Abrosius The friendly monk to whom Percivale tells the story of the Holy Grail.
Anton A friend of Uther's who raised and protected Arthur during his childhood. Because he kept the boy's identity a secret, it was sometimes rumored that Anton was Arthur's real father.
Arthur Son of Uther Pendragon, husband of Guinevere, and King of Britain. King Arthur is without question the greatest and most heroic figure in English mythology, and a vast medieval cycle of legend and semi-history is built around him. Although he is not present in all its episodes, Arthur is the central character of the Idylls, for his influence is felt everywhere. He is portrayed by Tennyson as the model of human perfection for he possesses all the highest qualities to which any man might aspire.
In the various idylls, Arthur is shown in his different aspects. First he is seen as a great warrior, then as a constructive and idealistic statesman. All Arthur's efforts are devoted to the well-being of Britain; because of his deep religious and moral sense, he works ceaselessly to bring the true religion to fruition among his countrymen. Arthur's philosophy of life is most fully embodied in the speech in lines 899-915 of "The Holy Grail."
As the forces of evil gain more strength and begin to exert influence at court, the greatness of Arthur is seen even more clearly. He retains all his personal dignity and majesty, even in the midst of utter chaos and the destruction of all his hopes. In the last half of the poem, the king, through his adversities, rises to a high, tragic stature. Even when he learns the shocking truth about Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur is able to be merciful and unselfish.
Arthur's heroic nature and humanity stand out most at the time of his last battle, when he is at last face-to-face with death and the end of his kingdom. To the last, he retains his courage and steadfast purpose and passes over to the mysterious island of Avilion with confidence and faith.
By making Arthur a paragon of human virtue and the embodiment of Victorian morality, Tennyson unfortunately has also made him unreal as a man. He is the weakest character in the poem, for it is impossible to believe in him as a human being. Arthur stands as a magnificent example of what a man might become, but he offers little to the reader who seeks to learn what men are. Arthur's presence or behavior in an otherwise dramatic situation often has an air of falsity or didacticism. For example, his final speech to Guinevere is superb in its compassion, but also priggishly intolerable and very like a dull sermon.
Aurelius One of the predecessors of Arthur. He was able to unite the kingdom for a short time after the Roman army left Britain.
Balan The brother of Balin.
Balin Known as "the savage," he is a sensitive and well-intentioned knight but unfortunately is subject to temporary spells of madness. During one of these fits, he kills his beloved brother.
Bedivere One of Arthur's most loyal followers, he is the first to be knighted by the new king and the only survivor of the last battle. He carries out many important missions for Arthur, including the embassy to ask for the hand of Guinevere and the final disposal of the sword Excalibur.
Bellicent The daughter of Gorlois and Ygerne (hence, the half-sister of Arthur), wife of King Lot, and mother of Gawain, Modred, and Gareth. In some medieval sources, she is also known as Morgan le Fay.
Bors The nephew of Lancelot. He is among the noblest and most holy of knights and is one of the few to whom even a fleeting vision of the Grail is allowed.
Carados One of the enemy kings who is overcome by Arthur at the start of his reign.
Dagonet Arthur's court jester and one of his most loyal servants. He is both a humorous and pathetic character. Despite his position as fool, Dagonet is a sensitive observer of affairs at court, but he is powerless to affect them. He is the only significant figure in the Idylls who is completely Tennyson's creation.
Doorm Known as "the bull," he is an outlaw earl who leads a band of brigands from his stronghold in Lyonnesse. He is killed by Geraint after having molested Enid.
Dubric The sainted head of the Church in Britain during the reign of Arthur.
Edyrn, Son of Nudd Known as "the sparrow-hawk," he is a suitor of Enid and a haughty knight who unjustly expropriates the holdings of his uncle Yniol. After being chastened by Geraint's defeat of him, he comes under the influence of Dubric and others at the Round Table. Eventually he becomes one of Arthur's noblest and most honorable knights, and loyally dies in the king's service. His story presents an example of Arthur's ideals in action at a time when decay has not yet eaten into the moral structure at Camelot.
Elaine The Tennysonian personification of the finest and most admirable virtues of womanhood. She possesses beauty and grace, innocence and goodness, unselfishness and fidelity. Elaine dies of a broken heart when she learns that her love for Lancelot is not answered, but even at the moment of her death she never expresses any bitterness or malice.
