Arthurian Overload

It was the silent “W” that made my childhood love of Arthur fade.

English is a strange language:

  • “gh” and “ph” and “f” can make the same sound
  • what rule does “their” follow in the vowel placement?
  • what does “c” do, really?
  • “g” and “k” can be silent when followed with “n” but not when followed by “m”
  • where I live, there is a silent “z” (the name Dalziel is pronounce “Dee-el”)

And this doesn’t even get into the sounds my Celtic heritage makes.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that there is a silent “w” in “sword.” The “w” is silent in wriggle, wrinkle, wretch, and wridiculous. But when it came to the word “sword,” I couldn’t read the word on the page without pronouncing the “w” in my head. Here I am saying it in this clip when I was much younger:

I knew it should be pronounced “sord,” but I couldn’t do it. After all, we don’t pronounce “swarthy” as “sarthy.” True, we almost never say “swarthy,” considering the wracist implications (it comes from the old word for “black,” i.e., black person = bad). But, of course, the word “sordid” comes from swarthy, and there is no “w” in “sordid.” Also very wracist.

I know, I know. I was all very in my head about the whole thing (what’s that “w” doing in “whole?”). But it made a huge difference. I started T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone, but soon set it down. You can’t read Arthurian legend if you can’t stomach the word “sword.” That’s when I moved into my Black Stallion phase. It was a pistol grip generation of books.

Fionavar Tapestry Guy Gavriel KayOne cannot study the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams without getting back into the Arthuriad. It was actually Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry that drew me back in, and a perfect storm of little events has thrown me back into Camelot.

I’ve come to the point of reading C.S. Lewis chronologically to know that King Arthur is a profound influence on this Oxford Don. Lewis began a poem on Launcelot early in the 30s, but soon abandoned it. His academic book, The Allegory of Love (1935), dealt fairly extensively with early Arthurian legend, so I found myself drifting into that world. But in 1944 Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength, which (surprisingly) has Merlin appear to help battle a pseudo-scientific apocalypse. Since I’m working on the Ransom Cycle, I need to figure out why Merlin has awakened.

Also, in May 1945 (where I am in reading Lewis), Charles Williams dies (also suddenly). In the wake of his good friend’s death, C.S. Lewis gathers some of Charles Williams’ unpublished Arthuriana together. Williams was working on a series of Arthurian poems, but never finished them. Of this larger project, he published Taliessen Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), two difficult collections. He had also completed five chapters of an Arthurian history, called The Figure of Arthur. Lewis had a lot of notes on Williams’ Arthuriana after long discussions about the poetry beside a fire. Lewis used Williams’ death as an opportunity to publish his commentary on Williams’ poetry with the Figure of Arthur fragment. Together they make up the book Arthurian Torso (1948).

Tolkien Fall of ArthurWilliams and Lewis are not the only ones to leave Arthuriana incomplete. J.R.R. Tolkien began an epic poem in Old English style alliterative verse called The Fall of Arthur. Last year Christopher Tolkien published the poem and a few chapters of commentary. I finally had the chance this spring to pick it up, and just finished it.

One of the reasons I picked it up is because of Sørina Higgins’ Call for Chapters for a new book, The Inklings and King Arthur. My proposal was accepted, so I began reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). It is a dense, repetitive volume with awkward phrasing that isn’t just about shifts in language. It lacks a lot of artistry, and can be dull. But there are other moments where the language and the narrative shine. I get lost a little bit in the long lists of knights battling other knights—I’ll probably read the slight abridgement by Michael Senior next—but for the most part I am enjoying it. I’ll be presenting my findings at Mythcon 45 in August, and then writing the chapter this fall.

Roger Lancelyn Green King ArthurBut I am also reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s adaptation of Le Morte d’Arthur to my son at bedtime. Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953) is readable, keeping some of the archaic language and customs, while highlighting the best of the stories for children. As I’m thinking about it, it is probably my son’s interest in Arthur that was partly responsible for drawing me back in. But Green was a friend of Lewis’, and it has turned out to be a great way to grab the story.

Well, all of this has led me to Arthurian overload. Here’s what I’m reading simultaneously:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien & Christopher Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur (1934?; 2013)
  • Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)
  • Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953)
  • C.S. Lewis & Charles Williams, Arthurian Torso (1948)
  • Charles Williams, Taliessen Through Logres (1938)
  • Charles Williams, The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)
  • C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1944)

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I could read! We’ll see what comes. After Green, Nicolas and I will probably read Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954). But after that I may pick up T.H. White’s The Sword In the Stone (1938) once again. We’ll see. I might, for sanity’s sake, have to read something a bit more modern. I’ve been struggling with this sudden urge to challenge people to duels. Especially people who disregard the silent letter rules.

