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Thread: Discussion on the Idylls?

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    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Discussion on the Idylls

    Since I've run into a number of litnetters who have an interest in Arthurian texts, would anyone like to have a discussion on Tennyson? I'm beginning to work my way through this text (I've only gotten through the first idyll, "The Coming of Arthur"), and we could go as quickly or slowly as need be. Let me know.
    Last edited by Wilde woman; 02-04-2011 at 03:58 PM.
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    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    I'm working my way through the first part, but I would definitely love to join (as much as I'm capable of) a discussion on this.

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    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Yay, sithkittie! I'll be back a little later with thoughts on the first idyll. In the meantime, I wrote a huge long thing on the BBC Merlin in your thread in the main forum. It'll make an interesting source/comparison to Tennyson.
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    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    I saw part of it (huge and long are accurate words! :P). I didn't have much to add, not really having a whole lot of background, but perhaps I'll go back and see what I can think of.

    I'm currently working through Gareth's bit, which if I'm not wrong is pretty much straight from Malory, is it not? I don't remember the details in Malory's version exactly, but the knights were color based, weren't they? In Tennyson they're Morning, Noon, and Evening Stars and then Night. I mentioned before really not understanding poetic devices, I believe. I pretty much take most things at face value. I'm trying to figure out where Tennyson was going with that allegory and in an attempt to keep learning rather than have things explained to me straight up, I'm going to ask my question this way: Is there anything else that allegory might be in that you know of? I don't get it.

    Those are my thoughts for today. I'm going to hop back to the other thread and look at your BBC comments again.

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    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    I've only just started the Gareth section, so I can't yet discuss it in detail. But...

    Quote Originally Posted by sithkittie View Post
    I don't remember the details in Malory's version exactly, but the knights were color based, weren't they? In Tennyson they're Morning, Noon, and Evening Stars and then Night.
    Yes, I remember that bit from Malory. The knights are identified by their color. Interesting that Tennyson does it by time of the day. I wonder if he's trying to create some kind of allegory between Gareth and time?

    Here are some thoughts about the first idyll, the "Coming of Arthur":

    1) Women: It's interesting that Tennyson begins the entire poem with a reference to Guinevere. Considering the Idylls' notorious reputation for being misogynistic, it makes me wonder how much women are going to figure in this text. Guinevere is presented as a typical princess, without much of a voice; in fact, the majority of the first idyll is shown through her father, Leodegrance's PoV, as he tries to decide whether or not Arthur is worthy of his daughter. At their marriage, Guinevere vows to "love [Arthur] to the death"...a standard wedding vow, but ironic given what we know about her.

    But Tennyson immediately contrasts the somewhat passive Guinevere with a rather powerful women, Bellicent (sister to Arthur, mother of Gawain and Mordred, queen of Orkney). She's more traditionally known as Morgause, but my edition says Tennyson got this name from the Wright edition of Malory. I feel like I've run into this name before, in another romance, but I don't remember which. I wonder if it's any coincidence that her name has "belli" (Latin for "warlike") in it, given her later interaction with Arthur? Anyways, she's presented as a loyal sister to Arthur, confirming his royal bloodline to the doubtful Leodegrance, and (ironically) urging him to give Guinevere to Arthur.

    In this passage, Bellicent already shows magical powers, when she recounts a vision she had of Arthur. While Arthur knights some warriors, Bellicent suddenly sees a vision of Christ, three queens (of Avalon, I assume) surrounding Arthur, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and Excalibur. (BTW, I'm a little confused by this vision of Excalibur. Is Bellicent seeing the future? That Arthur will get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake later? Or has he already gotten it? Also, I just wanted to mention that the BBC Merlin's portrayal of Excalibur with the writing on both sides of the sword apparently comes from this passage in Tennyson! Even the inscribed phrases are the same!) This all helps convince Leodegrance that Arthur really is the legitimate heir.

    If Guinevere is presented as a typical princess, Arthur is definitely not represented as your average prince. In fact, one of our first glimpses of Arthur is through Guinevere's eyes, but it's FASCINATING that she doesn't recognize him:

    Guinevere
    stood by the castle walls to watch him pass;
    But since he neither wore on helm or shield
    the golden symbol of his kinglihood,
    but rode a simple knight amongst his knights,
    and many of these in richer arms than he,
    she saw him not, or mark'd not, if she saw,
    one among many, tho' his face was bare.
    I think this is definitely an allusion to Arthur's modest upbringing (with Sir Anton), but it also brings up the theme of sight. Guinevere is blind to Arthur's worth until he proves himself. Meanwhile, Arthur is fully aware of Guinevere and falls in love with her at first sight. It seems like his main motivation in helping Leodegrance is to win Guinevere. (So there: England is united for the sake of a woman. How romantic is that!)

    One last thing: There seems to be an awful lot of importance put on the position of the queen. Tennyson characterizes the queen as something of a sovereignty figure, someone who must unite with the king in order for their land to be healthy and prosperous. Arthur says as much:

    But were I join'd with her,
    then might we live together as one life,
    and reigning with one will in everything
    have power on this dark land to lighten it,
    and power on this dead world to make it live.
    This strikes me as a particularly Celtic concept, and it makes me wonder if Tennyson got this concept from Welsh texts like the Mabinogion, which (according to my edition) he did read. If so, I wonder if Tennyson will relate the Fisher King's wasteland to Guinevere's sins? That would be an interesting twist.

    2) Arthur's birth and coronation in Tennyson are quite different from Malory's. While Arthur is still the son of Uther and Igraine, and Igraine is still the beautiful wife of Gorlois, Uther does NOT turn to Merlin's magic to trick Igraine into sleeping with him. Instead, Uther kills Gorlois on the battlefield and then rapes the defenseless Igraine, who then dies giving birth to Arthur. Thus, the blame for Arthur's sinful birth is put entirely onto Uther, not divided between Uther and Merlin. And though baby Arthur is given to a knight to raise, it's not Sir Ector (as it is in Malory) but Sir Anton.

