“The Idylls of the King” is a collection of poems published between 1859 and 1885. There are twelve narrative poems written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson while he was the Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria. He meant them as a tribute to her deceased husband, Prince Albert.
The poems cover the life of King Arthur from the time he wins Guinevere until he is mortally wounded and set off in a barge with three Fairy Queens. It follows the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur tried to make the Utopian Kingdom of peace, but he is thwarted by his half-brother, Mordred, the Lady of the Lake, Vivian and the ever growing love affair between his wife and best friend.
Covering some of the Knights, the poems tell of their loves and battles. But throughout the other poetry about Geraint, Galahad, Balin and Balan, even Merlin, there is the triangle of lovers, Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. In this story, Tennyson shows how the adultery and mistrust destroyed the Kingdom of Camelot.
Some readers have thought the poems are an allegory about the conflicts in society going on in Britain during the author’s time. In this adaption of the doomed love, Guinevere is taken with Lancelot when she first sees him because she thinks he is Arthur. Because of this, her heart is too full to give it to Arthur when she meets him. In the tragic end, Arthur and Lancelot go to war against each other, spurred on by the evil machinations of Mordred, Arthur’s half brother and Vivian, the Lady of the Lake.
The Coming of Arthur
King Leodogran of Cameliard had a beautiful daughter, Guinevere. He was also besieged by beasts and by hordes of heathens. Aurelius and King Uther lost their kingdoms to the horde. Now King Arthur came to battle them at the request of Leodogran. He is offering his daughter’s hand in marriage.
“And Arthur, passing thence to battle, felt
Travail, and throes and agonies of the life,
Desiring to be joined with Guinevere.”
After Arthur and his men fight back the beasts and the horde, he goes to claim his bride. He sends Lancelot to fetch her. But first, he has to battle the Barons who claim he is not the son of King Uther. These claims worry King Leodogran. He doesn’t want to give his only daughter to any but a king or the son of a king. He questions his chamberlain, Bellicent, Arthur’s half-sister and his emissaries. But the accounts are all different. King Leodogran still can’t determine if Arthur is Uther’s legitimate heir. Then he has a dream. In his dream, Leodogran is visited by Merlin who assures him, “Fear not to give this King thine only child, Guinevere.” The dream ends with Arthur as the King who, “stood out in heaven, Crown’d.”
The next morning Leodogran sent word to Arthur that the marriage has his blessing. Arthur sends Lancelot, “his warrior whom he loved And honored most” was the man he sent to fetch his bride. He returns with her in May, and they are married.
At the wedding feast, the nobles came to claim their “tribute as of yore.” But Arthur refuses. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” Therefore, “Seeing that ye be grown to weak and old To drive the heathen from you Roman wall, No tribute will we pay.” The nobles were very angry at this announcement.
Gareth and Lynette
Gareth and Lynette are a love story. Gareth is the son of Bellicent, Arthur’s sister, and Lot. He is their youngest son. Gareth wants to become a knight and prove himself in his uncle’s court. But, Bellicent doesn’t want her youngest son to fight. She makes a bargain with him. He can go if he agrees to work in Arthur’s kitchen for a year and a day.
Bellicent is surprised when he agrees. Gareth is to be incognito. He is confronted by Merlin who sees through his disguise and warns him that Arthur will bind him in a vow no man can keep. Gareth asks Merlin why he mocks him, but he accuses Gareth of mocking Arthur by hiding his identity. Gareth serves in the kitchens for a month, and then his mother relents and releases him from his vow. He is knighted by Arthur and becomes his “secret knight.” Arthur also orders Lancelot to watch out for the boy. Soon Gareth’s first quest comes up. Lynette who is hard to get along with has requested Arthur to send Lancelot to free her sister. But instead, Arthur sends Gareth.
Lynette is livid. She thinks Gareth is still a kitchen servant. She storms out. When he catches up with her, she is still angry and difficult to Gareth. Even though he shows courage, she continues to berate him. But he never loses his temper and returns each of her harsh remarks with kind, calm words. “Damsel,’ Sir Gareth answered gently, ‘say Whate’er ye will, but whatsoe’er ye say, I leave not till I finish this fair quest, Or die, therefore.”
Along the way, Gareth battles the Knight of the Morning Star, the Knight of the Noonday Sun and the Knight of the Evening Star. The last he must battle is the Knight of Death. But when he split the helmet off the Knight he saw the face of a young boy. “Fresh as a flower new born, and crying,”Knight, Slay me not: my three brethren bad me do it.”
