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Passions in PoetryChapter 7 - The Idylls Of The King Part 1
by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 7 - The Idylls Of The King Part 2Go to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 7 - The Idylls Of The King Part 1
by Andrew Lang

The Idylls may probably be best considered in their final shape: they are not an epic, but a series of heroic idyllia of the same genre as the heroic idyllia of Theocritus. He wrote long after the natural age of national epic, the age of Homer. He saw the later literary epic rise in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, a poem with many beauties, if rather an archaistic and elaborate revival as a whole. The time for long narrative poems, Theocritus appears to have thought, was past, and he only ventured on the heroic idyllia of Heracles, and certain adventures of the Argonauts. Tennyson, too, from the first believed that his pieces ought to be short. Therefore, though he had a conception of his work as a whole, a conception long mused on, and sketched in various lights, he produced no epic, only a series of epic idyllia. He had a spiritual conception, "an allegory in the distance," an allegory not to be insisted upon, though its presence was to be felt. No longer, as in youth, did Tennyson intend Merlin to symbolise "the sceptical understanding" (as if one were to "break into blank the gospel of" Herr Kant), or poor Guinevere to stand for the Blessed Reformation, or the Table Round for Liberal Institutions. Mercifully Tennyson never actually allegorised Arthur in that fashion. Later he thought of a musical masque of Arthur, and sketched a scenario. Finally Tennyson dropped both the allegory of Liberal principles and the musical masque in favour of the series of heroic idylls. There was only a "parabolic drift" in the intention. "There is no single fact or incident in the Idylls, however seemingly mystical, which cannot be explained without any mystery or allegory whatever. The Idylls ought to be read (and the right readers never dream of doing anything else) as romantic poems, just like Browning's Childe Roland, in which the wrong readers (the members of the Browning Society) sought for mystic mountains and marvels. Yet Tennyson had his own interpretation, "a dream of man coming into practical life and ruined by one sin." That was his "interpretation," or "allegory in the distance."

People may be heard objecting to the suggestion of any spiritual interpretation of the Arthur legends, and even to the existence of elementary morality among the Arthurian knights and ladies. There seems to be a notion that "bold bawdry and open manslaughter," as Roger Ascham said, are the staple of Tennyson's sources, whether in the mediaeval French, the Welsh, or in Malory's compilation, chiefly from French sources. Tennyson is accused of "Bowdlerising" these, and of introducing gentleness, courtesy, and conscience into a literature where such qualities were unknown. I must confess myself ignorant of any early and popular, or "primitive" literature, in which human virtues, and the human conscience, do not play their part. Those who object to Tennyson's handling of the great Arthurian cycle, on the ground that he is too refined and too moral, must either never have read or must long have forgotten even Malory's romance. Thus we read, in a recent novel, that Lancelot was an homme aux bonnes fortunes, whereas Lancelot was the most loyal of lovers.

Among other critics, Mr Harrison has objected that the Arthurian world of Tennyson "is not quite an ideal world. Therein lies the difficulty. The scene, though not of course historic, has certain historic suggestions and characters." It is not apparent who the historic characters are, for the real Arthur is but a historic phantasm. "But then, in the midst of so much realism, the knights, from Arthur downwards, talk and act in ways with which we are familiar in modern ethical and psychological novels, but which are as impossible in real mediaeval knights as a Bengal tiger or a Polar bear would be in a drawing-room." I confess to little acquaintance with modern ethical novels; but real mediaeval knights, and still more the knights of mediaeval romance, were capable of very ethical actions. To halt an army for the protection and comfort of a laundress was a highly ethical action. Perhaps Sir Redvers Buller would do it: Bruce did. Mr Harrison accuses the ladies of the Idylls of soul-bewildering casuistry, like that of women in Middlemarch or Helbeck of Bannisdale. Now I am not reminded by Guinevere, and Elaine, and Enid, of ladies in these ethical novels. But the women of the mediaeval Cours d'Amour (the originals from whom the old romancers drew) were nothing if not casuists. "Spiritual delicacy" (as they understood it) was their delight.

Mr Harrison even argues that Malory's men lived hot-blooded lives in fierce times, "before an idea had arisen in the world of 'reverencing conscience,' 'leading sweet lives,'" and so on. But he admits that they had "fantastic ideals of 'honour' and 'love.'" As to "fantastic," that is a matter of opinion, but to have ideals and to live in accordance with them is to "reverence conscience", which the heroes of the romances are said by Mr Harrison never to have had an idea of doing. They are denied even "amiable words and courtliness." Need one say that courtliness is the dominant note of mediaeval knights, in history as in romance? With discourtesy Froissart would "head the count of crimes." After a battle, he says, Scots knights and English would thank each other for a good fight, "not like the Germans." "And now, I dare say," said Malory's Sir Ector, "thou, Sir Lancelot, wast the curtiest knight that ever bare shield, . . . and thou wast the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies." Observe Sir Lancelot in the difficult pass where the Lily Maid offers her love: "Jesu defend me, for then I rewarded your father and your brother full evil for their great goodness. . . . But because, fair damsel, that ye love me as ye say ye do, I will, for your good will and kindness, show you some goodness, . . . and always while I live to be your true knight." Here are "amiable words and courtesy." I cannot agree with Mr Harrison that Malory's book is merely "a fierce lusty epic." That was not the opinion of its printer and publisher, Caxton. He produced it as an example of "the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in these days, . . . noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, love, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil."

