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