The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain.
Edited by Sørina Higgins.
Apocryphile Press, 2017.
Paperback, 566 pages, $50.
Reviewed by Ben Lockerd
If a new scholarly publication has me ordering several books, I must have learned something from it and been inspired to learn more. This is the case with this collection of essays, which led to my ordering books like Charles Williams’s War in Heaven and Owen Barfield’s Night Operation. The volume came about in response to the publication in 2013 of Tolkien’s unfinished poem The Fall of Arthur (which I also finally purchased). The topic might sound to some a bit narrow, but these writers were all deeply influenced by the Arthurian tales, and the reader of this collection of closely argued essays will enter upon a quest for the healing sacramental cup at the heart of the best writings of the Inklings. The insights along the way transcend the topic.
The editor’s introduction gives an excellent overview of the chapters to follow—and, as a bonus, a description of Barfield’s unpublished Quest of the Sangreal. Higgins also presents an extensive “Inventory of Inklings Arthuriana,” a valuable guide to those who wish to pursue the topic themselves. Holly Ordway offers a concise and incisive survey of the medieval sources. As she notes, Tolkien and Lewis were both professional medievalists with a profound knowledge of those texts, while Williams and Barfield were amateurs who also had made their own extensive studies of the Arthurian tradition.
A student of mine recently asked, “What is the authentic version of the Arthurian tales?” The answer, given by Ordway and others in this book, is that there is no such thing: each new telling has changed the story, contributing to the continuing vitality of the tradition. Brenton D. G. Dickieson proceeds to discuss very insightfully some of the ways in which the Inklings appropriated the Arthurian tradition. (I must say, however, that I think the newfangled term “intertextuality” adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the influences exerted by earlier writers in the tradition on later ones—and discussion of the postmodernist critics introduces other not-very-clever terms such as the vaguely naughty “palimpsestuous.”) The next chapter is a masterful exploration by Charles Huttar of the theme of Avalon, the western Isle of the Blessed, in the works of the Inklings. The collection is bookended by this strong beginning and the brilliant conclusion written by Malcolm Guite.
The Arthurian tales and themes lend themselves well to the concern of the Inklings with the relations between the natural and supernatural worlds. Christopher Gaertner points out, for instance, that characters in Barfield’s Arthurian dystopian novel Night Operation “experience meaning that is inherent in the cosmos”—or to put it the other way around, they live in a cosmos that is inherently meaningful. For Charles Williams, the line dividing spiritual and material realms is especially permeable, and Yannick Imbert quotes T. S. Eliot as saying that for Williams “the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural was also supernatural.” Williams’s first novel, War in Heaven, is a grail story set in modern times; in her essay on the novel, Suzanne Bray notes that Williams is at pains to contradict ideas of the body as useless to the soul, asserting that the hero of the tale “has a well-developed theology of the Incarnation, honoring the human body, which Christ himself hallowed when he came down from heaven and took on flesh.” Indeed, all the Inklings present us with characters who are embodied souls, rejecting any sort of Manichean denigration of the physical. As Jason Jewell and Chris Butynskyi put it, “The Inklings consciously constructed stories that involved the natural relationship between the material and immaterial.”
While renouncing Manichean rejections of the body, they also argued against materialist rejections of the spirit. Gaertner gives a fine explanation of Barfield’s remarkable book on the scientific revolution, Saving the Appearances—whose title is a phrase long used by natural philosophers to indicate that their theories were attempts to find the simplest explanation consistent with what the senses told them. It was a modest approach, for it never claimed to have the final truth about the physical world. Barfield argues that the great scientific thinkers of the Renaissance cast aside this modesty and claimed that their theories not only saved the appearances but were completely true. Kepler and Galileo, Barfield says, “began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only saved the appearances, but was physically true.” This attitude has led today to an overweening certainty among some scientists (and even more among many non-scientists) that science has all the answers, including answers to metaphysical and humanistic questions. Such scientism is contradicted by all the Inklings, along with many other modern thinkers. As Jewell and Butynskyi (whose essay begins by tracing the development of this attitude in the nineteenth century) put it, “The Inklings called for scientism’s adherents to recognize that science can respect, even if it cannot explain, the mythic or metaphysical.” They quote a passage from Barfield’s Worlds Apart, in which a humanist responds to the truth claims of his scientific interlocutors:
There are many different kind of knowledge, and one kind is the kind which we require to enable us to control our material environment and make it serve our purposes.… But there is also another kind of knowledge—knowledge about man and about the values which make him man and the best way of preserving them; knowledge about his relation to God and God’s creatures. The mistake you make—the mistake nearly everyone makes—is to assume that the first kind necessarily includes the second.
