Idylls of the King and the Quest for the Good Society

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Innocence that cannot include the daimonic becomes evil. — Rollo May

As long as you’re going to create a castle, the psyche can only come in as an invader. — James Hillman

So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over. — John Steinbeck

A good story demands its own retellings, and each version shifts our perspective like a gem turned to reveal new facets. Restoried from before the dawn of recorded Welsh folklore, Arthur and his court have appeared as Christian conquerors doomed by ambition (Geoffrey of Monmouth), nobles gathered around a sacred Table (Wace), romantic souls in search of the Grail (Chretien de Troyes), and courageous heroes brought down by misfortune (Thomas Malory); but with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King the dimension of psychological depth enters the enchanted world of Camelot.

Tennyson wrote and polished the twelve non-rhyming poems of the Idylls, his longest work, in the last half of his life, finally finishing them in 1885. A masterpiece of elegaic mood, they draw upon several sources–including the poet’s own “The Lady of Shalott”–to depict the flowering and fall of the fabled kingdom. Arthur remains the hub on which the tales turn even when they focus on other characters. The story begins with his meeting Guinevere and ends with his body transported to Avalon.

Within that interval, a prototype of the Good Society of peace and plenty, harmony and beauty rises from chaos, enjoys a short day in the sun, and suffers demolition by evil hands. Unlike Hermann Hesse’s Castalia, an institution of art and high culture subject to the inevitable entropy of transience, Tennyson’s Camelot is dismantled from within. This makes it an insightful study for those of us striving for just institutions and communities that satisfy deep human desires. Is a healthful, sustainable Camelot possible, or must it always founder on the rock of human treachery?

When the story opens, Arthur, paragon of practical visionaries, moves with strength into the difficult campaign of taking back the land from lords who have used it badly. In this the very elements aid him. “…The Powers who walk the world/Made lightnings and great thunders over him,” and here below the inspirational power of his Good Society ideal emanated from him like a steady light. Tennyson’s Arthur is the right man in the right time and place in part because he carries leadership potentials his subjects cannot yet see in themselves. “Who should be King save him who makes us free?” * As another witness notes:

But when he spake and cheer’d his Table Round
With large, divine, and comfortable words,
Beyond my tongue to tell thee – I beheld
From eye to eye thro’ all their Order flash
A momentary likeness of the King….

Yet the potential for dissolution abides. Arthur marries his queen in early May, a nod to the ancient Celtic belief in the natural promiscuity of May Day, but Arthur’s court remains too rigid to let in the liveliness implied. Merlin pokes fun at the youthful Gareth for what will become a recurring motif: “…thou art not who/Thou seemest…” The name of King Mark pops up early, “a name of evil savour in the land”: as Camelot deteriorates he will strike Sir Tristam from behind. Here, and throughout the Idylls, Tennyson relies on the word shadow: “Camelot, a city of shadowy palaces”; “Then, like a shadow, past the people’s talk…”; “Creep with his shadow thro’ the court again”; “The crown is but the shadow of the king.” C. G. Jung would keep this poetic sense of shadow when describing the hidden, fearful aspects of human consciousness turning away from facing its darker possibilities.

Although his kingdom is named from the war god Camulos, Arthur seems at first to cast no shadow himself. Compared with Christ, he is described as “just,” “clear-faced,” and “blameless.” He “clear’d the dark places and let in the law.” He keeps the lords he fought with in power and allows the predatory Edryn the chance to redeem himself. Arthur even trusts Lancelot to bring him Guinevere. Determined to right the wrongs left by his father’s reign, the king obviously believes that the right cause and the right men are enough to make a kingdom. (“My knights are sworn to vows/Of utter hardihood, utter gentleness/And, loving, utter faithfulness in love…”) He possesses in abundance the very quality that will get him into so much trouble later in the story: an innocence that prevents him from hearing the deeper import of Lynette’s fierce plea: “O King, for thou hast driven the foe without,/See to the foe within!”

