Erin Lauten

Arthur's Apocalypse:
Desolation and isolation in a Camelot without its Christ

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King covers the complete history of King Arthur, beginning with his birth and rise to power in the first tale, "The Coming of Arthur," and ending with his death, or passing, and the disintegration of Camelot in the final tale, "The Passing of Arthur." These stories of Arthur, when taken as a whole, are perhaps one of the darkest representations of the Arthur cycle, which is remarkable in light of the fact that Tennyson's Arthur is probably second only to Malory's in terms of his influence on contemporary and later writers and artists, as well as his contemporary and later popularity. Arthur is portrayed in grand heroic fashion, but in the end he is betrayed and dies--tragically and mysteriously, and without a sense of finality. The scope of the passing of Tennyson's Arthur is anything but narrow; its concerns and resonances reach as far back from medieval times as Christ, and as far forward from medieval times as Tennyson's own Victorian age.

The first and final episodes of the Idylls make it clear that Arthur's birth and reign represent an ascension to a moral order and a divergence from barbarism, while his death presents the inevitable return to moral destitution and confusion (Lacy 181). The final episode proposes that the moral and spiritual glory of Camelot was merely an aberration, perhaps even a brief dream--and no longer possible now that Arthur is gone. These ideas are inextricably linked to the form of Tennyson's poems; he manipulates language and structure in order to accommodate and also execute his agenda. With his orchestration of language and structure he also creates a suitable narrative ambiance for the story to unfold in. But Tennyson's purposes are achieved not merely through his manipulation of the technical aspects of poetry; he forces us to see Arthur in his terms by artfully connecting Arthur and Christ. In the end, we understand Arthur's life as a phenomenon, his passing as a crucifixion, and his possible return as an empty hope.

Tennyson's Idylls, of which "The Coming" and "The Passing" are the first and final episodes, were originally published in 1869, and they represent the highest achievement of the Arthurian explosion that took place in the nineteenth century. The resurgence owed itself to recent advances in printing technology which were put to use when dozens of medieval texts and historical accounts were uncovered. And thus Arthur returned to Britain, only this time with a uniquely Victorian agenda. Indeed, Arthur is constantly being invoked as a figure in some writer's brilliantly contrived and artfully disguised socio-political commentary, and Tennyson's Arthur is no exception.

The Victorian era was dizzy with technological progress. Not everyone conceived of this trend as progress, however, and Tennyson can without a doubt be counted among the disenchanted. His work represents, among other things, a dissatisfaction with his world (176). In many ways, his Idylls serve to illuminate and disavow the ugliness and injustice of his time--and to suggest that things were much better back when Arthur was king. What Tennyson tells us, however, is that the court at Camelot--with all of its promise and magnificence--was merely an aberration, a wonderful but only brief respite from the spiritual and moral void which quickly returned after Arthur's passing. Tennyson's repudiation of the present becomes especially pessimistic when he couples it with a somber acknowledgment of the eventual impotence of the alternative that at one point seemed to offer the most hope.

The last poem in Tennyson's Arthur cycle begins with a framing device, but a very unusual one:

That story which the bold Sir Bedivere

First made and latest left of all the knights, Told, when the man was no more than a voice

In the white winter of his age, to those

With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds. (p. 960; 1. 1-5)

The story's narrative frame is merely a sentence fragment, whose structural components are incomplete and heavily confounded. A story is mentioned; its teller and original audience are identified; and the time frame is established. Thus the sentence gives us information, but it proceeds very fragmentedly and obliquely, and then curiously ends. As the sentence progresses, it gets increasingly complicated--and the "story" gets modified over and over again. In turn, we get increasingly ready for the sentence to wind down and complete itself. But this gradual winding down never happens, and the built-up and almost anxious fragment is never completed. Instead, it simply stops, and we are left bewildered, wondering, whether consciously or not, "That story what The end result is that we feel unsettled--and perhaps even duped.

In stark contrast to the flustered opening sentence of "The passing" stands the untroubled opening sentence of The Coming of Arthur":

Leodogran, the King of Cameliard,

Had one fair daughter, and none other child;

And she was fairest of all flesh on earth [...] (679; 1-3)

This opening not only has all of the necessary elements of a sentence, but the elements are arrayed in the most conventional order: subject, modifier, verb, object; new subject, verb, adjective. There is nothing at all unsettling about this opening. In fad, it is so conventional, and so conventionally ordered, that it is likely to make us feel that everything is at rights and properly ordered, or at least that things will soon be so.

The discrepancy between the language in these two opening sentences--the settling, ordered language that begins "The Coming" and the unsettling, disordered language the introduces "The Passing"--is indicative of the larger theme in Tennyson's Arthurian cycle. We can at once see that the story of Arthur's coming is confident and full of promise, and that the story of his passing is the failure of that promise, the show of the ultimate inefficacy of Arthur's court--or at least the show of its temporality. In any case, we are adequately prepared, by the end of the first sentence, for what awaits us in each story.

