I wrote last week about my lovely morning researching an Arthurian work by Barfield in the Bodleian Library–my personal earthly paradise. Now I would like to share with you about the talk I gave at the Charles Williams Society on the afternoon of that same day, June 6th.
First, let me say what an enormous blessing it was to be hosted by the gracious members of the CW Society and their guests: Brian Horne, Stephen Barber, Richard Sturch, Roger Rowe, Christine Hunter, Malcolm Guite, and Holly Ordway. Their kindness and intelligence made a beautiful combination. I have seen this meeting of good character and good minds in many Inklings-related gatherings: the Taylor Colloquium, the Marion E. Wade Center, MythMoot, and other conferences and assemblies. It is heartening.
My talk consisted of two parts, the first part about The Chapel of the Thorn and the second part about The Inklings and King Arthur. The two parts were tied together by one question: What makes a work “Arthurian”?
This question arose when I was talking about The Chapel of the Thorn with Brenton Dickieson (of A Pilgrim in Narnia), and he asked: “Is The Chapel of the Thorn an Arthurian work?”
Well, of course not. There’s no King Arthur in it. No Knights or Round Table. No Lancelot or Guinevere. No Quest for the Holy Grail.
But… there is a Holy Relic. And the play is driven by a Quest to see who will end up controlling this holy relic. So this play does dance with matters on the edge of Arthurian legend: the Crown of Thorns in this play is a kind of metonym for the Holy Grail, which is in its turn a synecdoche for all objects and actions of Christ’s passion, and characters’ responses to these physical items are revelatory of their eternal salvific or damnatory condition. In other words, the Crown of Thorns (or a thorn from the crown) stands in for the Holy Grail in this play, and the Holy Grail stands in for people’s true spiritual condition throughout CW’s writings.
So I talked about that for the first half. (This part of the talk was similar to this one I gave at MythMoot). I explained the plot of Chapel and talked about its major themes. I told the group that the play is performable—and I’m still hoping that someone will want to launch a production (Sharon Gerdes? Joe Ricke? Ron Reed?).
Then I used the discussion about the importance of a “sacred object” in CW’s writing to transition into talk about the upcoming volume The Inklings and King Arthur. I reproduce the current (final?) Table of Contents here:
The Inklings and King Arthur
Table of Contents
Introduction by Sørina Higgins
Texts and Intertexts
1. Arthurian Backgrounds: Medieval to Early Modern by Holly Ordway
2. Houses of Healing: The Idea of Avalon in Inklings Fiction and Poetry by Charles A. Huttar
3. Echoes Beyond Allusion: Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’ Arthuriana by Brenton Dickieson
Texts in Contexts
4. Spiritual Quest in a Scientific Age by Jason Jewell and Chris Butynskyi
5. Arthurian Waste Lands and Renewal in Lewis and Eliot by Jon Hooper
6. The Stripped Banner: Reading The Fall of Arthur as a Post-World War I Text by Taylor Driggers
7. The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur by Cory Grewell
The Myth, the Mind, and the Past
8. “All men live by tales”: Chesterton’s Arthurian Poems by J. Cameron Moore
9. From Myth to History, and Back Again: Arthur as Paradigm for Understanding the Inklings’ View of Mythological History by Yannick Imbert
10. Shape and Direction: Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies by Christopher Gaertner
The Topographical Body
11. Mapping the Grammatical Margins of Middle-earth: The Fall of Arthur’s Geography by Robin Anne Reid
12. Camelot Incarnate: Arthurian Vision in the early plays of Charles Williams by Bradley Wells
13. “What does the line along the rivers define?”: Charles Williams’s Arthuriad and the Rhetoric of Empire by Benjamin D. Utter
The Gendered Body
14. In the World Walking for the Woe of Men: Guinever in The Fall of Arthur by Alyssa House-Thomas
15. Those Kings of Lewis’s Logres: Arthurian Figures as Lewisian Genders in That Hideous Strength by Benjamin Shogren
16. Beatrice and Byzantium: Sex and the City in the Works of Charles Williams by Andrew Rasmussen
The Spiritual Body
17. Knights of the Sun: MacDonald’s Chivalric Mentorship in an Arthurian Light by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
18. “Any Chalice of Consecrated Wine”: The Significance of the Holy Grail in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven by Suzanne Bray
19. The Acts of Unity: The Eucharistic Theology of Charles Williams’ Arthurian Poetry by Andrew Stout
Conclusion by Malcolm Guite: “ ‘Once and Future’: The Inklings, Arthur, and Prophetic Insight.”
It is difficult for me to reproduce my presentation here, as it was wide-ranging rather than detailed, broad rather than deep. I sort of skimmed over several of the points that the volume makes, some of the approaches it takes, and so forth.
Now, in the lovely plans of Providence, both Holly Ordway (chapter one) and Malcolm Guite (conclusion) were present at this meeting of the CW society. So there was no way I wasn’t going to ask them to share a little about their chapters. And from their words and mine, a few themes coinhered. I would say that the strongest two points that emerged were:
I. The Inklings’ thoughts and writings (including and even especially their Arthurian works) are directly, intimately relevant for the problems, issues, and thoughts of our own day, the early 21st century. Holly talked about the Arthurian “sources” from which the Inklings drew—Gildas, Nennius, Wace, Layamon, the Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, the prose romances, etc—and how each writer adapted his material to his times. The Inklings did the same, telling tales for their times. But their tales are also for our times, and Malcolm Guite spoke about some very specific points in which they were nearly prophetic. From Lewis, he spoke about (if I remember correctly) how the Head in That Hideous Strength warns us against bioethical violations and transhumanism. From Tolkien, he pointed out that the early environmentalism in The Lord of the Rings has direct applicability to our own thoughtless contributions to climate change. And from Williams, he talked about how the economic principles in the poem “Bors to Elayne: On the King’s Coins” were pointed warnings against the kinds of malpractice that led to our recent banking crisis. I can’t wait to share his completed chapter with you; it will be powerful and influential.
