The heathen are a presence Tennyson never quite lets us forget in Idylls of the King. They are a pervasive menace, an 'ever-climbing wave, Hurled back again so often in empty foam' that finally overwhelms the kingdom. They feature only in the two great campaigns that frame Arthur's career, but the sea, repeatedly associated with them, draws them into the imagistic fabric of the poem: 'the heathen host swarmed overseas'; 'the heathen of the Northern Sea'; 'heathen swarming o'er the Northern Sea'. It sounds through the poem like a bass note, swelling into the last battle by Thomas Sabo Jewellery the wintry waves, a climax to which it lends a grim inevitability.
If Arthur's Round Table represents the idealistic struggle both for civilization and for perfection of the individual soul and Tennyson openly encouraged such allegorical readings then the heathen would appear to stand for humanity's most regressive and brutal aspects. It complicates matters somewhat that they also happen to be his ancestors. About this too, as a very early memorandum reveals, Tennyson was quite clear: 'The S. are a sea-people and it is theirs and a type of them'. In the Saxons resides one origin of the modern Britannia that, as we all know, quite recently ruled the waves. And modern Britannia, first and foremost, is the target of the poem's moral lessons. The presence of the Saxons as both destroyers and originators opens up complex possibilities. My contention here is that Tennyson was acutely aware of those possibilities, and sought to exploit them, incorporating aspects of Beowulf into his Arthurian material in order to deepen the implications of the cyclical rise and fall suggested by the identity of the Saxons. The implications are of Thomas Sabo Bracelets course intensely ambivalent, in ways this essay will seek to elaborate on, and therein lay their strongest appeal for a poet who, as John Killham has emphasized, made ambivalence his particular home: 'Tennyson was remarkably self-consistent through his career, even if his consistency lay in entertaining simultaneously idealism and doubt'. Are we to see in historical cycles the promise of continual renewal or despair as faith in absolute values is swept away?
In none of his major works did Tennyson fully resolve such inner conflicts, and as a consequence he has a curiously specula quality, readers having tended often to see either a dogmatist or a sceptic according to inclination. The most interesting readings, rather than trying to resolve what he himself did not, seek to discern his very personal sources of emotion meshing with the public poetry. Tennyson was a great elegist, who spent much of his life working out the loss behind In Memoriam, and the Saxon aspect of the Idylls offers, I believe, a glimpse of that same crucial loss informing their ambivalence. Before unraveling these threads, however, it will be useful to consider Tennyson's acquaintance with Old English, in the general context of Victorian medievalism.