Two years after his Arthurian novel, That Hideous Strength, was published, and a year before he was discussing Arthur’s multiple “disqualifications” to be a “hero” with Dorothy L. Sayers, Lewis did not allow the complexities of his thoughts about King Arthur to prevent him heartily recommending to a young poet friend that he put Arthur at the heart of a new epic. Dale Nelson, whose acquaintance I happily made thanks to this blog, tells us about it in a way that will probably send the second-hand sales of this work I had never heard of before sky-rocketing.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
Did you ever daydream about taking time to live away from modern light, traffic, and noise, like a medieval monk?
Martyn Skinner (1906-1993) was, with Alan Griffiths and Hugh Waterman, one of three young Englishmen who, in 1930, undertook the fascinating experiment in quasi-medieval living in a Cotswold cottage that Griffiths describes in his early autobiography, The Golden String (1954/1980). They wanted to live, as much as possible, without anything derived from the Industrial Revolution. The austerities were so severe that, when Griffiths really did become a monk (Father Bede), he found the relatively rich monastic diet difficult to adjust to!
Griffiths had been C. S. Lewis’s pupil at Oxford, and I suppose it was through him that Lewis became acquainted with Skinner. When Lewis heard about the Cotswold plan, he was intrigued; look up his memorable letter of 15 June 1930 to Arthur Greeves. In time, Skinner became an Ipsden, south Oxfordshire, farmer, growing award-winning barley for the making of beer. His health kept him out of active war service.
By 1942, Lewis was writing to “Dear Skinner” with appreciation of his “really good” poetry. On 5 November 1947, Lewis suggested a topic to Skinner:
“Why not the long foretold return of Arthur to modern England? Plenty of room for your satiric bent and for as much fantasy as you want. …If you’ll write the verse I’ll provide the Argument!”
– that is, Lewis would suggest either the polemical case to be made or the basic plot of the story, or both.
Lewis had made a brilliant suggestion. Skinner went ahead with the project. Three parts of The Return of Arthur: A Poem of the Future appeared in 1951, 1955, and 1959, and were gathered as one volume in 1966, with additional material (likely not seen by Lewis). The Return was Skinner’s
“grandest work, for which he had to devise or adopt a metrical scheme which could be adjusted at need to convey gripping narrative, evocative description (some of his finest passages portray the beauty of the English countryside), comic strip journalism or the profoundest spiritual insights while retaining the continuity of the whole. The triumphant result places him among the truly great poets of the English tradition and language” (Roger Ellis’s obituary of Skinner, published 12 Nov. 1993 in The Independent).
C.S. Lewis read at least portions of The Return in manuscript or typescript and sent Skinner words of praise or of disapproval. Read Return Part One and be struck by how very Lewisian it is. I saw obvious parallels with Lewis’s “De Descriptione Temporum,” The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and The Screwtape Letters.
Picking up the haunting line “on the mere the wailing died away” from Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur,” Skinner begins his story by recalling that Arthur was taken to Avalon. Now we learn that he was drawn out of his sojourn there when Merlin came to reveal to the king what has happened on earth in the ensuing millennium and a half – for the great crisis is upon us; faith has almost vanished, sound institutions are suppressed, and the very form of human beings is tampered with by genetic experimentation. Yet one often smiles or chuckles when reading the poem.
The magician himself, you will recall, had succumbed to the wiles of the “harlot” Vivien and been imprisoned under a stone, but we learn that he remained conscious of human events, unlike Arthur in bliss. In heaven, an angelic council determines to set Merlin free, so that he can bring Arthur up to speed about conditions on earth before his return there. An efficient method turns out to be for the magician to escort the king on a trip down to hell – a journey often made by epic heroes, but this time with the use of infernal escalator — there to see a boastful propaganda movie. While the assembled devils roar with delight over the footage of hell’s victories on earth – shabby housing covering the countryside and obliterating the traditional villages; bombs; concentration camps; mutilated faces – Arthur is nauseated.
The devils are obviously colleagues of Screwtape. Hell is a technocratic corporation presided over by a Stalinesque Satan and his toadying advisors. Solzhenitsyn’s anecdote about Soviet functionaries, applauding an apparatchik’s call for a tribute to Comrade Stalin interminably because no one had the nerve to be the first to stop, will come to mind as the devils keep tapping the electronic devices that register their admiration of the fallen archangelic Leader.
In Part Two, the focus is on farmer George Alban, his beautiful wife Mary, and their boarder, the poet Leo Pippin. The Albans have two daughters and two sons, and George neglects them and his wife when he is recruited by King Arthur, along with a couple of dozen other men, to form the nucleus of a resistance effort against servile-state Britain. Arthur gives them lectures at the Grange, which are not recited in Skinner’s poem.
