By James Turner
The story of King Arthur moves into the Victorian Age, where it is revitalized by Walter Scott and Alfred Tennyson.
We are through the looking glass now my friends. Thus far, our series has been safely anchored in the calm shallows of the medieval period. We have seen the position of importance the aesthetics of Arthurian legends and romances came to occupy in the European wide cult of chivalry, the way in which certain kings of England sort to cultivate their demesne’s geographical associations with Arthurian literature to generate support for their imperial and dynastic ambitions as well as the manner in which the unformed protean Britain of Arthur was pressed into service as both a vision of a halcyon past and allegory for a tumultuous present.
The search for the ever-changing face of King Arthur and the examination of his legends’ reinvention and legacy now flings us upon the stormy reefs of modernity itself. Le Morte d’Arthur, envisaged as a sort of capstone for the Arthurian romantic tradition, can as the most widely distributed work of Arthurian literature be used as a sort of a barometer for changing attitudes towards its source material.
Despite its former popularity and vaunted position as one of the earliest works of literature to be printed in English, Le Morte d’Arthur went out of print in 1634. Almost needless to say, society’s underpinnings and cultural sensibilities had shifted significantly since the heyday of Arthurian romance literature. The people of the early 17th century had new and different horizons to look to, their imaginations and ardor were in general inflamed by different topics and issues such as exploration, mercantilism, nationalism, and bitter religious conflict and denominational feuding. To them, the legends of Arthur and his knights appeared thoroughly antiquated and gauche. Speaking in the broadest of broad strokes, this process first gained traction during the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries in which contemporary thinkers and artists took inspiration from fragments of the Classical past rather than what they perceived as the rusticated regression of their more immediate forebears.
This phenomenon was continued and reinforced by the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century, contemplation of the high ideals of humanism and rationalism evidently left little time to read about ancient kings and magical swords. That is not to say that works of Arthurian fiction and literature were not produced during this span, only that they tended to be whimsical fairy tales such as those about the miniature provocateur Tom Thumb or contemporary political allegories in which the incongruity of the faux-medieval setting provided satirical bite. However, in 1816 a new reprint of Le Morte d’Arthur was published. The work’s return to commercial viability was primarily the result of the growing cultural influence and popularity of Romanticism within western European society. Romanticism emerged partly as a counterpoint to the somewhat stalling traditions of Enlightenment and partly in reaction to the society-wide transformative effects of the industrial revolution.
Medievalism, the appreciation, adoration and emulation of cultural elements and aesthetics nominally derived from the medieval period, came to form a major component of the Romantic movement. Albeit one that was frequently and highly anachronistically conflated with nationalism. In the following decades Romanticism and a growing fascination with the medieval period would provide the impetus necessary for the spectacular revival in popularity and influence of the Arthurian legends under the Victorians.
The Victorians found much within the layered and multifaceted Arthurian tradition which resonated with their own societal values and self-image. The Victorians came to depict Arthur and his knights as paragons of Christian virtue who created a golden age of civilization and morality, only to see their work crumble as a result of human weakness and the iniquities of lesser men. Crucially, Arthur and his knights spent much of their time questing into the trackless wilderness and wastelands that lay beyond their borders at once motivated and protected by their sense of piety and chivalric virtues.
This moral imperative and representation of Arthurian knights engaged in the protection and projection of some vague amorphous notion of Christian civilization allowed the Victorians to draw implicit parallels with their extensive imperialistic activities, which were increasingly and meticulously swathed in a raiment of religious morality. These thematic overlaps and the adoption of the mythical king as a spiritual predecessor should hardly come as a surprise, given that they were the result of a cumulative but conscious process of revision and outright adaptation of the Arthurian canon by Victorian tastemakers.
The Victorian artistic and literary establishment, just like kings and aristocrats throughout the medieval period, alternatively emphasized and redacted elements and strains of the Arthurian legends in order to better facilitate and highlight contemporary thematic and personal associations with the material. With the exception of some notable outliers, the most influential and highly regarded works of Arthurian art and literature produced by the Victorians were morality plays, articulating and celebrating virtues prized by the era through the use of traditional Arthurian character and motifs.
