Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

Arthur's Guilty Court

“Pelleas’ fault is not that he sees himself worthy [of seeking the Grail] where he is not but that he sees as sacred what is not [Ettarre]…Pelleas is guilty of idolatry.” (Lawrence Poston)

Lawrence Poston’s argument concerning the nature of Pelleas’ fault is misleading because the focus of Tennyson’s idyll of “Pelleas and Ettarre” is on the guilt of Arthur’s Court rather than the young knight who is devastated by it. For Poston, Pelleas did not make a mistake of seeing himself as holy, causing him to aimlessly wander for a covetous glimpse of the hallowed grail like other knights of the Round Table. Rather, according to Poston, Pelleas committed idolatry in finding Ettarre sacred. In committing idolatry, Pelleas would have worshipped Queen Ettarre, in an extreme act of love or reverence. He is enamored by her, but his reverence and devotion do not exceed the ideals expected of the Knights of the Round Table. If Pelleas worships Ettarre, he also worships Arthurs’ court and specifically ‘pure’ Guinevere whom he compares his beloved Ettarre with (42). I hold, counter to Lawrence Poston, that Pelleas is not guilty, but rather Arthur’s court and all those within, are guilty. Pelleas is a naive youth with a clouded, dream-like vision of Arthur’s kingdom, which is destroyed by Ettarre, Gawain, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur himself. The clear and continuous failure of Arthur’s court to remove its sin (just as in the grail quests), does not stop it from trying to perpetuate its ideals. Yet, it is all a rosy facade. There is grim discomfort in Tennyson’s version of “Pelleas and Ettarre”, a story of a promising “pilot-star” (60) who burns out into darkness because he cannot reconcile the illusion of what Arthur’s kingdom is supposed to be and what it has become; the idyll is a condemnation of Arthur—a sordid look into just how fallen Arthur’s court at “old Caerleon” has become.

In order to properly interpret what may be one of the most cynical parts of Tennyson’s work, one should read “Pelleas and Ettarre” within the context of the preceding idyll of “The Holy Grail” and the following idyll of “The Last Tournament”. Additionally, the idyll’s divergence from Malory’s Le Morte DArthur, underscores the depravity of Arthur’s court, rather than of Pelleas. Following directly after the dramatic pursuit of the holy grail, an idyll revealing the moral degeneration of the Knights of the Round Table, the Pelleas idyll places the young knight as someone to “fill the gap left by the Holy Quest” (1-2). After the dark failure of the previous idyll, the entrance of Pelleas as a youth smelling ‘sweet of the fields past’ and bringing ‘sunshine along with him’ is hopeful. [1] It is at the guilty hands of Arthur’s court that his potential for good is spoiled. The parallel of wandering is notable here in that, while the knights of “The Holy Grail” were lost in their desire to be ‘holy’ by a glimpse of the grail, so Pelleas is wandering the forest on the “darken’d” path (539) because of the sin of the knights of the Round Table. In the following idyll, “The Last Tournament”, Pelleus returns as the Red Knight in vengeance.  Additionally, Tennyson’s omission of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ romance with Pelleas from Malory’s Le Morte DArthur suggests Tennyson was using the story to make a distinctive point about Arthur’s court through the character of Pelleas. In Tennyson’s version, Ettarre and Gawain’s offense is made more abhorrent, justifying Pelleas’ rage and disappointment.

A young man, desirous to be knighted into King Arthur’s Round Table, Pelleas’ character is that of a naive, well-meaning idealist; Tennyson uses the contrasts of light and dark as well as  the natural world  to show that Pelleas sees but does not truly see, for his vision of Caerleon and Ettarre is ‘clouded’ and ethereal. After the first two stanzas of the idyll, the narration traces back into time, relating how Pelleas first came to Arthur’s court in request to be knighted and compete in the tournament. Initially, Tennyson describes Pelleas in terms of light and the natural world as is a delightfully bumbling character, who is “lord of many a barren isle” (18) that is cast off his horse onto the “brown earth” by a great beam of the sun. In contrast to this barren-ness that he would be familiar with, he is “dazzled” by the “green-glooming twilight of the grove” in which he has fallen (33-35). Yet, his eyes only see the “dimness of a cloud” and the “shadow of a bird”, just as later he sees the damsels from Queen Ettarre’s entourage as the “clouds of sunset and sunrise” (36-37, 52). In the same scene, as he looks upon Ettarre, the narrator warns that he is not actually gazing at her real self: “But while he gazed the beauty of her flesh abash’d the boy, as tho’ it were the beauty of her soul” (73-75). His naivety is pinnacle in his speech to his unknown beloved that she be “pure as Guinevere” (42). The reader ironically knows, as does the rest of Arthur’s court, of her affair with Lancelot, yet, everyone within Arthur’s court is content with accepting Guinevere’s facade. Naive Pelleas is fooled by appearance because he wants that beauty to be reality.

In contrast to Arthur’s court, specifically Gawain and Guinevere, Ettarre seems most self-aware of her own immorality, a fact which the narrator hints as the reason for her disdain at the noble purity of Pelleas’ intentions. As Maureen Fries describes in her essay, ‘What Tennyson Really Did To Malory’s Women’, Ettarre is used as a type of Arthurian woman whose “doubleness has a striking and male-oriented physical manifestation as well: they [she] can be at the same time the most alluring of presences (their aspect as supernatural beauty) and the most revolting”. [2] Though she uses Pelleas’ brawn to hear her title resound as ‘Queen of Beauty’ (111) and mockingly addresses him as “Sir Baby”, Ettarre questions herself in considering Pelleas’ devout love for her.

