By: Joshua Torrence ’24, an English and Psychology major, and Creative Writing and Medieval/Early Modern Studies minor.
The following work was created for FYS 101: King Arthur: From Myth to Modernity.
Brief description: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is a classic. However, it was also written throughout the Victorian era in Britain, where notions of patriarchy and Christianity reigned over much of the western world. These societal influences bleed into Tennyson’s verse and shape how he tells the tale of King Arthur, a tale that has been told many times before. With his Idylls, Tennyson contributes a series of poems soaked in misogyny and misguided Biblical allegory to the Arthurian tradition, simplifying a complex tale into an unbridled attack on women.
The Victorian age in England is a bit of a paradox, because patriarchy and the subjugation of women into the docile governesses of their husbands’ property were both preserved and intensified under a female sovereign. It is no surprise, then, that Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the culmination of a lifelong interest in Arthurian myth and legend, is not dedicated to the queen, but to her husband, Albert Prince Consort. The parallels that Tennyson draws between Albert and Arthur are unmistakable and unmistakably biased: two dead royal men, “Who loved only one and who clave to her,” “Wearing the white flower of a blameless life” (Tennyson 19). Tennyson, like other aging men in Victorian England, had an internal conflict with which he had to contend; the prospect of a woman sitting on a throne meant for kings amid an era characterized by its strict adherence to proprietary and religious tradition, all this despite progress in the realms of science and technology. The child of a clergyman and an avid royalist throughout his long life, Tennyson was used to stories like that of Adam and Eve, in which women are punished and beheaded for their sins while men are left to grieve for the kingdom they lost because of some romantic or marital conflict. The Arthurian tradition was fertile ground on which Tennyson could tread and ponder a woman ruler, the reduced role of men in Buckingham Palace, and chivalry in an age without knights or damsels. Tennyson depicts the age-old tale of Adam and Eve continuously throughout his Idylls in order to misogynistically critique the failures of female characters whom he believes lead to the fall of man.
Tennyson wrote about this idea of weakened men throughout his life, and his Idylls reflect just one part of that recurring theme in his work. According to “Patriarchy, Dead Men, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King” by Linda M. Shires, much of what Tennyson said about this theme in the Idylls was informed by Victorian England’s gender codes, which were deeply influenced by both the Church of England’s perspectives on morality and the documents that the institution upheld as sacred and holy. Harsh social rules suppressing men’s and women’s sexualities as well as subjugating the whole population of women into servitude were rooted in Biblical precedents and ideas, most obviously in the creation story, where it is Eve’s sin that drives mankind from innocence into a state of depravity. Therefore, Shires asserts that “the issue at stake for Tennyson is the powerful and castrating woman/mother and his own enfeeblement,” because women (if left unchecked in his society) would have been perceived as threats to both the male-dominated social order and to men on a personal level (Shires 417). Although he could not save the constantly sick Albert Prince Consort from his death, nor question the divine authority of Queen Victoria, Tennyson could create a world in which the dangers of women to potent but penetrable men may be demonstrated and critiqued. He did just that with his Idylls of the King by warping female characters and rewriting versions of the Adam and Eve story in Romantic language and cloying iambic pentameter.
The relationship between Tennyson’s views on gender and religion is never more obvious than in the poem “Merlin and Vivien.” The poem begins in a still forest bracing itself for a storm, there “At Merlin’s feet, the wily Vivien lay” (Tennyson 142). It is revealed that Vivien is a spy for one of Arthur’s adversaries, Mark of Cornwall, who heard rumors of Guinevere’s infidelity with Lancelot. He sent Vivien to infiltrate Camelot, observe the goings-on, and foment discord within the city walls. She soon sets her eyes on Merlin, a valued advisor of the king, and follows him on a walk to seduce him into teaching her a spell which will place anyone in a prison invisible to the world. Her goal is to use the spell on Merlin himself, “fancying that her glory would be great / according to his greatness whom she quench’d” (147). The conversation that ensues is a reconfiguration of interactions that take place in the Bible’s Genesis, in which Tennyson fuses the personages of Eve and the serpent into one disarming and malevolent being.
Throughout her seduction of Merlin, reptilian descriptors are attributed to Vivien’s demeanor:
There she lay in all her length…
Writhed toward him, slided up his knee and sat,
Behind his ankle twined his hollow feet
Together, curved an arm about his neck,
Clung like a snake… (148).
