The Inklings and Celtic Mythology

Oops. I haven’t posted on here in a while. I didn’t finish my series on the “Magnum Opus” Inspector Lewis episode. I haven’t continued my book summaries of CW’s works. What happened?!?!

Oh, the little matter of a PhD.

That’s right. I started my PhD in English Literature at Baylor University a couple of weeks ago. This is a decade-long dream come true. It is extremely intense, of course, with more work than is humanly possible, but I do believe I am where I was meant to be.

But I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to regular Charles Williams blogging. I do want to complete the chronological blog-through of book summaries, so I shall endeavor to squeeze in time for that now and again.

Meanwhile, would you be interested in reading snippets and drafts of my work at Baylor when they relate to the Inklings? Do let me know!

In case you are, here’s something from this week. I’m taking a seminar on Yeats & Joyce, and right now we’re reading lots of Celtic mythology and scholarship about it as background. We keep an enormous “reading notebook” in which we right short essays on topics of importance to the course. Here is a very rough draft of a response to the book Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana. I would love your suggestions for revision, comments on the ideas, etc.

***

brendanThroughout Celtic Mythology, MacCana constantly returns to the idea that Irish tales are one stream of the great river of Indo-European mythology. It is full of archetypes that can be found in legends all across Europe. What is more, MacCana shows, these archetypal stories and characters persisted into the versions written down by Christian scribes in the sixth century and later. Whether in spite of or because of their Christian vision, these monks created passionate tales in which pagan and Christian values do not so much vie with each other as serves one another as the vehicle for deeper truths. I propose to examine two of the stories, the Voyage of Bran and the Fate of the Children of Lir, to show how the doctrine of True Myth is operative in the Christianized versions of these ancient tales.

“The Voyage of Bran” was written down in the seventh or eighth century. It tells of a mysterious woman who recites a poem to Bran, inviting him to travel over the sea to a realm of magical islands. He sets out, and encounters Manannan son of Ler, who recites additional stanzas in praise of the islands, which are called “the land of Manannan son of Ler.” Mananannan speaks what sound like a Christological prophesy:

A white law will come over seas,
Besides being God, He will be man. (48.3-4).

But the song goes on, claiming that it is Manannan’s son who will be born thus, “A fair man in a body of white clay.” Bran travels on, comes to the islands, where he sees wonders and stays for many years. Eventually he travels back to Ireland, where “he wrote these quatrains in Ogam, and then bade them farewell. And from that hour his wanderings are not known” (66).

This may seem at first glance to be a strange poem for a Christian monk to copy and disseminate. Is its incarnational claim not blasphemous? Is it presentation of an earthly paradise not contrary to the doctrine of a heavenly afterlife? Should not the good monk rather have suppressed this poem and replaced it with solid, Biblical teaching?

Well, that is certainly not what happened. The poem was preserved and passed on, and other versions developed later. Indeed, as MacCana claims, “In all the vast range of traditional material handled by the monastic scribes and literati nothing seems to have captured their imagination quite so completely as the theme of the voyage to the happy otherworld” (MacCana 131). One important poem is “The Voyage of St. Brendan.” Charles Huttar writes in a chapter in my forthcoming collection The Inklings and King Arthur that “The Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani achieved great popularity, being circulated and translated all over Europe and surviving today in well over a hundred manuscripts” (Huttar 116). In this poem from c. 900, Brendan reaches the Land of Promise of the Saints—a distinctly Christianized version of the original pagan story. What has happened? How did this Celtic tale with its island on earth peopled by goddesses turn into a Christian location, an earthly Eden, where a saint can travel? Did not the monks struggle with the tension between the two opposing religions?

Perhaps some of them did. Insight can perhaps be gained by the poem MacCana discusses from the eighth or ninth century about the goddess Bui becoming a nun. Bewailing the happy pagan times, she laments:

Happy is the island of the great sea,
for the flood comes to it after the ebb;
as for me, I do not expect
flood after ebb to come to me. (qtd. in MacCana 95).

