With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some Ponderings on Tolkien and the Inklings

In letter 131, Tolkien famously stated his desire to write a mythology for England. “There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing,” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 144. Clearly the end result of this was the creation of Middle Earth, and the whole cycle of tales starting with The Silmarillion, going through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and ending as it were, in various unfinished works such as The Notion Club Papers. But was this always Tolkien’s plan? Was his Middle Earth cycle the only thing Tolkien worked on or considered as a way to create this British mythology? Perhaps the answer to this question is no, and Tolkien once pondered, started, but eventually abandoned a different cycle of tales to become his “British mythology.” If so, what would it have been?

The clue to this mystery comes to us in the very words provided above from letter 131. What if he once considered doing a medieval cycle of tales which would end with Arthur? Verlyn Flieger, who once tried to publish Tolkien’s unfinished work on King Arthur, suggests that this might actually have been the case. “The very fact that he raised the issue of ‘the Arthurian world’ suggests that he was not just aware of its place in England’s literary heritage but of its place in his own as well, for Tolkien had already tried writing his own version of Arthurian legend. At some time in the mid-1930s, more than a decade before he wrote the letter, he had begun a long poem that he called The Fall of Arthur,Verlyn Flieger, Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2005), 34. Before then, Tolkien had worked on and helped translate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E.V. Gordon. Moreover, if one looks at Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien specifically places it within an Arthurian perspective, happening after the time of Old King Coel and before the time of Arthur. Certainly Tolkien had an interest in Arthur and the Arthurian legend, even if he ultimately found it to be unsuitable to meet his needs. We can see influences of its cycle of stories and ideas consistently surrounding Tolkien and making its way into Tolkien’s stories (Gandalf is more than a little like Merlin, and one cannot discount the similarity between Aragorn with Arthur).

Yet, there seems to be something missing. While we have a few stories by Tolkien, some left unfinished, which show an Arthurian bias and might provide enough evidence to suggest Tolkien pondered the development of an Arthurian cycle to appease his own desire for a mythology for Britain, certainly it was not the only thing he wrote upon or worked on during the time he was writing these Arthurian stories. He was still working upon his own Middle Earth stories. He might have had plans to connect the two together, and to show how Middle Earth and its pre-history slowly became the Britain of history and especially of Arthurian legend. But it also seems if this was the case, he might have also desired other mythmakers to share in this task. And this is where the Inklings have a place in this story. Myths and legends clearly need more than one source and one author to develop properly and engage the psyche of a culture. While Tolkien tried to create a mythology which displayed the influence of many editors involved in its creation, for the most part it was all to do with his pre-historical world. However, this interest in Arthur and the possible development of an Arthurian mythology was an idea held not just by Tolkien but other Inklings, such as Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis. If we look at the literary efforts of the Inklings, we can see an interesting, over-arching legacy of stories which could be seen as connecting one to another: Adam Fox’s Old King Coel leads into Farmer Giles of Ham which then leads to all the Arthurian tales written by Williams and Tolkien, and finally ends in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (written, as it were, in the style of Williams to honor Williams after his death). And, somewhere within that history, one would have found a place for Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major.

While this might, at first, seem to be a fanciful reading of the Inklings, we must remember that Lewis’ Space Trilogy, begun with Out of the Silent Planet was originally meant to be followed by a time-travel tale written by Tolkien. The tale Tolkien began was clearly within his Middle Earth tradition. But Lewis was impatient with Tolkien and wrote the rest of the trilogy by himself. The last volume of the Space Trilogy contains the first published reference to Tolkien’s own Numenor, placing it side by side with the novel's own Arthurian references. And even if Tolkien would eventually make his Middle Earth cycle his claim to fame and use it to satisfy his own personal need for a British mythology, we must remember, the Old English texts he worked with as a philologist, consistently called the world in them “Middle Earth.” It could be said that, for Tolkien, the greatest problem with the Arthurian legend is that it was too recent, too Christianized, but it seems that there is always a place, even if it is a minor place, for it and the literature surrounding Arthur made by the Inklings to become a part of the greater story which forms Tolkien’s mythology.

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  • At 12/11/2007 1:44 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    Very interesting theory. I'm not familiar enough with the writings of Inklings members outside of Lord of the Rings and Narnia to comment on its validitiy. But it's an interesting conjecture.

    Speaking of Britain, I've recently come across a very nice blog about church history/spirituality in early medieval England: Heavenfield - http://hefenfelth.wordpress.com/

  • At 12/11/2007 2:35 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    That does look like a nicely produced blog; I will have to look closely at it sometime.

    As for my theory-- it is pure conjecture at this stage... an intuitive conjecture which explains more about the Inklings if it has any truth.

  • At 12/12/2007 10:00 AM, Blogger Jason Fisher said…

    I enjoyed your post. I have a Tolkien and Inklings blog (Lingwë - Musings of a Fish) as well, which is how (indirectly) I found your blog.

    I think you may be overemphasizing the place of the Arthurian tradition in Tolkien a little, though you’re right to pick out the few clues you do. It seems to me that you’re drawing a little more from Verlyn Flieger’s comments about Arthur than may be warranted. And in any case, I think you’ll find a good deal more of Arthur in Lewis than in Tolkien, including some published poems, if I’m not mistaken.

    For more information on Tolkien and Arthur, take a look at Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Reader’s Guide (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), in the entry “Arthur and the Matter of Britain” (pp.56–60).

  • At 12/13/2007 9:25 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    You are right that the pondering is a bit forceful on the subject. It is more self-reflective on my own part, and came after I ordered a copy of Fox's "Old King Coel", where I pondered what, if any, connection it might have with Farmer Giles. I think there is more to the Arthurian story than we know, but I agree, in the end, Tolkien abandoned such a pursuit, but I think the Inklings did not and perhaps it was because the Inklings did not that Tolkien could see that Arthur just doesn't fit within his mythology.

    I think Tolkien's denial has to come from something; he made it quite strongly indeed. Probably Tolkien's philological interests as well as his interest in the Pre-Raphaelites had him look into the Arthurian mythos and see what relationship it could have within his own developing mythology. But it was after the Inklings had come to their "end" that I think he could make as strong a rejection of the Arthurian legend as he did. He could and would look at what Lewis (and Williams) did, and think it failed. But it was not always obvious it would and so he seems to have some of that Arthurian connection in his writing (including his own work on the Death of Arthur). I would not be surprised if he wanted Merlin to have some connection with Numenor (remember, he did have St Brendan meet the elves). But I also think he was upset at what Lewis did, and that became the final straw and end to that idea. And for him, the Inklings showed an "experiment" which proved Arthur couldn't have a significant place in the myth Tolkien wanted to create.

    But right now it is all speculative and these ideas are only developing. It's not scholarship, it is intuition, and as with all intuitions, it is going to have elements which are not right; but it is also not an intuition based upon no serious study of Tolkien either and so it is something I do want to pursue sometime. When I write on Tolkien, in any scholarly mannyer, I go all out -- but sometimes, speculations can help uncover something in their own right. And I "feel" there is something here which I want to explore further.

    I've not gotten that two-volume set yet, but I plan to.

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