By linking Vivien to these viperous descriptors, Tennyson inextricably connects the devil-figure and the woman-figure. He emphasizes this point when he evokes the fall of man in an even more explicit way, Merlin lamenting that he “stirred this vice in [Vivien] which ruin’d man / Thro woman the first hour” (151). This is a direct allusion to the fall of man, specifically when the Bible says “she [Eve] also gave some to her husband [Adam], who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). Adam does not actively eat the fruit; he is a passive participant according to Genesis, only eating what is offered to him by his wife. One could argue that Eve is a passive participant as well, since she was manipulated by the serpent into transgressing. However, what continues to be the focus of the affair is how Eve is shown as an active agent by giving the fruit to her husband and succumbing to the serpent’s wiles.
Within this vague phrasing and detailing lies the basis for Tennyson’s disingenuous depiction of Vivien, who was Merlin’s final adversary in the Suite du Merlin, which was written in the thirteenth century. In this version of the tale, Vivien is a powerful huntress and the Lady of the Lake, but Tennyson reduces her from her traditional role of enchantress to malicious paramour and manipulative seductress. Tennyson does this in order to establish Merlin as the superior figure in a patriarchal tale, which makes Vivien’s eventual victory, in Tennyson’s eyes, less of a triumph for women than a major loss for men. Vivien is the active figure in the tale, and in the end, Merlin does not participate in his demise, rather he resigns to it. Words are exchanged about differences between the sexes and the slow but sure corruption of Camelot, spurred by Lancelot and Guinevere’s infidelity. The poem culminates in Merlin’s defeat after a metaphorical “snake of gold slid from [Vivien’s] hair,” bewitching Merlin and ensuring his imprisonment, foreshadowing the fall of Arthur (165). This is how Tennyson sees the world from his binary, heterosexual lens; man, weakened and embittered by woman’s sin, is only complicit in the loss of his kingdom because of his involvement with the opposite sex. Placing this poem in the context of Queen Victoria’s reign, Tennyson’s critique and reduction of women’s power in his writing reveals a mentality which sees masculinity and dominance as being threatened by a woman on the throne.
Powerful women in Arthurian tradition are both diminished and made antagonistic in Tennyson’s Idylls;thus, the locus of what causes Arthur’s downfall is simplified from an intricate political conflict to the actions of a single character, Guinevere. While Vivien becomes as powerful as Merlin and eventually precipitates in his demise in the Suite du Merlin, Guinevere never becomes such an adversary or enemy to Arthur in the earlier tales. This characterization is no longer the case in Tennyson’s Idylls. The infidelity that Vivien mentions throughout “Merlin and Vivien” takes center stage in “Lancelot and Elaine” when the audience is given an intimate view into the personage of Guinevere. In response to a sardonic remark from Lancelot, asking if she preferred her husband over him, Guinevere declares that “He is all fault who hath no fault at all…I am yours, / Not Arthur’s, as ye know, save the bond” (171). This conversation occurs when Lancelot stays behind from a tournament because the queen is sick. Guinevere bids him to go in order to lessen the suspicion that already surrounds them. Later, when it is revealed to Guinevere that Lancelot entered the tournament, but did so with a lady’s favor attached to his helmet, she:
Down on the great King’s couch, and writhed upon it,
And clenched her fingers till they bit the palm,
And shrieked out ‘Traitor’ (184).
Guinevere, who is guilty of violating the holy sacrament of marriage, is described without mercy or empathy. Instead of delving into Guinevere’s internalized struggles or moral conflicts as she betrays her king, Tennyson decomplexifies matters by making Guinevere shameless. She knows what she is doing is wrong but does not feel bad about it. At least, not yet. The only negative feelings in her are evoked out of blind hypocrisy, becoming furious at the news that Lancelot is carrying another woman’s favor while she commits infidelity against Arthur. Lancelot, to Guinevere, is only a traitor when he betrays her, not when he betrays his king and his kingdom by sleeping with her. The queen is at her worst in Tennyson’s version of the tale, more flawed through a lack of depth in her character construction.
Tennyson compares Guinevere to other female characters throughout the text, chiefly using the lady who gave Lancelot the favor, Elaine of Astolat, as a foil to the queen. When Elaine meets Lancelot, she is unaware of who he is but falls in love with him at first sight. After leaving his shield with her in exchange for another shield to maintain a disguise at the tournament, Gawain uses the first shield to confirm Lancelot’s identity to Elaine. When she learns that the man who she loves is Lancelot, and that he was wounded in the tournament, Elaine pleads with her father to let her help him. Elaine is permitted to go to him with her brother to protect her. Once she finds Lancelot with an infected wound, she wastes no time in getting him back to health:
…but the meek maid
Sweetly forbore him ever, being to him
Meeker than any child to a rough nurse,
Milder than any mother to a sick child… (190).
