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Gareth And Lynette

By Author: Solo Chen
Total Articles: 129

Gareth and Lynette, published in 1872, offer a striking clue to the Anglo-Saxon infiltration of the work. The brightest and ostensibly most positive of all the Idylls, it depicts the youth of Camelot before decadence has set in, and Gareth sweeps aside his opponents while preserving a sunny innocence. Few critics have deemed it a very successful poem, but there is one apparently peripheral episode that stands out with peculiar vividness. Gareth pauses briefly on his quest and rescues a stalwart baron about to be murdered by villainous thieves. Malory sets the episode in a wood, but Tennyson, with some colorful scene-painting, departs from his source to add an aquatic element: 'a mere, Round as the red eye of an Eagle-owl, under the half-dead sunset glared'. Having killed the thieves attempting to drown the baron, Gareth 'loosed the stone From off his neck, then in the mere beside Tumbled it; bubbled up the mere'. Not only does Tennyson invent the mere, he stresses the sinister quality of this addition to Thomas Sabo Jewellery the landscape, and makes it the central focus of the episode. The rescued baron explains the animosity of the thieves: In the context of the Idylls, this alarming supernatural scene solicits comparison with that other mere, where the Lady of the Lake resides. Indeed Adam Roberts has made that connection, arguing that there is a dark underworld within Christian Britain, centred upon Merlin and his magic, and that it tends to mirror and sometimes subvert Tennyson's Christian moral, despite the poet's best efforts to partition it off.

His argument seems to me useful in so far as it links the two meres, suggesting tensions below the surface of the poem, but Merlin and his dark arts are not the most convincing source of those tensions. I wish to propose a source in the literary sense. Tennyson read widely for the Idylls, and besides Malory is known to have consulted Layamon, the Mabinogion and Geoffrey of Monmouth, but in none of Thomas Sabo Charms these is there a ghastly mere. The most memorable mere in English literature, and one of the most vivid and excerpted parts of Beowulf, is the home of the Grendelkin: It is not many miles from here that the mere lays, in a frosty grove; deep-rooted trees overshadow the water. A horrible wonder may be seen there each night fire in the flood. No man living is wise enough to know its bottom. Though the strong antlered hart may seek the wood, hard-pressed by hounds, it will give up its life on the brink sooner than venture in to hide its head. That is not a pleasant place.

This 'nidwundor', this hideous fire flickering in the water at night, is the most plausible source of Tennyson's inspiration. In his notebook glossaries he interweaves Old and Middle English vocabulary, and likewise here he folds an Old English text into his Middle English reading. The case for Beowulf as a source becomes stronger once we examine the other mere in the Idylls, but first it is worth briefly considering the etymology of the word 'mere' and his uses of it elsewhere. A decade and a half after Gareth, he wrote 'Happy: The Leper's Bride' in which a leper's wife laments her husband's banishment from the haunts of men: Why wail you, pretty plover? And what is it that you fear? Is he sick your mate like mine? Have you lost him, is he fled? And there the heron rises from his watch beside the mere, And flies above the leper's hut, where lives the living-dead, (lines 1-4) The mere does not feature elsewhere in this lengthy poem, and there would be no reason at all to open with one, were it not for the otherworldly association the word had acquired for Tennyson, making it a suitable leitmotif for the living-death of a leper. The mere of Gareth glares 'under the half-dead sunset' (line 780) and, as its spectral apparitions reveal, occupies the same uncanny realm between death and life. This persistent association points to the monstrous example of Beowulf.

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