Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the most important poet of the Victorian period, and his works include some of the finest poetry in the English language. The Idylls of the King is one of his best-known compositions and has much of lasting value to offer the reader.
The Idylls of the King deals with an exciting era in English history and with such fascinating and familiar characters as King Arthur, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, and the other Knights of the Round Table. The poem is difficult in parts, as many worthwhile books are, but reading it will be a rewarding and inspiring experience.
The tales about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from which Tennyson drew the inspiration and substance of his Idylls, form an extensive body of medieval literature. The Arthurian legends have always had a firm hold on the English imagination, due to the heroic and evocative picture of the British past which they present. Tennyson was under great pressure to compose a long poem on an epic theme, and it was only natural for him to have selected as his subject the figure who would arouse strong sentiments of patriotism, pride, and admiration in the hearts of all Englishmen.
There is practically no historical evidence about the real King Arthur. It is considered probable, however, that he was a minor king or war-leader of the Celtic Britons who, sometime in the fifth or sixth century A.D., led his people in a stubborn and temporarily successful resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Despite Arthur's legendary twelve battles, culminating in the great victory at Mount Badon, the Anglo-Saxons were ultimately triumphant and drove the defeated Britons into the remote regions of Scotland and Wales. It was in these areas that the Arthurian legends first arose.
Whoever Arthur was, and whatever his real achievement, there is no question that he rapidly became the most important hero and the central figure of British legendary history. It is considered likely that many ancient Celtic myths and traditions became attached to his name. Furthermore, as time passed, various other legendary figures such as Gawain, Bedivere, Lancelot, and Tristram, who had once all been independent, became secondary to Arthur in the later versions of the sagas. Arthur's fame was widespread, and early legends about him are reported from such diverse areas as Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Cumberland, and Scotland. By the end of the Middle Ages, he was the hero of romances composed even in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
The earliest documentary account of Arthur is found in the Historia Britonum, composed by the Welsh Nennius (around 796). The first important extended description of Arthur's career is in the Historia Regium Britanniae written by Geoffrey of Monmouth about 1140, although it has been suggested that the author actually invented many of the incidents he reports. Additional personal and historical details are found in the Annales Cambriae (c. 954), the Norman-French version of Geoffrey's Historia, composed by Wace (1155), the Gesta Regum Anglorum, written by William of Malmesbury in 1125, the chronicle of Layamon (early 13th century), as well as a few other Welsh and English sources.
In addition to these pseudo-historical accounts, there were from the earliest times a large number of bardic songs and lays dealing with a host of characters and events from the now extensive Arthurian saga.
A great number of these derive from the Welsh tradition. These are thought to be among the most important sources since Arthur was supposed to have been the leader of the Celtic Britons, from whom the Welsh are descended. The most considerable collection of these Welsh legendary tales is known as the Mabinogion. The oldest poems in this collection have been attributed to the sixth century A.D. This date may be questionable, but the Mabinogion definitely contains many primitive elements and was certainly composed in a very early period.
Later in the Middle Ages, elaborate and cultivated forms of metrical and prose romances were developed, and Arthurian themes provided the most popular subject matter. The rough basic material of the legends was softened and polished by exposure to the new literary conventions of chivalry and courtly love.
The most well-known of the Arthurian metrical romances are those composed by the French poet Chretien de Troyes (1160-1185). The greatest and most famous of the Arthurian prose romances is the Morte D'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory (published 1485). This is the most thorough and complete editing of the legends and the one from which Tennyson drew most of his material. It is also judged to be one of the finest romantic works in English literature.