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"Mighty through thy meats and drinks am I": the gendered politics of feast and fast in Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

In the penultimate book of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a novice at the convent to which Guinevere has flown following the discovery of her adultery recalls the festivities that accompanied the founding of Arthur's court:
   And in the hall itself was such a feast
   As never man had dreamed; for every knight
   Had whatsoever meat he longed for served
   By hands unseen; and ...
   Down in the cellars merry bloated things
   Shouldered the spigot, straddling on the butts
   While the wine ran: so glad were spirits and men. (1)

This evocation of fantastic plenitude is countered, four hundred lines later, by Guinevere's pledge to confine herself within Almesbury convent's "narrowing nunnery-walls" and "fast with (the) fasts" of its inhabitants in penance for her sins (ll. 665, 672). Whereas Arthur's knights celebrated the founding of the Round Table with copious food and drink and unbridled displays of appetite, Guinevere, following the dissolution of this brotherhood, severely restricts her diet in order to signal Christian submission and the renunciation of her secular, bodily desires. Such contrasting patterns of consumption emerge repeatedly in Idylls and indicate one of the contemporary ideological concerns running through Tennyson's Arthurian epic: in its representations of male feasting and female food refusal, the poem appears to reproduce the gendered ordering of appetite implicit in Victorian culture.

The act of eating has, of course, long been imbued with specific gender values but, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg points out, in the nineteenth century, in particular, "food and femininity were linked in such a way as to promote restrictive eating." (2) The idealized Victorian woman was dainty, slender-waisted and self-disciplined, capable of controlling her somatic cravings. Given this cultural context, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that several of the female figures in Idylls display abstemious eating behaviors for, as Ingrid Ranum notes, Tennyson approached his poem "with concern for its relevance to modern society," reflecting within it many of the values and anxieties of his age. (3) Yet, while the body and its appetites are undoubtedly leitmotifs in Idylls, surprisingly little critical attention has been paid, to date, to the literal acts of consumption and abstention represented in the poem, with scholarly focus instead tending to concentrate on the metaphorical themes of sexual hunger and fulfilment. Two exceptions to this rule can be found in James R. Bennett's essay on "Tennyson's Theistic Skepticism" and Anna Krugovoy Silver's Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, both of which offer readings of Perciviale's sister's pious fast in "The Holy Grail." While Bennett reads the nun's ascetic behavior in relation to the medieval phenomenon of "holy anorexia," Silver uses it to highlight the slippage between secular and sacred fasting in nineteenth-century culture, arguing that "Tennyson's representation of the saintly religious woman ... shares traits with the representation of the virtuous secular women." (4) Silver also suggests that while Tennyson "genders the activity of fasting as female,... he indicates that it can be honorably undertaken by ... men," citing the spiritual fasts of Percivale and Galahad in support of her claim (p. 146).

Tennyson's own reading of Idylls appears to validate the association of virtuous or chivalrous conduct with the denial of bodily appetites. In the closing dedication to Queen Victoria, he describes his poem as "shadowing Sense at war with Soul," his combative image pitting the corporeal, the worldly, and the sensual against the spiritual, the ethereal, and the ascetic, and implicitly endorsing the latter states ("To the Queen," l. 37). (5) Interestingly, though, the poem is not unequivocal in its censure of appetite and advocacy of abstemiousness. As this essay will show, fasting is enveloped in discursive uncertainty in Idylls, its ambiguous representation pointing toward the anxious debates that surrounded food refusal in the Victorian period. How was the abstentious body to be read? As the vehicle of a healthy Christian asceticism? Or as the visible signifier of an underlying psychopathology? In Tennyson's poem, 1 argue, both interpretations are possible: Idylls refuses to pin down the meaning of the fasting body, instead highlighting the competing religious and medical discourses to which it was subject.

A similar ambiguity surrounds representations of feasting in the poem. Whereas food refusal figures predominantly (though not exclusively) as a female-gendered activity in Idylls, feasting tends to be associated chiefly with chivalric masculinity, forming an essential part of the myth of the Arthurian brotherhood. A potent source of male energy and power, food provides the fuel necessary for knightly action, while commensality strengthens the fraternal bonds that underpin Camelot's civic society. When taken to excess, however, feasting can prove a dangerous and even destructive activity, imperiling the fragile distinction between civilized masculinity and primitive animality. As Gwen Hyman points out, in nineteenth-century literature, "food, appetite, and eating" work not only to "make" but also, importantly, to "unmake the gentleman." (6)

Idylls takes a keen interest in the question of what makes a "gentleman," famously positioning Arthur as "Ideal manhood closed in real man" in its epilogue ("To the Queen," l. 38). This perfect version of masculine identity is far from secure in the poem, however. Clinton Machann argues that Idylls exposes "Tennyson's deeply felt fear that manhood ...--despite its positive associations with religion, moral values, and duty--is ultimately unstable and ineffective." (7) I would add that one of the key ways in which this instability reveals itself in the poem is through representations of male consumption. Vacillating between the extremes of feast and fast, Arthur's knights demonstrate that "manhood" is a tenuous and contradictory condition, dependent at once on displays of physical vigor and corporeal self-discipline, the satisfaction and denial of bodily appetite. Crucially, the inability to negotiate effectively these competing demands threatens the security of individual masculine identities, while also endangering the wider social structure upheld by the Knights of the Round Table. Feasting and fasting thus function as important and complex signifiers in Idylls, intersecting not only with the poem's gender politics but also with its broader anxieties regarding duty, morality, civilization, and decline.


Some of the clearest examples of the relation between gender and consumption occur in the sections of Idylls concerning Geraint and Enid. When, in The Marriage of Geraint, Geraint seeks shelter in the home of Yniol, an impoverished earl, it is Yniol's daughter Enid who ensures that their guest is comfortable and well fed. Tennyson gives a detailed account of her preparations and attentions:
          while the Prince and Earl
   Yet spoke together, [Enid] came again with one,
   A youth, that following with a costrel bore
   The means of goodly welcome, flesh and wine.
   And Enid brought sweet cakes to make them cheer,
   And in her veil enfolded, manchet bread.
   And then, because their hall must also serve
   For kitchen, boiled the flesh, and spread the board,
   And stood behind, and waited on the three. (ll. 384-392)

Enid is presented here as a provider rather than a consumer of food; she does not appear to share in the meal she has prepared, instead catering to the appetites of Geraint, her mother, and father. Her actions are born partly of necessity--her family is too poor to employ a servant--but they also fulfil an important ideological function in the poem. Notably, it is Enid's self-denying ministration that cements Geraint's desire for her: "seeing her so sweet and serviceable," he experiences a "longing in him evermore / To stoop and kiss the tender little thumb, / That crost the trencher as she laid it down" (ll. 393-396). As Ranum wryly notes, this scene helps to establish the gendered domestic politics that will go on to structure Geraint and Enid's relationship: his "romantic reverie ... freezes an image of them in which he is 'evermore' deferentially affectionate and she is 'evermore' serving him dinner" (p. 246).