A bonus, a great documentary with poet Simon Armitage, who translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007) in modern alliterative verse.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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60 Responses to Arthurian Overload

  1. robstroud says:

    I look forward to your contribution to that Arthurian collection. I actually (briefly) thought about offering a chapter proposal myself. Glad I didn’t as a “perfect storm” of commitments is converging that would have made writing it extremely difficult.


  2. bigblackswan says:

    I’m not convinced that the Ransom Cycle was ever planned. They are three very different books and reflect the different influences on Lewis at the time they were written.

    The Ransom in THS is so different to the protagonist of the earlier books, Lewis seems to have intended a time travel novel to be the sequel to OFTSP (Dark Tower?).


    • I definitely do NOT think they were planned either. Dark Tower is an example of that, but Dr. Ransom was also (originally) the one who found the Screwtape Letters. The Ransom universe is pretty broad, and Lewis seemed to be making it up as he goes along!


      • cinda-cite says:

        maybe he wanted fun fiction writing, since he had to write precisely, with rigor, in all his other undertakings? his hand would be deft in crafting from all that preceded these fictions, but the winging would have been very freeing and fun. enjoying your blog! might you consider placing a cut in the feed (or however it’s done)?


        • He wrote fiction pretty quickly, I think. I do think he enjoyed it–but I think he loved working in general, and writing specifically.
          What’s a “cut in the feed”?


          • cinda-cite says:

            thanks for the response. i’ve been enjoying your lewis-related blog very much. lots of engagement here. perhaps you’ve thought of a cut and rejected it already. if your WordPress has the feature, you might place one after a certain point, say after a few words, a few sentences, or a paragraph. your entire front page would then hold partial entries with cuts to click on opening the entire post up for your visitor–both here, and in feeds received in email, or wherever they come in. your feed comes on my LJ friends’ page. lots of bloggers don’t care for this feature. thanks!


  3. iambicadmonit says:

    May I reblog this?

    Under the Mercy, Sørina Higgins



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  5. Sue Archer says:

    I read the Roger Lancelyn Green version when I was younger and I thought he did a great job telling the story. I love your observations on the silent “w.” Not sure if I should say thanks for sharing though, because now I am going to focus on “w”s everywhere. 😉


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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    O, to be philological enough to say why one still hears the ‘w’ in German ‘Schwert’ and Dutch ‘zwaard’, but not in English! Epic metal loving – and making – Italians have trouble with this, too, if Rhapsody of Fire’s “Emerald Sword” is anything to go by….

    Might I recommend, before or after The Sword in the Stone, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (a book Lewis enjoyed – I think George Sayer told me that: I’m not sure if it’s in print anywhere) – which is in a very significant degree, an Arthurian book, but not one likely to overload in its Arthurianness. It’s dream sequel, A Box of Delights is thoroughly enjoyable, too, though not Arthurian – though there are possibly Taliesinic elements in both!
    (Speaking of The Midnight Folk, what was/is your aesthetic, etc., experience of silent ‘L’s?: for, again, German and Dutch ‘Volk’ sound theirs…)

    I have not caught up on your thoughts on THS, yet, but you might find some intrerest in Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger and my discussion touching on Merlin there in the comments to his 10 February post, “Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic?” at his blog, Mary Victrix.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way (at the risk of being a plodder, if your subtle humour at this point lies in assuming everyone knows this already) the ‘z’ in ‘Dalziel’ is an interesting Scots orthographic descendant of the yogh, which the COD defines as “The Middle-English letter used for certain values of g & y.”
    At the risk of more Arthurian overload, one not infrequently sees Layamon’s name spelt with a yogh instead of a ‘y’. It is also why ‘Menzies’ is in fact pronounced something like ‘Mengies’.


    • Awesome! I will be a local hero in answering this question, and it isn’t very often a philological conversation makes one a hero.
      Thanks for the notes David. I’ll look up those books and I have the blog open for after work.
      I haven’t though much about the silent “l”. You have extra “Ls” in your name, so I’m sure it crosses your desk more than mine!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Do try the Masefield stories – I only met them as a grown-up and found them a great joy (as did my children)! (There is an very enjoyable 1984 BBC dramatization of The Box of Delights as well, but I am not sure how readily available it is.)

        My double “Ls” are properly unvoiced, but far from silent: I think I can pronounce them reasonably, but I’m not sure whether native Welsh speakers would agree (they’re why Shakespeare spells ‘Fluellen’ in Henry V, though in fact that must be a sketch of the pronunciation of the variant, ‘Llewelyn’ – if it were my variant, it would be ‘Flueflen’!). Trying to pronounce them whether Welshly or even Englishly is quite a business for the previously unacquainted, as we witnessed at our wedding and the baptisms of our children!


