Tolkien’s Arthuriana

As you know, I’m deep into the final editing stage of The Inklings and King Arthur. Last week I posted about CW’s Arthurian works, yesterday about Owen Barfield. Today, Tolkien; tomorrow, Lewis. Your comments, questions, suggestions, and corrections are eagerly invited.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) also wrote a only very small number of works that can be considered even marginally Arthurian, and only one (unfinished) actual retelling. He approached this legend as he did most elements of English literature: he looked for the gaps, the empty spaces where explanations were missing, and he wrote into those gaps, closing them up with material of his own making, so that these stories all came into his legendarium, his theory of everything. This process began when he encountered the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist, by Cynewulf, probably in the spring of 1914 (Garth 44-45, Carpenter 72; cf. Sauron Defeated 236). The Crist contains these lines:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
above the middle-earth sent unto men,
and true radiance of the sun,
bright above the stars…

There is very little else about Earendel (or Eärendil, as Tolkien came to spell the name) anywhere in extant English literature,[1] so this was a gap: an unexplained moment. Who was Earendel? How could he be both an angel and a star? Tolkien resolved to make up the back-story that would explain this mystery. By September 24th, 1914, he had composed a forty-eight line poem called “The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star” (Garth 45). Eventually, Eärendel became Tolkien’s half-elf, half-human hero who sails into the West, seeking a lost paradise.

This method of writing into the gaps, of drawing existing literature into his own evolving Elvish mythology, catalyzed his great work of inventing Elvish languages, legends, and history, which eventually led to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and the histories of Middle-earth. Tolkien tried this again with Beowulf, drawing that story into his own via another Earendil-like character. Beowulf opens with the history of Scyld (or “Shield”), “the eponymous ancestor of the Scyldingas, the Danish royal house to which Hrothgar King of the Danes in this poem belongs” (Tolkien’s commentary, p. 137):

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of the foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn… a good king was he! (Tolkien’s translation, ll. 1-5, 9).

This same King Scyld had come mysteriously to the Danes: one day, they found a boat on the shore with a baby inside. In the boat with the child was a mysterious, beautiful, golden grain. When the child grew up, they made him their king. So Scyld was to them a culture hero: the good king, the victorious warrior, the bringer of corn. When he died, his people put him in a boat and sent him off as he had come:

With lesser gifts no whit did they adorn him, with treasures of that people, than did those that in the beginning sent him forth alone over the waves, a little child. Moreover, high above his head they set a golden standard and gave him to Ocean, let the sea bear him. Sad was their heart and mourning in their soul. None can report with truth, nor lords in their halls, nor mighty men beneath the sky, who received that load. (Tolkien’s ll. 33-40).

Tolkien believed that the Beowulf-poet was taking previous material about a warrior-ancestor and about a culture god, “and adding to it a mysterious Arthurian departure, back into the unknown” (Beowulf 138-9, emphasis original), making a “suggestion… that Scyld went back to some mysterious land whence he had come” (The Lost Road 106). Notice that he explicitly calls it an “Arthurian departure,” thus making all mysterious voyages across the sea into the West iterations of the Arthur-into-Avalon archetype.[2]

Tolkien decided to follow this same method again, the method that the Beowulf-poet used of combining pre-existing story materials with his own new ideas, seeking out hidden significance, and weaving it all into a much larger whole.

So Tolkien used King Sheave in his own Lost Road and Notion Club Papers projects, retelling the story in both prose and verse (The Lost Road 96-106; Sauron Defeated 273-6). In Tolkien’s version, Sheave is not dead, but dying, when his men put him on a ship:

and they thrust him forth to sea, and the sea took him, and the ship bore him unsteered far away into the uttermost West out of the sight or thought of men. Nor do any know who received him in what haven at the end of his journey. Some have said that that ship found the Straight Road. (The Lost Road 95).[3]

In Tolkien’s view, the Beowulf-poet took “rustic legends of no great splendor” and connected them “with a glory and mystery, more archaic and simple but hardly less magnificent than that which adorns the king of Camelot, Arthur son of Uther” (The Lost Road 105-6). This is essentially what Tolkien himself is doing throughout his work, and he probably learned this method from the Beowulf-poet: “as often, Tolkien took the hints, but felt he could improve on them” (Shippey, Author 37).

Tolkien took one other hint from this passage in Beowulf and used it explicitly in his works, connecting it to Eärendil: the line “those that in the beginning sent him forth” (34). Through a complicated and ingenious bit of creative philology (which Tom Shippey traces in Author of the Century), “Tolkien was prepared, rather daringly, to identify the osas/Æsir [the pagan gods of Norse myth] not with demons, but with the demi-gods or archangels or Valar of his own mythology” and also seems to identify the mysterious beings who sent Scyld forth with his own Valar, too (Shippey Author 286; Shippey, “Welcome to Beowulf.”). This means that Scyld is an Eärendil-figure; a mysterious, possibly superhuman, hero who comes from the West and goes off mysterious into the West, sent by the Valar and received by them again.