This process of adaptation can be seen in the complex relationship Victorian authors exhibited with that most Arthurian of subject matters, courtly love. As we shall see, even the heavyweights of the period, such as Lord Tennyson and the famed painter William Dyce, hesitated to broach the matter directly for fear of provoking a scandal, despite their enthusiasm for the source material. Rather than risk being seen to endorse or glamourize immorality, the courtly love affairs of the Arthurian Romances tended to be repurposed as vehicles for tragedy and a means of showcasing the dire consequences of human fallibility. In contrast, aristocratic audiences of the 13th century, while obviously aware of the spiritual peril, first and foremost viewed the tensions presented in works of courtly love between amorous desire and the constraints of morality and society as a means of titillation and entertainment.
Today one of the most dominant impressions of the Victorian era was its severe code of conduct and reserved social norms. There is some justification for this given that it was a viewpoint that was promoted and championed by members of the Victorian political and cultural establishment, although obviously the extent that this moralistic gloss was based in reality changes markedly between time and social strata. In its way, the Victorians’ overriding concern for the appearance of propriety is a cultural affectation every bit as performative and affected as the chivalric trappings of the medieval period or today’s social media.
If Victorian self-obsession had a significant often self-congratulatory effect on the form Arthurian art and literature took, it was also one of the principal drivers between Victorian interest in the works of the medieval period and adoption of medievalism. While the cultural shock and sheer vulgarity of the industrial revolution played an important role in the creation and popularization of the Romanticism movement, it also generated enormous, albeit poorly distributed, wealth. Prosperous Victorians could look around and find much to take pride in, an enormous and still growing empire, vast mercantile interests that crisscrossed the globe, monolithic works of evil engineering such as the rapidly growing railway and canal networks, not to mention a highly mobilized and motivated, if slightly malnourished, child workforce. Surrounded as they were by such monumental achievements, it was only natural that they began to ask themselves who exactly are the British? Where did they come from and why are they so wonderful? The European powers’ of the 19th century renewed interest in their own history was therefore intimately linked to a jingoistic appreciation for their current geo-political dominance and the perception of their individual national destinies.
This highly anachronistic conflation of nationalism with the medieval past within contemporary popular culture and literary traditions was already extant in some form within the early works of Sir Walter Scott, which were widely celebrated decades before Victoria’s accession to her various thrones. The poet turned historical novelist was born in Edinburgh during the waning summer of 1771. Walter’s father, from whom he was named, was a well-connected and locally influential lawyer, a prospering member of the rapidly growing professional classes who could boast of some associations and familial links with the minor aristocracy.
Walter’s first published long-form narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, is highly evocative of the themes of the still emergent Romanticism movement. The poet’s framing device is a performance by the poem’s titular character, set in the 17th century, in which he recounts the story of the feud between his hostess’ ancestors and a rival clan, a conflict which is further complicated by star crossed lovers and the border clans’ entanglements with the English. A highly emotive work, it ruminates upon the inspiration and traditions behind the creative process while also stressing the spiritual importance of experiencing a continuity with a homeland and culture of origin.
Unsurprisingly many of Walter’s poems and indeed his later highly successful forays into prose revisited these themes. His first canton, Marmion, written in 1808, references both Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the footnotes of which contain extensive quotations from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Another poem, The Bridal of Triermain written in 1813, was explicitly an Arthurian tale centered on the life of Gyneth, an illegitimate daughter of King Arthur, and the attempt to free her from an ancient curse that Merlin had placed her under. Frustratingly for our purpose, his poem The Lady of the Lake, written in 1810, has, beyond the obvious allusion of its name and general romantic gloss, absolutely nothing to do with Arthurian legends, instead being principally about the chaotic and bloody state of Scottish politics under James V. Although the work’s incredible popularity is significant, glamorizing and rehabilitating as it did Highland culture, while further stoking contemporary interest in the trappings and motifs of the past.