Elaine is one of the primary female characters that Tennyson uses to convey his vision of an ideal woman. Elaine represents all that a woman should be in Tennyson’s eyes: servile, meek, gentle, and a nurse/mother figure to the man she loves. After Lancelot’s departure, however, Elaine falls ill and eventually dies because Lancelot’s feelings were devoted to the wrong woman: the queen. Guinevere encapsulates none of Elaine’s traits, and yet Lancelot chooses her over Elaine in the end, even when he understands that Elaine’s love may be “Far tenderer than my Queen’s” (204). This is the misery of the heterosexual male, as Tennyson sees it. Lancelot decides to enchain himself to a woman who would weaken and lessen him, rather than dedicate himself to a woman who would uplift and support him.
This relationship is a direct parallel to how Guinevere affects King Arthur. While the connection between Guinevere and Arthur’s relationship and Eve and Adam’s relationship is a bit more subtle than the parallels highlighted in “Merlin and Vivien,” Tennyson’s intentions are no less obvious and no less biased against the feminine role within these heterosexual interactions. In her own poem, “Guinevere,” she is characterized as the main guilty party in the cause of the fall of Arthur’s kingdom. During her farewell from Lancelot, she proclaims that “Mine is the shame, for I was wife, and thou / Unwedded” (272). Tennyson is ruthless to Guinevere in this poem, pinning the affair and the loss of the kingdom on her and her actions. She then flees to an abbey for sanctuary, where the main topic of conversation is what Guinevere has done to the king. This “is all woman’s grief,” says a maid who befriends Guinevere and keeps her company, “That she is woman, whose disloyal life / Hath wrought confusion in the Table Round / Which good King Arthur founded, years ago…ere the coming of the Queen” (274-275). Before Guinevere entered the picture, everything in the kingdom was full of concord and happiness. According to Tennyson, Guinevere’s presence did not just ruin Arthur, but his masculine Round Table, becoming the chief cause of enmity between the members of the brotherhood. Guinevere then bids the maid “Pray for him that he scape the doom of fire, / and weep for her who drew him to his doom,” taking the blame for her affair with Lancelot (278). Tennyson makes Guinevere effectively unburden Lancelot of any guilt because unlike him, she is married; and thus, Tennyson sees the sexual transgression as her fault.
The climax of the poem occurs when King Arthur denounces Guinevere’s actions in a lengthy diatribe. He begins furiously, telling Guinevere that, “Well it is that no child is born of thee. / The children born of thee are sword and fire, / Red ruin, the breaking up of laws” (280). He laments that she “spoilt the purpose of his life” and reminisces on “the golden days before thy sin” (281). While “thy sin” refers to Guinevere’s apparent faults, authorially, Tennyson is referring to woman’s supposed faults — Eve’s supposed faults — in an obvious manner. Tennyson uses Arthur’s censuring of Guinevere to censure a whole gender of people. While Arthur is reminiscing on the merry days of Camelot, Tennyson’s man is reminiscing on the days of the Garden, before the serpent and the events that have been blamed on Eve throughout the centuries. And yet, after all those harsh words, Arthur makes it clear that he is not there simply to hurt her or to hate her. He speaks of his love for her and how he “was ever virgin save for thee” (283). Ultimately, Tennyson’s misogyny reaches new heights when Arthur forgives Guinevere, bidding her to live a life for Christ, stripping Guinevere of her sexuality, becoming an abbess to do penance for her sins.
Tennyson grants Arthur absolute innocence through revision, making Mordred his “sister’s son” (283). In this version, Arthur never sleeps with another woman besides his wife, yet that is untrue for the primary text that Tennyson used to inspire his Idylls. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur sleeps with his sister Morgause and fathers Mordred, who becomes his bane and eventual downfall. In Malory’s telling, Arthur arguably bears most of the blame for his kingdom’s dissolution, but Tennyson clears him of that guilt in his revision. The effects of this decision are particularly jarring when Arthur tells Guinevere that her children would only bring more horror and destruction to his realm, when it is not Guinevere’s, but Arthur’s child, who brings about such calamity in Malory’s tale. By removing the incestual aspect of Arthur’s character, Tennyson essentially removes Arthur from the base, sexual realms in which Guinevere has been immersed for the duration of the Idylls. Arthur’s only active involvement in his fall lies in his marriage to, devotion to, and love for his queen. Thus, Guinevere is the active participant in her husband’s downfall, just as Eve is in her husband’s; and Arthur, like Adam, is portrayed as the weak oaf who simply takes what he is given.
