I’m pleased to offer the first of our guest bloggers in the Inklings and Arthur series celebrating the links between the Oxford Inklings and the Matter of Britain. This series is in concert with the new collection, The Inklings and King Arthur, edited by Sørina Higgins. The book has topped a number of Amazon sales lists and the kindle version was released this week. This series will include some of the authors of the collection, including Suzanne Bray, Professor of British Literature and Civilisation at Lille Catholic University in the north of France. She has written extensively in French and English about C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and other 20th-century Anglican authors.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
In my article for The Inklings and King Arthur, I point out that Charles Williams’s presentation of the Holy Grail, both in his Arthurian poetry and in the novel War in Heaven (1930), did not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of an on-going argument about the origins and meaning of the Grail. This was partly on account of the appearance of Comparative Religion as a field of academic study and, in particular, of the publication between 1911 and 1915 of James Frazer’s famous twelve volume study, The Golden Bough, and the popularization of his theories by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920), which influenced T. S. Eliot’s bestselling poem, The Wasteland (1922). For Weston, “it is only in the recognition of this one-time claim of essential kinship between Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries that we shall find the key to the secret of the Grail.” For the general public at the time, the main point of Weston’s study appeared to be “the sexual symbolism of the story, notably the grail and the lance, which can be interpreted as symbols of the female and male genitalia” (P. Lewis).
Charles Williams was aware of these interpretations and deplored them, finding Jessie Weston’s type of interpretation too syncretistic, as it mixes up elements from different belief systems which are normally incompatible and which require the reader to ignore the obvious Christian meaning of the Grail legends:
There has been much controversy about them – vessels of plenty and cauldrons of magic – and they have been supposed by learned experts to be the origin of the Grail myth. That, in the Scriptural and ecclesiastical sense, they certainly cannot be […] the Grail entered Europe with the Christian […] faith. It came from and with Christ. (“The Figure of Arthur”, 23)
Such a great work as The Golden Bough, for example, was too easily supposed to have proved what it had never meant – or should never have meant – to prove. Its hinted thesis that all religion arose from a desire to encourage the annual harvest was generally thought to have explained satisfactorily how the harvest came into existence at all, and its multitude of gods conditioned by magic were identified with a Godhead unconditioned except by its own Will. (Descent of the Dove, 223)
Williams’s own Grail, like those of his Christian contemporaries Arthur Machen and Evelyn Underhill, is fully Christian. It is, above all, a chalice, used to celebrate the Eucharist, at the same time a means of bringing people to Christ and a source of divine healing.
More recent authors
However, Williams and his friends did not have the last word on the Grail and later Arthurian authors have, in general, either supported his position or accepted Jessie Weston’s interpretation. In addition, these representations of the Grail have often been included in works which are either clearly Christian, openly neo-pagan or New Age, or strongly anti-religious. As novelist Bernard Cornwell accurately states: “The Matter of Britain is endlessly malleable. You take out of it what you want to take out of it” (Thompson). For example, one well-known neo-pagan and anti-Christian novel is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), where Christianity is depicted as a negative force and Arthur’s downfall is blamed on “his rejection of the pagan religions when he converts to Christianity” (Doherty, 57).
A distinct contrast from the religious viewpoint may be noted between two very well-researched and well-written Arthurian series, Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Trilogy (1995-1997) and Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle (1987-1997), both of which attempt to place the action in a credible sixth-century context. Both Cornwell and Lawhead come to the conclusion that the enduring appeal of the Arthurian tales comes, at least in part, from their connection with the tradition of a British golden age between the Battle of Mount Badon, in approximately 525 AD, and the establishment of the Saxon kingdoms in the south of Britain about half a century later.
However, when it comes to their interpretation of the religious elements in the Arthurian tales, Lawhead and Cornwell differ strongly. Both agree that several early texts indicate that Arthur sometimes found himself in conflict with the Church authorities, but they disagree as to why this occurred. Cornwell has a very negative view of the Church and believes the sixth century Christians were intolerant:
“At least one modern scholar has suggested that Christianity was sympathetic to the remnants of British Druidism and that the two creeds existed in peaceful cooperation, but toleration has never been the strongest suit of the Church and I doubt his conclusions” (“Author’s Note”, The Winter King, 433).
