The young future Inklings were among the first – though by no means the last – generation of readers to be able to take advantage of, and benefit immensely from, the inexpensive Everyman’s Library. This series of classic volumes shaped generations of scholars, writers, and public intellectuals–and not least where ‘the Matter of Britain’ was concerned, as Dale Nelson delightfully shows us this week.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
Every man of my age has had in his youth one blessing for which our juniors may well envy him: we grew up in a world of cheap and abundant books. Your Everyman was then a bare shilling [12 pence, about the cost of 60 popular Woodbine cigarettes], and, what is more, always in stock; your World’s Classic, Muses’ Library, Home University Library, Temple Classic, Nelson’s French series, Bohn, and Longman’s Pocket Library, at proportionate prices.
– C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (1955), p. 147.
In these words Lewis went on record about his gratitude for the old Everyman’s Library. J. R. R. Tolkien said in his 7 July 1955 letter to W. H. Auden that his mythology began under the influence of the Finnish Kalevala. And it was in Kirby’s translation, published in 1907 by Dent’s Everyman’s Library (EL volumes 259 and 260), that he encountered it. No Everyman’s Library, no Tύrin? No Tύrin, no legendarium? One wants to avoid facile theses, but, surely the origin and, thus, the development of Tolkien’s great cycle would have been different, had Kirby’s translation never been published.
…and published, it must be emphasized, in an edition very easy to find and to buy. Those were basic considerations of the EL’s founders.
Just as an Everyman’s Library book was crucial for the start of Tolkien’s creative lifework, an EL offering was of great importance in Lewis’s return to the Christian faith. His accounts of his almost reluctant purchase of, followed by captivation by, George MacDonald’s Phantastes (EL 731), are highlights of his preface to his MacDonald anthology and of Chapter 11 of Surprised by Joy.
The Everyman’s Library provided a very generous selection of Arthurian volumes. They appear to have been as follows:
- Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (2 vols, EL 45 & 46)
- Mabinogion (EL 97)*
- Giraldus Cambrensis (EL 272)
- Spenser’s Faerie Queene (2 vols, EL 443, 444)
- High History of the Holy Graal (EL 445)
- Lays of Marie de France and Others (EL 557)
- Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories of the Kings of Britain (EL 577)
- Wace and Layamon, Arthurian Chronicles (EL 578)
- Morte Arthur: Two Early English Romances (EL 634)
- Chrétien de Troyes’ Eric and Enid (also known as Arthurian Romances, EL 698)
The latest-numbered title above, EL 698, first appeared in 1914, when Tolkien was about 22 and Lewis was about 16.
Lewis was a teenaged fan of the original 1906-1928 “flatback” EL design, which had ornate gilt typography on the spine and endpapers depicting Good Deeds as a graceful woman, and the quotation “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.” This passage from the late medieval morality play provided Ernest Rhys with the inspiration for the title of a series of good books that almost anyone could afford. At age 17, Lewis wrote to his best friend:
I wonder how people would laugh if they could hear us smacking our lips over our 7d’s and Everymans just as others gloat over rare folios and an Editio Princeps! But after all, surely we are right to get all the pleasure we can, and even in the cheapest books there is a difference between coarse and nice get up.
– C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 18 July 1916.
Lewis would have read the dustwrapper appeared on the old EL releases:
“The true university in these days,” said Carlyle, “is a collection of books.” The main idea of this series is to make it easy for every one to obtain such a collection, and get at small cost all that is good, all that has worn well in English Literature. It will not offer only the classic authors, it will reprint the Victorians with the Elizabethans, comparatively new authors with the old famous ones, and books for pure pleasure as well as for wisdom and knowledge. …Thus for a few pounds, the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals; for a comparatively small expenditure a man may be intellectually rich for life.
Editor Ernest Rhys (1859-1946) and self-taught publisher Joseph Malaby Dent (1849-1926) agreed to launch the EL series with Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. As the prospectus just quoted suggests, they did emphasize British literature (including 28 volumes of Sir Walter Scott); but they included unexpected items too, such as the edition of Boehme’s visionary Signature of All Things (EL 569) that struck the young Lewis like a thunderclap, and works of scientific or political interest as well as literature, philosophy, travel, biography, and religion.
Their Arthurian offerings seemed to have lacked only Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, and the English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to have a selection more than sufficient for all but the most scholarly inquirer into the Matter of Britain. I suppose that scholars will want to read also the works of Robert de Boron, those attributed to Walter Map, and others. For the “general reader” in the first decades of the 20th century, and for the poetical young Inklings in particular, the Everyman’s Library offerings were among the best book bargains of a lifetime.
*EL 97 reprinted Charlotte Guest’s early Victorian rendition of The Mabinogion. In 1949, the EL replaced it with a new translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. This later version is the one specified in Alan Garner’s excellent novel The Owl Service (1967).
Here are four of the sources I consulted in preparing this article:
 “Everyman’s Library: List of The First 740 Volumes,” included at the back of a 1920 EL reprint of Borrow’s The Romany Rye. This presumably authoritative list includes all of the above books except two. The list seems to omit Sebastian Evans’s rendering of The High History of the Holy Graal, but that book is confirmed as EL 445, with the photo of an old-style dust wrapper, here:  http://scribblemonger.com/elcollect/elCatalog.pl
The list of 740 books also seems to omit Eugene Mason’s translation of The Lays of Marie de France and Others (EL 557), but it is attested, as French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France, by Worldcat, as Everyman’s Library 557 and dated 1911.
For information on the EL, see also  http://www.everymanslibrarycollecting.com/flatback.html and
Dale Nelson’s collection of ghostly tales, Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, was published in Fall 2017 under Douglas Anderson’s Nodens Books imprint, which will also publish his J. R. R. Tolkien: Studies in Reception this year.