"Charades from the Middle Ages"? Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the Chivalric Code

By Phillips, Catherine | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

"Charades from the Middle Ages"? Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the Chivalric Code


Phillips, Catherine, Victorian Poetry


WRITING OF TENNYSON'S "MORTE D'ARTHUR," THE FIRST OF THE BOOKS that later became Idylls of the King, Leigh Hunt remarked that the poem "treats the modes and feelings of one generation in the style of another, always a thing fatal, unless it be reconciled with something of self-banter in the course of the poem itself. ... The impossibility of a thorough earnestness must, somehow or other, be self-acknowledged." (1) On the other hand, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who dedicated his life to the most Christian of the ideals in Malory in all its Catholicism, thought that Tennyson had not taken his model seriously enough. In the Idylls, Hopkins asserted, Malory's Morte d'Arthur had become simply "Charades from the Middle Ages." (2) Although the treatment of medieval legend and the uses to which it could be put are well known factors in the Victorian encounter with the Middle Ages, I would like to suggest that Tennyson's place in this debate is slightly different from that which has been understood.

Tennyson began to work on the Arthurian legends in the early 1830s, when he wrote "The Lady of Shalott," "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere," and "Sir Galahad." The first version of the "Morte d'Arthur" was added in 1842. But he was also experimenting with a larger allegorical framework for the material, either as an epic or a musical masque. Tennyson knew all three of the English editions of Malory's Le Morte DArthur published in the Romantic period by Wilks, Walker, and Southey. As he worked on into the second half of the century there were more editions: Thomas Wright's of 1858 and James Knowles' popular modernized version of 1862 that went through seven printings by the time of Tennyson's death. Malory was Tennyson's main source because it is the most complete and ordered collection of the legends. However, a fissure runs through Le Morte d'Arthur deriving from the amalgamation of two traditions: a British chanson de geste strain emphasizing military courage, Christianity, and group loyalty centered on Art hur, and a French roman courtois strand focused on Lancelot. In the latter, women's approval motivates the knights to daring deeds, and individual personal qualities are more important. There are also more magical elements. Tennyson knew a number of these earlier English and French versions, and their differences, perhaps unintentionally, remain embedded in his Idylls of the King. He also knew an Italian version of the story of Elaine, which he used for "The Lady of Shalott" and, travelling extensively in Wales, he collected local fables. As he used the material more and more, he came increasingly to introduce his own emphasis and even to invent incidents.

"Enid and Nimue" (Nimue was later called Vivien) was set up in print but not published in 1857 because of an objection made privately to Tennyson about the explicitness of Nimue's seduction of Merlin. (3) Gustave Dore, in illustrations to the poem in 1868, pictures Vivien as an exotic swarthy gypsy--middle-eastern in dress and appearance--recalling the epithets applied in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra to Cleopatra. A group of four Idylls of the King--Enid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere--appeared in 1859, and it was not till 1885 that the full twelve books were complete. So Tennyson worked on the legends for over fifty years.

When Tennyson began his work in the 1830s, the medieval period was already being used for contemporary debate. A.W.N. Pugin's book Contrasts: A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and the Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day, Showing the Present Decay of Taste (1836) was not just a scholarly and aesthetic comparison. Pugin showed in contrasting plates, for example, a medieval monastery and a Victorian workhouse as examples of the degradation in charity to the poor. Made two years after the introduction of the widely unpopular law instituting workhouses, this was very much a political statement.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Charades from the Middle Ages"? Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the Chivalric Code
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.