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. …