The story quickly establishes a narrative voice which, according to the opening fragment, is supposed to belong to "the bold Sir Bedivere" (960; 1). But the narrative voice does not belong to Bedivere. This throws us for a loop, since we are expecting to be guided through this important, final episode in Arthur's life by someone who was a principal player in the court at Camelot, who knew Arthur personally, and who was there when he finally passed on. Not only are we misled by the opening fragment's suggestion that Bedivere will be our helmsman--which is jarring in itself--but we must now hear a story which is at least three times removed from its source. This narrative curve ball builds on the atmosphere that the story's opening fragment sets up. The beginning of the story looks like a sentence, but it does not turn out to be one; the narrator is supposed to be Bedivere, but the narrative voice turns out to be someone else's. Indeed, the warning is loud and clear: we should assume that things are not as they first appear, and we must proceed through the narrative with due caution.

The narrative mood of "The Passing" can only be described as surreal or dreamlike. We are told that Bedivere, who "slowly paced among the slumbering host, / Heard in his tent the moanings of the King" (96Q 7-8). As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the narrative, like Bedivere, is progressing in a peculiarly slow manner, as though it is not happening in real time, but in the slowed-down slumbering lumber associated with the dream state. The "moanings of the King" set a particularly eerie tone for the rest of the story.

After hearing Arthur's lament, the narrator mentions "that last weird battle in the west" (961; 29) and thus warns us that the heroic Arthur's last battle will be shrouded in mystery--that we will find if incomprehensible and weird. Now the ghost of Gawain comes wandering into Arthur's tent, and he offers Arthur a warning:

[...] 'Hollow, hollow all delight!

Hail, King! tomorrow thou shalt pass away.

Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee. [...] (961; 33-35)

Clearly, Gawain is foretelling Arthur's death, but beyond that he seems to be suggesting that all of the delights and magnificence of Camelot have been an illusion. Camelot and its promise have seemed and felt real, but in fact they are hollow unrealities, and the whole thing is quickly coming to its end.

The arrival of Gawain's ghost does not strike us as an intrusion into the narrative, because the atmosphere is hazy and dreamlike in the first place.

But suddenly, Arthur wakes:

'Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind,

Thine, Gawain, was the voice - are these dim cries

Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wile

Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?' (961; 45-48)

and we realize that Gawain's ghost was merely a figure in his dream, which itself is a figure within the dreamy surreality of our narrative. These dreams,and these dreams within dreams, offer us little to cling to. The suggestion in all of this seems to be that Arthur's reign has merely been a dream, to which we have all clung and from which we are all about to awaken.

Throughout the haze of the narrative, one thing is consistent and clear: that the life and passing of Arthur are heavily symbolically linked to the life and death of Christ. The notion of Arthur as a Christ figure appears early in the narrative, when we accompany Sir Bedivere into the tent, where Arthur is moaning:

'I found Him in the shining of the stars,

I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,

But in His ways with men I find Him not.

I waged His wars, and now I pass and die. (960; 9-12)

Arthur's suggestion that he has been waging God's wars is reminiscent of the notion of Christ as God's earthly messenger. He seems to be saying that his reign has been in service to God; that like Christ, he pursues not what he wants but what God wants (Matthew 26.39). When Arthur says, "For I, being simple, thought to work His will" (960; 22) it resonates both conceptually and linguistically with Christ's statement to God that, whatever it takes, His "will be done" (Matthew 26.42).

The last line in Arthur's lament is the most conspicuous reference to Christ in all of Tennyson's Idylls:

My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death;

Nay - God my Christ - I pass but shall not die.' (960; 27-28)

These words are meant to remind us of Christ's final words on the cross before his crucifixion: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27.46). And Arthur's suggestion that he will. return-T pass but shall not di"-is merely an echo of Christ' statement that he "will rise again" (Matthew 27.63).

These resonances give us the distinct impression that Arthur is on the verge o~ his own crucifixion. Note with what willingness and resignation Arthur goes into his final battle:

Far other is this battle in the west

Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth, [...]

Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way

Through this blind haze [...] (962; 66-67, 75-76)

Evidently, Arthur understands that he must proceed into the battle against Modred, despite unfavorable circumstances--his exhaustion and confusion, and poor visibility--and even though it has been prophesied that he will die. Arthur's willing participation in what he knows is his final battle is a parallel to the willingness with which Christ participates in the activities leading directly to his own death. One of the most striking examples of this occurs when Judas is about to turn Christ in; Christ simply tells Judas to "do what you are here to do" (Matthew 26.50). Clearly, neither Christ nor Arthur offers any real resistance to his own death.

Indeed, it is a betrayal that leads to the deaths both of Arthur and of Christ. Arthur: is betrayed by Modred--in whose care he left his kingdom while he was off fighting Lancelot--and by his own wife, Guinevere:

And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend

Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm

Reels back into the beast and is no more. (960; 24-26)

It is interesting to note that the position of the words "and all my realm" at the end of the second line is an implicit suggestion that we relate them not only to the verb clause that follows: "and all my realm / Reels back into the beast and is no more" but also to the phrase that leads ~;p to them: "And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend / Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm" (960; 25-26, 24-25). Thus we get the impression that the betrayal of Arthur is not merely the betrayal of his peace, but of the peace of his entire kingdom--and by implication, the Arthurian institution and everything it represents.

Sir Bedivere, attempting to convince Arthur to "go forth and conquer as of old," mentions the followers of Arthur who have betrayed him and joined Modred's forces:

I hear the steps of Modred in the west,

And with him many of thy people, and knights

Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown

Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee. (962; 59-62)

The metaphoric image of "spitting" that describes the traitors' attitude toward Arthur reminds us of what happens when Christ appears before Caiaphas the priest: "Then the high priest [...] said 'What is your verdict They answered, 'He deserves death.' Then they spat in his face and struck him [...]" (Matthew 26.65-67).

The particular connections that Tennyson draws between Arthur and Christ are overwhelmingly suggestive of one thing: that saviors are truly out of their element on earth, in any place and at any time. From Tennyson's text, we get the sense that Arthur was delivered to Britain because its people were wayward, corrupt, and desperately in need of direction and order. Arthur was their guide, and his court at Camelot funtioned as a miniature perfect world, morally sound and spiritually ascendant. The Arthurian institution was a success; the Britons were receptive to the chivalric codes, the courtly ideals, and the hierarchy. But the institution did not last long, because it could not last long. Heroes, saints, and saviors cannot be sustained by an environment which is naturally opposed to them. And a noble institution is bound to disintegrate in a world which is institutionally corrupt.

In spite of this, Tennyson does not seem to be suggesting that people are malicious. Clearly, people are constantly making bad decisions, but there are always extenuating circumstances. Judas' decision to inform against Christ is compelled by many factors; among them is a kind of pride, resulting perhaps from his jealousy of Christ, or his inclination to undo someone more powerful than himself. Another factor in Tudas' betrayal of Christ is purely monetary:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the priests and said, "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. (Matthew 26.14-16)

Whatever else is motivating Judas ~o betray Christ, it is clear that the offer of silver is what finally enables him to go through with it; for it is "from that moment" that he fully implicates himself in the execution of the deed.

Modred's betrayal of Arthur is similarly compelled--he is jealous of Arthur's power, and he covets what Arthur has: the beautiful Queen, and reign over Camelot. Thus Modred, like Judas, becomes a traitor because of his pride. It is easy to see how Modred's betrayal is also motivated by his material desires. Like Judas, who stands to gain thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal of Christ, Modred stands to gain an entire kingdom and all of its material wealth for his betrayal of Arthur.

When we attempt to make sense of Judas' betrayal of Christ, we necessarily conceptualize it, as we have done above, as the outcome of a conscious thought process. But it is important to remember that Judas' betrayal is ultimately motivated by God's decision to involve him in the fulfillment of His plan. Judas really has no choice in this matter; Christ recognizes that "all of this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled" (Matthew 26.56). A distinct notion of fate underlies all of the events surrounding the life and death of Christ, and a strange exculpation is conferred upon everyone involved--including those whose actions seem to be the most morally reprehensible of all.

Tennyson appears to be suggesting that we should, instead of condemning Modred, understand that he is merely human: susceptible to temptation and a victim of his own nature. In short, he is fallible, and his fallibility is his fate. Tennyson gives us the impression that the compelling factors in all human sins are completely external to the individual, and that the individual committing the sin is merely playing out his or her role. Like Tudas' betrayal of Christ, Modred's betrayal of Arthur is inescapable.

Tennyson's manipulation of language and imagery in "The Coming of Arthur" and "The Passing of Arthur" serve to depict Arthur's reign as a phenomenon. His birth and rise to power signal the birth and rise of morality for the Britons, and his passing signals the death of that morality. But the death of morality is not merely an accident; Tennyson suggests that its death is inevitable. In the end, Bedivere climbs "the highest he could climb" (972; 463) and watches as the boat bearing the ambiguously mortally wounded King Arthur disappears in the distance. The narrator ends the story, and Tennyson's Arthurian cycle, with the observation that "the new sun rose bringing the new year" (973; 469). On the surface, the image appears to imply that everything is going to be all right, but in fact the sun seems to have a disturbingly sardonic role: to illuminate what is no longer there, to illuminate the new desolation. As the ideal Arthur, and his Arthurian ideals, "vanish into light" (1. 468), all of those remaining must face the their lives without a moral and spiritual guide. The "new year" may bring with it a new savior, and he may, like Arthur and Christ, impact many people's lives. But the world in which we live is too imperfect to sustain an ideal, and we ultimately--and historically--end up persecuting, betraying, and then killing our saviors. At the end of The Passing," everything reverts to the way it was before; Arthur leaves the world, in which he was so glaringly out of place: " 'From the great deep to the great deep he goes' " (972; 445) and Arthur's realm "reels back into the beast, and is no more" (960; 26-27). 

Works Cited

Lacy, Norris, and Geoffrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1988.

Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Singapore: Longman Singapore Publishers, 1969.