Saturday, March 26, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCVI

   And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard:
'My end draws nigh; 'tis time that I were gone.
Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight,
And bear me to the margin; yet I fear
My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die.'

Now that Bedivere has passed the test of obedience he can fulfill Arthur’s words: “For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,/In whom should meet the offices of all.” Bedivere has “upheld” Arthur from the beginning when he fought in the Twelve Battles and defended him against accusations before King Leodogran.  It is fitting that he should now uphold him in a literal fashion as well.  This scene is also interesting given its parallels with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” where Sam bares Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom.  In addition, in each story we see an object of mystic power that must be cast away, into water or lava, in spite of its obvious attractions.

   So saying, from the pavement he half rose,
Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm,
And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes
As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere
Remorsefully regarded through his tears,
And would have spoken, but he found not words;
Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee,
O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands,
And rising bore him through the place of tombs.

   But, as he walked, King Arthur panted hard,
Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed
When all the house is mute. So sighed the King,
Muttering and murmuring at his ear, 'Quick, quick!
I fear it is too late, and I shall die.'

Tennyson worried that he had made his Arthur so “perfect” as to appear more than human.  Tennyson’s son tells us that his father explicitly tried to guard against misinterpretation of character by inserting the declaimer that Arthur was “Ideal manhood closed in real man” into the epilog “To the Queen.”  Here also Tennyson makes sure to give us a humanized Arthur who has real weaknesses and knows the fear of death.  On the other hand, Arthur is already undergoing a kind of death, from flesh and blood person to arise again as the mythic “once and future king.”  It is significant that in an age of doubt that Tennyson envisions Arthur as what C.S. Lewis calls a “true myth.”  Arthur’s actions have mythic power and significance but they are still enacted by a real, flesh and blood figure.  Thus Tennyson portrays Arthur as most human at his most legendary moment.  In light of this, we should understand that Tennyson’s Arthur is a Christ-figure, but he is also a type of the ideal Christian who, though imperfect, still imitates Christ.

   But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,
Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walked,
Larger than human on the frozen hills.
He heard the deep behind him, and a cry
Before. His own thought drove him like a goad.
Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels--
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.

Like Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee, Bedivere in serving the legendary King Arthur becomes for a moment a figure of legend himself.  The cold and bareness of the land are symbols of death. 

   Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream--by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shivered to the tingling stars,
And, as it were one voice, an agony
Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.

Again, we should note the parallel with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Just as the grievously wounded Frodo cannot remain in Middle Earth once his great task is finished and must sail across the sea to a mystic island where he will find healing, so Arthur must pass over to Avilion.  Tennyson’s “black barge,” however, stands in contrast to Tolkien’s “white ship,” though both are an image of death (Tolkien makes this explicit by making his white ships in the form of swans, a bird associated with death).  The three queens are from “The Coming of Arthur” where it was foretold that they would help the king in his hour of need.  There the queens appear in three colors; green, blue, and red for the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  Star imagery is important throughout “The Idylls of the King” and tends to follow the idea of “the music of the spheres” where God’s love causes the angelic intelligences within the crystalline spheres to move in orbit about his throne thus causing a music as the spheres rub against one another (like a wet finger on a filled crystal glass).  The three Queens cries “that shivered to the tingling stars” thus symbolize effectiveness of the three virtues in communicating with the heavenly realms.

   Then murmured Arthur, 'Place me in the barge.'
So to the barge they came. There those three Queens
Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.

Arthur, facing death, is committed into the keeping of the three virtues.  His our has passed, but as the apostle Paul testifies, Faith, Hope, and Love remain forever.

But she, that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
And loosed the shattered casque, and chafed his hands,

Paul tells us that the greatest of the three theological virtues is Love.  Elsewhere in the apostle’s writings, he identifies the helmet with salvation.  Even Arthur with all his purity and greatness cannot save himself and must ultimately rest in the Love of God.  The wounding of Arthur’s head may also be a reference to religious doubt.  Where the mind fails to bring assurance of salvation, Love may provide it.

And called him by his name, complaining loud,
And dropping bitter tears against a brow
Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white
And colourless, and like the withered moon
Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;

Like the moon, Arthur is only a reflection of the divine light, not the Light itself.  However, this scene should put us in mind of another great image of Christ, the Pieta.  The tallest queen holds the bloodied body of Arthur in her arms much as Mary holds the body of Christ in Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.

And all his greaves and cuisses dashed with drops
Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--
That made his forehead like a rising sun
High from the dais-throne--were parched with dust;
Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,
Mixed with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.
So like a shattered column lay the King;
Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,
From spur to plume a star of tournament,
Shot through the lists at Camelot, and charged
Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

This is perhaps one of the saddest and most powerful passages in “The Idylls of the King.”  In reminding us of Arthur’s glorious beginning, Tennyson prepares us for the king’s farewell speech.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCV

    Then went Sir Bedivere the second time
Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere,
Counting the dewy pebbles, fixed in thought;
But when he saw the wonder of the hilt,
How curiously and strangely chased, he smote
His palms together, and he cried aloud:

   'And if indeed I cast the brand away,
Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,
Should thus be lost for ever from the earth,
Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.

Arthur as a “saint” should have appropriate holy relics, but every relic risks becoming an idol.  Arthur’s mission was to point men to God, not thrill them with baubles, however costly.  As all the old certainties are upset, Bedivere is clutching at straws.  The irony is that Arthur is not even dead.

What good should follow this, if this were done?
What harm, undone? Deep harm to disobey,
Seeing obedience is the bond of rule.
Were it well to obey then, if a king demand
An act unprofitable, against himself?
The King is sick, and knows not what he does.

Tennyson leads us through a very creditable process of rationalization.  As a cynical Heinlein once quipped: “Man is not a rational but a rationalizing animal.”

What record, or what relic of my lord
Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
And rumours of a doubt? But were this kept,
Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,
Some one might show it at a joust of arms,
Saying, "King Arthur's sword, Excalibur,
Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.
Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
Upon the hidden bases of the hills."
So might some old man speak in the aftertime
To all the people, winning reverence.
But now much honour and much fame were lost.'

Bedivere’s temptation now becomes clear: to disobey Arthur for the sake of Arthur’s honor.  This is a frequent motif in the gospels.  James and John wish to call down thunder when a village rejects Jesus’ teaching.  Peter strikes off the High Priest’s servant’s ear when they come to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane.  In each case, Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are zealous for Christ’s glory, but not for Christ.  Like Peter, James, and John, Bedivere is one of Arthur’s most ardent disciples.  In the coming of Arthur, he is swift to defend his sovereign’s legitimacy: “Then Bedivere, the first of all his knights/Knighted by Arthur at his crowning, spake-/For bold in heart and act and word was he,/Whenever slander breathed against the King-“.  Now Bedivere faces a different test to his loyalty: can he separate his obedience to Arthur the man from his zeal for Arthur the legend?  The passage regarding the forging of Excalibur is also a tour de force of Romantic poetry.  These heart-piercing images will continue as the poem reaches its tragic conclusion. 

   So spake he, clouded with his own conceit,
And hid Excalibur the second time,
And so strode back slow to the wounded King.

Bedivere’s “clouded conceit” parallels the mist which covered the battle.  He is running the risk of becoming confused like the traitor knights.

   Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily:
'What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'

The king’s heavy breathing shows us that he is dying and thus adds a sense of urgency.

   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
'I heard the water lapping on the crag,
And the long ripple washing in the reeds.'

   To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
'Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widowed of the power in his eye
That bowed the will. I see thee what thou art,
For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,
In whom should meet the offices of all,
Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;
Either from lust of gold, or like a girl
Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.
Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,
And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:
But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,
I will arise and slay thee with my hands.'