This is an astonishing work for a Christian monk to compose. The nun regrets her choice, mourning for her lost pagan fertility. She specifically evokes an island in the sea as a place of life-giving tides, yet sees herself cut off, worn out, and dried up. This poet had remarkable insight into how the experience conversion might be for someone who felt she had given up sexuality, youth, liveliness, and the riches of nature for a the straightened life of a nun.

Given such a bold aesthetic choice by a ninth-century monk, we should be less surprised to find the more subtle methods of True Myth employed in the retelling of the Bran/Brendan story. There, the original elements of the tale still remain: the voyage, its adventures, the wonders on the blessed island, and the return to Ireland. From a structuralist point of view, the architecture of the story is the same, with Christian names and imagery inserted into the spaces vacated by pagan characters and objects. Yet it is the same tale. How can this be? Are not the Christian and pagan narratives diametrically opposed?

To understand what may have been happening here, I would like to turn to a later author of an “Imram”: J. R. R. Tolkien. In The Notion Club Papers from the mid 1940s, he wrote something he called “The Death of St. Brendan” (it can be found in Sauron Defeated 261–64). In 1955, it was published in Time and Tide, then titled “Imram” (Sauron Defeated, 296–99; see Huttar 115). In his version, St. Brendan hears

of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elvenkind.

In other words, in Tolkien’s world, the Celtic Island of the Blest is his Tol Eressëa, or, more broadly, Elvenhome: the lands of the Elves in Aman, the Blessed Realm. What Tolkien—a Christian writer—did, then, was the opposite of the technique employed by the ninth-century monks who composed “The Voyage of St. Brendan”: he took a Christian story and moved it backwards in time, making it a pre-Christian (and thus pagan) story once again. And yet he wrote that all of his mythology was implicitly Christian. How can this be?

He went further than this. Not content to corral only St. Brendan into his own Legendarium, he noted similarities between Arthur, Lancelot, and Beowulf’s King Sheave (a royal boy who came out of the West and went back into the West, carried by mysterious spirit-beings) and laid out possible connections among all of these to his own Earendil, the half-elven mariner who sailed away, searching for the blessed islands in the West. They all sailed into the West; none of them ever returned. They were all seeking a magical island of healing.

And Tolkien was not alone in his carnivorous literary nature. His fellow inkling C. S. Lewis connects the Classical Hesperides, the Celtic St. Brendon’s Island, the Arthurian Avalon and Sarras, and the planet Venus, making them all the paradisaical repository of the Holy Grail. With Lewis’s method, the Christianizing impetus is clear again: he takes these literary elements and uses them all to communicate the beauty of the Christian life that is lived toward knowing Christ fully. Tolkien’s method is more subtle: he trusts that the universal spiritual questing archetype is present in all versions of the story and does not need to paste Christian doctrine over the stories.

This, then, seems to be to be the method employed by the Medieval monk who copied out (and possibly altered) “The Voyage of Bran.” He likely saw in it an analogy to the soul’s quest for God and was not compelled to make the message explicit. Perhaps he took seriously such verses as Psalm 91:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” and Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” These verses have often been taking to teach the strength of the image of God in creation, including in imaginative people, who are “subcreators” making stories after God’s own heart. In short, they teach “True Myth”: the idea that God has put His stories into the minds of pagan poets, who, by telling these tales, prepared the world’s imagination to accept the Historical Myth of Jesus Christ when it actually happened in history.

lirThe redactors of “The Fate of the Children of Lir,” on the other hand, chose a different method. MacCana, speaking about Celtic mythology in general, noted that it is short on cosmogony and eschatology, which was probably excised by the monkish scribes because they couldn’t make it harmonize with Scripture. As I read the story of the Children of Lir, I suspect that something similar has happened. The tale reads as if something has been cut out and the story reshaped to serve a different purpose.