In reaction against the bold-faced heroines and sensual amours of some of the old French romances, an ideal of exaggerated asceticism, of stainless chastity, notoriously pervades the portion of Malory's work which deals with the Holy Grail. Lancelot is distraught when he finds that, by dint of enchantment, he has been made false to Guinevere (Book XI. chap. viii.) After his dreaming vision of the Holy Grail, with the reproachful Voice, Sir Lancelot said, "My sin and my wickedness have brought me great dishonour, . . . and now I see and understand that my old sin hindereth and shameth me." He was human, the Lancelot of Malory, and "fell to his old love again," with a heavy heart, and with long penance at the end. How such good knights can be deemed conscienceless and void of courtesy one knows not, except by a survival of the Puritanism of Ascham. But Tennyson found in the book what is in the book--honour, conscience, courtesy, and the hero -

"Whose honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."

Malory's book, which was Tennyson's chief source, ends by being the tragedy of the conscience of Lancelot. Arthur is dead, or "In Avalon he groweth old." The Queen and Lancelot might sing, as Lennox reports that Queen Mary did after Darnley's murder -

"Weel is me
For I am free."

"Why took they not their pastime?" Because conscience forbade, and Guinevere sends her lover far from her, and both die in religion. Thus Malory's "fierce lusty epic" is neither so lusty nor so fierce but that it gives Tennyson his keynote: the sin that breaks the fair companionship, and is bitterly repented.

"The knights are almost too polite to kill each other," the critic urges. In Malory they are sometimes quite too polite to kill each other. Sir Darras has a blood-feud against Sir Tristram, and Sir Tristram is in his dungeon. Sir Darras said, "Wit ye well that Sir Darras shall never destroy such a noble knight as thou art in prison, howbeit that thou hast slain three of my sons, whereby I was greatly aggrieved. But now shalt thou go and thy fellows. . . . All that ye did," said Sir Darras, "was by force of knighthood, and that was the cause I would not put you to death" (Book IX. chap. xl.)

Tennyson is accused of "emasculating the fierce lusty epic into a moral lesson, as if it were to be performed in a drawing-room by an academy of young ladies"--presided over, I daresay, by "Anglican clergymen." I know not how any one who has read the Morte d'Arthur can blame Tennyson in the matter. Let Malory and his sources be blamed, if to be moral is to be culpable. A few passages apart, there is no coarseness in Malory; that there are conscience, courtesy, "sweet lives," "keeping down the base in man," "amiable words," and all that Tennyson gives, and, in Mr Harrison's theory, gives without authority in the romance, my quotations from Malory demonstrate. They are chosen at a casual opening of his book. That there "had not arisen in the world" "the idea of reverencing conscience" before the close of the fifteenth century A.D. is an extraordinary statement for a critic of history to offer.

Mr Harrison makes his protest because "in the conspiracy of silence into which Tennyson's just fame has hypnotised the critics, it is bare honesty to admit defects." I think I am not hypnotised, and I do not regard the Idylls as the crown of Tennyson's work. But it is not his "defect" to have introduced generosity, gentleness, conscience, and chastity where no such things occur in his sources. Take Sir Darras: his position is that of Priam when he meets Achilles, who slew his sons, except that Priam comes as a suppliant; Sir Darras has Tristram in his hands, and may slay him. He is "too polite," as Mr Harrison says: he is too good a Christian, or too good a gentleman. One would not have given a tripod for the life of Achilles had he fallen into the hands of Priam. But between 1200 B.C. (or so) and the date of Malory, new ideas about "living sweet lives" had arisen. Where and when do they not arise? A British patrol fired on certain Swazis in time of truce. Their lieutenant, who had been absent when this occurred, rode alone to the stronghold of the Swazi king, Sekukoeni, and gave himself up, expecting death by torture. "Go, sir," said the king; "we too are gentlemen." The idea of a "sweet life" of honour had dawned even on Sekukoeni: it lights up Malory's romance, and is reflected in Tennyson's Idylls, doubtless with some modernism of expression.

That the Idylls represent no real world is certain. That Tennyson modernises and moralises too much, I willingly admit; what I deny is that he introduces gentleness, courtesy, and conscience where his sources have none. Indeed this is not a matter of critical opinion, but of verifiable fact. Any one can read Malory and judge for himself. But the world in which the Idylls move could not be real. For more than a thousand years different races, different ages, had taken hold of the ancient Celtic legends and spiritualised them after their own manner, and moulded them to their own ideals. There may have been a historical Arthur, Comes Britanniae, after the Roman withdrawal. Ye Amherawdyr Arthur, "the Emperor Arthur," may have lived and fought, and led the Brythons to battle. But there may also have been a Brythonic deity, or culture hero, of the same, or of a similar name, and myths about him may have been assigned to a real Arthur. Again, the Arthur of the old Welsh legends was by no means the blameless king--even in comparatively late French romances he is not blameless. But the process of idealising him went on: still incomplete in Malory's compilation, where he is often rather otiose and far from royal. Tennyson, for his purpose, completed the idealisation.