Arthur seems to misunderstand Bedivere’s motivation here, or perhaps he understands it all too well and is revealing it for the shallow thing it is.  Either way, his ability to command and reproach remains intact.  His threat to slay Bedivere as a judicial act comes across as completely creditable despite the king’s wounds.  Even in defeat, Arthur remains a powerful and commanding figure.  The offer of a third chance has biblical resonance.  Simon Peter denied Christ three times.  We also see again that since Arthur knows his place, he is able to remind Bedivere of his and even in death serve as a force for order.  It is another reminder that Arthur serves as the “Reason” of the body politic of Camelot.

   Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword,
And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
And lightly went the other to the King.

The emphasis on Northern imagery in the casting away of Excalibur serves as a metaphor for death.  Soon Arthur, like his famous sword, will be “cast” back into the sea from where he purportedly came.  The white arm is presumably that of the Lady of the Lake.  Her appearance serves as the prophesied sign that Bedivere has acted rightly.  We can see this as parallel to the cock-crow that Jesus foretold would be the sign of Peter’s denial.  Like Arthur, Bedivere stands on the far side of the Crucifixion and thus receives help that Peter lacked (remember that Peter was not allowed to speak with Christ during the course of his own temptation) allowing him to succeed on the third attempt where the Apostle failed.  Tennyson draws our attention in his own gloss to “And flashing round and round, and whirl’d in an arch” which mimics the sound of the sword spinning through the air.

   Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath:
'Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.
Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?'

   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
'Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems
Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,
Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,
Not though I live three lives of mortal men,
So great a miracle as yonder hilt.
Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
But when I looked again, behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.'

Bedivere’s confession seems to imply that he still does not understand the purpose of Arthur’s command, but the relationship between king and subject is set right based on his obedience.  This matches Arthur’s submission to the unfathomable will of God in Camelot’s overthrow.  It is a picture of Faith in an age of doubt: we act based on trust in the rightness of God’s decrees even when they seem inscrutable or unclear.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCIV

   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
'The sequel of today unsolders all
The goodliest fellowship of famous knights
Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep
They sleep--the men I loved. I think that we
Shall never more, at any future time,
Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
Walking about the gardens and the halls
Of Camelot, as in the days that were.

Arthur tells Bedivere that his life’s work has been destroyed in the destruction of the Round Table.  Arthur has himself participated in this destruction thus siding with his duty as king over the love of his work.  Even though Arthur expresses no doubts that he has done the right thing, he still mourns the passing of his work and the individuals who participated in it.  This completes Arthur’s realization in the outset of the poem that: “For I, being simple, thought to work His will,/And have but stricken with the sword in vain;”.  Arthur knows now that he cannot build the Kingdom of God on Earth.  He is a Christ-figure, but not Christ.  The idea that Tennyson expresses here, that even a Christ-like king cannot usher in a perfect world, flies in the face of both the Victorian faith in Progress and the Post-Millennialism embraced by Christians of the era.  These two creeds would help lead Victorian civilization to its doom in what Wilson dubbed “The War to End All War.”

I perish by this people which I made,--
Though Merlin sware that I should come again
To rule once more; but, let what will be, be,
I am so deeply smitten through the helm
That without help I cannot last till morn.

Facing his death, Arthur is for a moment distracted by Merlin’s prophecy.  However, he quickly turns back, as he has throughout the work, to do his duty.  That duty is to return Excalibur, the symbol of his rule, to the Lady of the Lake.  It should be remembered that the Lady of the Lake, on one level, represents the Church, or the Christian tradition.  That she gives Arthur his mystic sword should be a reminder of the words of the apostle that civil authority comes from God and that he has given government “the sword” to punish wickedness.  Since neither his sword nor his authority comes from himself, Arthur must return them both.  This principle is written into the blade itself: “There likewise I beheld Excalibur/Before him at his crowning borne, the sword/That rose from out the bosom of the lake,/And Arthur row’d across and took it-rich/With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt,/Bewildering heart and eye-the blade so bright/That men are blinded by it-on one side,/Graven in the oldest tongue of all the world,/”Take me,” but turn the blade and ye shall see,/And written in the speech ye speak yourself,/”Cast me away!” And sad was Arthur’s face/Taking it, but old Merlin counsell’d him,/”Take thou and strike! the time to cast away/Is yet far-off.” So this great brand the king/Took, and by this will beat his foemen down.’”

Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur,
Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how
In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
Holding the sword--and how I rowed across
And took it, and have worn it, like a king;
And, wheresoever I am sung or told
In aftertime, this also shall be known:
But now delay not: take Excalibur,
And fling him far into the middle mere:
Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word.'

Arthur revalues Excalibur even as he instructs Bedivere to throw it away naming it “my pride.”  In relinquishing this final symbol of his kingship, Arthur overcomes his pride and thus achieves his final victory.  It should be remembered that Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the root of the other six.  It is also the only one of the six which Arthur seems really susceptible throughout the work.  Guinevere, though spiteful, speaks true when she says in “Lancelot and Elaine”: “Ye know right well, how meek soe’er he seem,/No keener hunter after glory breathes.”  Though Arthur is able to cast off his pride, it will take Bedivere several tries before the knight can cast off his own.

   To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:
'It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,
Aidless, alone, and smitten through the helm--
A little thing may harm a wounded man;
Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,
Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.'

Bedivere, Arthur’s first knight, still maintains a protective loyalty towards Arthur that should put us in mind of the Apostle Peter.  Like Peter, Bedivere will also be tested in his loyalty when events turn in a direction he cannot understand.

   So saying, from the ruined shrine he stept,
And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,
Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang
Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down
By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock,
Came on the shining levels of the lake.

Tennyson paints a hauntingly beautiful picture for us in true Romantic tradition.  As an artist, Tennyson rejected both of the extremes popular in the Victorian era: subordinating art to mere didacticism, as in the novels of George MacDonald, or creating art for the mere sake of technique, as in the case of Oscar Wilde.  At a symbolic level, Arthur is going to join the ancient heroes of Britain, some of whom are buried in the vaults by which Bedivere passes.

   There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work
Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long
That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood,
This way and that dividing the swift mind,
In act to throw: but at the last it seemed
Better to leave Excalibur concealed
There in the many-knotted waterflags,
That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.
So strode he back slow to the wounded King.

The question here placed before us is “what causes Bedivere to disobey the king?”.  In this first scene of temptation, we are not allowed into Bedivere’s thoughts.  Given what we know of bedivere’s character, it is hard to believe that he is tempted by the mere monetary value of the sword.  At an allegorical level, the sword may represent the beauty of Arthur’s reign and the past order.  In that case, this scene may be functioning as a morality play in which the folly of trying to cling to “the good old days” is revealed.  Tolkien expresses the same moral in his “Return of the King” where Denethor, steward of the ancient realm of Gondor, facing the destruction of his kingdom can only pine that he would have things as they were in the days of his “long-fathers.”  There are many things that the old ruler might have, but that is not one of them.  As Gandalf the Wizard later declares: “Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known.”  Holding on to the “old order” eventually drives Denethor mad and he misses the opportunity to participate in the salvation of his city.  His son, Faramir, while also feeling the appeal of Ancient Gondor, rejects his father’s course and so finds a place for himself in the “new order” that emerges under Aragorn.

   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
'Hast thou performed my mission which I gave?
What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'

   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
'I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag.'

These lines between Bedivere and the King will be repeated throughout this scene, and the repetition reinforces the sense of mythic significance as Arthur passes into legend.

   To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale:
'Thou hast betrayed thy nature and thy name,
Not rendering true answer, as beseemed
Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight:
For surer sign had followed, either hand,
Or voice, or else a motion of the mere.
This is a shameful thing for men to lie.
Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again,
As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing
I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word.'

