Arthuriana: Arthur, Inklings, and the Attraction of Logres

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
27 May 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been on something of an Arthur kick lately. It started when I decided to buy and then read Avalon, by Stephen Lawhead (a kind of sixth book in Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle). Once I finished it, I decided to do my annual re-read of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, which culminates in the intensely Arthurian That Hideous Strength. In the midst of all this Sørina Higgins, over at The Oddest Inkling, who’s been blogging her way through the works of Charles Williams chronologically, decided have multiple bloggers write posts about individual poems from Williams’ Taliessin through Logres. I will have two essays in that series myself (one on “The Departure of Merlin” and one on the final poem, “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass”). This kick has led me to pick up a copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and request a copy of Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory (my copy is back in Illinois).

Now in addition to telling you about my reading habits and encouraging you to check out the series on The Oddest Inkling, I wanted to reflect on Arthur a bit. I’ve written about him before (The Return of Arthur: A Conversation with John Milbank and C. S. LewisThat Hideous Strength: The Cosmic and Enchanted Earth), but I want to reflect on something a little different this time around. I want to reflect on the question: why Arthur? Or even, why Logres (the name of Arthur’s kingdom)?

Arthur has had something of an enduring presence that on first blush seems obvious. It’s an idealized time when men were virtuous and righted wrongs; a time when women were strong of character and beauty; when the faith and the state were unified in a nearly perfect kind of way. And yet things were far from perfect. Depending on the stories you read, and when they were written, infidelity, adultery, incest even were rampant. And how many stories end with friends or even brothers harming or killing each other by accident because they were wearing the wrong armor or bore the wrong shield (in order to hide their identity)? Arthur himself is oblivious to his wife’s infidelity and one of his closest friend’s betrayal. Not only that, but he beds his sister and by her sires a child, at once son and nephew, who will eventually strike Arthur down. Arthur and his kingdom are far from perfect, and yet we somehow still idealize both him and his kingdom.

Of course, if we compare Arthur to Old Testament figures, he stands up alright. He’s not nearly as bad as Samson, and even David and Solomon have points at least nearly as low as accidentally sleeping with your half-sister. The comparison between Arthur and the Davidic kingdom is actually a rather natural one and may explain some of the allure of Arthur and Logres. After all, both give us idealized Kingdoms in which the monarch rules within God’s will (when they’re acting correctly). Both also give us stories about a kind of return. The Old Testament is replete with hopes of one from the line of Jesse, who will rebuild David’s tent. With Arthur there is hope for his return one day, when Britain needs him most, in the fulness of time, we might say. Not, of course, that Arthur is Christ, his return could only be an aid, balm to soothe our wounds until the one who can heal them returns. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Arthur endures, despite his faults, like David and Solomon before him, he represents Christ to us, but I think there might be something more, something beyond even Arthur himself.

With all it’s imperfections, Arthur’s Kingdom is what really draws us in. It is Logres that we find so attractive. This makes even more sense when we consider that many Arthurian legends include little action on Arthur’s part, “Sir Launfal,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Tristram and Iseult,” are all primarily about Logres, about the people who lived in the time of Arthur, were Arthur’s friends or foes. Even when one reads Lewis’ That Hideous Strength or Williams’ Taliessin through Logres one finds very little Arthur. In Lewis the focus is decidedly on Logres, which Lewis makes into an ideal, a haunting, behind Britain that strives with Britain for the soul of the Island. In Williams the focus, in my estimation, is on Lancelot and Galahad and therefore on Logres. Williams’ book ends with Logres having withdrawn to Galahad’s home Carbonek in Broceliande, and yet he calls us to pray for the skill to return to Logres.

So what is it about Logres? I think, and as I re-read my way through some Arthuriana this summer (interestingly, Lawhead refers to Logres as the Kingdom of Summer, something I hadn’t considered when I took up my Arthurian readings) I will be able to better tell, that three things really attract us to Logres. First, I think, is the sense of society. The people who live in Logres have a single (or nearly so) vision of what life is and to what end it is directed. Knights fight for justice and are themselves, mostly, virtuous. It is the kind of society in which people want to live (this is a similar draw that the Shire in The Lord of the Rings has on many people, but perhaps in a way that feels more attainable since it requires far less fighting and far more drinking, smoking, and feasting––two-thirds of which do also feature heavily in Arthurian legends, smoking being a primarily new-world discovery).