As to Guinevere, she was not idealised in the old Welsh rhyme -

"Guinevere, Giant Ogurvan's daughter,
Naughty young, more naughty later."

Of Lancelot, and her passion for him, the old Welsh has nothing to say. Probably Chretien de Troyes, by a happy blunder or misconception, gave Lancelot his love and his pre-eminent part. Lancelot was confused with Peredur, and Guinevere with the lady of whom Peredur was in quest. The Elaine who becomes by Lancelot the mother of Galahad "was Lancelot's rightful consort, as one recognises in her name that of Elen, the Empress, whom the story of Peredur" (Lancelot, by the confusion) "gives that hero to wife." The second Elaine, the maid of Astolat, is another refraction from the original Elen. As to the Grail, it may be a Christianised rendering of one or another of the magical and mystic caldrons of Welsh or Irish legend. There is even an apparent Celtic source of the mysterious fisher king of the Grail romance. {12}

A sketch of the evolution of the Arthurian legends might run thus:-

Sixth to eighth century, growth of myth about an Arthur, real, or supposed to be real.

Tenth century, the Duchies of Normandy and Brittany are in close relations; by the eleventh century Normans know Celtic Arthurian stories.

After, 1066, Normans in contact with the Celtic peoples of this island are in touch with the Arthur tales.

1130-1145, works on Arthurian matter by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

1155, Wace's French translation of Geoffrey.

1150-1182, Chretien de Troyes writes poems on Arthurian topics.

French prose romances on Arthur, from, say, 1180 to 1250. Those romances reach Wales, and modify, in translations, the original Welsh legends, or, in part, supplant them.

Amplifications and recastings are numerous. In 1485 Caxton publishes Malory's selections from French and English sources, the whole being Tennyson's main source, Le Mort d'Arthur. {13}

Thus the Arthur stories, originally Celtic, originally a mass of semi-pagan legend, myth, and marchen, have been retold and rehandled by Norman, Englishman, and Frenchman, taking on new hues, expressing new ideals--religious, chivalrous, and moral. Any poet may work his will on them, and Tennyson's will was to retain the chivalrous courtesy, generosity, love, and asceticism, while dimly or brightly veiling or illuminating them with his own ideals. After so many processes, from folk-tale to modern idyll, the Arthurian world could not be real, and real it is not. Camelot lies "out of space, out of time," though the colouring is mainly that of the later chivalry, and "the gleam" on the hues is partly derived from Celtic fancy of various dates, and is partly Tennysonian.

As the Idylls were finally arranged, the first, The Coming of Arthur, is a remarkable proof of Tennyson's ingenuity in construction. Tales about the birth of Arthur varied. In Malory, Uther Pendragon, the Bretwalda (in later phrase) of Britain, besieges the Duke of Tintagil, who has a fair wife, Ygerne, in another castle. Merlin magically puts on Uther the shape of Ygerne's husband, and as her husband she receives him. On that night Arthur is begotten by Uther, and the Duke of Tintagil, his mother's husband, is slain in a sortie. Uther weds Ygerne; both recognise Arthur as their child. However, by the Celtic custom of fosterage the infant is intrusted to Sir Ector as his dalt, or foster-child, and Uther falls in battle. Arthur is later approven king by the adventure of drawing from the stone the magic sword that no other king could move. This adventure answers to Sigmund's drawing the sword from the Branstock, in the Volsunga Saga, "Now men stand up, and none would fain be the last to lay hand to the sword," apparently stricken into the pillar by Woden. "But none who came thereto might avail to pull it out, for in nowise would it come away howsoever they tugged at it, but now up comes Sigmund, King Volsung's son, and sets hand to the sword, and pulls it from the stock, even as if it lay loose before him." The incident in the Arthurian as in the Volsunga legend is on a par with the Golden Bough, in the sixth book of the AEneid. Only the predestined champion, such as AEneas, can pluck, or break, or cut the bough -

  "Ipse volens facilisque sequetur
Si te fata vocant."

All this ancient popular element in the Arthur story is disregarded by Tennyson. He does not make Uther approach Ygerne in the semblance of her lord, as Zeus approached Alcmena in the semblance of her husband, Amphitryon. He neglects the other ancient test of the proving of Arthur by his success in drawing the sword. The poet's object is to enfold the origin and birth of Arthur in a spiritual mystery. This is deftly accomplished by aid of the various versions of the tale that reach King Leodogran when Arthur seeks the hand of his daughter Guinevere, for Arthur's title to the crown is still disputed, so Leodogran makes inquiries. The answers first leave it dubious whether Arthur is son of Gorlois, husband of Ygerne, or of Uther, who slew Gorlois and married her:-

"Enforced she was to wed him in her tears."

The Celtic custom of fosterage is overlooked, and Merlin gives the child to Anton, not as the customary dalt, but to preserve the babe from danger. Queen Bellicent then tells Leodogran, from the evidence of Bleys, Merlin's master in necromancy, the story of Arthur's miraculous advent.

"And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin's feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried 'The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!'"

