“‘The Name is Against Them’: C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Arthur” by Gabriel Schenk

What a delight and relief it is to give something entrusted to your responsibility, out of your hands, step back – and see it prosper. In this case, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, which has gone from strength to strength since the last of my three years as its President, some quarter-century ago. An example of which vitality is Dr. Gabriel Schenk’s post today, which began life as a paper read to the ‘Lewis Soc’, and which deepens our attention to That Hideous Strength last week with a wide, rich context in the thought of Lewis – and Dorothy L. Sayers – about King Arthur.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor

British Library MS Additional 59678, fol. 35r (detail)

At sixteen, C.S. Lewis declared Malory’s Morte Darthur “the greatest thing I’ve ever read.” He was surprised by how much he’d liked it:

“I had no idea that the Arthurian legends were so fine (The name is against them isn’t it??)”

Although Lewis was probably joking about the name – the comments were made to his close friend Arthur Greeves – there may be some truth behind that last remark; for Lewis, something was often working against the legend. “All through Tennyson’s Idylls the Arthurian story is pulling against nearly everything that Tennyson wants to say,” he wrote in his commentary on Charles Williams‘ poetry (1948), suggesting that Tennyson’s moralistic agenda discorded with other parts of the established story.  Similarly, Lewis was “infuriated” by the King Arthur Hotel in Tintagel, Cornwall, with its “interior walls […]  made of cement with lines on them to represent stone” and its “antique chairs – on which very naturally we find the monogram K.A. stamped,” crass commercialism pushing against the Arthurian subject.

The lounge of the King Arthur hotel, photographed fourteen years before Lewis visited. From King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (London: Alex Matthews, [1907]), p. 4.

And “the name” that was against the legend was not just Arthur Greeves’s, but King Arthur’s.

Brook Selections from Laȝamon_s BrutIn his introduction to G.L. Brook’s Selections from Laȝamon’s Brut (1963), Lewis writes of “the tasteless fiction of Arthur’s foreign conquests,” a detail he supposes is a “vulgar invention” of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Lewis had previously used the words “fine” and “vulgar” in relation to the Arthurian legend in his essay “The English Prose Morte” (1959), when talking about the actions of Malory’s heroes: they promote “the civilisation of the heart […] a fineness and sensitivity, a voluntary rejection of all the uglier and more vulgar impulses.” Lewis gives examples of Gawaine, Launcelot, and Pelleas acting charitably and courteously. He does not use the example of Arthur.

Arthur is also notable for his absence in Lewis’s poem “Launcelot” (written early 1930s, published posthumously as a fragment in 1969). The poem begins in Arthur’s hall, but the first speech is given by Lucan, one of Arthur’s stewards, and Arthur himself only says one short utterance, being “daily less / Of speech,” out of worry for his knights who have gone on the Grail quest. The rest of the poem follows this quest from Launcelot’s perspective.

In his essays, too, Lewis is more interested in Launcelot than Arthur. He is particularly taken by the scene in Malory XIX.12 (Caxton) when Launcelot “wepte as he had ben a child that had ben beten” after healing Sir Urre, quoting it in two separate essays (“The Necessity of Chivalry,” 1940 and “The English Prose Morte,” 1959). The reason why Launcelot weeps is not given, but it may be that he cries in relief and gratitude that he could still perform a healing miracle despite his adultery. Lewis writes that “Hector, Pallas, Othello, or Tom Jones” would not have understood why Launcelot would behave like that. Perhaps he could have added Arthur to that list.

Salvador Dali, “Lancelot Healing Sir Urre”, Lithograph, 1978

Lewis discussed the character of Arthur with the writer Dorothy L. Sayers in 1948. Sayers wrote that “[w]hoever handles the Arthurian matter, Arthur never succeeds in being the hero futurus… The unfortunate fact seems to be that you cannot make a heroic figure out of a cuckold.” Lewis responded:

“It wd. be interesting if you’re right in saying that a cuckold can’t be a hero […] Arthur is a hero alright in Layamon, but only a war hero. It looks as if you were right. But A. has other disqualifications […] Once his court was made the nucleus of ‘adventures’ he was bound to fade: sinks into the Headmaster.”

Lewis found a way to write about Arthur without going against the legend – as he thought Tennyson and the King Arthur Hotel did – or portraying him as a war hero or mere figurehead: he ignores Arthur the character, and focuses on Arthur as a representative in That Hideous Strength (1945).

