Arthurian Time

Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel c1900

Glastonbury Abbey Lady Chapel c1900

Imagine Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. What season is it? Do you see snow? Does a crisp winter light play over the stone?

Now be honest…is Arthur wearing a scarf?

I apologize for channeling a Disney scene, but bear with me. The legend of Arthur is very seasonal. The sword is pulled from the stone in winter, while Arthur is finally crowned in the liminal months between spring and summer.

There’s another type of season we should be thinking of when reading about Arthur though. Not only should it invoke the natural divisions of the four seasons, but the festive divisions of the liturgical year.

It’s cold when the sword is pulled from the stone because it’s Christmas.

Malory’s Liturgical Arthur

Liturgy is the governing temporal structure of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. The sword is pulled from the stone at Christmas. The barons delay the coronation until Candlemas, and then finally Pentecost. Then, as we talked about in an earlier post, Pentecost becomes one of the chief feast days of the Arthurian court, celebrating his coronation, wedding, and the founding of the fellowship of the Round Table.

Liturgical time is so prevalent that it marks daily life for the knights. Gareth has daily Mass throughout his travels: “he and the damosel Lyonet heard their Mass and broke their fast, and then they took their horses and rode throughout a fair forest” (VII.14). The Mass is mentioned almost perfunctorily but it’s never not mentioned. It’s so essential to the day that we can’t just assume it. It must be mentioned. It is as needed as breakfast.

As Helen Cooper notes,

Although the hearing of Mass receives emphasis throughout Malory’s work as one of the duties of every Christian, the opening of the Grail Quest with religious observance [the vigil of Pentecost] is particularly appropriate.

The liturgy grounds the narrative in a predictable cycle. We know that Arthur will fall and Camelot will be lost, but we also know that Christmas and Pentecost will come again next year.

Tennyson’s Seasonal Arthur

When Tennyson turns to Malory as the source for his own Idylls of the King, this liturgical structure is nearly absent.

When Arthur marries Guinevere, there’s no mention of Pentecost:

The marriage of King Arthur by Lancelot Speed
Then Arthur charged his warrior whom he loved
And honoured most, Sir Lancelot, to ride forth
And bring the Queen;–and watched him from the gates:
And Lancelot past away among the flowers,
(For then was latter April) and returned
Among the flowers, in May, with Guinevere.
To whom arrived, by Dubric the high saint,
Chief of the church in Britain, and before
The stateliest of her altar-shrines, the King
That morn was married, while in stainless white,
The fair beginners of a nobler time,
And glorying in their vows and him, his knights
Stood round him, and rejoicing in his joy.
Far shone the fields of May through open door,
The sacred altar blossomed white with May,
The Sun of May descended on their King,
They gazed on all earth’s beauty in their Queen,
Rolled incense, and there past along the hymns
A voice as of the waters, while the two
Sware at the shrine of Christ a deathless love:
And Arthur said, “Behold, thy doom is mine.
Let chance what will, I love thee to the death!”
To whom the Queen replied with drooping eyes,
“King and my lord, I love thee to the death!”
And holy Dubric spread his hands and spake,
“Reign ye, and live and love, and make the world
Other, and may thy Queen be one with thee,
And all this Order of thy Table Round
Fulfil the boundless purpose of their king!”

The wedding of Arthur suggests the Pentecostal oath but no Pentecost. Instead there’s the rhythmic repetition of May and Whitsuntide won’t be mentioned for a few more idylls until “The Marriage of Geraint.” A liturgy is engaged in, but it is aligned with the natural season of Summer and the nostalgic season owned by “the fair beginners of a nobler time.” The “sacred altar blossomed” not red with the liturgical color of Pentecost, but “white with May.” Granted, white for Whitsunday is an English tradition and Tennyson may shy away from the Latin Rite’s practice of red, but the white altar is ascribed to May and not Whitsunday. In turn, the wedding without Pentecost feels unmoored, gauzy, dreamy, fairy-like.

Tennyson’s addition to Arthurian legend is to have it follow the four seasons. The poem opens in spring and moves through summer with idylls about various knights and Merlin. It then puts the Grail Quest firmly within autumn and the death of Arthur in winter. Like the seasons of a person’s life, Camelot is fresh, enters its prime, and then dwindles and decays.

Tying Arthur to the natural seasons rather than liturgical seasons upends Malory’s trajectory. Tennyson moves from spring to winter, but Malory moves from Christmas to Trinity Monday in chronicling the life of Arthur, and he ends in springtime with a Good Friday years after the destruction of the fellowship of the Round Table. (That’s right, just like Frodo and Jesus, Arthur’s story goes from Christmas to Good Friday)

Why might Tennyson make such a shift in emphasis from his source in Malory?

Perhaps the shift can be explained easily by the difference between a Victorian Anglican and his medieval Catholic source.

That’s not exactly what I think is happening, but let’s explore it for a little bit.

There does seem to be some discomfort with ritualism in Tennyson’s idylls. And liturgy was an important issue within Victorian Anglicanism. In “Balin and Balan,” the court of King Pellam becomes a rigid rival to the court at Camelot.

Pellam’s court is full of relics and sacred objects like reliquaries or the instruments of Christ’s Passion:

This gray King
Showed us a shrine wherein were wonders–yea–
Rich arks with priceless bones of martyrdom,
Thorns of the crown and shivers of the cross,
And therewithal (for thus he told us) brought
By holy Joseph hither, that same spear
Wherewith the Roman pierced the side of Christ.

