Many of you will know what a pleasure it is to hear Charles Huttar read a paper, to meet and converse with him – and how fruitful to your knowledge, understanding, and further thought. And many more who have been his students and daily colleagues over the years will probably say the same, if even more emphatically. But those who know him solely as a writer know they are not lacking such benefits, though mediated by another form. What T.S. Eliot said of Charles Williams, we may say of him: “no one who has known both the man and his works would have willingly foregone either experience.” Those who have already read his exhilarating, magnificent contribution to The Inklings and King Arthur, may find a deft, concentrated, thought-provoking complement to it in today’s post, while those who have not, yet, will find a spur to long to do so the sooner.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
Historians still debate the pros and cons of whether King Arthur actually existed.
In “The Figure of Arthur,” Charles Williams doesn’t take a position on the matter. He notes that no contemporary author mentions him by name; “Arthur” enters history more than three centuries later. But he also notes that recent discoveries lend some credibility to the earliest accounts of battles to which the name became attached, and to that extent they force reconsideration of what may have been a too-easy skepticism. (Incidentally, R. G. Collingwood, the eminent historian and archeologist of the Romano-British era whom Williams cites, was Lewis’s colleague at Magdalen College.)
What interests Williams, instead, is “the myth of Arthur” as he calls it (in the very first line of the history of the Arthurian legends that he left unfinished—hence a “torso”—and elsewhere [3, 93-94]).
What interests us, mainly, is the rather different myths that Williams and other Inklings made of the Matter of Britain. On these Sørina Higgins’s new book sheds light from a welcome variety of angles. But that theme is only one strand in a vaster tapestry woven by artists and historians alike, calling on their imaginations to fill the enormous gaps in the reliable evidence (not documentary alone) that is available for reconstructing and understanding the past.
In his 1950 essay “Historicism” C. S. Lewis describes the legitimate role of imagination in the historian’s scholarly work, but his main object is to refute those who step outside their discipline and try to extrapolate from pathetically inadequate data something they insist is “the meaning of history.” I have summarized elsewhere Lewis’s catalog of the various ways all the data we could possibly amass must inevitably fall dismally short (“The Limitations of Historiography” 35-38). For one thing, history is not yet complete, and only God knows the future. We may, by divine revelation, know some of God’s purposes in broad outline, but how any particular event fits into the plan remains God’s secret. Looking at the past “we see pictures in the fire,” Lewis writes, and “the more indeterminate the object, the more it excites our mythopoeic . . . faculties” (“Historicism” 105).
Vast reaches of history are “indeterminate.”
At the end of That Hideous Strength  the company at St. Anne’s learn that the seventy-ninth Pendragon will leave them and return to Venus, there to dwell in “Aphallin” with King Arthur and others. Whatever Lewis’s personal opinion about Arthur’s historicity, in Lewis’s myth the king not only once lived but did not die. As Dr. Dimble, a historian by profession, explains,
“We discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history” and, moreover, that “something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres.”
In the sixth century Logres “nearly succeeded” in “break[ing] through. . . . A secret Logres” has continued “in the heart of Britain all these years” and was instrumental in the defeat of the N.I.C.E., “only just in time” (441-42). None of those at St. Anne’s will be named in the history books, but as Charles Williams once said (Dimble refers to him only as “one of the modern authors”), building an altar may be required here so that the fire can fall there (443).
Throughout this conversation at St. Anne’s, Lewis is greatly indebted to Williams. Other events in That Hideous Strength are spoken of as instances of divine action (see my “How Much . . .” 31-34, 44-46). Williams shared that belief but did not feel obliged to veil it in a myth—see his The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (1939). The audacious subtitle seems a contradiction in terms: what historian can discern the blowing of that divine Wind? Williams explicitly names the Holy Ghost. Lewis says only “the haunting,” but he means the same thing.
The mystery surrounding Arthur captivated J. R. R. Tolkien as well, in his middle years, but that was only one of the gaps in our knowledge of history into which the Inklings were spurred to insert imagined possibilities. All three authors played with the idea of a mysterious linkage between different eras through the reappearance of objects of power (in Williams, the Holy Grail, the Stone and the Ship of Solomon) or persons (for example, Merlin in That Hideous Strength) or the emergence of persons related in some fashion to others from a distant time. Tolkien’s interest in this last theme and how it could fit into his vast, developing mythology is evident from the posthumously published (and fragmentary) Book of Lost Tales and “Notion Club Papers.”
The clairvoyance of Lewis’s Jane Studdock, which is central to the plot of his novel, she has inherited from her Tudor forebears. Similarly crucial is the sixteenth-century ancestral connection of Pauline Anstruther in Williams’s Descent into Hell (1937), but the doctrines of Coinherence and Substitution that undergird that myth render it much more complex. It involves a quadrilateral relationship of persons, spanning not just four centuries but twenty, and raises speculation about the nature of time.