But Merlin, when asked by Bellicent to corroborate the statement of Bleys, merely

"Answer'd in riddling triplets of old time."

Finally, Leodogran's faith is confirmed by a vision. Thus doubtfully, amidst rumour and portent, cloud and spiritual light, comes Arthur: "from the great deep" he comes, and in as strange fashion, at the end, "to the great deep he goes"--a king to be accepted in faith or rejected by doubt. Arthur and his ideal are objects of belief. All goes well while the knights hold that

"The King will follow Christ, and we the King,
In whom high God hath breathed a secret thing."

In history we find the same situation in the France of 1429 -

"The King will follow Jeanne, and we the King."

While this faith held, all went well; when the king ceased to follow, the spell was broken,--the Maid was martyred. In this sense the poet conceives the coming of Arthur, a sign to be spoken against, a test of high purposes, a belief redeeming and ennobling till faith fails, and the little rift within the lute, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, makes discord of the music. As matter of legend, it is to be understood that Guinevere did not recognise Arthur when first he rode below her window -

"Since he neither wore on helm or shield
The golden symbol of his kinglihood."

But Lancelot was sent to bring the bride -

  "And return'd
Among the flowers, in May, with Guinevere."

Then their long love may have begun, as in the story of Tristram sent to bring Yseult to be the bride of King Mark. In Malory, however, Lancelot does not come on the scene till after Arthur's wedding and return from his conquering expedition to Rome. Then Lancelot wins renown, "wherefore Queen Guinevere had him in favour above all other knights; and in certain he loved the Queen again above all other ladies damosels of his life." Lancelot, as we have seen, is practically a French creation, adopted to illustrate the chivalrous theory of love, with its bitter fruit. Though not of the original Celtic stock of legend, Sir Lancelot makes the romance what it is, and draws down the tragedy that originally turned on the sin of Arthur himself, the sin that gave birth to the traitor Modred. But the mediaeval romancers disguised that form of the story, and the process of idealising Arthur reached such heights in the middle ages that Tennyson thought himself at liberty to paint the Flos Regum, "the blameless King." He followed the Brut ab Arthur. "In short, God has not made since Adam was, the man more perfect than Arthur." This is remote from the Arthur of the oldest Celtic legends, but justifies the poet in adapting Arthur to the ideal hero of the Idylls:-

"Ideal manhood closed in real man,
Rather than that grey king, whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain-peak,
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still; or him
Of Geoffrey's book, or him of Malleor's, one
Touched by the adulterous finger of a time
That hovered between war and wantonness,
And crownings and dethronements."

The poetical beauties of The Coming of Arthur excel those of Gareth and Lynette. The sons of Lot and Bellicent seem to have been originally regarded as the incestuous offspring of Arthur and his sister, the wife of King Lot. Next it was represented that Arthur was ignorant of the relationship. Mr Rhys supposes that the mythical scandal (still present in Malory as a sin of ignorance) arose from blending the Celtic Arthur (as Culture Hero) with an older divine personage, such as Zeus, who marries his sister Hera. Marriages of brother and sister are familiar in the Egyptian royal house, and that of the Incas. But the poet has a perfect right to disregard a scandalous myth which, obviously crystallised later about the figure of the mythical Celtic Arthur, was an incongruous accretion to his legend. Gareth, therefore, is merely Arthur's nephew, not son, in the poem, as are Gawain and the traitor Modred. The story seems to be rather mediaeval French than Celtic--a mingling of the spirit of fabliau and popular fairy tale. The poet has added to its lightness, almost frivolity, the description of the unreal city of Camelot, built to music, as when

"Ilion, like a mist, rose into towers."

He has also brought in the allegory of Death, which, when faced, proves to be "a blooming boy" behind the mask. The courtesy and prowess of Lancelot lead up to the later development of his character.

In The Marriage of Geraint, a rumour has already risen about Lancelot and the Queen, darkening the Court, and presaging

"The world's loud whisper breaking into storm."

For this reason Geraint removes Enid from Camelot to his own land-- the poet thus early leading up to the sin and the doom of Lancelot. But this motive does not occur in the Welsh story of Enid and Geraint, which Tennyson has otherwise followed with unwonted closeness. The tale occurs in French romances in various forms, but it appears to have returned, by way of France and coloured with French influences, to Wales, where it is one of the later Mabinogion. The characters are Celtic, and Nud, father of Edyrn, Geraint's defeated antagonist, appears to be recognised by Mr Rhys as "the Celtic Zeus." The manners and the tournaments are French. In the Welsh tale Geraint and Enid are bedded in Arthur's own chamber, which seems to be a symbolic commutation of the jus primae noctis a custom of which the very existence is disputed. This unseemly antiquarian detail, of course, is omitted in the Idyll.

An abstract of the Welsh tale will show how closely Tennyson here follows his original. News is brought into Arthur's Court of the appearance of a white stag. The king arranges a hunt, and Guinevere asks leave to go and watch the sport. Next morning she cannot be wakened, though the tale does not aver, like the Idyll, that she was

"Lost in sweet dreams, and dreaming of her love
For Lancelot."