Or this goblet that is nearly thrown by Balin:

A goblet on the board by Balin, bossed
With holy Joseph’s legend, on his right
Stood, all of massiest bronze: one side had sea
And ship and sail and angels blowing on it:
And one was rough with wattling, and the walls
Of that low church he built at Glastonbury

Beyond these sumptuous descriptions, Tennyson seems skeptical of ritualism in this idyll. Later while Balin is trying to escape Pellam’s castle, he comes across a chapel where saintly images seem to obscure Christ:

Wings through a glimmering gallery, till he marked
The portal of King Pellam’s chapel wide
And inward to the wall; he stept behind;
Thence in a moment heard them pass like wolves
Howling; but while he stared about the shrine,
In which he scarce could spy the Christ for Saints,
Beheld before a golden altar lie
The longest lance his eyes had ever seen…


“How Balin Smote the Dolorous Stroke that Wounded King Pellam” Chapter Heading by William Earnest Chapman

Though Tennyson would be far from the Oxford Movement’s High Church view of liturgy and could in no way be described as a ritualist, I don’t think I would buy him as someone who scorns liturgical time. His great elegy, “In Memoriam,” is liturgically structured with the feast of Christmas, which you can read more about here.

And he retains at times Malory’s perfunctory mention of liturgy, such as this moment in “Lancelot and Elaine”:

But when the next day broke from underground,
And shot red fire and shadows thro’ the cave
They rose, heard mass, broke fast, and rode away.

Furthermore, as Joshua Held notes, Tennyson’s opening idyll contains an echo to the Book of Common Prayer. When Tennyson writes that “the King had set his banner broad,” he alludes to the banner of Psalm 20:5. According to Held,

Few other Psalms would have been as familiar to generations of English church-goers, for its final verse informs a central portion of the Anglican liturgy: when the Priest says, ‘O Lord, save the Queen,’ the congregants answer, ‘And mercifully hear us, when we call upon thee.’ These versicles and responses were sung after the creed at each matins and evensong, according to The Book of Common Prayer.

Tennyson’s Nostalgic Time

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Instead, I think Tennyson must let go of the liturgical tempo of Malory because of his emphasis on nostalgia and the pain of loss. As John D. Rosenberg puts it, “Tennyson’s single overriding theme” is “the theme of loss … the ‘Passion of the Past.’”

Amelia Scholtz further proposes in “Photographs before Photography: Marking Time in Tennyson’s and Cameron’s Idylls of the King” that “the past is presented as irretrievably lost. This sense of a past that cannot be recaptured is paradoxically strengthened by the lack of a stable point of reference, a single, isolable moment in time.”

Grounding the narrative in liturgical time would give it a “stable point of reference” and present the court as engaging in rituals that re-present the past instead of acknowledging it as “irretrievably lost.”

The liturgical cycle is a hopeful rather than nostalgic temporality. Liturgies marry cyclical repetition of a past divine promise with the present hope of a future fulfillment. So the same liturgical feasts that Arthur experienced, Malory and Tennyson experienced, and we can today experience. This hit home for me when I happened to read about the grail on the very eve of Pentecost that Malory describes, or when I came to the death of Arthur on the same Monday of Trinity Sunday when he met Mordred in battle.

Thomas Malory and Alfred Tennyson write about the same King Arthur, but with very different temporal structures. A liturgical cycle is an inherently hopeful temporality. It ascribes meaning to the past that can be participated in in the present with a promise of a future. Tennyson’s idylls cannot quite participate in this cycle as they look back nostalgically at a worthy past that cannot be sustained, and a doubtful future of a returning king.

But not all is lost for Tennyson. The very last line lets us hold on to hope with Bedivere:

And the new sun rose, bringing the new year.

As always as we’re going through my exam lists together, if you’re interested in any of these books, you can follow the partner links below:

4 Responses

  1. A fascinating reflection. I am enjoying this series. How “modern” I must be not to have noticed Tennyson’s abandonment of liturgical time before even though I am very much aware of it in Malory. That in itself requires my attention. I expect to find it in a medieval text but do not notice its absence in a Victorian text.
    And yet my heart is with the Victorian liturgical reformers. On many Sundays I celebrate the Eucharist in a church in which every window was designed by Edward Burne Jones and constructed in William Morris’s factory. It is one of the most beautiful spaces that I know. Am I playing at an attempt to reconnect with the medieval world?

    • How wonderful to celebrate the Eucharist in a church with such beautiful stained glass! I’m about to use one of Morris’s Arthurian windows for a roundup post. Is your parish the one that has that magnificent St. George looking like Galahad with his redcross shield?

      I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed the posts. I almost thought we would be leaving this legendary landscape, but I’m reading Hardy’s Tess right now and his Wessex is the same landscape as Arthurian romance.

      I think I wouldn’t have noticed the absence of liturgical time either if I hadn’t read them back to back in preparation for my exams. The natural seasons that Tennyson uses make so much sense and there’s something about his voice that anything he does seems right and established even if he’s changing things up. I think now my antennae are just oversensitive to how liturgies operate in texts.

      I’m all for reconnecting to the medievals though!

      • The East Window of the church comprises a fascinating juxtaposition of images. The central panel is of Christ blessing the children and I often draw the attention of families bringing children to baptism to that window. The two panels that flank the central one are of the soldier saints, Martin of Tour and George. George does hold a red shield at rest by his side but there is no red cross.
        Yes to the medievals and to all who help us re-enchant the world around us.

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