What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext - O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams? for saving I be join'd
To her that is fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world
- The Coming of Arthur, 81-86
The Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson's longest work, was perhaps inevitable. Tennyson had been fascinated by the Arthurian legends since boyhood, and in two creative spells (1856-1859 and 1868-1874) he finally exorcised his obsession onto paper. The result is seen by some as an epic which marked the zenith of his poetic talent, by others perhaps as an example of victorian romanticism gone awry. His interest was kindled by Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, upon which Tennyson based most of his Idylls, despite the gaping historical flaws. However, as Tennyson himself says in introducing the Idylls, what matters is the core of truth surrounding the man Arthur:
"How much of history we have in the story of Arthur is doubtful. Let not my readers press too hardly on details whether for history or for allegory. Some think that King Arthur may be taken to typify conscience. He is anyhow meant to be a man who spent himself in the cause of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, who felt and aspired with his nobler knights, though with a stronger and clearer conscience than any of them."
The epic poem as we know it now was written and published piece by piece as part of a series entitled The Holy Grail and Other Poems, which chronicled the life of Arthur from his birth and crowning through to his death. These separate poems are now usually published together as chapters of the Idylls, and are named thus:
- The Coming of Arthur
- Gareth and Lynette
- The Marriage of Geraint
- Geraint and Enid
- Balin and Balan
- Merlin and Vivien
- Lancelot and Elaine
- The Holy Grail
- Pelleas and Ettarre
- The Last Tournament
- The Passing of Arthur
- To the Queen
The first of these, The Coming of Arthur, was written in early 1869 and published in December of that year. However, Tennyson made a number of changes and by 1873 he had added a total of ninety extra lines. The second part, Gareth and Lynette
, was also started in 1869 but wasn't published until 1872, and was based almost entirely on Malory's work.
The Marriage of Geraint, part three, was completed in 1856 and published in 1859. It was initially called Enid, but by 1870 the title Enid had been expanded to Geraint and Enid, and in 1873 it was split into two separate poems. Thus part four, Geraint and Enid, is the former second half of the poem, the final titles "The Marriage of Geraint" and "Geraint and Enid" having been decided upon in 1886. It was based upon Geraint, Son of Erbin from the 1840 translation of the Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest.
Part five, Balin and Balan, was written over two years, 1872-1874, and published in 1885. It was again loosely based upon Malory's writing, although Tennyson added the characters of Guinevere, Lancelot and vivien.
The sixth part, Merlin and Vivien, was initially called just Vivien upon its 1859 publishing, but was changed in 1870. It was first completed in less than two months, spanning from February to the end of March of 1856. However in 1873 Tennyson added lines 188-194, and again in 1875 he added lines 6-146. This part was more "inspired" by Malory than squarely based on his work.
The seventh, Lancelot and Elaine, also had its origins with Malory, and was renamed from Elaine in 1870. It was first published in 1859 after having been completed in just over six months in February of that year.
The Holy Grail, part eight, was completed in less than a month, from 9th - 23rd of September 1869, and published in December of that year. Again this was a variation of Malory's account, in which Sir Percivale, the original hero of the legends, had been all but replaced by Galahad. Tennyson, although continuing this theme, restored to Percivale at least some of his original prominence by making him narrator of this part.
Part nine, Pelleas and Ettarre, was more closely based upon Malory's writing, and was written and published in 1869. This stood in contrast with part ten, The Last Tournament, which borrowed only a little from Malory and was essentially original. It was completed in May of 1871 and published in Contemporary Review in December that year.
Guinevere, the eleventh part, took eight months to complete, from July 1857 until March 1858, and was published in 1859. Much like The Last Tournament, Tennyson took only the setting from Malory and the rest is of his own invention. The last two parts were published in 1869 and 1873 respectively, with The Passing of Arthur once again drawing from Malory.
Tennyson desired the Idylls to be illustrated, and asked victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to provide pictures. This she did, although they were disappointed when wood-engravings made after the photographs were not a considerable success. Tennyson then suggested that she publish her photographs along with short excerpts from the appropriate parts of his poem, which she realised was a very good idea, and she went ahead and did so.
As for the pronunciation of Idylls, Tennyson himself apparently pronounced it as "idles" and explained his choice of spelling thus:
"Regarding the Greek derivation, I spelt my Idylls with two l's mainly to divide them from the ordinary pastoral idyls usually spelt with one l. These idylls group themselves round one central figure."
Personally I find this to be an unusual book in that while it exudes Tennyson's mastery of poetic english it also tends to drag on a little in places, as he often skews off on some tangent which leads the reader to forget what he was talking about in the first place. One also gets the occasional impression, especially whilst wading through these tangents, that Tennyson was perhaps running short on ideas, almost as if even a poet as great as he struggled to maintain his standard in such a long work, or even simply that he wasn't used to writing an actual story with his poetry. Nevertheless this ranks as one of my personal favourites, although I may be biased by my sharing with Tennyson a fascination with the legends of Arthur.