Thursday, August 18, 2016

Idylls of the King: The Victorian Arthur (Notes:24)

Victorian representation of King Arthur's death.



During the Victorian period, we see an explosion, a resurgence, in all things Arthurian and medieval. European Victorians fetished the middle ages as a simpler time where people were innocent. But, it was also imagined as a time of great cruelty and barbarism. Part of this fetish meant that people often evoked the medieval period as part of a justification for a new practice or to tear down a new practice; this was the time where we can speak definitively of the growth of ‘medievalism,’ and so it is unsurprising that many people would use this past epoch as a fulcrum for their own beliefs. The ‘Lord’s Right of the First Night,’ ‘Chasity belts,’ are representations of this fascination, though both concepts—of a lord having first chance at sex with a recently married peasant woman before her husband, and of protective belts to protect one’s virginity—are, in fact, fabrications, devices which were not common practice.

In literary terms, the Victorian period would generate some beautiful literature. Among the best of the best is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s text The Idylls of the King. This text would single handily usher in a new age of Arthurian scholarship. Tennyson’s interest in the Arthurian legend began as a young boy when he came across Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Tennyson saw in Malory’s work the potential to treat his own age’s important social issues—what is virtue, how it Chasity to be valued, what makes an ideal ruler, and how does Romantic love fit into all of this? He started work on his poems in the 1830s and he started by writing in prose (John Keats was an influence on Tennyson, so the fact that he first chose to write about Camelot is unsurprising). His first published Arthurian tale is ‘The Lady of Sherlot,’ which describes a scene found in Malory’s French sources but is used by Tennyson only insofar as an Italian source and later rediscover Malory’s own text, though he did remark how he would have produced a dramatically different text had he had Malory’s medieval version instead of the version of the story written in, then contemporary, Italian.

The story itself, Lady Elaine of Astalot, is about a lady who falls in love with Sir. Lancelot; Lancelot, however, cannot return her affection because his love is already pledged to Queen Guinevere. She asks to marry her and he declines. Then, she asks for Lancelot to become her lover and he is horrified; she says that she will ‘just die’ if she cannot marry him and, in desperation, Lancelot offers her an immense dowry which will enable her to marry anyone of her choosing. But for the Lady of Sherlot, it is Lancelot or no-one. She does eventually die of love for Lancelot. She orders her corpse to be sent afloat and it eventually reaches King Arthur’s castle where, upon discovery, becomes an emblem for the power of love.

In Tennyson’s version, the lady is alive when she climbs into her boat. She knows that as she floats down the river she is floating to her death and so sings. This poem would turn out to be highly inspiration to a number of visual artists; John William Waterhouse’s painting “The Lady of Sherlot” is one of the most famous artistic renderings. After this poem, Tennyson would work on other Arthurian poems and unite fragments that he had begun earlier in his career. One such poem, the “Morte d’Arthur,” inspired by the death of King Arthur, seems to have come from a sad event in Tennyson’s own life, the death of his friend Arthur Henry Howard. Seventeen years after his friend’s death, he would write “In Mormorium of AHH,” a remembrance poem which would earn him the title of Poet Laureate of England. After winning this prize he turned his attention back to the Arthurian legend; around this moment, an explosion of Victorian interest in King Arthur reignited.

Tennyson’s Idylls are composed of twelve poems. Each one deals with a different virtue which Tennyson considered of paramount importance. He used the Mabinogion as a source and worked on the Idylls over the course of several decades before publishing them both signally and in groups between 1885-1889. Because they are all on a different theme but linked by King Arthur, we can call them a ‘cycle of poems.’ He takes on all the major episodes of the legend. Even after the Idylls were completed, Tennyson would go on to write other works with Arthurian themes.

A group of artists called the Pre-Raphaelites would be heavily inspired by Arthurian writings. Artists like William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Bern Jones would be important in the world of Arthurian art. Morris and Bern Jones had been students together at Oxford College in 1853 where they had encountered both Tennyson’s Arthurian poems as well as their sources. Such people would go on to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and would attract people like William Hermann Hunt, Friedrich George Stephens, and Thomas Warner, and John Malway; though other artists would become affiliated with the movement after its founding, it is these people who were the most vital participants.

The goal of these artists was to being back a form of art before the Raphael period, the new style they felt corrupted the teaching of art in an academic setting. They wanted to reform art and so created artwork with ‘genuine ideas to express’ and published a journal called The Germ. Each piece of their art attempts to tell a story rendered from nature. Many of these artists heavily were influenced by Arthurian legend and so some of the most popular subjects to paint were Sir. Galahad, the death of Arthur, the Lady of Sherlot, the story of Tristan and Isolde, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. 

The Dunlock Windows, of the Morris Stained Glass, are among the most famous commission of Arthurian art from this circle of artists. In 1862 the Arthurian interest had moved beyond the academic world and permeated the merchant classes. Suddenly, it was a mark of status to have an artistic representation of Arthur in one’s own house. And so artists gave a boost to Arthurian creativity; the windows gave breath to the brotherhood’s style and beauty. These windows and other artistic commissions were inspired directly by Tennyson’s text, both his poetry and the images within the book itself for the 1859 edition (the artist of which would form a dialectical relationship with the writer with each inspiring the other).

Although many people were enamored with the Arthurian legend during this time, public intellectual such as Matthew Arnold and William Morris were less than excited about it. Simply because they thought that they could do a better rendition. But, other than artists and writers, what the Victorian resurgence in King Arthur generated was a renewed interest in scholarship and so new editions of medieval texts were re-worked and republished, some of which were dedicated to Tennyson. Others asked that if classical texts were beneficial to an education than why couldn’t classical English (Arthurian) texts? And so more debates began and more was King Arthur focus upon.

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