Unlike the account of Enid's purchase and preparation of food, Geraint's fetishizing of her "tender little thumb"--metonymic symbol of her domestic competence--does not feature in Tennyson's source text, The Mabinogion. (8) Significantly, Tennyson's addition seems to appeal directly to a Victorian ideal: ostensibly untroubled by her own bodily hunger, Enid is aligned with the notorious, self-sacrificing "Angel in the House" and desired by Geraint precisely because of her proficiency in this role. Notably, following her marriage, Enid continues habitually to abstain from or limit her intake of food. When Geraint, unsure of her fidelity, orders her to accompany him on a journey into the wilderness, she can manage only a "little" of the victual he commandeers from a passing youth, "Less having stomach for it than desire / To close with her lord's pleasure" (Geraint and Enid, ll. 212-214). Later, in the hall of the bandit Earl Doorm, Enid pledges to starve herself in order to demonstrate her devotion to her (apparently dead) husband. When Doorm seizes her and demands that she "Eat!" from his table (1. 613, repeated ll. 616, 654), she refuses to acquiesce, insisting that she will neither eat nor drink until Geraint rises from his bier and bids her do so. In the end, her self-sacrifice proves unnecessary: when Doorm tires of her recalcitrance and strikes her on the face, Geraint, finally convinced of her constancy, abandons his feint and leaps to her defence. Tennyson ends the poem by assuring readers that Geraint never again doubted his wife, "but rested in her fealty," while "in their halls arose / The cry of children, Enids and Geraints / Of times to be" (ll. 966, 963-965). Enid's self-denying propensity is thus rewarded with the restoration of her husband and the promise of a happy domestic future.

The potential for female self-starvation, born of devoted attachment, to result in female self-destruction continues to trouble Idylls, however. In "Lancelot and Elaine," we are presented with a more extreme version of Enid's abstemious behavior when Elaine closets herself in her tower until her death after learning that Lancelot does not return her passionate, obsessive love. While Tennyson tends to romanticize Elaine's fate, presenting it as the fulfilment of a premonition, his source text, Malory's Le Morte Darthur, suggests a more direct correspondence between her death and famishment. According to Malory, "the Fayre Maydyn of Ascolat ... made such sorrow day and nyght that she never slepte, ete, nother dranke," and "whan she had thus endured a ten dayes ... she fyebled so that she muste nedis passe oute of thys worlde." (9) Though Tennyson does not reproduce exactly this account of Elaine's progressive physical debilitation, he does imply that her confinement has been accompanied by marked somatic changes, suggestive of inanition. (10) And, later on in the poem, further connections are made between romantic disappointment and female food refusal. When Guinevere hears the knights at Arthur's table drink a toast to Lancelot and Elaine, she mistakenly believes that she has been supplanted in his affections and, as a result, cannot stomach the banquet meats, which become "as wormwood" to her (Lancelot and Elaine, l. 39). Following Pelleas' rejection of Ettarre, meanwhile, Ettarre's "ever-veering fancy" fixes itself perversely upon the man she once scorned and, "desiring him in vain," she, like Elaine, "waste[sj and pine[s]" away (Pelleas and Ettarre, 11. 483, 486). Even Percivale's sister's religious fasts, which, according to her brother, render her so insubstantial "the sun / Shone, and the wind blew, through her, and I thought / She might have risen and floated when I saw her," can be attributed to dashed romantic hopes (Holy Grail, ll. 98-100). Drawing on Percivale's suggestion that the "fervent flame of human love" has been "rudely blunted" in his sister (ll. 74-75), Linda K. Hughes positions the young holy woman as "a victim of unrequited love who enters a nunnery on the rebound," further arguing that her vision of the Holy Grail may in fact be "a hallucination," the result of her "unremitting" commitment to "fasting and prayer, if not hysteria." (11)

The link between fasting and hysteria posited here merits further consideration, for Hughes is far from alone in suggesting that the ascetic practices adopted by Idylls' female characters might be informed by some kind of psychopathology. In his classic account, A. Dwight Culler similarly argues that the Grail quest originates "in the frustrated sexual desires of a young woman who [has] been disappointed in love and gone into a nunnery," while, more recently, Marysa Demoor has asserted that "in the scientific jargon of Tennyson's own age, Elaine would definitely have been labelled as 'hysterical.'" (12) Given these critical readings, it is interesting to note that, during the Victorian period, there was a growing medical interest in the classification of hysterical behaviors that centered on food or, more specifically, its rejection. In September 1873, The Medical Times and Gazette published a paper by Charles Lasegue on a particular "[form] of hysteria of the gastric centre" characterized by consistent food refusal, a condition Lasegue labelled "hysterical anorexia." (11) One month later, Sir William Gull delivered a paper to the Clinical Society on a subject he had first raised in 1868: "a form of disease occurring mostly in young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three, and characterized by extreme emaciation." (14) Initially identifying this illness as "apepsia hysterica" or "anorexia hysterica," Gull later adopted the now familiar nomenclature "anorexia nervosa" to describe the condition. (15)

The independent, though virtually contemporaneous, appearance of these two studies on anorexia indicates that so-called "hysterical" responses to food were far from uncommon in nineteenth-century culture. (16) As Silver points out, long before anorexia was officially categorized, doctors had been describing illnesses very much like it (pp. 1-2). In fact, as a range of critical studies has shown, the history of female food-refusal is a long and complex one in which not all of the abstemious behaviors exhibited by women can be interpreted as pathological in origin. (17) For instance, Brumberg suggests that many of the "fasting-girls" who came to prominence in the nineteenth century can be seen to represent a provocative link to "an older female religious culture," in which extreme asceticism signalled piety and devotion (p. 99). Victorian medical men, however, made concerted efforts to explain contemporary instances of female fasting in terms of modern psychology. (18) Increasingly, female abstinence was viewed through a scientific lens and by the end of the nineteenth century its annexation into medical discourse was virtually complete.

In light of this cultural shift, it is noteworthy that many of Tennyson's female food-refusers display characteristics commonly attributed to Victorian fasting-girls and anorectics. Elaine, in particular, shares a number of traits with the emaciated women described in nineteenth-century newspaper reports and medical texts. She fits Lasegue's sketch of his typical patient, "a young girl, between fifteen and twenty years of age," who "suffers from some emotion which she avows or conceals. Generally it relates to some real or imaginary marriage project, to a violence done to some sympathy, or to some more or less conscient desire" (p. 265). Though Tennyson does not specify that Elaine's unrequited love for Lancelot is accompanied by a loss of appetite, his language does hint at a progressive somatic wasting. For instance, when Gawain first meets her, he notes that her "shape / From forehead down to foot" is "perfect" (Lancelot and Elaine, ll. 637-638). For Victorian readers, this reference to feminine physical perfection would have connoted slenderness for, as Silver suggests, from the 1840s, there was a perceptible "turn towards slimness as a beauty ideal" (p. 26). When Elaine re-encounters Lancelot, however, references to her "exquisitely turned" figure (l. 639) are replaced by persistent allusions to her ghostliness (ll. 838, 844-845, 913-914, 959). These metaphors of spectrality not only hint at her ultimate fate but also connect her with another incorporeal figure in Idylls, Percivale's sister, whose extreme asceticism, noted earlier, renders her virtually transparent.