Guinevere wakes late, and rides through a ford of Usk to the hunt. Geraint follows, "a golden-hilted sword was at his side, and a robe and a surcoat of satin were upon him, and two shoes of leather upon his feet, and around him was a scarf of blue purple, at each corner of which was a golden apple":-

"But Guinevere lay late into the morn,
Lost in sweet dreams, and dreaming of her love
For Lancelot, and forgetful of the hunt;
But rose at last, a single maiden with her,
Took horse, and forded Usk, and gain'd the wood;
There, on a little knoll beside it, stay'd
Waiting to hear the hounds; but heard instead
A sudden sound of hoofs, for Prince Geraint,
Late also, wearing neither hunting-dress
Nor weapon, save a golden-hilted brand,
Came quickly flashing thro' the shallow ford
Behind them, and so gallop'd up the knoll.
A purple scarf, at either end whereof
There swung an apple of the purest gold,
Sway'd round about him, as he gallop'd up
To join them, glancing like a dragon-fly
In summer suit and silks of holiday."

The encounter with the dwarf, the lady, and the knight follows. The prose of the Mabinogi may be compared with the verse of Tennyson:-

"Geraint," said Gwenhwyvar, "knowest thou the name of that tall knight yonder?" "I know him not," said he, "and the strange armour that he wears prevents my either seeing his face or his features." "Go, maiden," said Gwenhwyvar, "and ask the dwarf who that knight is." Then the maiden went up to the dwarf; and the dwarf waited for the maiden, when he saw her coming towards him. And the maiden inquired of the dwarf who the knight was. "I will not tell thee," he answered. "Since thou art so churlish as not to tell me," said she, "I will ask him himself." "Thou shalt not ask him, by my faith," said he. "Wherefore?" said she. "Because thou art not of honour sufficient to befit thee to speak to my Lord." Then the maiden turned her horse's head towards the knight, upon which the dwarf struck her with the whip that was in his hand across the face and the eyes, until the blood flowed forth. And the maiden, through the hurt she received from the blow, returned to Gwenhwyvar, complaining of the pain. "Very rudely has the dwarf treated thee," said Geraint. "I will go myself to know who the knight is." "Go," said Gwenhwyvar. And Geraint went up to the dwarf. "Who is yonder knight?" said Geraint. "I will not tell thee," said the dwarf. "Then will I ask him himself," said he. "That wilt thou not, by my faith," said the dwarf; "thou art not honourable enough to speak with my Lord." Said Geraint, "I have spoken with men of equal rank with him." And he turned his horse's head towards the knight; but the dwarf overtook him, and struck him as he had done the maiden, so that the blood coloured the scarf that Geraint wore. Then Geraint put his hand upon the hilt of his sword, but he took counsel with himself, and considered that it would be no vengeance for him to slay the dwarf, and to be attacked unarmed by the armed knight, so he returned to where Gwenhwyvar was.

  "And while they listen'd for the distant hunt,
And chiefly for the baying of Cavall,
King Arthur's hound of deepest mouth, there rode
Full slowly by a knight, lady, and dwarf;
Whereof the dwarf lagg'd latest, and the knight
Had vizor up, and show'd a youthful face,
Imperious, and of haughtiest lineaments.
And Guinevere, not mindful of his face
In the King's hall, desired his name, and sent
Her maiden to demand it of the dwarf;
Who being vicious, old and irritable,
And doubling all his master's vice of pride,
Made answer sharply that she should not know.
'Then will I ask it of himself,' she said.
'Nay, by my faith, thou shalt not,' cried the dwarf;
'Thou art not worthy ev'n to speak of him';
And when she put her horse toward the knight,
Struck at her with his whip, and she return'd
Indignant to the Queen; whereat Geraint
Exclaiming, 'Surely I will learn the name,'
Made sharply to the dwarf, and ask'd it of him,
Who answer'd as before; and when the Prince
Had put his horse in motion toward the knight,
Struck at him with his whip, and cut his cheek.
The Prince's blood spirted upon the scarf,
Dyeing it; and his quick, instinctive hand
Caught at the hilt, as to abolish him:
But he, from his exceeding manfulness
And pure nobility of temperament,
Wroth to be wroth at such a worm, refrain'd
From ev'n a word."

The self-restraint of Geraint, who does not slay the dwarf,

  "From his exceeding manfulness
And pure nobility of temperament,"

may appear "too polite," and too much in accord with the still undiscovered idea of "leading sweet lives." However, the uninvented idea does occur in the Welsh original: "Then Geraint put his hand upon the hilt of his sword, but he took counsel with himself, and considered that it would be no vengeance for him to slay the dwarf," while he also reflects that he would be "attacked unarmed by the armed knight." Perhaps Tennyson may be blamed for omitting this obvious motive for self-restraint. Geraint therefore follows the knight in hope of finding arms, and arrives at the town all busy with preparations for the tournament of the sparrow-hawk. This was a challenge sparrow-hawk: the knight had won it twice, and if he won it thrice it would be his to keep. The rest, in the tale, is exactly followed in the Idyll. Geraint is entertained by the ruined Yniol. The youth bears the "costrel" full of "good purchased mead" (the ruined Earl not brewing for himself), and Enid carries the manchet bread in her veil, "old, and beginning to be worn out." All Tennyson's own is the beautiful passage -