Enid The daughter of Yniol, and wife of Geraint. She is another Tennysonian portrait of an admirable and noble maiden. Enid is most noteworthy for her patience and humility, as well as her unselfish love for Geraint.
Ettarre In this character Tennyson portrays a wicked woman whose main characteristics are pride, selfishness, and greed. As a result of her cruelty, Pelleas meets his downfall.
Galahad He is the personification of perfect purity and innocence, achieved through total renunciation and resistance to temptation. Galahad is the holiest of knights and the only one to be blessed with a complete and permanent vision of the Grail.
Galahad is a saintly character but has become so through asceticism and withdrawal from the world. As a result, he is a cold person in many respects. He generally seems more concerned with his own salvation than with the welfare and service of humanity, although these last are among the most important aims of Arthur and the Round Table.
In some medieval sources, Galahad is reputed to be the illegitimate son of Lancelot and Elaine, but Tennyson specifically denies this notion in the Idylls.
Gareth Son of Bellicent and Lot, brother of Gawain and Modred. He is Tennyson's picture of the perfect knightly hero, who represents the highest type of true manhood and chivalry. He excels even the saintly Galahad, for the latter possesses none of the warm, human qualities that are essential parts of Gareth's nature.
Garlon Nephew and heir of King Pellam; he has a brief and unpleasant encounter with Balin.
Gawain Son of Bellicent and Lot, brother of Modred and Gareth. He is one of the most prominent knights at court. Despite the portrayal of him given by Malory and other medieval sources, in the Idylls he is seen as a gossip and troublemaker, most renowned for his fickleness, irresponsibility, and facetiousness. His acts in "Lancelot and Elaine" and "Pelleas and Ettarre" provide good examples of these flaws.
Geraint Prince of Devon, husband of Enid. The most important characteristic of Geraint is his senseless and unfair suspicion of his wife. In the poems about these two, Tennyson studies in depth the consequences of mistrust and lack of communication between lovers. In addition, Geraint's harsh treatment of the innocent Enid provides an interesting contrast with Arthur's generosity to the guilty Guinevere.
Gorlois Duke of Tintagil, first husband of Ygerne. Because so few were aware of the events that had preceded the death of Uther, it was often rumored that Gorlois was Arthur's father.
Guinevere Daughter of Leodogran, wife of Arthur. When Guinevere first appears in the poem, she is characterized by her beauty, womanly strength, and royal dignity. As her sinful love for Lancelot develops, however, she becomes selfish, cruel, and passionate. She is indicated to be the unwitting human cause of the moral ruin that eventually infects and destroys the whole court.
Guinevere has no sympathy for Arthur's ideals and little consideration or affection for him as a man. She is solely concerned with her own interests and her adulterous love for Lancelot; she brazenly conceals this attitude from no one except Arthur. Tennyson's portrayals of evil women, particularly Ettarre, provide deep insights into the character of Guinevere.
It is only near the end of the poem that Guinevere is made aware of the moral consequences of her conduct. She realizes that she has always loved only Arthur, and though it is now too late to amend her past deeds, she repents for her sins, becomes a nun, and devotes her last years to prayer and good works.
Isolt The wife of King Mark and lover of Tristram; also the daughter of the King of Brittany and wife of Tristram.
Kay The steward of Arthur's palace. He is narrow-minded, cynical, and intolerant, as is shown by his attitude towards Gareth. In some medieval sources, Kay is said to be Arthur's foster-brother.
Lancelot "The flower of chivalry," he is the greatest of all knights and Arthur's closest friend. Lancelot is a noble and honorable man, whose reputation is sullied only by his sinful relationship with Guinevere. He often feels acute guilt and shame about his adultery and his infidelity to Arthur, and he frequently makes strong but unsuccessful efforts to untangle himself from the influence of evil. Because of the confusing ambivalence between his love for Guinevere and his knightly code of conduct, Lancelot often has spells of extreme depression and self-recrimination. It is because of his sin that he is not allowed to see the Grail except through a cloud, even though in all other things he is virtuous. In Lancelot, Tennyson presents a moving portrait of a great soul tortured by a guilty conscience, struggling to free itself from sin.
Lavaine One of the brothers of Elaine.
Leodogran King of Cameliard and father of Guinevere.