In other ways, too, Elaine's behavior echoes that commonly attributed to nineteenth-century anorectics. She is repeatedly described as "wilful" (ll. 205, 745-746, 772, 776, 778, 1040), a term absent from Malory but often found in Victorian physicians' accounts of adolescent female food-refusers. (19) Like the fasting-girls of the nineteenth century, her body becomes a spectacle: there are interesting similarities between Tennyson's depiction of Elaine on her funeral-barge, dressed in white and holding a lily, and Robert Fowler's report of Sarah Jacob (the notorious "Welsh Fasting Girl") "lying in her bed decorated as a bride, having round her head a wreath of flowers." (20) Finally, Elaine lives in a loving but restrictive domestic environment that, like the nineteenth-century bourgeois home, tacitly encourages the substitution of symbolic for rhetorical behavior. As Brumberg notes, "the unhappy adolescent girl, who was in all other ways a dutiful daughter, chose food refusal from within the symptom repertoire available to her" because "refusing food at the family dinner table was a silent but potent form of expression that fit within the Victorian conception of decorum" (p. 137). Given this, it is tempting to read Elaine's physical decline as an eloquent form of nonverbal protest against the constraints of patriarchal domestic order. In another telling addition to Malory, Tennyson has her complain from her sick-bed that she has never been permitted to travel beyond a certain point in the river that runs past her home, a limit fixed by her brothers. In death, however, she anticipates that she will
      pass at last
   Beyond the poplar and far up the flood,
   Until I find the palace of the King.

   There surely 1 shall speak for mine own self,
   And none of you can speak for me so well. (ll. 1042-1119)

Elaine's belief in the loquacity of her dead body calls attention to the paradoxical logic feminist critics have long identified in anorexic practices: while self-starvation may be construed "as a material and discursive process of producing an identity for oneself," it is also, as Helen Malson points out, a means "of destroying oneself both literally and metaphorically." (21)

In drawing attention to the coincidences between Tennyson's female characters and Victorian fasters and anorectics it has not been my intention to impose on these fictional figures retrospective clinical diagnoses: such an effort would be both futile and reductive. Instead, I have attempted to highlight the ways in which representations of female abstinence and wasting in Idylls register the shift in attitude toward female fasting that was in process in Victorian culture. While some of the food-refusing behaviors depicted in Tennyson's poem have their origins in the rituals of medieval Christianity, many are implicitly pathologized as the symptoms of a morbid psychological state. The transition, and slippage, between sacred and secular understandings of female abstemiousness is perhaps best evident in the competing interpretations of Isolt of Brittany's attenuation put forward by Tristram, her husband, and Queen Isolt, Tristram's lover. Whereas Tristram declares that "patient, and prayerful, meek, / Pale-blooded, she will yield herself to God," Queen Isolt suggests that her namesake "pine[sj and waste[s]" not from religious devotion but because of Tristram's abandonment of her (Last Tournament, ll. 602-603, 593). The contested and, ultimately, unresolved meanings surrounding the figure of Isolt indicate that the thin female body in Idylls is a site of struggle, enveloped in hermeneutic uncertainty: passive, docile, and dutiful, it may concomitantly be read as anguished, protestatory, and subversive.

Of course, this very ambivalence intersects neatly with Victorian medical narratives about the innate instability of the female body. In Idylls' representations of male feasting and fasting, by contrast, Tennyson offers a more extensive, and perhaps even radical, interrogation of contemporary gender norms. As the following sections of this essay will demonstrate, Arthur's knights fail to provide a stable foil to Idylls' wasting women, signaling instead, through their fluctuating relations with food and drink, nineteenth-century anxieties about the steadfastness and tenability of masculine identity.


In the cultural iconography of Arthurian myth, the Knights of the Round Table are commonly represented in the act of feasting. Among Gustave Dore's illustrations for the Moxon edition of Vivien (1867), for instance, there appears an image entitled "The Knights' Carouse," in which the founders of the Round Table are shown gathered around a dressed board, pledging their commitment to the King and one another. The first in a series of tapestries by Morris &. Co. illustrating the Grail quest (1891-94), likewise, depicts the knighthood at table, in the course of a meal. Far from being incidental, the sharing of food and drink in these Victorian reimaginings of the Round Table is loaded with ideological significance. Communal dining forges powerful bonds between Arthur's men, initiating them into a kind of brotherhood. Tellingly, when Balin is readmitted to court following a period of exile, his reintegration into chivalric life is marked by a collective carouse:
          they sat,
   And cup clashed cup; they drank and some one sang,
   Sweet-voiced, a song of welcome, whereupon
   Their common shout in chorus, mounting, made
   Those banners of twelve battles overhead
   Stir, as they stirred of old, when Arthur's host
   Proclaimed him Victor, and the day was won. (Balin and Balan, 11.

The celebrations described here take on an almost ritualistic character as the shared activities of drink and song work to assimilate the individual into the closed community, a process highlighted by the rapid subsumption of a single, sweet voice into the common chorus.

Intriguingly, these references to male festivity quickly segue into a remembrance of past battles, a potentially anomalous transition that is, in fact, entirely apt, for, within Idylls, feasting and fighting function symbiotically; there is a perceptible link between a hearty appetite and success in combat. On the evening before his defeat of the Sparrowhawk, Geraint asserts "I will eat / With all the passion of a twelve hours' fast," while, after successfully vanquishing two sets of bandits in a later idyll, he wolfs down a meal sequestered from some peasants, declaring "I never ate with angrier appetite" (Marriage of Geraint, ll. 305-306; Geraint and Enid, l. 233). The kind of physically strong, well-nourished body possessed by Geraint is integral to the type of "manhood" apparently championed within Tennyson's poem--a type which corresponds, in many respects, to the Victorian ideal of "muscular Christianity." According to James Fitzjames Stephen, adherents to this doctrine combined "a simple massive understanding" and "almost unconscious instinct to do good" with "animal spirits, physical strength, and a hearty enjoyment of all the pursuits and accomplishments which are connected with them." (22) Clearly, this inventory of attributes could pertain to a number of Arthur's knights, but it perhaps best epitomizes Gareth, a figure whom Tennyson reportedly intended "to describe a pattern youth for his boys." (23)

The youngest son of Bellicent and Lot, Gareth hungers to join his brothers as a Knight of the Round Table. When his mother, reluctant to let him leave home, pleads with him to "stay: follow the deer / By these tall firs and our fast-falling burns; / So make thy manhood mightier day by day," Gareth draws on the language of Christian manliness to present his counter-argument: "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" (Gareth and Lynette, ll. 89-91, 115-117). Alongside this Christian instinct to do good, Gareth embodies the animal spirits and physical vitality cited by Stephen. (24) He is tall and strong, an accomplished sportsman and an ardent fan of the jousts; he is repeatedly described as "lusty," a term indicative, in this context, of both valor and bodily vigor (ll. 566, 681, 714); and, finally, he displays a hearty appetite for food and drink, items which have a material bearing on his story and play an important part in securing his place at court.

In order to placate his mother's anxieties and prove himself worthy of knighthood, Gareth pledges to spend a year and a day working as a knave in Arthur's kitchens. He arrives at Camelot disguised as a needy labourer and, after requesting employment, is placed under the supervision of Kay, the seneschal, who presumes that physical hunger, rather than the craving for noble adventure, motivates his new charge: "'Lo ye now! / This fellow hath broken from some Abbey, where, / God wot, he had not beef and brewis enow'" (ll. 445-447). Of course, the reader knows that this is not the case and that Gareth's stint under "the sooty yoke of kitchen-vassalage" is designed to foster in him abstract knightly qualities, such as obedience and endurance, rather than provide material nourishment for his already robust body (l. 469). The misguided Kay, however, determines to feed him up, vowing "but an he work / Like any pigeon will I cram his crop, / And sleeker shall he shine than any hog" (ll. 448-450). (25) Significantly, when Gareth is later released from his pledge to his mother and allowed to petition Arthur for a quest, he represents his readiness for chivalric duty less in terms of his moral or intellectual development than in terms of his physical strength: "Yea, King, thou knowest thy kitchen-knave am I, / And mighty through thy meats and drinks am I, / And I can topple over a hundred" (ll. 634-636).

