“A City Built To Music”

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Stealing some Howard Pyle.

Music and the Sustenance of Illusion in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is an intensely aural text, permeated by the voices of Arthur and his men; the music and songs of the knights and ladies; the clash of battle-axe, sword, and cup; shrill “wandering wind”; and the “carolling” of fountains. The poem itself is, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, “a structure of tones,” and thus it is hardly surprising when, in Gareth and Lynette, Tennyson provides his own image for the text itself in Merlin’s description of Camelot as “a city built to music.”¹ However, the image of Camelot as a city built in and of music does more than provide a neat image of Tennyson’s own project; indeed it is central to his exploration of the seed of destruction inherent in Arthur’s creation of an ideal realm. Music, in the Idylls, is far from a fixed category: always at the edge of the passion, camaraderie, and harmony it has the power to inspire is the threat of unruly destruction and discord, the products of senseless, irrational, spontaneous response to music. And yet, music, unceasingly, is the image through which Tennyson conveys Arthur’s illusory project, presenting music again and again as a force for unity and cohesion, as inspiration for and expression of the love Arthur’s knights bear one another, their king, and his realm, despite the increasing presence of warring strains of music which seek to expose the illusion of Camelot and sew discord among Arthur’s knights.

Camelot, from its first introduction in the text, is a place not wholly grounded in reality. As Gareth and his companions approach it, they are struck by the city’s shimmering inconstancy as it changes before their eyes: “at times the summit of the high city flash’d; / At times the spires and turrets half-way down / Prick’d thro’ the mist; at times the great gate shone / Only, that open’d on the field below: / Anon, the whole fairy city had disappear’d” (GL189-193). Shrouded in mists, ever-changing, Camelot terrifies Gareth’s companions, one of whom exclaims, “there is no such city anywhere, / But all a vision” (GL 203-04). Immediately, the status of Arthur’s city and castle is called into question: does Camelot have any existence beyond that of a vision? Rather than dispelling Gareth’s concerns about “whether there be any city at all” (GL 245), Merlin instead confirms its status as illusion, explaining that the city was built by fairies “to the music of their harps” and that as Gareth has observed, “it is enchanted… for there is nothing in it as it seems / Saving the King” (GL 258, 260-61).

He ends with Tennyson’s most striking remark on the nature of Camelot, saying that “seeing the city is built / To music, therefore never built at all, / And therefore built forever” (GL 272-274). Arthur’s order, Camelot itself, are the stuff of music, having no real, tangible form. It is a city built of ideals and—ideals having no existence in reality—cannot, then, exist in any form but that of illusion. However, its illusion is the illusion of ideas, the illusion of music, the illusion of art and poetry—it may have no tangible existence, but in having been built in the music of poetry and out of the fabric of ideal generation after generation, it has been built forever. Thus, the central fact of Tennyson’s Camelot is, from the very first, its illusory nature—a nature tied expressly to music.

If Camelot is an illusion, though, it is a necessary one, as Arthur and Merlin recognize. As much as Arthur’s might on the battlefield is responsible for the order he brings to Britain, so too is the illusion of Camelot, whether or not its denizens realize the illusion or its necessity. To live in Arthur’s world, in his order, one must allow oneself to be subsumed by the illusion and become “thrall to [King Arthur’s] enchantments” (GL265), as Merlin explains to Gareth, making “such vows, as is a shame / A man should not be bound by, yet the which / No man can keep” (GL 266-268). Gareth does not understand Merlin’s meaning—he is still innocent and does not yet know that ideals are but necessary illusions, believing still in their tangible reality—but he is willing to swear himself to Arthur and thereby to the maintenance of the illusion of Camelot.

As Camelot is a city built of music and Arthur’s order an order of music, Tennyson figures the bonds which maintain both city and order musically as well. Following Arthur’s twelve victories and his marriage to Guinevere in The Coming of Arthur, the unity of his fellowship of knights is cemented in their spontaneous singing of a celebratory song which renders “Arthur and his knighthood for a space / … all one will” (CA 514-15). The lyrics of the song itself are patriotic in their support for Arthur, but it is the fact and nature of the singing more than the content of the song which draw the knights together. The song is a spontaneous expression of the camaraderie and unity Arthur has inspired; in singing of their exploits on the battlefield, they transfer the bonds they have forged in war to the peace their king has brought and which they have hard won together. In joining their voices in support of their king “in whom God hath breathed a secret thing” (CA 500), the knights pledge themselves to the maintenance of Arthur’s illusion (the “secret thing”) and the music of which that illusion is constructed.

