Alfred Tennyson’s “The Passing of Arthur” was originally composed and published under the title “Morte d’Arthur” and written after the death of Tennyson’s closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Although In Memoriam is the major work Tennyson wrote about Hallam, “The Passing of Arthur” also deals with Tennyson’s reaction to Hallam’s death. In “The Passing of Arthur,” Tennyson depicts King Arthur as a type of Christ figure with Bedivere acting as an apostle or companion to the Christ figure. Similarly in In Memoriam, Tennyson depicts Arthur Henry Hallam as a Christ figure while Tennyson becomes the companion and even disciple, who is left behind to tell the tale of the one who has gone.
In the poems of Idylls of the King that lead up to “The Passing of Arthur,” we already have images of Arthur as a type of Christ figure. One example is the belief expressed even at the beginning of Arthur’s reign that he is the once and future king. In “The Coming of Arthur,” Morgause remarks, “Tho’ men may wound him that he will not die,/But pass, again to come” (l.420-1). This idea occurs throughout the poem, making Arthur appear as a legend in his own time, and even as a type of messiah, someone whom it was prophesied would come, and someone who will also return. We receive another hint of Arthur as being both a man and divine in “Guinevere.” Guinevere remarks in regard to Arthur, “now I see thee what thou art,/Thou art the highest and most human too” (l. 643-4).
It is in “The Passing of Arthur,” however, that we find the most dominant portrayal of Arthur as a Christ figure. The parallels between Arthur’s death and the death of Christ are especially numerous. On the night before the Battle of Camlann, Arthur knows the following day will result in his death. Similarly, when Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knew he would be crucified the next day. Arthur moans, “My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death,” (l. 27) which recalls Christ’s words when he is dying on the cross as recorded in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Kissane 115). Then Arthur realizes God has not forgotten him because God has given eternal life to mankind. “Nay—God my Christ—I pass but shall not die” (l.28). Similarly in the gospels, Christ knows he must die in order for him and all mankind to receive eternal life. Next, Arthur is visited by Gawain’s spirit. Gawain tells Arthur, “thou shalt pass away./Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee” (l.34-5). By saying these words of comfort, Gawain is playing the same role as the angel who appeared to Christ in the Garden (Luke 22:43).
Tennyson’s efforts to link Arthur to Christ are best supported by his expansion of the character of Bedivere as Arthur’s companion when Arthur is dying. Bedivere is given a role similar to that of an apostle. He has been Arthur’s companion since the beginning of Arthur’s kingship. Now Bedivere is the only knight who remains with Arthur at his end; therefore, one would expect Bedivere to be ever faithful to Arthur. However, even Saint Peter denied Christ when Christ was arrested (Matt 26:69-75), and Bedivere treats Arthur in a similar manner.
Peter’s denial of Christ is essentially a lie. Likewise, Bedivere lies to Arthur when Arthur asks him whether he threw Excalibur into the lake. Rather than toss away Excalibur, Bedivere decides to keep the sword because of its material value. In the gospels, Judas is willing to betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Bedivere is also willing to disobey his friend and king for a material possession. When Arthur realizes that Bedivere has lied about throwing the sword back into the lake, he asks Bedivere to return and this time, faithfully, to carry out his orders. Bedivere again disobeys, now because he believes that if the sword were lost, there would be no proof that Arthur ever existed; Bedivere fears that future generations will not believe in the great king who will come again. Bedivere is now playing the role of Saint Thomas the Doubter. After Christ’s resurrection in the gospels, Christ allows Thomas to touch the wounds in his side so Thomas will believe in him. Then Christ remarks, “Blest are they who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). Similarly, Arthur now asks Bedivere to have faith in him, and then Bedivere faithfully returns Excalibur into the lake.
Arthur then requests of Bedivere, “Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer/than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice/Rise like a fountain for me night and day” (415-7). Christ is God, so he does not need to be prayed for, yet his request to his disciples is similar to Arthur’s request of Bedivere. Christ tells his apostles, “go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name ‘of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20). There is nothing left on earth to prove that Christ ever existed, just as with the loss of Excalibur, there is no longer any proof that Arthur existed. The only way Christ or Arthur will continue to be remembered is if their followers tell their stories and carry out their requests. Rather than material proof, the followers of Christ and Arthur must have faith in their leaders’ existence. Those who “have not seen and have believed” in Arthur or Christ will be blessed.
