It’s a beautiful day in New England. The sun is bright, the sky is blue, there is a nip in the air, and not all the color has left the trees. I should be out playing tennis, but here I am with Tennyson.
I teach a course here called “Theology in the Great Classics.” We work on Shakespeare—Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear—Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and Dante’s Inferno. At the end of the term, for the icing on the cake, we read and enjoy Idylls of the King. There are a few university English majors who smile benignly upon their old professor when he chooses to consider Idylls of the King. We have all (to quote Bonhoeffer) “come of age” and have put away childish things like Tennyson and Browning in favor of absurdity, despair, and pornography. If we really have “come of age” we have somehow done so by turning out the lights. Virtue has gone out of us. So this good, gray eminence feeds Tennyson into the course to show the boys what it used to be like and to show them maybe what it could be like.
It is my educated guess that sexual freedom tends toward sexual variety all the way to the bizarre, which in turn creates perversion, which generally ends up in cruelty. We don’t think of having bullfights or the Roman arena, but violence by way of TV is often the hallmark of a quiet evening at home. And we do have violence in the streets, so much so that the recent election seemed to turn on that issue. We have some kind of complex equation that seems to include sexuality, cynicism, hardness, violence, and lawlessness, all of which may be descriptive of the jungle King Arthur set out to tame.
So Arthur “made a realm and reigned” (I 19, 517). And he did so by creating an order of knights who were strong and hard but inspired by purity and gentleness, a combination hard to come by in these days.
… my knights have sworn to vows
of utter hardihood, utter gentleness,
and, loving, utter faithfulness in love,
and uttermost obedience to the King.
Some years ago Moberly wrote a book called The Idea of a University, in which he expressed concern that the “uni” had disappeared from the university. There was no longer any summum bonum, he said, no supreme value governing a hierarchy of values, no center of loyalty, and indeed no common language. Biologists had nothing to say to physicists, and neither of them could talk to the sociologists. The uneasy tensions of our universities today illustrate loss of community when there is no center for communion.
Tennyson understood this, and the cohesion of Arthur’s kingdom centered in loyalty to the king and all he stood for. It is the tragedy of King Arthur that he stood for subtlety and then was blatantly destroyed in his own home by his wife Guinevere, his best friend Lancelot, and that scapegrace Modred. But in the days of goodness and glory (the two do go together), Tennyson reports this observation of Arthur’s court:
“So many those that hate him, and so strong,
So few his knights, however brave they be—
Hath body enow to hold his foemen down?”
“O King,” she cried, “and I will tell thee; few
Few, but all brave, all of one mind with him;
For I was near him when the savage yells
Of Uther’s peerage died, and Arthur sat
Crowned on the däis, and his warriors cried,
‘Be thou the king, and we will work thy will who love thee.’
But when he spake, and cheered his Table Round
With large, divine, and comfortable words,
Beyond my tongue to tell thee—I beheld
From eye to eye through all their Order flash
A momentary likeness of the King” [I, 250–270].
In these strange days in which we live, strange days of lawlessness and most amazing supports for lawlessness, I keep coming back to what it was that Arthur did and how he did it. Twice in “The Coming of Arthur” Tennyson describes the whole process very briefly. He “made a realm and reigned.” Somehow we have lost sight of what it takes to make a realm. Our young revolutionists have learned no history or have chosen to cut themselves loose from history. Having never mastered the hard lessons of political science, they will break into the streets and create their politics as they go along. Thus revolutions end up in drumhead justice and new tyrants arise.
Does this mean we shall have to go through the weary business once again of figuring out how realms are made? Hardiness there, sacrifice here, bloodletting and some kind of fragile government just to keep life moving, a better government just to make life pleasant, the tyrant, the dictator, the benevolent monarch, government by the consent of the governed, balance of powers—all these things men have struggled over. In the great hopes of all men everywhere, have we lost the understanding of what it takes to put the fabric together?
And Tennyson says that Arthur reigned—“he made a realm and reigned.” Have we come to the place where we really believe that no one should run anything, that there are no powers with the rights to reign? Our founding fathers did not found a democracy—they founded a republic. International affairs, rivers and harbors, trust controls, Alaska fisheries, honest labels, and the costs of conservation cannot be handled by a town meeting of 200 million people. Viet Nam will not be settled by a shouting match on the Boston Common. We believe in representative government, and so by democratic means we choose our representatives who have the right as well as the power to rule in our behalf. But the point is that they do have the power. Checks and balances have been fed into the system, and there are democratic means of recall or reelection. No man has made systems perfect. It has taken all the wisdom we have been able to pull together to create what we have. There is no such thing as a power vacuum, and when the rule of law is destroyed, the realm collapses.
It is interesting to watch how Arthur’s reign caves in. There is a snake in the garden—a little flirtation becomes a scandal in the king’s household. The decay that is not cut out eventually rots the whole body. And most instructive of all is that when the time is rotten ripe, nothing works. It is a point of no return, except for that undying hope of the great Return when peace will come because righteousness will again be established. And we can say, “Be thou our king and we will work thy will who love thee.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.