    And here's where it gets really interesting. In Tennyson, Arthur does NOT prove his legitimacy by pulling the sword from the stone. Instead, on the night of Uther's death, baby Arthur is carried back to Camelot on a wave of fire, while a vision of a dragon-shaped ship hovers in the sky. He is discovered by Merlin and Bleys, who declare him king because of these portents. But even after Merlin crowns Arthur, other noblemen still doubt his legitimacy. It's not until Leodegrance gives Guinevere to him in marriage that (it seems) Arthur is accepted as the legitimate king. So, in a weird way, it's Leodegrance, not Merlin, who becomes the king-maker.

    To me, the overriding difference between Malory and Tennyson here is the distinct lack of magic in the making of Arthur's kingship. (Or maybe I'm zeroing in on the magic because I've been thinking about the BBC Merlin so much.) In fact, Tennyson seems to have quite an ambivalent attitude towards magic here. In some cases, it is good (as in Bellicent's vision and Leodegrance's dream) because it helps Arthur become king. On the other hand, Merlin himself speaks in riddles and never answers whether or not these visions are truthful. Which leads me to my next point...

    3) Truth: I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one of Tennyson's big themes is going to be the subjective nature of truth. Instead of approaching truth from the simplistic right or wrong model, Tennyson plays with ambiguities and the different perspectives of his characters. If you think about it, much of the first idyll is written from Leodegrance's (and, to a lesser extent, Guinevere's) point of view.

    The main question in the first idyll is whether or not Arthur's kingship is legitimate. Is he actually Uther's son? And in order to find out, Leodegrance turns to three different sources for advice: his chamberlain, Arthur's three knights (including Bedivere), and Bellicent (who in turn relates the opinions of Merlin and Bleys). Each of these three sources gives Leodegrance a different account of Arthur, and it's up to him to decide which one (if any) is the truth. In the end, he doesn't trust any of them, until he himself has a dream (with some suggestive Christian imagery) which he takes as confirmation of Arthur's royal blood. But throughout it all, Tennyson doesn't really privilege any one account over any other....it's all hearsay. In the end, Arthur's kingship really rests on Leodegrance's beliefs, rather than any hard evidence.

    This notion of subjective truth comes up again when Bellicent asks Merlin whether or not his stories about Arthur are true. Merlin responds in "riddling triplets" (which I suspected, and the endnotes confirmed, were reminiscent of the Welsh Triads, ancient cryptic Welsh poems). He says:

    And truth is this to me, and that to thee;
    And truth or clothed or naked let it be.
    Basically, Merlin asserts that everyone has their own version of truth and reality, and that it's perhaps useless to try to discover any single objective truth. This leads us back to my earlier point about sight. Everyone sees things in a different, subjective way. Guinevere sees Arthur but doesn't think he's anything special, while Arthur knows from first sight that he loves Guinevere. We no longer have the medieval trope of sight...where you can almost tell a hero by looking at him; even when in disguise, knights like Perceval or Lancelot are often said to "look noble". Tennyson does away with that. And even the magical events (Uther's assumption of Gorlois' appearance, the prophetic sword in the stone) are either completely eliminated or reduced to hearsay. Dreams are just dreams, without any overt prophetic or divine significance (unlike many medieval texts which will bash you over the head with dreams sent by God). Instead, it's men's beliefs and the actions they take which are important.

    I think we can take this theme a step further when we look at the character, Bleys (pronounced "blaze"). He's quite an important figure, even though he doesn't play much of an active role. Tennyson describes him as "Merlin's master", the man who taught Merlin all his magic. But the talented Merlin surpassed Bleys, so Bleys is now reduced to being Merlin's scribe. (Bleys also shows up in various other Arthurian works, though his name is spelled differently. One of my professors actually thinks he was a historical scribe, who was responsible for copying/writing a number of Arthurian manuscripts.) Bleys writes down all of Arthur's deeds and compiles them "in one great annal-book, where after-years / will learn the secret of our Arthur's birth." So...I think...we're supposed to understand that the actual text we're reading are Bleys' words. (This is just my assumption, and I could very well be wrong.) This brings up the question of Bleys' truthfulness. Is he a reliable narrator? After all, he's obviously not as talented as Merlin...might not he resent his former student? What interest might he take in Arthur? So, I think that Tennyson's discussion of truth is one way he tackles the idea of the author as creator, and text as a created object...and possibly even Arthur as the 'author' of a new world.

    4) Arthur's relationship to Rome: Tennyson seems to have wholly omitted a really important part of Malory's Arthurian legend - Arthur's struggle against a tyrannous Roman empire, and his eventual success in freeing Britain from Roman rule. In Malory, Arthur's war against the Emperor Lucius takes up an entire book. And this is one of the vital reasons Arthur is such an important figure in the nationhood of England. In Tennyson, this struggle against Rome is reduced to a few lines. In the first idyll, Rome only comes up twice - first, when Leodegrance's kingdom is besieged by "Roman legions", as well as heathens and rival King Uriens' armies - forcing Leodegrance to turn to the newly-crowned Arthur for help. This mention of Rome is just that - a mention. It doesn't seem like Rome is very powerful at all. The point in bringing it up here seems to be simply to show how divided Britain is before the coming of Arthur...the land is contested by many factions, of which Rome is only one.

    The second mention of Rome is more substantial and comes at the end of the first idyll, after Arthur's marriage. And this passage seems to come straight from Malory. The Roman lords appear at the wedding banquet, demanding tribute, which Arthur refuses to pay. And then it says "Arthur strove with Rome" but doesn't go into any detail. Tennyson describes Rome as "the slowly-fading mistress of the world"...and I think the use of "mistress" is telling. It makes Rome sound like a woman having an affair, and brings to mind the popular medieval idea that the obscenely-rich Holy Roman Empire was the Biblical whore of Babylon. Whether or not that's true, it adds to the image of a weakening Rome vs. a rising Britain.

