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.
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 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.”