Arthurian Literature and the Old Everyman’s Library, by Dale Nelson

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:

[1] “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: [2]

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 [3] 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.

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That Hideous Graph: Joe Hoffman Enhances the Data from my C.S. Lewis Writing Schedule Cheatsheet

Over the last couple of years, I have been slowly applying lessons from the Digital Humanities to my work. Part of that project has been rethinking C.S. Lewis’ bibliography. Specifically, I wanted to shift my thinking from when a book was published to when Lewis was working on various writing projects.

Lewis was a quick writer, and sometimes that timeframe was short, like the two weeks he took on vacation to write The Pilgrim’s Regress in 1932. Other projects took years, like the Oxford History of English Literature volume, 16th Century Literature, Excluding Drama, which took 20 years from commision to publication and earned its nickname, OHEL. Other books were lifetime commitments, like his “Prolegomena” lectures in the early 1930s that developed over time to the last book Lewis would complete, his absolutely essential The Discarded Image. Lewis’ book-writing schedule, then, ranged from 2 weeks to 3 decades, and a simple bibliography won’t do.

That is why I made the “Cheat Sheet,” allowing me to chart Lewis’ activities and draw conclusions. My post, “The Periods of C.S. Lewis’ Literary Life,” is an example of the kind of subtle shift that careful attention to data can allow. This month I found Jane Chance’s Tolkien, Self and Other “This Queer Creature” (2016), which leans on critical theory and an approach to Tolkien’s writing like my approach to Lewis’ literary project. An example of the deceptiveness of only using a bibliographic timeline is evident in Chance’s book, which was published on such-and-such a date in 2016, but represents decades of work and years of papers.

Ultimately, I am building a timeline that will show C.S. Lewis’ writing schedule in visual form, including the essays and major poems. I don’t anticipate that I’ll complete that project for a couple of years, but I threw my data model out into the blogosphere to see what others would come up with. Joe Hoffman answered that call–not with new analysis based on my graphics, but by creating his own graphic of the periods of Lewis’ life and the kind of writing he did with a subtly different metric. The vertical axis is the sum of the number of works Lewis had in progress that year, each divided by the number of years in which he was working on it.

I would encourage you to check out his entire post here, which is funny and suggestive of future work. Joe even threatens to use a Gantt chart, which is what the primitive version of my timeline will look like.

This is the world of Digital Humanities: an open approach to building knowledge. Now it’s your turn.

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Thesis Theater Monday, Feb 26: Rob Gosselin on Tolkien’s Sub-creative Vision

It is my pleasure to announce that my student, Rob Gosselin, has completed his thesis at Signum University. Rob’s topic is both fascinating and personal, where he explores how J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “subcreation” works when we move outside of literary worlds. The title is, “J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sub-creative Vision: Exploring the Capacity and Applicability in Tolkien’s Concept of Sub-creation.” You should consider attending if:

  • you would like to explore the foundation of your desire to express creativity in any form–not just writing, but visual arts, performing arts, game design, research, or anything that comes from your vocation as an artist
  • you are approaching your own thesis project, as Rob will share some of his difficult journey to the end of the paper
  • you have an interest in the way that Tolkien thought about his work
  • you have loved Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoiea” (which you can read here)

As Signum is a digital university, our tradition is to host a “thesis theatre” for students to share their work. Attending is free, and you will have a chance to ask questions. I am going to host the discussion, and I look forward to seeing you there, Monday, Feb 26 at 7pm EST.

Thesis Abstract

Sub-creation is an idea fundamental to understanding Tolkien’s oeuvre. In his draft letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien writes the remarkable statement that “the whole matter [of my myth] from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation” (Letters 188). However, Tolkien’s ideas about sub-creation continue to perplex readers and scholars of his work.

This essay represents my effort to address the apparent obscurities associated with Tolkien’s concept, which has also had a significant impact on myself and my creative work. I begin my analysis by examining Tolkien’s three main “sub-creation texts”: (1) His essay “On Fairy-stories”; (2) His short story “Leaf by Niggle”; (3) His poem “Mythopoeia.” In addition to Tolkien’s sub-creation “trilogy” of texts, I explore the mythic story of Aulë’s making of the Dwarves in The Silmarillion because Aulë’s story provides a vivid depiction of Tolkien’s vast sub-creative vision and serves as an embodiment of his concept of the sub-creator or “little maker” (“Mythopoeia” 128). Finally, I make an autoethnographic turn, examining my own story of sub-creation in which I demonstrate my own attempts to apply Tolkien’s sub-creative vision in my life through my self-publishing efforts as an indie game-designer as well as through the writing of this thesis.

My controlling purpose in the essay is to articulate the expansiveness of Tolkien’s sub-creative vision and the sustaining significance of the poem “Mythopoeia” to understanding sub-creation because it universalizes Tolkien’s concept of the sub-creator.

About the Presenter

Rob Gosselin received his B.Ed. and his B.S. from the University of Regina and his M.A. at Signum University. He is currently a senior science teacher in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan, where he lives with his wife Jenny and their two kids. Aside from teaching and his scholarly endeavours at Signum, Rob can often be found designing a new game for his game company, Birdlight Games, or learning to play a new musical instrument. He is a lifelong lover of games, a cappella, hiking, Ultimate Frisbee, slacklining, dance, and chess.

Update: Video of the Conversation

Suggested Readings

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Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and Me

On Wednesday we all received news of Billy Graham’s passing. There were few figures my mother loathed more than the Rev. Billy Graham. It was the politics that she couldn’t stand, taking the position that given his public support of people like Richard Nixon, he was either a naïve or a despicable person: in either case he shouldn’t be speaking with authority. Intriguingly, she shrugged off the revivals, and may have simply passed them off as sheep being sheep in a culture with stadium-sized pastures. When as a young adult I became the kind of Christian that called Billy Graham a partner; we simply never mentioned his name again.