It would be hard to find a neater explanation of the fundamental error of scientism, which results, as people often put it today, in a “false anthropology,” leading to dangerous moral errors. Imbert points to the “scientism of the N.I.C.E.” in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (the last in his space trilogy), and the novel is in fact an imaginative meditation on the brutal and destructive overriding of human values by those who take science to be the last word. (It is because of scientism that the term “medical ethics” has become an oxymoron.) Lewis acknowledged in his introduction to the novel that it was an imaginative version of the argument he makes in The Abolition of Man against proceeding from controlling nature to controlling human nature (as the behaviorists were attempting to do when he wrote both books).
Several of the writers in this volume, beginning with Higgins in her introductory chapter, note that in adapting the Matter of Britain the Inklings were responding to the theories of the anthropological school founded by Sir James Frazer, whose twelve-volume work The Golden Bough explored fertility rituals and concluded that all religions were at bottom fertility cults seeking to control the forces of nature through sympathetic magic. A follower of his, Jessie Weston, analyzed the grail romances and suggested that the grail was a womb symbol, while the lance often paired with it was a phallic symbol. Not surprisingly, the Inklings rejected such a reductionist and materialist view of the grail quest and of religion in general. Jon Hooper points out that Lewis “was not in any way satisfied with anthropological approaches to literature, and this included Weston’s theory about the origin of the Grail cup as a fertility symbol.” Imbert notes that Williams was suspicious of the “ritualistic school” and “argued against the explanation that made the Grail a Celtic vessel transferred into a Christian story,” expressing “the strongest opposition to such a materialistic study of the Arthurian cycle, especially of the Grail.” Bray quotes Williams: “Such a great work as The Golden Bough … was too easily supposed to have proved what it had never meant—or should never have meant—to prove.” We should notice here that Williams acknowledges the greatness of Frazer’s work. I think he and his fellows were inclined to accept that Frazer’s study of ancient fertility rituals had much truth to it, while rejecting its materialist conclusions. It is good to recall that the Inklings generally believed in the partial truths of pagan mythology and pointed to parallels in the Christian story as the fullness of those truths—the transcendent realities that the pagan mythologists had been groping toward.
Arthurian tales highlight relations between men and women, and the Inklings have something to say about that. Feminist scholars have often been critical of them, and three of the essays address those critiques. Let’s admit that both Williams and Lewis had unusual relationships with women and unusual ideas about them (including a shared interest in mildly sadistic acts), which doesn’t help them with the feminist critics—or with me, for that matter.
Andrew Rasmussen analyzes the women characters in the works of Williams, noting (rightly) that there are many important heroines. He quotes Andrea Freud Loewenstein’s charge that Williams classifies women either as “grasping bitches who are instruments of the devil” or as “Slave-Goddesses.” This is a variation on the old tired notion that women have always been represented in men’s fantasies as either virgins or whores, and if one thinks for a moment about Lester in All Hallows’ Eve the charge is immediately exploded. In the context of the Taliessin poems, there is somewhat more truth to the charge, which Rasmussen admits, but he points out that even the slave Dindrane is given a choice and demonstrates true agency. “Williams is not an egalitarian,” he acknowledges, “but his belief in the importance of submission and self-denial in order to participate in the union of the City should not be confused with misogyny.” Well said.
Alyssa House-Thomas writes of Tolkien’s Guinever in The Fall of Arthur, pointing out that “Tolkien adds to the Celtic side of his ‘far as fay-woman’ Guinever a distinctly Norse or Anglo-Saxon tempering.” She mentions some of the “fell-hearted” Germanic heroines such as Queen Modthryth in Beowulf and the Valkyrie Brynhild, whose story is retold in Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Tolkien’s queen is a fascinating combination of the Celtic and Germanic traditions.
One of the most interesting and profound presentations of the masculine-feminine dynamic is found in Lewis’s space trilogy, and Benjamin Shogren analyzes it extremely well, arguing that Ransom is both masculine (as the Pendragon) and feminine (as the Fisher King). As Shogren shows, the archetypal masculine and feminine, Malacandra and Perelandra, are described in beautiful and subtle ways by Lewis—as the difference between rhythm and melody, for instance, both essential to the music of life. In the Great Dance, “every position is at once Feminine in relation to all higher positions and Masculine in relation to all lower positions.” Shogren does not say so, but this is why we instinctively call God “he,” though we know that he has no body and is thus neither male nor female.
