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Idylls of the King
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Tennyson’s Idylls > Tennyson's Arthur "a wimp"?

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Lia | 522 comments Mod
Tennyson's Idylls of the King (adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur) apparently provoked some hostile criticisms:

Swinburne mockingly referred to the “Morte d’Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort” and proclaimed that Tennyson had “lowered the note and deformed the outline of the Arthurian story, by reducing Arthur to the level of a wittol, Guenevere to the level of a woman of intrigue, and Launcelot to the level of a ‘corespondent.’”

Henry Crabb Robinson thought Tennyson’s Arthur was “unfit to be an epic-hero”

Henry James called him a prig.

T. S. Eliot asserted that Tennyson had adapted “this great British epic material—in Malory’s handling hearty, outspoken and magnificent—to suitable reading for a girls’ school.”



Clearly contemporary readers were dissatisfied with Tennyson's portrayal of Arthur’s “manhood;” Tennyson’s modern editor and interpreter Christopher Ricks makes no serious attempt to defend Tennyson against critics who ridicule the poet for making Arthur a wimp either.

Source: Tennyson's King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness Clinton Machann
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/36034



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Lia | 522 comments Mod
Other noteworthy modern criticisms on Idylls:


F. E. L. Priestley (University of Toronto Quarterly, xix, 1949);

J. H. Buckley (Tennyson: the Growth of a Poet, 1960);

J. D. Rosenberg (The Fall of Camelot, 1973);

J. M. Gray (Thro’ the Vision of the Night, 1980).

R. Pattison, Tennyson and Tradition (1979).

Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981).


On the relations between Morte d’Arthur, In Memoriam, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, and Idylls of the King (each honouring an Arthur), see C. Y. Lang, Tennyson’s Psycho-drama (1983); of Idylls, Lang says (p. 11):

‘The real subject of this great poem is the British Empire.’



Trivia:
Theodore Watts: ‘Tennyson does not approve of my calling the Idylls an epic. Thinks the Idylls more original. Used Idylls for Idyls to denote a new kind of idyl’


message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "Tennyson's Idylls of the King (adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur) apparently provoked some hostile criticisms: ... critics who ridicule the poet for making Arthur a wimp..."

Tennyson ran headlong into the problem pretty much every story-teller has encountered since Wace and Layamon (or Lawman), respectively, rendered Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur into French and Middle English verse (Layamon following Wace, not the Latin original).

They had it easy: Geoffrey's Arthur is a great military leader, who conquers much of Europe, and (almost) Rome itself, and one can fill in the bulk of the story with campaigns, battles, and single combats. Arthur can take part himself, or direct operations by his vassals and knights.

This is part of the approach of the later Middle English "Alliterature Morte Arthure," which is fairly described as an epic.

Malory used some of that poem for his Roman War, now set early in Arthur's reign (which Caxton, or someone, ruthlessly abridged) and again in the "Death of Arthur" proper. I suspect that Tennyson picked up on some of that for his own death of Arthur, parts of which are considerably more heroic than lyrical.

Once past the point where Arthur has secured power, however -- and Tennyson brushes past it pretty quickly, as did Malory (especially compared with some of his predecessors, who filled hundreds of pages with wars) -- there just isn't much for a King to do in a narrative, except render judgments and grant boons. In the Geoffrey tradition he does engage in an exciting single combat with a giant, but that sort of thing can't be repeated very often with the same hero.

So, for later writers, the court becomes a springboard for stories about other places and other heroes, not the place where Arthur demonstrates his power and wisdom, receives taxes and tribute, or settles tedious cases at law and incipient feuds, all royal occupations about which it is very hard to write poetry.

Of course, Tennyson didn't help himself, in terms of narrative, by turning Arthur into a sort of ideal Victorian gentleman before the fact -- an unlikely sort to *have* chivalric adventures. (Although perhaps it could have worked -- look at Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins.) He seems to be a peace-maker, rather than a conqueror on the scale of Charlemagne.

But then, every age seems to get the Arthur and Camelot it desires (or, in some cases, fears).


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Lia | 522 comments Mod
I admit I never thought Bilbo was particularly chivalric, though his image (like so many grail heroes) went through some serious downgrading in the Ring trilogy.

