ach of Arthur's tests — and those of Bedivere as well — emphasizes Tennyson's idea that belief and commitment must provide the centre for human life if it is to rise above the bestial. For the poet there is an essential relation between man's capacity to believe ––to have faith — and to live morally and loyally — to keep faith with oneself, one's fellow men, and one's god. Since this closing idyll is presenting the pessimistic side of the problem, he emphasizes the major, fundamental difficulties man has in having and keeping faith, and in so doing he explains once more how the Round Table failed. In contrast, "The Coming of Arthur" begins the poem by demonstrating a successful example of the process by which men authenticate their beliefs, enabling them to act; and though Tennyson quite frankly reveals the essentially subjective, nonrational nature of such decision, yet he manages to present a hopeful picture — just as he does in In Memoriam, the poem in which he presents his own experience of faith, doubt, and authentication."
"Gareth and Lynette" similarly presents an optimistic picture of the problems of having and keeping faith, for it depicts the springtime of the realm. In this happiest, most youthful section of The Idylls of the King we perceive Arthur's new knight able to prove himself a true member of the Round Table because he has faith and keeps faith with his king.
In the Geraint poems the mood has already begun to darken, and although all ends happily, we observe the painful effects of a jealousy which leads a great knight to break faith with himself, his wife, his people and his king. But by the close of these two Idylls both Geraint and Edryn, the proud warrior he had earlier subdued, are seen to have found regeneration in new faith.
"Balin and Balin," Tennyson's last contribution to his Arthurian cycle, reveals human limitations in starker outline, for the madness of Balin leads to the bitter tragedy of one whose psychology and fate — including Vivien — will not permit him to believe in himself, knighthood, or Arthur. Fortune's wheel is already on a downward turn, and the only regeneration, the only restoration, comes when the two brothers die happy in their illusions.
"Merlin and Vivien" next dramatizes the failure of faith even more darkly, showing how Vivien, who can neither keep faith nor even conceive of keeping it, seduces the ancient wizard whose faith in himself and Arthur has begun to weaken.
In "Lancelot and Elaine," which reveals a heroine who is all in truth that Vivien had pretended to be, we see for the first time the adultery of Lancelot and the Queen, and the direct effect of this broken faith upon another person.
"The Holy Grail," perhaps the most brilliant of the Idylls, shows the further destruction of the Round Table as many of its members seek a short cut to heaven, in essence breaking faith with Arthur to receive religious forgiveness.
"Pelleas and Ettarre" continues this theme by presenting a young knight, an elaborate foil to Gareth, who becomes a member of the Round Table for the wrong reasons — not to keep faith with God, man, and the king, but to win an as yet unknown lady. The cruel, false Ettarre, like the false Gawain, breaks faith with the young knight who has continually placed his faith in the wrong people and ideas. When he learns that even Lancelot has not been able to keep his vows, he becomes untrue to himself, denying that he had ever really loved. Turning himself into a cynical incarnation of unfaith, Pelleas calls himself the Red Knight and sets up a bestial parody of the Round Table.
He and his followers meet with dreadful deaths in "The Last Tournament," which Tennyson realized was the saddest part of the Idylls. When Arthur leads his young knights to restore the order that had savagely been destroyed by Pelleas's followers, they betray their vows and wreak massacre upon their drunken enemy. Meanwhile, Lancelot further betrays Arthur by carelessly conducting the tournament at which all break faith. The discourteous and disloyal Tristram captures the prize, taking it to his mistress, Mark's wife, to whom he has already been unfaithful, only to meet death at the hands of the faithless king of Cornwall. When Arthur returns he discovers he has been betrayed by the two people in whom he placed greatest faith, and that Modred has finally shattered the Round Table.
"Guinevere," which reviews the Queen's guilty love, ends on a note of qualified optimism, for after Arthur has come to her in the nunnery where she has fled for refuge, she experiences what we may well term a "conversion" — for the first time she believes in Arthur, and though she cannot fully understand him, she realizes both what he had tried to accomplish and what she has destroyed.
By "The Passing," the last part of The Idylls of the King, doubt and breaking faith have brought us to the point where we find Arthur Iying wounded within a barren wasteland of rock and ruin. Nonetheless, however much Tennyson may remain sceptical about man's capacity to have and keep faith enough to create an ideal, completely humane society, he yet sees some cause for hope in the fact that even men with the limitations of Bedivere, and they are many, can make soul triumph over sense.
- Test, Trial, and Subjectivity of Faith
- Restoring Faith in "The Passing of Arthur"
- Faithlessness and the Destruction of Community
[This lexia has been adapted from George P. Landow, "Closing the Frame: Having Faith and Keeping Faith in Tennyson's 'The Passing of Arthur.'" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 56 (1974), 423 — 42.
Last modified 30 November 2004