Abstract: “King Arthur Was an Elf!”

I will be spending the weekend of Dec 13-15 at this lovely little Tolkien conference/party: Mythgard’s Mythmoot II. Should be amazing! Here is a summary of the paper I’m scheduled to give (which is the seed of my proposed book on The Inklings and King Arthur. Check it out.

King Arthur Was an Elf!
An Imaginary, Composite, Inklings Arthuriad

ABSTRACT:

The recent publication of The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, revealed a startling, previously-unknown aspect of Tolkien’s legendarium. The key is found in notes Tolkien left about how he intended the fragmentary Fall of Arthur to continue (included in Christopher Tolkien’s editorial matter). In the final confrontation, Mordred would fatally wound Arthur, Arthur would kill Mordred, and Arthur would be carried away to the West for healing. Lancelot, arriving too late, would set sail into the West, searching for his king, never to return.

In other words, Lancelot is Eärendel. He sails into the West, seeking a lost paradise: Avalon, Tol Eressëa, or the Land of Faery. If Tolkien had finished this poem, he could have woven it together with The Silmarillion so that his elvish history mapped onto the legends of Arthur, forming the mythological and linguistic foundation on which “real” English history and language were based. In addition, he could have collaborated with Lewis and Williams on their Arthurian legends, creating a totalizing myth greater than any they wrote individually.

This paper, then, examines the theological, literary, historical and linguistic implications of an imaginary, composite, Inklings Arthuriad by comparing the Arthurian geography and characters of The Fall of Arthur, The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings with “Lancelot,” Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis and Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars by Charles Williams.

In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany. God’s country is in the opposite direction, across the sea, connected with ancient legends about Hesperus, the evening star, Venus, the light in the West.

In all three writers’ worlds, heroic characters achieve a great quest and leave this earthly realm for a heavenly one, attaining a spiritual fulfillment that has both historical and personal implications for England and for the individual Christian.

If Tolkien had finished The Fall of Arthur and if the Inklings had put all their Arthurian ideas together, they could have produced the kind of totalizing English mythology that Tolkien attempted, but abandoned. But he did not, so this paper also considers why he stopped, and what the theoretical pitfalls are of examining a work of literature that does not exist.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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17 Responses to Abstract: “King Arthur Was an Elf!”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Will they be publishing it? Or will you be publishing it, otherwise? And how soon? An abstract is like a good glass at a wine-tasting – tantalizing, but where can we get the bottleful?

    “In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany.” Without combing through for details, Williams’s P’o-L’u of the various spellings is, as it develops, more ‘Far Eastern’ – and symbolically ‘antipodean’ (Eric Rauscher makes a playfully interesting case for a possible Lovecraftian Cthulhu Pacific contribution). The Germanic side of things, Northern as well as Eastern, does come in with the tradition of Arthur defeating the Saxons, and very decidedly as reasserted in “Divites Dimisit” (published after the Russo-German Treaty of Non-Agression in 1939) which is revised and expanded into “The Prayers of the Pope”. And then there is the Eastern and Southern Moslem threat, involved in Williams’s development of Palomides as Persian convert in conquered Spain.

    Where Tolkien is concerned, it is a question of ‘when’, since Eastern (and recruited Southern) threat follows earlier spectacular Northern one.

    But where is East (or even West, much) in Lewis? “Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra” (That Hideous Strength, ch. 13) puts ‘Avalon’ very concretely and spatially-accessibly on Venus (which, in Tolkien, Eärendel steers!). Quite a contrast, with the not simply spatially-accessible True West of Tolkien and Sarras of Williams.

    O, to read your discussion of such things!

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      My intention is that this paper will become the seed of my introductory essay in the planned volume “King Arthur and the Inklings.” So you will get to read it someday, d.v.

      I.e., the West: even though the exact geographies of these writers vary, as you correctly point out, they were all blessed (or afflicted) with a “Western Longing” that is common in European literature from at least the ancient Greeks onwards. For a discussion of this, see Charles Huttar’s 2005 Mythcon talk, “Deep Lies the Sea-Longing,” printed in Mythlore fall 2007.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Great to hear – and a duly ripened or honed version, at that!

        I like, and am like, Barbara Pym’s character who collects offprints. And being at least a day’s journey from a good library at present, and perhaps farther from one with a subscription to Mythlore, I will have to wait to catch up with Charles Huttar’s essay – unless I can get ahold of (the equivalent of) an offprint!

        My general ‘Western’ reading is rather desultory. For instance, Robert Lemm’s Eldorado (1996) is the last I read – and enjoyed! – but Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt’s De mythe van het Westen: Amerika als het laatste wereldrijk (1992) still sits upon the shelf awaiting its turn with patient insistence.

        Where any salient affliction and/or blessing on the part of Lewis is concerned, my mind’s a blank.

        Your mentioning the ancient Greeks does make me realize how much homework I have to do on comparing classical and Elven-Numenorean astronomy, among other things. Diogenes Laertius tells us (IX.23, in Hicks’s translation) that Parmenides “is believed to have been the first to detect the identity of Hesperus, the evening-star, and Phosphorus, the morning-star; so Favorinus in the fifth book of his Memorabilia; but others attribute this to Pythagoras, whereas Callimachus holds that the poem in question was not the work of Pythagoras.” But what did which men learn of Eärendel from the Elves, and when?

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  2. I admit that I am somewhat sceptical, but the idea is intriguing …

    My knowledge of Lewis and particularly Williams is, admittedly, very limited, so I may be completely off, but based on my knowledge of Tolkien I would say that the idea of actual co-sub-creation between the three of them would be highly unlikely. That does, of course, not mean that it cannot be a fun thought to play with.

