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

Reciting My Own Poems

David Russell Mosley

 

Eric and I in the Garden

Eastertide
Feast of St. George
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

In this short video to you all I recite three poems I wrote about two years ago. I hope you enjoy.

Sincerely,
David

 

Arthur Comes to Windermere: A Poem by David Russell Mosley

David Russell Mosley

 

king_arthur_4
2 June 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Last week I posted some notes on my writing processes as well as the first two chapters of my Faërie Romance. I also promised to post my alliterative Arthurian poem. I certainly have not mastered the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse style. My poem lacks the proper caesura in each line and the lines themselves are too irregular. Still, I post it here for your thoughts and comments. It is my first real foray into narrative poetry.

Arthur Comes to Windermere

Comes King Arthur and his cousin Gawain,

Two men might in mirth and in battle,

To the lake locally called Windermere

One day long before the darkening of Camelot.

The fenced fiercely on the fells together

And sang sweetly in the valleys below,

Wending their way downward to the lake Windermere.

A beautiful woman, brightly adorned, came begging,

‘Good lords,’ said the lass, ‘Please come save us.’

‘Pray,’ said Arthur, ‘What problems have thee, pretty maiden?’

‘My father has fought the beast, but has foundered.

His steel was not quick enough to kill the creature.’

‘Come, Cousin,’ said Gawain, ‘let us kill the craven

Monster. Many needs such as these must we knights

Undertake.’ ‘Tis true!’ cried Arthur ‘Tell us where

The beast takes it board and bed and we shall banish it.’

Thus the knights went forth following the Lady.

Down the fells they followed her right to the Lake.

‘Here haunts the beast of hell,’ said she pointing to the Water.

At the edge they spied a sword and shield but no man to whom they belonged.

They saw no sign of knight nor serpent.

Arthur then did declaim, ‘I will dive into the deep,

And seek out this serpent and will draw it forth.

Then you and I, Gawain, with our God’s protection,

Will defeat the beast and free the region.’

Gawain tried to dissuade his dear Cousin and King,

But Arthur had disrobed and dove his sword at his side.

Gawain prayed God would protect his noble and good servant.

Long it seemed they waited by the Lake, Gawain and the Lady.

Suddenly splashing forth out of the water came the Serpent.

Arthur was at its side attacking with his sword Excalibur.

Gawain drew his axe and gave the beast gruesome wounds.

Together the two cousins triumphed over the Serpent.

Its corpse they carried to the craggy shore.

The whole village welcomed the virtuous knights,

And they were fairly feasted for their fierce might.

It is said the serpent had spawned ere it died

And that its sons and daughters can be seen this day.

With Arthur, Gawain, and their ilk gone, Who

Will discover and defeat them for us, none can say.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

The Return of Arthur: A Conversation with John Milbank and C. S. Lewis

David Russell Mosley

 king_arthur_4
13 February 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Since reading John Milbank’s latest book (which I’ve reviewed here), I’ve had King Arthur on the brain. You see, Milbank argues that kingship––by this he means a kind of monarchic rule that takes into account the one (monarchy), the few [oligarchy/aristocracy, and the many (democracy)––has a role that is simultaneously above and below that of the priest. This is because the priest is looking after our souls but the king looks after us now as we are and is a foreshadowing of how we will be in the life to come. In the course of this conversation Milbank then makes the provocative claim ‘If Christ is to return, then so too is Arthur.’ That is, kingship has a kind of christological and eschatological bent toward it (which is to say it is a picture of Christ’s dual roles as priest and king, and it foreshadows his return). Here is the passage in full to give you some context for my ruminations:

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‘The tension therefore between priest and king is still more complex than theology has always allowed, and more genuine to the entire nature of Christianity than is usually recognised. The Christological conundrum of kingship means that the king is, for here and now, insofar as he is concerned with natural matters, ‘above’ the priestly function. But as regards matters pertaining to the ultimate welfare of our soul, the king is subordinate to the priest. Yet in a third sense the latter’s role is penultimate, not ultimate. As regards human‘spirit’, the whole person and the ultimate resurrection of the whole person, soul and body, the king and the concerns of kingship are symbolically more ultimate, since they are a remote foreshadowing of the eschaton. If Christ is to return, then so too is Arthur, so also Charlemagne, Frederick II and King Sebastian of Portugal (lost in battle against the Moors and one day to return to shore from the sea, where he is rumoured to wander over the waves)’ (Beyond Secular Order, 250).