In that novel, King Arthur has long since left Earth, to live on another planet “with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King” – a Judeo-Christian Sci-Fi version of the afterlife Wace gives Arthur with the elves, which Lewis once wrote a poem about (1919, now lost). But Lewis is not interested in this version of Arthur, besides a passing reference in Strength, in which he speculates about the historicity of the legend. Instead he focuses on Arthur’s other name, Pendragon, using it as a title that has been passed down through generations. Elwin Ransom, the hero of the previous two books in the trilogy, becomes the 79th successor of the Pendragon title, making King Arthur one link in a long chain.

Arthur is not merely one of the holders of the Pendragon title, however. When Jane Studock meets Ransom for the first time:

“She had (or so she had believed) disliked bearded faces except for old men with white hair. But that was because she had long since forgotten the imagined Arthur of her childhood – and the imagined Solomon too. Solomon – for the first time in many years the bright solar blend of king and lover and magician which hangs about that name stole back upon her mind. For the first time in all those years she tasted the word king itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy and power.”

Lewis may not have liked Arthur’s character – bloodthirsty at worst, boring at best – but he appreciates the idea of kingship promoted by the figure, albeit filtered, in this case, through childhood memory. But even here, Lewis refuses to linger on Arthur, pushing him aside with the example of Solomon. It’s as if the name of Arthur works against the idea of kingship Lewis is describing, even when Arthur is also an example of that idea.

Solomon or Arthur? ‘The Judgment of Solomon’ (La Sainte Bible, 1866) and ‘King Arthur Discovering the Skeletons of the Brothers’ (Idylls of the King, 1875) by Gustave Doré

The Pendragon title gets pushed aside too; Ransom is also known as “Mr. Fisherking”. The Fisher King is another Arthurian character, who is permanently wounded, as Ransom is, and reigns over the Wasteland in the Grail story (although the Fisher King is usually wounded in the legs or groin, whereas Ransom is wounded in the heel, following God’s command in Genesis 3:15  that the serpent shall strike Eve’s offspring on the heel). So Ransom is Arthur, and the Fisher King, and just a man, bitten on the heel like any other son of Eve. Arthur is only one image in a line of images Lewis uses to express his meaning.

The Narnia books are full of Arthurian references. Fiona Tulhurst argues that Prince Caspian is Arthurian because the relationship between Caspian and Repicheep embodies Arthurian chivalry; Cor from The Horse and his Boy resembles Tor from the Arthurian legend, who is also raised as a poor boy, unaware of his royal heritage; and the Dolorous word in The Magician’s Nephew resembles ‘The Dolorous Stroke’ of the Arthurian Wasteland. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been singled out as particularly Arthurian – Margaret Blount argues that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has ‘a strong Arthurian odour’ (she must have a good sense of smell) because it is a version of the Grail Quest. The Pevensies’ return to Narnia is even directly compared to Arthur’s future return to Britain.

But the Narnian characters are not only Arthurian figures, just as Ransom is not only reminiscent of Arthur. When Tennyson was asked whether the three queens at the end of his Arthurian work Idylls of the King represented “faith, hope, and charity” he said:

They are right, and they are not right. They mean that and they do not. They are three of the noblest of women. They are also those three Graces, but they are much more. I hate to be tied down to say, ‘This means that’ because the thought within the image is much more than any one interpretation.

Lewis thought through images, and the thoughts within his images are more than any one interpretation. Ransom is Arthur, and he is not; the Pevensies are Arthur, and they are not; the name of Arthur works against the legend, and it does not.

This blog post began as a talk given at the C.S. Lewis Society, Oxford, 1st March 2016.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson, quoted in [Hallam Tennyson], Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, 2 vols (New York and London: Macmillan, 1897), ii, 127.

C.S. Lewis, “English Prose Morte,” in Essays on Malory, ed. J.A.W. Bennett (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1963), pp. 7-28. First published 1959.

C.S. Lewis, “Launcelot,” Narrative Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Bles, 1969)

C.S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves [concerning Morte Darthur], February 2nd 1915, and 26 January 1915, Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (N.p.: HarperCollins , 2004), vol 1,  64 and 103.

C.S. Lewis, letter to Warnie Lewis [concerning the King Arthur Hotel], 7 August 1921, Collected Letters, vol 1, 580-1.

