Trinitarian Symbolism In Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur

Trinitarian Symbolism In Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur

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It is a common proverb that all things happen in three's, and in fact many phases of life happen in combinations of three. There is the trifold concept of body, mind and spirit, which encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual makeup of a human being. There is the fact that we live first as a child then an adult and finally as an elder and there are three stages of a woman's life, that of maiden, mother and crone. There is the also the aspect of time as in the past, present and future. There are the three acts of birth, life and death. Some people believe in the combination of birth, death and rebirth (meaning life after death), and in the Christian faith tradition, the number three, symbolized by the Trinity (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer), has come to mean wholeness. Looking at sections from, the poem "The Epic" and the book Idylls of the King, specifically, "The Passing of Arthur," we discover that there is a surprising amount of Trinitarian symbolism found in Tennyson's works.
Three times Arthur has to ask Sir Bedivere to throw the sword Excalibur into the lake. This is in fact a testing of faith, one that encompasses body, mind and spirit, meaning he is tested physically, mentally and then spiritually. After being mortally wounded, King Arthur tells Sir Bedivere to "take Excalibur, / And fling him far into the middle mere:/ Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word" (Norton, 1298, 204-6). When he takes the sword to the water's edge the first time, he cannot bring himself to throw it in because of the Excalibur's blinding beauty. Tennyson describes the Excalibur as "brightening," "sparkled," "twinkled with diamond sparks, / Myriads of topaz-lights..." Bedivere "gazed so long/ That both eyes were dazzled" (Norton, 1298, 222-7). He returns to Arthur, who sends him back to complete his mission. Thus Sir Bedivere fails his first test, that of the physical realm.
The second test he faces a mental challenge as the second time, Bedivere determines that if he throws the Excalibur into the water, "a precious thing, one worthy of note, / Should thus be lost for ever from the earth... What good should follow this, if this were done?" (Norton, 1299, 257-60). His own intelligence gets in the way of what he knows to be true, and he has a lack of faith in his king and in mortality, as he doesn't want Arthur to be forgotten.

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He wants to keep the sword Excalibur so that there can material proof of all that has taken place under Arthur's reign. He will not take the leap of faith and trust that Arthur and the Roundtable were more than just a fantasy. He fears that his whole life has been spent defending an illusion, defending something that does not, and did not really exist. Thus he fails the second challenge.
The words that restore Bedivere's faith allowing him to discharge his duty are spoken by Arthur, "a man may fail in duty twice, / And the third time may prosper (Norton, 1300, 297-8)." Bedivere was able to succeed spiritually where he was not able to succeed mentally or physically. He did not look this last time at the sword "I closed mine eyelids" (Norton, 1300, 320), or spend anytime contemplating the future of Excalibur, he only worked on faith and acted. It is the third challenge, the one of spirit that Bedivere passes, and renews his faith in Arthur and in himself. This is not only Bedivere's test, but it is Arthur's third and final test in Idylls, that of giving up the sword and trusting in others with his future.
During the second and third tests, there are references to the Lady of the Lake in regards to Excalibur. The first refers to the nine years that the Lady spent making the sword, and as nine is the square of three it seems doubly significant here as Bedivere uses it as an excuse to not discharge his duty. "King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, / Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake. / Nine years she wrought it (Norton, 1299, 271-3)." The other reference is that of the arm which catches the sword.
But when I looked again, behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere. (Norton, 1300, 326-9)
It is known that this arm is the Lady of the Lake because she the only one described as being clothed in white samite. The Lady of the Lake has a third significance, as she is one of three powerful women in the Arthurian Legend.
These three women, are the Lady of the Lake, the Queen of Orkney, known here as Bellicent, and Arthur's wife Queen Guinevere. Interlaced within the story of the rise and fall of Camelot, they make their appearance together near the end of the tale as the three Queens in the barge.
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shivered to the tingling stars,
And, as it were one voice, an agony
Of lamentation … There those three Queens
Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
But she, that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap, …
And called him by his name, complaining loud,
And dropping bitter tears against a brow (Norton, 1301, 366-79).
Arthurian Legend has the Lady of the Lake as a changeable persona, sometimes as Nimue and at others as Morgan Le Fay, however she is "Queen" of the Island of Avalon. The Queen of Orkney, is Bellicent in Tennyson's tale but is known elsewhere as Morgause, and shares here the same fate, wife of Lot, sister to Arthur and mother of Mordred, Arthur's son/nephew/killer. Queen Guinevere, the barren Queen, could never give a son to Arthur and was in love with Lancelot, his most trusted knight. These three women in their respective roles of fertility also represent maiden, mother and crone aspects or the triple goddess, a pagan belief. The Lady was supposedly virginal in white, the Queen of Orkney is a mother figure and poor Guinevere is a barren woman, a crone.
Arthur united England underneath the rule of its Pagan or Olde gods and the Christian faith by mixing the beliefs of the two into one being, making himself a divine legend. But Tennyson puts a decidedly Christian aspect to his Arthurian legend. When Arthur is being taken to Avalon he emphasizes to Bedivere the importance of change, away from the Pagan gods towards Christianity and the importance of prayer, faith and belief in one God.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. …
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
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 …
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend? (Norton, 1302, 408-21)
Arthur is a Christ like savior, who is born, dies and then is to be reborn for his people. The whole reason the barge takes the mortally wounded Arthur to Avalon is that there he will heal his wound and come again when his people need him. "Merlin sware that I should come again/ To rule once more" (Norton, 1297, 191-2). In "The Epic", the poem takes place between Christmas Eve and Morning; symbolic in that it is the time of Christ's birth and Arthur is reborn in the poem during that time period.
And all the People cried,
‘Arthur is come again: he cannot die.'
Then those that stood upon the hills behind
Repeated—‘Come again, and thrice as fair;'
And, further inland, voices echo'd— ‘Come
With all good things, and war shall be no more' (Norton, 1218, 346-51)
An interesting point of note, the people cry out three different sayings, one of which is now that Arthur is reborn, he can not die, another that Arthur is three times as fair and the third, that there shall be peace and good things shall happen.
To reiterate, Tennyson floods his poetry with Trinitarian symbolism showing that in Bedivere's trial there is the concept of body, mind and spirit, encompassing the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of humanity. Three strong women in the legend are in fact the three stages of a woman's life, maiden, mother and crone. Arthur himself is the combination of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and a Christian like savior of the people eschewing faith away form Pagan beliefs.

Norton English Anthology, Vol 7
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