The Argument Continues: Late 20th Century Christian and Pagan Depictions of Arthur and the Grail by Suzanne Bray

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)

He also felt that the general public had accepted these syncretistic theories too uncritically. In his opinion:

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.

Works Cited

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.

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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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22 Responses to The Argument Continues: Late 20th Century Christian and Pagan Depictions of Arthur and the Grail by Suzanne Bray

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am particularly grateful for as well as delighted by this, as most of my reading of Arthurian/Holy Grail fiction after That Hideous Strength only goes up to Rosemary Sutcliff and the late Peter Dickinson’s The Weathermonger in the 1960s. And, while I have long been meaning to catch up with Stephen Lawhead’s series, and, after enjoying the Sharpe television dramatizations I managed to see, meaning to catch up with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels as well, I was somehow not even aware of his Arthurian works!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The thought occurs to me that there was a post-Victorian desire to dabble in paganism and magic in order to provide an exciting frisson to a largely safe, but rather dull, existence. Lewis’s character of Uncle Arthur comes to mind here. Christianity was largely placed in the world of “middle class morality” as Alfred Doolittle dismisses it contemptuously in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Anyone who has read Charles Williams, or Lewis for that matter, will know that Christianity is anything but safe or tame, but how comforting to be able to dismiss Christianity, in a patronising way, as dull Victorian morality while being able to go to exciting and slightly risky parties where, for example, a seance might take place. If I begin to admit the possibility that Christianity might be as Williams or Lewis describe it then I will no longer be able to place it ( or place so-called pagan excitement for that matter) in a safe place to be brought out when I need it for some purpose, I will have to give my whole life to it.

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    • Suzanne Bray says:

      Dear Stephen,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Do you mean Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew?
      Suzanne

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do! I think I met the end of that “Uncle Andrew” culture among academics and their families of my parents’ generation in English universities. I was deeply unimpressed by that self-important sophistication. Another example can be found in the guests at the N.I.C.E dinner at the climax of “That Hideous Strength”.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think it is Uncle Andrews in Magician’s Nephew. I have been puzzling for some time over the distinctive spiritualistic strain in Victorian culture. It is over-emphasized in our cultural relics today (movies and books), but it was there. I’m just not sure what to do with it.
      If that’s the case, though, in this post-Victorian era, is that “unsafe” breaking out happening in all kinds of ways. It isn’t concentrated like La Vie Bohème, but what are these rebellious threads?
      -restored Christians like GK Chesterton, TS Eliot, Lewis and the Oxford Christians
      -the Cambridge Set and folk like them, and I might add the Cambridge literary department
      -renewed Dandyism
      -a determined, settled atheism
      -the occultic waves
      I don’t know. Your idea of breaking out into the unsafe may be a menu of options for Brits at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    Dear friends,
    In coming weeks I intend to reblog this series of short essays, edited by David Llewellyn Dodds, and appearing originally on Brenton Dickieson’s wonderful site, A Pilgrim in Narnia. My own copy of “The Inklings and King Arthur” arrived yesterday and my hope is that my readers will enjoy both this series of celebratory essays and will also want to buy the book. One of the essays will be by me and I also hope to include a review of The Inklings and King Arthur later on at the conclusion of the series.
    If you read my comment on this excellent essay by Suzanne Bray then you will note my belief that a careful study of The Inklings is not just a matter of literary interest for people “who like that kind of thing” but is essential. We are now significantly nearer to the possibility of the kind of world that C.S Lewis described prophetically in “That Hideous Strength” than we were when he wrote it. Soon we will all have to choose sides, Logres or Britain, St Anne’s or the N.I.C.E, Aslan or Jadis, Christmas and Springtime or an eternal winter.
    Please look out for these essays on Fridays on my site or find the originals on Brenton Dickieson’s earlier in the week.
    Under the Mercy,
    Stephen Winter

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this essay! I have not read Cromwell because I wasn’t sure about his religious views – he did seem to have negative ones so that scared me off. This confirms it. I have Lawhead’s books but haven’t read them yet. Just began That Hideous Strength last night.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do disagree with Bernard Cornwell’s portrayal of Christianity although when I learnt about his childhood upbringing I had some sympathy too. But whether I disagree with him or not he is a magnificent story teller and the character of Uhtred in his Last Kingdom series is very attractive.

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      • Thanks for the recommendation! Maybe I can try that out at some point. What others have you read by him? I would like to try him out, but as I said, was really put off by his negativity toward Christianity.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • I am still reading The Last Kingdom. I don’t like his portrayal of Alfred the Great particularly, one of the figures in English history that I most admire. I think that the moment when all that is left of England is Alfred on the islands in the marshland of Somerset is one of the most remarkable in our history. I have also read his Grail Quest that is set in the 100 Years War that began in the 14th century. Again it is a well told story but his depictions of medieval warfare are extremely graphic and, like George Martin, he does have a way of killing off characters that I like.