C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis, Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; and Arthurian Torso (N.p.: Eerdmans, 1974) pp. 277-384 (383). First published 1948.

C.S. Lewis, “The Necessity of Chivalry,” in Present Concerns (London: Fount, 1986), p. 13. First published in 1940.

Don W. King, C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse (Kent, Ohio; London: Kent State University Press, 2001), p. 50. King discusses Lewis’s early Arthurian poems.

Fiona Tulhurst, “Beyond the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis as Closet Arthurian,” Arthuriana, Vol. 22, No. 4, (Winter 2012), pp. 140-166.

G.L. Brook, Selections from Laȝamon’s Brut (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).

Margaret Blount, “Fallen and Redeemed: Animals in the Novels of C.S. Lewis,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: C.S. Lewis, ed. Harold Bloom, p. 11-29 (p. 20).

Gabriel Schenk completed his DPhil in Arthurian literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 2014. He is the web editor for owenbarfield.org and the co-founder of the annual Tolkien lecture on Fantasy Literature (tolkienlecture.org).

You can reach him on twitter (@gwjschenk) or find him on his website, gabrielschenk.com.

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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35 Responses to “‘The Name is Against Them’: C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Arthur” by Gabriel Schenk

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How packed this is with delights – and food for thought! King Arthur’s Hotel how can I have never heard of it? (I need to read the Lewis letters right through…!) – and I find it’s still there, with its own Facebook page! (Now Camelot Castle Hotel: have the chairs – or their successors – been restamped ‘C.C.’, I wonder? in any case, Wikipedia on “Tintagel” tells us, referring to Beacham’s 2014 revision of Pevsner’s Cornwall, “The Great Hall on the first floor is designed around a replica of the Winchester Round Table and has Romanesque arcades with Italian marble piers.”) And Dali an Arthurian – who knew? (And I think of myself as a Dali lover…) I remember an essay where Dorothy L. Sayers expressed her dissatisfaction that Tennyson’s completed Idylls concluded with Arthur’s last speech as written 50 years before, but this fascinating correspondence was new to me (gotta read those letters…! – and see how their discussion compares with some of Charles Williams’s).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gabriel says:

      Yes, it’s still there… the current owner is a big Trump / Russia fan and made Trump an honorary knight of the round table. One wonders what Lewis would have made of that…!

      I found a photo of the table and hall-way from a simmilar angle to the one taken in Lewis’s time: https://wordsforsam1.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/p5170855.jpg — as you can see it, it’s hardly changed at all.

      Lewis’s full description of the hotel is:

      “We lay this night at Tintagel, storied name. There is a generally diffused belief that this place is connected with King Arthur; so far as I know from Malory, Layamon and Geoffrey of Monmouth, it is not: it is really the seat of King Mark and the Tristram story. This has not however deterred some wretch, hated by the muse, from erecting an enormous hotel on the very edge of the cliff, built in toy Gothic, and calling it King Arthur’s Hotel. The interior walls are made of cement with lines on them to represent stone. They are profusely illustrated with toy armour from Birmingham: a Highland target, suitable for Macbeth, jostles a reproduction of late Tudor steel plate and is lucky to escape a Cromwellian helmet for its next door neighbour. In the centre of the lounge, with the Sketch and Tatler lying on it, is – of course – THE Round Table. Ye Gods!! Even the names of the Knights are written on it. Then there are antique chairs – on which very naturally we find the monogram K.A. stamped […] I have not yet exhausted the horrors of the place: I was glad to see a book case in the lounge. All the books were uniformly bound, and I was surprised to see such unlikely titbits as the Ethics of Aristotle and the works of the Persian epic poet Firdausi. I solved the mystery by finding out they were a uniform series of Lubbock’s HUNDRED BEST BOOKS!!! How I abominate such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain. To substitute for the infinite wandering of the true reader thro’ the byways of the country he discovers, a char-a- banc tour. The whole place infuriated me.”

      You can also see, in this photo (https://wordsforsam1.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/p5170838.jpg) that the walls are still painted to resemble stone (‘ye gods!!’ as Lewis said).

      I’d like to find out more about Dali’s interest in the Arthurian legend… and Sayers’ thoughts. Thanks for letting me know about her essay, which I haven’t come across yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow! Thank you for the recent photos (nothing similar was evident – to low-tech me, anyway – on their Facebook page, and I did not know where to look next…)! That full description is astonishing (as is the letter it comes from, and are the footnote quotations from his father’s letters – I suddenly feel like I need to study pre-reversion Lewis family rhetoric/stylistics…!).

        Your 1907 photo somehow immediately reminded of Schloss Neuschwanstein, a sort of ‘twee mediaevalism’ for which I yet have a soft spot. (I can’t tell from their website if there’s a branch of Louis Marchesi’s Round Table in Tintagel, but I remember walking past signs with their logo using the Winchester Round Table in various British cities… Would they get to meet around the Hotel’s replica, I wonder?)

        I blush to say I can’t certainly remember where that Sayers essay is – not in Unpopular Opinions (1946) to go by a quick browse… I think in The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, and Other Posthumous Essays on Literature, Religion, and Language (1963), to which I have no ready access, here.

        I like Michael Ward’s reading of That Hideous Strength, that (despite Merlin’s fulminating) it might not be too late for them to beget the destined child. Should we consider the possibility Jane and Mark emigrated, disguised their identity, and… that Sir Donald is the Pendragon? (Do such fan fiction sequels abound, already, u- and dydstopianly – as well as (ulp!) what I understand is typical-fan-fictionally…?)


        • Gabriel says:

          There’s no branch of the Marchesi’s Round Table in Tintagel (the nearest one is in Launceston, 20 miles away)… but there is certainly an Arthurian society based there. Frederick Glasscock made his fortune after inventing the ‘hundreds and thousands’ ice-cream sprinkles still used today, and spent it on a replica of Camelot, complete with stained glass windows (by William Morris student Veronica Whall) and round table: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur%27s_Hall,_Tintagel

          Both societies were founded in the 1927. Glasscock wanted an Arthurian society to stop another world war; he though that if we had chivalry in the world, we would stop fighting. Sadly, he died when the ship he was travelling in hit a mine in the Second World War.

          When I went to King Arthur’s hall a few years ago, it was still possible to sign up to Glasscock’s Arthurian order… I’m not sure it still is. From their website, they seemed to have been relaunched as a wedding venue: http://www.kingarthursgreathalls.co.uk/

          It’s a shame, because King Arthur’s halls in Tintagel felt like the complete opposite of the Camelot Hotel: built by someone who was genuinely inspired by the Arthurian legend, and wanted to create something beautiful from it. I think Lewis might have approved.

          Thanks for the suggestions re: Sayers’s essay… I will investigate.

          As for Trump… well, at the same time T.H. White was writing about Arthur as an anti-fascist, and Mordred as a Nazi, the Nazis’ themselves had a King Arthur room in the SS castle Wewelsburg. The legend is totally malleable. For some, Trump is a new Pendragon; for others, he’s the new Mordred.

          (I also like Ward’s reading, that Mark and Jane beget a child).

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you for this – it’s great! (I whizzed past even the brief description in the Wikipedia “Tintagel” article, so intent was I on the Hotel…) Two replica Round Tables in Tintagel… now, following links from the Wikipedia article I see on the website of The Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur that “the Granite Round Table […] is eight feet in diameter, is in five sections and weighs a ton”! And another article adds, “There is […] a granite Round Table, along with two wooden ones”! Wow, Round Tables abounding! How can I have missed this my whole life? Why, when living in Britain, did I never travel west and south and at least stumble upon it all for myself? And King Arthur’s Hall was built after Lewis’s visit to Tintagel and the Hotel!

            How intriguing that Glasscock founded the Fellowship in 1927 and built the Hall between 1929 and 1933: just when Masefield was publishing The Midnight Folk, Tristan and Isolt, and Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse, and Williams was publishing War in Heaven and Many Dimensions and some of his early cycle, working on more of it, and finding his style start to change leading to the later cycle!

            I’m sure you’re right that Lewis would have approved of Glasscock’s endeavours, though it would be interesting to see a similarly detailed response as that to the Hotel. (I can’t find another Tintagel reference in the first or third volumes of his letters, and do not have access to the second at the moment).

            I’ve read a recent Dutch biography of Himmler not so long ago, with different chapters attending to different topics and extensive notes and bibliography featuring lots of English- and German-language scholarly references. What an assortment of interests, including the Arthurian, with I’m not sure what extent of coherence between them. How does Wewelsburg sit with the Sachsenhain monument in Verden, with (Wikipedia tells us) the inscription to “Baptism-Resistant Germans Massacred by Karl, the Slaughterer of the Saxons”? (Both from a little later the King Arthur’s Hall: by the time it was opened on Whitmonday, 5 June 1933, Hitler had come to power.)

