Bedivere, having finally enacted King Arthur's last wishes, reports on the "miracle" which results upon his throwing Excaliber into the mere. The "mystic, wonderful" appearance of the arm "clothed in white samite" which "caught him by the hilt" is a manifestation of the fantastic, unreal, irrational, or unexplainable.
Compare to the following passage from Dickens' commensurately fantastic "Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton":
Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long fantastic legs which might have reached the ground, were cocked up, and crossed afer a quaint, fantastic fashion; his sinewy arms were bare, and his hands rested on his knees. On his short round body he wore a close covering, ornamented with small slashes; and a short cloak dangled at his back; the collar was cut into curious peaks, which served the goblin in lieu of ruff or neckerchief; and his shoes curled up at the toes into long points. On his head he wore a broad-brimmed sugar loaf hat, garnished with a single feather. The hat was covered with the white frost, and the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. He was sitting perfectly still; his tongue was put out, as if in derision; and he was grinning at Gabriel Grub with such a grin as only a goblin could call up. (Pickwick Papers 437, Ch. 29)
Both Dickens's and Tennyson's usage of fantasy depends upon an aesthetic detachment that involves their reappropriation of archaic genres — for Tennyson, the medieval Le Morte D'Artur and the popular Arthurian legend; for Dickens, Gothic fiction. Tennyson's mystical imagery is quasi-religious in that Bedivere's action hearkens the "barge" and "queen" which subsequently welcome Arthur to an after-life. Although Bedivere "never saw, nor shall see" so "great a miracle," Tennyson's readership of "mortal men" likely was accustomed to the use of such imagery as a convention. George P. Landow argues that the sword itself — though a physical object — is more miraculous that the arm which grabs it (Landow, "Bedivere's Faith," Victorian Web). Here arise the themes of faith and obediance; Bedivere's reticence to throw Excalibur away suggests his covetting of the ornate sword itself. Dickens too portrays the unreal but in such a way that ironically reaquaints the reader with what is real and human. "Fantasy is parasitic on realism" so at least George Landow suggests, "or, to state this point less pejoratively, one cannot have fantasy without realism." In other words Dickens portrayal of the "strange unearthly figure" produces a spiritual world which dramatizes the inner world of Gabriel Grub's human psychology; the entire tale is framed as a dream Grub experiences in a drunken stupor. Grub's visitor is described as a "goblin" who "looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years." (my emphasis). Dickens recasts the Gothic form, in which fantastic figures metonymically hearken back to ages long past. By metonym I refer to the way in which a part signifies a larger whole. Gothic fiction, such as Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, utilizes an aesthetic distance from such a past, but does so in such a way to attest to the supposed authenticity of that era and it's fantasies. I suggest the "weathercock" that Gabriel kicks off the church in his "aerial flight" towards tale's end acts as a residual metonymic signifier of some past era.
Each passage situates man as a witness to some higher unexplainable power. Bedivere and Grub enact the predicament of man caught between belief and doubt, rationality and irrationality. In each case the mystical guides the human figure to redemption or enlightenment. "Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, les the gems / Should I bind my purpose." Keep in mind Baedivere twice fails to follow through with Arthur's orders; only his obediance finally dissolves his skepticism of Arthur's commands. Although the "moral" (444) in Dickens tale is less ambitious than in the Christmas Carol (which presumably Pickwick Papers antedates), Grub nonetheless teaches us that "if a man turns sulky and drinks by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it, let the spirits be ever so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw, in the goblin's cavern" (444).
What's ironic, then, is how an otherwise rational nineteenth century society is so compelled by the irrational. In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species and in so doing revolutionized popular conceptions about man's place in relation to nature and God. The Great Exhibition in 1851 and the opening of the Liverpol and Manchester Railway in 1830 hearkened the industrial revolution which ameliorated lives in the same measure it rendered the English populace as "displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes that had been exploited too quickly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche." (Norton II 892). Tennyson completed the Idylls in 1888 having worked on them for many years (although his poem "Morte d'Arthur," upon which the "The Passing of Arthur" is based, was published in 1842). The fantasy worlds created by MacDonald and Carroll in many ways offerred the opportunity for working-class escapism from the drudgeries of factory life at the same time in which developments in science helped save lives from cholera, typhus, typhoid. At any rate "in a characteristically Victorian manner, Tennyson combines a deep interest in contemporary science with an unorthodox, even idiosyncratic, Christian belief" (Tennyson, Science and Religion").
Last modified 1996