  "And while he waited in the castle court,
The voice of Enid, Yniol's daughter, rang
Clear thro' the open casement of the hall,
Singing; and as the sweet voice of a bird,
Heard by the lander in a lonely isle,
Moves him to think what kind of bird it is
That sings so delicately clear, and make
Conjecture of the plumage and the form;
So the sweet voice of Enid moved Geraint;
And made him like a man abroad at morn
When first the liquid note beloved of men
Comes flying over many a windy wave
To Britain, and in April suddenly
Breaks from a coppice gemm'd with green and red,
And he suspends his converse with a friend,
Or it may be the labour of his hands,
To think or say, 'There is the nightingale';
So fared it with Geraint, who thought and said,
'Here, by God's grace, is the one voice for me.'"

Yniol frankly admits in the tale that he was in the wrong in the quarrel with his nephew. The poet, however, gives him the right, as is natural. The combat is exactly followed in the Idyll, as is Geraint's insistence in carrying his bride to Court in her faded silks. Geraint, however, leaves Court with Enid, not because of the scandal about Lancelot, but to do his duty in his own country. He becomes indolent and uxorious, and Enid deplores his weakness, and awakes his suspicions, thus:-

And one morning in the summer time they were upon their couch, and Geraint lay upon the edge of it. And Enid was without sleep in the apartment which had windows of glass. And the sun shone upon the couch. And the clothes had slipped from off his arms and his breast, and he was asleep. Then she gazed upon the marvellous beauty of his appearance, and she said, "Alas, and am I the cause that these arms and this breast have lost their glory and the warlike fame which they once so richly enjoyed!" And as she said this, the tears dropped from her eyes, and they fell upon his breast. And the tears she shed, and the words she had spoken, awoke him; and another thing contributed to awaken him, and that was the idea that it was not in thinking of him that she spoke thus, but that it was because she loved some other man more than him, and that she wished for other society, and thereupon Geraint was troubled in his mind, and he called his squire; and when he came to him, "Go quickly," said he, "and prepare my horse and my arms, and make them ready. And do thou arise," said he to Enid, "and apparel thyself; and cause thy horse to be accoutred, and clothe thee in the worst riding-dress that thou hast in thy possession. And evil betide me," said he, "if thou returnest here until thou knowest whether I have lost my strength so completely as thou didst say. And if it be so, it will then be easy for thee to seek the society thou didst wish for of him of whom thou wast thinking." So she arose, and clothed herself in her meanest garments. "I know nothing, Lord," said she, "of thy meaning." "Neither wilt thou know at this time," said he.

  "At last, it chanced that on a summer morn
(They sleeping each by either) the new sun
Beat thro' the blindless casement of the room,
And heated the strong warrior in his dreams;
Who, moving, cast the coverlet aside,
And bared the knotted column of his throat,
The massive square of his heroic breast,
And arms on which the standing muscle sloped,
As slopes a wild brook o'er a little stone,
Running too vehemently to break upon it.
And Enid woke and sat beside the couch,
Admiring him, and thought within herself,
Was ever man so grandly made as he?
Then, like a shadow, past the people's talk
And accusation of uxoriousness
Across her mind, and bowing over him,
Low to her own heart piteously she said:

  'O noble breast and all-puissant arms,
Am I the cause, I the poor cause that men
Reproach you, saying all your force is gone?
I AM the cause, because I dare not speak
And tell him what I think and what they say.
And yet I hate that he should linger here;
I cannot love my lord and not his name.
Far liefer had I gird his harness on him,
And ride with him to battle and stand by,
And watch his mightful hand striking great blows
At caitiffs and at wrongers of the world.
Far better were I laid in the dark earth,
Not hearing any more his noble voice,
Not to be folded more in these dear arms,
And darken'd from the high light in his eyes,
Than that my lord thro' me should suffer shame.
Am I so bold, and could I so stand by,
And see my dear lord wounded in the strife,
Or maybe pierced to death before mine eyes,
And yet not dare to tell him what I think,
And how men slur him, saying all his force
Is melted into mere effeminacy?
O me, I fear that I am no true wife.'

  Half inwardly, half audibly she spoke,
And the strong passion in her made her weep
True tears upon his broad and naked breast,
And these awoke him, and by great mischance
He heard but fragments of her later words,
And that she fear'd she was not a true wife.
And then he thought, 'In spite of all my care,
For all my pains, poor man, for all my pains,
She is not faithful to me, and I see her
Weeping for some gay knight in Arthur's hall.'
Then tho' he loved and reverenced her too much
To dream she could be guilty of foul act,
Right thro' his manful breast darted the pang
That makes a man, in the sweet face of her
Whom he loves most, lonely and miserable.
At this he hurl'd his huge limbs out of bed,
And shook his drowsy squire awake and cried,
'My charger and her palfrey'; then to her,
'I will ride forth into the wilderness;
For tho' it seems my spurs are yet to win,
I have not fall'n so low as some would wish.
And thou, put on thy worst and meanest dress
And ride with me.' And Enid ask'd, amazed,
'If Enid errs, let Enid learn her fault.'
But he, 'I charge thee, ask not, but obey.'
Then she bethought her of a faded silk,
A faded mantle and a faded veil,
And moving toward a cedarn cabinet,
Wherein she kept them folded reverently
With sprigs of summer laid between the folds,
She took them, and array'd herself therein,
Remembering when first he came on her
Drest in that dress, and how he loved her in it,
And all her foolish fears about the dress,
And all his journey to her, as himself
Had told her, and their coming to the court."