            A good recent example of the malleability of Arthur is his depiction in The Fourth Gwenevere by John James, completed by Caitlín & John Matthews – whew! Shocking, but savoury in its unsavouriness to those who can receive it, and, if I’m not mistaken, based on less-frequently-favoured early sources.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Just caught up (by good hap) with Ned Parker’s 2012 “Himmler and the Holy Grail” (distributed by the History Channel and Yesterday as part of Raiders of the Lost Past/Myth Hunters), which has finally got me trying to get a little acquainted with Otto Rahn and his Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (1933) starting with the foreword to Christopher Jones’s 2006 translation as Crusade Against the Grail. Whew! I suppose Tolkien – and Barfield? – could have read the German original, and there was a French translation by 1934, which I suppose would have been easier for the Lewis brothers and Williams, but whether any of them ever saw it, I have no idea! Curious in any case to think that he was at work and produced it and its sort of sequel, Luzifers Hofgesind (1937: translated in 2008 by Christopher Jones as Lucifer’s Court), between Willams’s earlier and later Arthurian cycles!


  2. I enjoyed this essay very much indeed. I have long been impressed by the work of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette on the masculine archetypes. They titled their study, “King,Warrior, Lover, Magician”. And then I see it in this reference to Jane’s first meeting with Ransom. How wonderful! The best ideas will out! Jane encounters a masculinity that she cannot control and it transforms her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I did not clearly remember that passage’s reference to King Solomon and these details, and it is one of the exciting, thought-provoking features of this paper, in that, among other things, Williams takes up, and adapts, Malory’s use of his source’s treatment of the Ship of Solomon bearing the Grail Knights, in his own poem, ‘The Last Voyage’.

      And, without spoilers, there are links between Williams’s Graal novel, War in Heaven, and the next one published, Many Dimensions, especially where the only continuing character, Sir Giles Tumulty is concerned. And there is background (popular) scholarly discussion – including by Arthur [!] E. Waite in his Secret Doctrine in Israel – about what exactly is meant by Wolfram von Eschenbach calling the “Grâl” a “stein” (‘stone’) in his Parzival.

      Is Williams playing in Many Dimensions with Solomon, from whose crown the Stone there (reputedly) comes, being something like an antetype ‘Keeper of the Grail’ – as well as the “vessel” word and image play in the poem, where Solomon’s “actual ship, the hollow of Jerusalem” bears the Grail Knights and Blanchefleur? And is Lewis playfully taking up such ideas? In any case, I think Camilla’s saying, “This house, all of us here, […] are all that’s left of the Logres: all the rest has become merely Britain” (9.3) holds a deliberate echo of the last line of the poem: “Logres was withdrawn to Carbonek; it became Britain.”

      Liked by 2 people

    • Gabriel says:

      Lewis’s writing is so rich, I’m always finding new meanings / inter-textual links! Thanks for mentioning the ‘King,Warrior, Lover, Magician’ study, which I hadn’t seen before. Would be interesting to think of in relation to Lewis’s concepts of masculinity (which I’m sure evolved after meeting his wife!)

      I think Lewis might have encountered a femininity he could not control, and it transformed his life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ethan Campbell says:

    Lots of great stuff here … King Arthur Hotel, Arthur as “headmaster,” Cor/Tor, etc. And how sad that youthful poem of Lewis’s about Arthur in the afterlife has been lost!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gabriel says:

      Yes, it would have been fascinating to see that… I think it’s a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle actually, because Lewis didn’t write much about Arthur as a character, but perhaps he did in this lost poem.

      Thankfully, there’s very little Lewis material that was lost. Maybe the Arthur poem was one of the papers burnt by Warnie before Walter Hooper stopped him…


  4. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    Once again I am reblogging an essay in the series being published in association with the launch of The Inklings and King Arthur on Brenton Dickieson’s website, A Pilgrim in Narnia, and guest edited by David Llewellyn Dodds.
    This week’s essay is by Gabriel Schenk and deals with the problem of Arthur within the Arthurian myth. Reading this excellent piece of work has stimulated so much questioning within me. I wonder what questions it might raise for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gabriel says:

      Thanks for the reblog… glad my article stimulated questions (although of course that’s thanks to Malory and Lewis, not me!)

