arthur from the rest of his knights when she first sees him, the round table allows Arthur to be one among his council, to be one of the “people” rather than a pompous figurehead. This allows Arthur to gain respect and to lead by example and by deeds as opposed to by birthright (much like Christ). This equalization of power between king and knights is the perfect euphony between being the middle-ground in a practical role as well as a symbolic role. This juxtaposing and sometimes conflicting imagery illustrate the intermingling of Christianity and Paganism. This much seems clear. But to what end? I think this may have something to do with Tennyson’s time and audience.

Tennyson’s retelling of the Arthur legend may at least in part be a way for him to express the possibility (along with the difficulties) of reconciling the spiritual crises present throughout nineteenth century England. I can’t help but think that it’s not a coincidence that Tennyson began publishing early versions of Idylls in 1859, the same year of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The dates do not line up perfectly, so I realize I’m making the assumption that Tennyson was aware of what Darwin was doing well in advance of Darwin’s publication, but I believe scientific rather than religious worldviews were coming into prominence even before Darwin’s work. So while the Victorians were struggling to make sense in an increasingly scientific world, Tennyson taps into a culturally sacred narrative in order to help his audience reconcile these feelings of spiritual crisis.

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