The language of food is again used by Gareth to press his case in the quip, "Have I not earned my cake in baking of it?" (l. 561). Here, the quest he seeks is figured as a kind of culinary treat, a reward for the patience and assiduousness demonstrated during his time as a kitchen-hand. When he takes up the cause of sisters Lyonors and Lynette, by contrast, food becomes the literal means by which he is rewarded for his travails. After rescuing a baron from a murderous attack, Gareth is taken to "his towers where that day a feast had been / Held in high hall," and is presented with "many a viand .../ And many a costly cate" in thanks (ll. 826-828). The next day, after defeating the knights known as Morning-Star, Noon-Sun, and Evening-Star, Gareth is once again requited with a "goodly supper" (l. 1157). Dubbing him "the kingliest of all kitchen-knaves," the previously disdainful Lynette leads him to a cavern "where bread and baken meats and good red wine" await him (ll. 1129, 1160). On being presented with this spread, Gareth takes his fill and, reinvigorated, is able to overpower his final adversary, Night and Death, the next day. Within his story, sustenance operates in a positive cycle of facilitation and reward: "meats and drinks" fortify Gareth's body, increasing his might and enabling victories that are subsequently celebrated with further feasting. Sustenance also, by extension, helps to consolidate his manliness; at the end of the idyll, it is implied that, in contrast to the "blooming boy" he has defeated, Gareth has now achieved full manhood (l. 137 3). (26)

Owing to its affiliation with chivalric success, a healthy male appetite seems to he both essential to and corroborative of the vigorous masculine identity promoted in Idylls. Indeed, whereas the muscular Christianity embodied by Gareth is implicitly endorsed as a pattern for male youth to follow, the kind of abstemiousness associated in Tennyson's time with Tractarianism is presented in a much less positive light. (27) Its main representative in the poem is King Pellam, a former pagan who, following his conversion to Christianity, "boasts his life as purer than [Arthur's] own" and "Eats scarce enow to keep his pulse abeat" (Balin and Balan, ll. 101-102). Derided in a Hallam Tennyson footnote as "the type of asceticism and superstition," Pellam serves, in the words of Hughes, "to indicate the link between pagan primitivism and the medieval Catholic Church to which the Oxford Movement had harkened back in its heyday." (28) Pellam's over-credulous religiosity and eager embracement of fleshly mortification are not the only aspects of his being that readers are encouraged to suspect. In common with Tractarians such as John Henry Newman, his ritualistic rejection of food is accompanied by a renunciation of sexual appetite. It is reported that he "hath pushed aside his faithful wife, nor lets / Or dame or damsel enter at his gates / Lest he should be polluted," and this celibate, self-denying lifestyle exposes him, by association, to the kinds of insidious accusations of "unmanliness" that beleaguered Victorian Anglo-Catholics and dogged Newman, in particular, throughout his career (11. 103-105). (29)

Concerns about religiously-motivated male fasting also emerge in The Holy Grail, where Percivale is persuaded by his zealous sister to embark on a strict regimen of fast and prayer in hopes of attaining a vision of the Grail. He exhorts his fellow knights to do likewise, with the result that "many among [them] many a week / Fasted and prayed even to the uttermost, / Expectant of the wonder that would be" (ll. 131-133). The knights' enthusiastic participation in this mass fast points to the slipperiness of the distinction forged between their chivalric brotherhood and the kind of monastic order later entered by Percivale. Although acknowledged only tacitly, the potential affinities between these two forms of male community are a potent source of concern in the poem. As Herbert Sussman suggests, the monk was one of the key figures through which the Victorians registered their anxieties about manliness, representing as he did "the extreme or limit case of the central problematic in the Victorian practice of masculinity, the proper regulation of an innate male energy." While some measure of self-discipline was deemed compatible with, or even necessary to, the formation of a normative masculine identity, Sussman argues that the extreme asceticism associated with monasticism threatened to "distort the male psyche and deform the very energy that powers and empowers men" (p. 3).

Within The Holy Grail, it is through Arthur that such concerns regarding the misdirection of male energy are most clearly ventriloquized. Following the transitory appearance of the Grail in Camelot, a group of knights, led by Percivale, vows to "ride / A twelvemonth and a day in quest of it," much to the consternation of the King, who dismisses the endeavor as a piece of religious fanaticism, a wasteful--and potentially damaging--diversion of male activity from its rightful object (ll. 196-197). In a lengthy speech that draws heavily on the language of male dynamism, he urges his knights to consider the differences between holy men (with whom only Galahad and Percivale are aligned) and themselves. "What are ye?" he asks,
          but men
   With strength and will to right the wronged, of power
   To lay the sudden heads of violence flat,
   Knights that in twelve great battles splashed and dyed
   The strong White Horse in his own heathen blood. (ll. 306-312)

Following this vehement insistence on his knights' collective status as men of action, Arthur goes on to represent their pursuit of the Grail as a dereliction of duty:
   Your places being vacant at my side,
   This chance of noble deeds will come and go
   Unchallenged, while ye follow wandering fires
   Lost in quagmire! (ll. 317-320)

For Arthur, the Grail quest is a fool's errand that threatens to emasculate the members of the Round Table, as their enthusiasm for ritualistic practices and supernatural mysticism distracts them from their rightful manly role, the performance of "noble deeds." The culture of extreme fasting that has given rise to the quest is therefore implied to be a dangerous and destructive one; ultimately, it results in the attenuation of not only individual bodies but also Camelot's wider male community. Arthur's gloomy prediction that "many of you, yea most, / [Will] return no more" is proved correct at the end of the idyll, where it is reported that, of the knights who participated in the quest, "scarce returned a tithe," leaving the King to contemplate "a barren board, / And a lean Order" (ll. 320-321, 889-890).

Bennett argues that Arthur's scepticism here mirrors Tennyson's own attitude toward supernatural credulity and fanatical religious asceticism:
   Tennyson's intense emphasis upon both the physical, psychological,
   and religious predisposition for hallucination, his careful
   subversion of the reliability of everything asserted about the
   Grail ... [and] the history of the gradual, widening rejection of
   the theological for the medical explanation of fasting visions,
   seem sufficient foundations to support the possibility that
   Tennyson's intention was to attack superstition, (pp. 241-242)

For Bennett, this iconoclastic purpose explains why Tennyson procrastinated so long before composing his Holy Grail (p. 237). In an 1859 letter, the poet had expressed his doubts as to "whether such a subject could be handled in these days, without incurring a charge of irreverence," adding, "the old writers believed in the Sangraal." (30) The unspoken codicil to this statement--modern writers do not--would seem also to indicate Tennyson's consciousness of the difficulties inherent in representing an archaic, supernaturally inspired tale to an aporetic contemporary audience. Irreverence may have been undesirable, but a text that dealt too earnestly in sacred relics and abstemious rites had the potential both to alienate skeptical readers and offend Protestant sensibilities. As Hughes notes, "a poem with a medieval setting and descriptions of medieval ritual ... would in the late 1860s have implicitly invoked Roman Catholicism, Newman's conversion, and the controversial practice of ritualism in selected congregations of the Anglican Church," and this context is likely to have dissuaded Tennyson from making too straightforward or idealized a representation of the Grail quest (p. 425).

The storm surrounding Anglo-Catholicism was not the only circumstance to bear on the presentation of religious fasting in The Holy Grail. It is little recognized that the practice of holding public, state-appointed fasts persisted well into the Victorian period. (31) Just as, in Tennyson's poem, Percivale's sister and, later, Arthur's knights starve themselves in penance for Camelot's sins, so Victorian Britons responded to moments of profound national crisis (including the Irish Famine and the Crimean War) by participating in organized fast-days (renamed "days of humiliation" from 1854). These days were "genuinely national," Philip Williamson suggests, "reaching into every parish in Scotland and Ireland as well as England and Wales," and "applying ... notionally to all religious denominations" (pp. 121-122). When Tennyson came to write "The Holy Grail," the most recent of these fast-days had taken place on October 7, 1857, in supplication for God's assistance in India following the Sepoy rebellion, but there had also been widespread calls for a general fast as lately as 1866, in response to an outbreak of cattle plague. (32) The kind of communal abstention imagined in The Holy Grail, then, would have resonated in manifold ways with Victorian readers, evoking modern cultural phenomena as well as the distant, medieval past. Of course, the manner of observing state-decreed fasts in the nineteenth century differed significantly from the rigorous self-denial adopted by the knights in Tennyson's poem. Within the Protestant tradition, fasting did not necessarily involve the complete renunciation of food; instead, physical and spiritual humiliation might be achieved via a reduced diet of simple fare and a program of deep prayer. Yet despite this rather moderate approach to self-mortification, some Victorians were uneasy with the idea of public fast-days, considering them to be obsolescent or too suggestive of Roman Catholic tradition. According to Williamson, Queen Victoria herself objected privately to the fast and humiliation days she was required publicly to authorize, deeming them superstitious and "absurd thing[s] of bygone days." (33) In light of this, and of Tennyson's sensitivity to his position as the court-appointed Laureate, it is perhaps unsurprising that the doubts assigned to Arthur in "The Holy Grail" chime so closely with the personal reservations of the Queen.

Tennyson's own opinion of the ascetic practices outlined in the poem is difficult to discern. As Hughes notes, he carefully avoided the "extremes of endorsement or repudiation of the Quest by resorting to the technical device of the dramatic monologue, a means by which [he) could avoid allocating full poetic authority to any one position" (p. 426). Nevertheless, critics undertaking skeptical readings of The Holy Grail have tended to assume that the poet personally disapproved of the religiously motivated fasting he portrayed. Bennett, for instance, claims that Tennyson disagreed with the repression of "natural pleasures" and the mystical "method of discovering God by asceticism" (p. 252). Yet, this argument ignores Tennyson's active participation in fasting behaviors. In her journal, Emily Tennyson reveals that around the brief but intensely productive period in which The Holy Grail was composed her husband observed a fast day; on another occasion, she remarks, "[Alfred] begins cold milk and bread for luncheon instead of meat and wine." (34) The poet's abstemiousness was coupled with a strong belief in the predominance of the spiritual over the fleshly. In his Memoir, Hallam Tennyson recalls his father speaking "with deep feeling ... in January 1869: 'Yes, it is true; there are moments when the flesh is nothing to me, when I feel and know the flesh to be the vision, God and the Spiritual the only real and true. Depend upon it, the Spiritual is the real: it belongs to one more than the hand and the foot.'" (35)

These words clearly parallel the sentiments expressed by Arthur at the end of The Holy Grail, where the King assumes a more complex and nuanced stance on the quest than previously in the poem. Though he maintains that a knight's role is to serve God through the performance of manly duty and regrets Percivale's decision to withdraw from the sphere of active service, "leaving human wrongs to right themselves" by passing into a monastery, Arthur takes issue with Gawain's cynical dismissal of the quest as a collective madness induced by the overexcited imaginings of a hysterical nun (l. 894). Blessing those who have achieved full or partial visions of the Grail, Arthur acknowledges, "as ye saw it ye have spoken truth" (l. 876). This recognition of the personal, particularized nature of the knights' visions fits with the Protestant endorsement of individual religious experience, unfettered by ecclesiastical mediation or ritual, as Hughes suggests (p. 435). Still, it is through a quasi-monastic commitment to self-abnegation that the most perfect Grail visions are attained; Galahad's willingness to lose himself to save himself enables him to ascend to the spiritual city, while Percivale, the sole witness to this spectacle, similarly goes on to relinquish his cares for "anything upon earth" (l. 611).

Arthur's faith in these knights' visions signals that spiritual quests, underpinned by ascetic practices, are not universally condemned in Idylls. Though chivalric duty is undoubtedly positioned as the proper calling for the majority of Arthur's men, holy fasts and holy quests are shown to befit a select few, such as Galahad and Percivale. Importantly, in the case of these pure, unworldly knights, self-denial does not appear to diminish manliness. Although Silver implies that Galahad and Percivale are feminized by their abstemiousness, describing them as "the least rugged, stereotypically masculine of Arthur's knights," both are located squarely within the domain of normative heterosexual desire. (36) What is more, at the tournament held before their departure in search of the Grail, the two derive unparalleled physical strength from their mystical visions, overthrowing so many knights in the jousts that the crowd "almost burst the barriers in their heat, / Shouting, 'Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale!'" (ll. 336-337).

It seems, then, that Idylls differentiates between the "true" asceticism of Galahad and Percivale, which is pure in motive and a potential source of masculine power; the misguided fasting of the other knights, which distracts them from their proper duty; and the "false," self-seeking mortification of Pellam, which is couched in terms of atrophy and emasculation. These shifting representations indicate that while abstemiousness may destabilize, or even endanger, male identity in Tennyson's poem, its effects are decidedly uneven. Indeed, it is perhaps excessive feasting that poses the greatest threat to masculinity, particularly in the later-written idylls, where voracious appetite is associated with an immoderate sensuality and brutality that jeopardizes the very values on which Camelot's fragile civilization is founded.


It is notable that the hearty but healthy appetites of Tennyson's most conventionally manly knights, Gareth and Geraint, clash keenly with the excessive and/or transgressive cravings of their main foes. In Gareth and Lynette, Night and Death is reported to be "a huge man-beast of boundless savagery," whose monstrosity is heightened by his penchant for cannibalism (l. 622). In Geraint and Enid, meanwhile, Earl Doorm and his "brawny spearmen" are characterized by their carnivorous tastes and brutish eating habits:
      men brought in whole hogs and quarter beeves,
   And all the hall was dim with steam of flesh:
   And none spake word, but all sat down at once,
   And ate with tumult in the naked hall,
   Feeding like horses when you hear them feed;
   Till Enid shrank far back into herself,
   To shun the wild ways of the lawless tribe. (ll. 557, 601-607)

The viscerally affecting sights, sounds, and smells of Doorm's dining-hall--from which the polite reader is encouraged, like Enid, to recoil--clearly align Doorm and his men with the bestiality against which Victorian manliness pitted and measured itself. Whereas in Arthur's Camelot (repository of the Victorian manly ideal), male dining is associated with civility, sociability, and community, in Doorm's castle eating reverts to an instinctive, individualistic activity, its sole purpose being to satisfy primal need.