Note, however, that all the Scyld/Shield/Sheave material I have been talking about was unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime. Most of it is in notes for projects he never finished, such as The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. Some of it, the material about Beowulf, he did discuss in his Oxford lectures on the poem, but he would not have made the connection with his own Valar explicit in those. Therefore, this connection is not part of his official, published works: the works that he himself completed and made public during his life.

This is also the case with Tolkien’s Arthur-Eärendil connection. It is not part of his approved, published works—which brings me at last to talk about The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien’s only explicitly Arthurian work of fiction. Throughout The Inklings and King Arthur, the chapter-writers deal with many important aspects of this poem’s content, importance, and cultural context; here, I will just briefly comment on its Eärendil connection, which is found in notes Tolkien left about how he intended the fragmentary Fall of Arthur to continue. Christopher Tolkien includes the following details in his editorial matter about how the story could have connected up to the larger Legendarium.

The main connection was the idea that, had he finished The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien planned that in the final confrontation, Mordred would fatally wound Arthur, Arthur would kill Mordred, and Arthur would be carried away to the West for healing. Lancelot, arriving too late, would set sail into the West, searching for his king, never to return. Tolkien left notes saying:

“Lancelot gets a boat and sails west and never returns. Eärendel passage” (Fall of Arthur 136) and “Lancelot parts from Guinevere and sets sail for Benwick but turns west and follows after Arthur. And never returns from the sea. Whether he found him in Avalon and will return no one knows” (Fall of Arthur 137).

In other words, Lancelot functions somewhat like Eärendel, the mariner who used the silmaril to sail into the Uttermost West and reach the Undying Lands. Both Lancelot and Eärendel sail into the West, seeking a lost paradise. At around this same time, Tolkien wrote a fragment of a poem about Eärendel’s Quest, including these lines:

Eärendel goeth on eager quest
to magic islands beyond the miles of the sea,
past the hills of Avalon and the halls of the moon,
the dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Faery on the borders of the world. (Fall of Arthur 137-8)

And then another fragment about Arthur’s grave:

No mound hath Arthur             in mortal land
under moon or sun                   who in ______ _____
beyond the miles of the sea       and the magic islands
beyond the halls of night          upon Heaven’s borders
the dragon’s portals                  and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Avalon                 on the borders of the world.
up[on] Earth’s border                in Avalon sleeping biding.
(Fall of Arthur 138)

Here he makes the identification of Avalon with Faërie and with Valinor explicit. While I will not dwell on this identification, as it is only in discarded drafts, I merely use it to point out the way in which Tolkien tried, at one time, to draw Arthur into his own Elvish legendarium. This is the opposite of Williams’ method, as Williams tried to draw everything else into his composite Byzantine Arthuriana. Yet both of them, like Lewis and Barfield, were interested in using this collection of stories—and all other stories that were to their taste—for the communication of spiritual truth.

An Arthur Rackham illustration

 

[1] There are cognate references in the Heldenbuch tradition, in Chronicon Lethrense, in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum (book 3), and in the Prose Edda.

[2] This is the topic of chapter four in the present volume, “Houses of Healing: The Idea of Avalon in Inklings Fiction and Poetry” by Charles A. Huttar.

[3] “The Straight Road” runs across the sea “to the Isle of Eressëa in Elvenhome” (Sauron Defeated 280), to the land of the Elves, heading towards the land of the Valar. Tolkien thought that Sheave came from the gods in the West to begin with, and that “his true name was in tongue unknown of a far country, where the falling seas wash western shores” (Sauron Defeated 275; cf. The Lost Road 99, where this is rendered into verse).

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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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11 Responses to Tolkien’s Arthuriana

  1. Sørena,

    A passage I’ve often wondered whether it had a hint of something Arthurian is (somewhere) in the Lord of the Rings. I haven’t my copy in front of me, but I believe it is a conversation between Gimli and Legolas where the consider the work and nature of men. Gimli notes that their natures (or works) often fail, but Legolas notes that they often succeed in their seed (or something along those lines; I really should have waited to comment until I could look up the passage). Anyway, while obviously a reference to Aragorn himself, I’ve often wondered if it isn’t some kind of oblique reference to, say, Arthur.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oo, that’s a cool idea. –But I must confess, I thought it was about Jesus!

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      • For the longest time I read it that way too, but I don’t think it’s right. This is mostly intuitive (i.e. I can’t point to, say, a letter of Tolkien’s that would prove this), but I think Tolkien would potentially take issue with Jesus having elvish blood, however minuscule. Also, geographically, I’m not sure how that would work. How would Aragorn’s descendants have made it to the modern-day Middle East? Also, this would give the Hebrews/Jews at least a partially European origin. If, on the other hand, we take into account that Middle-earth is our world in the past and that Fornost, near the Shire, is therefore near to modern day England, it’s less of a stretch that one of Aragorn’s descendants ended up in Britain (whether we discern that from Uther’s side or not) and thus sired Arthur. It’s also much more fitting that Arthur and his half-sister (Morgan the Fairy) would have elvish blood than that Christ would.

