For Tennyson, the Arthurian legend was an evolving love affair that lasted throughout the poet's life, and the "Idylls of the King" is the ultimate offspring of that enchanted love. Composed of a dozen individual yet interlinked story-poems, the Idylls span the whole of Malory's opus from Arthur's glorious rise to power to his fog-shrouded and mysterious death, "lest one good custom should corrupt the world." But Tennyson humanizes Malory's stories and infuses the whole with an almost Shakespearean aura of tragedy, redefining many of the legendary tales with a new level of gravitas unmatched before or since. The Idylls include:
* The Coming of Arthur, introducing the Age of Camelot
* Gareth and Lynette, a variation of the popular "Fair Unknown" theme and one of Arhturiana's most beloved stories as well as perhaps the one which most perfectly embodies the golden values of chivalry
* The Marriage of Geraint, taken from the works of Chretien De Troyes, who called the titular knight "Erec"
* Geraint and Enid, a lovely tale of marital trust
* Balin and Balan, one of the grimmest and bloodiest of all Arthurian tales, about the struggle between decency and monstrousness within us all
* Merlin and Vivien, the sorcerer's swan song, and the most believable portrayal of the amoral Vivien, too often given a pass by other writers, which I've seen
* Lancelot and Elaine, a tale better known as "The Lady of Shalott,"in which Tennyson's love for the magnificent yet benighted Lancelot of the Lake shines through
* The Holy Grail, narrated by Sir Percivale, and the most powerful depiction of the Grail Quest there is
* Pelleas and Ettarre, one of my favorite Arthurian tales from Malory and elsewhere, though Tennyson's retelling is a major downer that foreshadows the coming collapse of King Arthur's utopia, and features a Sir Pelleas both nobler and darker than Malory's abused but redeemed knight
* The Last Tournament, a bleak but serendipitious version of the Tristram (Tristan) saga, and which brings the Pelleas story to an ugly close
* Guinevere, focuses on the discovery of her adultery with Lancelot and the ensuing breakup of Camelot, culminating in a heartrending dialogue between King Arthur and his fallen Queen
* The Passing of Arthur, the climactic book of the whole saga, in which King Arthur confronts the traitor Modred, strikes with mighty Excalibur one last time, and Sir Bedivere delivers the King's sword up to the Lady of the Lake
Taken as a whole, the Idylls are perhaps the greatest artistic achievement in all of Arthurian literature. They are not the whole story however, and in fact Tennyson seems to assume his reader is already intimately familiar with Malory's book, so I would recommend newcomers to the legend do their homework first. The Idylls do have a strong, pervasive Christian backbone, much to Tennyson's credit, which automatically puts his work on a far higher moral plane than Bradley's "Mists of Avalon" and some other contemporary versions of the story. Moreover, Tennyson does not shy away from the full weight of Guinevere's sin; what she does to both Arthur and Lancelot--and hence to all of Camelot--is awful. But charges of misogyny are unfounded; both the poet and Arthur himself--as illustrated in the King's moving last words to his estranged wife in the nunnery to which she has fled--hold out hope for the Queen's salvation, and therefore unavoidably so does the reader. Ultimately, Tennyson's vision of glorious quests, thundering tournaments, Christian valor, doomed love and a hard destiny is perhaps the most heartfelt and stirring of all Arthurian literature, and certainly the perfect companion piece to Malory's own immortal magnum opus. Beautiful, timeless, and endlessly inspiring, the Idylls will entertain and enlighten us for generations to come.