A highly prolific author, the first wave of books released by Scott between 1814 and 1820 were all set within Scotland across a relatively narrow chronological range. Typically, these novels followed the lives and loves of their protagonists through what in hindsight can be seen as a momentous point of transition in history such as the Union of the Crowns or the first of the Jacobite Rebellions. Thematically many of them continued to explore the solace and limitations of national identity and harmony with a national past in a rapidly changing and uncertain world while still providing the audience with relatable characters and exciting exploits. An important part of this dichotomy was a firmly rooted notion of societal and historical progress. Scott, like the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries, conceived of history as a number of civilizational stages or levels which distinct nations and cultures advanced through, as they improved themselves incrementally, coming to resemble civilization’s idealized form, 19th century Britain more and more. Indeed, during this period a new breed of British historians were busying themselves with evaluating a thousand years’ worth of English kings to the extent to which their reigns facilitated and nurtured the inevitable rise of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
In 1820, Walter Scott published Ivanhoe forever changing the way in which his vast audience thought about and visualized the medieval period. Breaking somewhat from the pattern of his earlier novels, Ivanhoe was set not within early modern Scotland but a fantastical and vividly rendered version of 12th century England. In the world of Ivanhoe, a strict and historical delineation between the native Saxon and their Norman conquerors remains extant, a cultural ethnic division that is reflected within the realm’s political order and plays an important role in the plot.
The main character, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a Saxon nobleman who has becomes estranged from his family as a result of his adherence to the Norman King Richard I. Much to the disapproval of his Saxon brethren, Wilfred follows the king on Crusade, winning acclaim and performing many deeds of daring-do. Ivanhoe then returns to England ahead of the long-absent King Richard, only to find that its Saxon populace is suffering under deprivations inflicted upon them by the greedy Prince John and his fiendish Norman coterie.
If that sounds oddly familiar to you or at all like the setup for a story about Robin Hood, well he actually turns up in the book as a friend and ally of Wilfred. The bombast and sheer excess of Ivanhoe branded into popular culture iconography and set pieces which are still associated with the Middle Ages today. Such motifs include, but are not limited to, such icons of medievalism as lavish tournaments of riotous colour and pageantry, Robin Hood and his band of merry men fighting the iniquities of the rich, rescuing a damsel in distress from a castle tower, a black knight, as well as witch trials and burnings. In Ivanhoe then Sir Walter Scott created a riotous medley of the traditional staples of Arthurian romance literature and spectacular anachronisms.
Thematically the book mirrors aspects of Scott’s earlier novels, concerned as it is with the preservation and alteration of national identity at a time of societal change and political crisis. In Ivanhoe King Richard is only able to reclaim his throne after Saxons and Normans join together to oust his brother’s supporters and form a new mutually supported national identity which further promoted the burgeoning perception of a connection between the formation of a national identity and the medieval period. It is also possible to detect in Ivanhoe‘s mutually supportive unity of Norman and Saxon, an allegory to the place of Scotland within Britain by Sir Walter who was simultaneously an ardent proponent of Scottish culture and establishment figure.
One delightfully bizarre event that perfectly demonstrates 19th century England’s growing fascination with the middle ages was the Eglinton Tournament. Organized and hosted by Archibald Montgomerie the 13th Earl of Eglinton in 1839, the tournament was a reenactment or rather an attempt to recreate the heyday of the medieval tournament scene within Victorian Scotland. The planned form and substance of the tournament was principally derived, not to mention inspired by the pomp and high chivalric culture of the tournament depicted within the pages of Ivanhoe. The Earl himself was sanguine about the inevitable procedural and historical deficiencies of this resurrection and was instead careful to emphasise that the event’s intent was the revival of chivalric traditions and culture. The jousters themselves, many of whom were members of the nobility’s upper crust, competed under bold romantic sounding pseudonyms scavenged from medieval literature such as the Black Knight, the Knight of the Swan and the Knight of the Ram.
These elements of roleplay and the curated association with the archetypes and trappings of chivalric culture and medieval romance literature would have been instantly recognizable and implicitly understood by the participants in Edward III’s Round Table tournament of the 13th century. Although it is unlikely that these medieval experts would have thought much of the technique or the Eglinton jouster. Rather than simply an indulgence staged for the benefit of an eccentric clique of aristocrats, the tournament at Eglinton was a cultural phenomenon.