Then Gareth freed Lady Lyonors, Lynette’s sister. They all celebrated, and the story ends with Gareth marrying Lady Lyonors, or Lynette, depending on who tells the story.
The Marriage of Geraint
Geraint is one of Arthur’s knights. He is married to Enid, and they both love each other deeply. But when rumors begin about Guinevere and Lancelot, Geraint becomes concerned about his own wife’s fidelity. She and the queen are good friends, and he is afraid the queen is a bad influence on his wife. So he asks Arthur if he can take his wife to Devon.
When the couple first arrive, Geraint is attentive to his wife. But that soon turns into an obsession. He spends all his time with her watching her and neglecting his duties to the keep. As the days pass, she becomes more uncomfortable with his continued mistrust.
One morning they are laying in bed when she makes a remark about the job she is doing as a wife thinking Geraint is asleep still. But he hears her and misunderstands. He thinks she is questioning his virility. He decides to go on a quest to prove to her he is still a man. But, she is to go along.
Geraint and Enid
He has forbidden her to speak as they ride out. They are moving through bandit territory, so they must be vigilant. She overhears three knights making nefarious plans to attack her husband. When she rides back to warn him of the ambush, Geraint is not pleased. He accuses her of being a disobedient wife and that she wants him to be beaten.
After three more knights attack, Enid is left with six horses from the defeated knights to lead. Although Geraint sees her difficulty, he refuses to show any mercy.
Geraint’s surly behavior continues when they stop at an inn. Especially when Earl Limours, the ruler of the area and an old beau of Enids shows up. The man is rude and makes coarse jokes around her, but Geraint does nothing to stop him showing disrespect to his wife. Soon Limours asks Geraint if he can speak to his wife who “sits alone.” He replies that he is welcome to since she never speaks to him. Limours tells her he still loves her and wants to take her away from her seemingly uncaring husband that night since he doesn’t seem to love her anymore. She sees he is serious and begs him to leave her that night and wait till the morning. She hopes he will change his mind or Geraint will stop him.
During the night Enid wants to break the order of silence he gave her, but instead, she readies his armor while he sleeps. The next morning she finally tells him what Limours said: “Except the passage that he loved her not; Nor left untold the craft herself had used.”
He immediately suspects her of setting the whole thing up and using Limour to get rid of him. The couple leaves, but soon Limour and his men are after them. Geraint fights them off on the run. But Geraint is grievously injured. They make it as far as the territory of the outlaw Earl Doorm the Bull before Geraint passes out.
When Doorm comes across them, he is surprised at the lovely women weeping over the body of a fallen knight. He tries to get her to leave, but she refuses to move without her husband. She insists he is not dead. Doorm makes his men take Geraint’s body and Enid to his fortress. Geraint wakes to see Enid at his side still crying. “She weeps for me?” He still plays dead but wonders at her love for him.
Doorm returns and tries to get Enid to eat. She refuses until her husband wakes. He then offers her drink and fine gowns, but she refuses all. Finally, Doorm loses his patience and slaps her. At this Geraint jumps up and thrusts his sword through the neck of Doorm. At the sight of a dead man rising to kill the Earl, everyone fled the building.
Geraint apologizes to his wife for the cruel way he had been treating her. The two realize they need to escape quickly, so they both get on a single horse and flee. The meet Edym, the son of Nudd who says that he is scouting for Arthur’s army that is clearing the area of outlaws. He offers to take them to see Arthur. When Geraint reports to Arthur all the outlaws he took down, Arthur praises him for his bravery. Later he and Enid make up in their tent.
After he heals they go on to Caerleon. When they return to Devon Geraint is praised for his bravery, and Enid is called Enid the Good. He never doubts her again, and they live together happily until years later when he falls “Against the heathen of the Northern Sea In battle, fighting for the blameless King.”
Balin and Balan
This is the story of two brothers who have returned to the service of Arthur. They had to leave before because of Balin’s temper. They are welcomed back, and Balin tries to learn patience from Lancelot. But, he soon despairs and instead puts the Queen’s crown on his shield. It becomes a token to remind him to keep his temper.
Some of Arthur’s men return and report that they were attacked by a beast in the woods that killed one of them. Balan offers to hunt the beast but warns his brother to curtail his temper while he is gone. He keeps his temper in check until he overhears a conversation between Guinevere and Lancelot. Balin leaves the castle confused at what he heard.