    But I think there is a veiled allusion to Rome early in the idyll. When Tennyson is describing the state of poor Leodegrance's kingdom, he mentions that it is filled with lots of wild beasts, including wolves. (So add wild animals to the list of people bugging Leodegrance.) Some of these she-wolves apparently stole children and, if she'd lost her own pups, would raise them as her own, making them "wolf-like men, / worse than the wolves". The whole idea of wolf-raised children brings up the idea of Remus and Romulus, the twins who founded Rome. In the Aeneid and other sources, their wolf mother is seen as a fantastic or even divine part of Rome's mythos. But in England, the wolf has more often been seen as a symbol of villainy, so here the reference to wolf-raised children is disparaging, and might reflect a derogatory tone towards the Holy Roman Empire. I don't think it's a coincidence that Tennyson's first mention of Rome pops up RIGHT AFTER this story of wolfish men. (This is interesting because the medieval English believed that their ancestry traced back to Rome. The etymology of "Britain" supposedly traces back to Brutus, the man who founded Britain...and who was a great grandson of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who fled the Trojan war and whose ancestors eventually founded Rome. So Tennyson's mention of the wolfish men seems to be one way of breaking Britain away from its traditional ancestry with Rome.)

    Obviously, I haven't read the entire text yet, but (just by glancing at the titles of the other idylls) it doesn't seem like Tennyson comes back to Arthur's traditional battle with Rome. There is no mention of Lucius. So I wonder why Tennyson decides to downsize this portion of the mythos so much.

    That's it for now...I'll be back with a few thoughts on the various knights who've been introduced so far: Bedivere, Gawain, Lancelot, and Mordred.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
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    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    I read straight through Idylls for the sake of enjoyment first, and pardon me for a moment, I have to flail a bit. Iíll come back to serious discussion in a moment.


    Holy crap, Arthur, wowÖ justÖ wow. I never cheer for Lancelot, ever until this piece! The poor man!! Guinevere is a raging witch in this! She has absolutely no redeeming qualities, whatsoever. None. That said, what the heck gave Arthur the right for that holier than thou speech at the end? Did Tennyson really want his readership to feel that Arthur was being gracious and saint-like? Did anybody think that?? Ok, yeah, she cheated on you, but youíre the oaf who didnít notice for how many years, and letís not forget, you no more than saw her before deciding to marry her. How does that make for good measure of quality and loyalty in a queen? Seriously now.

    His handling of the women in all of the idylls, Enid aside, made me want to scream. Make the women villains, thatís fine, but theyíre completely demonized. The one that might have had a chance at being an actual powerful figure, Bellicent, didnít even appear when the proverbial crap was hitting the fan.

    Tennysonís portrayal of women aside, and Tennyson fans please forgive me, I did not like his writing. It felt like it wanted to be a medieval narrative, but his use of more crude descriptions, Markís sword cleaving through Tristanís brain, the lords and ladies eating flesh and drinking wine, to name a few examples off the top of my head, didnít fit. They felt forced and out of place. It may also just be the fact that I have trouble with poetry any more recent than Keats, but there were also several sections that I just didnít get. I had to go back and reread sections of The Holy Grail and The Last Tournament, and even then the writing was so inconsistent that it didnít all make sense. Donít get me wrong, some of the idylls I rather enjoyed for themselves, Geraint and Enid, Merlin and Vivien, Lancelot and Elaine, but as a whole, I really felt like Tennyson dropped the ball. His source material, primarily Maloryís Le Morte DíAthur was all that saved the poem, and really then only in pieces.

    Taking into account that itís twelve smaller idylls linked together, they still tell a story. They begin with Arthurís ascent to power, even describing multiple accounts of his origins, they show Camelot at its peak, the splintering caused by the quest for the Grail, its further weakening through affairs and broken vows, to its war with Lancelot and then Mordred and Athurís trip to Avalon. The problem I found with it is that, for a story written in the 19th century, it doesnít meet the standards of a cohesive story of its day. Mordred is said to be a nasty antagonist at the beginning, thereís little mention of him in the middle, then suddenly heís usurping Arthurís throne. His mother disappears entirely. Tristan shows up at the end as a morally depraved character whoís taken his example from Lancelot and Guinevereís affair just before he gets knocked off remarkably clumsily. The only constant themes, at least as far as characters go, are the breaking of vows and adultery, which I think made the characters really flat and, frankly, annoying. The only other possible one I can dig up, which may just be my unhappy reaction to his handling of his female characters, is the fickleness/weakness of women and the evils they bring to men. Even in Geraint and Enid, in which I think Enid is a fairly feisty female character, the damage done is not to her but to Geraint, and itís blamed on Guinevereís affair with Lancelot. Pelleasí anger at Gawain and Ettarre is due to both of them, but he puts the sword over Ettarreís throat, not Gawainís. Tennyson brings up other themes throughout the different pieces, but if they connect I missed it.

    /

    Those are my (toned down after a day) flailings anyway. Iím going to go back and reread The Coming of Arthur. I do have more to say thatís not annoyed flailing, I promise. I just wanted to get that out of my system first. I will also respond to Wilde Womanís post.

  7. #7
    Registered User Three Sparrows's Avatar
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    Wilde Woman- great post! However, I do think that the reason Tennyson downplays some aspects of the Arthur myth is because Tennyson wanted to focus wholly on the characters, to represent the people of the legend in a way which other authors neglected to do, and to achieve this it would be useless to dwell on elaborate accounts of battles. The titles of most the poems says it all, in that they often include the names of the characters. Like Balin and Balen, Guinivere, Morte de Arthur, Geraint and Enid, Lancelot and Elaine, etc. etc. To elaborate on the battles would take away the focus from the characters.
    I agree that the lack of magic in the Idylls was a bit disappointing, but apparently Tennyson's Merlin liked riddling better. To each his own.

