Whatever else they had in common and apart, one of the features of the central Inklings–J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams–is that they each have left their Arthuriad incomplete. In the case of Tolkien and Lewis, they abandoned early narrative poetry that retold the Matter of Britain and moved on to the other things that made them famous. This should not mislead the reader into thinking they had moved on from Arthur. In this post, blog host Brenton Dickieson offers a rather extensive survey of the subtle Arthurian themes and images that run through Lewis’ entire project of fiction and literary history. He then sets down his serious pen to consider where Lewis may have turned to next, had he lived past his besetting illness of 1963. Perhaps best read as a partner to Gabriel Schenk’s excellent work, this post gives the reader of Lewis a resource to think about his fiction in new ways.
David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor
At a first reading, the reader would not know how important the whole Arthurian world was to C. S. Lewis. A glance at my bookshelf suggests that Lewis’ only immediately identifiable Arthurian story is That Hideous Strength. If, however, I consider unpublished pieces, his literary criticism, and his work that includes literature evocative of Arthur, the shelf begins to fill out. In my chapter for The Inklings and King Arthur, I survey Lewis’ Arthuriad in order to provide readers with a background for the various Lewis papers in the book, and to set up my own argument about how Lewis used other kinds of books (check it out—I’m pretty proud of that chapter). I wanted to share part of that survey a bit more broadly, while also taking some time to speculate in a way I can’t do in a book. Readers here will understand that I am merely playing with possibilities and that this is offered up mostly for conversation and a chance to use our imaginations.
For simplicity sake, I divided Lewis’ writing into three identifiable periods in which Lewis’ Arthurian adoration produces Arthurian work, and one more in which the grand Arthurian universe leaks into the literature he is working on. I think this will show that although Lewis only published a single Arthurian retelling—and a very loose one at that—Lewis’ work is filled with the Matter of Britain. After the lengthy survey, I then offer up the speculation of what might have come next from Lewis’ pen, if he had remained healthy. Readers can also look at my digital humanities posts about Lewis’ writing for a link we don’t get in the book, and I’d love to hear what others might irresponsibly suggest might have come next from Lewis. And this post is a bit incomplete as Don King’s critical edition of Lewis’ poetry came out after I had written the chapter; I think the survey does pretty well though, and should be read after Gabriel Schenk’s Lewis Arthuriana post. And I would encourage you to read the comments. Other Lewis scholars have come in to sharpen my response with clarifications, cautions, and additions (things I didn’t know about).
Stage One: 1915-1925
The first Arthurian period was in Lewis’ late teens. As Gabriel Shenk describes well, and as I survey a bit in my 1916 post, he discovered Malory while being tutored in preparation for Oxford entrance (Sayer 98-104). Some of this Arthurian imagery finds its way to his poetry of the era. Spirits in Bondage (1919), with poems collected at the close of World War I, contains the best of his pubescent poetry.
Lewis teenage poetry–and the poetry of his whole life–is filled with Greek, Irish, and Norse mythology, with echoes of Homer, Beowulf, the Edda, and the Matter of France. Faërie and the medieval world haunt Spirits in Bondage, and twice Arthur is evoked openly. The first is a Twilight of the Gods poem, “Victory,” in which “Roland is dead, Cuchulain’s crest is low” (line 1). Helen and Iseult turn to dust, the fairy woods are empty, Tritan has abandoned the seas, and “Arthur sleeps far hence in Avalon” (8). Avalon is evoked elsewhere in “the mists apart” (“Irish Nocturne” 17), and more overtly as the “Isle of Apples” (“Death in Battle” 3).
Curator of Lewis’ poetic project, Don W. King, has posthumously published Lewis’ most specifically Arthurian extent poem of the period. It begins:
Oh Galahad! My Galahad!
The world is old and very sad,
The world is old and gray with pain
And all the ways thereof are bad (“Lost but Found” 181; lines 1-4).
If King’s date of Christmas 1916 is correct, the poem “Decadence” reflects not only the insatiable war that was consuming Europe and would soon vie for Lewis’ future—captured in titles of poems with Arthurian romance references like “Victory” and “Death in Battle”—but also a literary death that Lewis was mourning at the time: the death of his first attempt at a novel.
During Easter holidays in 1915, sixteen-year-old Lewis began calling his childhood friend Arthur Greeves by the gallant, religious-tinged name “Galahad” (Letters I 115). On Oct 12th, 1916, Lewis wrote to Arthur-Galahad, saying that
“As to Bleheris, he is dead and I shan’t trouble his grave” (Letters I 232).