It should be noted, though, that while the impulse of Arthur’s music is always towards cohesion, it need not necessarily be cohesive. In Merlin and Vivien, Merlin recalls the singing of the same song sung in celebration of the king’s marriage and their victories (Tennyson, note to line 403, Merlin and Vivien), but his account differs from the portrayal at the end of The Coming of Arthur, for in Merlin’s account, a young knight—“the youngest of us”—“flash’d [out]” in song alone though they tried to “keep him silent” (MV 413, 414). Here what seems like an outburst of unruly, discordant, and unharmonious music—music as uncontrollable individual threatening unity—does not in fact lead to disintegration, but rather reinforces unity, as the young knight’s enthusiastic and spontaneous song leads the knights to long “to hurl together” (MV 418)—both literally in song and metaphorically under the banner of King Arthur.

From Merlin’s account, it’s clear that the other knights and even Merlin view music made individually and spontaneously as potentially destructive to the cohesive whole. When the young knight breaks from the rest in the song, striking out on his own, they attempt to silence him to maintain the unity of the chorus. The knights know the power of their voices in ordered unison, as illustrated in the first account of their collective song of celebration, and they fear the effects of a disintegration into individual personalities. Thus, they, as we, are shocked by the effect the young knight’s singing has on them, as, rather than fragmenting the music and the knights, his individual voice draws them closer together. Thus, music in the Idylls need not be ordered to inspire and maintain the unity and harmony necessary to sustaining the illusion of Camelot. Spontaneity and individuality do not necessarily run counter to Arthurian order and music, so long as they are inspired by faith in the king and his realm.

The idyll of Balin and Balan—the thematic elements of which Tennyson largely invents—deepens the connection between the illusion of Camelot and music as Arthur himself directly figures joining the knights of the Round Table and Camelot as “mov[ing] / To music” (BB 73-74, 207-208). Balin and Balan begin the story notably unmusically, despite the fact that they set themselves “beside / The carolling water” of a fountain (BB 43). In the midst of nature’s natural music, Balin declares his name “unmelodious” (BB 50) to the ears of Arthur and his knights, for he had been exiled from Arthur’s court three years earlier for an act of brutal savagery. Though Balin simply means that he doubts they will be pleased to learn his identity, he strengthens the connection between the unity and harmony of Arthur’s court and music in figuring his exiled self as “unmelodious” and in placing himself in close proximity to the only source of music available to him—the “carolling” fountain—as part of his attempt to win back grace.

Balin and Balan’s welcome back to court furthers the connection, as the knights greet them with “a song of welcome,” begun by one “sweet-voiced” knight, but soon taken up a “common shout in chorus” which, “mounting, made / Those banners of twelve battles overhead / Stir, as they stirr’d of old, when Arthur’s host / Proclaim’d him Victor, and the day was won” (BB 83, 84-87). Again, spontaneous singing—the melding of many voices into one—symbolizes the harmony and unity of Camelot, welcoming exiled brother knights back into the fold. That their collective singing stirs the banners of Arthur’s original twelve victories, connects this moment of reunion to the initial unity of Arthur’s court and places that unity at the center of Camelot’s power.

The story of Balin and Balan, though, serves as something of a turning point in the Idylls. That the camaraderie and unity inspired by the spontaneous musical welcome of the brothers stirs the banners “as of old” not only points to the time that has passed since Arthur’s coming, but to the suffering of Camelot’s ideal illusion. No more do the banners stir on the field, nor do they often stir within the hall. However, the main function of the fifth idyll is to illustrate the painful loss of illusion. Balin, in the absence of his brother, begins to worry at his ability to uphold the vows he swore to the king, fearing that his bestial nature will overcome him and prevent him from attaining the standard of “courtesy, / Manhood, and knighthood” (BB 155-156) he observes in Lancelot. Observing (naïvely) Lancelot’s dedication to Guinevere, Balin takes as his guiding light the image of the queen’s crown, which he asks permission to place on his shield, replacing the “rough beast” he had borne before (BB 192). The choice proves fatal: Balin is too simple to realize the full import of what he witnesses between Lancelot and Guinevere in the garden, but the scorn of Pellam’s knights “poison[s] all his rest” (BB 377), priming his mind for Vivien’s meddling.