Another parallel we can draw between Arthur and Christ is the confusion they both experience. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ wishes the cup of death could pass from his lips. Even though he knows he will live beyond death and that his death is necessary for God’s plan to work, Christ is also human; he has the same frailties and fears as a human being. Later when Christ is dying on the cross, the crowd assumes he has become confused, particularly when he calls out to God, and they make the mistake of thinking he is calling out to Elijah.
Arthur seems similarly confused the night before his death. He has a difficult time trying to sleep because he knows what the next day will hold, just as Christ was in anguish about his approaching death. After Arthur has been wounded, he again becomes confused. Like Christ, Arthur knows the future. He knows he is the king who will come again, but his human frailties and fears still make him doubtful. In line 348, Arthur says, “I fear it is too late, and I shall die.” Then in lines 424-6, he remarks, “I am going a long way/With these thou seest if indeed I go/(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt).”
Before Christ leaves his apostles, he tells them, “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28: 20). These are words of comfort from Christ to his apostles, yet because the apostles are only human, they will forever be doubtful while trying to believe. Christ tells his apostles that he will always be with them, and similarly, Arthur tries to comfort Bedivere by saying he will return to him. Arthur says this even though he claims he has no comfort to give because he is so confused he does not know whether his belief in his returning again is only part of his imagination.
Bedivere fears not having Arthur with him, so he cries:
‘Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.’ (l. 395-6, 404-6).
Because Bedivere is only human, he cannot fully grasp that Arthur will come again. At the end of the poem he remains doubtful, as shown through his thought, “He comes again; but—if he come no more—” (l. 451). Then as the barge that carries Arthur to Avalon drifts farther away, Bedivere “saw,/Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,/Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King” (l.463-5). Bedivere can no longer be sure he sees Arthur. Arthur is gone, and with him goes any proof that he ever existed. Bedivere is all that is left to carry on Arthur’s story, and even he remains doubtful concerning the truth of Arthur’s return.
Tennyson had been attracted to the Arthurian legend since he was a boy; however, it was not until the death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, that Tennyson decided to write a poem on the death of King Arthur. Hallam’s death in 1833 inspired Tennyson to write “Morte d’Arthur” which appeared in 1842. Later Tennyson renamed the poem “The Passing of Arthur” so it could be incorporated into Idylls of the King.
“The Passing of Arthur” is essentially about upheaval and catastrophe. For Tennyson, the greatest upheaval he ever experienced was Hallam’s death. Tennyson’s experience of such a passing allowed him to understand the Arthurian legend of the doomed king. Through writing “Morte d’Arthur,” Tennyson was creating his own reaction to the death of King Arthur. This reaction was as personal as that he had made to the death of Arthur Henry Hallam because for Tennyson, these two Arthurs were in many ways the same person (Rosenberg 168-9).
As Tennyson depicts King Arthur as a Christ figure, similarly he uses wording in In Memoriam to show that Hallam was also a type of Christ figure. In Stanza CXXIX, Tennyson refers to Hallam as “Known and unknown, human, divine” (l. 5). King Arthur is similarly human, yet he is also divine because he will come again. Tennyson, like Bedivere, also expresses his doubts about his friend’s immortality. Again, this doubt is similar to that of St. Thomas’s doubt about Christ’s resurrection. Just as there are no physical remains to show that Arthur or Christ ever existed or will come again, Tennyson knows there is no assurance that Hallam will have life after death. In In Memoriam, Tennyson, like Bedivere and the apostles, realizes, “We have but faith: we cannot know,/For knowledge is of things we see” (l.21-2). This is one of the major themes of In Memoriam, so important that Tennyson also used the same idea in the opening lines:
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove; (l. 1-4).
Tennyson felt he could still be the “follower” of Hallam by believing in him even after he had died. Similarly, Bedivere was follower and believer in King Arthur, and the apostles followed and believed in Christ.
Hallam is also cast into a role similar to that of Christ and King Arthur because he is personified as having an all-knowing role in the universe. Rosenberg points out that this theme is especially clear in Stanza CXXVII, where Tennyson compares the world in utter chaos and turmoil to Hallam’s state of being: “thou, dear spirit, happy star,/O’erlook’st the tumult from afar,/And smilest, knowing all is well” (l.18-20). Because Hallam is no longer a man, but now immortal, he understands God’s plan for the universe while mankind remains unable to comprehend it. Similarly, while the apostles watched Christ be crucified and could not understand what it meant, Christ knew his death was part of a larger plan. In “The Passing of Arthur,” Arthur knows he will die at Modred’s hand, but he also knows that he is the king who will come again. Bedivere, however, cannot help being doubtful about Arthur’s return because he has the frailties and fears of a human being.