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          • Thanks, I think based on this further review, I will pass. Alfred is one of my favorites too. Do you know of any other historical writers you would recommend for the same time period or thereabouts (anything from ancient to medieval)? I have read and enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman but haven’t read much else.

            Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

            Like

            • dalejamesnelson says:

              May I respond to Anne Marie’s request, even though this takes us away from Arthur?

              I have, haven’t yet read, Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior. This appears to be a novelization of 1066, perhaps particularly indebted to King Harald’s Saga (which I think is from the Heimskringla). Muntz’s novel was in C. S. Lewis’s library as catalogued in 1969. That doesn’t mean he read it. It might have been Joy’s book. My copy has blurbs from G. M. Trevelyan and The New Yorker. I’d like to read the saga first. (That, by the way, is a Penguin Classic I bought on 6 Sept. 1970! Isn’t it terrible!)

              Anyway, I thought that would likely be a good historical novel.

              Dale Nelson

              Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Also taking us away from the Arthurian, but Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company and Sir Nigel (also both to my taste pleasantly read by Clive Catterall at LibriVox.org), anything by Alfred Duggan (though try one first in a library or shop, to see if you like his style: ditto for anything by John James, though his posthumously published The Fourth Gwenevere, completed by Caitlín & John Matthews, is Arthurian), and Robert Hugh Benson’s The History of Richard Reynall, Solitary – the handsomest scan of the three in the Internet Archive being (I think) this one:

                https://archive.org/details/historyofrichard00bens

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Also, John Masefield’s Badon Parchments (and Basilissa – though I have only read the part where Arthur turns up in Constantinople seeking help, so far! – but its sequel also sounds interesting: Conquer: A Tale of the Nika Rebellion in Byzantium) – all of which remind me of Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius.

                Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In case you (or other readers) have not run into it yet, Arend Smilde’s Lewisiana.nl has a useful set of notes to That Hideous Strength (and many another Lewis work – based on the notes to his Dutch translations of them: I enjoyed helping field questions from him about That Hideous Strength, when he was working on it…).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Suzanne Bray says:

      Hi Anne Marie,
      Although I don’t agree with Bernard Cromwell on some issues, he is an excellent writer and his novels are well-researched and fascinating. He is usually OK on provable facts – it’s just his interpretation of the facts that can be questioned. However, it has to be said that for anything set before the 8th century, there is not that much documented history to go on. For later medieval novels, you may like Edith Pargeter. She is good on accuracy and understands Christian belief and its implications.
      Suzanne

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        After my previous recommendation comments, it occurred to me to mention Edith Pargeter, with the proviso that I had not yet read any novels of hers under that name, but only some of her Brother Cadfael ones published under the name ‘Ellis Peters’ – which I thoroughly enjoyed!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: A Personal Reflection on Logres and The Matter of Britain by Stephen Winter | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I also thoroughly enjoyed reading the whole of both interviews you quoted, cited, and linked, with Cornwell and Lawhead. Lawhead’s leaves the ‘matter of Druids’ (so to call it) tantalizing, and another spur to get around to seeing what he does with it in these novels. Then, with some rereading, I could compare that with what Lewis does in That Hideous Strength with Merlin and Williams in his Arthurian poetry with Taliessin. Meanwhile, I really like Stuart Piggott’s lively little overview study, The Druids (1968).

    Like

  7. Thanks for all the recommendations, everyone! Many years now I watched the Cadfael series with my dad but haven’t read any of the books.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    Like

  8. alfseegert says:

    Fascinating project. That said, I must confess that I am disappointed to see The Mists of Avalon receive such short shrift. To call it “anti-Christian” I think necessitates ignoring its rather stirring conclusion, one which instead of trying to replace Christianity with paganism seeks to harmonize the two. Morgana’s character is deeper than it first appears. As is the book.

    Best wishes!

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks!

      It’s yet another I have not (yet) caught up with – though I enjoyed the film, watching it with friends who were keen on it and wanted to share it, so, more convivially than critically! And I enjoyed Diana Paxson’s conversation, when I met her (not long after Priestess of Avalon first appeared in the U.S. – the same time as I made the acquaintance of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Tolkien song settings as performed by Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover and also recorded on The Starlit Jewel, which I thoroughly enjoy!). For better or worse, not having read it or any of the sequels before Moira Greyland went public with her experiences, I am having some of the author-works problems biographical knowledge can bring, though somehow my enjoyment of the song settings seems much the same.

      Liked by 1 person

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