Tennyson's

"Arms on which the standing muscle sloped,
As slopes a wild brook o'er a little stone,
Running too vehemently to break upon it,"

is suggested perhaps by Theocritus--"The muscles on his brawny arms stood out like rounded rocks that the winter torrent has rolled and worn smooth, in the great swirling stream" (Idyll xxii.)

The second part of the poem follows the original less closely. Thus Limours, in the tale, is not an old suitor of Enid; Edyrn does not appear to the rescue; certain cruel games, veiled in a magic mist, occur in the tale, and are omitted by the poet; "Gwyffert petit, so called by the Franks, whom the Cymry call the Little King," in the tale, is not a character in the Idyll, and, generally, the gross Celtic exaggerations of Geraint's feats are toned down by Tennyson. In other respects, as when Geraint eats the mowers' dinner, the tale supplies the materials. But it does not dwell tenderly on the reconciliation. The tale is more or less in the vein of "patient Grizel," and he who told it is more concerned with the fighting than with amoris redintegratio, and the sufferings of Enid. The Idyll is enriched with many beautiful pictures from nature, such as this:-

"But at the flash and motion of the man
They vanish'd panic-stricken, like a shoal
Of darting fish, that on a summer morn
Adown the crystal dykes at Camelot
Come slipping o'er their shadows on the sand,
But if a man who stands upon the brink
But lift a shining hand against the sun,
There is not left the twinkle of a fin
Betwixt the cressy islets white in flower;
So, scared but at the motion of the man,
Fled all the boon companions of the Earl,
And left him lying in the public way."

In Balin and Balan Tennyson displays great constructive power, and remarkable skill in moulding the most recalcitrant materials. Balin or Balyn, according to Mr Rhys, is the Belinus of Geoffrey of Monmouth, "whose name represents the Celtic divinity described in Latin as Apollo Belenus or Belinus." {14} In Geoffrey, Belinus, euphemerised, or reduced from god to hero, has a brother, Brennius, the Celtic Bran, King of Britain from Caithness to the Humber. Belinus drives Bran into exile. "Thus it is seen that Belinus or Balyn was, mythologically speaking, the natural enemy" (as Apollo Belinus, the radiant god) "of the dark divinity Bran or Balan."

If this view be correct, the two brothers answer to the good and bad principles of myths like that of the Huron Iouskeha the Sun, and Anatensic the Moon, or rather Taouiscara and Iouskeha, the hostile brothers, Black and White. {15} These mythical brethren are, in Malory, two knights of Northumberland, Balin the wild and Balan. Their adventures are mixed up with a hostile Lady of the Lake, whom Balin slays in Arthur's presence, with a sword which none but Balin can draw from sheath; and with an evil black-faced knight Garlon, invisible at will, whom Balin slays in the castle of the knight's brother, King Pellam. Pursued from room to room by Pellam, Balin finds himself in a chamber full of relics of Joseph of Arimathea. There he seizes a spear, the very spear with which the Roman soldier pierced the side of the Crucified, and wounds Pellam. The castle falls in ruins "through that dolorous stroke." Pellam becomes the maimed king, who can only be healed by the Holy Grail. Apparently Celtic myths of obscure antiquity have been adapted in France, and interwoven with fables about Joseph of Arimathea and Christian mysteries. It is not possible here to go into the complicated learning of the subject. In Malory, Balin, after dealing the dolorous stroke, borrows a strange shield from a knight, and, thus accoutred, meets his brother Balan, who does not recognise him. They fight, both die and are buried in one tomb, and Galahad later achieves the adventure of winning Balin's sword. "Thus endeth the tale of Balyn and of Balan, two brethren born in Northumberland, good knights," says Malory, simply, and unconscious of the strange mythological medley under the coat armour of romance.

The materials, then, seemed confused and obdurate, but Tennyson works them into the course of the fatal love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and into the spiritual texture of the Idylls. Balin has been expelled from Court for the wildness that gives him his name, Balin le Sauvage. He had buffeted a squire in hall. He and Balan await all challengers beside a well. Arthur encounters and dismounts them. Balin devotes himself to self-conquest. Then comes tidings that Pellam, of old leagued with Lot against Arthur, has taken to religion, collects relics, claims descent from Joseph of Arimathea, and owns the sacred spear that pierced the side of Christ. But Garlon is with him, the knight invisible, who appears to come from an Irish source, or at least has a parallel in Irish legend. This Garlon has an unknightly way of killing men by viewless blows from the rear. Balan goes to encounter Garlon. Balin remains, learning courtesy, modelling himself on Lancelot, and gaining leave to bear Guinevere's Crown Matrimonial for his cognisance,--which, of course, Balan does not know, -

"As golden earnest of a better life."

