English and Modern Languages
Master of Arts (MA)
Arthurian Legend, Charles Darwin, Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Once and Future King, T. H. White
English Language and Literature | Intellectual History | Literature in English, British Isles | Modern Literature
Feldman, Mary, "Between the Man and Beast: Reactions to Evolutionary Science in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and T. H. White's The Once and Future King" (2013). Masters Theses. 294.
The development and popular acceptance of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, of which Charles Darwin was perhaps the leading voice, produced perhaps the greatest cultural cataclysm of the Modern age. It held theological and philosophical implications beyond the scientific realm, profoundly impacting the humanities as well as science. The Arthurian legend, a story that has been told and retold for centuries before and after Darwin, offers us a unique opportunity to examine how a preexisting story was radically altered in the light of evolution. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and T. H. White's The Once and Future King are two retellings of the Arthurian story that react explicitly to the implications of evolution. While Tennyson was a contemporary of Darwin's, White writes in the twentieth century, between the two world wars. Tennyson reacts to evolution with disillusionment, depicting the fall of Camelot as a result of man's inability to transcend his animal identity. For White, however, the fall of Camelot illustrates the folly of a belief in any ideals, such as chivalry or nationalism, foreign to the animal kingdom. For White, evolutionary science provides a measure of hope and comfort: man, capable of waging world wars, is more barbaric than any animal, and yet, since he has not been evolving for as long as other animals, there still remains hope for him to develop into a peaceful animal. The centrality of evolution and its implications to both Tennyson's and White's retellings of the Arthurian story point to the power of the science of origins to impact man's view of himself and the world, as each man's reaction to evolutionary science affected nearly every aspect of his interpretation of pre-existing literature.