Another controversial topic is the Inklings and war, which is discussed well by Taylor Driggers. He quotes several critics who chastise Tolkien for glorifying war and responds, “The problem with … these readings, of course, is that they engage in the same patronizing view of Faërie that Tolkien discourages in “On Fairy-stories.” In other words, the assumption is that his work is escapist, an assumption that Tolkien contradicts in that famous essay—and which Guite ably rebuts in his conclusion, where he adds, “The whole Bloomsbury set claimed to respond to a trauma they had not seen at first hand or lived through and to speak for people of whose experience they could have no real conception. By contrast, Lewis and Tolkien, like Sassoon and Owen, were young officers on the Western Front and experienced these things first hand.” Touché.
Williams is similarly accused by some modern scholars of being soft on imperialism because he celebrates the Byzantine Empire as a noble City. As early as 1957, Robert Conquest declared that Williams’s poems employed a “dull and heavy ‘Imperialist’ vocabulary.” Benjamin Utter gives a little too much credence to such misreadings, I think, but he ultimately answers them well: “If modern, post-Foucauldian criticism is reflexively (and not unjustly) suspicious of all political and institutional authority, Williams asks only that those in authority be good.” As he points out, the problem with these post-Foucauldian critics is that they believe all hierarchical authority is totalitarian (unless, of course, their left-wing party is in power).
I have a complaint about the treatment of poor old Tennyson in this book. It is easy to see him as the mouthpiece of the Victorian Empire, and Utter quotes his dedicatory poem to Queen Victoria in The Idylls of the King, where he does celebrate Victoria’s “ocean-empire with her boundless homes / For ever-broadening England.” But the Idylls themselves are much more complex than the dedication and evince a great deal of doubt about the beneficial results of nation-building (never mind imperialism). Tennyson admires his Arthur for civilizing and uniting England, but his vision is ultimately tragic, for Arthur’s own incestuous union (along with his queen’s infidelity) is what destroys all he and his knights have built up. At the end Arthur laments, “I, being simple, thought to work His will, / And have but stricken with the sword in vain; / And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend / Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm / Reels back into the beast, and is no more.” This is hardly imperial triumphalism. Driggers pushes the caricature of Tennyson to the limit: “Idylls of the King appropriates the familiar Arthurian narratives in order to romanticize Victorian sensibilities of autonomy and progress.…” If Tennyson does romanticize Victorian progress, he also sees that it is sometimes self-defeating: “My house hath been my doom.” I have now quoted more from the Idylls than all the writers in this volume combined.
Similarly with Spenser. Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson gets him right in her fine essay on George MacDonald’s use of Arthurian material, saying that he “relegates Arthur to his role as Spenserian knight more than as king.” But Utter reduces Spenser’s great and endlessly complicated poem to a “hymn to the unification of the British Isles.” What would Professor C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest Spenserian scholars, say to this? Read Tennyson; read Spenser; the Inklings did. And in his very good chapter on the Grail symbolism in the Narnia tales, Jon Hooper uses Eliot’s Waste Land as a foil, characterizing it as a Grail quest poem in which the Grail is absent. To be sure, there are many Eliot scholars who would agree, but there are at least strong hints in the poem that the quest is achieved. Hooper quotes these lines describing the Grail Chapel:
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
This does not sound like a place where a happy ending is likely, but the Grail Chapel in Malory is about equally welcoming. There, Lancelot is wandering in a “waste londe” and comes across “an olde chapel.” He “wente to the chapel dore and founde hit waste and brokyn.” In this broken chapel he finds the Maimed King and catches a glimpse of the Grail (though it is for others to achieve it). At Eliot’s chapel, a cock crows “In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust / Bringing rain”—the rain that will give new life to the waste land. Hooper also quotes the line “Who is that third who walks always beside you?” and notes that this refers to the journey to Emmaus. The third is thus Christ on the morning of the Resurrection, the ultimate reality of which the Grail is only a relic. But I am spending too much time on this, because it is a pet topic of my own, and let me say again that the main part of Hooper’s essay is very good indeed.
Lovers of the imaginative works of the Inklings and of the Arthurian tales will enjoy wandering in the enchanted forest of this book, finding here and there the treasure that richly rewards their quest. In closing, I would like to suggest one possible source (perhaps already known to many) in the Arthurian romances. In Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, when Percival and Galahad come to Castle Carbonek, King Pelles presents them with a sword that had pierced the thigh of “Joseph of Aramathy” and was broken. Galahad “toke the pecis and set hem togydirs, and semed to them as hit had never be brokyn, and as well as hit was firste forged.” Is this one source of the sword that was broken and is reforged in The Lord of the Rings?
Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of books on Edmund Spenser and T. S. Eliot, as well as articles on Eliot and on Renaissance literature. He also wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book Eliot and His Age and has served as president of the T. S. Eliot Society.