As a result, in the Warlord Trilogy he portrays a conflictual society, deeply divided along religious lines. His British churchmen are mainly unpleasant – “when Christianity seems to get slightly on top, it turns vicious” (Thompson) – or, if agreeable, like Bishop Bedwin, then improbably inclined to syncretism. Like Lawhead, Cornwell names most of his ecclesiastical characters after real people, including Bishop Samson, whom he describes, as “an unmitigated shit” (Thompson). While even Christian readers are quite prepared to admit that nasty, mercenary priests have played their part in the history of the Church, it seems unnecessary to portray the man Geoffrey of Monmouth described as “Samson, the saintly Archbishop” (Barber, 17), and about whom nothing disagreeable is known, in such a negative way. Lawhead’s description of Bishops Samson and Dubricius as “good and holy men” (Merlin, 387) corresponds better to what is known about Samson. His own objectionable cleric, Bishop Urbanus of London, is fictional, which is unsurprising as the names of only four Bishops of London are actually known for the period 314 to 586 AD. Making him a bad man does not worry anyone.
Cornwell also takes a particular position with regard to the Holy Grail. Interpreting the Grail stories within the tradition of Jessie Weston, Cornwell concludes that
“we can be fairly certain that the popular medieval tales of the search for the Holy Grail were merely a Christianized reworking of the much older cauldron myths” (“Author’s Note”, Enemy of God, 395).
His Grail is, therefore, a miracle-working cauldron, sought by the pagan characters to restore Britain to their gods.
Using much the same sources as Cornwell, Lawhead comes to vastly different conclusions. The Church’s failure to fully support Arthur is explained by some ambitious churchmen “grasping after earthly power” (Arthur, 361) and no longer fully serving God’s purposes. These political clerics are incapable of understanding the vision of the intangible Kingdom of Summer that Arthur seeks to establish. Lawhead also sees no inherent contradiction between the Druids’ beliefs and Christianity. As he explained in an interview in 2007:
“The actual historical fact is that many of the Druids at a very, very early age became Christians and gave rise to the whole Celtic Church; and that connection is very well established in history” (Johann).
For Lawhead, “the idea that the Druids are all bad […] is a fairly recent idea, probably from Victorian times on, when much of what they did was misrepresented and then later picked up by new-agers who linked it to all kinds of pagan practices or rituals” (Johann).
Lawhead’s position is partly based on the indisputable fact that St Columba spoke of Christ as his Druid and interceded at the Convention of Druim Cett in 575 AD to prevent the banishment from Ireland of the bards, who maintained the druidic tradition. As a result, many of the Druids in the Pendragon Cycle convert to Christianity, although some others oppose them and become hostile to the Faith, while Merlin and Blaise see no contradiction in being both a Druid and a Christian prophet at the same time. With regard to the Grail, Lawhead supports Charles Williams in finding Jessie Weston’s type of interpretation too syncretistic. Lawhead’s own Grail is, as the Glastonbury legends claim, “the cup Jesu used at his last supper, brought here by the merchant Joseph of Arimathea” (Arthur, 108) and is a source of divine blessing to the community.
Although both Cornwell’s and Lawhead’s interpretations can be justified from the sources available, it is probable that they are mainly influenced by the authors’ own religious beliefs. Cornwell was brought up in a very strict evangelical group, the Peculiar People, by an adopted father who beat him. After escaping, he became a convinced atheist and, although he has now been married for several decades to an equally convinced member of the American Episcopal Church, Cornwell admits that:
“having been brought up by the Peculiar People and having escaped them, I‘ve always had a slightly twisted and biased view of all religions” (Thompson).
Lawhead, on the other hand, is a committed Christian, currently a member of the Church of England, and very interested in the Celtic Christian tradition. As a result, “religion and religious symbolism remain integral to his works” (Doherty) and, although there are some nasty and hypocritical Christians in the novels, there are always at least a couple of positive Christian role models and the faith itself is portrayed in an attractive manner. Lawhead may therefore be seen as continuing the tradition of Williams and the other Inklings, and participating in a debate which is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Barber, Richard (ed.). The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology, The Boydell Press, London, 1979.
Cornwell, Bernard. Enemy of God, Michael Joseph, London, 1996.
____. The Winter King, BCA, London, 1995.
Doherty, John J. “‘A Land Shining with Goodness’: Magic and Religion in Stephen Lawhead’s Taliesin, Merlin and Arthur,” Arthuriana, vol.9, no. 1, Spring 1999, p.57-66.
Johann. “Scarlet: Interview with Stephen Lawhead: Exploring Druids and Magic in Christian Fiction,” Hollywood Jesus, 18 October 2007. http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/scarlet/
Lawhead, Stephen. Arthur, Lion, Oxford, 1989.
____. Merlin, Lion, Oxford, 1988.
Lewis, Pericles. “The Waste Land”, Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 129-151.
Thompson, Raymond H. “Interview with Bernard Cornwell,” The Camelot Project 9, June 2007. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/thompson-interview-cornwell
Weston, Jessie. From Ritual to Romance (1920), Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4090
Williams, Charles. The Descent of the Dove. London: The Religious Book Club, 1939.
____. “The Figure of Arthur”, in C.S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.