Vivien enters the Idylls in a burst of song of her own, but it is a song unlike that of Arthur’s knights and ladies, for it celebrates and enforces none of the ideals of Camelot, but rather the unruly forces of nature and passion. Her song destroys “the wholesome music of the wood” (BB 430), which had at the idyll’s beginning been associated with the striving of the two brothers towards the music of Arthur’s order, and predicts the return of a Pagan “old sun-worship” which will “beat the cross to earth, and break the King / And all his table” (BB 451, 452-53).

In Vivien’s pagan, harsh, individual song Tennyson provides his first instance of alternative music to the music of Arthur’s court. Vivien’s music, like her intentions, is joyfully destructive. She, unlike Balin, recognizes at once the illusion at the center of Arthur’s Camelot, but, unlike Arthur and Merlin, she does not recognize its necessity and thus cannot benefit from it. Recognizing it for a vision and yet unwilling to sustain it, she takes pleasure in destroying it, piece by piece, knight by knight.

In exposing Guinevere’s impurity to Balin, she destroys the symbol he had mistakenly made the cornerstone of his faith in Arthur’s order and catapults him back into his bestiality—the very bestiality Arthur had delivered Britain from in The Coming of Arthur. For Balin’s simple mind, the exposure of the illusion is too much; he needs a solid object upon which to place his belief, not the illusion Camelot and Arthur require. Having taken Guinevere as symbol of all Arthur’s court stood for, the destruction of Guinevere is the destruction of Arthur and Camelot for Balin. Had he fully understood the nature of the court and of Arthur’s power to maintain the illusion, he might have placed his faith in Arthur and not in the all-too-human Guinevere; had he managed this, though, he would have outstripped, in the end, every one of Arthur’s knights.

Balin is far from alone in his placement of his faith in the wrong object in the Idylls. The beginning of Camelot’s final undoing comes when, in The Holy Grail, nearly all of the knights of the Round Table set off on the futile and disastrous Grail quest, placing their faith in an illusive and enchanting object not associated with their king or Camelot. As with Vivien’s destruction of Balin’s faith, the abandonment of the other knights’ faith in their king also occurs aurally as, save for Galahad, none of the knights actually see the vision of the Grail, but rather they “heard the sound” of the Grail and its vision, prompting them to seek to see it (HG 280). Their experience of the Grail’s music—its “cry” (HG 185) midst the thunder—first renders them “like dumb men” (HG 193), recalling Vivien’s effect on the harmonious music of the woods as it strips them of Arthur’s music, before inspiring them—almost as one voice—to “sware a vow” (HG 194) to seek the Grail.

At the opening of the Idyll, Percivale describes in detail how his sister hears a “slender sound … as of a silver horn from o’er the hills,” an unearthly “music” which “never harp nor horn, / Nor aught we blow with breath, or touch with hand, was like” (HG 111, 109, 113-14) which heralds her vision of the Grail, fading away with the Grail itself. The Grail’s music has no human breath behind it, unlike the music of the knights’ singing or of Arthur’s powerful voice. It recalls the fairy music which Merlin describes to Gareth upon his arrival at Camelot, particularly as it turns out that, like Camelot, the music of the Grail has “nothing in it as it seems” (GL 260). The Grail, like Camelot and Arthur’s order, is all illusion.

The similarity of Tennyson’s figuring of the Grail to his initial descriptions of Camelot only serves to highlight Arthur’s repudiation of the Grail. He immediately dissociates the music of the Grail from that of his order at Camelot in labelling it “a sign to maim this Order which I made” (GH 297). Arthur, busy the day of the Grail’s appearance to Galahad putting down bandits on the fringes of his realm, returns to Camelot in time to see from afar what looks like a bolt of lightning striking the city. He rushes to court “in horror lest the work by Merlin wrought, / Dreamlike, should on the sudden vanish” (HG 259-60), expressing the ephemerality that has been central to Camelot’s description since its introduction in Gareth and Lynette as the city “built to music.” Arthur’s fear is not just for the physical entity of his castle and city, but for his hard-won order whose delicate existence is reflected in the frailty of its built symbol.

In the moment of the appearance of the Grail, Arthur senses the potential for the sudden disintegration of the work wrought by Merlin and himself—for Camelot and all that it represents to “on the sudden vanish.” When Arthur reaches court, his worst fears are confirmed. Hearing the story of what has occurred from Percivale, he laments the spontaneous, irrational decision of his knights’ swearing to seek the Grail, chastising them for their lack of reflection and self-knowledge as well as their blind surrendering of themselves to the Grail’s power and magic. “What are ye? Galahads?” (HG 306) he asks rhetorically, before explaining that though they do not have the individual higher purpose of Galahad, they serve a higher purpose in maintaining Arthur’s great order as “men / With strength and will to right the wrong’d” (HG 308-09). In Tennyson’s account of the Grail Quest, the idea of the Grail as symbol of religious faith is subsumed by the casting of  the knights’ decision to seek it as an abandonment of their faith in their king and Camelot.