      Great blog, by the way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My earliest encounter with the Arthurian myth was through two sources, Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights and T.H White’s The Once and Future King. I loved both but most especially The Sword in the Stone which I read over and over again. Your essay helps me to see why I read both with a growing sense of sadness. I was responding to Arthur’s growing passivity. The Wart’s adventures in The Sword in the Stone filled me with a joy that I have never forgotten. I am struck by a realisation that the Grail Quest belonged to the disappointment and sadness. Is that because Arthur did not go?
        I first encountered Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in the early 1970s through a BBC dramatisation on Radio 4. The incidental music was by Stephen Dodgson who also composed the incidental music for the radio dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings. I gathered round a radio with other boys in my boarding school. What fantasies we all had!
        Thank you for your kind words about my blog.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          In Tennyson’s ‘Coming of Arthur’ (Project Gutenberg transcription), after King Leodogran had longed for the Roman legions here again, / And Caesar’s eagle”, Arthur’s knights sing

          ‘Shall Rome or Heathen rule in Arthur’s realm?
          Flash brand and lance, fall battleaxe upon helm,
          Fall battleaxe, and flash brand! Let the King reign.


          There at the banquet those great Lords from Rome,
          The slowly-fading mistress of the world,
          Strode in, and claimed their tribute as of yore.
          But Arthur spake, ‘Behold, for these have sworn
          To wage my wars, and worship me their King;
          The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
          And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
          Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
          To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
          No tribute will we pay:’ so those great lords
          Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome.

          In the next idyll, ‘Gareth and Lynette’, Gareth says to his mother, who has described Arthur as “one that is not proven King”,

          Not proven, who swept the dust of ruined Rome
          From off the threshold of the realm, and crushed
          The Idolaters, and made the people free?
          Who should be King save him who makes us free?

          In ‘Guinevere’, Arthur notes that “when the Roman left us, and their law
          Relaxed its hold upon us, […] I was first of all the kings who drew / The knighthood-errant of this realm and all / The realms together under me, their Head”. The next Roman references only come in ‘The Passing of Arthur’.

          So, Tennyson has rejected the idea of Arthur as conquering Rome and establishing his Empire far and wide, though he has achieved a non-tributary, independent status.

          In his second published essay (1923), Williams wrote, “Tennyson, in the Round Table of the Idylls, really did get nearer to describing a Republic, even [italicized] the Republic, in working order than ever did his predecessor or contemporary.”

          But he pondered how that achieved ‘Republic’ was organically related to the greater whole – and to what end. For, in his first published essay (1920), he says, of Tennyson, “we have a right to demand that something more should have been made of the Graal episode. The Graal is obviously communion with God; and if Arthur, as the faithful soul, had any business it was exactly that quest which Tennyson’s Arthur so definitely refuses.”

          Accepting this, the next question is how to show that – Arthur himself, and Table, and realm – actively seeking the Grail? And, closely related, what to do with various elements of the tradition, such as, Lancelot and the adultery with Guinevere, Arthur and Morgause’s incest and the begetting of Mordred, the character of Gawain, and who is – or are – the Grail Knight(s) – Percival? and/or Galahad?

          Liked by 1 person

  5. joviator says:

    Lewis’s comment about how King Arthur stops being the center of attention resonates with my own experience. Long ago, I was the star of every project at work. But with advancing age, I find myself spending all my time in strategic-planning meetings, standing back and letting younger folks have the actual adventures. John Steinbeck makes this a theme in his “King Arthur”; at one point he has Lancelot bitterly observing that once he became known as the greatest of knights, nobody ever let him fight any more. Instead, his adventures were all incomprehensible struggles against magic and politics. Oh, well, happens to the best of us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks for both parts of this light on the subject! (Especially since I have never yet caught up with Steinbeck as Arthurian – as surprised and delighted I was, having enjoyed ‘the Steinbeck we thought we knew’, when The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights appeared.)