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    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    Alright, I'm finally sitting down to write a non-flailing post. I'll start with replying to a couple of things Wilde Woman said.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    She's more traditionally known as Morgause.
    Thank you! That answers a few questions there.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    In fact, one of our first glimpses of Arthur is through Guinevere's eyes, but it's FASCINATING that she doesn't recognize him
    I enjoyed that bit, but it made me wonder how they were riding. Maybe it's just me, but I always imagined the leader would be in some position of honor, whether at the head or in the center of guards. Still, I appreciated the contrast with the knights in richer armor than he was in.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    Guinevere is blind to Arthur's worth until he proves himself.
    I'm pretty sure she's still blind even then. Even once he's won, Tennyson doesn't have her showing any real affection or anything beyond "This is the man I have to marry, okay, on with the show." The whole relationship between them is pretty stale right from the beginning, I think.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    BTW, I'm a little confused by this vision of Excalibur. Is Bellicent seeing the future? That Arthur will get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake later? Or has he already gotten it? Also, I just wanted to mention that the BBC Merlin's portrayal of Excalibur with the writing on both sides of the sword apparently comes from this passage in Tennyson! Even the inscribed phrases are the same!
    1 - That is pretty awesome, and I really didn't even notice the writing on the BBC Merlin's Excalibur.

    2- I think Bellicent is talking about the past, but you're right, that part was a little vague. But he had to have been fighting already before going to help Leodegrance... I think.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    It's not until Leodegrance gives Guinevere to him in marriage that (it seems) Arthur is accepted as the legitimate king.
    I have more to say on this subject later.

    You brought up possible themes for the entire collection, and to be honest I didn't notice many (I won't beat a dead horse with recapping my rant), but your heading of truth is one that I'm interesting in looking back on throughout the rest of the idylls. That's not something I thought of.

    Speaking of things I didn't think of:

    And ever and anon the wolf would steal
    The children and devour, but now and then,
    Her own brood lost or dead, lent her fierce teat
    To human sucklings; and the children, housed
    In her foul den, there at their meat would growl,
    And mock their foster mother on four feet,
    Till, straightened, they grew up to wolf-like men,
    Worse than the wolves.
    Once Wilde woman made the connection to Romulus and Remus, I don't know how I missed it in the first place, but when I first read this my thoughts were along the lines of Jungle Book or "The wolf boy." (Sorry... I don't know the name in English, that's my best guess... Ohkami Shounen in Japanese, but I'm pretty sure it's not a Japanese story.) I think it's an interesting perspective on Rome if you take it as a Romulus/Remus allusion. Rome conquered the barbarians (for a time, and obviously stuff happened in between), and here we're seeing them as "worse than the wolves."

    I thought the view on the forest in this was interesting. Usually forests are pretty benign, and here I'm thinking of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chretien's Erec and Enide, and a few other medieval poems I've read. Yes, they're occasionally full of bandits, but the bandits aren't a part of the forest, they're just in the forest. Even later in Tennyson travelers take shelter in the forest. Here the forest around Leodegrance's land is the home of beasts and referred to as "waste." Once Arthur defeated the armies against him (this did include Lot of Orkney, right? I wasn't just dreaming that part?), he:

    slew the beast, and felled
    The forest, letting in the sun, and made
    Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight
    And so returned.
    I thought that was a fascinating section.

    One thing I noticed, that maybe we can blame on the Troubadours(?), and this applies to most of the Arthurian tales I've read, is the idea of love at first sight and that being enough to pledge your life against. Arthur does it here with Guenevere, and we all know how well that turned out.

    On the flip side, there's something to be said about the power of beauty in this section. Bellicent's defense of Arthur's lineage, to me, didn't prove anything. Merlin discounted Bleys' account, Merlin's own (which comes later maybe? I remember there being one.) is hardly credible. There's nothing proven, despite Leodegrance's acceptance, which I guess comes more from it being Bellicent who argued for Arthur. (The dream he had might have played a roll, but I think a dream like that would change my mind against letting Guenevere marry Arthur.....) Either way, the kingdom doesn't buy it, which is the important part. Suddenly, as soon as Arthur marries Guenevere, the arguments against his legitimacy cease to be mentioned.

    for saving I be joined
    To her that is the fairest under heaven,
    I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
    And cannot will my will, nor work my work
    Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
    Victor and lord.
    That I find fascinating, "to her that is the fairest under heaven." Clearly it works to legitimize his claim, and for a time he accomplishes what he sets out to do. There's that old saying though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In Chretien's Erec and Enide, Enide gets the award (kiss) for being the fairest. Elaine also ranks high up there, and so does Isolde. Some women get compared to Guenevere in terms of beauty, but I have to wonder if she's really "fairest under heaven." Fairest or not, it's an interesting criteria for a queen that quite obviously doesn't turn out the best in the end.

    During my first read through, I was looking for mercy as a theme, for example when Arthur calls his men off the fleeing armies. It didn't come up as much as I thought it might. I'd been thinking of Malory's character (I want to say Gawain, but correct me on that if I'm wrong because I'm really not entirely sure) who fails to show mercy to beaten opponents.

    Lastly is magic, or maybe better termed supernatural aide. Whether or not Arthur's was carried on a dragon surrounded in flames, dreams and visions are used by Bellicent in defending Arthur's position, and Leodegrance also has a dream which seems to have some relationship to his decision but, as I said, I don't really get it. There are also supernatural figures, the dragon, which might have no bearing whatsoever on anything, and the three queens of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake, who help establish Arthur's kingship. Lancelot also says that "the fire of God" descends on Arthur in battle, which if nothing else proves to him that Arthur is king. So, here I have to disagree a bit with Wilde woman on magic being a part of setting Arthur up. I think it's a bit more behind-the-scenes in this account, but I do see it there.