    With regards to the “evil in the east”, I was about to protest that this was a part of Tolkien’s legendarium from the start, but actually it is at most present in a very vague sense in the early stuff written prior to c. 1936, and it didn’t find a strong representation until The Lord of the Rings, so there might be more to that than is usually acknowledged … interesting.

    Finally, I do find that statements such as the titular claim that “King Arthur Was an Elf” or that “Lancelot is Eärendel” are not just factually incorrect (the differences are, in my opinion, simply too vast to make such hyperbolic statements meaningful as other than provocative statements), but they also create a focus on the least interesting aspects of the connections (Tolkien as a source for Tolkien — Tolkien tendency to borrow from himself, and particularly from his mythology, is quite well documented and, in my view, not particularly interesting in the context of The Fall of Arthur) rather than focusing on the effect this has on both of the two Faëries in Tolkien’s treatment — and on their connection to the Primary World — when we see the characters as distinct and take them for what they are presented as (i.e. when we abide by the laws of the Secondary World).

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  3. Sørina Higgins says:

    Thank you for your comment, Troels. (May I say, as an aside, that I adore your name? It’s magnificent).

    Let me take your points one by one.

    First, of course, there was very little “actual co-sub-creation” among the three (or four) major Inklings. There were several collaborations, some of them significant. See Diana Gyler’s “The Company They Keep” for accounts of these. But of course, you are right: they never collaborated on the creation of a secondary world.

    However, that does not mean that we cannot or should not study the connections, parallels, overlaps, etc. among the worlds that they did create separately. They shared a tradition, a religion, and a writing community: the rivers of common thought and imagination ran deep. They were also constructed by their historical context(s), as every writer is, so we can learn something about their times by examining their mutual ideas.

    Second, those statements to which you raised quite legitimate objections (“King Arthur Was an Elf” and “Lancelot is Eärendel”) are intentionally provocative. They are meant to stimulate interest in reading my CFP, mostly (!) and then to provoke just the kinds of examinations that you suggest, such as “focusing on the effect this has on both of the two Faëries in Tolkien’s treatment — and on their connection to the Primary World — when we see the characters as distinct.”

    So, those phrases did just what they should do, unless you found them offensive, or unless they made you think that the proposed volume is anything less than a work of serious scholarship—that may have a little fun around the edges playing with unformed ideas and seeing how far they can go.

    Will you submit a proposal?
    Thanks!

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    • Note to self: try not to start more conversations than you can respond to in a reasonable time … 🙂

      Thank you for the explanations – I suspected that you were aiming for thought provoking (which evidently succeeded!), but though I might as well ‘object’ rather than just ask (I am told that we Danes are infamous for our bluntness which I am afraid at times borders on – or indeed transcends to – rudeness).

      I quite agree that a comparative study of the Arthurian fiction of the Inklings is worthwhile, and I look forward to it.

      As for submitting a proposal … it’s tempting – I see that the relation between The Fall of Arthur and the Silmarillion is on the list of topics, so it’s really a matter of whether that I have something to say on the subject that would be interesting for others to read.

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      • Sørina Higgins says:

        I am sure that you would have something interesting to say, and I hope that you say it and send it my way, please!

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Lewis ‘did it’, when he combined the three of his planetary mythology, Arthurian ‘Matter’, and Tolkien’s ‘Numinor’ in That Hideous Strength. But what, exactly, did he do?

    King Arthur was an elf, in Spenser, and Charles Huttar quotes an elven connexion from Layamon, but with Tolkien (by whatever memorial aural traditions) in the picture, Arthur could be ‘Half-Elven-descended’ in That Hideous Strength. (‘Could’: but have we any evidence, in fact?)

    Not yet having read The Fall of Arthur, I should be content to be mum, but instead I will venture in my ignorance to recall the early idea of wanderers and mariners as ‘sons of Eärendel’: Tolkien’s Lancelot might be such, at least.

    Given Tolkien’s later objections, what were Inklings sessions like, when Lewis read from That Hideous Strength-in-progress (assuming he did, and Tolkien was present)? What information have we, to hang any conjectures on?

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      I know, seriously! I imagine JRRT was offended and troubled that CSL took such important elements and dumped them into another “slap-dash” work (by JRRT’s standards).

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Speaking of ‘slap-dash’, I fear the use of “Abhalljin” in ch. 13 but “Aphallin” in ch. 17 may be a whopping example – though perhaps one cannot rule out variations of Old Solar analogous to Quenya and Sindarin.

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    • Very good point about Lancelot and the ‘sons of Eärendil’! Thank you 🙂

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        You’re welcome! I have been brooding over the ‘sons of Eärendil’ and the possible idea of some sort of ‘figure of Eärendil’, from before the moment I learned (from Sørina mentioning it) of Tolkien’s treatment of Lancelot (I really must read The Fall of Athur, soon!).

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Following a link from Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, I encountered the following citation by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, ” ‘When we have reached love, we have reached God and our journey is complete. We have crossed over to the island that lies beyond the world, where are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ (A.J. Wensinck, tr., Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh [Amsterdam 1923], pp. 211-12″. There is no compass-point directional imagery, here. But there is an image which resembles – and conceivably could have inspired – C.W.’s later “land of the Trinity” Sarras imagery. Wensinck’s book is available at the Internet Archive, and earlier in the same treatise is something relevant to The Place of the Lion. St. Isaac says, “Eden is the divine love wherein is the paradise of all goods, where the blessed Paul was sustained by supernatural food.” (Wensinck supplies a footnote to 1 Corinthians 2:9 to a quotation in the next sentence, but presumably there is also a reference here to 2 Corinthians 12:4.)

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