Idylls of the King

   ‘Shall Rome or Heathen rule in Arthur’s realm?
Flash brand and lance, fall battleaxe upon helm,
Fall battleaxe, and flash brand!  Let the King reign.

   ‘Strike for the King and live! his knights have heard
That God hath told the King a secret word.
Fall battleaxe, and flash brand!  Let the King reign.

   ‘Blow trumpet! he will lift us from the dust.
Blow trumpet! live the strength and die the lust!
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand!  Let the King reign.

   ‘Strike for the King and die! and if thou diest,
The King is King, and ever wills the highest.
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand!  Let the King reign.

   ‘Blow, for our Sun is mighty in his May!
Blow, for our Sun is mightier day by day!
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand!  Let the King reign.

   ‘The King will follow Christ, and we the King
In whom high God hath breathed a secret thing.
Fall battleaxe, and flash brand!  Let the King reign.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, “The Coming of Arthur”

In 1859, the year Alfred Tennyson released four Arthurian poems, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  In 1870, when he released an expanded edition entitled The Holy Grail and Other Poems, British ships were sailing through the newly constructed Suez Canal.  In 1885, when Tennyson (now Lord Tennyson) completed Idylls of the King, British holdings in Africa stretched from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope.  Queen Victoria presided over an empire on which the sun never set and a kingdom reaping the benefits and costs of unprecedented progress.  Tennyson, her poet laureate, would become the voice of Victoria’s reign.

England’s Industrial Revolution saw many rural poor relocate to squalid slums and grimy mill towns.  But the railways and factories offered new opportunities for skilled workers.  Between 1855 and 1873 British real national income rose an estimated 46%. Education reforms led to increasing literacy even amongst England’s poor, and steam-driven printing presses churned out literature for the nation’s education and entertainment.  These newly prosperous masses had a strong work ethic and looked askance at the idle rich.  They also placed a high premium on manners and decorum: those a generation removed from poverty wanted to make nobody mistook them for the undeserving destitute. 

Spenser’s Prince Arthur is the embodiment of Elizabethan virtues:  Tennyson’s King Arthur is the pinnacle of Victorian ideals.  He is unfailingly generous and gracious; he defends the weak and shows mercy to the vanquished; he fights on even in the face of certain defeat.  But this nobility becomes his tragic flaw.  In the courtly romances the Lancelot-Guinevere affair is justified by their destructive passion.  For Tennyson Arthur’s naivete is justified by his destructive innocence.  Camelot does not fall because Arthur is weak: it falls because Arthur is good.  As Guinevere complains to Lancelot:

Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,
That passionate perfection, my good lord—
But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?
He never spake word of reproach to me,
He never had a glimpse of mine untruth,
He cares not for me …
He is all fault who hath no fault at all.

Arthur knows something is wrong, but because his heart is true, he cannot imagine his queen and his most trusted knight are false.  Other knights assume Arthur is aware of their infidelity but chooses to ignore it.  The king they once revered becomes a cuckold in their eyes. And while some complain of Lancelot’s bad example, others emulate him.  Sir Tristam brags of his affair with the wife of the treacherous King Mark of Cornwall:  Sir Gawain lays with a damsel beloved of Sir Pelleas:  the disillusioned Pelleas leaves Arthur and sets up an anti-Camelot whose knights are ruffians and his court ladies harlots, but “truer, seeing they profess to be none other.”

The Round Table conquers Pelleas and his court in a slaughter in which not even the women are spared.  Tristam is slain from behind by Mark.  And the chivalry which the Round Table once embodied has been drowned in blood and fury.  The bitter jests of Dagonet, the Court’s dwarf jester, have proven prophetic.

      ‘Ay, and when the land
Was freed, and the Queen false, ye set yourself
To babble about him, all to show your wit—
And whether he were King by courtesy,
Or King by right—and so went harping down
The black king’s highway, got so far, and grew
So witty that ye played at ducks and drakes
With Arthur’s vows on the great lake of fire.
Tuwhoo! do ye see it? do ye see the star?’

‘Nay, fool,’ said Tristram, ‘not in open day.’
And Dagonet, ‘Nay, nor will:  I see it and hear.
It makes a silent music up in heaven,
And I, and Arthur and the angels hear,
And then we skip.’  ‘Lo, fool,’ he said, ‘ye talk
Fool’s treason:  is the King thy brother fool?’
Then little Dagonet clapt his hands and shrilled,
‘Ay, ay, my brother fool, the king of fools!
Conceits himself as God that he can make
Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk
From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs,
And men from beasts—Long live the king of fools!’

Edwin Austen Abbey, Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail

We see the Grail only as a reflection of a reflection.  Percivale, now retired to a monastery, describes his adventures to the old monk Ambrosius.  Ambrosius relates the tales he has heard of the Grail from old Books: Percivale speaks of how his sister, a nun, spoke often with her confessor, a man “wellnigh a hundred winters old,

Spake often with her of the Holy Grail,
A legend handed down through five or six,
And each of these a hundred winters old,
From our Lord’s time.  And when King Arthur made
His Table Round, and all men’s hearts became
Clean for a season, surely he had thought
That now the Holy Grail would come again;
But sin broke out.  Ah, Christ, that it would come,
And heal the world of all their wickedness!

When the Grail appears at Camelot, only Sir Galahad sees it.  The other knights only behold their companions illuminated with glory.  Determined to see Galahad’s vision for themselves, the Round Table sets off on a Grail quest.  Percevale is seduced by a beautiful and wealthy princess:  he can only, after arduous travels, see the light of the Grail from a far distance as Galahad reaches the Grail Castle and comes not forth again.  Lancelot sees only the covered Grail and turns back lamenting his sin.  Sir Bors returns to a ruined Camelot and the surviving knights “wasted and worn, and but a tithe of them.”  Arthur asks:

“Hail, Bors! if ever loyal man and true
Could see it, thou hast seen the Grail;” and Bors,
“Ask me not, for I may not speak of it:
I saw it;” and the tears were in his eyes.

Tennyson, who struggled with crippling depression throughout his life, knew that all things are transitory.  He knew that to live was to suffer and to strive was to fail.  He knew that noble ideals could not cure man’s ignobility.  Yet still he recognized the value of life and striving and noble ideals.  Tennyson’s epitaph for the British Cavalry’s Light Brigade could memorialize Arthur and all humanity.

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

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