It does not take long for the consequences of Arthur’s innocence to appear. Seeing Lancelot and Guinevere together, Sir Geraint finds himself assailed by doubts about his faithful wife and only comes to trust her again after being severely injured. Enid’s faded silk dress rebukes as well as foreshadows the fading of the court’s fragile luster. Fed by scheming Vivien, the notion of Lancelot having an affair with the queen so disenchants and enrages Sir Balin that it prompts his brother Sir Balan to mistake him for an enemy and charge him, resulting in the death of both brothers. Tennyson makes quite clear that it’s not the affair but the betrayal of ideals that besieges the dream. When innocence opens the door to the dark forces it should be facing down, appearances take on the aspect of reality and reality itself grows suspect.

Even worldly Merlin is vulnerable. Canny enough to tell himself this when faced with Vivien’s flattery–

Face-flatterer and backbiter are the same.
And they, sweet soul, that most impute a crime
Are pronest to it, and impute themselves…
Inflate themselves with some insane delight,
And judge all nature from her feet of clay,
Without the will to lift their eyes, and see
Her godlike heaven crown’d with spiritual fire…

–he nevertheless allows himself to believe her appearance of love long enough for her to weave a lethal spell and lock his wisdom away from Camelot forever. This is not so surprising as it might seem, given that cynicism is merely the flip side of guilelessness. The bitterly disappointed lover who scorns affection soon falls for it again and suffers another rejection once his repressed need for love rushes to the surface and possesses him. The achilles heel of the cynic is always the cynical player upon his affections. Romantic love of the genuine sort cannot approach him because his disbelief in it shields him from it.

If Arthur carries the innocent psychological energy of the puer or Divine Child, Merlin carries the senex or Old Man. These two types are often found together and often work well together, but without Merlin’s wisdom Arthur stands little chance of piercing the mist of his innocence in time.

Innocence not only hides the shadow side of human action and impulse, it unknowingly invites it into the castle. As Elaine drowns in a fantasy life with unavailable Lancelot, as Pelleas will later with cruel Etrarre, Guinevere, a wise queen soon to be locked away, succumbs to disenchantment with the too-good-to-be-trueness of it all:

Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,
That passionate perfection, my good lord –
But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?
He never spake word of reproach to me,
He never had a glimpse of mine untruth…
Rapt in his fancy of his Table Round,
And swearing men to vows impossible…

The split between the covert and the overt weighs on Lancelot too as his conflict between love and duty ages his face and drives him into longer and longer intervals spent in the wilderness “o’er these waste downs whereon I lost myself.” Unlike Arthur, who though innocent does find a center in himself from which to make decisions, Lancelot is a doubter, always suspended between opposites like those his king lives to reconcile. As a born follower he is at peace when he can speak his doubts and have them answered, but when he conceals them he broods, and Lancelot-style brooding eventually leads to malcontentment, impulsivity, and betrayal. In one of the saddest passages of the Idylls, an accurate but unsuspecting Arthur rues without understanding his best knight’s inability to love the woman who died for him:

…I would to God,
Seeing the homeless trouble in thine eyes,
Thou couldst have loved this maiden, shaped, it seems,
By God for thee alone…

With Lancelot’s gradual inward collapse the other knights begin to lose their way, from unchivalrously ganging up on him in a joust to Gawain’s and Tristam’s small-hearted infidelity. Lancelot’s casual knocking down of Modred generates a dangerous seething rage, as upper-class arrogance always does. By the time pure Galahad appears, his perfection only serves to highlight their disintegration. Far from rejuvenating the kingdom, the appearance of the Grail intended only for Galahad draws off what’s left of the knightly flower of Camelot from their earthly duties as they go chasing visions. As Arthur sadly observes,

Go, since your vows are sacred, being made:
Yet – for ye know the cries of all my realm
Pass thro’ this hall – how often, O my knights,
Your places being vacant at my side,
This chance of noble deeds will come and go
Unchallenged, while ye follow wandering fires
Lost in the quagmire!