I was never able to have the kind of ire or idolization for Billy Graham that others have. As a child I felt mild annoyance that his revivals would take evening slots on one of only two television stations, but it’s hard to be reasonably mad about that for long. Given the hypocritical lifestyles of American TV preachers in my early teen years and the predatory traditions of pastors that hit the news ever month or so, Billy Graham looked pretty good in his modest Sears suit with his southern disinclination to bluster.

Later, as a pastor and scholar, my views became more complex. Although I have friends that had their lives changed in the crusades—including some quite recently—working in pastoral support for these events became increasingly disturbing. The preaching was too often about whether or not people were really saved, and less about Jesus. I always enjoyed the music, but working in crowds of 10 or 15 people who came forward, trying to help them process their feelings—it was not something that I saw could build lifelong discipleship. Some of this is that the next generation is now in charge, and the way that Franklin Graham manages his social media profile may be some indication that the organization’s culture has shifted. But the mass-model conversion itself is Billy Graham’s framework.

In scholarly networks I began to hear rumours from people closer to the Graham epicentre, rumours that suggested that at the core, Billy Graham seemed to live consistently with his ideals and that he and his wife shared something special. These are just rumours, and we would expect that a person in power will have flaws, but I used that assumption when I set Graham up as a figure of importance in teaching about Western Christian history.

Graham leveraged early superstardom to do very specific things that shaped American Christianity for the next three generations. In particular, Graham’s insistent and consistent ecumenism, his global interest, and his unapologetic views of racial integration—even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail—are imprinted upon post-WWII American Christianity. In particular, it was Billy Graham who shaped what is now known as evangelicalism, distinct from and overlapping with both fundamentalism and mainstream liberalism. With all the things we may quibble about, for millions of people around the world, Graham made faith personal.

This legacy can be forgotten in the anti-Muslim Facebook ravings of Franklin Graham or in a media franchise insistent on knowing as little as possible about the diverse realities of evangelicalism. In 2012 I opposed Graham’s endorsement of Mitt Romney’s candidacy—not because Romney is Mormon, but because the narrow end-game of choosing an issue or two (in this case same-sex marriage) would mean choosing candidates who were unfit for office in other ways. I was concerned that American evangelicals might sacrifice something greater to a narrow end-game. Given the 2016 election, I think I am right. More importantly, though, a staffer from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association office began a series of conversations with me by phone to try and explain their position and win me to their view of things. Disagreement about politics and strategy aside, that Graham’s organization would invest time in a pretty unimportant Christian leader like myself is indicative of a cultural value that might be transformative to the next generation’s work.

I don’t know what Billy Graham’s passing will mean for the organization, but I do hope that his complicated legacy will include the good that he has done. It was as a scholar of religion that I turned to both Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, and I think a note about their connections is worthwhile.

They met once at Graham’s invitation. Here is how Lewis described the meeting in an interview for Decision Magazine:

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955, while he was conducting a mission to students. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.

Despite an apoplectic response by sensible Brits in the intellectual elite, the Cambridge meeting was encouraging to the students who had invited him and transformative to Graham’s approach to student ministry. The interviewer’s question to Lewis wasn’t actually about the meeting with Graham, but about what Lewis thought about revivalist preachers like Billy Graham. Lewis was not someone in great sympathy with the revivalist tradition, and this answer could look like a dodge. But Lewis went on to discuss Graham’s ministry in an unusual way:

In a civilization like ours, I feel that everyone has to come to terms with the claims of Jesus Christ upon his life, or else be guilty of inattention or of evading the question. In the Soviet Union it is different. Many people living in Russia today have never had to consider the claims of Christ because they have never heard of those claims.

In the same way, we who live in English-speaking countries have never really been forced to consider the claims, let us say, of Hinduism. But in our Western civilization we are obligated both morally and intellectually to come to grips with Jesus Christ; if we refuse to do so we are guilty of being bad philosophers and bad thinkers.

The interview was in 1963 when Lewis was not well, and this is not the grandest vision of preaching that Lewis ever cast upon the world. He took the interview, perhaps, because Decision Magazine was reprinting part of Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain, and Lewis was grateful to the attention to his late wife’s work. Speaking more generally of revivalist preachers, Lewis contrasted his own vocation with theirs. In response to a critique of Mere Christianity and other words by General Theological Seminary professor Norman Pittenger (see here on the Pittenger debate), Lewis explained what he felt called to do:

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator – one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuanced, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities—in fact, a style more like Dr Pittenger’s own—would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”).

I believe this to be a cutaway from a Cambridge meeting photo with Billy Graham (left), John Stott (centre), and Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher (right)

It is not a denial of the role of this kind of preaching, but it is an implicit criticism. The criticism, though, has to do with the quality of the preaching–not the style–and Lewis struck out most often at the high-browed clergy who were not able to translate the gospel into terms that everyone could understand. Lewis suggested a change to that approach:

I sometimes think that all entrants for the preaching office shd. be faced with an exam in which they are set a passage from some standard theological work and told to translate it into language that the People can understand (28 Jul 1962 letter to Walter van der Kamp).

Whatever else Billy Graham was, he was someone who could preach with a broad congregation in mind.

He was also someone who, like Lewis, knew his vocation—and knew it to be radically different that Lewis’, whose role was to invite people into an imaginative and reasonable response to faith, using tools other than revival-style preaching.

Where they differed most, however, was in their approach to social life. While both men built a public career upon social spaces of power, Billy Graham was unique in leveraging his platform for political movements. Graham opposed the USSR and its brand of communism, supported integration and shared a pulpit with Martin Luther King, Jr., and was pastor, friend, or prayer partner to every President from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. Graham was a member of the Democratic party, stumped for candidates, and openly endorsed people he thought should be President. Billy Graham’s legacy will always include a particular leveraging of power—not just to share the central message of Christ, but to shape what he saw was the best for America.

