When the sun is shining and the world is all a-green, it takes a tendency toward Tennysonian drear and a special leap of faith to study—and to teach—the Idylls of the King, especially Arthur’s “last weird battle in the West,” which falls on “that day when the great light of heaven / Burn’d at his lowest in the rolling year, / On the waste sand by the waste sea.” You’d think a week of rain would set the tone, but the present gloom is undeniably springlike. A sad tale’s best for winter; even in the stormiest May, students want to see suntans and beach umbrellas, not a despondent Bedivere sobbing on the bleak December seacoast.
Fortunately, Tennyson is a poet for all seasons. Arthur’s climactic rush-and-push against Mordred offers hardy perennial advice about facing a final exam:
Then spake the King: “My house hath been my doom.
But call not thou this traitor of my house
Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, own’d me King.
And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath fail’d,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.
King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
Yet, ere I pass.” And uttering this the King
Made at the man…
My students, sharp and studious, will know whether Arthur is exhorting them to end on a note of defiant triumph or advising them to fail with dignity. This week, they’ll free themselves from my Vortigern-like tyranny, and they can remember the Mabinogion and William Morris however they like. I’ll remember them as the first group in ten years to find notes of perseverance and hope amid Guenevere’s severity. Generous and unexpected, that sort of personal response refreshes a tired-out teacher.
In Arthurian legend, when the old order passes, the world doesn’t end; instead, it gives way to something new. If Bedivere can watch the sunrise on the coast after the winter solstice, then melancholy at the end of the semester makes sense even when, as Tennyson puts it, “the world is white with May.” My students can tell you that there’s no more conventional month to revel in medieval romance; maybe there’s nothing inherently un-Arthurian, also, about going to the beach.