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Casting a eye through your archives and rereading this post carefully, am I in fact in the position of awaiting what you will say about That Hideous Strength and Arthurian Torso, rather than having missed what you have already written?

    Perhaps I need to find somewhere with a microfiche reader an reread my copy of Colman O’Hare’s doctoral dissertation for the fine details of his treatment of That Hideous Strength in both published versions in relation to Williams’s poetry.

    For, I am beginning to wonder (without having started doing the homework) how much subtle critical reaction and disagreement there is with Williams’s Arthuriad on Lewis’s part, variously embodied in the Commentary (building out on his lecture series), and, earlier, in the novel.


  10. Hi David. You are right that my conclusions (tentative or otherwise) await. I am at the beginning of this project. And I don’t really need to find new things out myself because I’m really trying to understand Lewis’ project of intertextuality. My hypothesis is that knowing how Lewis echoes other work will demonstrate Lewis’ theological project in other ways (following Richard B. Hays, who did this of St. Paul wrt the Jewish Scriptures).
    I’m not a Charles Williams scholar by any means! I am reading the Commentary now as I read through the two CW poetry books in Lewis’ order. So I’m not even sure of the THS links just yet. My hope is that the Mythcon panel really will be a good discussion.
    There’s no PDF of that O’Hare dissertation is there? Access is an issue for me right now.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I went to the online Library and Archive Canada site hoping there might be a pdf, but there does not seem to be one (unless I’m just getting lost or missing something in the search – all too possible, I fear, but still…; nonetheless, it would be safest to double-check me!).

      One of the things I have been thinking about, is the distinct but different ways, Williams and Lewis are sometimes obviously, and perhaps also less obviously, using the Late Antique, including the Patristic, context in their Arthurian retellings, A lot of the earlier parts of what Lewis lectured annually year after year and ultimately distilled into The Discarded Image are earlier than, or contemporary with, the traditional dates for King Arthur, but somehow that had not really begun to sink in with me, until recently. So that is a fascinating realm of intertextuality with people like Iamblicus and Porphyry in the background and Proclus following on and the Dionysian Corpus responding, and St. Augustine’s City of God finished only some 25 years before the traditional date of the arrival of Hengist and Horsa.


      • That’s a brilliant point. On the more obvious side is the druidish Merlin, rather that the medieval French trickster, or the Malory version.
        The problem with intertextuality exploration, David, is that in my whole life I won’t be as well read as Lewis was by age 40. I am nearly 40 now and have a ways to go. In this sense, a project of this kind would have to be a veritable crowdsourcing experience.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Yes, how humbling and daunting it is! And, where Lewis was concerned, in the original languages, too (at least for Greek, Latin, French, and Italian – his old student and friend, Martin Lings, told me how fascinated Lewis was that he (Lings) had learnt Persian, and wished he had, as he’d heard such good things of classical Persian poetry)!

          In Williams, the accent might fall most on Taliessin, who had travelled to Byzantium, but more generally in both Williams’s and Lewis’s differerent imaginations of the court of Arthur, how much may be supposed to have got passed on, or trickled through, of then-contemporary philosophy and theology – and magic? The druidical – in Williams. again with Taliessin, in Lewis, with Merlin – is, indeed, another factor. And Lewis complicates and enriches things further with the ‘Numenorean’ as perhaps in the backgrounds of (parts of) both the druidical and Classical cultures (with how much detail remembered from conversing wiith Tolkien, and how much willingness freely to embellish – in a way perhaps hair-raising to Tolkien?).


          • I love languages. I have let my Japanese and Hebrew slip, and it is painful to me. I have Coptic and Aramaic books on my shelf, and I really should go further in Latin. Plus, I’m getting drawn more and more into Old English. I have French and some German, but there is more to go. What can I do!
            I’m no Lewis, though. He was reading Dante in Italian in 9 weeks as a teenager.
            I know how Lewis feels, but without a classical education, I began doing all this in my mid-20s and early 30s. I can’t replace that lost reading and learning time.
            I have to follow through on the Taliessen thread–and all the other threads! I’ll let you know how it’ll go.


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  14. AWAnderson says:

    You might be interested in reading Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy/quintet. The first three books are Merlin’s story; the last two are Mordred’s and Morgan Le Fey’s stories.


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  39. keebslac1234 says:

    It’s weird (There’s that “w” again, and another exception to the “i” before “e”), but I read this blog after learning last night that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story will be coming to screens in May. If you haven’t cottoned on to it yet, here’s a link:

    Liked by 1 person

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