      I’m not widely enough read in the other great ‘Matters’ to know how characteristic this ‘issue’ is, and how varied the responses of different contributors. But what you say, as you say it, makes all sort of ‘realistic’ sense. I do know it’s an issue in Beowulf scholarship: should the old Beowulf have done what he did, turning fighter again, but if not, what? Is it too dangerous for the Kingdom to let the King fight, accept a challenge, and so on? I hope he won’t think it a misleading teaser if I say, we’ll see something of this when Ethan Campbell’s post appears.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Both Beowulf and Arthur go to battle one last time. Aragorn dies in his glory choosing to reject a dotage. Any comments anyone?

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Would it be fair to say that Beowulf, who in his youth helps decisively elsewhere, succeeds to kingship at home in an orderly realm in an orderly fashion, whereas Arthur and Aragorn emerge from obscurity in a chaotic situation – though, in Aragorn’s case, also a significantly (and problematically) ‘stewardly’ situation – (echoing Tennyson) to make a realm and reign?

          But, in each case, though there is the desperate fighting of various sorts for Beowulf and Arthur, what next? Might chaos be come again? (Threats from within and without are thematic on a domestic level in Christie’s ancient Egyptian mystery, Death Comes as an End (1944), with parallels in the wider realm(s) of Egypt, leaving me thinking it may have a deliberate resonance looking to a post-World War II world.) Or subtler chaos, such as unjust rule?

          Geoffrey of Monmouth’s reign of Arthur is part of his fuller History of the Kings of Britain, and different Arthurian retellers have made various, more or less extensive, use of that. Appendix A I (v) of The Lord of the Rings also tells us of the peaceful succession of Eldarion, Arwen and Aragorn’s “son, a man full-ripe for kingship.” I have still not caught up with The Peoples of Middle-earth, the twelfth volume of the The History of Middle-earth, and “The New Shadow” in it, set (the Tolkien Gateway tells me) 100 years into the reign of Eldarion.


    • I did not know that Steinbeck had written an Arthurian novel. Thank you so much for letting me know.


    • Gabriel says:

      Yeah, it’s kind of sad, and a long-standing theme in Arthurian literature. Arthur morphs from a central, conquering force into a weaker, court-bound king in Chrétien de Troyes (12th century), for example.

      The evolving role of Arthur mirrors the changing role of monarchs in history, and the development of the state. Rather than be like King Harold, storming into battle and dying, kings can stay at court and manage affairs from afar. They’re just too important to be on the front lines, where the action is, as they don’t just represent themselves… they represent the state as well.

      So it makes a lot of sense that Arthur, after establishing his power, should stay at court. But it’s a narrative problem, having a character who is important but doesn’t seem to do much…

      I like Steinbeck’s approach, highlighting the problem as an emotional / psychological issue.

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Ransom becomes, unexpectedly, a warrior in middle age, to end up the presiding (wounded, but not incapacitated) Pendragon in That Hideous Strength. I wonder if Tolkien thought that was part of what was “good […] in itself” about the novel, or part of what “William’s influence” spoiled in it as “the end of the trilogy” (Letter 252) – or some complex combination of such things?

        It suddenly occurs to me that, while Ransom is a warrior like the young Arthur in Perelandra, he is more like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s young Merlin in Out of the Silent Planet – someone unjustly brought as a human sacrifice (in the intentions of Weston and Devine), who as wise spokesman elucidates and helps solve (in his degree) the real problem.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hannah says:

    It was great to read this post and a.o. about the origins of “The Fisher King” -> as another Arthurian character! My only encounter so far was in the film “The Fisher King” with Robin Williams and that when studying the many changes the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear went through in the many adaptations through the centuries. E.g. this article: Sternberg, Doug, ‘“Tom’s a-cold’: Tranformation and Redemption in King Lear and The Fisher King”. Literature/Film Quarterly 23 (1994): 160-169


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m sure ‘Parry’ as the character’s name in “The Fisher King” is playing with ‘Perry’ as a nickname from ‘Perceval’, a character who went through a lot of changes from – and between! – Chrétien de Troyes and those who continued his unfinished romance and Wolfram von Eschenbach and the anonymous Perlesvaus, also called Li Hauz Livres du Graal (The High History of the Holy Grail) to various later French sources and Malory’s use of them and on to, for example, Wagner. Just how Terry Gilliam as director and
      Richard LaGravenese as writer are playing with the character Parry as a version of Sir Perceval probably invites an good deal of comparing and pondering, especially where Perceval’s interactions with the Fisher King are concerned!


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  12. loritischler says:

    Fascinating discussion. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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