Society, for its benefit or disadvantage, turns on the relationship between men and women as a door on its hinges.
In his long narrative poem “Idylls of the King,” which is a retelling of the Arthurian legends, the great Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson explores this relationship from a variety of angles. Though set in the legendary, mist-enshrouded heroic age of Britian, the tales told by Tennyson contain riches of great wisdom and beauty that are highly relevant to the modern reader.
Fathers and Daughters, Mothers and SonsIn the first two sections of his poem, Tennyson gives us a pair of contrasting parents: Guinevere’s father and Sir Gareth’s mother.In “The Coming of Arthur,” we read of Arthur’s first meeting with Guinevere. As he passed below the battlements of her castle, he “Felt the light of her eyes into his life / Smite on the sudden.” And his life is forever changed. He dreams of taking her as his queen to help him in his vision of bringing order, chivalry, and nobility to a stormy and barbaric world.
So he asks her father for her hand. King Leodogran, Guinevere’s father, sees in his daughter his “one delight.” So he takes his time, as a good father should, trying to learn all he can of Arthur and if he’d be a suitable spouse for his child. Arthur’s origin is cloaked in obscurity, yet all accounts show him to be the noblest of men, and Leodogran ultimately consents.
The coming of Guinevere to the throne sets in motion both the rise and fall of Arthur’s kingdom and his vision.
The next parent in the poem, Sir Gareth’s mother, shows less wisdom than Leodogran. Gareth has reached the vestibule of manhood, and he yearns to join Arthur’s court and do great deeds. But his mother, Bellicent, wants to keep him at home.
We instantly recognize in her the outline of a type that still exists in our day, and no doubt will remain throughout history: the overprotective mother. She promises him that instead of risking his life in combat or on quests for Arthur, he can go hunting. And she’ll even find him “some comfortable bride and fair.”
Man am I grown, a man’s work must I do. Follow the deer? follow the Christ, the King, Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King— Else, wherefore born?Becoming a man and doing man’s work will involve danger, it’s true. But the greater danger is the wasted life. Bellicent’s misguided motherly care runs the risk of stifling Gareth’s masculinity. In the end, she comes to understand this.
Husbands and Wives
Guinevere’s infidelity to Arthur courses like a venom through the veins of all the stories in “Idylls of the King.” Whispers of Guinevere and Lancelot’s shame begin to echo through the halls of Camelot, and these rumors form the first crack in the edifice of order and civilization that Arthur has spent his life building. Over the course of the poem, that crack will widen, opening the door to further evils, betrayals, suspicions, disloyalties, and, ultimately, the collapse of the kingdom.
In “Geraint and Enid,” it is precisely these rumors about Guinevere and Lancelot that lead to the imperiling of another marriage.
Sir Geraint, one of Arthur’s knights, and his wife Enid are passionately devoted to one another—until Enid’s friendship with Guinevere makes Geraint suspicious that she may be guilty of the same fault as the Queen.
In his unfounded jealousy, sadness, and anger, he first begins to neglect his duties and the pursuit of honor, a behavior Tennyson calls “effeminacy.” Then he forces Enid to accompany him into the wild wearing her poorest dress and with the command not to speak to him on any account. Enid, who remains clear-sighted and concentrated on the good of her spouse, wrestles between obedience to his order and breaking the silence to warn her husband of bandits who lie in wait ahead of them. Geraint, miserably withdrawn into himself, is oblivious to the dangers of the road. Of course, Enid warns him in time to save his (and her) life, but she receives little thanks for it.
A number of times, Geraint almost breaks loose and utters his complaint to Enid. But he holds it all in, and their psychological distance grows and manifests physically as he forces her to ride ahead of him, not at his side. Tennyson’s imagery is perfect here: the couple ride apart through dangerous lands, risking both their lives. Similarly, marriage is a journey through the “perilous paths” of life, and if the spouses are disunited and separated, the world may easily crush them.
Enid could have dispelled Geraint’s doubts in an instant, but he refuses to open up to her. In the end, Geraint comes back to himself and to her, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out how.
and could he find A woman in her womanhood as great As he was in his manhood, then ... The twain together well might change the world.Arthur himself, when he first encounters his future queen, reflects on his powerlessness to consummate his noble vision for his life and kingdom on his own:
for saving I be joined To her that is the fairest under heaven, I seem as nothing in the mighty world, And cannot will my will, nor work my work Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm Victor and lord.But he dreams a glorious dream of what would be possible were he wedded to her:
But were I joined with her, Then might we live together as one life, And reigning with one will in everything Have power on this dark land to lighten it, And power on this dead world to make it live.
The Potential of Marriage
What Tennyson here describes is, in some sense, the potential of every marriage. We may not all be kings and queens, but we are all kings and queens of our homes, of our little corner of the world. And if united, husband to wife, in a common vision, we have the power to transform it in ways perhaps even we cannot fully imagine.
Of course, the great tragedy of the story of Arthur is that Guinevere falls. And in her fall, she frustrates the sublime potential that their relationship had. When her and Lancelot’s affair becomes undeniable, it shakes the kingdom to its core, divides the knights, and gives Modred his opportunity to try to overthrow Arthur. We see in this story an allegory for the reality that, as the basic building block of civilization, the crumbling of marriages leads to the crumbling of society as a whole.
Heartbroken, and about to march to his final battle, Arthur says to his queen, “Thou hast not made my life so sweet to me, / That I the King should greatly care to live; / For thou hast spoilt the purpose of my life.” Yet, in spite of that, Arthur loves her to the end, and Guinevere learns—too late—to love Arthur.
I made [the knights] lay their hands in mine and swear To reverence the King, as if he were Their conscience, and their conscience as their King, To break the heathen and uphold the Christ, To ride abroad redressing human wrongs, To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it, To honour his own word as if his God’s, To lead sweet lives in purest chastity, To love one maiden only, cleave to her, And worship her by years of noble deeds, Until they won her; for indeed I knew Of no more subtle master under heaven Than is the maiden passion for a maid, Not only to keep down the base in man, But teach high thought, and amiable words And courtliness, and the desire of fame, And love of truth, and all that makes a man.Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected]