Like “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson’s epic poem has its origins in the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485. Malory himself had adapted the Arthur story from a variety of 12th-century French romances. However, the literary context of this poem extends back even further, because, as the poet Everard Hall remarks, “These twelve books of mine / Were faint Homeric echoes” (lines 38-39). Like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, Tennyson’s Idylls is a long epic in twelve books chronicling the adventures of a hero. Further, several of the images and references in Tennyson’s poem can be traced back to classical sources, and even the term “idyll,” which Tennyson used to describe each of the twelve books, refers to a classical genre of poetry consisting of brief but artful representations of contemporary life. The final image in “The Epic,” in which King Arthur sails downstream in a boat until he reaches a waiting crow, which greets him with cheers of “Arthur is come again” (line 347), corresponds to the formula for ending a classical pastoral elegy, in which people gather to lament a death and express faith in the peace-bringing deification of the departed hero. This image also bears a striking resemblance to the final lines of “The Lady of Shalott,” in which the lady sails down in her boat to Camelot and is heralded by the people of the town.
However, like “Ulysses,” this poem does not stem exclusively from mythology, but also has roots in Tennyson’s personal history: his King Arthur is also modelled after his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died the same year that Tennyson began writing “The Epic.” For the rest of Tennyson’s life, he retained in his mind an idealized image of his friend, and Arthur’s famous characteristics evoke this image: Arthur is renowned for his physical adroitness, insight, penetrating honesty, wisdom, innocence, and nobility of spirit, all of which virtues Tennyson attributed to his departed friend in various other writings. Moreover, the dissolution of the Round Table alludes to the shock of Hallam’s death to his peers in Cambridge, and the closing image in the poem, in which the poet awakes to hear “the clear church bells ring in the Christmas morn,” (line 354) references the Christmas bells of Section CVI of “In Memoriam,” the poet’s elegy for Hallam. In addition, Tennyson’s poem has some of the same “modern touches here and there” that his poem’s narrator attributes to the poem-within-the-poem (line 329); he uses the Arthurian cycle as a medium for the discussion of contemporary problems, namely the decay of ethical principles that he perceived in commercial, political, and social life.
As in many of Tennyson’s poems, this work exhibits a great concern with the scientific developments of his day; the parson mentions geology as one of the sources of the decline in faith in contemporary times (line 16). The science of geology, which suddenly extended the history of the earth back millions of years beyond the standard biblical account, had been formulated by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830-33). Lyell drew on evidence from fossils found beneath the surface of the earth, and Tennyson’s characters, too, rely on fossils as evidence for their arguments. Thus they say, “Why take the style of those heroic times? For nature brings not back the mastodon” (lines 35-36): the poet Hall, in arguing that artists must not simply “remodel models,” cites as evidence the fact that nature never brings back extinct species such as the mastodon, known only by its fossilized remains. Ironically, then, the poet draws upon fossils as evidence while lamenting the new science that does just this.