- Reinventing King Arthur: The Arthurian Legends in Victorian Culture
As the subtitle of Reinventing King Arthur indicates, Inga Bryden examines the dissemination and role of Arthurian legend in Victorian culture. Abjuring any claims to exhaustive detail, Bryden seeks instead to demonstrate how the legend became a flexible cultural vocabulary for articulating a range of cultural agendas, anxieties, and interests. She foregrounds a "poststructuralist model of intertextuality" (5), but her work is also informed by cultural studies, juxtaposing literary, popular, and professional texts to map the diverse ideologies and sociocultural politics that Arthurian legend could serve. In recent years the Arthurian revival has most often been linked to imperialism and national identity. Those concerns figure in Bryden's study as well, but she discloses a revival that is far more dialogic and far less monolithic than attempts to consolidate state power. D. G. Rossetti, William Morris, and A. C. Swinburne, for example, used Arthurian legend to challenge prevailing attitudes toward gender, morality, and social duty. Bryden also shows that Arthurian legend could be used to break up as well as consolidate national identity, since The Poetry of Wales (1873), by John Jenkins, stressed a specifically Welsh historical legacy. She likewise suggests that Dinah Mulock Craik's "Avillion, or, The Happy Isles: A Fireside Story" (1853), inspired by Alfred Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" (1842), critiques both Victorian burial rituals and assumptions about progress. Sometimes a single Arthurian work exhibited dialogism internally. If Edward Bulwer-Lytton unquestionably asserted the racial superiority of northern Europeans in his epic poem of 1848, King Arthur, he did not (as writers later in the century did) suppress Arthur's Celtic origins. Rather, Bryden argues, he posited an evolutionary, progressive development that led from multiple racial sources to Englishness and emphasized the harmonizing of Celt and Saxon.
Bryden wisely opts to structure her study thematically instead of chronologically, since this option affords the greatest flexibility and enables her to track cultural preoccupations across decades and genres. After sketching a concise introduction to Arthurian tradition from the sixth to eighteenth centuries, Bryden examines the contending approaches to Arthurian legend as historical or mythic material in the nineteenth century. She argues that the mythic Arthur predominated, in part because this Arthur was so adaptable to Victorian cultural constructions. Subsequent chapters take up ethnology, the holy grail and its relation to church and state, models of heroism and gender, adulterous lovers in relation to debates about marriage and romantic love, and the bearing of Arthur's death on archaeology and concepts of the afterlife.
The chapter on the grail is particularly useful. Here, as throughout her study, Bryden merely nods toward canonical texts—Tennyson's "Sir Galahad" (1842) and "The Holy Grail" (1869) or Morris's "Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery" (1858)—to concentrate on less well-known work. Henry Alford's "Ballad of Glastonbury" (1835) offered [End Page 559] successive glimpses of Glastonbury through history, tying the vitality of religious faith to the preservation of church architecture—appropriate for a poem written by a priest (and future Dean of Canterbury) who was committed to restoring churches and published the same year the Ecclesiastical Commission was appointed. Frederick William Faber, whose "Sir Lancelot: A Legend of the Middle Ages" appeared in 1842, infused Tractarian principles into his blank verse poem; in it, rituals of confession and absolution redress Lancelot's initial failure to win the grail because of sin. Robert Hawker's 1864 poem, "The Quest of the Sangraal," is positioned as a kind of riposte to Essays and Reviews (1860). In contrast to the latter's impetus toward modernizing faith in an era of historical biblical scholarship, Hawker's poem affirmed a mystical faith and the value of seeking the grail, a stand-in for the gospel. Bryden concludes her chapter with a discussion of Thomas Westwood's 1868 poem, "The Quest of the Sancgreall," which she reads in relation to missionary work in the colonies, and Joseph Henry Shorthouse's novel, Sir Percival: A Story of the Past...