C.S. Lewis’ approach to politics was quite different. Though Lewis had views that might be shaded as progressive today—such as a critique of Britain’s colonial project, animal rights activism, support for socialized health care, a rejection of teetotalism, his openness to homosexuals as people worth of dignity, his willingness to leverage generous immigration laws, and a rejection of social status as a test for access to justice—his cast of mind was conservative. He loved the past, living in other ages (though not uncritically), and his own father had toyed with political office as a Conservative. Famously, Lewis and Tolkien openly rejected progress for the sake of progress. Later in his life, the post-war Labour government’s bungling of austerity measures and social organization sealed him in as a party man, though he was very private about that status.

A key example of that anxiety about retaining his political privacy came in December 1951, just after Winston Churchill recovered his Conservative party’s position in parliament. C.S. Lewis received a letter from Prime Minister Churchill offering to recommend him for the Honours List of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Lewis’ response to the PM’s office is overly-cautious but indicative of his state of mind about taking a public political stand:

I feel greatly obliged to the Prime Minister, and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be highly agreeable. There are always however knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there. I am sure the Prime Minister will understand my reason, and that my gratitude is and will be none the less cordial.

Correspondence with American fans and his students throughout the world would help Lewis put politics in a more global scale, but after his WWII-era controversialist period, he resisted any opportunity to allow his name to be linked with divisive politics.

Lewis is not a total recluse from society, but after WWII he appeared in public very few times. In the summer of 1956, he attended a garden party given by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, and he gave a couple of short literary talks on the BBC in his last decade of life. After WWII, though, his most significant public event was his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954, where he cast himself as a dinosaur. Though he is being cheeky, and his own political views would challenge the comfort of those both on the left and the right, it is a decidedly anti-public stance to make. In 1939 Lewis wrote that,

“no inference can be drawn from [my theology of creation] to any political proposition whatsoever” (Problem of Pain, ch. 7).

I think he was wrong about his theology, but his desire to distance himself on the verge of WWII—when “left” mean communism and “right” meant fascism—is not a terribly bad move.

Lewis’ mission can be stated in the preface of Mere Christianity:

Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.

While Lewis breaks that rule often enough in his speculative theology, he never plays denominations off one another and he never equates his faith with political ideology.

Billy Graham’s approach is much different, and he felt duty-bound to apply his theological perspective to his political place of power. This might be rejecting same-sex marriage in 2012, standing opposed to the Moral Majority of the late 70s, or making this now famous statement to a Ku Klux Klansman in the 50s:

“The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

Graham and Lewis were quite different as public figures. Intriguingly, what unites the two is the story of what shapes evangelicalism in America. Graham shaped American evangelical culture as it emerged from fundamentalism after WWII by public preaching and organizational activities, like founding Christianity Today. Though less important in Britain, Canada, and Australia, Lewis’ books—and Mere Christianity in particular—were essential to building faith in those that wanted to root themselves in Scripture but rejected the narrowness of fundamentalism.

Indeed, Christianity Today’s list of the “Top 50 Books That Shaped Evangelicals” places Mere Christianity 3rd behind Donald McGavern’s book that has dominated the way evangelical churches function in North America, and Rosalind Rinker’s book on intimate prayer (which few have read but it has changed everything about the way evangelicals pray). Also telling on that list of books is that #4 is Francis Schaeffer—a disciple of Billy Graham’s—and #5 is J.I. Packer—a disciple of C.S. Lewis’.

While great divergent in public platform and vocation, Lewis and Graham shaped English-speaking evangelicalism in North America like no one else. And because of their commitment to ecumenism over other dividing lines, American evangelicalism is today a surprisingly big tent. As a historian, it is difficult to ignore their impact.

In addition to best wishes to the Graham family and the many that have been touched by his work, I will close with Graham’s own account of his meeting with C.S. Lewis, drawn from his autobiography. I think the excerpt is telling of both C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham.

On Saturday I spoke to the senior members of the university in the afternoon and to the CICCU in the evening. Among the professors I met privately with that day was C.S. Lewis. A decade before, he had captured the imagination of many in England and the United States with his remarkable little book The Screwtape Letters; in 1947 he had been on the cover of Time magazine.

John Stott [who helped organize the meetings in Cambridge] was very anxious for me to meet Professor Lewis and went with me. Lewis was not as well known in the United States as he would become in later years, particularly after his death in 1963. But I had read Screwtape, and Ruth would later read the Chronicles of Narnia series.

We met in the dining room of his college, St. Mary Magdalene’s, and we talked for an hour or more. I was afraid I would be intimidated by him because of his brilliance, but he immediately put me at my ease. I found him to be not only intelligent and witty but also gentle and gracious; he seemed genuinely interested in our meetings. “You know,” he said as we parted, “you have many critics, but I have never met one of your critics who knows you personally” (Just As I Am, 258).

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Inklings and Arthur: An Artist’s Perspective by Emily Austin

As guest editor I can freely say, one of the many delights of this blog is Brenton’s brilliance in finding and selecting examples of book covers of works under discussion, post after post. But today we have the exceptional delight of reading the inside story of how a contemporary artist and designer, Emily Austin, went to work and became the maker of the cover of The Inklings & King Arthur. However discerning your enjoyment of it is already, I warrant it will be deepened and increased, as mine was, by reading this.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor

I had about 36 hours to come up with a cover proposal for The Inklings and King Arthur.

When I found out about the contest (via editor Sørina Higgin’s posts on Twitter), my husband Ryan and I were away from our Indiana home, en route to watch the total solar eclipse in Kentucky. At this point, the contest deadline was two days away, and I wondered whether I’d have time to make anything good. Nevertheless, it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up. That evening, I set to work with sketchbook and pencil, knowing I’d need to come up with a feasible idea soon—or there wouldn’t be time to execute it.

The Challenge

The Inklings famous pub, the Eagle and Child (the Bird and Baby) in 2014, photo by the author

The puzzle of this design lay in combining Inklings and Arthuriana into one seamless and easily-understood image—this is what Sørina’s excellent design brief asked for. I had taken a look at the other entries, and while some were beautiful examples of design, in my view none were quite achieving this sort of integration. I decided that to set my proposal apart, I’d certainly have to draw something, rather than just combine text and stock images.

