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the year in which Chaucer died, and lived until 1471. His great historical romance, the Morte d'Arthur, is original in plan and execution. He is the first to make Arthur the central figure; Lancelot and Guinevere are next in importance. Malory Anglicised his Celtic - French material, as can be seen in the following description of a beautiful English custom:
“So it befell the month of May, Queen Guinevere called unto her knights of the Table Round, and she gave them warning that early upon the morrow she would ride on maying into woods and fields beside Westminster. 'And I warn you that there be none but that he be well horsed, and that ye all be clothed in green, either in silk, either in cloth, and I shall bring with me ten ladies, and every knight shall have a lady behind him, and every knight shall have a squire and two yeomen, and I will that ye be all well horsed.' ... And so upon the morn they took their horses, with the queen, and rode on maying in woods and meadows, as it pleased them, in great joy and delights....
“So as the queen had mayed and all her knights all were bedashed with herbs, mosses, and flowers, in the best manner and freshest.”
Malory, like Tennyson, fails to make Arthur a distinct and individualized character. His portrait of Queen Guinevere is better.
"And there is Guinevere herself (writes Maynadier), who, were she known nowhere else than in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, would be one of the great epic queens of the world. ... Proud and passionate, unreasonable in her demands on Lancelot, vindictive. . . . She can be, and generally is, sweetly gracious, womanly, and queenly. ... And when finally shame and sorrow came, she was not only courageous in her resistance of Mordred, but also firmly self-sacrificing in her refusal to live her last days in love at Joyous Gard with Lancelot.”
Malory's book was widely read — the Morte d'Arthur, the English Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, and the Book of Common Prayer including about all the English prose that has survived the period exceeding the time of Queen Anne. The Morte d'Arthur, in spite of its frequent diffuseness, has a simplicity of narration and a nobility of substance which have made it the imperishable record of the legends of the valorous knights of the Table Round.
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This assumption of perfection helps us to appreciate Guinevere's plaint, after her lord has left her in her misery:
“I thought I could not breathe in that fine air,
That pure severity of perfect light -
In Maud Tennyson has a fine line which is sometimes quoted as a characterization of his King Arthur,
“Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.” To call Tennyson's Arthur “ splendidly null” may be too severe a criticism, but had some of the “warmth and color” of Lancelot been transferred to the blameless king, we might have had a more lifelike portrait. A “touch of earth” would have humanized Arthur, and we would have had a man instead of a cold, statuelike, immortal being, a creature
too bright and good For human nature's daily food."
Alfred Lord Tennyson, a Memoir. By his Son.
The Composition.—The composition of the Idylls of the King extends over a long period in the long life of our poet. In 1859, under the title of Idylls of the King, appeared Enid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere; but twenty-four years before this Edward Fitzgerald had seen in manuscript the Morte d'Arthur, and that Tennyson's fancy had long played about the legend is seen in the Lady of Shalott, which was first published in 1832, and in Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, and Sir Galahad, lyrics which, although not appearing until 1842, had been at least partly written in 1830.
“The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him," said Tennyson to his son Hallam, “had come upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” So it may be said that the Idylls of the King were the life work of Tennyson; at least no other topic occupied his mind and art over so long a period.
The Order of the Poems. - The order in which Tennyson wrote his Idylls is not the order in which they are to be read. As Van Dyke puts it:
" that he should begin with the end, and continue with the beginning, and end with the middle of the story, and produce at last a poem which certainly has more special grandeur and completeness than anything that has been made in English since Milton died, is a thing so marvellous that no man would credit it save at the sword's point of fact.”.
This is the order of publication: First appeared the Morte d'Arthur; then in 1859 Enid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere; in 1870 four more, The Coming of Arthur, The Holy Grail, Pelleas and Ettarre, and The Passing of Arthur. As an indication of how the volume of 1859 had whetted the public appetite, it may be observed that 40,000 copies of the new Idylls were ordered in advance. In 1872 came Gareth and Lynette, and The Last Tournament; and finally in 1885 the cycle was completed with Balin and Balan. Later editions contain slight changes in the titles. The order in which the poems are to be read is this: The Coming of Arthur, Gareth and Lynette, The Marriage of Geraint, Geraint and Enid, Balin and Balan, Merlin and Vivien,
Lancelot and Elaine, The Holy Grail, Pelleas and Ettarre, The Last Tournament, Guinevere, The Passing of Arthur.
Story and Purpose. - Each of the Idylls is a separate story and can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the others, but yet there is a sequence which binds the Idylls into a unified whole. There is even a regular progression of seasons, for Gareth and Lynette has a spring setting while Guinevere is placed in the midst of winter. To put it in its simplest form, the story of the Idylls is the story of a high-souled king who aimed to establish a goodly order of noble knights
“Whose glory was redressing human wrong;
Who loved one only and who clave to her.” Every knight should be spotless in purity; dauntless in courage; consecrated to the highest ideals. It is a beautiful ideal, but one doomed to failure in a world of imperfection. At first all is fair and prosperous.
The enthusiasm and magnanimity of the youthful Gareth overcome the petulence and pride of the peevish Lynette; the patient endurance of the meek Enid conquers the jealous suspicion of the rude Geraint; but in Balin and Balan the forces of evil are too strong, and henceforth evil overcomes good. Already in the story of Enid there is a hint of the evil that shall destroy the king's ideal.
“ It is the little rift within the lute
And ever widening slowly silence all.” The little rift within the lute is the love of Lancelot for Queen Guinevere - Lancelot, the goodliest, the bravest, the most human of all the knights that ever gathered about the Table Round, and Guinevere, the lovely Queen of Arthur himself. Long before Tennyson began the story of the knights of the Table Round his fancy had pictured in an exquisite lyric the early meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere. In that lyric, in a few lines, Tennyson has indicated the cause of the downfall of Arthur's dream of a perfect order