    Those are my thoughts on that. Sorry for the long delay.

  9. #9
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    So admittedly, I haven't had time to move ahead with the Idylls, since I'm busy with my class readings. But I thought I'd respond to some of the comments here.

    Quote Originally Posted by Three Sparrows
    However, I do think that the reason Tennyson downplays some aspects of the Arthur myth is because Tennyson wanted to focus wholly on the characters, to represent the people of the legend in a way which other authors neglected to do, and to achieve this it would be useless to dwell on elaborate accounts of battles.
    It's actually really refreshing to me that Tennyson does not dwell on the battle scenes. I've always found the action sequences rather boring and conventional in the Arthurian texts. It's nice that Tennyson focuses on other things rather than the epic warrior-ness of the knights.

    Sithkittie- I skimmed through your rant quickly, because I didn't want to read spoilers, but everything you said confirms what I've heard about the blatant misogyny of the text. What is up with all these Arthurian writers who are so anti-feminist? (Malory, T.H. White, and any of the Grail authors also jump to mind.) I mean, I know that Guinevere (well...and Lancelot) is responsible for the fall of Camelot, but you would think that they'd portray at least a few of the women sympathetically.

    Quote Originally Posted by sithkittie View Post
    I enjoyed that bit, but it made me wonder how they were riding. Maybe it's just me, but I always imagined the leader would be in some position of honor, whether at the head or in the center of guards.
    Since you're more of a history person, you probably know more about medieval military formations than I do. But yeah, it seemed weird that the dux bellorum would not be distinguished either by clothing or position.

    I really didn't even notice the writing on the BBC Merlin's Excalibur.
    Well, I don't think they ever showed the writing on the sword (or if they did, it wasn't in a recognizable language...they probably wanted to go with "runes"). Some character actually read those lines out, and I remember thinking how contradictory Excalibur's message was.


    but when I first read this my thoughts were along the lines of Jungle Book or "The wolf boy." (Sorry... I don't know the name in English, that's my best guess... Ohkami Shounen in Japanese, but I'm pretty sure it's not a Japanese story.) I think it's an interesting perspective on Rome if you take it as a Romulus/Remus allusion. Rome conquered the barbarians (for a time, and obviously stuff happened in between), and here we're seeing them as "worse than the wolves."
    Ah yes! I'd forgotten that Mowgli was raised amongst the wolves. I wonder if this wolf-raised boy is a particularly British trope, since the Jungle Book was also written by an Englishman, Rudyard Kipling. Anyways, I don't know if the Romulus/Remus connection was what Tennyson was specifically alluding to in that scene (though it seems logical, given that he explicitly mentions Rome right afterwards), but it's made me think about Britain's history with Rome. To me, it's really intriguing that the Arthurian Britons try to break away from Rome politically, yet simultaneously claim Roman ancestry (in Wace's Brut.) This linking of Britain back to Rome occurs in the opening lines of SGGK as well, as a way to glorify and legitimate British rule. But I just think Britain has a particularly troubled history with the Holy Roman Empire.

    Usually forests are pretty benign, and here I'm thinking of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chretien's Erec and Enide, and a few other medieval poems I've read.
    Really? Here I have to disagree with you. I feel like forests in most medieval texts are depicted as places of danger. Because of the medieval tendency to organize EVERYTHING into its theological place, Nature was depicted as either Christianized and tame (as in man-made gardens) or as heathen and wild (as in the forest). In SGGK, I feel like the forest is a particularly threatening place because Gawain is 1) lost in the forest, both physically and spiritually and 2) he faces many harrowing adventures in the forest. It's almost like he must be tested before he is allowed back into the civilization of Bertilak's kingdom. NB: Madness in medieval literature is also characterized as a wandering in the wilderness, so I find it appropriate that one of Arthur's goals is to bring order to the wilderness of the forests by slaying the beast (which, I believe, has Christian overtones here), letting sunlight in, and building roads for people to travel on.

    I really think the idea of a benign forest only really begins in the Renaissance (or, perhaps, with the Robin Hood tales). I'm thinking specifically of Shakespeare's forest of Arden (in As You Like It), where the forest is more a place of refuge, but also of wonders and marvels...it's kind of fairyland where time runs differently and all sorts of social conventions can be overturned precisely because it's in the wilderness and not in society. But honestly, I think the medievals thought of the forest as a very dangerous place (even Dante talks about being lost in the wood before beginning his journey in Hell), and the wilderness only starts losing its teeth in the Renaissance. So it'll be interesting for me to see what happens when (as you mentioned) Tennyson's knights start taking refuge there.

    One thing I noticed, that maybe we can blame on the Troubadours(?), and this applies to most of the Arthurian tales I've read, is the idea of love at first sight and that being enough to pledge your life against. Arthur does it here with Guenevere, and we all know how well that turned out.
    Well, the whole concept of love at first sight has its roots in medieval physiology. There is actually a physical process involving the eyes, heart, and brain that occurs when knights fall in love at first sight. I don't think you could "blame" this trope on the troubadours because the medical texts outlining these sorts of physical processes preceded the troubadours' spread from the British isles to France and the rest of the continent, going way back into the Classical era. Also, I think "love at first sight" and the subsequent pledging one's life to it is simply an aspect of the romance genre, although it probably became more prevalent when courtly love became popular. The same goes for the "fairest under heaven" quote. What's more interesting to me is that the woman whom the knight falls in love with at first sight is always the "right" woman, and the knight almost never goes back on his oath. And, of course, that "right" woman is never a peasant or servant girl, always a gentlewoman or princess.