The evening passed in feverish sketching. Figuring a collage or amalgam of some sort would be necessary, I listed all the words I could think of regarding either the Inklings or Arthurian tales, then started trying out various combinations in quick thumbnail drawings. After a few hours, nothing seemed to be working just right. I put paper and pencil down and crawled, bleary-eyed, into bed.

Then the pipe-smoke idea hit me.

I’m still not precisely sure where the notion came from; at the time my tired brain could only hope to remember the inspiration stroke when I woke the next day. But it was clearly there: the well-known objects of Arthurian lore, emerging from smoke as it rose out of a pipe.

Of course, pipes had appeared in my Inklings word list, and perhaps the smoke-rings of Gandalf and Thorin were lurking in the back of my mind. I could almost picture myself in a corner of the Bird and Baby, or Lewis’s Magdalen rooms, listening as bits of conversation and stories floated through hazy air. Smoke itself is mesmerizing, with its undulating forms and ephemeral nature. I felt it not only represented the Inklings well, but would prove an excellent visual counterpart to the ever-adapting Arthurian stories.

The next challenge was developing all this visually. Our road trip continued, as we departed early the next morning on another several-hour drive. Ryan kindly took the wheel, allowing me to sketch the whole way. Drawing in moving cars is a challenge in itself, but I had a rough draft in pencil by the time we reached Richmond, Kentucky, which was that day’s destination.

As it happened, we were in Richmond to visit fellow Inklings enthusiasts Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait. They knew about the forthcoming book and were excited to hear I was taking a crack at the project. My thanks go out to Jennifer and Edwin and their entire delightful, hospitable family for their encouragement as I worked, and for the use of their kitchen table as a drawing board!

That evening I finished a pen-and-ink version of the drawing, converted it to digital format via photograph, and quickly mocked up a few different versions of the cover. I finished and submitted my initial proposals late that night—wishing I had time to make more adjustments, but hoping that the potential would shine through.

Once my ideas were submitted (and I received a positive initial response from Sørina!), the next step was revising, which meant more editing sessions in the car on the way to our eclipse-viewing location the next day.

Side note: the total solar eclipse was amazing. I can’t help but think now about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which makes the convergence of this project with the eclipse event feel quite appropriate.


Once Ryan and I returned from our weekend adventure, I was able to make further improvements to my design. It went through several iterations, with helpful suggestions from Sørina and others spurring many updates. I added color to the grayscale art, tried out different fonts, created sample inside layouts, and adjusted many, many details. It was a lot of work, and the rush at the beginning meant that I now had to recreate certain elements in order to perfect them. Nevertheless, when I think of the countless hours of research, writing, and editing spent by so many others to produce the book itself, my own investment pales in comparison.

One of the most significant changes involved the pipe itself. When I was making the original drawing, I wanted to show a pipe on its side, so that the image would be subtly grounded in the visual space of the book’s cover. Finding a reference photo at the proper angle proved surprisingly difficult. The image I initially settled on was slightly off from what I wanted, and I wasn’t fully satisfied by the drawing I produced from it. As it turned out, that was the wrong type of pipe for the Inklings anyway. After learning this detail, I searched specifically for pipes smoked by the Inklings, and found images of one C.S. Lewis owned. Now I knew exactly what the pipe should look like. And, since this revision stage happened after we got home, I also had Ryan’s stash of pipes to use as models! The second pipe drawing was much more accurate, both visually and historically.

I based the sword on medieval pieces that I have seen and photographed in museums. It most closely corresponds to examples from the 14th and 15th centuries. As for the grail, that started out very simple, but per Sørina’s request gained a higher degree of ornamentation. I consulted several medieval examples, then made my own version.

Most of this refinement process happened while the voting was ongoing, so I had no idea if my cover would be chosen in the end. Even if it wasn’t, I would have the satisfaction of creating something that I was proud of, for a very worthwhile project. I can’t deny though, that it felt good to have things work out as they did!

Artistic Influences

Aubrey Beardsley, “How Four Queens Found Launcelot Sleeping”

Influence is tricky, even when discussing one’s own work. With that qualifier in mind, I will conclude with a few brief comments on what I see in this particular piece.

Parallels to Tolkien’s own artwork might be drawn, especially with his illustration for The Hobbit entitled “The Trolls” (see below). The lines of the smoke form fascinating curls, suggesting circular movement that contrasts well with the strong upward sense that one gets from the surrounding trees. This is a piece I’ve studied many times, and I find it a wonderful companion to the scene it portrays.

There is also, perhaps, some heritage in the famous illustrations Aubrey Beardsley created for an edition of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Beardsley’s quintessential Art Nouveau lines have always been some of my favorites, and his balance and composition in monochrome is impeccable. I have admired and returned to his work over and over for years.

These are the potential influences I see now; I don’t remember if I thought about them during the creation process. Whether I did or not, I think they represent an appropriate heritage for a design belonging to this particular book.

Emily Austin is a freelance painter, graphic designer, and photographer, as well as a student at Signum University. Among her favorite things are walks in the woods and art commissions from fellow fantasy enthusiasts. More of her work can be seen on, or on Twitter and Instagram under the username @emmekamalei. Emily lives in northern Indiana with her husband Ryan and several mischievous houseplants.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Trolls”

Posted in Guest Blogs, Inklings and Arthur | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Leatherhead and Literary Coincidence, with C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells

I encountered the town of Leatherhead first in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897). It is one of a dozen or so English place names that meant nothing to me as a young reader. As an adult, armed with an atlas–and now in a world filled with nerds nice enough to make maps like the one below–I can trace the movements of the narrator as he survives against all odds in the collapse of his civilization.

As distant as I was to the real places that Wells enjoins with his alien invasion, any close reader of The War of the Worlds will feel the inch-by-inch journey of the refugees on the road. Curiosity at the landing of the Martians is slain by bloodshed, and then the reality sinks in: England, the seat of the greatest civilization on the planet, a nation of such ingenuity and culture and military might that it has retained its domination over the world for centuries, is reduced to ash and clay in the casual rural genocide.

