The Once and Future Sword: Excalibur and the Poetics of Imperial Heroism in Idylls of the King

By Jackson, Jeffrey E. | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Once and Future Sword: Excalibur and the Poetics of Imperial Heroism in Idylls of the King


Jackson, Jeffrey E., Victorian Poetry


In a letter to Hallam Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray reflects on first reading Idylls of the King and concluding that

   neither the awful truth from science, nor the melodies and raptures
   and roses of Swinburne, nor the vivisoulections of Contemporaries
   and Fortnightly Reviews need put away the clear clanging of King
   Arthur's sword ... and those Excaliburs, I thank God our fathers
   have always held. (1)

It is a piquant moment: the author of a Novel Without a Hero wants a hero--when, as Lord Byron once observed, every year and month sends forth a new one--and preferably a sword-wielding one. However, many readers and critics might fairly wonder how accurately Thackeray's comments reflect their experience of Idylls of the King. Throughout the years, it has been alleged that Alfred Tennyson's work is bedizened with its own share of "melodies and raptures and roses," and many would contend that they have found, rather than Thackeray's "clear clanging," what Everard Hall in Tennyson's "The Epic (Morte d'Arthur)" describes and dismisses as "faint Homeric echoes." (2) Moreover, for many, to their disappointment, Tennyson's Arthurian work appears to be lacking anything like the spirit of red-blooded, boys'-book swordplay that Thackeray suggests here. Thus did T. S. Eliot famously charge Tennyson with making "the great British epic--in Malory's handling hearty, outspoken and magnificent" into "suitable reading for a girls' school." (3)

That Tennyson (pace Eliot and Thackeray) may have been deliberately seeking a complicated alternative to Malory's hearty, outspoken magnificence can be gauged from "those [curiously plural] Excaliburs" and other Tennysonian swords in Idylls of the King. Where Thackeray sees heroic, eternal ownership of the sword ("those Excaliburs ... our fathers have always held"), many readers might say that they are left instead with a clearer image of swords breaking throughout Idylls, breaking as if falling short of their ostensible purpose. In the episode Balin and Balan, Tennyson lingers on how Sir Balin's blade, in combat with Sir Garlon, "flew / Splintering in six, and clinkt upon the stones" (ll. 389-390). Similarly, Sir Gareth shatters his sword "utterly to the hilt" (Gareth and Lynette, 1. 1120), and in his idyll he triumphs over his foe without valiantly wielding a sword; one of his adversaries slips in a stream while Gareth hurls another "headlong o'er [al bridge" (l. 1125). As for Excalibur itself, in many of its appearances in Tennyson's work, it functions more as an ornate objet d'art than as a martial weapon.

To be sure, Thackeray's remarks, insofar as they use Excalibur as a vehicle for discussing Idylls of the King, foreground just how central the famous sword is to Tennyson's particular Arthurian undertaking. A conventional strain in Idylls of the King criticism makes an analogy between Tennyson's Arthurian project and Excalibur. Thus, Michael Hancock writes "Tennyson's poem is itself a collection like Arthur's sword, encrusted with a dragon's hoard of jewels." (4) Excalibur, of course, was foundational for Arthur's rule and reign. In her discussion of Victorian visual conceptions of Arthurian themes, Debra N. Mancoff writes that "Arthur's youth was encoded in a single subject: the taking of Excalibur," a taking that marked his right to rule. (5) Similarly, Excalibur occupies a place of equal prominence to Tennyson, albeit, again, not in quite the manner Thackeray (or, indeed, Mancoff) would suggest. What seems most central to Tennyson's epic poem is not Thackeray's "eternal possession" of Excalibur, but, in fact, Arthur's renunciation of it and all this might imply.

By all indications, Tennyson himself seemed to place Excalibur--and its renunciation--at the center of his Arthurian project. Certainly the earliest stage of Tennyson's Arthurian work suggests Excalibur's significance: Tennyson's first substantial Arthurian poem was "Morte d'Arthur" and its framing poem "The Epic. …

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