Updated Mythcon Proposal

I sent out my panel discussion proposal to Mythcon 45 on Friday. Here is the updated text of the proposal–again, I have left out the names of the participants until everything is confirmed. Do let me know if you are going to Mythcon; I would love to meet you there.

Panel Proposal:
The Inklings and King Arthur

Moderated by Sørina Higgins

ABSTRACT:

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 below.

#1: “Shape and Direction:
Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies”

 Owen Barfield 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.

 

#2: “From myth to history, and back again:
Arthur as paradigm for understanding the Inklings’ view of mythological history”

The personal and academic differences among the Inklings often make it difficult to see them as a unified group. Even when a key topic is approached by most of them, this diversity remains. Such is the case for the central place of Arthur for the major Inklings.

One commonality is the influence of Chesterton; this should not be ignored, nor should Chesterton’s importance in the debate over a historical Arthur be overlooked. The way Chesterton approached the question of the historicity of Arthur is a paradigm for his overall view of history: presenting a correspondence-view of history and a “supernatural” or “mythological” history—a view that maintained the historicity of the mythological.

Tolkien took a different approach, creating a mythological history wholesale from his imagination in a process that he likened to the archeologist’s discovery of lost facts. Yet The Fall of Arthur reveals that he once considered using pre-existing materials to explore the “lost” linguistic past of his subcreated languages. Lewis defended the importance of history as the only comparison available to counterbalance the present. Barfield followed Rudolph Steiner in accepting a view of spiritual evolution throughout history. Charles Williams’ use of history is perhaps the most creative, as he conflated historical events to serve his own artistic and theological purposes.

This panelist will examine how the major Inklings plus Chesterton approached the question of an historical Arthur, and how their responses to this topic serve as microcosms for their mythic approach to theology.

 

#3: “The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom
in J.R.R. Tolkien’s
The Fall of Arthur

This panelist will examine Tolkien’s nostalgic fantasy of a fading Christendom in the recently published The Fall of Arthur. Tolkien’s invocation of a fantasized Arthurian Christendom stands in stark contrast to the approach of a God-less, a-moral and immoral modernity, which is also colored in the poem in Arthur’s heathen opponents and in Mordred. There are similar contrasts drawn between the characters surrounding Arthur, with Gawain and even Lancelot receiving treatment as brothers in chivalric Christian fellowship (Lancelot rather belatedly) while Guenevere is depicted in a self-serving and morally unflattering light.

The resulting medievalist fantasy—reinforced by the Anglo-Saxon prosody, reminiscent of Beowulf—paints a vision of good and evil that resonates and synthesizes with the fantasized Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings, but one that in this case is set specifically Christian medieval landscape, albeit a landscape that is clearly mythologized (Arthurian). The examination, thus, will press the point that the Arthurian landscape, for Tolkien, is a Christian landscape, that Camelot is a mythological symbol for Christendom, and that Arthur’s elegiac fading off into Avalon parallels the setting sun of Christendom on the eve of modernity, even while there is the promised hope of its return.

#4: “The Pendragon and the Fisher King
in
That Hideous Strength.

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.

 
#5: “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.”

 

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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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4 Responses to Updated Mythcon Proposal

  1. Sørina,

    I just came across your website and was interested in your work on Arthurian subjects. My background is as a medievalist, but I mostly work on representations of the medieval in contemporary popular culture. I’ve done some work on the theme of the return of King Arthur during World War Two and would appreciate any suggestions for further connections in the Inkling’s work.

    Thanks,
    Michael Torregrossa

    Michael A. Torregrossa, M.A.
    Founder, The Alliance for the Promotion of Research on the Matter of Britain

    Like

  2. Sørina Higgins says:

    Dear Michael:

    I am thrilled to be in touch with you. We should work together in some capacity on my book, “The Inklings and King Arthur.” I’ll send you an email. Meanwhile, what would you like to know about the Inklings on this subject?

    Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If I may stick my oar in, for the sake of thoroughness Charles Moorman’s Arthurian Triptych (Berkeley: U of California P, 1960) should probably be mentioned.

    Less widely known, is Colmán O’Hare’s 1973 University of Toronto Doctoral dissertation, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R, Tolkien: three approaches to religion in modern fiction. Among other things, he intriguingly compares the first edition and Lewis’s own abridged text of That Hideous Strength with an eye to what Williams references survive the abridgement, and the possible implications of that.

    An interesting (and, I suspect, pioneering) essay is Arti Ponsen’s “On Tolkien and some rehash” the first and second section headings of which are ‘Arthurian elements in The Lord of the Rings?’ and ‘Sir Aragorn of the Lake?’, in Elrond’s Holy Round Table: Essays on Tolkien, Sayers and the Arthur Saga, Lembas-extra 1990, ed. René van Rossenberg (for Unquendor [the Dutch Tolkien Society]), pp. 21-34. It is there noted as having been published before in Letterature. Facolta di magristero dell Universita di Genova Istituto di lingue e letterature straniere. Number 11 (1988), pp. 117-31, edited by Giorgio Spina. (It is, in fact, the only Arthurian essay in this volume of Lembas-extra, lest the volume title unintentionally mislead.)

    I have, not so very long ago, had an enjoyable discussion with Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger about Merlin in That Hideous Strength in the context of Tolkien’s treatment of magic in the comments to a 10 February post of his at his blog, Mary Victrix.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An intriguing connection which in may be impossible to run down completely concerns David Jones. He famously reviewed Arthurian Torso, the review (first published in an issue of The Tablet dated 25 December 1948) being reprinted in Epoch and Artist (1959), where the Preface to The Anathemata (1952) is also reprinted. That Preface not only includes a reference to Arthurian Torso, but also a list of “fifty names which shall be chosen as they happen to come to mind as I now write”, of “authors to whom I stand indebted in little or much” – among which is J.R.R. Tolkien! “Mr. Jones’s Anathemata” is, in turn, mentioned by Lewis in his “De Descriptione Temporum: An Inaugural Lecture” (1954), as reprinted in They Asked for a Paper (1962). And we know that Williams was acquainted with Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937), in which Jones’s extended, striking use of the old Welsh Taliesin poetry precedes Williams’s fullest use of the same sources in “The Calling of Taliessin” in The Region of the Summer Stars (1944).

    But why is Tolkien’s name most likely to have come to mind, when Jones reached that point of writing? Might Tolkien and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight be one of the reasons? (In “The Myth of Arthur”, a “much corrected and largely rewritten essay, an earlier version of which was written under somewhat unsatisfactory conditions in 1940-41” for a Hilaire Belloc festschrift, included in Epoch and Artist, Jones quotes Tolkien’s “Beowulf essay”.)

    Might those two fellow Great War veterans, Tolkien and Lewis, also have known In Parenthesis, before they came to write The Lord of the Rings and That Hideous Strength, respectively? That is not asked on the inkling of any effects of it among their mental furniture on aspects of those prose fictions!

    But there are these often-tantalizing Jones-Inklings connections, as well as his being (among many other things) a modern Arthurian poet (and painter) whose works variously reward comparison with theirs, in concerns, ethos, atmosphere, approach.

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