The four unfortunate swans in the story are the children of Lir. They are condemned to the confines of various bodies of water in Ireland for nine hundred years before their eventual release. Manannan, who appeared to Bran, was also a son of Ler/Lir/Lur, the sea god. The island to which Bran sails is Manannan’s island—in other words, the swan-children’s brother. This tale appears to me to start out as if it will fit the westering-quest pattern: the children, turned into swans, condemned to suffer for nearly a thousand years, and confined to the water, should naturally use their powers as waterfowl to seek out their (half-?)brother’s paradisaical island home in the West. One would think that they could take refuge there. Or perhaps, since the curse included specific locations for each of their three three-hundred-year sojourns, maybe they could not seek him until after that time. But had they set out, maybe they would not have died upon the moment of transformation back into humans. Perhaps they could have gone on living on the magical island forever, healed from their sufferings.

But that does not happen. Instead, the “pagan” myth of the Island of the Blest is cut out, and an explicitly Christian story is pasted in. First, in Marie Heaney’s version of the story, it is pasted into Aoife’s repentance after the curse. She says to the swans: “When…you hear the sound of a bell pealing out a new faith, you will know your exile is over” (Heaney 39). And then at the end of the tale, they come to the above of a Christian hermit, who baptizes them the moment before their deaths, thus saving their souls. Lady Gregory version ends in triumph, awe, and mystery: “heaven was gained for their souls. And that is the fate of the children of Lir so far” (Gregory 136, emphasis added).

What has happened here? Regardless of whether I am right about an earlier westering-journey being cut out, it is clear that the Christian elements have been added, and that their cumulative effect has been to change the genre of the story drastically. “The Children of Lir” has been transformed from a Hansel-and-Gretal-evil-stepmother kind of story into a theodicy.

“The Children of Lir” has all of the necessary features of a good theodicy. Innocent children suffer terribly, due to no fault of their own. They have done nothing to deserve the terrible fate that comes upon them. How could a good God allow this to happen to them? It has a compelling narrative structure, following the children from when they were happy and loved, through their millennium of torment, to the ending when all their misery is seen in a new light. At the end, it becomes clear that not only was their suffering for a purpose, but that every event was necessary in order to bring them to salvation. Had they not been turned into swans, they would not have taken to the seas. Had the curse not limited them to certain bodies of water (perhaps preventing them from journeying West to Mananannan’s blessed island), they would not have come to the hermit. Had they not suffered for some many centuries, they would not have lived long enough for the coming of the Gospel. Had they not heard the bell, which frightened the boys by its strangeness, they would not have found the hermit. And had they not come to the end of their term of metamorphosis at the moment and in the location they did, restrained as they were by silver chains and confused by Lairgren’s attack, they would not have been baptized in human form before their deaths. Everything that happened was for the saving of their souls, and thus are God’s ways justified to men (and perhaps to swans): if they had not suffered temporally, they would have suffered eternally. Thus the genre, message, and moral of the story are metamorphosed, from mythical swans into theological gospel.

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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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19 Responses to The Inklings and Celtic Mythology

  1. joviator says:

    You seem to going down an interesting path. If you post snippets and drafts, I shall be happy to read them. They seem ideally suited for the blog format, and I enjoy reading this style of writing much more than journal-style. (The fact that it’s been more than 25 years since I had to grade a stack of papers is probably connected with this opinion. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! I totally agree. I’m actually hoping to write a scholarly paper this semester on the irrelevance of scholarly papers….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Asha says:

    Congratulations! And definitely keep writing when you are able … we will keep reading for sure! 🙂

    Like

  4. Pingback: The Inklings and Celtic Mythology | Public Work

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Don’t know enough to be scholarly about it, but the poem about “the goddess Bui becoming a nun” reminds me of various 19th-c. Kunstmärchen about human-like beings (such as mermaids) longing to, and succeeding in, acquiring a soul – and so passing from an existence merely within this mutable world to life eternal.

    That, in turn, makes me think of Tolkien’s contrast between Elves and Men – and leaves me wondering, what, if any, (Irish) Celtic element in the development of his mythology where Elves are concerned (which you address in part via “Imram”).

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  6. I, for one, know that I would benefit greatly from reading occasional pieces from your PhD research. Blessings be upon you in all your work!