Second, I think, is it’s closeness to Faërie. Most Arthurian stories do not take place in Elfland, but they certainly take place on it’s edge (for intensely faeriean stories, I recommend “Sir Launfal,” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “Sir Orfeo”). We like this closeness to nature and the idea that there are deeper realities behind the woods and rivers that we see every day.

Lastly, I think it is the Grail that attracts us to Logres. It’s true that the Grail is a relatively late and primarily French addition to the stories. However, I think the Grail symbolizes something already inherent in the stories, namely the sacramental imagination or ontology behind the Arthurian legends. It is not only trees and mountains and rivers that are enchanted, but men and women (Bertilak, for instance, or Merlin, or Brisen) and even bread and wine. An illustration I often use is that of Gawain praying for a place to celebrate the Christ-mass (Christmas) when on his way to receive a blow to the neck from the Green Knight and having a fairy-castle appear before him where he can so celebrate. The Holy Trinity, Mary, angels, the saints, all are bound up in these stories. Or better, they underpin them. Arthur, as Arthur, and Logres as Logres do not work without the Catholic underpinning. This is what takes the possibly earlier Welsh stories (that may or may not have been pagan) which are primarily national stories and elevates them to the extent that the French begin writing stories about Arthur, that even Dante has heavy Arthurian themes and references in The Divine Comedy. Logres represents the possibility of the Lord’s Prayer (or Pater Noster) being lived out here on Earth. What is more, the other two attractors I mentioned are bound up in this one. Society and even Faërie get their fullest expression in the Catholicity, the Christianity, of Arthur’s Logres.

Sincerely,
David

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Levitas and Gravitas, Fairies and Mystics: A Response to Christiana N. Peterson

David Russell Mosley

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Eastertide
7 April 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Last week, Image Journal, posted to their blog an essay by Christiana N. Peterson. In the essay, Peterson talks about her daughter’s longing for fairies and its relation to the mystics longing for God. I posted the article to my personal Facebook page saying, “There is more that could be said, but this is a good beginning.” Today, I would like to say a little more.

Some of my friends responded to the article noting that the depiction of mystics was rather sanitized and romanticized. This is true. Peterson writes:

The mystics’ words make me think of wings again, of living in the trees of Middle Earth with the elves. Why, I wonder, would reading the mystics feel like reading Tolkien or searching for fairies in the dying light of summer?
I so want to encounter God in the way of the mystics. I want to know God is with me, right now in the moment, in tangible, visible ways. So I pour over their words and spiritual practices, wishing to have visions but knowing that God often comes to us in more mundane ways.

For Peterson, reading the mystics is like reading Tolkien, but I’m not sure if it’s like reading Tolkien in the right way. For Peterson, the connection is between the deeper realities glimpsed by the mystic and a land populated with things like elves, dwarves, and dragons. Yet when I read the mystics, I feel less like I’m reading Tolkien, in that sense anyway, and more like I’m reading Ezekiel or Dante or Tolkien in a very different sense. Let me explain.

The mystics, who really can’t be categorized together like this, are often giving us insight to one of two things if not both. Often they are giving us translated visions of the deeper reality, of the angels, thrones, and powers, the logoi that stand behind and uphold, through God, the things we experience everyday. Or else they give us an insight into ourselves. Peterson mentions Theresa’s interior castles, but it is precisely that these are castles that exist within us. I think of Augustine’s Confessions where he turns from searching for God in creation to searching for God within himself and as he plumbs the depths of his soul is raised to higher heights. Or again, I think of Dante who takes us through Hell (our own sinfulness), purges us in Purgatory, and gives us that first glimpse of the Beatific Vision and the ecstatic understanding that will be given to us on how God could be so joined to man in the person of Jesus Christ, by extension (or better participation) in us. Or again, I think of Denys and how the Celestial Hierarchy stands behind, upholds, and gives reality to the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