    Re: mercy. I understand why you'd be looking for mercy as a theme, esp. if you've been thinking about Malory. And, yes, I think it is Gawain who is particularly ruthless in Malory. I wonder what Malory had against Gawain? Mercy was not a theme I had thought to look for, but perhaps I should, considering the Round Table mentality of Arthur.

    Re: magic. Sithkittie, I don't disagree with anything you said about the appearance of magic in the first idyll, but my point was that we - as readers - cannot be sure that these magical events actually happened, because we get it all secondhand. The wave of fire and the dragon in the sky are all recounted from Merlin to Bellicent. We only hear about them through Bellicent's speech to Leodegrance. And the vision of the three queens and the Lady of the Lake are simply the claims of Bellicent, who clearly has an agenda when she recounts them...to convince Leodegrance that Arthur's claim to the throne is so legitimate that even God approves, by sending her these visions. We - as readers - are not actually witness to any of these magical events, so we cannot be sure of the truth of them. Or, if we consider that most of the first idyll is told from Leodegrance's POV, he doesn't witness any magic firsthand either, so he cannot be sure of its existence. That's what I meant about Tennyson's preoccupation with truth, that everything we hear is mediated through someone else's words, and it's up to us to believe them or not.

    BTW, the "fire of God" coming down on Arthur sounds vaguely familiar. I'm pretty sure Tennyson stole that from a medieval text. I just can't remember which one. I'm thinking either Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth, or one of the Grail texts. Or perhaps I'm thinking of the scene where Galahad achieves the Grail. One of them involved holy fire.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  10. #10
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    I'm going to do a double post here, since I wanted to discuss a few other things about the first idyll, and didn't want to make my previous post a monstrous size.

    1) There was one moment in Bellicent's vision that I found really puzzling. She is discussing how Arthur is rewarding his most loyal followers by knighting them, when suddenly:

    From eye to eye thro' all their Order flash
    A momentary likeness of the King
    What does that mean? First of all, is this "King" Uther or Arthur? And why is the king reflected in the eyes of his new knights? I've got a couple theories. First, maybe Tennyson is using a mirror effect to show us that these new knights will be lesser versions of their new king, Arthur, embodying all his virtues. Or perhaps the "King" is Uther and Bellicent is recounting how she suddenly sees the family resemblance between in Arthur, and because she sees the image of Uther in Arthur, that image (of Uther) is reflected in the eyes of the knights surrounding Arthur. Thoughts?

    2) Does anyone remember how Malory's portrayal of Bedivere compares to Tennyson's? He's really prominent in the Idylls right from the beginning, and I've read the famous last idyll enough to know that he's a really important figure there as well. I don't remember if he's this big a presence in Malory. Historically speaking, Tennyson's got it right, since Bedivere was one of the earliest knights associated with Arthur, along with Kay and Gawain. (In the Welsh, he's called Bedwyr.)

    3) I LOVE the early characterizations of Gawain and Mordred (ll. 319-24). You can really see right from the beginning how different they are. When Bellicent tells them to leave her because she's about to discuss "secret things" with Leodegrance, their reactions are priceless. Gawain "sprang out...and ran like a colt, and leapt at all he saw." It's just so CUTE, which is never something I associated with Gawain (except maybe with BBC's Gawain, who is adorable but in a completely different lady's man type of way.) Not only does this give us a really happy and energetic Gawain, but it also associates him with horses. I wonder if this is deliberate on Tennyson's part, because Gawain is one of the few knights who has a horse famous enough to be named (and even physically described as an Otherworldly type of being in the German Parzival.) I also love that Gawain "break[s] into song." He would totally fit in with the Monty Python crew.

    Mordred, on the other hand, is a sneaky little boy right from the beginning. Instead of running off to frolic like his brother, he stays behind to eavesdrop on his mother's secret. And Tennyson already makes mention that Mordred will "find his doom" by striking at the throne. I just wish he'd described Mordred in physical terms, as he did Gawain. I've always been fascinated by this dark Mordred figure (and I HATE what the BBC has done with him).

    4) I also adored the childhood scene between Arthur and Bellicent, in which Arthur comforts his sister after she's been beaten for a crime she didn't commit. The language she uses to describe the scene is so sweet:

    He found me first when yet a little maid:
    Beaten I had been for a little fault
    Whereof I was not guilty; and out I ran
    And flung myself down on a bank of heath,
    And hated this fair world and all therein,
    And wept, and wish'd that I were dead; and he -
    I know not whether of himself he came,
    Or brought by Merlin, who, they say, can walk
    Unseen at pleasure - he was at my side,
    And spake sweet words, and comforted my heart,
    And dried my tears, being a child with me.
    I just love the innocence of this scene, probably because we're not given ANY indication of either Arthur's or Morgause's childhoods in medieval texts. It's a part of their lives that I've always wished writers would address, and Tennyson seems to be the first to do it, before the incomparable T.H. White comes along with his Sword in the Stone.

    There are a couple aspects of this scene which I found fascinating. First, you can totally see why Bellicent would fall in love with Arthur later (and bear Mordred to him). She talks about her childhood with him as "golden hours". I can easily see her sisterly affection morphing into a romantic attraction, especially as he becomes a powerful warlord and king. So I see this darker overtone to this very innocent childhood scene...which I think is intentional on Tennyson's part. And I think the fact that this scene can be so touching and simultaneously so ominous is a testament to Tennyson's brilliance as a poet. I also <3 that final line, "being a child with me." Something about the way those words ring really touches me. The idea of the noble "King Arthur" being able to just be a child with his kid sister is really poignant to me.

    The other interesting bit about this section was the mention of Merlin. Bellicent, even at this early stage, seems fascinated with magic. And her mention of Merlin here gives us a clue that Merlin has been with Arthur since childhood. It makes me wonder how much of Arthur's actions are his own, and how much a result of Merlin's counsel. Even in this scene, where he comforts baby Bellicent, she's unsure whether or not he does it out of the goodness of his heart or because Merlin ordered him to do so. I love this bit of ambiguity...again tying into Tennyson's exploration of truth vs. lies.

