Idylls of the King
is a narrative cycle of twelve poems composed by English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson between 1859 and 1885. The poems recount the legend of King Arthur, his famed knights, his tragic love affair with Guinevere, and the rise and fall of his kingdom. Tennyson based his poems primarily on Le Morte d’Arthur
by Sir Thomas Malory.
“The Coming of Arthur” chronicles how Arthur becomes the King of Cameliard, or Camelot in some versions. King Leodogran and the city are besieged by beasts and hordes of heathens, so he requests Arthur’s help in vanquishing them. He does, after which Arthur requests the hand of Leodogran’s daughter, beautiful Guinevere, in marriage. Arthur becomes king and, at his wedding feast proclaims, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new,” ushering a new time of prosperity for Britain.
In “Gareth and Lynette,” young Gareth wishes to be a knight in King Arthur’s Court. However, his mother Bellicent will only allow this if he works as a kitchen servant for one year. She relents eventually and Arthur knights him. His first task is to rescue Lynette’s sister Lyonors by fighting four knights: Morning Star, Noonday Sun, Evening Star, and Death—representing the ages of man.
There’s trouble in Camelot in “The Marriage of Geraint.” Rumors circulate that Guinevere and Arthur’s knight and friend Lancelot are having an affair. The knight Geraint fears his wife Enid may be inspired by their scandal. His worries affect his duties as a knight and drive Enid to despair. He decides to reclaim his manhood by going on a quest with her at his side.
In “Geraint and Enid,” the couple go into the wilderness where Geraint devises tests to determine Enid’s loyalty. He is critical of everything she does, including protecting him from bandits, but in the end determines that Enid has been faithful to him. He regains his reputation as an honorable and capable knight.
In “Balin and Balan,” brothers Balin and Balan return to Camelot after being banned three years prior. Balin is ill-tempered and puts Guinevere’s crown on his shield to remind him to calm his temper. However, after he hears rumors about the queen’s infidelity, he goes berserk with dismay: his idol is a fallen woman. During this temper, Balan thinks he hears a demon. In the mix-up, Balan mortally wounds Balin but assures him that his queen is an honorable woman.
In “Merlin and Vivien,” Vivien spreads lies about Guinevere after coming to Camelot under false pretenses. She attempts to seduce Arthur, and when he denies her she does the same to Merlin. She is persistent, and Merlin ultimately surrenders. Vivien boasts in her accomplishments and imprisons him in a tree.
In “Lancelot and Elaine,” the annual tournament is approaching but there are so many rumors about Lancelot and Guinevere that Lancelot considers not appearing even though he has won every year. He decides to attend in disguise so he can still win and present the prize to Guinevere. He borrows armor from a noble, during which the noble’s daughter Elaine falls in love with him. When she realizes he won’t love her back, she kills herself.
“The Holy Grail” tells the story of Percivale and the other knights of the Round Table that pursue the grail against Arthur’s warnings. It’s a fruitless endeavor as the knights face danger and spend time away from Camelot for nothing. Camelot begins to fall apart in their absence.
In “Peleas and Ettare,” Peleas is a young knight who is attracted to Ettare, who only mocks him. When fellow knight Gawain volunteers to help Peleas, he instead falls in love with Ettare and takes her for himself. Upset, Peleas leaves the Round Table and becomes the Red Knight.
In “The Last Tournament,” Arthur’s tournament is put on hold when a servant claims he’s been attacked by the Red Knight. Arthur sets off to avenge the servant and leaves Lancelot in charge of the tournament, which spirals out of control. Tristam is the victor and gives the prize to his married lover Queen Isolt, whose husband Mark kills Tristam. Arthur returns after defeating the Red Knight only to find Camelot in chaos.
In “Guinevere,” the queen flees to the convent in Almesbury to forever part from Lancelot. Arthur confronts her, forgives her, and leaves her at the abbey. She is later chosen as the Abbess and dies three years later.
In “The Passing of Arthur,” Arthur is mortally wounded by Mordred in the last battle. Every knight in the Round Table is killed save for Sir Bedivere, who carries Arthur to Avalon where Arthur first received Excalibur. There, Arthur orders him to toss the sword back into the lake to fulfill a prophecy.
Tennyson wrote the poems in Idylls of the King
in blank verse
. They don’t follow the style or structure of an epic
, but rather take on a sad, elegiac tone that some critics connect with Tennyson’s thoughts on Britain’s societal conflicts at the time. In this critical reading, Arthur embodies Victorian England ideals.