What I didn’t know about The War of the Worlds was that it was working a science fiction angle into the form of an invasion tale that caught on in the late 19th century after George Tomkyns Chesney’s, The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871). While this evocative little book isn’t terribly well written, it seems to have struck at the heart of England’s (and later Europe and America’s) fear of being caught as a superpower in complacency. The Battle of Dorking describes the inch-by-inch defeat of England by an unnamed Germanic country, beginning with the utter destruction of the fleet to the hillside showdown in Surrey. In “On Stories,” Lewis critiqued The War of the Worlds for getting lost in the minutiae of the escape from the Martians in Surrey, and certainly the Dorking tale could have benefited from Lewis’ advice.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that in Chesney the ground zero of The Other Power’s invasion is Dorking, Surrey, while in Wells the Martian invasion begins across the hills in Woking, Surrey. And in each of the invasion tales the characters interact with Leatherhead. There is little doubt that Wells is centring in on Surrey to evoke Chesney’s story, but Wells’ message undercuts Chesney’s ideology at the core. While both Chesney and Wells wrote with morals in mind, Wells’ skill and imaginative scope have meant that his early experiments in “scientific romance” are with us still today.

Thinking of this Leatherhead link, I couldn’t help but remember that epic moment in C.S. Lewis’ life story:

I and one porter had the long, timbered platform of Leatherhead station to ourselves. It was getting just dark enough for the smoke of an engine to glow red on the underside with the reflection of the furnace. The hills beyond the Dorking Valley were of a blue so intense as to be nearly violet and the sky was green with frost. My ears tingled with the cold. The glorious week end of reading was before me. Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—”Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.” That evening I began to read my new book (Surprised by Joy XI).

It was there at Leatherhead in Surrey that Lewis tracks the beginning of his spiritual defeat: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” (SBJ XII). When it comes to his atheism being overcome by God, Lewis talks about “traps everywhere,” “fine nets and stratagems,” and being “annihilated” or “assailed” by his unscrupulous opponent, only being given a momentary “retreat” and the occasional “defence.” “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side” (SBJ XIV). Lewis uses other images for God in his conversion story–angler, hunter, chess master, storyteller–but the military imagery is resonant. “God closed in on me,” Lewis says, using a metaphor that works for most of his pictures of God in the memoir.

“In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in,” Lewis says (SBJ XIV); “I have come to give myself up” Pilgrim John says in The Pilgrim’s Regress (IX.4). As we think of the religious terms of death and surrender in Lewis’ memoir, we must remember their rootedness in everyday life: surrender is, after all, a military metaphor.

And as think of the central role of Leatherhead and Surrey in The War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking, I cannot help but think of Surprised by Joy as an invasion tale in the pattern of Chesney and Wells. Slowly, inch by inch, the Enemy finds his way into the heart of the empire, breaking down defences and revealing the invaded land’s heart to the world. As England’s defences were destroyed in Chesney’s Euro-invasion and Wells’ attack from outer space, so every barrier of resistance is lost in Lewis’ battle against the call of God.

Now, you must at this moment object: Brenton, are you suggesting that Lewis didn’t find Phantastes at Leatherhead station? Is Lewis bending his narrative into place to match a theme in cultural memory?

No, I don’t think that’s how it works. These kinds of literary echoes are far more complex and intuitive.

Lewis really did connect Leatherhead and the area to an important part of his life. Here is a 1929 letter to his best friend, just a year or so before his conversion to theism.

We arrived back from Sussex to day and travelled within a couple of miles of Bookham, all up the Dorking valley which I know so well. It very nearly made me weep, I got such a rich poignant whiff of memory from the old days–Phantastes, Bleheris, Dymer, Papillon, T. Edens Osborne all jumbled up. But as you know, one has the secret of these memories now and knows how to extract the spiritual sweet without falling into mere desire and regret (c. 22 Apr 1929 letter to Arthur Greeves).

Lewis has a whole series of moments like this in 1929 to 1931, each renewed encounter with a book or place or friend setting up the conversion narrative that we have in Surprised by Joy. I am not suggesting that Lewis was bending the narrative; it is more likely that the idea of telling his conversion story as a (softened) invasion tale emerged naturally from his own life of reading. The Leatherhead-Surrey connection is coincidental on one level, but is the kind of literary link that Lewis makes consistently in his life.

It is similar with H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds is clearly patterned after The Battle of Dorking, both in genre (invasion narrative) and in the act of subtly parodying Chesney’s message. But Wells really actually lived in Woking, ground zero of the Martian landing. Like Lewis, Wells had spent his days hiking the Surrey hills, and once wrote to a friend about a new story he was publishing “in which I completely wreck and sack Woking–killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways” (see Phil Klass’ piece here).

There is in H.G. Well’s work both the real-life connection and the echo that shapes the tale. Coincidence? Perhaps, but this is the kind of coincidence that is central to writers that are so intertextually rich, and provides another background for reading C.S. Lewis’ famous conversion story in Surprised by Joy.

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Wood-Woses: Tolkien’s Wild Men and the Green Knight by Ethan Campbell

In his poem, ‘The Son of Lancelot’, Charles Williams imagines a year when ‘Quinquagesima’ Sunday, the last before Lent, coincides with the pagan Lupercalia (15 February). This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the Feast of St. Valentine. And, by good hap, courtly love and penitence are both featured together in Dr. Ethan Campbell’s fascinating exploration of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and what J.R.R. Tolkien makes of what and whom he finds there.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor

J.R.R. Tolkien drew liberally from medieval English sources in constructing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so much so that it’s possible to teach a broad survey of medieval English literature using only his source texts. I have done this myself at The King’s College in New York City, with a course titled (somewhat uncreatively) “Tolkien’s Medieval English Sources.” The reading list featured dozens of works in Old and Middle English, dating from about AD 680 (“Caedmon’s Hymn”) to 1470 (Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur).