We return to the motif of remembering or staying true to one’s name in this passage as Bedivere is forced to define himself now that the Round Table is no more.  Notice also that Arthur’s dialog is becoming increasingly ritual and archaic.  Tennyson, as one of the great doubters in an age of doubt, may be offering advice for how to maintain one’s virtue in uncertain times.  If so, this scene seems to suggest that in moments of doubt, it is ritual and principle that give men a sense of self and thus allow them to act even if all the other “certainties” have been abolished.  It may also be an affirmation that moral duty remains certain in spite of changing times.  As Aragorn tells a baffled Eomer in “The Two Towers:” “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men…” 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nota Bene

The post for march 9th, "Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCII" has been ammended to correct for the loss of several sentences from the original.

Begining Arthurian Torso: The Platypus Reads Part XCIII

I've just acquired a three-in-one copy of "Arthurian Torso," "Taliesin Through Logres," and "The Kingdom of the Summer Stars".  Fresh off of Tennyson and in the middle of teaching Mallory, I'm ready to dig in.  However, I've been told that the best way to approach the work is to read Lewis' essay first and then read the poems in his suggested order.  Does anyone have anything else to add for the benefit of a first-time reader?  I've already encountered Williams via "Descent Into Hell," "All Hallows' Eve," "Many Dimensions," "War in Heaven," and Humphrey Carpenter's study of the Inklings.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCII

   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,
And whiter than the mist that all day long
Had held the field of battle was the King:

Tennyson gives us another picture of Arthur as Leodogran’s “phantom king.”  Bedivere stands with Arthur at the last, like John at the crucifixion, and so is able to record a true testimony of Arthur’s final words and deeds.

   'Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world,
And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move,
And beats upon the faces of the dead,
My dead, as though they had not died for me?--
O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fallen
Confusion, till I know not what I am,
Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King.
Behold, I seem but King among the dead.'

The “great voice that shakes the world” is in a literal sense the sound of the surf (“and rolling far along the gloomy shores”).  Figuratively, it may be the voice of Death or Time, “the voice of days of old and days to be.”  Looking at the break-down of time and space in this archetypal moment, however, it may be that Arthur’s crucifixion is coming under the power of The Crucifixion.  If so, in this moment when Arthur is alone and forsaken his cry of helplessness is caught up into the great “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” of the dying Son of God.

   Then spake the bold Sir Bedivere: 'My King,
King everywhere! and so the dead have kings,
There also will I worship thee as King.
Yet still thy life is whole, and still I live
Who love thee; but who hates thee, he that brought
The heathen back among us, yonder stands,
Modred, unharmed, the traitor of thine house.'

Here again, we see that though Arthur is a Christ-figure, he does not have to bear Christ’s burden.  By grace, Bedivere is with Arthur and able to offer him comfort in his final hour.  As before, Bedivere calls Arthur to himself by reminding him of his name and role.  This should remind us of “Merlin and Vivian” where Merlin confesses that he fears the loss of “name and fame” only as they decrease his usefulness.  When Vivian strips the wizard of his power, he is “lost to life and use and name and fame.”  Unlike Merlin, Arthur has not isolated himself from society and is thus saved from the great moment of weariness and despair that Merlin leaves himself open to when he sails away from Camelot.

   Then spake the King: 'My house hath been my doom.

Arthur realizes that it is his inability to keep his own house in order that has caused his downfall.  This is not specific to Modred, but includes, Guinevere, Gawain, and Lancelot as well.  Tennyson may be commenting on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s ability to weld their public and private lives into a unified whole and thus make their “house” their greatest political asset.  It is also interesting to note that Albert, who Tennyson says admired Arthur “Perchance as finding there unconsciously/Some image of himself,” contracted the typhus which killed him while visiting Cambridge to rebuke his son for a sexual liaison with a chorus girl thus making Albert’s “house” the source of his doom.

But call not thou this traitor of my house
Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, owned me King.

