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Idylls of the King by Tennyson: Summary, Poem Analysis & Characters

Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

In this lesson we'll discover Alfred, Lord Tennyson's collection of poems, 'The Idylls of the King.' We'll go over the plot summary, key themes, and symbolism.

Overview

Every country has its founding myths. In the United States, we tell tall tales about Davy Crockett, the 'king of the wild frontier,' or we like to remember how 'Honest Abe' Lincoln pulled himself up from his bootstraps to become President of the United States. Pretty much every group of people, from the ancient Greeks and Romans on, has told and retold stories about their most exciting ancestors. Some of them are more true than others (we'll get to that later) but the basic urge to glorify the past seems to be a part of human nature.

That's just what Alfred, Lord Tennyson, set out to do in 'The Idylls of the King,' a collection of poems that recounts the legends of some of Britain's founding heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Tennyson was a hugely successful poet in his day, and when Queen Victoria named him Poet Laureate of England, he had the opportunity, even the obligation, to create something that would glorify the country and make the people feel proud.

The Kingdom of Camelot
Camelot

The Arthurian Legends

'Idylls' was published in bits and pieces over a long period from 1842 to 1888. Delving into the epic past wasn't something new for Tennyson. He'd already investigated ancient stories in his poems 'The Lady of Shallott' and 'Ulysses.' But who are Arthur and these Round Table Knights that so captivated his attention? Well, no one really knows for sure, and even the experts have a hard time finding out anything about a real-life person by that name.

King Arthur starts showing up in English ballads and poems as early as the 8th century. In these songs and tales he falls in love, fights off bad guys, gets betrayed by his best friend, behaves with courage and nobility, and is an all-around epic hero. Two of the most famous Arthur works are the stories written by Chrétien de Troyes in 12th century France, and the 'Morte d'Arthur' written by Sir Thomas Malory in 15th century England. Tennyson drew on these and other authors in his own version of Arthur's life and deeds; however, he added his own twists and elaborations along the way.

Poem Summary

The book is divided into twelve long poems, many of which spotlight individual characters:

The Coming of Arthur: We see how Arthur becomes the King of Cameliard (in other versions it's referred to as 'Camelot'). We find out how he marries the gorgeous Guinevere, and we meet Arthur's number one knight and best pal, Lancelot. At his wedding, Arthur declares 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new.' By this he means that from now on, he'll be ruling with an iron hand, restoring stability and driving out the barbarian invaders who threaten the land.

Gareth and Lynette: The young Gareth wants to become a knight of King Arthur's Court, but his mother Bellicent will only give her permission if he agrees to work as a kitchen servant for a year first. She eventually relents and he is knighted by Arthur. Gareth's first task is to help Lynette free her sister. Along the way Gareth has to fight off four knights: Morning Star, Noonday Sun, Evening Star, and Death. They represent the ages of man.

The Marriage of Geraint: There's trouble in Camelot: rumors are flying about Lancelot and Guinevere, who are said to be carrying on a scandalous affair. The knight Geraint worries that his wife, Enid, may be following their example. He's so worried she's unfaithful that he completely neglects his duties and drives Enid to despair. Finally, he decides he must set out to prove his manhood and Enid must go with him.

Geraint and Enid: The miserable couple ride off into the wilderness, where Geraint devises a number of trials to test Enid's loyalty. She tries to protect him from bandits, but whatever she does, he criticizes her. Finally Geraint realizes that Enid is true, and he regains his reputation as a manly and honorable knight.

Balin and Balan: This is a tale of two brothers. Balan is the all-around good guy, and Balin is the one with the terrible temper--so terrible, in fact, that he got both brothers banned from Camelot for three years. Now they're back, and in an effort to learn some manners, Balin puts Queen Guinevere's crown on his shield--it's a symbol that reminds him to behave courteously. It all goes wrong when he overhears some more nasty rumors about Lancelot and Guinevere (notice a theme running through these tales?). He's crushed that his idol might be a fallen woman. In a crazy mix-up, Balin and Balan mistake each other for demons and Balan is killed. As he dies, he assures his brother that the rumors are false and the queen is indeed true.

Merlin and Vivien: Vivien is one nasty lady. She comes to King Arthur's court under false pretenses, and proceeds to stir up all kinds of trouble. She spreads lies about Guinevere, she tries to seduce the king, and when that doesn't work, she moves onto Merlin, the court magician. She keeps after him until he finally gives in and surrenders his power to her. Boasting, she imprisons him in a tree.

Elaine
Elaine

Lancelot and Elaine: Here's where we finally get some backstory on what's really going on with Lancelot and Guinevere. It's true, we find out--they really are in love. There's a big tournament coming up, and although Lancelot has won it every year, there are so many rumors flying around that he decides he'd better not show his face. He goes in disguise instead--that way he can still win, and give the prize to Guinevere, but he won't stir up trouble. He borrows armor from a nearby noble, but along the way he accidentally makes Elaine, the noble's daughter, fall in love with him. When she realizes he'll never love her back, Elaine has herself set onto a boat and put in the river, where she dies. The poem ends badly for all, with Guinevere flying into a jealous rage and Lancelot questioning whether Guinevere still loves him, or if their passion has decayed.

The Holy Grail: The Grail shows up in a lot of Arthurian legends, not just Tennyson's. Nobody's really sure if it's a cup or a plate or a stone, but everybody wants to get their hands on it because it's somehow connected to Jesus and to heaven. In this poem, we hear the story of Percivale. He and the other knights of the Round Table go out to find the grail, despite Arthur's warnings. A couple of them get close, but nobody manages to fulfill the task, and in the end, they all wander around wasting time, getting distracted, and falling into danger. This poem is important because it shows the knights of the Round Table going their separate ways, and the once-perfect land of Camelot beginning to fall apart.

Peleas and Ettare: More trouble in the once-happy land: Peleas, a young and naïve knight, is having some lady-trouble with Ettare, who's boastful and vain and makes fun of him all the time. Fellow-knight Gawain offers to help Peleas out, but actually sweeps Ettare off her feet, stealing her from himself. Disgusted, Peleas leaves the Round Table. He transforms into the dastardly Red Knight.

The Last Tournament: Arthur is hosting a tournament when a miserable servant rushes into the hall, declaring that he's been beaten and maimed by the Red Knight. Arthur and his followers set off to avenge the crime, leaving Lancelot in charge of the tournament, which quickly becomes an immoral free-for-all. Tristam wins and takes the prize to his married lover, Queen Isolt. Her husband, Mark sneaks up on them and murders Tristam. Meanwhile, Arthur has beaten the Red Knight. It's a bittersweet victory, though, as he returns to Camelot only to find just how bad things have become in his once-perfect kingdom.

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