Arthurian Geographies in Tolkien, Williams, and Lewis

Here is a talk I gave at the New York C.S. Lewis Society on January 10th, about The Fall of Arthur and an imaginary, composite, Inklings Arthuriad:

Here is a summary of the talk:

Arthurian Geographies in Tolkien, Williams and Lewis
by Sørina Higgins

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 and how the story could have connected up to the larger Legendarium. The most surprising are that Tolkien intended Lancelot to function somewhat like Eärendel, sailing into the West to seek a lost paradise, and that he originally associated Avalon with the undying lands. These connections enable an imaginative reader to speculate that if Tolkien had finished The Fall of Arthur, 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 C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams on their Arthurian legends, creating a totalizing myth greater than any they wrote individually.

In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany (and many other “eastern” invasions throughout its history). 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, and magical islands out in the sea. 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.

Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_ArthurBut what happens if we try to put these three writers’ Arthurian works together? We find problems with the astronomy and cosmology. There is a contradiction about what happened to Arthur. All three have contemporary heirs of Arthur who are still alive in 20th-century England. All three are about a kind of secret tradition passed on. Merlin plays a variety of roles in each, and each uses differing sacred objects.

Of course, we cannot examine a work of literature that does not exist. There is no Legend of King Arthur by Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams. Yet certain texts do exist: The Fall of Arthur, all of Tolkien’s drafts and notebooks, Lewis’s “Launcelot” fragment, and all of their published works, and it is useful to compare them and consider their implications.

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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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5 Responses to Arthurian Geographies in Tolkien, Williams, and Lewis

  1. Though I remain somewhat sceptical of the use of this meta-fictional conglomerate Inklings Athurian mythology as a device for investigating their respective Arthuriana, I still find the comparisons very intriguing.

    I was also reminded of the place where Tolkien writes of later Númenóreans trying to reach Tol Eressëa by flying ships, but having to turn about when they reach the parts of the skies where the air is too thin … it might almost sound as if they were making for space, might it not?

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    • I quite forgot to thank you for posting this talk … (it’s a Danish thing – we’re blunt and to-the-point to the point of rudeness). I enjoyed the talk very much.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you, Troels. I am also skeptical of the method I am using, and said so in the talk! It’s quite dubious to examine texts that don’t exist and to play a what-if game. Instead, though, it’s good to examine the texts that do exist, even in fragments, and that’s what I’m trying to do and to inspire others to do. Cheers.

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  2. motylos says:

    I have just posted on two different discussion threads on Linked In references to the Hebrew understanding of the East as literally their Orientation personally and societally. The East is the past, what is front of, you, what you face, the West is the future, the ‘after’ life. We therefore walk backwards into the future, on this understanding. However, this, as well as being a Semitic language cosmography is also an Indo-European one, as in ‘after’ life and ‘fore’-bears.

    However, the Narnia map by Pauline Baines, clearly sees Aslan’s Land as across the Eastern Ocean, as opposed to Tolkien’s various Middle-Earth charts which have the potential land of eternity in the West.

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    • Yes, that’s right; the “spiritual” direction is clearly the East in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But in most other works by Inklings, it’s the West. Thanks for the reference to the Hebrew understanding.

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