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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: Idylls of the King

Who hasn’t heard of King Arthur? Chances are you’ve probably even just read or watched something weaved from his lore. I just finished the book that’s arguably responsible for all of that—when Idylls of the King emerged in nineteenth-century England, it resurrected Arthurian intrigue, never to slacken again.

To start off my year in the right direction of one of my goals (that of reading more classics than I did in 2015), I began Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great but relatively brief work on January 1. Idylls of the King is a compilation of narrative poems about King Arthur and his companions, based off Sir Thomas Malory’s seminal Le Morte d’Arthur of the fifteenth century. Tennyson published the first poems, “Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere” in 1859, and seven more in the years following until the last one, “Balin and Balan,” came out in 1885.   

Lancelot and Elaine - Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale
You may be like me and a bit confused about what “idyll” means:

literary piece about charming rural life: a short work in verse or prose, a painting, or a piece of music depicting simple pastoral or rural scenes and the life of country folk, often in an idealized way
(Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)

So there you are. These idylls certainly did paint life in an idealized, pastoral form: knights were mighty, ladies were beautiful, nature was splendid, so on and so forth. It was fun to read the Victorian sentimentality, not only about idealized beauty, but the melodrama and over-the-top tragic deaths. Well, obviously fun isn’t the right word…but I had to read with a touch of amusement or it’d be too depressing. As it was, I was surprised that so many of the stories were tragedies. Camelot was supposedly a magically wonderful place, but more was said about it crumbling than about the good things that happened there. Guinevere and Lancelot’s love affair was touched on in almost every poem, and you’ll discover its implications if you read to the end of the Idylls. Quite sad. Idylls really depicted human imperfection and the tragedies that result from it. Nevertheless, “Guinevere,” the poem where Arthur confronts his queen, was one of my favorites, because of its profound portrayal of forgiveness and repentance. But my other favorite was “Gareth and Lynette,” one of the rare happy stories, and certainly the most lighthearted.

Queen Guinevere's Maying - John Collier. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

Here is a list of the idylls:
The Coming of Arthur
The Round Table:
   Gareth and Lynette
   The Marriage of Geraint
   Geraint and Enid  [formerly one poem called Enid]
   Balin and Balan
   Merlin and Vivien
   Lancelot and Elaine
   The Holy Grail
   Pelleas and Ettarre
   The Last Tournament
The Passing of Arthur

I really enjoyed the Idylls. It had been on my to-read list for a while. Though it took me several pages to get into it, like most writing styles, I just had to get used to it—and then I loved it. The verses are beautiful. Poetry can give a writer an excuse to say things in a flowery, lyrical way, and no one minds because it’s poetry. The story and clarity are not as important as the shape of the lines. And while it may not be the most artistic or profound verse in existence, I was still often delighted by the new ways Tennyson’s writing phrased or imagined something:

“See here, my child, how fresh the colours look,
How fast they hold, like colors of a shell
That keeps the wear and polish of the wave.”
“And then
Stream’d thro’ my cell a cold and silver beam,
And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail,
Rose-red with beatings in it, as if alive,
Till all the white walls of my cell were dyed
With rosy colors leaping on the wall”

“The Passing of Arthur,” at the very end, had me reading almost all of it aloud to myself. I’m not typically a poetry person, but Idylls captured me tightly enough to pant over it like poetry enthusiasts pant over their favorite poems. 

"La Mort d'Arthur" - James Archer. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite character was Arthur, but he was too busy respectably ruling Camelot to have adventures like his knights, so he didn’t show up a lot in most of the stories. But I did enjoy “The Passing of Arthur” quite a bit because we finally got an endearing, vulnerable description of him, a splendid, wounded lion quiet and still enough for us to study him.

Sometimes ambiguous endings are the most powerful. The question at the end of the end makes me tingle: Did King Arthur really die? Is he coming back? When his country needs him most, will he reappear?

Have you ever read The Idylls of the King? What is your favorite Arthur retelling?

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