This distinction is not entirely rigid, however. If the Round Table can, on occasion, resemble a monastic brotherhood in its commitment to abstemiousness, its members can also come close, at other times, to exhibiting the baser animal appetites of Idylls' villains. It is Vivien who first points out this potential for slippage. During her spirited exchange with Merlin, she disputes the notion that Arthur's knights are exemplars of propriety and self-restraint, exclaiming:
   They ride abroad redressing human wrongs!
   They sit with knife in meat and wine in horn!
   They bound to holy vows of chastity!
   Were I not woman, I could tell a tale. (Merlin and Vivian, 11.

Vivien's indictment of the "full-fed liars" of Arthur's court blends accusations of gluttony with allegations of indulgence in other sensual pleasures (l. 690). When pressed by Merlin for examples of such behavior, she cites Percivale's seduction by a satanic femme fatale in the precincts of the chapel-yard. Merlin demurs and, given Vivien's tendency for misrepresentation, the reader might be forgiven for dismissing her story out of hand. However, Merlin's defence of Percivale turns out to be rather shaky: after arguing that Percivale's purity is indisputably confirmed by his unblemished countenance, Merlin equivocates that any sin committed was a sincerely repented one-off and therefore forgivable. His attendant admission that the encounter in the church-yard only arose because Percivale was "flustered with new wine" lends some credence to Vivien's claims regarding the knighthood's propensity for immoderate consumption (l. 754).

Further evidence of the potential for chivalric capitulation to fleshly pleasures (both comestible and sexual) emerges in The Holy Grail, where, in the course of his quest, Percivale encounters a beautiful widow, his former love. Physically and emotionally famished, he is enticed to temporarily abandon his mission, first, by the lavish banquets she sets before him, each "richer than the day before," and, second, by the overpowering force of his own desire (ll. 588). Eventually, Percivale musters sufficient resolve to resist his lover's charms, but his admission that, after doing so, he "wailed and wept, and hated mine own self, / And even the Holy Quest, and all but her" indicates that an inner conflict rages within chivalric masculinity, as animal appetites threaten to overwhelm the strictures of self-command (ll. 608-609).

Where Percivale resists, others succumb. In The Last Tournament, Tristram seeks out Isolt, wife of King Mark, in her tower-prison and, during their debate on the sanctity of nuptial and chivalric vows, acknowledges that primal impulses are beginning to override the noble pledges made by Arthur's knights at the Round Table's inception:
      feel this arm of mine--the tide within
   Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
   Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure
   As any maiden child? (ll. 685-688)

For Tristram, the knighthood's "inviolable vows" are in fact unnatural bonds against which "flesh and blood" cannot help but rebel (ll. 683-684). He implies that the cultivated manliness of Arthur's court works to constrain authentic, redblooded masculinity, which is characterized here in terms of "pulsing" instinctual drives and unfettered energy. In keeping with this discursive turn, Tristram figures his desire for Isolt as a natural, somatic craving, which demands satisfaction. Her body is represented as food; in the moment of their reconciliation, Tristram lightly fingers "the warm white apple" of his lover's throat (l. 711). Their seemingly immanent sexual reunion is deferred, however, by Tristram's sudden demand for literal sustenance: "Come, I am hungered and half-angered--meat / Wine, wine--and I will love thee to the death" (ll. 713-714). Isolt obliges, "seating] before him all he willed," and the pair proceed to "[comfort] the blood / With meats and wines, and satiated their hearts" (ll. 717-719).

Notably, this feast signifies differently from those enjoyed by Gareth and Geraint in earlier idylls; the appetites on display are indulgent rather than hearty and their satisfaction induces languor as opposed to vigor. Consumption, here, is indicative of an enervating, decadent sensuality; the language of pleasure that permeates this part of the text strongly implies that Tristram and Isolt's feast should be read as a substitute for infidelious sexual activity. Their respective marriage vows are not the only social contracts imperilled by their tryst, however. In soliciting and accepting fare from Mark's household while cuckolding him, Tristram violates the rules of hospitality central to chivalric manhood. (37) The punishment for doing so is swift and bloody: as Tristram bends to kiss Isolt's neck, Mark emerges from the shadows and "[cleaves] him through the brain" (l. 748).

In Balin and Bulan, too, breaches of dining etiquette are associated with masculine dishonor and the degeneration of the chivalric ideal. Early in the idyll, we are alerted to the fact that Balin has been exiled from court for three years for striking a servant in Arthur's hall with his gauntleted hand, almost killing him. Repentant, he is eventually readmitted to Camelot, but, as Hughes notes, his hold upon civilized masculinity remains "tenuous, always on the brink of breaking up and reverting to savagery" (p. 438). Interestingly, his struggles with civility are consistently figured in relation to dining: in order to achieve the "courtesy, / Manhood, and knighthood" exhibited by Arthur's followers, Balin strives first "to learn the graces of their Table" (ll. 155-156, 233). In Idylls, as in nineteenth-century culture more generally, polite dining serves as a guarantee of civilization; thus when Balin surrenders to his dark moods, and feels that the "high-set courtesies" of court life are not for him, "all the kindly warmth of Arthur's hall / Shadowed an angry distance" (ll. 222, 231-232).,s Subsequent lapses similarly threaten to manifest themselves within the environs of the dining-hall. When Balin encounters "the thrall / His passion half had gauntleted to death" and perceives him to "smile ... as he deem'd, presumptuously: / His arm half rose to strike again" (ll. 214-218). And later, when he joins a banquet at Pellam's castle, he only just prevents himself from hurling a bronze goblet at Garlon, Pellam's son, when the latter taunts him with reports of Guinevere's infidelity. Remembering the token that the Queen has given him as an incentive to quell his violent urges, Balin stays his hand and instead chastises Garlon for the inhospitable nature of his gibes. His self-restraint is rather short-lived, however; later that night, he fells Garlon with a blow so hard it shatters the blade of his sword.

Among the final idylls to be written, The Last Tournament and Balin and Balan lend credence to Machann's argument that Tennyson, during the composition of his poem, placed increasing stress on the inneity of masculine brutality and the fundamental fragility of Western civilization. And if "manhood"--Idylls' primary "strategy for controlling or stifling man's natural bestiality"--proves ultimately ineffective, as Machann suggests, then it is often through eating behaviors that the limits of this idealized form of masculinity reveal themselves (pp. 202-203). In the case of Tristram, alimentary indulgence stands for unregulated sexual appetite, which leads, in turn, to a corruption of the knightly ideal, a privileging of selfish pleasure over chivalric duty. Balin's inability to conform to the rituals and conventions of the dinner table, meanwhile, reveals the impotence of socially constructed norms and customs in the face of instinctual drives.

That Tennyson should have chosen to explore the systemic struggles of masculine identity through representations of eating and dining is no accident, for eating (like masculinity) exists at the precarious junction of nature and culture; at once primitive, violent and sensual, it can also be highly stylized, mannered, and refined. Indeed, Hyman argues, "society comes to itself through the transaction of the meal: precisely because of its insistence on form ... the rite of alimentary consumption constitutes a ground on which the sociopolitical realm is made and remade" (p. 4). Arthur's hall provides a striking visual reminder of the shifting patterns of predation and consumption that accompany the civilizing process: "four great zones of sculpture" gird the room, "and in the lowest beasts are slaying men, / And in the second men are slaying beasts" (Holy Grail, ll. 232-235). The third and fourth layers depict men as noble warriors and, finally, heavenly beings. The sculpture's narrative of inexorable progress from bestial to perfect manhood is implicitly disrupted, however, by the prospect of masculine degeneration that haunts the hall. Notably, in "The Last Tournament," Arthur voices his private fear that "the bearing of our knights / Tells of a manhood ever less and lower," and frets that his realm will consequently "reel back into the beast, and be no more" (ll. 120-121, 125).

