"The Passing of Arthur" as Summary of The Idylls

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

"The Passing of Arthur" repeats in darker outline the motif of trial or test, which has always been a mainstay of the Romance, the medieval equivalent to ancient epic. In the opening section of The Idylls of the King, we remember, Tennyson had arranged his tale in terms of a series of tests which Arthur had to pass to make himself true king: he had to succeed at his first deed of arms by driving the heathen foe from Leodogran's realm, next he had to defeat the rebellious nobility, and, finally, he had to conquer the doubts of Leodogran himself in order to win Guinevere. These very different kinds of tests. "The Passing of Arthur" symmetrically closes the frame by echoing the trials of the opening section.

Now, however, the trials the King must survive are less physical than spiritual. In fact, before he passes from this world now once again darkened by the destruction of the Round Table, he must endure three, each in its own way a test of his faith: first, he must overcome his own doubts about the presence of God in history; second, he must fight that last grim battle, slaying Modred; and third, he must work his will for the last time, forcing the loyal, if uncomprehending Bedivere to obey his difficult command to cast away Excalibur. Arthur meets each of these trials alone, in the sense that only he can decide what he will believe and how he will act: loneliness, or at least aloneness, is the fundamental condition of all human decision, even in the midst of community. The Idylls of the King, In Memoriam, and "The Two Voices" all reveal that assent, which must provide the basis for all human community, paradoxically must take place in isolation. Every man thus necessarily makes his decisions by himself, within himself. But as Arthur's trials progress, this fundamental human isolation becomes even more strongly emphasized as he increasingly finds himself stripped of whatever moral support he might receive from his fellow men. On the march westward, when he doubts God's purpose, he has already lost Lancelot, the Queen, and those knights now dead or traitors. By the close of that nightmare battle on the barren strand he has lost all his men but Bedivere and, as he says, seems but a king among the dead. Finally, when he must surmount the betrayals of Bedivere, he stands starkly, nakedly alone, for even this last, most loyal companion has now become an antagonist during this time of trial.

[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. Click here