Soon he arrives at the castle of Pellam and Garlon. There he hears Garlon defaming the Queen and kills him in a temper. Then Balin runs into the woods where he hangs his shield on a tree in shame at his outburst. There Vivian, the Lady of the Lake, finds it with her squire. When the find Balin she tells him lies about the Queen. He believes her and tramples the shield into the ground. He makes such a ruckus that Balan hears it and assumes it is the Beast he has been hunting. The two men fight but only recognize each other too late. As Balan is dying, he assures Balin “Pure as our own true Mother is our Queen.”
Merlin and Vivien
Vivien has bragged to King Mark of Cornwall that she will bring the hearts of Arthur’s knights. Her first step is to become one of Guinevere’s ladies. She begins to spread rumors that the Queen is having an affair. She tries to seduce Arthur. When that doesn’t work, she turns her charms on Merlin. Merlin is having troubling visions of “doom that ever poised itself to fall.” He goes to the lake to contemplate what to do and doesn’t notice Vivien getting into the boat with him even when she takes the helm. Her plan is to seduce a spell from him that she can use to trap him.
During the next few pages, she teases Merlin. He tells her about the rumors the other knights spread about her. She knocks each rumor down and tells him foul things about each of the knights. Merlin returns each insult with the truth, except for the rumor about Lancelot and Guinevere. He finally admits the truth of their love.
After enduring so much nagging, he finally gives in and tells her the charm. She uses it on him, and Merlin is imprisoned forever. Everyone who sees him will think he is dead. Vivian is the only one who will know the truth. He will lie in a hollow oak tree. She dances away happily, and the “forest echo’d ‘fool.”
Lancelot and Elaine
Arthur finds a couple of skeletons of fallen warriors who were brothers and had battled each other. One had a crown with nine diamonds. He removed the diamonds and gave them as prizes in tournaments. At the first eight tournaments, Lancelot won. He planned to give all nine diamonds to Guinevere as a token of his love for her. Guinevere tells Arthur she will not go to the last tournament and Lancelot does, too.
When she finds out, she is furious that he would cause more rumors to abound about them. She also points out that she can’t bring herself to love Arthur because of his perfections. Lancelot finally agrees to compete in the tournament. He will go but with a disguise. He wears the armor of the Lord of Astolat. Lancelot also wears a favor from his daughter, Elaine. Lancelot is known for never wearing a woman’s favor.
His attentions make Elaine fall in love with him. Of course, all who see him win the tournament know who he is. When Gawain tells Elaine that Lancelot was hurt in the tournament, he realizes she is in love with him. He tries to warn her that all know Lancelot’s love is all given to Guinevere.
Elaine says she will never love anyone else and wishes for death. As time passes, she becomes weak and dies. She asks her father and brothers to put her on a barge that will float past Camelot. They also include a note she wrote to Guinevere and Lancelot. Meanwhile, Lancelot brings the nine diamonds to Guinevere as a token of his love.
She has since found out about the attentions he paid to Elaine and is very jealous. She tosses the diamonds out the window in her pique, and they land in the river as the barge is floating past. When Lancelot looks out the window to see where they went, he sees the barge and has it brought in. They read the note that makes all who heard it wept. “I loved you, and my love had no return.”
After hearing this he tells Arthur that he wished he could have returned her love, but he did not. Later, in secret, Guinevere asks his forgiveness. Then Lancelot goes to the river to remember Elaine and her true love that was purer than the Queen’s. He begins to think Guinevere’s love is based on jealousy. Then he knows “he should die a holy man.”
The Holy Grail
Sir Percivale, “The Pure” as Arthur and the Knights, called him had become a monk. About a month after his death another monk, Ambrosius relates a story Percivale told him about the Holy Grail. While Percivale was still a Knight in Arthur’s court, his devout sister, Dindrane told the knights she had seen the Holy Grail “The cup, the cup itself, from which our Lord Drank at the last sad supper with his own.” She also said that Galahad would see it and she called him “my knight of heaven.” Then a vision sweeps through all the knights of the Grail, and they all become obsessed with finding it.
When Arthur returns, he puts a stop to all of them going. He agrees to let Galahad, Percivale and Lancelot go, but the rest need to stay home. Then Percival tells him this was the beginning of the fall of Camelot. Next Percival relates the dangers he encountered on his quest and the many times he thought he would fail. Finally, he meets Galahad in a hermitage and travels with him. After a while, Percivale can’t go any further. He sees Galahad leave in a boat that looks like a star and heading towards a heavenly city. He also saw the Grail above Galahad’s head.
The Knights slowly return to Camelot. They all have stories of their quests. Gawain says that he stopped looking and spent his time with some women. Lancelot says he found a room at the top of a long staircase that was hot as fire and strange. He also claims to have seen the Grail, but it was veiled.
