112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Submerging the Subversive Pagan in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Jeremiah Henry, Callifornia State University, Fresno

This paper attempts to establish Idylls of the King as a mytho-poetic text that juxtaposes Judeo-Christian symbolism and imagery with mythological symbolism and imagery and to problematize the Judeo-Christian set of ideals overshadowing the pagan origins of Arthur and Camelot. I situate “The Coming of Arthur” as a mythic text by illustrating its features shared by other myths and legends with a special focus on the creation cycle of Camelot and the mysterious origins of Arthur himself.

Proposal: 

      The importance of religion in both Tennyson’s day and the Medieval culture which he is invoking cannot be overstated. The culture that generated the Age of Chivalry which Camelot is intended to epitomize lived its religion in its daily life. Rituals, proselytizing, praying, and engaging in the sacraments were every day occurrences. Jim Rhodes explains that religion was “an integral part of work, play, and significant events in the calendar year.” Knights, who were at the center of the Arthurian milieu and the culture that generated it, held piety as one of the primary tenants of their chivalry. The Romance genre, including Arthurian Romance, was not merely escapist literature, either: Richard Kaeuper explains how Romance literature and the chivalry which it glorified was in practice a two-way exchange between authors and audience. “Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, show[ing] that they have read it by using it in their own writings.” So bearing in mind that a central tenant of chivalry is Christian piety—in the literary, practical, and social senses—the mythological and pagan images that contribute to the construction of Arthurian Romance while simultaneously contradicting its ideals deserve much more attention than they have received in recent scholarship.

     As other scholars have pointed out, at least part of Tennyson’s purpose in producing the Idylls is clearly aimed at social commentary. Perhaps as a reaction to Victorian anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty, Tennyson—through a re-working of nationally sacred narratives—explores these problems thematically and symbolically in Idylls of the King most specifically in the idylls “The Coming of Arthur,” and “Merlin and Vivien.” In particular, these two idylls reveal how the Celtic and pagan aspects of the Arthurian milieu are overshadowed and deemphasized—even marginalized—by the privileging of the impossible ideals propagated by the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and chivalry by the denizens of Camelot. I suspect that the un-sustainable nature of Camelot and her ideals, chivalry being a chief ideal among them, and the disproportionate valuing of the Judeo-Christian value system over paganism (in a culture that has its roots in Celtic, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Greco-Roman paganism and folklore) are interrelated, perhaps leading to the cultural system’s undermining and eventual destruction of itself. Exploring these tensions may reveal why there was such cognitive dissonance and anxiety in Victorian England’s national consciousness with regard to England’s own unsustainability during a period of vast and unprecedented change.