The return of Arthur is something rather deep-seated in British mythology (I find it very interesting that the Portuguese have a similar notion about one of their kings). The notion of Arthur’s return begins with Geoffrey of Monmouth (a twelfth-century British priest) and his History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur-Pyle_King_Arthur_of_BritainIn the book, Geoffrey claims that Arthur was taken to Avallon after his final battle with his bastard son Mordred and was healed, he writes ‘And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord’s incarnation’ (History of the Kings of Britain, Chapter II). Later, in his Life of Merlin, Taliesin suggests to Merlin that they send for Arthur to come help repel the Saxons. However, Merlin says no for he foresees that God has allowed the Saxons to come and for the Britons to lose their nobility. This, however, only suggests that Arthur still lives, not that he will return. William of Malmesbury, a contemporary of Geoffrey goes a step further in his Chronicle of the Kings of England, ‘The sepulchre of Arthur is no where to be seen, when ancient ballads fable is still to come.’

I give you all of this background to say this, we find ourselves today in need of Arthur. I recently gave a sermon at St Nicholas’ Church here in Nottingham, wherein I suggested that today we find ourselves in a struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. I couched this in terms I stole from C. S. Lewis; it is a struggle between Britain and Logres. Logres (or Llogres, or numerous other spellings) was the name for Arthur’s kingdom (Camelot was more of a capital city). I want to give the quote from Lewis’s That Hideous Strength I used in my sermon:

‘“It all began,” he [Dr Dimble] said, “when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it––it will do as well as another. And then … gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”

‘“What haunting?” asked Camilla.

‘“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind ever Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney––and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”

….

‘“It was long afterwards,” he said, “after the Director had returned from the Third Heaven, that we were told a little more. This haunting turned out to be not only from the other side of the invisible wall. Ransom was summoned to the bedside of an old man then dying in Cumberland. His name would mean nothing to you if I told it. That man was the Pendragon, the successor of Arthur and Uther and Cassibelaun. Then we learned the truth. There has been a secret Logres in the very heart of Britain all these years: an unbroken succession of Pendragons. That old man was the seventy-eighth from Arthur: our Director received from him the office and the blessings; tomorrow we shall know, or tonight, who is to be the eightieth. Some of the Pendragons are well known to history, though not under that name. Others you have never heard of. But in every age they and the little Logres which gathered around them have been the fingers which gave the tiny shove or the almost imperceptible pull, to prod England out of the drunken sleep or to draw her back from the final outrage into which Britain tempted her.”

….

‘“So that, meanwhile, is England,” said Mother Dimble. “Just this swaying to and fro between Logres and Britain?”

‘“Yes,” said her husband. “Don’t you feel it? The very quality of England. If we’ve got an ass’s head, it is by walking in a fairy wood. We’ve heard something better than we can do, but can’t quite forget it … can’t you see it in everything English––a kind of awkward grace, a humble, humorous incompleteness? How right Sam Weller was when he called Mr. Pickwick an angel in gaiters! Everything here is either better or worse than––”

‘“Dimble!” said Ransom….

‘“You’re right, Sir,” he said with a smile. “I was forgetting what you have warned me always to remember. This haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter. There’s no special privilege for England––no nonsense about a chosen nation. We speak about Logres because it is our haunting, the one we know about.”

‘“Aye,” said MacPhee, “and it could be right good history without mentioning you and me or most of those present. I’d be greatly obliged if anyone would tell me what we have don––always apart from feeding pigs and raising some very decent vegetables.”

‘“You have done what is required of you,” said the Director. “You have obeyed and waited. It will often happen like that. As one of the modern authors has told us, the altar must often be built in one place in order that the fire from heaven may descend somewhere else. But don’t jump to conclusions. You may have plenty of work to do before a month is passed. Britain has lost the battle, but she will rise again”’ (That Hideous Strength, 367-8).

Sometimes I think this is something easier to talk about in the context of Britain but with Americans, but that is another issue for another day. What I really want to say is that as we struggle to help Logres win, it will often look like we’ve done very little. kingarthur350After all, what made Logres itself so great is not the battles Arthur fought and won, it was the way life was lived in Logres. It was the feasting and celebrating that made Logres great. It was the virtue of his knights that made them great. It was the peace that ruled in the land. It was the dedication of everything that they did to the Lord.

At heart, I am an idealist. I believe in the incredible (literally, the unbelievable). I believe in Logres, which is to say that I believe in the kingdom of Heaven and I want to work to start the process of bringing it about before the return of Christ.

If Milbank is right and the return of Christ is the return of Arthur, or even if Arthur’s return is to come first, then I say with C. S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, ‘the sooner the better.’

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley