Idylls of the King is a beautiful retelling of the Arthurian legend. In blank verse, Tennyson tells us the coming of Arthur, the romantic chivalrous stories of the knights of the table round, the corruption that envelops the order, the moral decay of his court, the ultimate ruin and downfall of Camelot, and finally, his passing.
This is not an easy work to read because of its darker undertones. Although the work begins in a happy, idyllic tone, the underlying darker current of impending doom is felt from the beginning. With each idyll, the story gets darker, and the finale is heartbreaking. Despite that, the work is alluring, largely due to the lyrical beauty of Tennyson’s verse. The picturesque ambience his verses create has a mystical and surreal quality that charms the reader and attracts him irrespective of the depressing tale.
The theme is religiously bent with its stress upon moral degradation and moral decay. The 19th-century religious views are much in display than those in medieval times. Nevertheless, how ruin is unavoidable in a kingdom stung by moral decay is the recurrent theme of these idylls. Through Arthur’s downfall, Tennyson shows that one man, though saintly he may be, is an insufficient force to fight against and conquer corruption. Guinevere and Lancelot’s sin and betrayal were the cause of Arthur’s downfall, yet Arthur’s pure and angelic self was no match to stay the ruin. Tennyson’s expressions through the idylls regarding moral degradation kept me wondering which court he was truly writing about. Arthur’s court at Camelot or Queen Victoria’s at Buckingham Palace?
As a story, Idylls of the King has its charms. Each idyll is a story in itself although connected with one another thematically to the story at large. Love, lust, court intrigues, betrayal, greed for power, and corruption, what we often see in history (as well as now in different guises), are presented in rich prose with a captivating style so that readers can traverse through the dark depressing waters with ease. This is my first exposure to Tennyson, after years of waiting to make his acquaintance. I’m glad that this meeting wasn’t disappointing.