Limours One of the suitors of Enid, he is a coarse drunkard. While Enid's party on horseback is passing through his earldom, he makes an unsuccessful attempt to steal her from Geraint.
Lot King of Orkney, husband of Bellicent, father of Gawain, Modred, and Gareth. He is one of the allied kings overcome by Arthur in his first major battle.
Lynette The sister of Lyonors. She is a delightful young maiden. At first, probably because of her youth and lack of experience, she is somewhat proud and overconcerned with social status. From her relationship with Gareth, she learns tolerance and humility, and eventually the two are married.
Lyonors The sister of Lynette; she is rescued from her captors by Gareth.
Mark King of Cornwall and husband of Isolt. Mark has always hated and envied Arthur. He is a cowardly and treacherous villain who sends Vivien to undermine Arthur's influence; he murders Tristram while his victim is defenseless.
Merlin A great magician and sage, he is Arthur's powerful helper and protector, as well as his friend and adviser. He is an old man and, despite his wisdom, is susceptible to Vivien's sexual teasing. Because of this weakness, he is eliminated from Camelot, an action which makes possible the eventual downfall of the king. Merlin is the center of an extensive medieval cycle of legends and romances.
Modred The oldest son of Lot, brother of Gawain and Gareth. He is a sullen, evil, and treacherous knight who continually plots against his king until he is finally able to usurp the throne during Arthur's absence in France. He is killed by Arthur in the last battle but manages to fatally wound the king in return.
Pellam One of the kings who opposed Arthur at the start of his reign. Under Arthur's influence, he has a spiritual rebirth and becomes a deeply religious man. The spear with which the side of Christ was pierced is the most sacred relic in his private chapel.
Pelleas An inexperienced and naive young knight who, despite his sincere and honest intentions, is taken advantage of and driven to his downfall by the cruel machinations of Ettarre. The great pain and confusion which Pelleas feels when he learns that all his beliefs about the honor and high ethical standards of the Round Table are false provide good examples of the ways in which Guinevere's sin infected others. The waste of such valuable human resources as Pelleas, who compares very favorably at first with Gareth, makes more poignant the tragic downfall of Arthur's regime.
Percivale The hero of many medieval legends centering around the quest for the Grail, he is the same character as the Parsifal of Wagner's opera and the Peredur of Welsh legend.
When Percivale begins his quests, he is confident, for he is filled with false pride in his own achievements. Through his long and fruitless search, he ultimately comes to the conviction of his own unworthiness and the knowledge that the things men most covet are mere illusions. From his encounter with the hermit and Galahad, he finally learns the meaning of humility. After gaining this new under-standing, he is graced with a vision of the Grail. Percivale ends his life as a monk.
Torre One of the brothers of Elaine.
Tristram The lover of Isolt. He, like many others in the Idylls, is the center of many medieval legends. He appears in "The Last Tournament" as a brazen and self-righteous sinner who has no shame whatsoever for any of his crimes. Because there is such a close similarity between his relationship with Isolt and that of Lancelot with Guinevere (the second Isolt is the double of Elaine), his function here seems to be as a demonstration of the full extent and evil nature of Lancelot's adultery.
Urien One of the neighboring kings who attacks Leodogran prior to Arthur's coronation.
Uther Pendragon The father of Arthur. During his lifetime, he ruled nearly all Britain; when he died, the kingdom he had built fell apart again because the feudal nobles and tributary kings were eager to reassert their own power, and no one knew that Uther had left an heir.
Vivien She plays an active part in the undermining and destruction of the moral order at Camelot; she spreads vicious rumors of all kinds, is responsible for the disappearance of Merlin, shares some of the blame for the deaths of Balin and Balan, and aids Modred in the usurpation of the throne. Vivien represents the forces of evil and unrestrained passion as they manifest themselves in the feminine character; she is totally unscrupulous and immoral.
Ygerne The wife of Gorlois and mother by him of Bellicent. Although she was already married, Uther Pendragon fell in love with her. Ygerne refused his advances and remained faithful to her husband. As a result, Uther went to war with Gorlois, defeated and slew him. Afterward, Uther besieged and captured Tintagil Castle and forced Ygerne to submit to him. Uther and Ygerne were the parents of Arthur, but Uther died a few months before his son was born. The parentage of the infant was kept a secret in order to protect his life; hence, the various rumors about Arthur's real father.
Yniol The father of Enid.