In connection with my work on The Inklings and King Arthur, I am sending in a proposal for a panel discussion at Mythcon 45. I include the proposal here just for fun, in case you’re interested. I withhold the names of the participants for now, as this is a rough draft. If our proposal is accepted, I can post again with names attached. Ideas are welcome.
The Inklings and King Arthur
Moderated by Sørina Higgins
The 2013 publication of The Fall of Arthur complicated the generic complexities of Tolkien’s work; in addition to asking “How does Tolkien’s legendarium fit in with mythic texts such as Beowulf or the Norse Eddas, or his scholarship?” we can now ask: “How does Tolkien’s Arthurian poem fit in with the vast palimpsest of Arthurian legends through the ages?” and “How does it map onto Middle-earth?” In addition, we can entertain questions about the interaction of The Fall of Arthur with Arthurian works by the other Inklings.
The Inklings and King Arthur is an academic collection in progress, edited by Sørina Higgins, examining just such questions. The proposed panel represents some of the fundamental concerns of the volume by positioning the Inklings’ Arthurian works in their historical milieu, focusing especially on Arthurian geographies—looking at where the Inklings’ Arthurian works “fit” into time and place. The panelists will discuss Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield, as well as Arthurian source materials, MacDonald, and Chesterton, looking at the fantastical and historical aspects of these works.
The publication of The Fall of Arthur thus invites an examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications both of the actual Arthurian writings by the major Inklings and of an imaginary, composite, Inklings Arthuriad—and this panel would like to share those examinations at Mythcon 45.
Abstracts for the panelists’ topics are included in the pages below.
Shape and Direction:
Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies
Owen Barfield’s believed that human consciousness is on an “inward” course. Whereas ancient humanity viewed itself as part of nature, modern humanity has viewed itself as separate. This inward course is evidenced in the perceived relationship between thought and speech; modern language is “fragmented,” whereas in ancient language meaning and poesy were experienced as a unity. Barfield’s understanding of the relationship between consciousness and speech had a profound effect upon J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
The Inklings’ views on this matter were formed and expressed against a backdrop of several centuries of upheaval. One was terrestrial: from a flat earth to a globe. Another was cosmological: from a terra-centric to a helio-centric view. Closer to the time of the Inklings were “scientistic” currents of mathematical reductionism, biological determinism, and technocratic utilitarianism. The Inklings’ response to these issues reflects the influence of Barfield’s view of consciousness, as well as their shared resistance to a scientistic worldview.
This panelist will argue that had the Inklings composed a Composite Arthuriad, this view of an “inward” direction of consciousness and the response to these cosmological and scientistic issues would have shaped their mythological geography in two main ways: 1. An “opposite direction”: an “outward” course for the location of Avalon, and 2. A change in “shape” from Wizard to Pendragon as the proper tension-holder between ancient and contemporary consciousness.
Panelist #2 (me)
King Arthur Was an Elf?
Arthurian Geographies in J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams
The Fall of Arthur contains hints that Tolkien could have woven this poem together with The Silmarillion, mapping his elvish history onto Arthurian legends to form a mythological and linguistic foundation for “real” English history and language. Lewis and Williams also used the Arthurian legends to unify diverse elements of their mythologies in a constant quest for holism. This panelist examines the theological implications of their multi-textual Arthuriana.
In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East, while God’s country is in West. Heroic characters achieve a great quest and leave this earthly realm, attaining spiritual fulfillment. All three include a secret tradition passed on to contemporary heirs of Arthur who are still alive in 20th-century England.
Yet their astronomy and cosmology do not map on to one another, Arthur’s fate is uncertain, and Merlin’s role quite varied. A differing approach to sacred objects is revelatory: There is no Grail in Tolkien’s story; there are sacred spaces or places in his geography instead. There is no Grail in Lewis; the people are the focus of the sacred energy. In Williams, the Grail is central. This illustrates their spiritual differences: Tolkien as a Roman Catholic who kept any explicit reference to Christianity out of his works, since they are set in a pre-Christian (even, some works, a pre-human) world; Lewis as a “mere” Anglican, wanting to teach plain doctrine; and Williams as an Anglican and an occult master channeling spiritual, sexual, and creative energies for doctrinal purposes.