The clearest Tolkien sources date back to the early centuries of English literature, from poems written in Old English dialects. For example, the kingdom of Rohan parallels the kingdoms of Denmark and Geatland in Beowulf, down to the name of its king, Théoden, the Old English word for “king.” The hymn “Where Is the Horse and the Rider?” which the Riders of Rohan sing at sunset in The Two Towers is a direct translation from the Old English elegy The Wanderer. Théoden’s speech at the Pelennor fields, “Arise, arise, riders of Théoden,” echoes the great historical poem The Battle of Maldon (where unlike the Riders of Rohan, every last English warrior dies). And Gollum and Bilbo’s “Riddles in the Dark” share the spirit of the clever, often bawdy Anglo-Saxon riddles compiled in the 10th-century Exeter Book.

Equally significant, however, if less obvious, is Tolkien’s debt to the later period of Middle English, which began in the 12th century.  Tolkien was a great admirer of Geoffrey Chaucer, especially his epic love story Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385). And as the new essay collection The Inklings and King Arthur details, he also loved the romances of Arthur’s knights, from Perceval to Launcelot to Tristrem, as well as Layamon’s Brut (ca. 1215), a Middle English rendering of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain, which prominently features Arthur’s reign.

But of all the works of Middle English and Arthurian literature, Tolkien’s clear favorite was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th-century poem by an anonymous author known simply as the Gawain-poet. Tolkien was, along with his University of Leeds colleague E.V. Gordon, one of the first scholars to edit Sir Gawain, in 1925, making this classic poem accessible to a new generation of readers. When asked to deliver a lecture in memory of the medievalist W.P. Ker in 1953, Tolkien presented an interpretation of Sir Gawain with a focus on its Christian dynamics, a speech later printed in the collection The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Tolkien also attempted a modern English translation of Sir Gawain, along with a more religious poem by the same author, the heavenly dream vision Pearl.

If you aren’t familiar with the basic story of Gawain, Tolkien’s translation is a good place to start. He not only translates accurately from line to line but also tries to capture the poem’s meter, called “alliterative long line,” a form derived from Old English poetry which was archaic even in the 1300s. A number of contemporary scholars, including Marie Borroff and the team of Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, have also produced excellent word-for-word translations, or you might choose a rendition that takes more poetic license, from an acclaimed poet like W.S. Merwin or Simon Armitage, with modern and Middle English on facing pages.

The story, in brief: Camelot has been celebrating Christmas for fifteen days (more than the usual twelve), and King Arthur is itching for new entertainment. On cue, a large green-skinned man in green armor, with a sprig of holly in one hand and a green axe in the other, rides into the hall and challenges the knights of the Round Table to a test—take one swing at him with his giant axe, and one year later, he will deliver a blow in return. Suspecting magic, no one takes him up on the offer until, shamed, the king himself volunteers. Then, doubly shamed on behalf of his comrades, Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts the challenge. Gawain beheads the Green Knight with one swing of the axe, and lo, he does turn out to be a magical creature.  The Knight picks up his disembodied head and tells Gawain to find him a year later, at “the Grene Chapel … on New Yeres morn” (lines 451-53).

We can imagine Tolkien being powerfully drawn to every aspect of this story so far—medieval knights, codes of honor and shame, beheading, magic, a mysterious creature from the world of “fantoum and fayryȝe” (240). In his 1953 lecture, however, Tolkien actually claims not to be much interested in these preliminary elements. The real story, he argues, lies in what happens next, as Gawain faces temptation—first, his fear of death, which grows with each passing holiday; then a sexual temptation from the married lady of a castle where he reposes the following Christmas; and finally, a temptation to break the rules of a gentlemanly exchange game with his host in order to keep a magical talisman, a green girdle, which supposedly can protect him. (I’m skimming over huge chunks of the plot—please do read it for yourself!)

You may disagree with Tolkien’s view on which part of the story is most interesting, but it’s certainly true that once Gawain leaves the confines of Camelot, the poem provides intriguing material for a reader searching for the medieval sources of Tolkien’s fiction.

In his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels through northern Wales and northwest England, specifically “the wyldrenesse of Wyrale” (701), the Wirral peninsula, near the modern-day city of Liverpool. In this wilderness, the poet tells us, Gawain has further adventures, fighting not just against the winter elements, but also against wild creatures, all of them alliterating on the letter “w”: “wormez” (dragons), “wolues” (wolves), and “wodwos that woned in the knarrez” (721)—“wodwos” who lived among the rocks.

But what exactly are “wodwos”? No one is certain, though etymology gives us clues. The word is apparently plural, and compound—the word “wos” might mean simply creatures or men, and “wod” probably means either “wood” (from the Old English “wudu”) or “mad, insane” (from the Old English “wod”). They are wild men, insane men, creatures of the woods. The word proliferated in the late 14th century, often to describe the hairy wild men that became popular in late-medieval artwork and heraldry. When translators at Oxford University produced the first edition of the Wycliffite Bible in the 1380s, they used the word “wodewosis” in passages like Isaiah 13:21 and Jeremiah 50:39, but revised it later to “heeri beestis” or “wielde men.”

C.S. Lewis makes a reference to “Wooses” in his remarkable description of Aslan’s execution in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a scene filled with evil creatures:

But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book—Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. (165)

This is the type of passage Lewis lovers relish, but which causes Tolkien-loving purists (and Tolkien himself, when he read drafts of the novel as an Inkling) to grit their teeth. Lewis pulls in creatures from every corner of ancient and medieval Western mythology—Greek, Roman, Arabic, Celtic, Saxon. It’s a literary mash-up, an evil all-star team. Of course, Lewis knows full well what he is doing, and he has a reason for it—Aslan the universal figure of salvation is opposed by universal evil, however it manifests itself in stories throughout history and around the globe. But by including Wooses on the list, Lewis misses an opportunity that Tolkien exploits more fully—the chance to explore the complexity of these medieval English wild men as human beings, with a capacity for both good and evil. (To be fair, Lewis explores humanity’s complex nature in other areas of Narnia, just not here.)

