Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Anglican Authority

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Author: Noelle Bowles
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 101)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,111 words

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[(essay date summer 2007) In the following essay, Bowles explains the way Tennyson handled Arthurian myth in a way that avoided references to Catholicism and privileged the moral authority of England over that of Rome.]

In my judgment, an epic poem must either be national or mundane. As to Arthur, you could not by any means make a poem national to Englishmen. What have we to do with him?--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1833The Arthurian Romance has every recommendation that should win its way to the homage of a great poet. It is national: it is Christian.--William E. Gladstone, 1859

From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, we may be tempted to nod along with Gladstone and puzzle over Coleridge's rejection of Arthur as a national icon, for King Arthur is, at least in popular consciousness, a symbol of early medieval England.1 Coleridge, however, was not so far amiss in his assessment as we might at first imagine. Welsh legends translated into French, co-opted by the Germans, rendered from the French into English and passed down over centuries is an odd road for a "national" myth of England to travel. The path is further complicated when we consider ethnicity and religion and their place in Arthurian legend. There is certainly a curious paradox in Victorian medievalism wherein a presumably Celtic Arthur serves as a quintessentially "English" hero battling Saxon invaders--the same sort of Saxons, it must be noted, who sat upon nineteenth-century England's throne as the Saxe-von-Coburgs and with whose preconquest racial heritage the Victorian English citizenry were encouraged to identify.2 Arthur and his court are, moreover, if not pagan then at least Roman Catholic--the sole Christian faith in early England. We cannot fault Coleridge if the nationalist connection between a Celtic Catholic Arthur and a Protestant Anglo-Saxon nineteenth-century populace were not readily apparent. Yet something happened between the years of Coleridge's assessment and Gladstone's pronouncement that transformed culturally problematic Welsh legends into icons for Anglican nationalism, and that something was Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

Of course, Tennyson was not solely responsible for nineteenth-century Britain's love of the medieval or even the Arthurian. Three editions of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur3 as well as the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and the emerging popularity of Gothic revival architecture helped fuel Victorian England's fascination with myth and medieval British history.4 Yet the essentially Catholic nature of the mythic Arthur's faith remained a problem. For instance, artist William Dyce faced trouble in 1848 when, in designing frescoes for the Queen's Robing Room in the New Palace at Westminster, he chose Arthurian themes but needed to find a way to negotiate between "heresy or any endorsement of Catholicism" (Mancoff 451) in the representation of the Grail quest images. Raymond Chapman notes that "[m]edievalism was a strong weapon for the renascent Roman Catholics but it could be two-edged for Anglicans who claimed apostolic continuity without Roman obedience"5 (Sense of the Past 40-41). Tennyson handles this blade...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420094575