II. Perhaps the most relevant of all their ideas is the power of story, more particularly the power of Myth and Mythic Archetypes. We had a pleasant little debate about whether the classic mythic characters and ethical archetypes are still available to and known by the children of today. Some people there were pessimistic, saying that the loss of a classical education or received literary tradition has stripped today’s young people of these important moral and spiritual icons. Others present, myself included, argued that the archetypes are still there, but instead of being encountered through, say, Greek and Roman literature (or even the traditional Disney fairy tale), they are now present in the superhero genre: the Marvel universe, comic books, graphic novels, and the gaming culture. So they are always present, but they shift genre and medium from one generation to another.
If any of you who were present are reading this, please add more details of our discussion. And other readers, please join in the debate! Do you think the classic mythic moral/ethical archetypes are alive and well in “Western” culture in 2015? Or have they died? Do children have the heroes they need today?
Currently, in the restart of the superheroes by DC Entertainment, Wonder Woman has learned that she is the child of Zeus, due to his rape of Hippolyta. A number of the other Greek gods have appeared. (I have read only the second collection of the new Wonder Woman comics, so I’m not certain how long that beginning set-up was continued.) At any rate, the readers have been introduced to the Greek gods under their Greek names.
Percy Jackson also springs to mind – and I see (at Amazon) that a 2009 reprint of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes has an introduction by Rick Riordan. And then there’s Caroline Lawrence… In some ways, it has probably never been easier to learn more, online (for free: for example, Wikipedia, YouTube, Internet Archive, LibriVox, and their analogues) or off, though it will finally depend on the interest of the potential enjoyer.
Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
I’m very pleased to be included–not only in the excellent book coming about about King Arthur and the Oxford Inklings, but also in the discussion about Charles Williams’ stunning early play, ‘The Chapel of the Thorn.” Check out this blog by Sørina Higgins for today’s Feature Friday.
Meanwhile, an article long on fuzziness and puckishness about a ” wooden relic that is thought by some to be the Holy Grail” – “thought by some” (what might Sir Giles Tumulty have said?):
And did you ever happen to see (and did I ever happen to ask before about), “Richard Hammond and the Holy Grail” (a 2006 BBC production), which, curiously, shows a painting by Juan de Juanes (c. 1507-1579) including perhaps the best claimant for being the Grail (i.e., the Chalice at the Last Supper) – and then never discusses the Chalice depicted? (!)
I think it’s written into our DNA (or the spiritual version thereof) to need heroes (and probably mythical villains as well). It seems like this is one of the chief functions of story-telling, even when the narrative swings toward realism. How many of the US’s “founding fathers” are far more complex than how we generally think of them? We idealize to idolize.
I think this is why the Marvel franchises are mostly killing it at the box office right now: they fill that hole and are invested in developing a grand mythology all their own. Whether these are the ones children need, well, yes and no. As I think about it, I’m not even sure this is what the Roman and Greek mythological figures existed for (at least not primarily).
And are they alive? I doubt most American adults could name more than a handful of mythological figures (though the names do still exist, they are becoming disconnected from their roots – Jupiter, Neptune, Mars – these are all planets, not mythological figures to most). Given that, it is interesting to note how both Marvel and DC are grounding their own universes in various ancient mythologies (Marvel and Thor, DC and Wonder Woman).
Since Wonder Woman has been mentioned twice, it might not be overdoing it to note this very interesting article by Jill Lepore tying in with her book (which I have not yet seen):
It provides an interesting (U.S. – how peculiarly so?) cultural context of concern about sadism, cruelty, and so on at the time of the late Arthurian poetry of C.W.!
And the reference to a Boadicea comic (of what date, exactly?), among other things, got me wondering about a context for Jadis in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (Paul Ford notes it as written 1951, 1953-54) – Jadis, in a post-W,W. II, post-Wonder Woman, account, set in the early feminist (and Rider Haggard) period …Hmm.
If you will excuse my adapting a comment I just made elsewhere in another Inklings context, I’ve just started the third, 1975 ed. of a fascinating book by some one who was, among other things, one of C.S. Lewis’s fellow Punch contributors, E.S. Turner: Boys Will Be Boys, first published in 1948 (ed. 2, 1957) and a very interesting book to read in the background of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism and in the context of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien’s approaches to writing prose fiction – whether any of them knew Turner’s book or not. Its subject is popular fiction, later especially aimed at the young, beginning with “popular low-priced magazines” and “the publishers of penny parts – to be known all too soon as ‘penny dreadfuls’ ” in the early 19th century and going on all the way to the rise of Marvel Comics. The “Preface” has a lovely epigram from Chesterton with which Lewis would certainly agree as far as he himself was concerned, “”Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” The “Preface” itself begins, “In this book the reader is invited to take a backward plunge into the new mythology – “! A blurb from a review calls it a “splendid classic survey of the genre from Sweenry Todd and Wild Bill Hickok to Batman and the Incredible Hulk”.