Pelleas and Ettare
Pelleas is a young knight in Arthur’s court, and Ettare is a beautiful young girl. A tournament is coming up, and Arthur declares it a “Tournament of Youth” so the older seasoned knights won’t compete and a young man can win. Ettare wants to be the “Queen of Beauty,” at the tournament, so she flirts with Pelleas since she thinks he will win. At the end of the tournament she gets her wish, but right afterward she starts to cool her affections towards him.
Young Pelleas is still in love, though, so he goes to her castle to see her. She refuses to see him so he allows himself to be captured by her knights and beaten so that he can get close to her. When Gawain sees this, he becomes disgusted over the young knight’s actions. He offers to court her for Pelleas since he is more comfortable with women.
Gawain puts on some of Pelleas’ armor and goes to her castle. He tells them that he killed Pelleas. After three nights have passed Pelleas sneaks into her castle. There he finds everyone asleep and finds Gwain in bed with Ettare. He leaves his sword across their throats so they can know the only reason he didn’t kill them because of his Chivalry.
Ettare wakes up and realizes what she has done. She begins to hate Gawain and love Pelleas. But it is too late. Pelleas leaves Camelot, “Black nest of rats,’ he groan’d, ‘ye build too high.” He will become the Red Knight in the North.
The Last Tournament
The Queen was given a child that Lancelot found in an eagle’s nest. Arthur had hoped it would make her happy. And it did for awhile. She named the girl Nestling and gave her a ruby necklace. But when the baby died, she gave the necklace to Arthur to use as a prize in his tournament. Before the next tournament, though, Arthur and some of his men left to battle the Red Knight who had set up another Round Table, but with thieves, prostitutes and lawless knights.
Arthur leaves Lancelot in charge of the tournament while he is gone. But the tournament turns into a travesty. The Tournament of the Dead Innocence is filled with incivility, wild behavior, and broken rules. The winner of the rubies was Tristram. Then he announces boorishly that none of the ladies present is a “Queen of Beauty.”
Meanwhile, Arthur has lost control of his knights. They kill the Red Knight and all his men and women in a frenzy. Then they burn the town. Tristram decides to give the ruby necklace to Queen Isolt who is married to Mark. When he kisses, her jealous King Mark shows up and “clove him thro’ the brain.” When Arthur returns Dagonet, his little fool, falls at his feet in tears. He says he will never again be able to make Arthur smile.
“Queen Guinevere has fled the court.” She has gone to the convent at Almesbury. She and Lancelot gave their tearful goodbyes, but Mordred was listening. Vivian told him when to listen. He overhears Lancelot offering his far away castle to her, but Guinevere has decided to pay her penance at the convent.
When she arrives anonymously, a young girl gravitates toward her. Not knowing who she is, the girl gossips about the upcoming war between Arthur and Lancelot. Mordred has taken over Camelot. Guinevere feels guilty for all she has done. Especially when the girl talks about how wonderful Camelot was until the “sinful Queen” arrived.
Soon Arthur appears. She abases herself to him, and he stands over her prone body. He is sad about the collapse of their marriage and his kingdom. Finally, he forgives her and leaves. Guinevere prays she and Arthur will someday meet in heaven. “Is there none Will tell the King I love him tho’ so late?”
Guinevere stays in the abbey for the rest of her life. As time passes, she becomes Abbess. “For three brief years.” Then she dies.
The Passing of Arthur
Sir Bedivere is the last of King Arthur’s Knights left alive when Arthur kills Mordred. At the same time, Arthur is mortally wounded. Sir Bedivere takes Arthur to the church in Avalon where he was given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake.
On the blade of the sword is written a prophesy that it must be returned to her. Arthur tells Bedivere to perform the task. Bedivere is so reluctant to toss the sword in the lake that it takes him three tries. But when he tosses it, the sword does not touch the water. Instead, an arm reaches up and catches it. The Lady of the Lake has reclaimed Excalibur.
Bedivere goes back to confirm to Arthur what happened. Then he tells the knight to put him on a barge that has appeared with three Queens on it. The tallest of the Queens lays Arthur’s head on her lap as they start to leave the shore.
Calling to him Bedivere asks Arthur what he should do? Arthur answers that the times are changing. He tells the Knight to comfort himself. Then he asks Bedivere to pray for him because he is going where rain and hail never fall to heal from his wounds. The boat disappears into the sunrise.
To the Queen
What follows on the last page and a half of the book is a poem to Queen Victoria dedicating the book to her husband, Prince Albert.