This “Bleheris” is The Quest of Bleheris, an Arthurian prose tale written in short chapters and sent to Arthur throughout Lewis’ eighteenth year (1916). The serial epic is intentionally constructed in archaic English—as in Tennyson, Morris, and Spenser before him—telling the tale of a young man adrift in his appointed social station who is then suddenly thrust into the adventure of a real quest. Lewis finally buries “Bleheris”—a book that had been suffering for some time—after seventeen chapters. He promises Arthur-Galahad that he will write something soon, though he warns that he is “rather taken up with verse at present” (Letters I 232). Spirits in Bondage emerged out of the turn to verse, though none of the poems sustain a narrative. Lewis’ narrative poem Dymer (1926), written in the years following the war, has little explicitly Arthurian material, though it reads like the medieval allegorical romances that were part of the classic Arthuriad.
Stage Two: 1928-1935
Lewis’ first Arthurian period was a result of his discovery of Malory and the other Arthurian authors in his teenage years. His second Arthurian period was coincidental with his relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien. There are great chapters about Tolkien’s own Arthuriad in The Inklings and King Arthur. On Lewis’ part, his  Arthurian works in this period are the incomplete verse narrative, “Launcelot” (Narrative Poems 93-101), and the academic volume, The Allegory of Love (1935). “The Nameless Isle” and “Queen of Drum” from the late 20s-early 30s have some parallels with the Mordred-Guinevere storyline in the Arthuriad, but are not properly Arthurian romances. The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) is Arthurian in flavour to the extent that it shares features of romance, shared allegorical imagery, and knightly valour with its urtext, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Because Lewis abandoned “Launcelot” early in its creation—it ends at line 296 in a moment of mounting suspense—it is difficult to know the extent of the narrative, but you can read it for yourself in the Dark Tower and Other Stories collection or in some of the poetry anthologies of Lewis’ work. What remains is a narrative that builds upon Malory and Tennyson’s characters, but with new elements to the quest (King 140-145). After a long delay and Guinever’s anxious waiting for Launcelot, first Gawain and then Launcelot return, but they are changed. The most interesting aspect of the poem may be the promising exploration of posttraumatic stress disorder—or “Shell Shock”—though it is it is possible that it was not war specifically that causes the psychologically problematic trauma.
The twentieth century introduced a golden age of Arthurian studies. While not lacking in critical reflection about the Arthuriad, previous generations were most important for their reworking of Arthurian romances and figures into their own art and literature. By the time Lewis’ magnificent book The Allegory of Love was released in 1936, the academic conversation was underway, though Lewis was at the beginning of a renewal in modern scholarship storyline/narrative taking Spenser’s Faerie Queene seriously.
Indeed, Lewis remained interested in Spenser’s Arthurian allegory throughout his life. He devoted a full chapter of The Allegory of Love and a half chapter in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954) to The Faerie Queene. He also wrote essays on Spenser in 1931, 1954, 1961, and 1963, and used Spenser as a case study in both The Discarded Image and Studies in Words. In 1967, Alistair Fowler drew together and completed C. S. Lewis’ Cambridge lectures on Spenser (Spenser’s Images of Life), and I think there is merit for a full Spenser-Lewis edited volume for someone dedicated to the study.
Beyond Spenser, The Allegory of Love considers Arthurian stories throughout, as it discusses with medieval courtly love literature, including the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Usk, Malory, and the authors of the Roman de la Rose and Gawain and the Green Knight. Some of these stories were all but lost to scholarship, and Lewis’ attention to them would have caused a chuckle by some more traditionalist critics.
Stage Three: 1935-1947
That second period of Arthurian-connected work of the late 1920s through the mid-1930s did not immediately produce definitively Arthurian fiction. The first Arthurian period emerged out of Lewis’ friendship with Arthur and his discovery of Malory. The second period coincides with his friendship with Tolkien and his academic work in courtly love poetry. Lewis’ third Arthurian period was connected with his friendship with Charles Williams, which began when Allegory of Love was going to print in 1935, and with his discovery of the value of science fiction in telling worldview-laced stories.
Charles Williams first captured Lewis’ imagination with his supernatural thriller, The Place of the Lion. Over the next decade, until Williams’ death, Lewis became intimate with Williams’ incomplete Arthuriad, specifically the poetry of Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), in supernatural novels like War in Heaven (1930), and in didactic form in the unfinished Arthurian Torso—edited and published posthumously by Lewis himself, who provided a commentary to the difficult text. And, of course, this is the period of the Ransom Cycle, beginning with the space romance (adventure tale), Out of the Silent Planet (1937). Dr. Ransom, the hero of the Cycle and the focus of much of my chapter, takes on biblical and Arthurian mythic elements in Perelandra (1943) before he emerges as Pendragon That Hideous Strength (1945)—certainly Lewis’ most overtly Arthurian tale in print.
