Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Victorian Quest in a Medieval Romance: Alfred Tennyson's "Enid"

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Victorian Quest in a Medieval Romance: Alfred Tennyson's "Enid"

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The Victorian period produced a large body of Arthurian poetry: William Morris, Algernon Swinburne and Alfred Tennyson, to mention only a few, employed Arthurian motifs and created their own versions of the legend. Tennyson's Idylls of the king is probably an attempt on the largest scale to retell the story of King Arthur and his knights. However, in spite of their scope, Tennyson's Idylls did not succeed in evoking the spirit of the Middle Ages and should be seen as a product of the Victorian Age. This paper will concentrate on one of the Idylls from the 1859 edition, "Enid", which is based on the medieval "Geraint son of Erbin" from Mabinogion. Both texts present the story of a quest that Geraint embarks on to find and conquer a knight who offended Guinevere, and of another quest, which he pursues with Enid, his wife. The aim of this paper is to examine the differences between the medieval and the Victorian text and to analyse how, through omission, underlining some aspects of the source text or endowing his characters with Victorian sensibility, Tennyson transformed the original romance into a Victorian story of love.

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Very superficial research into the sphere of Victorian arts would suffice to demonstrate an enduring fascination with the Middle Ages: Pre-Raphaelites attempted to restore the spirit of medieval art in their painting and searched for medieval themes, and Victorian architecture is marked by the delight in the gothic. Medievalism is also manifest in literature, and especially in a large body of Arthurian poetry that was created in the Victorian period. William Morris, Algernon Swinburne and Alfred Tennyson, (1) to mention but a few, employed Arthurian motifs and created their own versions of medieval stories. Tennyson's Idylls of the king, compared more or less explicitly to an epic (2) in reviews from the period, is an example of the poem retelling the stories of King Arthur and his knights. One of Victorian critics found the term "idylls" inadequate to "the breadth, vigour, and majesty which belong to the subjects, as well as to the execution, of the volume" (Gladstone 1859 [1967]: 251), even though his comment refers to the 1859 edition, which included only four poems. (3) However, in spite of their scope, the Idylls were not successful in "engag[ing] some sort of evocation of the Middle Ages" (Richards 1988: 102), which did not go unnoticed both by Tennyson's contemporaries and 20th-century critics. Hopkins (1879 [1967]) claimed that the Idylls were "unreal in motive and incorrect, uncanonical so to say, in detail and keeping" (Hopkins 1879 [1967]: 334) and Swinburne described them as "the Morte d'Albert, or Idylls of the prince Consort" (Swinburne 1886 [1967]: 339), (4) thus ridiculing the moral tone of the poems. Tennyson's poems seem to share "[t]he strength and the weakness of Victorian poetry of the past", which is that "it breathes nothing other than Victorian life" (Richards 1988: 101) and, consequently, Idylls ojthe king is a product of the Victorian Age, in spite of the medieval setting and characters.

Idylls of the king is based on a range of medieval texts, mainly Malory's Morte d'Arthur, but also, to a lesser extent, on other medieval sources, including Mabinogion. (5) Although Tennyson's poems seem to be quite faithful to the original stories, they nevertheless remain unmistakably Victorian in their moral tone and characterisation. Most importantly, whereas the medieval sources concentrated most on male characters and adventure, in Tennyson's poems the centre of gravity seems to be shifted towards female characters, and his Idylls become stories of love. This paper will concentrate on one of the Idylls from the 1859 edition, "Enid", (6) which is based on the medieval "Geraint son of Erbin" from Mabinogion. (7) Both the medieval and the Victorian texts fall into two parts, each of which tells a story of a journey. The goal of the first quest on which Geraint embarks is to find and conquer a knight who offended Guinevere; the second quest, on which this paper is going to concentrate, he pursues with Enid, his wife. …

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