King Arthur Pendragon – the King and ruler of Camelot. At the beginning of the tale, he is called upon by King Leodogran, the ruler of Cameliard and father of Guinevere. Arthur rids his land of killer beasts and heathen horde. As payment, he is given the hand of the King’s daughter. Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon, although his parentage is often questioned. He arrives at Camelot with the wizard Merlin to aid him in his establishment of his kingdom.
Arthur sets up a round table for his knights to sit at for conference. The idea is that no one would be at the head or place of honor. They would all be equal. Although his most trusted of the Knights is Lancelot who he sends to bring Guinevere to him. Unfortunately, when she sees Lancelot, she mistakes him for Arthur and falls instantly in love.
Arthur is a brave knight and leader, but as he ages, he loses control over his knights. Especially when it becomes apparent he is ignoring the affair his wife is having with Lancelot. In the end, he is mortally wounded after killing his half-brother, Mordred who had tried to usurp his crown. After having his sword, Excalibur returned to the Lady of the Lake who gave it to him; he sails off in a barge attended by three Queens of Fairy.
Queen Guinevere – the wife of King Arthur. She is the daughter of King Leodogran who gave her in marriage to Arthur after he saved his kingdom. When Arthur has established Camelot he sends his most trusted knight, Lancelot to fetch his bride.
Expecting Arthur to come after her, Guinevere thinks Lancelot is him at first and falls instantly in love. Their romance leads to the fall of Camelot. Guinevere can’t find romantic love for Arthur because she loves Lancelot, who also loves her. As their affair becomes known to his knights, Arthur starts to lose their respect because he won’t punish her.
Finally, Guinevere leaves Camelot to live the rest of her life in a convent. There Arthur visits her one last time after defeating Lancelot in a civil war. Afterward he meets Mordred in battle and receives a mortal wound after killing him. Guinevere is made Abbess after a few years and three years later dies.
Sir Lancelot of the Lake – he is Arthur’s most trusted knight. Handsome, brave and gallant. He wins every Tournament. Also, unfortunately, he is in love with Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. His adultery pushes he and Arthur into a civil war, even though Guinevere has joined a convent to stop it. He never sees her again.
Merlin – the wizard who aids Arthur. He becomes Arthur’s adviser at Camelot and knows all the knight’s secrets. He is seduced by Vivian, the Lady of the Lake who is working with Mordred and determined to destroy Camelot. He gives her the spell that she uses to imprison him in a hollow oak tree forever.
Alfred Tennyson Biography
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson was born in 1809 in Lincolnshire, England. His family was middle class, his father a rector and vicar. George Clayton Tennyson was a fair hand at architecture, painting, and music.
He spent a lot of time on the education of his children and Alfred and his two elder brothers began writing poetry in their teens. He and his brothers had a book of poetry published when Alfred was seventeen. When he was twenty, Alfred was given the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for one of his poems while at Cambridge.
After his father had died Alfred left Cambridge with a degree and moved to the rectory to take care of his mother and family for the next six years. Afterward they moved to High Beach, Essex. After an unwise investment that led to the loss of much of the family fortune, Alfred moved to London.
In London, he continued to write and publish poetry. Soon he was appointed Poet Laureate and married Emily Sellwood, a childhood friend. They had two sons. From 1850 to 1892 Alfred held the position of Poet Laureate. He held the position longer than anyone before or since.
During this time he wrote good and bad poetry. He wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade, the ” but he also wrote a terrible poem of greeting princess Alexandra of Denmark when she came to Britain to marry the future King Edward the VII.
In 1884 he was made Baron Tennyson, of Alworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria. He was the first person to be raised to the British peerage just for his writing. He was actually not comfortable as a peer and only took the position to benefit his son.
Tennyson was still writing up into his eighties. He died at the age of eighty three and was buried in Westminter Abbey. His last words were, “Oh that press will have me now.”
Tennyson was a favorite poet of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria appointed him for that reason. She only met him twice. The first time she thought he was odd and the second a genius.
Tennyson wrote “Idylls of the King” as a memorial gift for Prince Albert after his death since he was a great fan of the King Arthur tales. Some of his other works include, “The Kraken”, “The Lady of Shalott”, “Ulysses”, “Godiva”, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”, “Maud”, “The Brook”, “Montenegro”, and “Kapiolani” that was published by his son, Hallam after his death.
Hallam also wrote an authorized biography in 1897. There is a memorial statue to Lord Tennyson in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge University. He is the ninth most frequently quoted writer, including, “Theirs is not to reason why, / Theirs is but to do and die.” “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers.” and “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,” from “The Idylls of the King”.