I deem’d him fool? yea, so? or that in him

A something - was it nobler than myself? —

Seem’d my reproach? He is not of my kind.

He could not love me, did he know me well (301-304).

Her own disdain for herself is manifest in her saddened listening to the song, ‘A worm within the rose’, implying she is the beautiful rose, yet “He dies who loves it, - if the worm be there” (400). Her refusal to let Pelleas love her then is in distinct contrast with the veneer of ‘purity’ that Gawain and Guinevere try to portray to Pelleas. Pelleas asks Gawain for aid in winning over Ettarre, but requests he “Betray me not” “for he is “the one men call light-of love”. Gawain only says “Ay, for women be so light” (352-53). He presents himself as the righteous aid to Pelleas but ultimately only steals Pelleas’ armor, horse, and his beloved. Similarly, Guinevere also maintains a facade of purity in light of her affair, which Ettarre is quick to acknowledge after Pelleas’ won the tournament for her. “Had ye not held your Lancelot in your bower,” said Ettarre, “he had not won” (175-76). The ‘worm’ is within the rose of Guinevere and Lancelot as well.

It is once Pelleas is able to perceive the ‘worms’ and guilt of Arthur’s Court, as well as of Ettarre, that he falls from his bright stardom; he is not rewarded for turning from Ettarre, who at least acknowledged her sin, but rather is incensed by everyone who has hidden their deliberate wrongdoings from him. Though Pelleas may have begun the idyll in admiration of Ettarre and knighthood saying “I know, Sir King, all that belongs to knighthood, and I love [it]”, at the close he is revolted by Ettarre, Guinevere, Gawain, and Lancelot, referring to them as a “black nest of rats” (544). If Pelleas’ guilt had been his ‘worship’ of Ettarre, than his rejection of her as a subject to not his love but foolish “lust” (475), then his acknowledgment of her evil should have been his redemption. Instead, his eyes finally see the worms within Ettarre, yes, but also in all of Caerleon, even within Guinevere. In perceiving the culpable deeds of all those of Arthur’s court, Pelleas’ reaction is described as “hard his eyes, harder his heart.” In a dream, his final fall is portrayed as “Gawain fired, The hall of Merlin, and the morning star reel’d in the smoke, brake into flame, and fell” (509). The tragic fall is then related as Lancelot witnesses as a star, though a helpless one with no sword, and then witnesses this ‘star’s’ fall to darkness when he with “eye so fierce” he had “no word” for Queen Guinevere (587-89).

Pelleas is driven mad because he cannot reconcile his youthful, sunny image of knighthood and love, with the base immorality that he witnesses within Arthur’s doomed world. It was not Pelleas’ devotion to Ettarre that destroyed him, but the sins of the knights and of Guinevere. His problem is that he cannot coexist with the bad and the good of Arthur: he expects good. When Pelleas is forced to truly ‘see’ things as they are, his coming to grips with it only has him blindly wander further and further into the forrest and ‘dark fields’ on his horse. To clarify, Pelleas is not a hero of the story, but he is a victim and an omen. He shows that in this state of Arthur’s kingdom, even a noble, promising knight cannot exist within the court. Notably, Pelleas’ critique of Arthur when he returns in “The Last Tournament” is that Arthur is a “woman-worshipper.” His accusation again reveals that any guilty charges that can be made within the idyll are and should be attributed to Arthur and his court, thus showing Pelleas not to be in worship of of Ettarre or the court.

The harsh realities of Arthur’s court in “Pelleas and Ettarre require the reader to acknowledge what Tennyson is trying to accomplish in his portrayal of the ‘fallen’ knight. It seems Tennyson is critiquing the clouded perception Pelleas has toward Arthur but in a much larger sense critiquing Arthur’s realm as a whole by showing how it entirely falls short of what it was and is thought to be. The implications for the reader in light of Pelleas’ reaction, is how the reader should view the idealized goodness of Arthur’s Court. It questions whether the audience, too, should grapple with the good as well as the bad of Guinevere, Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. The popular vision of Arthur’s kingdom, may also be a clouded one.           

It is when all manner of what Pelleas hoped, imagined, and dreamed Arthur’s court would be, proved abhorrent and false to him that he was disgusted by the ‘worm within the rose’—Ettarre, Arthur, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table. What he deemed as worthy of his praise and devotion was not Ettarre, but his vision of Arthur’s kingdom itself. When that vision was shown to be false and the transgressions behind the veneer of chivalry was disclosed to Pelleas, he was unable to still support Arthur’s court. The promising “pilot-star” is lost to the darkness that continued to seep into the court until it collapsed utterly and all facades failed. The rose of Arthur’s Caerleon cannot rid of its worm; and, “he dies who loves, -if the worm be there.’



Fries, M. (1991). What Tennyson Really Did to Malory's Women. Quondam et Futurus, 1(1), spring, 44-55.

Poston, L., III. (1966). "Pelleas and Ettare": Tennyson's "Troilus". Victorian Poetry, 4(3), summer, 199-204.

Reed, J. R. (1986). Tennyson's Narrative on Narration. Victorian Poetry, 24(2), summer, 189-205.

Tennyson, A. (1983). Idylls of the King (J. M. Gray, Ed.). London: Penguin Books.


[1] (pp. 45) Maureen Fries ‘What Tennyson Really Did To Malory’s Women’

[2] (pp. 47) Maureen Fries ‘What Tennyson Really Did To Malory’s Women’

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