Such anxieties regarding the downfall of Camelot's civilization (premonished in the poem from its very beginnings) come to center repeatedly on the great hall, a structure that derives symbolic power from its associations with civilized feasting, commensality, and hospitality. In the ninth idyll, Pelleas dreams that the hall is destroyed in a conflagration and, following his later confrontation with Lancelot and Guinevere, "a long silence" descends upon this normally sociable space as its occupants anticipate "the dolorous day to he" (Pelleas and Etarre, ll. 596, 593). In the tenth idyll, even more compelling portents of the hall's decline emerge. Cynical and embittered, Pelleas, in the guise of the "Red Knight," establishes a counter-Round Table in the North with the specific aim of inverting Arthurian values: his supporters openly embrace immoral behavior and his court is a space of drunkenness, debauchery, and riot. But, troublingly, when Arthur leads a band of men to confront his former disciple, it becomes apparent that the Red Knight's depraved hall represents less the Round Table's antithesis than its uncanny double. The methods by which Arthur's knights attempt to cleanse the place of dissipation and excess bear unsettling traces of the violent intemperance they are meant to oppose: after brutally trampling the unseated Red Knight into the mire, the knights run rampage through his castle,
          swording right and left
   Men, women, on their sodden faces, hurl'd
   The tables over and the wines, and slew
   Till all the rafters rang with woman-yells,
   And all the pavement streamed with
   massacre. (Last Tournament, ll. 472-476)

Finally, in a gesture that echoes Pelleas's earlier dream, they fire the building. Far from purifying the realm, however, this inferno and the events preceding it demonstrate the contaminating influence of male savagery; Arthur's knighthood has become infected by the bestiality it formerly repudiated.

Within Camelot, too, the civilizing ideals of the Round Table have, by this point, disintegrated. The jousts over which Lancelot has been asked to preside during Arthur's absence descend into lawlessness, while, at the banquet that follows, the women of the court abandon their pure white robes in favor of brightly coloured gowns and "[glitter] at the feast" with such raucous mirth and tasteless revelry the Queen feels obliged to "[break] up their sports" (ll. 225, 238). The sense of decline immanent in "The Last Tournament" is intensified by an image of defilement that forges suggestive links between the battle in the North and the feast in Camelot: tellingly, the mire in which the knights "[slime] themselves" during combat also emerges within the ostensibly civilized confines of the royal hall, where, according to Arthur's fool, a fountain designed to spout wine begins instead to ooze mud (l. 298). Originally intended to be a sober commemoration of the death of a child adopted by Guinevere, the "Tournament of the Dead Innocence," as it comes mockingly to be known, marks instead the moral demise of Camelot's chivalric civilization (l. 136).


As my analyses of Balin and Balan and The Last Tournament suggest, representations of feast and fast in Tennyson's Idylls of the King do something more than simply reproduce the gendered politics of consumption ingrained in Victorian culture. Within the poem, eating behavior functions as an important barometer of civilization, registering anxieties about the potential for civility to give way to barbarism, order to chaos, and community to selfish individualism.

Traditional readings of Idylls have followed Victorian ideology in blaming Camelot's civil collapse on the ruinous effects of unregulated female bodily appetites (specifically sexual). If, however, we consider the poem's representation of female appetite in a broader sense, then self-denial appears to be just as damaging to the social order as indulgence or excess. Though the poem seems to endorse, in places, conventional nineteenth-century ideas about the desirability of female dietary restraint, it also contests and undermines such dogma. Of the poem's female characters, only Enid manages to achieve domestic happiness through somatic self-denial; elsewhere, female abstemiousness results in melancholy, madness, or death.

Male relationships to food are no less problematic in Idylls and it is these, I would argue, that jeopardize most seriously Camelot's precariously constituted civilization. Though a hearty masculine appetite (idealized enabler of manly action) is implied to be the desired via media between emasculating asceticism and decadent or bestial excess, it is only consistently achieved by Gareth and Geraint in the early sections of the poem. From Balin and Balan onwards, chivalric manhood is continually endangered by the alimentary extremes of fast and feast--modes of consumption that, by diminishing or distorting the flow of male energy, paralyze the "manliness" central to knighthood. This is worrying for, as Arthur more than once suggests, it is the performance of manly deeds that validates the Round Table's existence and underpins chivalric society. Hearty eating helps to fuel masculine action in a literal sense but also, importantly, sustains Arthur's men in less tangible ways: initially, it is the fraternal spirit inspired by communal dining that urges the knighthood on to greater and greater deeds. Conversely, when the values of the dining-hall are corrupted or ignored, the Round Table's male community (along with the wider social structure it upholds) swiftly fragments. Representations of feast and fast thus throw new light on the theme of civilization central to Idylls, illuminating the role of unruly male appetites in the poem's narrative of inexorable decline.


(1) "Guinevere," ll. 261-267, in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987). All further references to Idylls of the King are from this edition and are given parenthetically in the essay.

(2) Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Vintage, 2000), p. 174.

(3) Ingrid Ranum, "An Adventure in Modern Marriage: Domestic Development in Tennyson's Geraint and Enid and The Marriage of Geraint," VP 47, no. 1 (2009): 241.

(4) James R. Bennett, "'Vision' in 'The Holy Grail': Tennyson's Theistic Skepticism," Philological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (1996): 240; Anna Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), p. 146.

(5) Tennyson's son, Hallam, likewise identified the poem's unifying theme as "the worldwide war of Sense and Soul." Quoted in The Poems of Tennyson, 2:241.

(6) Gwen Hyman, Making a Man: Gentlemanly Appetites in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), p. 13.

(7) Clinton Machann, "Tennyson's King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness," VP 38, no. 2 (2000): 203. For more on the plurality and instability of Victorian masculinities, see Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995) and James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Manhood (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).

(8) Tennyson's poem draws extensively on Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of The Mahinogion, particularly in its representation of Enid's preparation of food; the suggested correlation between Enid's hospitality and Geraint's desire, however, appears to be Tennyson's own. See Lady Charlotte Guest, "Geraint the Son of Erbin," The Mabinogion, vol. II (London, 1849), pp. 77-78.

(9) Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), XVIII.19, p. 615.

(10) For instance, when Elaine's father gazes on his "deathly-pale" daughter, the once familiar lineaments of her face appear strangely alien to him, causing him to question "Is this Elaine?" (Lancelot and Elaine, ll. 959, 1024).

(11) Linda K. Hughes, "Scandals of Faith and Gender in Tennyson's Grail Poems," in The Grail: A Casebook, ed. Dhira B. Mahoney (New York : Garland, 2000), p. 415.

(12) A. Dwight Culler, The Poetry of Tennyson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), p. 228; Marysa Demoor, "'His Way is thro' Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless': The Gender of Madness in Alfred Tennyson's Poetry," Neophilologus 86 (2002): 331.