The year is 1999, and the Third World War is over. Britain is a combination of high-tech surveillance-based collectivism and agrarian culture. As in many pages of Sir Thomas Malory, in this part we see very little of Arthur. Merlin appears in time to thwart the sadistic “neo-feudal boss” Karl Kremlin Hengist, who lusts after Mary, by causing the sheep to swarm on him. One is reminded of Merlin maddening the N.I.C.E. animals in That Hideous Strength. George’s hero-worship of the king reminded me of the scene in Lewis’s novel in which Ransom snaps Jane Studdock out of the captivated state she is beginning to succumb to in the presence of the Pendragon.
Readers will be reminded also of Sir Edmund Spenser’s great poem. In Skinner’s narrative, the witchlike Morgana Marsh spies on Mary and Leo, who have been walking together, discussing poetry, and visiting a cave above the sea, and concocts a film that appears to show them making love. Intimidating, sex-blended government-enforcer Martha Proctor compels George to watch the film, and he is fooled by it. The narrator points out a parallel with the episode, early in the Faerie Queene, in which St. George is tricked by an illusion, created by Archimago’s sprites, into believing that Una is unfaithful to him. Taking George home with her, Morgana, with the help of an aphrodisiac, seduces him like a late-20th-century Duessa.
Like Lewis’s Mark Studdock when he begins to be initiated into the N.I.C.E., George enjoys the sense of “moving near the centre, not the rim” of Morgana’s group. The Spenserian atmosphere continues when the beguiled George attends a Masque of Progress, like the grotesque and hilarious Pageant of the Seven Sins in Lucifera’s palace (Faerie Queene Book 1). Here, the fuddled farmer watches the parade of “Merits”: in order, Enlightenment, Hygiene, Speed, Plenty (for man shall “live by bread alone”), World Peace, Leisure, and (played by Morgana) Luxury. Part Two of The Return ends with Morgana’s false beauty exposed by Merlin’s power, and the masque collapsing in disorder; but – now just past the book’s halfway point — where’s George?
Part Three describes several conversions: of Mary, in Arthur’s sovereign presence; of George in a slave-labor camp, where he meets faithful Father Bennet; and of Leo, who beholds a vision of an English parish church celebrating Christmas, with light, carved Nativity, music. Leo’s vision contrasts with the crude reality of advertisements projected on the night sky, for this collectivist Newtopian world is also consumerist. Even Hengist undergoes conversion, thanks to the overwhelming beauty of the Grail as light shines through stained glass.
Arthur, after the anguish of Guinevere’s betrayal and the destruction of the Round Table, had mistrusted women, but Mary’s Joan of Arc-like presence restores him, and quickens the chivalric ideal. Adventures occur that reminded me of the 1960s Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. The poem as it concludes is less Lewisian than it was at the start. Skinner had become interested in Jung and in Renée Haynes’ book on ESP, The Hidden Springs (1961), and suggests that Arthur’s victory over the N.I.C.E.-like Newtopians owes something to the awakened “racial memory” of the English people. In 1959, reading material that would be included in 1966’s Part Three, Lewis objected to Skinner that King Arthur doesn’t come across as someone who had sojourned in Avalon and that Merlin doesn’t have the mystique of someone whose father was an aerial spirit. Skinner felt that what Lewis wanted was beyond his powers.
Skinner’s versification is lively and his diction witty. The traditional belief was that a poet should be a learned person, with a mind stocked with literature, philosophy, history, and knowledge of current events. This learning is not acquired for the sake of showing off (though that too might have its place!), but because a major poem is the work of a capacious memory and a unifying imagination. The Return deploys everything from (uncharacteristically!) an obscene bit of untranslated Horatian Latin, to The Song of Roland, to folklore about fern-seed, to a comparison of Mary Alban with Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, to an allusion to the atrocious treatment of Polish people by Russian forces, as documented in The Dark Side of the Moon. (This 1947 book was introduced by T. S. Eliot, and in it, years before Solzhenitsyn, informed readers about Paragraph 58 of the Soviet penal code, under which hundreds of thousands of human beings were sent to miserable fates in the Gulag.)
John Betjeman contributed the blurb for Skinner’s 1966 dust jacket:
“This is a modern epic, easy to read and an amazing piece of sustained, imaginative writing. There are moments of beautiful description and of pathos as well as of satiric humour.”
Skinner also wrote the three volumes of Letters to Malaya, in Popean couplets, for which he won the Hawthornden Prize (1943) and the Heinemann Award (1947). I wrote about Letters in CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 35:2 (Whole Number 400) (March-April 2004): 16-17. Along with these books and The Return of Arthur, Skinner wrote Two Colloquies and Old Rectory.
Dale Nelson is (soon: was) Associate Professor of English at Mayville State University in North Dakota. His collection Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories was published in Fall 2017 under Douglas Anderson’s Nodens Books imprint. Nelson is a columnist for CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society and the Tolkienian newsletter Beyond Bree.