The Idylls of the King can be approached as a collection of romantic tales of chivalry, recounted in beautiful descriptive lyrics. These poems may also, however, be interpreted as a series of moral allegories, which are bound together in a comprehensive presentation of a spiritual philosophy of life and clothed in the garb of poetic narrative. It was in large part due to the ethical aspects of these poems that the Idylls were so highly regarded by Tennyson's contemporaries.
Throughout the Idylls, it is possible to trace a constantly recurring moral theme — the ruin of a great and noble ideal by the increasing and deepening influence on a single sin, despite the hero's ("the blameless King") innocence.
As a direct result of the unimpeded growth of Guinevere's immorality and the contagious effect of this sin, Arthur's constructive and visionary work is hindered and ultimately destroyed. The Idylls of "Balin and Balan" and "Pelleas and Ettarre," as well as several others, offer direct examples of this flaw. Tennyson describes sin as a corrosive entity that has the quality of spreading like a fungus and ruining all it touches, unless it is checked at its source. Just as an illness cannot successfully be cured by treating only one or two symptoms without examining the basic causes, so evil too must be dealt with at its root. Arthur's failure is his inability to visualize or cope with evil in this broad sense; he makes the error of believing that he can build a new moral order on a foundation of immoral people.
The Idylls lack the tight unity of an epic poem, but a careful study demonstrates that many apparently independent or unconnected episodes are all related, more or less directly, to the work's single central theme. The individual poems not only contain interesting stories, but also provide stimulating and provoking insights into the central motif of the corrosive effects of sin. For example, one is better able to evaluate Arthur's attitude towards Guinevere after observing the very different behavior of Geraint to Enid. The contrasted reactions of Elaine and Guinevere to Lancelot and to each other, and the bold shamelessness of Tristram, among other incidents, contribute to a fuller moral awareness on the part of the reader. Nearly all the episodes and characters in the Idylls assist through this counterpoint and contrast in the development of an enlightened and profound understanding of the nature of good and evil.
Moreover, a number of the individual Idylls are themselves short moral allegories (for example, "Gareth and Lynette"), each illustrating specific problems or ideas, the sum total of which is to strengthen and affirm the ethical message of the entire poem. Unfortunately, Tennyson's allegory is often vague or too obvious because it attempts to force the ethical principles of the poet's own era onto legends of a period in which they did not exist. It is only in such a poem as "The Holy Grail," where a moral theme already existed in the legend, that Tennyson's use of allegory is successful and effective.
The central theme of moral decay is emphasized by the chronological aspect of the Idylls. It is the gradual change in mood that, over a period of time, provides one of the major connective links of the poems. The action of the Idylls follows closely the seasons of the year from springtime to winter. Tennyson makes brilliant use of the symbolism of nature to illustrate his theme. As the year wanes, the mood of the poem becomes less optimistic and more overshadowed by a sense of doom and foreboding and reaches its culmination in "Guinevere" and "The Passing of Arthur," where, in the midst of winter, the all-pervading feeling of evil, failure, and desolation is inescapable.
The Idylls contain many other ethical and epic elements, most notably in their overall depiction of the heroic battle of a great soul, with noble purposes and ideals, against the overwhelming forces of evil.
Arthur's titanic struggle ends in defeat, but this defeat seems only temporary, and there is at least a brief, final vision of the ultimate triumph of virtue and Arthur's ideals in the new spring yet to come.
The dramatic background to this saga of the conflict between good and evil is the story of the poem's four main characters: Lancelot, Guinevere, Elaine, and Arthur. The first three are successfully and distinctly drawn, particularly Lancelot, who presents a magnificent picture of a noble and chivalrous man made captive and ruined by his own passions.
The character of Arthur, though, is a failure, and, because of this, the entire story has a false and heavy-handed quality. The king, a paragon of human virtue, is in effect made into a symbol instead of a man, and lacks warmth or humanity. It is impossible for readers to sympathize with Arthur's plight or to identify with him except in the most abstract way. Because of this defect in characterization, the very human story of these four people does not evoke any tender human response and becomes, instead, a dull tale about stale characters.
The other major flaw of the Idylls is that these poems, despite Tennyson's superb mastery of blank verse, are too shallow and weak in their diction and imagery to properly relate a story of grand passion and barbaric splendor like the ancient Arthurian saga. F. L. Lucas, a prominent British critic, has crystallized this viewpoint:
The Idylls of the King have no epic quality; their very name betrays them — Malory made into "Idylls"! — the spear of Malory's Lancelot twisted into a china shepherd's crook! Where the action of the story should hurry the reader on, Tennyson's style with its slow, over-polished perfectness is always holding him back, always crying, "Stay a moment; I am so beautiful." And as a picture of the real savagery of the Middle Ages, the Idylls of the King are about as adequate as a fancy-dress ball or a parish pageant.
Additional criticisms have been made of Tennyson and his work besides those mentioned above. Among other things, he has been accused, with some justice, of intellectual timidity, prissiness in thought and diction, lack of emotional depth, and inability to compose a long narrative. All of these censures have resulted in new evaluations of Tennyson as a poet and have demonstrated that he is not fully worthy of the high stature once accorded him.
Nevertheless, in certain ways Tennyson was a great poet and, in these same ways, the Idylls of the King is a great poem. Tennyson was extremely talented and possessed some of the supreme gifts of poetry. He was a truly great stylist and had a masterful flair for descriptive lyrics. He was able to depict scenes from nature with an authenticity and intensity of feeling that may be compared only to that of Vergil. It has been truly said of Tennyson that the background crowns the work, for while his stories or characters may be rapidly forgotten, their settings are remembered forever. Some of the most vivid and consummate passages in the Idylls are those which portray the sea or the English coast and countryside. A host of examples will be recalled to the mind of the alert and sensitive reader.
Furthermore, Tennyson's prosody has a rhythmic and metrical precision that has rarely been achieved or duplicated by other poets. As an artist, Tennyson was a perfectionist; he had a superb ear for delicate nuances of sound, a matchless smoothness and purity of diction. His work is outstanding for its technical and stylistic polish. Much of Tennyson's poetry is now considered dated and of little worth, and some of it was never of any real value, but he also composed a number of great poems which are cherished among the treasures of the English literary heritage. F. L. Lucas, in his final evaluation of Tennyson, states:
. . . after the laughter, there is room, still more, for silent wonder at this master, who, coming so late in our literature, yet made such music, never heard before, and now surely to be heard through the centuries, from the English country and the English tongue — "Lord over Nature, Lord of the visible earth, Lord of the senses five."