This echoes Christ’s words to the crowds when his mother and brothers come to keep him from embarrassing the family: here are my mother and brothers.

And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath failed,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.

Unlike the apostles, Bedivere is here in Arthur’s “dark hour” to confess him as the true king.  The fact that the title “Christ” is a hold-over from the Greek often keeps us from remembering that when Peter confessed Jesus as “Christ” he was confessing him as the “anointed king.”

King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
Yet, ere I pass.' And uttering this the King
Made at the man: then Modred smote his liege
Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword
Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow,
Striking the last stroke with Excalibur,
Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.

Arthur, knowing his role, knows himself and thus has power to act.  This is Arthur’s final test.  He and Bedivere outnumber Modred.  They could declare victory and go home.  In time, however, Modred could gather a new army and Arthur’s Round Table would take a lifetime to rebuild.  Even though Arthur will pass, he can at least insure that the coming order can emerge free from the corruption of Modred.  This matches Arthur’s cryptic words at the end of “The Holy Grail” where he tells his knights: “And some among you held, that if the King/Had seen the sight he would have swore the vow:/Not easily, seeing that the king must guard/That which he rules, and is but as the hind/To whom a space of land is given to plow./Who may not wander from the allotted field/Before his work be done; but, being done,/Let visions of the night or of the day/Come, as they will…”  Here Arthur keeps to his word and does his duty to the last but, his duty done, the visions of Avilion will now swiftly catch him up.  In the same passage of “The Holy Grail” Continuing the quotation, Arthur also explicitly identifies with Christ: “…and many a time they come,/Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,/This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,/This air that smites his forehead is not air/But vision-yea, his very hand and foot-/In moments when he feels he cannot die,/And knows himself no vision to himself,/Nor the high God a vision, nor that One/Who rose again…”  Arthur fulfills his role as Christ-type in smiting down Modred the Satan figure: “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”  We should also note that Tennyson has changed this scene from Mallory where Arthur attacks Modred with a spear.  The switch allows Arthur to use Excalibur, the symbol of his office, and thus enhance the sense that Arthur is fulfilling his final duty as king.

   So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord,
King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land:
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Tennyson tells us that the whole Round Table died in battle about King Arthur.  It is important to remember that more of the knights of the Round Table fell attacking Arthur than defending him.  Thus, Tennyson is pointing us to the fact that even the traitor knights somehow belong to Arthur.  This may remind us of what Brother Ambrose says about the members of the Round Table in “The Holy Grail”: :”For good ye are and bad, and like to coins,/Some true, some light, but every one of you/Stamp’d with the image of the King…”  Bedivere carries his lord in fashion similar to that of Sam Gamgee bearing Frodo on his back at Mount Doom.  Further parallels between Tennyson and Tolkien can be seen in this poem leading one to wonder if claims of Tolkien’s supposed rejection of the Arthur legends as source material for “The Lord of the Rings” are inaccurate.  The broken chancel and the broken cross can be seen as icons for the loss of faith and the breaking of sacred vows.  The ocean plays an important role in Tennyson’s poetry as a symbol of death and the infinite.  This is most evident in the poem “Crossing the Bar” which he requested to be placed at the end of any collection of his poems: “Sunset and the evening star/And one clear call for me!/And may there be no moaning of the bar,/When I put out to sea,/But such a tide as moving seems asleep,/Too full for sound and foam,/When that which drew from out the boundless deep/Turns again home./Twilight and the evening bell,/And after that the dark!/And may there be no sadness of farewell,/When I embark;/For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place/The flood may bear me far,/I hope to see my Pilot face to face/When I have crost the bar.”  The water may be the temporary lake that surrounds Glastonbury abbey, often thought to be Avilion, at certain times of the year.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCI

   Then rose the King and moved his host by night,
And ever pushed Sir Modred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse--
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

Moving at night, Arthur enters into the dream-like world of Lyonnesse where time and reality begin to break down.  This is Arthur’s crucifixion and, like Christ’s crucifixion, it becomes an event that transcends time and re-orders past and future events around it like the hub and spokes of a wheel.  Arthur has now firmly passed into that place where History and Myth meet. 