Idylls of the King diverges from many of the common threads strung throughout the Arthurian tradition, primarily in the realms of gender and, more specifically, those that involve women of the stories. This change is expected based on Maureen Fries’ essay, “What Tennyson Really Did to Malory’s Women.” Fries asserts that the roles of women in the Arthurian tradition are unclear compared to the defined roles of men, and women are often used to “complement” or “defy” the central men of the tales (Fries 44-45). She outlines three terms that identify the primary roles of women in the Arthurian tradition: the “ancillary” heroines who act as deuteragonists and lack enough agency to cause a real stir in the story; the female heroes who have more agency than heroines but function within the restrictions of their society; and the female counter-heroes who have the same power of action as the hero but do not have his “adherence to dominant culture or his demonstrable capacity for renewing its values” (45-46).
Tennyson disregards these archetypes flagrantly. “Female heroes do not really exist for him”; there are no figures in the Idylls who bear any resemblance to characters like Meleagant’s sister in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, who have their own subtle story arcs weaved throughout a tale that transforms the culture of the story in a noticeable way while still operating in the confines of the culture’s structure (53). Meleagant’s sister is a prime example of a female hero because she helps Lancelot time and again on his quest to save Guinevere, supporting him on her own terms while furthering the central hero’s journey. In terms of female counter-heroes, Tennyson both severely disempowers and deletes them from the Idylls altogether. He reduces the role and function of Vivien, as aforementioned, and additionally eliminates Morgan Le Fay, leaving Arthur without a female counter-hero who can seriously match him in scope of power. This is where the distortion of the heroine archetype comes into play. According to Fries, “female heroines bear a brunt of agency their instrumentality does not warrant” in these Idylls, and this can be most clearly seen in Tennyson’s inflation of Guinevere’s role in the demolition of Arthur’s kingdom (53).
Each of these decisions finds precedence in the Adam and Eve story, where woman is presented in direct, albeit vague, opposition to man. Female heroes are impossible for Tennyson to include because to include them would mean that women can function as formidable individuals and beneficial allies to men. Female counter-heroes must either be gutted or annihilated to incorporate their destructive influences into the story Tennyson is trying to tell. To include them in their full power would be to question and nearly negate the authority of Arthur, his sword Excalibur, and the masculine Round Table. Heroines can be included, but Tennyson exaggerates the effects of their actions on men, just like how Eve’s actions have been exaggerated for centuries, because, as Tennyson would have his audience believe, the heterosexual man can only be weakened through his affinity for the opposite sex.
In a collection of twelve long narrative love poems written across a half a century, Tennyson documented his parochial views on women in Victorian England from the perspective of a Christian man. It is no mistake that in his efforts to chart the rise and fall of Arthur’s kinghood, he begins with Arthur’s courtship of Guinevere and ends with the dying king being carried across water in the midst of three mysterious queens. Arthur’s kingship is predicated on his marriage to Guinevere in this version of the tale, and it is three women who lead him to his final breaths. The work’s innate misogyny, though it does derive from chauvinistic interpretations of vague Biblical scriptures, comes from a place of fear within the male ego. While Excalibur, the work’s defining phallic symbol, signifies Arthur’s innate power and authority, the sword rises “from out the bosom of the lake” at the beginning of Arthur’s rule (Tennyson 29). It is then tossed back into the lake to be caught by a feminine arm and pulled underwater once he has lost his final battle. It is this underlying female power that ushers in Arthur’s authority and eventually beckons him to his grave. Tennyson fears this matriarchal subtext, this idea of a woman on the English throne, and attempts to control it in his own poetic, pathetic way. With his Idylls of the King, Tennyson made his contribution to the Arthurian tradition by drafting a Victorian treatise on how a woman should act and what a woman should be, steeped in fragile maleness and misguided Biblical allegory.
Armstrong, Dorsey. “Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur.” The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, 3rd ed., edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm, Routledge, 2013, pp. 542-552.
Fries, Maureen. “What Tennyson Really Did to Tennyson’s Women.” Quondam Et Futurus, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 44–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27870105. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Kibler, William W. “Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart.” The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, 3rd ed., edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm, Routledge, 2013, pp. 112-180.
New International Version. Bible Gateway, https://rb.gy/llh2zt. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Rosenburg, Samuel N. “Suite du Merlin. ” The Romance of Arthur : An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, 3rd ed., edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm, Routledge, 2013, pp. 362-376.
Shires, Linda M. “Patriarchy, Dead Men, and Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 30, no. 3/4, 1992, pp. 401–419. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002475. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson. Idylls of the King, By Alfred Lord Tennyson. Penguin Books, 1983.
Joshua Torrence is a double major in English and psychology. His love for the King Arthur mythos drew him to the First Year Seminar where he wrote this essay. His passion for language and the supernatural power of words has led him to become a poet. You can find his works published in many issues of Collegian, as well as on Amazon, where he self-published his first poetry collection, I Have Never Been Reconciled, in April 2020.