(13) Charles Lasegue, "On Hysterical Anorexia," Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873): 265.

(14) Quoted from the report of the Clinical Society, Medical Times and Gazette (November 8, 1873): 534.

(15) Gull first referred to a condition called "apepsia hysterica" in his 1868 address to the British Medical Association. His 1873 paper to the Clinical Society was originally entitled "Anorexia Hysterica (Apepsia Hysterica)," but when it was published in the Transactions of the Clinical Society of London a year later, it carried the title "Anorexia Nervosa (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterica)." For a full account of Gull and Lasegue's analyses of anorexia, see Brumberg, pp. 100-138.

(16) Gull's colleagues at the Clinical Society seem to have been familiar with the kinds of cases of female food refusal he described in his paper on "Anorexia Hysterica" (see report of the Clinical Society, Medical Times and Gazette [November 8, 1873]: 534). Lasegue, meanwhile, described the symptoms of anorexia as "too often observed to be a mere exceptional occurrence" ("On Hysterical Anorexia," p. 265).

(17) In medieval and early modern Europe, ordinary women regularly fasted for religious reasons, while a series of "fasting saints" and "miraculous maidens" employed more extreme forms of appetite control to demonstrate their piety, purity, and spirituality, frequently claiming that their ability to withstand food for extended periods was divinely inspired. For a history of female food-restricting behaviors in Western cultures, see Brumberg, Fasting Girls; and Walter Vandereycken and Ron Van Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: The History of Self-Starvation (London: Athlone Press, 1994). For a more detailed study of fasting in the Middle Ages, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

(18) For example, while acknowledging that Sarah Jacob, the "Welsh Fasting Girl," was "very much devoted to religious reading," physician Robert Fowler confidently assigned her refusal to eat to "simulative hysteria" in an 1869 letter to the Times ("The Fasting Girl of Wales," Times [September 7, 1869]: 8).

(19) See the medical writings recorded in Brumberg, pp. 70, 72, 141.

(20) Fowler, p. 8. For a study of the relationship between fasting and spectacle, see Sigal Gooldin, "Fasting Women, Living Skeletons and Hunger Artists: Spectacles of Body and Miracles at the Turn of a Century," Body and Society 9, no. 2 (2003): 27-53.

(21) Helen Malson, The Thin Woman: Feminism, Post-structuralism and the Social Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 159.

(22) James Fitzjames Stephen, Review of Tom Brown's Schooldays, Edinburgh Review 107, no. 217 (1858): 190-191. For critical discussion of the development and ideals of "muscular Christianity," see Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints; Norman Vance, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985); and Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age, ed. Donald E. Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994).

(23) Lady Tennyson's Journal, ed. James O. Hoge (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1981), p. 297. Lady Tennyson adds that her husband made the claim "jokingly"; nevertheless, it is clear that Gareth serves as a pattern for many of the virtues that middle-class boys were actively encouraged to cultivate in the second half of the nineteenth century.

(24) My reading of Gareth contradicts Machann's claim that "[Tennyson'sl assumptions about manhood as a repudiation of 'natural' bestiality preclude his adoption of a model that would incorporate anything like Charles Kingsley's positive 'animal spirits'" (p. 209).

(25) Tennyson draws on Malory, where Kay says, "into the kychyn I shall brynge hym, and there he shall have fatte browes every day, that he shall be as fatte at the twelvemonthe end as a porke hog!" (VII.1, p. 179).

(26) Here, I follow Sussman in reading manhood not as "an essence but a plot, a condition whose achievement and whose maintenance forms a narrative over time" (p. 13). I would argue that "Gareth and Lynette" can be interpreted as a narrative of achieved manhood.

(27) As part of their turn toward the values and practices of the medieval Church, Tractarians advocated regular fasting as an aid to prayer. See E. B. Pusey, "Thoughts on the Benefits of the System of Fasting, Enjoined by Our Church" (no. 18) and John Henry Newman, "Mortification of the Flesh a Scripture Duty" (no. 21), Tracts for the Times, vol. 1, 1833-34 (London, 1834).

(28) See note to ll. 357-362; Hughes, p. 436. Although the influence of the Oxford Movement had declined by the time Tennyson came to write Balirt and Balan, the anxieties generated by the Movement's emphasis on ritual and male celibacy continued to resonate throughout the Victorian period, as Hughes points out (see pp. 416-417, 437).

(29) See Adams, pp. 61-106; Hughes, pp. 416-420; and David Hilliard, "UnEnglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality," Victorian Studies 25 (1982): 181-210.

(30) Alfred Tennyson, letter to the Duke of Argyll, October 3, 1859, in The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson: 1851-1870, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 244.

(31) Philip Williamson claims that the frequency of fast and humiliation days between 1830 and 1860 "was comparable to that of any period without prolonged warfare during the previous two centuries." See Williamson, "State Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings: Public Worship in Britain 1830-1897," Past and Present 200, no. 1 (2008): 124.

(32) See Williamson, pp. 171-174; and Don Randall, "Autumn 1857: The Making of the Indian 'Mutiny,'" Victorian Literature and Culture 31, no. 1 (2003): 3-17.

(33) Williamson, pp. 153-54. For Queen Victoria's more general antagonism toward Catholicism and Tractarianism, see Hughes, pp. 425-426.

(34) See entries for September 1, 1868 and March 19, 1871, Emily Tennyson's handwritten transcript of her journal (2 vols), Tennyson Research Centre, TRC/M/50.

(35) Hallam, Lord Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (London, 1899), p. 493.

(36) Silver, p. 146. Hughes argues that the relationship between Galahad and Percivale's sister, and the description of Percivale's past romance "strongly reflect the inscription of heterosexuality into the 1869 Grail Quest" (p. 427).

(37) Hospitality was also much valued in Victorian culture, where it represented both a source of modern national pride and a cherished link to an idealized chivalric past. See, for instance, R.W.C.T., "Fashionable Hospitality," St. James's Magazine 16 (May 1866): 202: "Hospitality is as much an institution of our country as constitutional government, or religious freedom, or roast beef.... It is among the things of the past to which [the Briton] holds the most." See also "Hospitality," London Review (December 29, 1860): 622, which argues that "among nations, this country is prominently, perhaps supremely, hospitable.... As an element of our national strength, the value of honest social hospitality can scarcely be exaggerated."

(38) In 1861, Isabella Beeton made clear the link between dining and civilization (and also, implicitly, chivalry): "Dining is the privilege of civilization. The rank which a people occupy in the grand scale may be measured by their way of taking their meals, as well as by their way of treating their women. The nation which knows how to dine has learnt the leading lesson of progress. It implies both the will and the skill to reduce to order, and surround with idealisms and graces, the more material conditions of human existence; and wherever that will and that skill exist, life cannot be wholly ignoble" (Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, ed. Nicola Humble [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 20001, p. 363).

(39) Arthur emphasizes the importance of male community when reflecting on the formation of the Round Table:
      I was the first of all the kings who drew
   The knighthood-errant of this realm and all
   The realms together under me, their Head,
   In that fair Order of my Table Round,
   A glorious company, the flower of men,
   To serve as model for the mighty world. (Guinevere, ll. 457-462)

Merlin also stresses the role of male community at the time of the Round Table's founding, noting "each incited each to noble deeds" (Merlin and Vivien, l. 412).
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Author:Boyce, Charlotte
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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