Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I thought I’d cover the second half of the year with just this single review of Idylls of the King.

I guess Tennyson is one of those writers I’ve always held a prejudice against, to the extent that I’ve never even been conscious that it’s something I should be challenging. I only bought this book because of my interest over the last few years in Arthurian legend.

In Idylls of the King, Tennyson pretty much adds everything to Arthurian legend which always seemed to me to be missing. I’d noted in a previous post the peculiar artlessness of Arthurian writings in comparison to works like The Iliad/Odyssey. Tennyson alters all this, adding in such things as subtlety and human psychology. Particularly I enjoyed his exploration of the paradox which seems at the heart of Arthurian legend: the nature of Lancelot, who is at once the exemplar of Arthurian virtue and at the same time carrying on an affair with Guinevere. This essential corruption of the purity of the Arthurian ideal – the idea that, in the end, living in the way of Christ is inhuman – is a recurrent notion underlying most of the poems in this work, and binds it into a coherent whole. Although curiously (and, to me, inexplicably) this all changes in the last 2 poems, where Tennyson reverts to a more traditional and dull defence of Christian virtue (Guinevere reminds us that it’s all the woman’s fault, because she committed adultery).

Tennyson doesn’t seem to me to be a writer whose much read anymore – or at least, much talked about. I wonder if this is because he hasn’t been eclipsed by modernism. What is essentially an epic poem about Arthurian legend doesn’t exactly fit in with c20th artistic interests. Maybe it’s time for a revival.

Since we’ve now left the EU, here’s an appropriate line from the epilogue:

The voice of Britain, or a sinking land / Some third-rate isle half-lost among her seas?

(There were no oranges in the shop today).

My film recommendation from the second half of the year is Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse.

4 thoughts on “Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

  1. New reader here!
    Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of my favorite poems but the epic in Idylls of the King never caught my attention.
    He was Whitman’s favorite poet, whose admiration wasn’t reciprocated.
    Great post to end the year.
    Happy Holidays.

  2. Thanks. I’ve not read anything else by Tennyson, except maybe some (apparently forgettable) pieces in anthologies. When I can get back to book-buying, I’ll look out for him (I’m sure he won’t be difficult to find), but it will as usual be a matter of serendipity.

    This plague has at least had the welcome effect that I’ve only bought 2 books in the last 9 months (and those, only because I was given a book voucher).

  3. I read mostly on my kindle last year. I did purchase books online but it’s just not the same experience as browsing the bookshelves at a bookstore. I wish I had some self-control with my buying habits. Good job.

  4. I seem to be mostly reading on my kindle so far this year, which is a change. I don’t really have self-control with buying books – I’ve just been very successful at using the pandemic as an excuse. Still have about 1,000 books or so, I reckon, that I haven’t read yet.

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