For me this reminds me of Tolkien not because of Middle-earth, per se, but what Middle-earth represents, namely the reality of Faërie. Tolkien writes in On Fairy-stories, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”⁠1 I’ve written before about this, and other, quotations from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, but I want to draw attention to this line again because of the examples Tolkien uses. It is perhaps not inappropriate to see in bread and wine the Eucharist. Here, in a way, we get at the heart of the mystics. For many mystics things we see in everyday life, or fantastical combinations of them (e.g., the griffon), stand for deeper, spiritual realities. They images that serve as symbols of a deeper reality. In the Eucharist (and other sacraments) it is not just pictures but physical objects themselves that serve as real symbols of deeper realities.

What is more, however, is that for Tolkien, Faërie itself is the Perilous Realm. A land in which, should we venture, we will not come out unchanged (as Aragorn says to Boromir before they enter Lothlorien). If, as a friend has suggested, Peterson’s view of mystics is sanitized, so too is her picture of Faërie. The angels, it would seem, are terrifying to behold, if we take seriously their injunctions to “Be not afraid” when they appear to mortals. Lewis uses this to an interesting effect in his Perelandra when the two guiding intelligences of the planets Mars and Venus ask Ransom, the human protagonist of the Cosmic Trilogy, to tell them which will form will be most suitable for introducing themselves to the King and Queen of Venus. Ransom is terrified as they appear to him in forms whose depictions are lifted almost word for word out of Scripture (notably Ezekiel).

Now, like Peterson, I will be raising my children to look for fairies, though perhaps not in broken potsherds, but in large mounds. I hope that this investment in their imagination will do for them what it did for me, open up the possibility that there are things we cannot see or cannot comprehend and categorize. That along with angels and the logoi (insofar as those two are separable) there may be lesser beings both like and unlike us who belong to this world in a way even we do not, and that we might be able to catch a glimpse of them if we correct our vision (which often takes holiness). Yet I hope my children will also learn to seek these things in the right spirit, the spirit that says these things are not safe, they are not tame, to borrow language from Lewis, but that at least some of them are good.

So, I agree with Peterson, there is a connection fairies, or better Faërie, and Mystics. But this connection has to have the right tenor, the right level of both levitas and gravitas. We can at once find both joy and terror in the presence of God, so to in the Perilous Realm, and we need both in order to see them more clearly. A joyless God is not a God worth our worship and yet neither is one who does not inspire us to say, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” What we do not need are safe fairies, nor a safe God. Safe reality is not worth our existence. We need stories and a reality that rightly reflect the deeper truths. Consider again the Eucharist. Here is the source, in so many ways, of all our joy. We are united to Christ as we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Yet consider precisely what we are doing, we are eating flesh and blood. We are re-visiting not only the night on which Jesus was betrayed, but his crucifixion, his body torn, his blood poured out. The source of all our joy is a moment of horrific torture unto death. This is something the mystics most certainly understood as their visions make clear (I think of St. Perpetua and her dream about the ladder covered in nails and spikes with a dragon at its base. Yet once she reaches the top, there is joy and peace). It is both levitas and gravitas, life and death, joy and danger, that unites our search for fairies and our search for God and the deeper truths of reality.

Sincerely,
David

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1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 78.

An Inklings Walking Tour

David Russell Mosley

 

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Lent
10 March 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

On Tuesday, 15 March 2016, at approximately 8pm EST, five members of the Inklings are going on a walking tour throughout the English countryside. This was a common enough occurrence when the Inklings were alive, but now the dearly departed will be live-tweeting the even (pun intended). Make sure you follow the following accounts on twitter:

C. S. Lewis: @PilgrimInNarnia
J. R. R. Tolkien: @TolkienElfland (written by yours truly)
Charles Williams: @OddestInkling
Owen Barfield: @BarfieldDiction
Hugo Dyson: @hugo_dyson

Also, be sure to follow the hashtag #inkwalk. This should be an awful lot of fun and will include many quotations or paraphrases from the workers of these authors. To get a sense of what this will be like, I recommend checking out the night Charles Williams was drunk-texting on a road trip with C.S. Lewis.

Sincerely,
David