His forecast that few will return proves accurate. Galahad, a mystic, ascends with the Grail into heaven without bringing renuvenation to the land. Lancelot returns half mad after a near-rending by two lions materialized from his own emblem, and Percivale, having seen his dreams and comforts turn literally to dust, renounces his knighthood and becomes a monk. In our time too, many a noble spirit can be seen chasing after the latest social and spiritual programs promising quick-fix universal betterment as the work of restoration actually at hand stands neglected. It is a lamentable sight when the best and brightest pitch for saving the world through therapy or incense or a change of regimes while the kingdom jolts into steep decline. As cast-aside Guinevere expresses it:

O closed about by narrowing nunnery-walls,
What knowest thou of the world, and all its lights
And shadows, all the wealth and all the woe?

“Have any of our Round Table held their vow?” asks Pelleas of mute Percivale before losing his mind. “Ye black nest of rats, ye built too high.” The kind of pride that accompanies arrogance and hubris not only goes before a fall, it constellates one. Not even the parodying appearance of the dangerous Red Knight and his anti-Round Table gang suffice to enlighten Arthur or anybody else except Guinevere and the court jester Dagonet that the fall is now close at hand.

Little wonder that Camelot’s final celebration receives the nickname of Tournament of the Dead Innocence. “My knighthood taught me this,” confides Tristam, “being snapt – We run more counter to the soul thereof/Than had we never sworn.”

When Arthur takes leave of Guinevere on his way to the battle he knows will claim his life (to war on his own people is to war on himself), she turns for a final look at him but only sees the golden Pendragon serpent shining on his helmet as he turns away. Yet only now does she realize that, far from being only a cold ideal, her husband was also a man, “the highest and the most human too,” and therefore eminently lovable. It’s too late. Arthur’s innocence has evaporated, but its shadowy offspring will overcome him in the dread shape of Modred even as the power of lightning-crowned Excalibur puts an end to the rebellion.

Just as the Powers of the air cheered on Arthur at his coming, so do “the spirits of the waste and weald” weep with sad Guinevere as she departs Camelot forever. Tennyson’s version of the tale unfolds in an animated world that reacts to human doings and feelings. (Toward the end of his life the poet described himself as “a pantheist of sorts.”) At the founding of the Round Table the father of the queen’s maid had witnessed a marvel arranged by nature spirits:

All down the lonely coast of Lyonnesse,
Each with a beacon-star upon his head,
And with a wild sea-light about his feet,
He saw them – headland after headland flame
Far on into the rich heart of the west:
And in the light the white mermaiden swam,
And strong man-breasted things stood from the sea,
And sent a deep sea-voice thro’ all the land,
To which the little elves of chasm and cleft
Made answer, sounding like a distant horn.
…For all the land was full of life.

“But now,” Arthur tells Bedivere, “the whole Round Table is dissolved/Which was an image of the mighty world…” As he lay hurting, three queens arrive on a barge to “bear me to the margin” of Avalon, “deep meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns,” where the great wounded king will finally find his rest.

Arthur’s tragedy, and Camelot’s, hid within and drew power from the shadow of the visionary’s innocence. Arthur believed that order could be imposed from the top down; that wrongs could be righted by proper authority; that attractive, eloquent people were worth trusting; that inspired sincerity meant lasting loyalty; that outer beauty heralded inner beauty; and that keeping good thoughts would make for a Good Society. On these beliefs he built a castle so high that it tempted the fates waiting below.

For our day fabled Camelot offers a reminder that if any Good Society is to stand a chance of flourishing, it will need to be built from the ground up by visionaries possessed of enough spiritual and psychological night vision to detect the shadowy seeds of undoing. Well educated about character, freedom, and power, the citizens can then be alerted at once, lest all noble efforts be nullified by shadowy plotters cloaking their deeds in high titles while spreading disruption within the borders.

* All quotations come from the Idylls edited by J. M. Gray, 1983/1996, Penguin Books.

Rede ye also “The Noble Tale of the Unhidden Grail.