Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 1-24
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The Stones in the Sword:
Tennyson's Crown Jewels
Of all the illicit affairs in The Idylls of the King, none is more unusual than "bold" Sir Bedivere's relation with Excalibur (PA, l. 207). 1 Commanded to cast the kingdom's founding sword into the lake where it surfaced, the Round Table's first knight finds himself dazzled by the brand's moonlit handle, which "twinkle[s] with diamond sparks, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery" (PA, ll. 224-226). 2 Thinking of how the gems might please "the eyes of many men" by being preserved for posterity "in some treasure-house of mighty kings" (PA, ll. 259, 269), an enthralled Bedivere tries to salvage the sword through disobedience and deceit. Only when Arthur threatens to slay the faithless knight does Bedivere return Excalibur to its source. The precious stones in the sword, as objects of desire, thus become an obstacle almost as difficult to overcome as the very vows that make and break Camelot.
The conversion of Excalibur from sword into stones is hardly an anomaly in the Idylls. Tennyson's poem is itself a collection like Arthur's sword, encrusted with a dragon's hoard of jewels. These gems are more than colorful baubles, as they come out of nature to become part of the king's commerce with his wife and knights. As I will explain, the qualities of rarity and reflection that recommend Excalibur's pommel and haft to Bedivere help to distinguish gems as uncommonly precious possessions in the Idylls. In fact, these ornaments for person and property become, after the Grail itself, the most sought-after of all objects in Tennyson's Camelot.
Arthur's kingdom, however, is founded on disciplining the body, not on adorning it. The body is, after all, a distraction from "high thought, and amiable words / And courtliness, and the desire of fame, / And love of truth, and all that makes a man" (G, ll. 478-480). Even in Camelot, these masculine ideals typically come into conflict with more worldly matters and material interests, including sexual desire. If women are to be worshipped by chaste love and won "by years of noble deeds" (G, l. 473), then the quest for precious stones would seem to be superfluous, if [End Page 1] not actually antagonistic, to Arthur's project of keeping the kingdom together. Yet Tennyson's gems, which articulate the body, become a locus of value recognized and even accumulated by the very king who tries to keep bodies under wraps. Although Arthur expects his bachelor knights to lead celibate lives, he also encourages them to decorate their maiden loves with hard-won gems, making these women's fair charms even more difficult to resist. Because it does not profit Arthur to tempt his Table in some dearly-bought war of "Sense . . . with Soul" ("To the Queen," l. 37), the very visible presence of Camelot's stones seems problematic, to say the least.
The virtual absence of gems from the rest of Tennyson's work makes their ubiquity here all the more conspicuous. 3 Yet this is not to say that these jewels are misplaced; indeed, they amass significance by being gathered in this textual treasury. In particular, four prominent collections of Camelot's precious stones--Arthur's gemmed sword, Elaine's pearl sleeve, Lancelot's nine diamonds, and Nestling's ruby carcanet--all emerge as storied objects of desire in the Idylls. Although Tennyson borrows the first two of these collections from the Morte d'Arthur, his jewels nonetheless provide a model of consumption that Malory only begins to suggest.
Appointed to specific uses, Tennyson's gems obtain symbolic value through their connection to particular owners. As Arjun Appadurai states, however, "Even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context." 4 To write the social history of Camelot's jewels, then, I...