In his translation of the Gawain poem, Tolkien calls the wodwos “wood-trolls that wandered in the crags.”  This might lead us to think he has in mind one of the varieties of trolls he describes in The Hobbit or LOTR, such as the stone trolls, who live the woods and turn to stone in daylight, or the cave trolls who attack the Fellowship in the caverns of Moria. But in fact, Tolkien brings them into his epic in a much more direct way, through a group of characters in The Return of the King he calls “Woses,” or “Wild Men of the Woods” (813).

These Woses, also known as the Drúedain, are described by the horse lord Elfhelm as “living few and secretly, wild and wary as beasts.” Elfhelm and the other Rohirrim are clearly frightened of them, since “they use poisoned arrows, it is said, and they are woodcrafty beyond compare.” When they speak, it is with a “deep and guttural” voice, “in a halting fashion, and uncouth words were mingled with it” (814). When their leader Ghân-buri-Ghân enters the scene, he parleys with Éomer, debating whether his band of Woses can help the riders on their journey to Minas Tirith. Their conversation is testy—Ghân refuses to merely take orders, and he constantly asserts himself in crude speech against Éomer’s seeming condescension. “Let Ghân-buri-Ghân finish!” he shouts when Éomer cuts him off. When the horse lords offer him riches and friendship, he scoffs, “Dead men are not friends to living men,” then asks only that if the kingdom of Rohan survives the war with Sauron, “then leave Wild Men alone in the woods and do not hunt them like beasts any more” (815).

If Ghân speaks true, he and his Wild Men have suffered injustice at the hands of the people of Rohan, who apparently view them as less than human. If the hobbit Merry’s frightened reaction to them is any indication, this seems plausible. The Woses have every right to hold a grudge, yet they are willing to hear out Rohan’s leaders, negotiate with them, and strive for peace.

They stand in contrast to another group Tolkien also describes as “wild men”—the Dunlendings in The Two Towers. These are a different people but similar enough to the Woses that Tolkien uses deliberately parallel language. These “wild hillmen” (515) were also victims of injustice five hundred years earlier, when, according to a brief history lesson from the Rohan rider Gamling, “the lords of Gondor gave the Mark to Eorl the Young and made alliance with him” (524), displacing the wild men. Half a millennium later, they still shout “Death to the Strawheads!” and “Death to the robbers of the North!” and yearn for Rohan’s downfall.


As the wizard Saruman prepares for his invasion, he stirs up these ethnic resentments, arms the Dunlendings, and looses them to pillage towns on the Rohan frontier. This scene is depicted briefly in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers, with a horde of angry, hairy men shouting “Murderers!” as they run to attack. In the novel, they join the orc army at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, where “the wild men of the Dunland fells” and “the hugest Orcs” gather on the front lines before the Hornburg gates (521).

Unfortunately, the LOTR film trilogy captures only the dark side of the Wild Men in Tolkien’s universe, and leaves the Woses of Ghân-buri-Ghân on the cutting room floor. But these “good” Woses—the ones who choose peace and cooperation rather than vengeance—turn out to be tremendously significant. The companies of Rohirrim are each “guided by a wild woodman” on the road to Minas Tirith (815), and their advance guard launches sneak attacks on the orcs lying in wait ahead. The Woses thus play a major role in the liberation of the city, clearing the way for the cavalry. Two nearly identical people groups, with similar histories of oppression, produce completely opposite outcomes. The wildness of the Wild Men, it seems, is not necessarily a curse—it frightens outsiders, and it can corrupt and degrade, but it is also a source of great strength that can be used for good.

Tolkien makes one more literary reference in his description of the Wild Men, which further underlines their complex humanity. When Merry meets the “short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy” Woses, they remind him of “the Púkel-men of Dunharrow” (813), large standing stones carved into crude man-like shapes (777). The word “Púkel” derives from the Old English “pucel,” or “puca,” meaning goblin or devil. The word developed over the centuries into the Middle English “pucke,” and eventually the proper name “Puck,” the mischievous fairy sprite made famous by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The connection between the Woses and Puck is clearly intentional on Tolkien’s part, and the two mythical figures share qualities that are similarly ambiguous. In Shakespeare, Puck is a “shrewd and knavish sprite,” the “merry wanderer of the night” who “frights the maidens of the villagery,” makes “the breathless huswife churn” butter to no avail, and leads astray “night wanderers, laughing at their harm” (2.1.33-45)—a dangerous household imp one would do well to drive away. At the same time, Puck is a playful spirit, interested mainly in entertainment, and he does a great amount of good, for instance by bringing the play’s lovers together, then joining his fairy king Oberon in blessing the house on their wedding night:

“Not a mouse / Shall disturb this hallowed house. / I am sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.404-407).

He is both home-wrecker and housekeeper; like the Woses, he is frightening but potentially helpful, powerful but unpredictable. Ironically, he is one of the most “human” characters in the play.

Which brings us back to Sir Gawain. When Gawain confronts the three “w” creatures—worms (dragons), wolves, and wodwos (721)—they subtly foreshadow the more serious conflict in which he is about to engage. He will confront a dragon, the traditional Christian symbol of spiritual evil, in the sorceress Morgan le Fay; a wolf, traditionally a symbol of hypocrisy and deceit (from John 10:1-16, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” passage), in the temptress Lady Bertilak; and towering over them all, a Wood-Wose—the Green Knight himself.

Lord Bertilak, Gawain’s host at Castle Hautdesert, is a man of “the wod” (1106), and he spends each day of the Christmas season hunting deer, boar, and fox, as part of his exchange game with Gawain. We may not be surprised to discover, then, that the Green Knight is Bertilak’s alter ego, assisted by Morgan’s magic. The Knight is an even wilder man of the forest, with his green skin and woodsman’s axe, a relative of the “Green Man” figure carved into medieval cathedrals, with grass or leaves for hair (an ancestor of the modern Jolly Green Giant).  His Green Chapel turns out to be a wooded hill with a “creuisse [crevice] of an old cragge” (2183), the same word Tolkien uses to describe the wodwos “wandering in the crags.” The word the Gawain-poet himself uses to describe the wodwos’ environs, “knarrez,” also appears in his description of the Green Chapel—“knokled knarrez with knorned stonez” (2166), which Tolkien translates as “notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders.” The language itself tells us we should expect to find wodwos here, and soon the Green Knight is towering over us.