Stage Four: 1949-1954
This final period I have set aside from the other three because it does not produce specifically or identifiably Arthurian work, and yet it is rich in the textures of Arthur. The period, roughly 1949-1954, covers the publication of English Literature in the Sixteen Century (OHEL) and The Chronicles of Narnia. Arthur and the matter of Britain is considered throughout, as Lewis spent fifteen to twenty years studying sixteenth-century texts, many of which evoke courtly themes and Arthurian tales either implicitly or explicitly. Lewis describes how the rise of humanism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century transformed and reacted to the Medieval worldview of their predecessors. King Arthur’s court was in danger of imaginative death, but was rescued by authors like John Bale and John Leland, who painted Arthur in Protestant colours. There was space, then, for Spenser and Milton. The text of his Sixteenth Century was complete by summer of 1952, at the end of a sabbatical.
By 1949, a number of features may have coalesced for Lewis: his work in the sixteenth century generally and Spenser specifically, the editorial and commentary work on Williams’ Arthuriad, a new reading of Malory’s Morte Darthur with the release of Eugène Vinaver’s production of the Winchester manuscript in 1947, a lifetime of reading tales about chivalry, and a struggle to work out a children’s fairy tale.
This context allows for a particular consideration of the Narnian chronicles, written between 1949 and 1953. Doubtless, they are tales of chivalry. At least three of them are structured like knight’s quests, and the characters have opportunities to show knightly valour in each of the seven chronicles. They are each royal tales, though not all occur in court, with elements of “‘high style’ diction reminiscent of Sir Thomas Malory” (Ward 4). Without going deeply into the tales, a few examples will highlight the Arthurian quality of Narnia.
The “high style” diction focuses at various points, particularly at the close of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), during the scenes in the Calormene court in The Horse and His Boy (1954), and in moments of pomp and circumstance. Peter, Edmund, Caspian, Rilian, and (probably) Tirian are knight-kings, like Arthur. The example of knights is held up throughout the chronicles by dwarfs and talking beasts as well as humans. The pilgrims in The Silver Chair (1953) are not surprised to meet a Lady and a Knight upon the road, and the scoundrel Rabadash is held to a knight’s standard when his case is weighed by King Lune: “you have proved yourself no knight, but a traitor and one rather to be whipped by the hangman than to be suffered to cross swords with any person of honour” (Horse and His Boy 164).
The Horse and His Boy is one of the quest tales. Shasta is clearly the hero, yet the title notes Lewis’ inversive humour. Since the horse, Bree, is a decorated war horse and a Narnian of honour, the title may also hint at the idea of Shasta as Bree’s squire, a relationship evocative of Malory’s tales. The hero Reepicheep, a member of the Most Noble Order of the Lion (along with the Pevensie kings), defines honour in chivalrous terms and even challenges the hapless Eustace—doubtless better at economics than swordplay—to a duel. Indeed, Reepicheep takes chivalry to such a degree that his chess game suffered when he would sacrifice his knight or castle to save the queen, as a courtly mouse is bound to do (Dawn Treader 55). Though occasionally fierce, he was not unkind. When the bedragoned Eustace was feeling low because of his failure, Reepicheep stuck with him and said that:
…if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia (it was really a hole not a house and the dragon’s head, let alone his body, would not have fitted in) he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterwards. (Dawn Treader 81-82)
No other quotation, perhaps, captures the breadth of the Narnian Arthurian narrative landscape than this one. The impetuous chivalry of Reepicheep can create trouble, as does the hasty honour of King Tirian and the unicorn Jewel in The Last Battle (1956). Moreover, Narnia is almost completely devoid of courtly love tales, with the exception of the parody of one at the Tashbaan court in The Horse and His Boy. In general, however, the moral universe of Narnia is ordered by chivalric honour.
The Magician’s Nephew (1955) is the least Arthurian of the chronicles; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) is the most influenced by the Matter of Britain. While the goal of the Dawn Treader is to search for lost kings, Sir Reepicheep is bound in his heart by a quest to the world’s end. The quest is evocative of the search for the Holy Grail, especially when Reepicheep tosses away his superfluous sword at the end of the quest: it lands upright in the sea, a moment that evokes the bookends of King Arthur’s career.