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  7. First, congratulations on starting grad school! I’m very excited for you, and to see what you produce along this journey, so please share whatever you feel comfortable sharing (though be careful not to share things here that you may wish to publish, unless you know the journal is alright with it first). This was a wonderful beginning, with so many seeds for thought. I had no idea Tolkien wrote of Brendan, for instance, and I am very interested to read more about that.

    I am also wondering if you could point me to a scholarly source on True Myth that you think captures the history of the concept well? It’s one of those concepts I’ve learned about without realizing it (through reading other things), and I would love a closer, more dedicated look at its origin, justification, reception, etc., if you know of something.

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    • Thanks so much! Hm… everybody who writes about Lewis’s conversion talks about True Myth. Maybe you could check out Devin Brown’s biography? That’s a bit more popular than scholarly, though…. I would also love to know about a study such as you describe, but I don’t. I’ll ask my people. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I’ve seen it come up in works on Lewis and Tolkien, but I wonder about the origin – I’m thinking Barfield might be a good place to start? Please let me know if you come across anything! Thank you 🙂

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Throughout Celtic Mythology, MacCana constantly returns to the idea that Irish tales are one stream of the great river of Indo-European mythology.” This reminds me of some of B.S. Benedikz descriptions of details of some of Tolkien’s lectures he attended, in “Some Family Connections with J.R.R. Tolkien”, in Amon Hen, Issue No. 209, January 2008, 11-13 (to which Dale Nelson happily introduced me)!

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  9. pennkenobi says:

    I read a lot of Celtic Renaissance stuff years ago and found it thrilling. It was a defining moment in the development of my reading tastes, although for some reason I never revisited those specific works and for no good reason that I can think of: Lady Gregory, Synge, early Yeats, lots of others. I remember specifically reading a lot of Standish O’Grady’s commentary. This was like in 1995. Such an exciting period of Literature and it left a permanent imprint on my imagination.

    I was actually a little giddy when I began to see those selections showing up in your Goodreads feed:) I can’t imagine you not becoming bursting with insights and reflections given the inherent potency and beauty of the Celtic vision as they saw it and forged it into marvels of their own making. I would love to read anything you have to say about it!

    Liked by 3 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Hear, hear! There are, for instance, obvious (independent) Lewis and Williams* links with Yeats – but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot more to be said about them. (For example, perhaps, The Chapel of the Thorn in Celtic Renaissance context?) Lewis and James Stephens, too, for that matter (and Chesterton…). The young Lewis was, indeed, very much aware of himself as Irish (though C of I) – just how much at which stages (young Christian, sarky atheist – with occult interests, returning via true myth) I don’t know… (but would like to).

      *A curious one: C.W. and ‘Jack’ B. Yeats both got various sorts of medals at the 1924 Olympics (C.W. participant, though made of bronze, J.B.Y., Silver).

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Harry Blamires, one of Lewis’s many productive and interesting old students (coming up for his 100th birthday on 6 November!), as well as being quite a Joyce scholar, has certainly given interesting talks about Lewis and Joyce – though what he’s published on the subject, I don’t know.

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    • Thank you very much for this encouragement!

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  10. Ken Wiens says:

    I loved your blog! You detail the journey’s of these myths through history, through their pagan iterations to the revisions by monks. Later how the Inklings use these stories/myths in their own creative writings. I remember reading Tolkien speaking of true myth, of the Lord speaking through these stories through history, through the writings of pagans, monks, etc and finally in the writings of the Inklings. I am not steeped in the Irish stories or even the other European ones the way you are. From what I do know though I think you’ve got it spot on!

    I majored in English Literature/Biblical Studies in college and later attended seminary where I concentrated on the biblical languages/manuscript history, etc. After two master’s degrees I had to end my studies and concentrate on helping to raise our children. Now that I am a grandfather I love reading blogs such as yours! Your reflections, studies, writings bring back lots of memories and I learn stories new to me (the Irish ones).

    Keep up the good work and all the best in your PhD program!

    Like

  11. Hanna says:

    Yes, I would be very interested in reading whatever snippets of your work relate to the Inklings. 🙂

    Like

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