Summary of Guinevere by Alfred Lord Tennyson

This poem summary focuses on the long narrative poem ‘Guinevere’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This poem tells the story of Queen Guinevere, the consort of King Arthur. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are the most important characters of English legend, and their time is portrayed as the golden age of England’s history by many poets including Tennyson.

‘Guinevere’ is made up of thirty-six stanzas, all consisting of a varying number of lines. However, every stanza – whether short or long – contributes to the telling of the story of Queen Guinevere’s infidelity with Sir Lancelot, and the consequences of this action of hers. Queen Guinevere, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot are not the only principal characters in this poem though. Sir Modred, the nephew of King Arthur, is another important character in the story.

At the beginning of the poem, we find Queen Guinevere at the convent in Almesbury, where she has fled after her affair with Sir Lancelot has been discovered by Vivien, and consequently by Sir Modred, whom Vivien has informed of the same. On the day when Guinevere and Lancelot have planned to bid farewell to each other, the queen not being able any longer to keep such a secret from her husband, Lancelot offers her sanctuary in his castle in France, but Guinevere declines and chooses the anonymity of the convent instead. All this is watched by Sir Modred, and after Guinevere and Lancelot leave, the whole kingdom comes to know of the scandalous affair. King Arthur goes to France to wage war with Lancelot, entrusting responsibility for the running of his kingdom to Sir Modred. In the meantime, Sir Modred (who has long been eyeing the throne of Camelot) has taken this opportunity to usurp the throne for himself. Back at the convent, Queen Guinevere speaks to no one but a young novice who has been chosen to serve her in the role of her maid. The novice is very talkative, and seeing Queen Guinevere in sorrow, tries to cheer her up by giving her news of the kingdom that Guinevere has left behind. However, the novice’s intentions may be good, but her words do not comfort the queen, but depress her even more. The novice tells her of King Arthur’s war with Sir Lancelot, and of Sir Modred having taken over the kingdom of Camelot. She also tells the queen about the wonderful times the kingdom had seen before the queen’s arrival and her marriage with King Arthur, and how the decline that would result from her presence in his life had been prophesied many years ago. Though the novice upsets the queen, Guinevere cannot be angry at her since she says that she has heard all these stories from her father who had passed away five years before the present time. The queen is racked with guilt over her infidelity to King Arthur, and is sure that both the king and all the people of the kingdom must hate her. Suddenly, the sound of horses’ hooves is heard and the king himself comes to the convent to see Queen Guinevere. The king then tells her that he will never visit her again, and that he will continue his war with Sir Lancelot, but that he still loves her and can never stop loving her in fact. Saying this, King Arthur leaves. This visit f the king’s has a deep emotional effect on the queen, and she finally understands the true consequences of her illicit affair with Lancelot. She regrets her sinful actions, and spends the rest of her days in penance at the convent. When the Abbess dies, Guinevere is made abbess and remains abbess for three years at the convent until her death.

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