The tournament was a widely publicized, if highly controversial, event; while many journalists and tastemakers eagerly speculated about the festival’s content, others attacked it as self-indulgent folly, a debate that quickly became entangled with political factionalism. Advertising in all the fashionable newspapers, the Earl anticipated somewhere in the region of four thousand guests, but such was the public’s fascination with the tournament that in the end, perhaps close to a hundred thousand spectators attended. Indeed, the sudden influx of visitors to the area overwhelmed the local infrastructure, the carriages of the great and the good clogging the relatively modest thoroughfares of North Ayrshire.
In the end, the Eglinton Tournament for all its lavish pageantry and ambitious scale turned out to be something of a disaster. The parade and tournament were first delayed and stymied by inadequate planning, compounded by the colossal size of the crowd they had attracted. Worse was to come when an apocalyptic rain broke out, the severity of which drove off the crowd and damaged much of the scenery and paraphernalia prepared for the joust. While several jousts and melees were staged over the following days, the mud and withdrawal of public interest made it a rather sodden and risible affair. Despite the ultimate failure and shortcomings of the Eglinton Tournament, it was for a season able to capture the imagination of much of Victorian Britain. The rise and fall of the Earl of Eglinton’s great experiment testifes to the existence of a growing interest in the medieval past during this period, even if its execution fell far short of the distorted vision of the middle ages derived from the Romantic literary tradition.
The Victorians route from an enthusiasm for medievalism to the adaptation and celebration of a contemporary palatable version of the Arthurian legends is a slightly circuitous one. As we have discussed, Sir Walter Scott’s attempts to create a facsimile of the past in which to set his novels met with variable level of success, he did do considerable research and was accepted by this audience as a historical novelist. While Scott’s novels, the most accessible of his works, never fully deviated from this pattern or embraced the high fantasy of the Arthurian Romantic tradition, he was undoubtedly a fan of Arthurian romance literature making several references to it throughout his poetry.
This interest, propagated by the influence of Romanticism over contemporary art and literature, was shared by a number of Victorian writers including Alfred Tennyson. Born in Lincolnshire in 1809, Alfred’s family had a strong Anglican tradition with both his father and maternal grandfather serving as Vicars. His family encouraged his educational and artistic pursuits and Alfred’s first published work was a compilation of poems written by him and his elder brother Charles in 1827. Despite some early acclaim and plaudits Tennyson initially struggled to gain traction as poet, a second volume of poetry released in 1832 attracted significant criticism. Included within this work was his first version of the unmistakable Arthurian, The Lady of Shallot.
During this period Tennyson also began writing Lancelot and Guinevere but worried that its risqué content and the naked lust displayed by its titular characters, while in keeping with its origins in medieval romantic literature, would offend Victorian sensibilities and provoke a scandal. Fortunately, Tennyson persisted, publishing in 1842, amongst other works, a number of poems based upon the Arthurian legends or utilizing Arthurian iconography including The Epic, Sir Galahad, Morte d’Arthur as well as revised and redacted versions of The Lady of Shalott and Lancelot and Guinevere. While generally well received, certain critics questioned the suitability of Tennyson’s source materials, contending that nothing as fanciful as the Arthurian romances could hold any relevance to Victorian society.
Tennyson was clearly cognizant of this issue and had tried to preempt it. The Epic is a framing device for Morte d’Arthur in which the inhabitants of a Victorian household on Christmas Eve discuss and debate the merits of Arthurian literature while rescuing a volume from the fires it was consigned to by its author’s insecurities. The real-life mirror of this debate, playing out amongst the Victorian public and literary elite, cannot have been helped by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s King Arthur published in 1848. A strange work by a usually highly talented author, whose work had coined such a famous expression as the “pen is mightier than the sword,” the poem is a strange fusion of the Victorian public’s interest in medieval history and fascination with exploration. Much to the author’s embarrassment King Arthur, in which the legendary king and his knights battle with Innuits, polar bears and ice demons, was a commercial and critical failure.
