Places: Idylls of the King

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1859-1885

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Arthurian romance

Time of work: Fifth century

Places DiscussedCamelot

Camelot. Idylls of the KingCastle where King Arthur has his seat of government. As in most accounts of the Arthurian legend, Camelot is the place where Arthur and his knights meet at the Round Table, where they are ostensibly equals in upholding the chivalric virtues that lead to the practice of justice and mercy in the kingdom. In Tennyson’s version, the knights are also committed to upholding a strict moral code. Tennyson’s Camelot is a physical symbol of the perfect society, in which the will of the individual is subordinate to the grand plan of a benevolent and wise ruler. That association is made manifest in the second tale, “Gareth and Lynette.” When the young knight first makes his way to Arthur’s court, he sees the spires of the city emerging from the clouds and hears strange music. Meeting Merlin, the wizard who is the king’s confidant and mentor, Gareth learns that, if he hears music, it is because “they are building still.” As Merlin explains, “the City is built to music,/ Therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever.” Metaphorically, the city is like a symphony: It is built or sustained in existence only so long as each individual participant continues to play his or her role. The suggestion that there is a hierarchy of roles and a subordination of the individual will to the common good is a major theme of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s description of the construction of the city of Camelot is a metaphor for the way a perfect society should be constructed.

Forests and plains

Forests and plains. Areas outside Camelot and the other dwelling places of the knights throughout the kingdom. Using a time-honored comparison, Tennyson contrasts the city and castle with the countryside. In Camelot, men and women exhibit both knightly and Christian virtues; in the natural world, however, men and women often resort to practices that demonstrate their kinship with the beasts. Far from being idyllic, the woods and fields of Arthur’s kingdom are often places where danger lurks, principally because these regions are inhabited by outcasts from Camelot or people who choose to live by values contrary to the ones the king espouses.

Wastelands

Wastelands. Location where many of King Arthur’s knights search for the Holy Grail. Like other writers of Arthurian legend, Tennyson creates vivid descriptions of the filth, squalor, and aridity of a land clearly in need of tending. In traditional versions of the legend, the discovery of the Grail was to lead to restoration of the land’s fertility. For the knights in Idylls of the King the search for the Grail proves fruitless, and the land remains barren. The ill-fated quest provides Arthur an opportunity to explain to his subjects that it is not in seeking remote conquests that the kingdom is served, but rather in staying close to home and handling the domestic, social, and political tasks that are part of everyday living.

Red Knight’s castle

Red Knight’s castle. Home of the knight Pelleas, who becomes disillusioned with Arthur’s court after discovering that the woman he loves is unfaithful. Though mentioned in only one scene, the castle’s importance to the theme of the poem is significant. After Pelleas leaves Camelot, he sets up an alternative order of knights, who behave openly as brigands, lechers, and moral degenerates. When Arthur sends a force to wipe out this rogue order, Pelleas tells the invaders from Camelot that his castle houses knights who, though immoral, are actually better than those in Arthur’s city. They are not hypocrites like those at Camelot who publicly espouse high virtue but in fact act basely.

Battlefields

Battlefields. Locations of Arthur’s initial struggles to unite the petty kingdoms of the country and of his last fight to preserve his kingdom against his nephew Mordred. In Tennyson’s poem, battlefields are not only places of destruction, they are locales shrouded in mist and fog, places where friend and enemy are indistinguishable. Tennyson contrasts the mayhem of the battlefield with the civility of the court to demonstrate the precarious nature of the civilization Arthur establishes at Camelot.

BibliographyKissane, James. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Twayne, 1970. Introduces Tennyson’s work. Discusses symbolic meanings and moral themes in Idylls of the King. Bibliography.Priestley, F. E. L. “Tennyson’s Idylls.” In Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, edited by John Killham. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1960. Helps the student begin to evaluate Tennyson’s stature. Stresses Tennyson’s serious purpose in Idylls of the King in asserting the primacy of idealism and spiritual values over materialism.Reed, John R. Perception and Design in Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969. Analyzes individual idylls in depth to trace the artistic strategy and moral design of the poem. Emphasis on the tension between the physical and the spiritual.Rosenberg, John D. The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. Defends the poem against negative criticism, claiming that in the poem Tennyson invents a new form, the originality of which has caused critics to misunderstand it. Emphasis on symbolism of poem.Ryalls, Clyde de L. From the Great Deep: Essays on “Idylls of the King.” Athens: Ohio University Press, 1967. Asserts that Idylls of the King is a philosophical poem concerned with the nature of human existence. Contains useful sections about the publication history of individual idylls.
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