Arthur, picking up on the role of sound and music in inspiring the knights, figures their blind decision to swear to follow a fool’s quest aurally. He addresses them as “ye, that follow but the leader’s bell” (HG 298), before immediately pushing the aural aspect further in figuring Galahad as the Welsh bard Taliessin (note to line 300, page 352) who “is our fullest throat of song, / And once hath sung and all the dumb shall sing” (HG 300-301). The metaphor Arthur creates not only figures the knights as blindly imitating someone far superior to themselves, but renders them “dumb,” stripping them of the harmonious music which had been the signature of the Round Table’s joy, unity, and order. The knights who have sworn to foolishly quest, neglecting the good they could do were they to stay at Camelot, are, by comparison to full-throated Galahad, mute, but they are also mute because they have listened to the Siren’s call of the Grail’s music and turned their backs on the music of Arthur’s order.

The parallels between this scene of the knights’ spontaneous swearing to blindly quest and Merlin’s account of the spontaneous singing of the hunting knights in Camelot’s youth are hard to miss. Galahad, like the young knight of the singing, is the youngest knight of the order for “none, / in so young youth, was ever made a knight / Till Galahad” (HG 139). Like that young knight, Galahad singles himself out from the crowd of the other knights of the Round Table, sitting in the Siège Perilous and thereby summoning the vision of the Grail. Just as the young knight’s individual singing inspires enthusiasm and camaraderie in the knights around him, Galahad’s faith in his vision of the Grail and his decision to quest seems to inspire the knights around him to do the same.

However, in the case of Galahad and the Grail, the source of the knights’ inspiration is not actually Galahad’s enthusiasm and faith, but instead the enchanting mysticism and music of the Grail vision. In Percivale’s account, it is not Galahad that is the first to swear, but Percivale himself who makes the first vow; Galahad and the other knights follow almost simultaneously. Thus the inspiration for the vow, unlike the desire to “hurl together,” does not spring from within the knights—from music made by them for one another, but from the enchantment of the Grail’s music and light. Underlining that the spontaneous decision to swear—though it seems to render many voices as one—is not at all a movement towards unity, but towards disintegration, the knights must separate as they go out on their quests, wandering alone “lost in [a] quagmire” (HG 320) both literal and metaphorical, as Arthur emphasizes. They have exchanged the illusion of Arthur’s order at Camelot for the illusion of Grail, binding themselves to something other than their king by their vows to quest, and stripping themselves of the music they so happily made and enjoyed together. The illusory and enchanting music of the Grail will not be heard again by any but Galahad; they will return to a silent Camelot at the end of the year and a day, silent themselves, the music of the court broken.

The music of the Grail and Vivien’s song of the fires of heaven and hell are not the only alternative forms of music which enter into the text to contend with the music of Arthur’s illusion of Camelot. In Merlin and Vivien, Vivien’s songs morph from aggressively and obviously antagonistic, to subtly, and slyly so. Merlin, like Vivien, is aware of the illusory nature of Camelot and of the coming of its destruction, but by this point in the Idylls the knowledge has become wearying to him. The illusion becomes too hard for Merlin to sustain and he finds himself in “a great melancholy; / … walk[ing] with dreams and darkness” (MV 187-88), too aware of “death in all life” (MV 192), leading him to abandon the court and leave the job of maintaining the illusion entirely to Arthur.

Merlin recognizes in Vivien her delight in destruction and her desire “to pare the mountain to the plain, / … like the crowd that if they find / Some stain or blemish in a name of note, / Not grieving that their greatest are so small, / Inflate themselves with some insane delight” (MV 827, 829-32). Vivien’s field of vision is too narrow to recognize anything but the the illusory nature of the ideals Camelot is built on; she cannot grasp the necessity of maintaining them against the reality of nature she ignorantly celebrates. And yet even Merlin allows himself to be taken in by Vivien’s song, yielding his weary self to her tender voice, which sings only of destruction. “It is the little rift within the lute, / That by and by will make the music mute, / And ever widening slowly silence all” (MV 388-390) she sings in barely-veiled reference to the self-destructive nature of the ideals Arthur’s realm is based on. Vivien, in her destructive singing and gleeful appropriation of Lancelot’s song, seeks to become the rift in the lute which rots and widens, silencing all, muting Arthur’s music.