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        • Here is the passage:
          “That [Prince Imrahil] is a fair lord and a great captain of men,” said Legolas. “If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”
          And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,” said Gimli. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
          Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

          …So, the passage does not say that the “seed” will have elvish blood. On the contrary, the point is that Men will rise and rule the world *without* the lingering influence of the Elves.

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          • Ah, but the person in reference, Prince Imrahil has elvish blood. Now, generally I agree. The passage clearly indicates that humanity will not be completely lost without the elves; however long their seed lies fallow it will blossom. So, one could read this as a reference to all great men. However, insofar as Imrahil and Aragorn are concerned, their seed (at varying levels) will always carry with it elvish influence.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – this is very interesting! I have not yet caught up with Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur or Beowulf, and so can only observe in ignorance where they are concerned. But something that strikes me, and I wonder about, are the pre-Christian and the Christian in different senses in Tolkien’s sources and what he does with them. The Exeter Book ‘Christ’ poem is a sort of elaborate adaptation of the mediaeval Latin Advent Antiphon, “O Oriens”, still prayerfully sung in Church services today, recalling what leads up to the Incarnation. Tolkien makes it very anciently pre-Christian, but part of a mythology awaiting the Incarnation (e.g., the Ring destroyed on 25 March, which in the Church calendar is the feast of the Annunciation: the Conception of Christ).

    Characters in Beowulf correspond to historical characters, living after the Incarnation, but pagans. I’m not sure how early Tolkien would date Scyld: also ‘A.D.’, but pagan? Or ‘B.C.’? And how much is he part of some kind of preparation for the acceptance of the Incarnation and baptism into the Body of Christ?

    But in most traditional sources, Arthur not only lives after the Incarnation, but is a Christian king. And in Caxton’s Malory, Lancelot becomes, first a hermit- or monk-like penitent, and, after attracting many other knights to join him in this, at the end of six years, a priest himself (XXI, x). But (as you relate it),Tolkien seems to depart from (‘shy away’ from?) this part of Lancelot’s history completely. Or does Tolkien’s Lancelot seek to follow Arthur westward after having become a sort of explicit Christian pilgrim, or even a priest (or, indeed, a missionary)? How does he compare, for instance, with St. Brendan? (Williams, curiously, in both the ‘Advent of Galahad’ version – “He was not sworn of the priesthood / nor clad as a tonsured clerk” – and in the revised Taliessin through Logres version – “he was not sworn of the priesthood” – departs from Caxton’s Malory in a different way, making Lancelot celebrate the Mass while not yet being a priest: very explicitly, as a layman! I think this probably has one distinct source in Dante, but I can also imagine Tolkien might find it shocking or disgusting!)

    I am not suggesting you revise your introduction at all, to address any of this (or point out where your contributors address any of it), but merely mention it (in my ignorance of the latest Tolkien editions) as inherently interesting!

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  3. tphillman says:

    Faramir’s encounter with Boromir’s funeral boat is also quite Arthurian, both in tone and in the destination of the boat somewhere in the western sea.

    ‘I sat at night by the waters of Anduin, in the grey dark under the young pale moon, watching the ever-moving stream; and the sad reeds were rustling. So do we ever watch the shores nigh Osgiliath, which our enemies now partly hold, and issue from it to harry our lands. But that night all the world slept at the midnight hour. Then I saw, or it seemed that I saw, a boat floating
    on the water, glimmering grey, a small boat of a strange fashion with a high prow, and there was none to row or steer it.

    ‘An awe fell on me, for a pale light was round it. But I rose and went to the bank, and began to walk out into the stream, for I was drawn towards it. Then the boat turned towards me, and stayed its pace, and floated slowly by within my hand’s reach, yet I durst not handle it. It waded deep, as if it were heavily burdened, and it seemed to me as it passed under my gaze that it was almost filled with clear water, from which came the light; and lapped in the water a warrior lay asleep.

    ‘A broken sword was on his knee. I saw many wounds on him. It was Boromir, my brother, dead. I knew his gear, his sword, his beloved face. One thing only I missed: his horn. One thing only I knew not: a fair belt, as it were of linked golden leaves, about his waist. Boromir! I cried. Where is
    thy horn? Whither goest thou? O Boromir! But he was gone. The boat turned into the stream and passed glimmering on into the night. Dreamlike it was, and yet no dream, for there was no waking. And I do not doubt that he is dead and has passed down the River to the Sea.’

    (TT 4.v.666)

    All it lacks is a woman’s arm clad in white samite sticking up out of the water.

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