Other Victorian authors and artists faced with the same difficulties of parlaying Victorian interest in their medieval past into an appreciation for the Arthurian romances began reworking and reframing the source material to minimize these controversies and emphasise the virtues more compatible with contemporary morality. In 1852, the future literal and social critic Matthew Arnold published a poem based on the Arthurian romance Tristram and Iseult, fittingly titled Tristram and Iseult. The poem while obviously thematically and stylistically influenced by Romanticism heavily emphasized the tragic consequences of the ardent pursuit of worldly love and lusts destructive nature. In a departure from its medieval inspiration which emphasizes the trials, elation and adventure of courtship, Arnold’s poem generates pathos from Tristram’s magically inflicted obsession with Iseult.
A similar dichotomy between the popularity and appeal of works inspired by Le Morte d’Arthur’s and the high-minded severity of Victorian morals played out in 1847 when the Scottish painter William Dyce was commissioned to create a series of frescoes for the Queen’s robing room in Westminster Palace. Dyce’s subject choice, the Arthurian legends was the subject of much discussion and lengthy negotiations between the artist and the Fine Art Commission. After all, it was felt that the story of a queen whose infidelity brought ruin upon her kingdom was hardly a motif that Queen Victoria would have appreciated being associated or exposed to. With the Commission’s approval, Dyce reimagined the Knights of the Round Table as the exemplars and practitioners of cardinal virtues crucial to civilization and moral conduct. Each planned fresco, Mercy, Hospitality, Generosity, Religion, and Courtesy, Courage and Fidelity was composed of scenes from the canon of Arthurian romances that demonstrated and lauded the virtue it was named for.
Tennyson who was now firmly ensconced as a member of the establishment and the inner circle of the Victorian literary world, having been made Poet Laureate in 1851, thanks to the patronage of Prince Albert, followed this example in his next series of Arthurian poems. Idylls of the King was a smash hit that penetrated and influenced the direction of cultural and literary tastes to an extent that is hard to imagine any single piece of media doing today. Published in installments between 1858 and 1885 Idylls of the King was a series of narrative poems which in a similar manner to Le Morte d’Arthur recounted the life of the legendary king and the rise and fall of his impossible kingdom, principally through the adventures of his knights and courtiers. The phenomenal success of the work was abetted not only by Tennyson’s flourishing talents as a poet but by its carefully modulated values and sensibilities which painted an exacting interpretation of Victorian morals and codes of conduct directly onto the mythical past.
Many of the conflicts and social issues that wracked Victorian society are presented allegorically within Idylls of the King, acted out and examined by Tennyson’s cast of knights, damsels and sorcerers. Several cycles, especially those in which Guinevere is featured prominently, speak directly to growing anxiety experienced within some quarters about the permeability and parameters of traditional gender roles. Guinevere, Elaine and Vivien can be interpreted as representative of dueling conceptions of the precepts of womanhood and of women’s role within society in a narrative which conspires to frame deception and falsehoods as fundamentally unfeminine.
There is a note of pessimism and alarm at the heart of Idylls of the King. Tennyson represents Arthur as a paragon of moral purity and selfless conduct, more than merely a puissant knight or just king, he is the embodiment of all the traits of the ideal Victorian gentleman. Yet while Arthur’s character remains stainless and unimpeachable his kingdom crumbles around him, brought low by the weaknesses and wounds inflicted upon by the often well-intentioned or pitiable fallibility of his followers and allies. Far from merely a tactic to secure commercial success and respectability, Tennyson was fiercely committed to the vision of Arthurian ideals he created dismissively comparing the moral fiber and worthiness of Malory’s Arthur to his own near messianic creation.
Despite or more likely because of its severity and reinforcement of draconian Victorian values, Idylls of the King and its host of imitators and admirers enthroned its interpretation of chivalric conduct and Arthurian iconography within the culture of Victorian Britain. More than that, the aspirational example of a perfect king and his noble knights simultaneously embodying and evangelizing Christian virtues and the equally sacred repacked values of Victorian society had a profound influence upon subsequent generations of Britain’s youthful elite. The chivalric code and ideals contained within the Arthurian romance tradition in this new context became just another ingredient in an already potent brew of Imperial ambition, self-righteousness and self-obsession.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art