When Pauline’s friend Peter Stanhope persuades her to let him carry her obsessive fear of meeting her doppelgänger, she is freed to cross back to the time of Queen Mary, meet and speak to her ancestor who agonizes in fear of being burnt at the stake, and in turn take up his burden of fear. But the voice that Pauline hears making him that offer, though it is “her own voice,” comes from a figure standing behind her, looking exactly like her (as she discovers when she turns, no longer in fear but willingly, to gaze). It is her Double, and it is also the “immortal” One, the Author of all Substitution, who, two millennia before, promised his followers that he would dwell within them. The voice said, “Give it to me, John Struther,” and when John accepts that offer his agonized cry—which was certainly real; Pauline had heard it—becomes a “roar of triumph, . . . ‘I have seen the salvation of my God.’” These are the very words recorded in the sixteenth-century martyrology that Pauline had heard quoted as a part of her family lore (55-56), but not until a woman from the twentieth century visited him in prison had he been able to utter them. Thus Williams’s myth calls into question, or at least gets us thinking about, the fixity of the past itself and the puzzle of divine foreknowledge and human free will.
The farther back we go into history, the greater the “indetermina[cy],” the gaps that set the imagination to work, whether in the form of speculation—either by reasonable Inference or by sheer conjecture—or that of mythopoesis. Williams’s early play The Chapel of the Thorn explores Christian-Druid relationships on the Welsh border in the early Middle Ages, a topic that Suzanne Bray addressed briefly in the first post of this series. His late play Terror of Light, set at the very start of Church history, imagines acts and conversations of Christ’s most intimate followers, female as well as male, that Luke did not record in his second treatise, the Book of Acts. Lewis employed techniques of the historical novel to portray the culture of Glome, an imagined barbarian kingdom on the edge of civilization in a slightly earlier period.
Before that, when written records give out, even those that merely codify oral traditions, the historian’s work is taken over by other “sciences”—a quite imprecise word, in this context—archeology, anthropology and its subdiscipline comparative religion, biology, and astronomy, in roughly that order. We label that period, billions of years, “pre-history,” a misleading term since, as Lewis says, history “may mean . . . the total content of the past . . . in all its teeming riches” (“Historicism” 105). There is also philology, a discipline pursued by both Lewis and (preeminently) Tolkien, which investigates words themselves to uncover facts about human history. Lewis’s Studies in Words used methods and theories laid down by Owen Barfield to trace through the centuries semantic changes that Lewis found many of his students—and prominent critics as well—failed to notice.
Two of Lewis’s poems play with possibilities about human and animal life before Noah’s flood, surviving now only in legend. His stories of an alternate Eden (Perelandra) and another Creation (The Magician’s Nephew) deserve a quick glance, though they don’t strictly fit into this account since neither serves to fill a gap in earthly history; Venus is a different planet, and Narnia is a universe to itself. But Lewis did question the received “scientific” accounts of early human consciousness and the origin of religion, because of their heavy reliance on conjecture based on naturalistic presuppositions. (The eminent biologist Stephen Jay Gould would later ridicule them as Kiplingesque “just-so stories.”) In youth, having dipped into Frazer’s Golden Bough, Lewis had accepted them, but in The Problem of Pain he offered his own alternate accounts, consonant with Christian belief.
Existing myths from antiquity underlie Lewis’s Ransom trilogy: that which assigns planets to different gods to govern and that of Satan’s rebellion and continued warfare against God, so that not only divine but also diabolical forces work in history, truly a hideous strength. Lewis embellishes these myths with inventions of his own, the enemy’s attempt to destroy all life on a newly created Mars, which is thwarted by “gigantic feats of [angelic] engineering” that to an earthly viewer resemble canals, and the consequent protection of the other planets by confining the enemy to Earth and cutting off communication therefrom.
Tolkien, refashioning the same ancient myth, had gone much farther back—indeed, to a time when the universe itself was only an idea in the mind of the One (as in Plato) and the rebel figure Melkor tried to corrupt the Creation according to his own designs. The tales go on from there, taking place within (but hardly filling) an enormous gap of countless years (scientists would read “billions”) and still not getting close to what we call the beginnings of “history.” Tolkien’s imagination could reach far beyond the scientists’ to envision the creation of sun and moon replacing, in their lesser way, the two Trees that Melkor ruined; massive changes in the maps of Middle-earth, whether wrought by ordinary geological process or, more likely, by demonic or angelic action (as, for example, the drowning of Númenor, explaining more fully in terms of divine action what Plato had sketched of Atlantis—possibly, it is now thought, from real folk memories of the breakthrough of ocean into the Mediterranean basin); the creation of a bright new object traversing the heavens; and, provoked by human hubris, the transformation of a flat earth to a globe.
Another prominent theme in Tolkien, alongside such fantastic imaginings, is history itself: the awe-inspiring contemplation of vast reaches of time, the work of historians in the use of evidence and preservation of records, and the limits imposed on the historian by being embedded in a particular culture. Part of what attracted readers to The Lord of the Rings from the start was exposure to a much larger world than their familiar one—strange yet credible (disbelief being suspended), working by other physical laws yet subject to much the same psychological and moral laws across the ages. In place of Fred Flintstone-like caricatures, readers found in Tolkien a sense that there might be many things in heaven and earth undreamt of in their philosophy.