Also in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy is drawn into a task to save the Dufflepuds from their invisibility. As she flips through a magic book, she comes to a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit” (121). She reads the loveliest story she’s ever encountered, but when tempted to reread it, she founds she is unable to go back to the first page. And when she tries to remember the story, it fades from page and memory: “And even this last page is going blank. This is a very queer book. How can I have forgotten? It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, I know that much. But I can’t remember and what shall I do?” (121). It is, perhaps, a grail story that she has forgotten—and perhaps the grail story that connects the Arthurian Hallows with the Golgotha of history and Aslan’s How of Narnia. These were the kinds of links that Lewis liked to make. At the beginning of Dawn Treader, thinking back to the revolutionary tale Prince Caspian (1951), the narrator says:
“Consequently, when the Pevensie children had returned to Narnia last time for their second visit, it was (for the Narnians) as if King Arthur came back to Britain, as some people say he will. And I say the sooner the better” (15).
Arthurian Critical Work
Across these four life stages, Lewis wrote essays and lectures on Arthurian-related topics throughout his life, some of which I have already hinted at. The Discarded Image, published posthumously, is a collection of Lewis’ “Prolegomena” lectures, which he gave almost yearly at Oxford between 1931-32 and his departure for Cambridge in 1954 (“The Lectures of C. S. Lewis” 447-453). Arthur is one of the topics both in the Prolegomena and in the medieval poetry that The Discarded Image introduces. There are several Arthuriana essays and reviews in Image and Imagination, written during World War II (125-136; 137-146) or in 1960-63 (217-222; 223-232; 248-276). Much of Studies of Medieval and Renaissance Literature references Arthur or focuses on Arthurian texts—typically written in the periods of WWII, 1954-56, and 1960-63—some of which I discuss pretty extensively in the chapter. “The Anthropological Approach” fits also into this latter period and tests a modern literary approach upon medieval texts, including some in the Arthuriad. Lewis also frequently used King Arthur, Arthurian literature, or the Arthurian world as examples in his popular essays.
What Was Coming Next?
There is, perhaps, a discernable pattern of Arthurian influence in Lewis’ life, his reflection on the topic, and then imaginative work that emerges from it. Lewis encounters Malory as a teenager and immediately begins trying to write an Arthurian tale (stage one). Lewis befriends Tolkien while he is working on a history of medieval love poetry, and Lewis again struggles to capture his own Arthurian story in narrative form (stage two). Lewis befriends Williams, writes critically about Williams’ Arthuriad, and then writes his own explicitly Arthurian tale (stage three). With the death of Williams, Lewis’ focussed work on his Sixteenth Century volume, and the publication of Vinaver’s Morte D’Arthur in 1947, Lewis created a world very much patterned after the best of Arthurian romances (stage four).
As there is a new concentration of Arthurian academic work in 1960-63, following his marriage and subsequent bereavement, it could be that a recovery of Arthurian critical work in of fiction work Do they help us peek ahead to what might have come from his dip pen if he had survived his illness of 1963?
The last half of the 1950s was rich for Lewis in more ways than the success of Narnia, which was largely complete by 1953. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was finally published, Lewis’ own books were well received, he recently came off a much-needed sabbatical, he finally finished OHEL (reducing his workload) Beyond these, letter-writing had settled down a little after an uprush in the Narnian period, and his wife had convinced him that he could be cleverer about his publishing career. This led to new essays like “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” (1959), a couple of new editions of Miracles, a lecture series on The Four Loves that spins off into a book, and a number of collections of past essays like They Asked for a Paper (1961) and Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Essays (finally appears in 1965), and rewrites of lectures into full books like Studies in Words (1958) and The Discarded Image (1963).
If we were only following a publication pattern, Lewis looks a little flat in the late 50s with a sudden spike after his wife died. What we see when we actually narrow in one when Lewis was working on things—as we do in my “Cheat Sheet”—we see a steady growth in completed work up until the fall after Joy died, and then a rest. Lewis became ill in parts of 1961 to 1963, but as Joe Hoffman’s chart recognizes, Lewis typically operated with a rest period after a high-output period. If we imagine that Lewis got well in 1963 instead of passing away, where would have turned?
I would argue that we may have seen some further Arthurian work emerge in the mid-1960s, had he lived (cf Green & Hooper 292-293). Lewis wrote Letters to Malcolm at an up point in 1963 and edited the lectures that become The Discarded Image—essays largely about the medieval world behind Arthur. 1960 to 1963 were rich in Arthurian essays, and we see that Lewis’ nonfiction was linked to periods of fruitful fiction writing. Here are some thoughts—completely offered as right-field speculation—of what Lewis might have turned to in the 1960s.