I thought Tennyson's insistence that his Idylls isn't an epic is interesting -- he's (maybe) trying to do something with Arthurian tales that is outside traditional use. It's noteworthy that he wrote Morte during the period 1833-34 when he was still ruminating over the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. It's quite possible that he's grappling with mortality and at the same time memorializing a kind of Hallam-like, less forceful, more "feminine" (by Victorian standard) figure. Though, I don't know how much authorial intent matters -- he can intend to do whatever he likes with his poems, readers are going to react according to traditions and customs and and shared symbolisms once its published.


message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments I was thinking more of Bilbo as a smug proper Victorian (and very Middle-Class, despite connections to the Shire's "aristocracy"), who gets booted out of home comforts and somewhere finds the resources to meet the occasion, over and over again.

He even manages to become an indirect dragon-slayer.

(Tolkien originally intended to have him slay Smaug himself, but, fortunately, thought the better of it. There is a description of the plan, with gory details, in Rateliff's wonderful "History of the Hobbit" -- it was to be a variant of Sigurd's slaying Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga, with trenches to drain away the blood before the hero could drown in it.)

The chivalry comes in with Bilbo trying to use the Arkenstone as a bargaining-chip in peace-making. sacrificing his own interest with the dwarves to the (intended) benefit of others, notably the people of Laketown. As Thorin -- himself a pre-chivalric hero of an older school -- eventually comes to realize.

The decision to meddle with how Bilbo got the Ring in the first place was, I think, the most important aspect of re-making his character for the sake of the sequel. In "Lord of the Rings" proper, he is not so much degraded as down-graded in relation to the action -- he is now a very old hobbit (even by their standards), sustained by the after-effects of the Ring, and trying to persuade himself to undertake one more adventure (which offer no one else takes seriously, just as a matter of practicality).


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Lia | 522 comments Mod
Sorry this is totally off topic -- speaking of a smug guy slaying dragon ... I was reading Perceval killing the "serpent" guarding the guy that could mend his sword -- with claws and legs and feet! Do medieval snakes have paws? Or is that a kind of dragon?


message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "Sorry this is totally off topic -- speaking of a smug guy slaying dragon ... I was reading Perceval killing the "serpent" guarding the guy that could mend his sword -- with claws and legs and feet!..."

I noticed that myself -- and highlighted and noted it -- and remain puzzled.

I suspect that the answer lies in Old French, and that the word (whichever it is, I don't have a way to check), had the extended meaning of "scaly creature." including lizards, as well as the primary meaning of "snake." But I may be wrong about that: Bryant may be following his source, without worrying about modern zoology.

In any case, I try to visualize it as a kind of Komodo Dragon (carnivorous, 10 feet long, 150 pounds), rather than, say, just a very large iguana with a bad disposition.


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Lia | 522 comments Mod
Ian wrote: "Tennyson didn't help himself, in terms of narrative, by turning Arthur into a sort of ideal Victorian gentleman before the fact -- an unlikely sort to *have* chivalric adventures ..."

Turns out the author of the paper made a very similar point

there are broader problems for Tennyson in fusing the qualities of a mythic hero with those of a Victorian gentleman. His assumptions about manhood as a repudiation of “natural” bestiality preclude his adoption of a model that would incorporate anything like Charles Kingsley’s positive “animal spirits” that inform “both martial vigor and sexual potency” in men (Adams, p. 108). Swinburne, with his remark about “Morte d’Albert,” was of course making a comment not only about Tennyson’s obvious intention to associate Arthur with the Prince Consort but also about the values clustered around the ideal of bourgeois respectability, an ideal which ‘had gained increased status by contemporary associations with the monarchy. In the “Dedication” Tennyson refers to Albert as “modest, kindly, all-accomplished, wise, / With what sublime repression of himself” (ll. 17-18). These qualities are consistent with the dominant image of the Victorian gentleman as well as his predecessor, the chivalrous knight



message 9: by Lia (last edited Jun 23, 2018 11:12PM) (new) - added it

Lia | 522 comments Mod
The paper argues Tennyson demonstrated uneasiness with dominant Victorian constructions of “manhood” or “manliness:

Manhood, a key term in the Idylls, implies virility but is not primarily an extension of biological male- ness; it is rather a strategy for controlling or stifling man’s natural bestiality as civilization advances. Tennyson’s deeply felt fear is that manhood as he understood it—despite its positive associations with religion, moral values, and duty—is ultimately unstable and ineffective

Eliot’s paradoxical remark seems apt here

[Tennyson was] “the saddest of all English poets,” was “the most instinctive rebel against the society in which he was the most perfect conformist”


message 10: by Ian (last edited Jun 24, 2018 02:32PM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "Turns out the author of the paper made a very similar point ..."..."