Anyone familiar with Arthuriana may be puzzled when they find in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength that Ransom has now been given the titles of two very different figures from the Grail saga: the Pendragon and the Fisher King. Why?
There is a clue within the long literary history of Arthurian literature. A slow change occurred in Arthur Pendragon himself. Arthur evolves from the pious once-and-future King of the Britons defending his people against invaders, to a self-indulgent ruler siring Mordred by an incestuous tryst. This change accelerates around the time that the role(s) of the Fisher King/Wounded King begin to take center stage with the development of the Grail saga. We begin to see that what used to be some of Arthur’s chief characteristics are now found in this other king. It is the Fisher King who is now known for his piety and for being ruler of a particularly holy, exemplary, and powerful kingdom. Yet the two kings remain quite distinct. Later Arthurian authors have had to face the Arthur-Fisher King duality.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis sacrifices neither Arthur nor the Fisher King. Ransom (known now as Pendragon and Fisher King) possesses fully the ideal virtues of both roles. By overtly drawing on the imagery and tradition of both roles within the Arthuriad and bringing them together under one head, Lewis successfully highlights the virtues of both without blurring or confusing their qualities. The result is a robust and multidimensional picture of Christ.
Echoes Beyond Allusion:
Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’ Arthuriana
In the introduction to his George MacDonald anthology, C.S. Lewis said, “I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” There is a high degree of intertextuality in Lewis’s works. From epigraphical quotations to narrative allusions to the grafting in of entire frameworks, Lewis’ corpus is a playground of intertextuality. Making Lewis’ dialogical project even more complex is the intertextual nature of his source materials: the Arthuriad, for example, takes up the matter of Britain and classical and biblical material. Lewis also engages in contemporary intertextuality as he dialogues with J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.
In the field of biblical studies, Richard B. Hays offers a theory of intertextuality; this panelist explores the possibilities that emerge when applying Hays’ programme to the works of C.S. Lewis, focusing on his Arthuriana, including the WWII-era Ransom books, his poetry, and some elements of Narnia. By moving past allusion and quotation to an understanding of “echo” in reading intertextually, we can agree that a literary echo creates “an intertextual fusion that generates new meaning.” In asking how C.S. Lewis uses MacDonald, Milton, Wells, the Arthurian legendary, various mythologies, and the fiction of his contemporaries, we are really asking how these echoes function to generate new meaning. We see that Lewis, like the Apostle Paul, is a thinker in “profound disjuncture” with his religious context. And though Lewis’ Christian thinking is not as significant a paradigm shift as Paul’s was, it is likewise nonetheless a “reappropriation.”
From myth to history, and back again:
Arthur as paradigm for understanding the Inklings’ view of mythological history
Defending a historical Arthur is a challenge. Arthur is usually relegated to the rank of symbolic figure. On the other side of the debate over the historical Arthur stands British historian Geoffrey Ashe, offering one of the last main attempts towards identification of a historical figure behind King Arthur. Ashe credited G.K. Chesterton for giving him the initial impulse for his research; thus, the importance of Chesterton in the debate over a historical Arthur should not be overlooked, nor his influence on the later members of the Inklings ignored.
The way Chesterton approached the question of the historicity of Arthur is a paradigm for his overall view of history. Chesterton was weary of modern historian’s suspicions toward history and towards ancient authors. He can be seen as presenting a correspondence-view of history, trusting that the texts provided enough reliable information regarding the historical matter at hand. But a more foundational element is his “supernatural” view of history. For Chesterton, there is no need to choose between a historical or mythological Arthur. Chesterton’s view of history can be called mythological history, a view that maintained the historicity of mythological figures because without historical basis, there would be no mythology.
Tolkien took a different approach, creating a mythological history wholesale from his imagination in a process that he likened to the archeologist’s work of discovering lost facts. Yet The Fall of Arthur reveals that he once considered using pre-existing materials as a means of exploring the lost linguistic past of his imaginary languages. Lewis defended the importance of history as the only comparison we have to balance out the present, yet turned to science fiction and mythology as a counterbalance to the scientism of his times. Charles Williams’ us of history is perhaps the most creative, as he conflated historical events to serve his own artistic and theological purposes.