    5) Tennyson seems to make a tiny racial comment in one of Bellicent's lines:

    And then the Queen [Bellicent] made answer, 'What know I?
    For dark my mother was in eyes and hair,
    And dark in hair and eyes am I; and dark
    Was Gorlois, yea and dark was Uther too,
    Wellnigh to blackness; but this King [Arthur] is fair
    Beyond the race of Britons and of men.
    My edition has an endnote which says that Bellicent is exaggerating the stereotypes between two divergent Celtic peoples, the Brythonic and the Goidelic, who are respectively dark and fair. Luckily, the difference between the two just came up in my Celtic class, so I know what she's talking about. But...the weird thing is that even though both Arthur's parents are "dark...wellnigh to blackness", Arthur is fair. So where does his fair coloring come from, if it's not hereditary? I'm guessing it's a spiritual thing...because Arthur is so morally superior to his parents (well, at least to Uther), he's prettier. I absolutely HATE this trope (dark-skinned = evil, heathen; white-skinned = good, Christian) in the Middle Ages, but what can you do? Regardless, Tennyson is by no means the first author to associate Arthur with light symbolism, but I think it's heavy-handed here.

    I wonder if this trope comes into play in the other idylls? Do the Arthurian knights ever face Saracens or pagans?

    Finally, a couple of random comments. I'm not sure how I feel about Lancelot. In his first scene, he's already riding with Guinevere (accompanying her to Arthur's wedding, no less). I guess it bothers me a little bit that he's not given a history before Guinevere. Or perhaps that comes later?

    Also, in the knights' wedding song, they keep mentioning the "secret word" that God has told Arthur. WTF are they talking about? Is it something general like his divine right to be king or is it something that we'll discover later?

    Last thing: there's a line in one of the battle scenes that I love! (I know, hell has frozen over.) In the crucial moment where Arthur defeats the other kings (yes, including Lot), it seems like time freezes for a second and the fight is "like a painted battle". That is such a cool line! I totally imagine it as one of those beautiful dynamic tableaus painted all in jewel tones. It seems like one of those cinematic moments where everything goes into slow motion because it's a really important scene. Anyways, besides my simple admiration for this passage, there also seems to be some interesting stuff going on with voice vs. silence here.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  11. #11
    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    Take your time. Sorry about the spoilers. >.< And yeah, why does Guenevere always get the bulk of the blame? Just like Adam and Eve, they both were at fault, but Eve gets the worst of the blame.

    Popping my nose in here:
    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman
    It's actually really refreshing to me that Tennyson does not dwell on the battle scenes. I've always found the action sequences rather boring and conventional in the Arthurian texts. It's nice that Tennyson focuses on other things rather than the epic warrior-ness of the knights.
    And this is the tom-boy in me speaking, I love the battles. I think that's one thing that felt lacking in Tennyson for me, and it's certainly one of the things I'm loving about Chretien.

    Re: the wolves - Any clues as to where werewolves originated? I'm curious who has the grudge against wolves in Europe. For having been deities at one point, they did end up with a really bad reputation.

    About the forests - I may be reading things differently. I did start out on more of the Renaissance texts. I just never caught the same feeling of "bad" from the woods. Dangerous on occasion, but not waste or evil. I'll have to look through again and watch for it.

    I was reading a bit about love at first sight in the introduction to the Chretien de Troyes book I'm reading now. I thought it was a fascinating concept considering how often it turns out badly for people in literature. It's always the men who get the short end of the stick too. Then again it's always the men who are in a position to pursue said love. Hmmm.

    Slightly random, and you might have seen this collection, but I figured I'd share it anyway. The talk about eyes made me think of it. I can't read a thing on them, but they're interesting to look through.

    Re: magic and truth, you do have a point there. And I'm pretty sure, even if "fire of God" appears in medieval texts, that's copy-paste right from the Old Testament. I can think of a bunch of instances when there's either some consuming flame or a pillar of fire as some sign, but I'm trying to remember if there's any instance of the "fire of God" appearing in any battles. I can't remember any, but either way the phrase "the fire of God descended" on something or other appears several times there.

    *edit*
    And I was totally writing this while you were posting yours, haha. I'll get back to you on that.
    Last edited by sithkittie; 01-23-2011 at 05:01 AM.

  12. #12
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Last post for tonight, I swear. It's 4am here, and I'm exhausted, but you wrote something I need to respond to before I forget it.

    Quote Originally Posted by sithkittie View Post
    Re: the wolves - Any clues as to where werewolves originated? I'm curious who has the grudge against wolves in Europe. For having been deities at one point, they did end up with a really bad reputation.
    Yes! Actually, I don't know if this has to do with their origins, but it's an interesting fact. I ran across it when I was doing research for my Yvain and madness paper last semester, and I thought it was absolutely fascinating. I'll have to go back to my notes and dig up my source, and the specifics, but here's the gist of it:

    The concept of a man-wolf began actually began in medieval medicine. Werewolfism (or lycanthropy, which is the pseudo-scientific name) was considered a form of madness. It was caused by an imbalance of humors, in which there was too much black bile (or melancholia) released into the subject's system for whatever reason. An excess of melancholy creates depression (which was considered a form of insanity), but also had physical effects. It caused a noticeable darkening of the eyes and made the subject grow lots of shaggy hair, not only on his head but all over his body, making him look like a giant beast. Because the subject was depressed, he often isolated himself from his community, making himself a suspicious figure. In modern times, the types of mental illness which correspond with the medievals' melancholia include schizophrenia...which might explain the mythology behind the human-by-day, wolf-by-night duality.

