March 12, 2019KR BlogBlogKR OnlineLiteratureReading

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

In Idylls of the King, Alfred, Lord Tennyson strives to bring the vitality of life to the legend of King Arthur. He seeks to convey a story so ancient it has become communal mental property, not as an inanimate tale, but with all the force of real life.

One metaphor in particular, describing Elaine’s infatuation with Lancelot, reveals the project of Idylls of the King: “All night long his face before her lived,/ As when a painter, poring on a face,/ Divinely thro’ al hindrance finds the man/ Behind it, and so paints him that his face,/ The shape and color of a mind and life…so the face before her lived.”  Here, just as Elaine’s passion for Lancelot causes the essence of his spirit to live in her mind, Tennyson hopes to transcend static storytelling in favor of placing the “shape and color of a mind and life” on the page for his reader.

In order to accomplish this, Tennyson captures transcendent moments in the lives of his characters. On finding his brother in his death throes, Balin, “on his dying brother cast himself/ Dying; and he lifted faint eyes; he felt/ One near him; all at once they found the world,/ Staring wild-wide.” In this way, Tennyson perfectly renders this transformative moment. Balin doesn’t merely weep over his dead brother; the curtains that usually conceal it part to reveal the gaping world.

Finally, Tennyson reveals the primary doomed quest of his long poem––the effort to render a simulation real. When Vivien grills Merlin to learn the “charm” that’s housed in his magical book, he says, “Every margin scribbled, crost, and cramm’d/ With comment, densest condensation, hard/ To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights/ Of my long life have made it easy to me./ And none can read the text, not even I;/ And in the comment did I find the charm.”  Merlin recognizes that the ultimate secrets of his text remain hidden even from himself. Therefore he satisfies himself with the comments and finds the “charm” therein.

No matter how masterfully Tennyson renders the tale of Arthur, it is but a rendering, and the original remains remote. Idylls of the King teaches its reader that although stories are representations of the author’s thoughts they can never fully embody, there is still a “charm” to be found in the reading process. In order to find this charm, the readers must read the text closely, never giving up their quest even if it can never be perfectly achieved.