Another similarity between “The Passing of Arthur” and In Memoriam is the feeling of abandonment. As we have already seen, Bedivere despairs at being left alone in the world. Tennyson has a similar feeling when lamenting that he is no longer with Hallam. In Stanza XXIII, Tennyson writes:
Now, sometimes in my sorrow shut,
Or breaking into song by fits,
Alone, alone, to where he sits,
The Shadow cloak’d from head to foot (l.1-4)
Tennyson’s breaking into song by fits also recalls the wailing sound made by the Three Queens as they come to carry King Arthur away (l.367-72); it could also be linked up with the sound of the barge as it moved out across the water “like some full-breasted swan/That, fluting a wild carol ere her death, Ruffles her pure cold plume…” (l.434-6).
Another similarity between In Memoriam and “The Passing of Arthur” is that Arthur is carried off on a barge. Hallam died in Switzerland, so in order to have his funeral in England, his body had to be transported over the English Channel. Tennyson, familiar with Arthur’s being carried over the water to Avalon, the holy or magical isle and a type of heavenly home, probably saw a parallel here to Hallam’s being carried over the water to his homeland of England. Tennyson does not often refer to Hallam by his first name in In Memoriam; however, when Hallam’s body is being transported in Stanza IX, Tennyson does call Hallam by his first name of Arthur, probably to bring up the image of King Arthur.
Fair ship, that from the Italian shore
Sailest the placid ocean-plains
With my lost Arthur’s loved remains,
Spread thy full wings, and waft him o’er (lX. 1-4).
Furthermore, the barge that takes Arthur away is personified as a swan. Here, the “Fair ship” spreads its wings, again evoking a swan image.
Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson also refers to Hallam as a king. Similarly, Christ is often referred to as a king in Christian tradition. In his largely autobiographical work “Merlin and the Gleam” (1889), Tennyson writes of “The King who loved me,/and cannot die….” Rosenberg points out that in this poem, although the king referred to is King Arthur, because the poem is so autobiographical, the line could mean that Hallam was the king who loved Tennyson (168).
As In Memoriam comes to its close, Tennyson believes that Hallam lives on. Before Christ’s ascension into heaven, Christ told his disciples, “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:20). Similarly at the end of In Memoriam, Tennyson has faith that Hallam is still with him in spirit. Tennyson eloquently expresses this feeling in stanza CXXX:
Thy voice is on the rolling air;
I hear thee where the waters run;
Thou standest in the rising sun,
And in the setting thou art fair.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Far off thou art, but ever nigh;
I have thee still, and I rejoice; (l. 1-4, 13-14).
Tennyson still has Hallam with him, just as Christ remains with the apostles. As “The Passing of Arthur” concludes, Bedivere is left with Arthur’s memory; he must now go out and tell his tale of Arthur to the world, just as the apostles went forth to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Tennyson realized that Hallam’s death had an emotional effect upon him similar to Bedivere’s loss of Arthur and the apostles’ loss of Christ. Perhaps Tennyson felt that if he wanted to find comfort, he needed to follow their examples. By writing In Memoriam, Tennyson was telling his audience about Hallam, thus keeping Hallam’s memory alive just as Christ and King Arthur have been able to live on through the stories told of them.
The Arthurian legends have continued to endure because they are about real people in situations that everyone can relate to. Tennyson was fully aware of this when he wrote “The Passing of Arthur” and In Memoriam. Like Bedivere, Tennyson had lost the one who was his king, the one who was a Christ figure to him. By realizing that Bedivere and Christ’s apostles were able to go on with life, even using their loss as an advantage to spread their belief systems, Tennyson found the strength to continue with his life. “The Passing of Arthur,” therefore, is a testament to the continual value and relevancy that a centuries old legend can have to modern life. This is why the Arthurian legend endured until Tennyson’s time, and it is why it still endures and enriches our lives today. In all times and in all places, the Arthurian legend has fulfilled the basic need of comforting people by reflecting scenes from real life and granting hope to those who hear it. This same need is what has brought so many people to Christianity. Therefore, it is easy to parallel Christ to Arthur, and to relate these characters to our own personal heroes just as Tennyson did with Hallam.
Abrams, M.H. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. v.2. Fifth edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.
Buckler, William E. ed. The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Kincaid, James R. Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1975.
Kissane, James D. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970.
Pitt, Valerie. Tennyson Laureate. 1962. Canada: U of Toronto P, 1963.
Rosenberg, John. “Idylls of the King: Evolving the Form.” Tennyson. Elizabeth A. Francis, ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. 167-188.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
The New American Bible. New York: Catholic Publishers, 1971.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com