    I find this one of the coolest things ever!
    Last edited by Wilde woman; 01-23-2011 at 05:17 AM. Reason: Lol, glad that SK saw the double post. Bedtime now.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  13. #13
    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    That is pretty much one of the coolest things ever! I'd love to look at some of your sources!!

  14. #14
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sithkittie View Post
    I was reading a bit about love at first sight in the introduction to the Chretien de Troyes book I'm reading now. I thought it was a fascinating concept considering how often it turns out badly for people in literature. It's always the men who get the short end of the stick too. Then again it's always the men who are in a position to pursue said love. Hmmm.
    Now that you've read Chretien, what do you think about his attitude towards women? Considering the times, I find him pretty sympathetic to women (definitely more so than any of the other Arthurian authors I've read, with the single exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but she doesn't really count). A lot of that stems, I think, from his hatred of adultery and the way he upholds marriage as the highest form of romantic love. The interesting thing is that marriage pretty much flies in the face of traditional courtly love!

    I browsed through that medical website you posted. This one is my favorite image, though it has nothing to do with eyes. I wonder who decided "yeah, this would be a GREAT moment to illustrate!" As for the text, the only thing I can tell about this page is that it's written in Latin. My paleography instructor would be so disappointed.

    And I'm pretty sure, even if "fire of God" appears in medieval texts, that's copy-paste right from the Old Testament.
    Actually, I was thinking of a completely different moment. There's a section in Nennius' 12 battles where Arthur appears on the battlefield with a shield depicting the Virgin Mary on it, and wins the day resoundingly. I know it has nothing to do with fire, but I think I associated it with your "fire of God" because it was one of the first moments where Arthur is explicitly Christian and rewarded for it.

    Anyways, back to Tennyson. If you have time, I'd love to hear your response to Gawain, Mordred, and Bellicent.

    I'm off to do more reading. I just realized this Arthur class has a massive amount of reading that I have to do by Monday, so I need to start tonight. So far, it's mostly looking at the beginnings of Arthur, which I feel the most comfortable with. One thing we're reading (again) is Culhwch and Olwen, one of the tales in the Mabinogion. Have you read it? It's not the most coherent story (I mostly think of it as "that one with all the lists" ), but it is SO CELTIC. By which I mean it has moments of breathtaking beauty, but also moments of sheer jaw-dropping weirdness. Ex: the description of Culhwch riding to Arthur's court is absolutely gorgeous...probably my favorite moment in the text. But the bit about Twrch Trwyth is just BIZARRE. What is the Celts' obsession with pigs? And hair?

    BTW, if you're interested, there has been a cartoon version made of Culhwch & Olwen. I think it dates back to just after WWII, and it was made in a collaboration between the Welsh and the Russians. (Yes, WTF is the correct response here.) As if the story of C&O wasn't weird enough. So combine the weirdness of the tale with bad '50s animation AND a moral for children. I remember having to watch it on VHS when I was exhausted...and it was a trippy experience.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  15. #15
    Registered User sithkittie's Avatar
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    I have a cold, and it's making me completely useless! Sorry!!

    You know, I didn't even notice an attitude towards women in Chretien, though I wasn't specifically looking for one. I guess that means I approve of how he portrayed them. Lunete was awesome. I loved her. Enide was Enide. I'm not really sure what I think of Guenevere in Knight of the Cart, but she wasn't nearly as evilly portrayed as I've read her. I'd love to discuss that one with you once you've read it.

    You mentioned before that he hated adultery. I don't see it. Especially in comparison to Tennyson (good lord almighty!), I thought he handled affairs (one affair really...) really nicely. What makes you say he hated adultery (and I know this is slightly off topic, but I'm curious)?

    I also have to say, I loved his "sport" scenes. The first one that came up in Erec and Enide had me about off my seat giggling it caught me so off guard. I was not expecting that from a 12 century European author at all. I don't understand courtly love. I really don't. That's one of those things that I get in the sense of I can follow the definition and see it when it comes up, but I don't really get it.

    re: the website, I love that website! Some of the pictures are so random! I need to study Latin so I can read them. (Ohh! The medieval history program at WMU requires medieval Latin every semester apparently, and the ph.d program requires 2 modern European languages, not that I'm excited about learning languages, at all! ) My attempts at self-studying tend to not go very far as I get distracted really easily. :P

    re: fire of God/God rewarding Arthur, that makes sense. That work is not among those I've read. Though speaking of Marion Zimmer Bradley (albeit a little belated) I'm rereading Mists of Avalon now. It's so much different now that I know who she's talking about! Frick did I not understand that book when I was 12!

    Gawain, Mordred, and Bellicent.... We'll have to come back to this again after we've done a few more of the idylls. I did really love the part where Gawain trotted off singing. I definitely had a miniature version of the BBC's Merlin's Gawain, complete with a jug of booze in hand. Bellicent I'm not sure of. She definitely has her own agenda in getting Leodegrance to marry Guenevere off to Arthur. She should, in my mind, be a villain here, but she's not. She helps Arthur, but neither Gawain nor Mordred really benefit from his power. Or maybe I'm just switching my stories around. I don't really understand what Tennyson did with her, but again, this conversation will definitely be one we return to later.

    Mordred.... he's a blank slate for me. One small sneaky thing, listening in on a conversation he's not supposed to hear, and that's the start of evil for him. I think I'm just not a fan of Tennyson as a story teller, and it's really with the 'bad guys,' or at least those without ovaries seducing righteous men into damnation, that he dropped the ball.

    I totally looked for that video online, but I can't find it. That sounds like absolute crack! I don't know what of the Mabinogion I've read. I must have been sleepy during the parts I did read, because it took a while to associate the fountain in Chretien's Yvain with the one in the Mabinogion even though it seemed familiar. Culhwch and Olwen does sound familiar though, at least the lists part. haha.

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