- It is highly likely that Lewis would have eventually done what Alastair Fowler did in Spenser’s Images of Life. That little book brings together Lewis’ lectures on Spenser and fills them out in narrative style. Lewis may have done this and included Spenser essays that were printed in posthumous volumes.
- Lewis had a way of coming back to old stories. The Cupid & Psyche myth resonated in him until Till We Have Faces clicked. He worked on a memoir numerous times before he settled on the philosophical approach in Surprised by Joy. I suspect that Lewis never really kept a file of projects, but when he encountered his journals or notes that might have inspired something new. What past projects might have been resurrected?
- Along the Arthurian line, Lewis may have returned to the possibilities in his Launcelot poem, but may have found a prose adventure tale more suitable (I don’t know if he ever attempted long-form poetry after the early 30s). Certainly, as the 20th century wore on, there has been a good readership of Arthurs retold.
- When it comes to other types of romances, the unpublished “Nameless Isle” and “Queen of Drum” may have come back to Lewis.
- I doubt that Lewis would have ever drawn his poetry together into single books as later editors did. Not only did he lack the skill and love of editing—the only books he edited for others were two of his most important influences, Charles Williams and George MacDonald—but Lewis had in a sense given up his life as a poet. Most of the poetry that he published was printed pseudonymously or otherwise veiled, though in 1961 and 1963 Lewis’ publisher suggested returning to publishing the poetry.
- Not Arthurian, Lewis may have turned attention to the unfinished manuscript of what posthumous editors called “After Ten Years.” This is a retelling of the Helen of Troy legend that is suggestive of rich literary and thematic possibilities if treated like Till We Have Faces.
- Given the books he was reading in the 1960s—besides the work of his correspondents they were mostly things he had read before—I wouldn’t be surprised if Lewis turned either to critical work on Arthurian poets—perhaps even taking a more detailed swing at the new Malory manuscript work—or to another devotional book like Malcolm or Reflections on the Psalms.
Or, Lewis may have done something entirely surprising. Narnia seemed to come out of nowhere, though it was growing in him for years. Out of the Silent Planet landed on a bet. Who knows what a healthy body might have allowed for this lithe mind. I have the suspicion that something Arthurian or Arthur-tinged might have tumbled out of Lewis’ storytelling pen–partly because of the pattern of his writing, but also because it feels that his Arthuriad is incomplete. The lament of the second stanza of Lewis’ teenage poem, “Decadence,” begins with these words,
“The bows of story stand unstrung….”
In the end, whatever Lewis might have turned to, and granting that That Hideous Strength is an Arthur book, Lewis’ Arthuriad is one of these unstrung bows.
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Williams, Charles. The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem. Ed. Sørina Higgins. Berkeley: Apocryphal Press, 2014. Print.
 The incomplete and unpublished MS. of “The Quest of Bleheris” is available at the Bodleian, MS. Eng. lett. c. 220/5. I have prepared a transcription, which I hope to publish soon and am presenting at the Taylor conference with a panel on Bleheris in June.
 See chapter one, “The Matter of Britain in the Works of Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams” by Sørina Higgins; chapter eight, “The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur” by Cory Grewell; chapter ten, “The Stripped Banner: Reading The Fall of Arthur as a Post-World War I Text” by Taylor Driggers; and chapter thirteen, “In the World Walking for the Woe of Men: Guinever in The Fall of Arthur” by Alyssa House-Thomas.
 Williams also wrote a number of Arthurian poems in the 1920s; Lewis does not take these into account in Arthurian Torso. I would argue that The Chapel of the Thorn, Williams’ 1912 dramatic poem only recently published, is a kind of grail story, and thus in the spectrum of Arthurian tales. See The Chapel of the Thorn.
 See also chapter eleven, “Arthurian Waste Lands and Renewal in Lewis and Eliot” by Jon Hooper, which explores Arthurian and quest imagery in the Narniad in great detail.
 Green and Hooper (252) note “the plenteous riches of the Arthurian Cycle” in the table and the stone knife. They also add that the Ramandu’s kingdom is patterned after the Fisher King’s castle. In reading a draft of this chapter, Charles Huttar noted that Walter Hooper records a conversation in which Lewis said that Aslan’s “brightness and a sweet odour” found their source in medieval grail descriptions (Past Watchful Dragons 97).