But Balin sees reason to think that Lancelot and Guinevere love even too well.

  "Then chanced, one morning, that Sir Balin sat
Close-bower'd in that garden nigh the hall.
A walk of roses ran from door to door;
A walk of lilies crost it to the bower:
And down that range of roses the great Queen
Came with slow steps, the morning on her face;
And all in shadow from the counter door
Sir Lancelot as to meet her, then at once,
As if he saw not, glanced aside, and paced
The long white walk of lilies toward the bower.
Follow'd the Queen; Sir Balin heard her 'Prince,
Art thou so little loyal to thy Queen,
As pass without good morrow to thy Queen?'
To whom Sir Lancelot with his eyes on earth,
'Fain would I still be loyal to the Queen.'
'Yea so,' she said, 'but so to pass me by -
So loyal scarce is loyal to thyself,
Whom all men rate the king of courtesy.
Let be: ye stand, fair lord, as in a dream.'

  Then Lancelot with his hand among the flowers,
'Yea--for a dream. Last night methought I saw
That maiden Saint who stands with lily in hand
In yonder shrine. All round her prest the dark,
And all the light upon her silver face
Flow'd from the spiritual lily that she held.
Lo! these her emblems drew mine eyes--away:
For see, how perfect-pure! As light a flush
As hardly tints the blossom of the quince
Would mar their charm of stainless maidenhood.'

  'Sweeter to me,' she said, 'this garden rose
Deep-hued and many-folded sweeter still
The wild-wood hyacinth and the bloom of May.
Prince, we have ridd'n before among the flowers
In those fair days--not all as cool as these,
Tho' season-earlier. Art thou sad? or sick?
Our noble King will send thee his own leech -
Sick? or for any matter anger'd at me?'

  Then Lancelot lifted his large eyes; they dwelt
Deep-tranced on hers, and could not fall: her hue
Changed at his gaze: so turning side by side
They past, and Balin started from his bower.

  'Queen? subject? but I see not what I see.
Damsel and lover? hear not what I hear.
My father hath begotten me in his wrath.
I suffer from the things before me, know,
Learn nothing; am not worthy to be knight;
A churl, a clown!' and in him gloom on gloom
Deepen'd: he sharply caught his lance and shield,
Nor stay'd to crave permission of the King,
But, mad for strange adventure, dash'd away."

Balin is "disillusioned," his faith in the Ideal is shaken if not shattered. He rides at adventure. Arriving at the half-ruined castle of Pellam, that dubious devotee, he hears Garlon insult Guinevere, but restrains himself. Next day, again insulted for bearing "the crown scandalous" on his shield, he strikes Garlon down, is pursued, seizes the sacred spear, and escapes. Vivien meets him in the woods, drops scandal in his ears, and so maddens him that he defaces his shield with the crown of Guinevere. Her song, and her words,

     "This fire of Heaven,
This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again,
And beat the cross to earth, and break the King
And all his Table,"

might be forced into an allegory of the revived pride of life, at the Renaissance and after. The maddened yells of Balin strike the ear of Balan, who thinks he has met the foul knight Garlon, that

"Tramples on the goodly shield to show
His loathing of our Order and the Queen."

They fight, fatally wound, and finally recognise each other: Balan trying to restore Balin's faith in Guinevere, who is merely slandered by Garlon and Vivien. Balin acknowledges that his wildness has been their common bane, and they die, "either locked in either's arms."

There is nothing in Malory, nor in any other source, so far as I am aware, which suggested to Tennyson the clou of the situation--the use of Guinevere's crown as a cognisance by Balin. This device enables the poet to weave the rather confused and unintelligible adventures of Balin and Balan into the scheme, and to make it a stage in the progress of his fable. That Balin was reckless and wild Malory bears witness, but his endeavours to conquer himself and reach the ideal set by Lancelot are Tennyson's addition, with all the tragedy of Balin's disenchantment and despair. The strange fantastic house of Pellam, full of the most sacred things,

"In which he scarce could spy the Christ for Saints,"

yet sheltering the human fiend Garlon, is supplied by Malory, whose predecessors probably blended more than one myth of the old Cymry into the romance, washed over with Christian colouring. As Malory tells this part of the tale it is perhaps more strange and effective than in the Idyll. The introduction of Vivien into this adventure is wholly due to Tennyson: her appearance here leads up to her triumph in the poem which follows, Merlin and Vivien.

 
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This article was written by Andrew Lang.

Andrew Lang, a reknown Scholar and also a Classic Poet in his own right, was born March 31, 1844 in Selkirk, Selkirkshire, Scotland, and died July 20, 1912. He was educated at St. Andrews University and at Balliol College, Oxford, and also held an open fellowship at Merton College until 1875.

His poetry appeared in such volumes as his Ballads in Blue China (1880-81, 2 volumes). He is known for his study of myth and folklore (Myth, Literature, and Religion in 1887, revised 1899), and for his prose translations of the Odyssey (with S. H. Butcher, 1879) and the Iliad (with Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers, 1883). Other works include The World of Homer (1910), Blue Fairy Book (1889, with his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang), Biography of J. G. Lockhart (1896), and a four volume History of Scotland (1900-1907).

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