Thanks for posting the paragraph. It has some very interesting points.

As a side-note, I had never thought of comparing Tennyson to Kingsley for just about anything. Then again, all the Charles Kingsley I recall reading consists of "The Water Babies" and "Hereward the Wake" (the latter an historical novel about resistance to the Norman Conquest), so I don't have much to go on from a large output. (See his Wikipedia article for a long list of his books: also for his fairly virulent racism, most immediately regarding the Irish, which puts a different light on his support of Darwin.)


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Lia | 522 comments Mod
Ian wrote: "Wikipedia article for long list of his books: also for his fairly virulent racism..."

It's almost as though he's inadvertently walked into the reality that skin pigment has nothing to do with culture or social norms or characters, but some people will perform any level of mental gymnastic to avoid confronting that fact.


(This actually reminds me, I forgot to post my "outrage" over the casual homophobia in Perceval. But then I can't remember if it's from Chrétien's or from one of the continuations, so I can't decide who to shake my fist at.)


message 12: by Ian (last edited Jun 24, 2018 12:33PM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "I can't remember if it's from Chrétien's or from one of the continuations, so I can't decide who to shake my fist at. ..."

Since this is a Tennyson thread, I'm going include a potential spoiler for something we are not "officially" reading (although the story seems to clearly foreshadow it for the alert reader.) So I'm making it as vague as I can, and still be intelligible.

If we're thinking of the same out-of-the-blue passage, it is part of the "Perilous Seat" episode in Gerbert's Continuation. The context is the best (or perfect) knight sits on the dangerous chair at the Round Table, and the earth opens up to release six knights who had tried it before, and been swallowed up. They start talking about what they witnessed in Hell, and who was being punished.

The chair shows up in Malory, as the Siege Perilous. The story there has a different hero, and lacks any such "message from Hell" passage, as that part was not taken up into Malory's source, the "Queste" section of the Vulgate (or Lancelot-Grail) Cycle. So it was not felt to be an essential part of the story.

I have no idea what sent Gilbert {oops! Gerbert} off on that brief digression, but such tirades do appear out of nowhere in some medieval literature.


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Lia | 522 comments Mod
That's the one, yes!!

It's so weird to think that Gilbert would repeat Malory's tale but then with no rhyme, no reason, no context, insert that little tirade. (Isn't that bad table manner too? They were dining right?)

Freud can probably write a doorstop over this.


message 14: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "That's the one, yes!!

It's so weird to think that Gilbert would repeat Malory's tale but then with no rhyme, no reason, no context, insert that little tirade. (Isn't that bad table manner too? The..."


Gerbert was writing somewhere around 1210 (I've seen a range of dates cited), and Malory somewhat after 1450.

It is open to question whether the author(s) of the prose Lancelot/Grail Cycle (Malory's source for the Siege Perilous), written not long after Gerbert's verse Continuation, had picked up on his version, and adjusted it to fit the new story, or the two versions had a common source in some lost romance, as once would have been casually postulated to "solve" the problem. If there was a direct influence, the estimated dates won't let it go in the opposite direction

(By the way, Perceval does appear in the Vulgate "Queste," in a clearly secondary role to Galahad, and therefore in Malory. And his backstory is quite different.)


message 15: by Lia (last edited Jun 24, 2018 12:41PM) (new) - added it

Lia | 522 comments Mod
See what I mean? There are so many versions I’m totally lost :p

So Malory could have dropped that, I think I like M. (Malory’s also feels less “preachy” overall, I’m kind of surprised as I associate French literature with decadence and amoralism. And Brits lit with prim preachy didactic philanthropic seriousness.)

Also, I’m getting spoilers left and right. I think Tennyson spoiled Merlin’s “love interest” for me. ;_;


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