Similar realizations come to characters within the stories. To some, it was exciting to discover that “halflings” were real, not mere legends. The hobbits, drawn out of their secluded Shire, encounter elves, which Sam for one has longed to see, and other marvels unheard of—Ents, Woses (Ethan Campbell explained these in his Valentine’s Day post), Púkel-men, the Mines of Moria, Lórien, the eroded statues of Isildur and Anárion, the Dead Marshes. All are windows on a far-distant past. Some access to those years is found in ancient records like those studied by Gandalf, and in scraps of folklore too easily dismissed as old wives’ tales—resources similar to those that Tolkien himself and his university colleagues might comb through for historical evidence. More astounding to the hobbits might have been facts not handed down through centuries but stored up in the memory of still-living persons. All such knowledge contributes to the Fellowship’s success, as when Aragorn reforges the broken sword, compels the Oathbreakers of old to help turn the tide of battle, and uses ancient herb-lore to revive Frodo and Faramir.
Moreover, Tolkien casts himself in a historian’s role, not a creator of fiction in a modern sense (except in the two works centering on hobbits and a few lesser stories) but a gatherer of and commentator on ancient documents—poetic tales, annals, linguistic and ethnic studies, and the work of great historians of ancient times, such as the elf Pengolodh who lived in the Second Age and was himself greatly dependent on the much earlier Rúmil.
Of course, all these pretended relics of past ages are in fact Tolkien’s own compositions. This is the master-fiction of his legendarium, that this great twentieth-century subcreator of an imagined world, which yet is our world, poses as only a collector of the mythology of an ancient and very advanced culture, of which our own age is a remote and greatly diminished successor. But there was a limit even to what those revered Elvish historians could know—thus, gaps impossible to fill. Especially, although in their thirst for knowledge they inquired diligently about the history and the destiny of humankind, these things remained hidden from them, held in secret in the mind of the One.
 C. S. Lewis, ed. Arthurian Torso: Containing the Posthumous Fragment of The Figure of Arthur by Charles Williams and a Commentary on the Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams by C. S. Lewis (Oxford UP, 1948).
 S. Higgins, ed. The Inklings and King Arthur (Apocryphile Press, 2018).
 In Christian Reflections, ed. W. Hooper (Cambridge UP, 1967), 100-13. (Legitimate role: 100, 110-11; try to extrapolate: 100-2, 104-12.)
 Section 3 of C. Huttar, “How Much Does That Hideous Strength Owe to Charles Williams?” Sehnsucht 9 (2015): 19-46.
 New York: Macmillan, 1946.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
 In War in Heaven (1930); Many Dimensions (1931); and “The Last Voyage,” in Taliessin through Logres (1938; Oxford UP, 1950), 82-88.
 Respectively, volumes 1-2 of “The History of Middle Earth” (HME), ed. Christopher Tolkien (1984), and Part 2 in HME 9 (1992).
 Williams, Descent into Hell (1937; Eerdmans, 1965), 169-72.
 Williams, The Chapel of the Thorn, ed. S. Higgins (Apocryphile Press, 2015); Terror of Light, in Collected Plays (Oxford UP, 1963), 327-74; Lewis, Till We Have Faces (Bles, 1956).
 Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge UP, 1956); Barfield, History in English Words (Methuen, 1926), and Poetic Diction (Faber and Gwyer, 1928). I still regularly use the paperback copy of Studies in Words, 2nd ed., that Barfield gave me in 1967 when it was just out.
 Lewis, “The Adam Unparadised” (original title “A Footnote to Pre-History”) and “The Late Passenger” (original title “The Sailing of the Ark”). In Poems, ed. W. Hooper. Bles, 1964. 43-44, 47-48.
 S. J. Gould, “Sociobiology: The Art of Storytelling.” New Scientist 80 (1978): 530-33.
 See Lewis, Collected Letters, ed. W. Hooper, 3 vols. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004-7), 1:231.
 Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Centenary Press, 1940), chapters 1 and 5.
 Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938; Macmillan Paperback, 1970), 67, 95, 100, 110-11, 120-24, 142-43; for the quotation, 144.
 Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 15-22, 76, 97-102, 246-50, 259-82; The Lost Road and Other Writings (HME 5), 1987.
Charles A. Huttar (Ph.D., Northwestern University) is Professor of English Emeritus at Hope College. He has published extensively on Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (as well as a variety of other subjects, especially in medieval and early modern literature and art). Before moving to Hope, he taught for eleven years at Gordon College. He is the editor of Imagination and the Spirit (1971) and co-editor of Word and Story in C. S. Lewis (1991, 2007) and The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams (1996), both of which received the Mythopoeic Society’s Scholarship Award. His photographs of Lewis and Tolkien have also been published. His primary book project currently is a study of the mythography of metamorphosis in C. S. Lewis’s writings.