In the image of the broken lute, Vivien prefigures the dominant image of music in the last days of Arthur’s rule: that of Tristam’s “broken music” in The Last Tournament. Tristam comes from the court of King Mark—which has, throughout the Idylls, been understood as the antithesis of Camelot—to Camelot and “twangle[s] on his harp” (LT 251), singing songs of “free love” (LT 275) and making a music of his own that runs counter to the fast-fading music of Camelot. Dagonet, the king’s fool, declares his loyalty to Arthur and his ideals in refusing to dance to Tristam’s music, which he calls “broken,” saying, “when thou playest that air with Queen Isolt, / Thou makest broken music with thy bride, / Her daintier namesake down in Brittany— / And so thou breakest Arthur’s music too” (LT 263-66). Tristam’s adulterous love mirrors Guinevere’s for Lancelot and, as that love does, breaks the music of Arthur’s lofty ideals. Tristam, like Vivian, sees Arthur’s ideals for the illusions they are and does not understand the necessity of maintaining them in the face of the threat of the savage bestiality which always lurks at the edges of Arthur’s order.

Dagonet, on the other hand, proves—as fools often do—wiser than anyone else at court, demonstrating that he, unlike any of the rest of the knights, understands both that Arthur’s ideals are illusions and that they are necessary ones. In Dagonet’s speech, Tennyson provides the fullest image yet for the music of Arthur’s idealism and the illusion of Camelot. “Dost thou know the star / We call the harp of Arthur up in Heaven?” (LT 333) Dagonet asks Tristam, before accusing him of “play[ing] at ducks and drakes / With Arthur’s vows” (LT 344-45) upon realizing their illusion in learning of the queen’s falseness. The harp of Arthur is invisible in the sky and “makes a silent music up in heaven” which only Dagonet “and Arthur and the Angels hear” (LT 349, 350) now that the knights have turned their backs on the King, placing their faith elsewhere.

The music of Arthur’s order, which fell increasingly on deaf ears, has now become silent to all but those who recognize the immense illusion Arthur still undertakes to sustain and the absolute necessity of his work to maintain it. Knowing that Tristam and his twangling harp and songs of free and constantly new love are both a lost cause and the new exemplars of Camelot’s music, Dagonet moves the music that once inhabited Camelot’s halls up to Heaven, leaving Camelot devoid of the music of Arthur’s order. The Last Tournament ends with Arthur returning home to a Camelot “all in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom” (LT 750), no longer a city “built to music,” but a city all-too-firmly anchored in the every day, upon the earth, and the seasons, its music flown up to Heaven and the angels.

The final blow to Arthur and his music is delivered, not by an alternative form of music, but by the hollow force of silence. Not for nothing does Mordred, the bearer of the blank shield, speak only two lines in all the Idylls. For even as Vivien’s, Tristam’s, and the Grail’s alternative, destructive forms of music threaten Arthur’s ideals, they, in their very musical form, endorse something of Arthur’s life-affirming project of the celebration and maintenance of impossible ideals. Mordred, though, in his entirely negative silence, is able to render Arthur’s world entirely “hollow,” a word which haunts The Passing of Arthur.

Left alone and betrayed by all his knights, “ev’n on Arthur [falls] / Confusion” (PA 98-99) as he begins to doubt the purpose of the illusions he has striven all his life to uphold, wondering whether all he has done has been “in vain” (PA 23). Even in his desperation and doubt, though, Arthur affirms the importance of ideals and the maintenance of their illusion, asking Bedivere not to call Mordred one of his house, for Mordred “hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me. / My house are rather they who sware my vows, / Yea, even while they brake them” (PA 156-158). This utterance, one last affirmation of his ideals, gives Arthur the strength for his “last act of kinghood” (PA 163): the killing of Mordred. For even in the midst of his realm’s destruction, Arthur’s duty as king is to the sustenance of his realm’s ideals, the vanquishing of the destructive silence which threatens his musical illusion. And in that last act, Arthur earns the potential for his return, the potential which we and Bedivere hear echoing in the faint “great cry, / … as if some fair city were one voice / Around a king returning from the wars” (PA 459-461). Arthur has not been silenced. His music lives on in the voices of his subjects: any and all who give voice to ideals. Camelot remains a city built “to music, therefore never built at all, / And therefore built forever.”

  1. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Penguin, 2003, p. 553.


Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York: Penguin, 2004.


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