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Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Return of the King

Rejoice, for the Lord is risen. Alleluia! The King has returned.

Then from the dawn it seem’d there came, but faint

As from beyond the limit of the world,

Like the last echo born of a great cry,

Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice

Around a king returning from his wars. (“The Passing of Arthur,” 457-461)

Every Easter season for the past three years, I have found myself picking up and reading segments from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I have encountered no other work which has so profoundly affected my vision of Christ the King save Tolkien’s mythos of Middle-Earth, and each year I have found myself discovering something new to ponder about Christ in this collection of poems about King Arthur and his Knights. My first year I thought of Christ’s death upon the cross and the sorrow of those who embraced his body in their arms when the body of Christ was lowered from the cross. In Tennyson’s portrayal of the death of King Arthur, he says:

…There those three Queens

Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.

But she, that rose the tallest of them all

And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,

And loosed the shatter’d casque, and chafed his hands,

And call’d him by his name, complaining loud,

And dropping bitter tears against a brow

Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white

And colourless, and like the wither’d moon

Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east; (375-382)

In my second year I thought of the glory of the King and the joy of those who serve the King, reading in “The Coming of the King” passages which drew me ever to pondering the one true King and our service to Him who has claimed the throne of Creation.

…and his warriors cried,

'Be thou the king, and we will work thy will

Who love thee.’ Then the King in low deep tones,

And simple words of great authority,

Bound them by so strait vows to his own self,

That when they rose, knighted from kneeling, some

Were pale as at the passing of a ghost,

Some flush’d, and others dazed, as one who wakes

Half-blinded at the coming of a light.

‘But when he spake and cheer’d his Table Round

With large, divine, and comfortable words,

Beyond my tongue to tell thee – I beheld

From eye to eye thro’ all their Order flash

A momentary likeness of the King. (“The Coming of Arthur,” 257-270)

This year, however, I find myself reflecting not so much on the King, ever glorious and magnificent in every respect though he be, but rather on the inferred duty of those who serve Him. There is great joy in the Resurrection, the joy of the Eucatastrophe, as Tolkien called it, the Happy Turning Point which means the Christian fairy tale that is real has its happily ever after, and we must absolutely rejoice in the triumph of Christ over Death. But how do we manifest and express this joy? What does this joy in the Resurrection of the Lord and King of all Creation demand of us? To answer this question, let us jump ahead forty days: the King ascends to claim his rightful place in Heaven, and leaves on Earth the Church and the Great Commission, saying to his servants, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is how we rejoice; This is our great task, for the King commands us, “Follow me” (John 21:19). This year, my continued meditation upon Christ the King pointed me to this reflection through the story of Gareth, the youngest brother of Gawain who longs for nothing more than to be a knight of Arthur, but whose mother has kept him sheltered at home until she finally relents under the fairy-tale condition that he must first serve as a kitchen knave for a year. In this story Tennyson portrays for us the mystic awe surrounding the King and the precepts of serving him.

Make thee my knight? My knights are sworn to vows

Of utter hardihood, utter gentleness,

And, loving, utter faithfulness in love,

And uttermost obedience to the King. (“Gareth and Lynette,” 541-544)

What nobler, what grander, what more joyous task is there than to do just this? To serve our King with uttermost obedience, love, gentleness, and enduring, prevailing strength in the face of every peril, every danger, every dragon? For there are dragons roaming the earth, prowling about the world seeking the ruin of souls, and it is our duty and our joy to battle them as the knights of the King, bearing his standard–the cross–with us wheresoever we roam and wheresoever adventure comes upon us. This is the meditation I offer to you. Let us rejoice in the Resurrection and the triumph of our King over Death and all the forces of Hell, but let us remember as well that it was after the Resurrection of the King that he departed with the promise to return again, leaving us with the commission to serve him and bear his name, his story, and his standard to all the ends of the earth. The Resurrection is not the end, but the beginning, and the Last Battle is yet to come; Tennyson even recognizes this, for he concludes “The Passing of Arthur” with the line “And the new sun rose bringing the new year” (“The Passing of Arthur,” 469) There is no period at the end of the line, which means there is no period at the end of the poem, for the days have not ceased with the departure of the King, but have been renewed under a new dawn. So let us take this newfound joy in the Resurrection and manifest it in our lives. Let us follow the King and serve him as his knights all the days of our life. As Gareth puts it best:

Man am I grown, a man’s work must I do.

Follow the deer? Follow the Christ, the King,

Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King –

Else, wherefore born? (“Gareth and Lynette,” 115-118)

Wherefore born indeed?

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