A review of
The Inklings and King Arthur:
J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain
Sørina Higgins, Ed.
Reviewed by Sam Edgin
I remember, as a child, trying to find my definitive King Arthur book. Stories of fell swords and dangerous magic had seized me like they do many other children. I was fascinated by the possibilities of mysterious power carried within Christian relics, fresh with the adventures of Indiana Jones were running amok in my imagination. Mostly, though, I was harboring a strange obsession with the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It resonated within me, and I wanted more about Gawain and his bargains, steeped in chivalry and loyalty and hazy magic. I’m not sure I was ever sated – the efforts to find an Arthuriana found me Roger Lancelyn Green, whose Arthur and Gawain seemed lacking, but whose Robin Hood was so similar to the Robin Hood I saw in movies. Distracted, I seldom returned to Gawain and the castle in the forest.
Other fiction became that place for me to rediscover Gawain: James Holden in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, Karl “Helo” Agathon in Battlestar Galactica, Matt Murdock in Marvel Comic’s Daredevil, and Faramir in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are all aspects of the Gawain archetype. I have used them and others define a personal mythology, a constellation of characters who hold to their commitments when it is those same commitments that could be their undoing. This mythology reinforces an ethos buried within my personality. These Gawains are ghosts of an imagined past who pull me into my yet-to-be.
There is no definitive Arthuriana; or, I as a child was not able to find it, because the stories of the King, his loyal knights and the Grail Quest have been woven into the work of the majority of British authors. A search for the definitive story would take one from Malory and Old English verse through Tennyson, Green, T.H. White, and into Walt Disney’s animated film catalogue. This is far too much for small boy looking for a good story, but it is so extensive and important a body of work that it stretches it’s magical fingers deep into the trajectory of British literature.
In The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, Sørina Higgins compiles a series of essays on where those long Arthurian fingers reach into the work of the Inklings, that erstwhile group of friends who met regularly in a pub in Oxford. Higgins uses those essays to compile an overview of the Arthuriana in the Inkling’s compiled work, and then offers insight on how that relates to the historical Arthur, the contemporary world of the Inklings, their views of gender, and their spiritualities.
The stories of Arthur create a mythological spine for the Inklings; especially for Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien. This is evidenced in its most condensed form in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which is not only Lewis’ most Arthurian work, but also his most intertextual: William’s mystical Logres occupies a major plot and Tolkien’s Núminor emerges several times, uniquely in relation to Logres. The book is even dedicated “to those who would learn more about Núminor.” Williams Arthurian epic was compiled and edited by Lewis after Williams’ death and Tolkien wrote The Fall of Arthur, which he left unfinished.
What we find when reading this Arthuriana, especially in relation to the more popular work of the Inklings, is a group of authors employing a common mythology as a conduit for reconciling their Britain – the post-WWI Britain at the head of global and technological progress – with their collective moralities and tramas. While this is not wholly new ground for Tolkien – his essay On Faerie Stories makes clear he uses fantasy not only as a mode for reconciling the pain of one’s surrounding world, but also “to hold communion with all living things” (On Faerie Stories 17). What is unique is how the Arthurian mythologies seem to absorb and address the pressing issues of the day for each of the Inklings. They are writing from the wreckage of individual and collective traumas tied to war and social upheaval, and their Arthuriana reflects their experience.
Lewis uses Logres (or Avalon, or Núminor) as in opposition to unrestrained technological progress in That Hideous Strength. This same ethos can be found in his The Abolition of Man, which Lewis considered one of his dearest books. Tolkien’s Knights of the Round Table in The Fall of Arthur create and are then forced to reflect upon a wasteland that is strikingly similar to that which surrounds Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, an image of the desecration that war and violence cause. Williams used the Grail constantly to present the social dynamics of the Christian Eucharist; and he used the economy of his imagined Logres to critique the unbridled capitalism that led to worldwide financial collapse.
This collective use of myth has not wholly disappeared. It is not regulated to several men in a pub talking about old english folklore. Writers and creatives are continually employing myth to come to terms with the collective traumas in society, and thereby helping us to do the same. Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings found renewed popularity as Peter Jackson’s films released almost simultaneously with our lurch once again into a war with dubious cause against ill-defined enemies. Tolkien’s delineation between the goodness of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo and the evil of Sauron and Saruman offered a type of world we sorely needed.
The apparently unstoppable popularity of superheroes offers us men and women awash with clearly defined moralities. They are moral touchstones, figures whose “job is to plant [them]selves like a tree beside the river of truth” as Captain America says in Amazing Spider-Man #537. We find ourselves starved for this more than ever, as we realize how little capacity for trust our public figures have. So we return en masse to each new superhero film, not only because they offer us a brief moment of escapism, but because they also aid us, collectively, in processing our shared pains.
Mythmaking and Myth-intaking offer a connection-starved society a path for moving forward from our collective hurt. The Inklings linked themselves within Britain’s own shared mythology and added their own. Almost a hundred years later we move into their mythologies as we likewise create our own. This collective experience of myth that cannot be understated. In it’s deliriously towering success, Marvel Studios’ Infinity War made almost $677 million in the United States and over 2 billion worldwide. What this obnoxiously outsized number subtly hides is the shared experience of so many people reflecting together as they pushed open the worn bars in the sticky darkness of theater backdoors into the blurry haze of streetlights. The Avenger’s shock at confronting an unknown evil that appears to hold ultimate power over any who oppose it was familiar, somehow. This is our collective trauma: a world facing poverty, war and environmental collapse as those with power seem wholly uninterested and unable to be addressed. Occasionally we need a Mad Titan and his magic glove to help us process.