There the pursuer could pursue no more,
And he that fled no further fly the King;
And there, that day when the great light of heaven
Burned at his lowest in the rolling year,
On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed.

Tennyson reminds us that this battle is fought on the Winter Solstice, or the darkest time of the year.  This represents the death of Arthur and his realm as we reach Camelot’s winter.  It is also a day of power in paganism and thus heightens the sense that the forces of evil and regression have the upper hand.  The battle takes place on “the waste sand by the waste sea” to remind us that Arthur’s kingdom has now reverted to the “waste” that characterized Briton before “The Coming of Arthur.”

Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:

As at Christ’s crucifixion, a darkness falls over the land.  Notice also the return of the “battle in the west” motif.  In “To The Queen,” Tennyson elaborates that it is “that battle in the West, where all of high and holy dies away.”  As the Round Table turns and devours itself, it is not just its sins that will be blotted out, but all of “high and holy” that it strove to create as well.  We may compare this with the Biblical narrative where the Babylonian chastisement on sinful Judah also destroys the Temple.  We may also compare this with Tolkien’s pyrrhic victory in “The Lord of the Rings” where even though Sauron is defeated, the elves still pass away.

Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;

Tennyson notes that this battle is meant to be “a vision of death.”  We might add that it also represents the spiritual turmoil of civil war.  This was not a far-off concept as the American Civil War was raging during the time of composition of several of the idylls.  It can also been seen as a snap-shot of the raging controversies and deep doubts that racked mid-Victorian England.

And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist

As noted earlier, time begins to break down as the battle rages and past and present begin to meet.  At this moment, Arthur’s kingdom has come full-circle to the warfare and chaos in which it began.  Readers of the novels of Charles Williams, who attempted his own poetic Arthurian cycle, should be reminded of similar temporal and spiritual nexuses in his own writings; particularly in “Descent Into Hell.” 

Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fights,
And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insults, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

Tennyson records no deeds of note during this last battle to enhance the sensation of confusion and the loss of meaning created by the spiritual and political uncertainties that the mist, at one level, represents.  The word-choice also creates a harsh and clashing sounds when read aloud that mirror the actions they describe.  Since he is a master of poetic style, it is always important to be on the alert when reading Tennyson for how the sounds of the words he chooses match what they describe.

   Last, as by some one deathbed after wail
Of suffering, silence follows, or through death
Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be.

Tennyson tells us that the last “weird battle in the west” is a metaphor for death.  It is Arthur’s crucifixion, but it is also the death of the Round Table.  Though it is not mentioned here, we should remember from the Geraint poems that it is in this battle where Edyrn son of Nudd and Geraint, knights Arthur was able to redeem, die fighting for the king.  We aren’t told which knights turn traitor beyond Sir Modred.  Regardless of what side they fought on, when all the confused and warring knights are dead the mist of earthly confusion parts.  For good or ill, Death ends the ambiguity and confusion of earthly existence.  This is oddly parallel with the final lines of “Guinevere” who passes “to where beyond these voices there is peace.”  The North wind often represents Death in literature and thus it is fitting that it blows back the mist.  The fratricidal knights, the mist, and the pale king all parallel elements in king Leodogran’s dream from “The Coming of Arthur” and Arthur’s dream before the battle.  Tennyson also takes care to mention that the shattered swords that litter the sea-shore are also those that freed Arthur’s kingdom from Roman rule at the outset.  Enhancing the sense that we have come full-circle are the voices “of days of old and days to be.”  This is the foretold moment of catastrophe where Arthur actually faces the complete ruin of his life’s work.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Scribbling Through Chesterton: Whiteboard Platypus





*All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2011

Final Tennyson Scribblings: Whiteboard Platypus








*All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2011