Gawain is understandably frightened when he encounters the Green Knight on his home turf. Unless the green girdle can somehow save him, he expects the Knight to murder him in cold blood as the conclusion to their perverse beheading game. As he dismounts and ties up his horse, Gawain imagines the kind of priest who must preside over this type of rocky outdoor chapel: “Here myȝt aboute mydnyȝt / The Dele [devil] his matynnes telle!” (2187-88). He continues (in Tolkien’s translation):

“This oratory looks evil. With herbs overgrown
it fits well that fellow transformed into green
to follow here his devotions in the Devil’s fashion. …
This is a chapel of mischance, the church most accursed
that ever I entered. Evil betide it!” (2190-92, 2195-96)

He expects the devil himself to enter this grotesque church and conduct a satanic mass at midnight, a service which will end with his own death. What actually happens, though, is the complete opposite. The Knight appears, gives Gawain a scare by swinging his axe three times, but in the end gives him only a light nick on the neck, penance for having cheated at the exchange game and kept the green girdle. Instead of the ultimate penalty, Gawain receives a figurative slap on the wrist.

The Green Knight then follows up with something even more striking—rather than a “devil’s devotion,” he performs one of the most important Christian rituals. He grants Gawain absolution:

“Thou has confessed thee so clean and acknowledged thine errors,
and hast the penance plain to see from the point of my blade,
that I hold thee purged of that debt, made as pure and as clean
as hadst thou done no ill deed since the day thou wert born.” (2391-94)

The Knight doesn’t just forgive him for the personal slight—he washes him clean from all sins against anyone, every day of his life. Gawain expects a devil, but what he gets is a Christian priest who administers grace. He expects the Knight to kill him for his sin, but instead the Knight forgives his sin, with a gruff, Puck-like spirit.

Tolkien, in his 1953 lecture, calls the Knight’s words here “mock-religious terms” (96), and views the scene as something of a parody of actual Christian penance. He argues that the poem operates on multiple “planes,” with Gawain’s absolution from a real priest for real sins (which takes place earlier at Bertilak’s castle) claiming higher status than the Green Knight’s forgiveness for cheating at a parlor game. This view has much to recommend it, and many scholars have followed Tolkien’s lead in sharing it. But in my experience as a teacher, most modern readers actually do experience Gawain’s fault as a serious matter—his life is on the line, after all!—and the Green Knight’s decision to spare Gawain’s life certainly feels more significant than the intangible absolution performed in a church.

In the poet’s day, priests were typically the only people allowed to administer church-sanctioned absolutions, but the Green Knight boldly echoes the language of the sacramental ritual in his speech. In my forthcoming book The Gawain-Poet and the 14th-Century English Anticlerical Tradition, I suggest that the poet wants his audience to think about the priesthood and the sacraments in this moment, and to use the Green Knight as a means of doing so. The conflicted emotions Gawain experiences in this moment—expecting the devil and death but finding forgiveness and new life—are similar to the feelings many 14th-century Christians had about the priesthood in general. On the one hand, priests performed an essential religious duty, and were viewed as God’s conduits for salvation; on the other hand, they could be hypocrites and capable of tremendous evil.

In other words, they were deeply flawed human beings.

Tolkien captures well this dual nature, this double-edged potential of humanity, in many of his characters. Gollum is perhaps the most melodramatic example, one who swings wildly from darkness to light and accidentally saves the world while trying to destroy it. But anyone who comes into contact with the Ring and its corruption shows him or herself to have a two-sided nature—Bilbo, Boromir, Galadriel, Saruman, Théoden, Denethor, even Frodo himself—and their final outcomes, in a moral sense, are an open question until the very end. The Woses are simply another example of this long-running theme, but a unique example in that we get to see tangibly the two divergent directions these Wild Men can go.

Granted, there are creatures in Middle Earth who appear to be pure evil—the orcs, the Balrog, Shelob, etc.—but Tolkien takes care to emphasize that no human characters, including hobbits, are ever beyond redemption. If they act evil at times, it is because they have been deceived. When Sam witnesses his first “battle of Men against Men” in The Two Towers (646), he sees one of the enemy Southrons cut down by arrows from Faramir’s party. His response is a model of innocence, approved by Tolkien—he is scared and repulsed at first, then moved to empathy, as he imagines the man’s history and wonders “if he was really evil at heart, or what lies and threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace.” When a person dies, no matter his or her background or past actions, it is a tragedy, and a fellow human’s proper response is sadness.

Like every person in Middle Earth—like every person on the actual Earth—Tolkien’s Wild Men share a complicated, contradictory nature, constantly at war with itself. They are wild, but they may choose to fight for good or evil; they look like devils but contain a spark of the divine; and their ending no one but the great Storyteller can know.

Works Cited:

Armitage, Simon, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Norton, 2007.

Borroff, Marie, trans. The Gawain Poet: Complete Works. New York: Norton, 2011.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1950. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Merwin, W.S., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Hans Kurath, Sherman McAllister Kuhn, et. al. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1956-2001. Available online.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Revised edition. Liverpool UP, 2014.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Available online at Folger Digital Texts.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. 1954. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Del Rey, 1975.

Ethan Campbell (MFA, PhD) is an Associate Professor of English and Literature at The King’s College in New York City, where he coordinates the English major and teaches courses on writing, Shakespeare, and the history of the English language.

You can find his academic work in journals like Fifteenth-Century StudiesChristianity and LiteratureMythlore, and Academic Questions. Besides teaching undergraduate students, he has written popularly on faith-based addiction recovery programs. You can find him on the amazingly appropriate twitter handle, @ProfGawain.

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