- The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain ed. by Sørina Higgins
This is such a good idea for a book that it's surprising no one thought of it before. It's hard to overstate the degree to which the world the Inklings grew up in was permeated by the Arthurian story. Just going [End Page 255] by names alone, think of Tolkien's father (Arthur Tolkien), Lewis's best friend (Arthur Greeves), Williams's mentor in occult studies and ritual magic (Arthur Edward Waite), and Barfield himself (who went by his middle name, but whose full name was Arthur Owen Barfield). The dominant English myth of their day was that of the Arthurian legend: in retrospect, it seems inevitable that writers as deeply interested in myth as the Inklings would be attracted to the Arthurian legends, and that this attraction would take many forms.
The nineteen essays that make up this book, plus Introduction (by Sørina Higgins, the volume's editor) and Conclusion (by poet Malcolm Guite), delve into the many ways in which the Arthurian legend worked its way into the Inklings' works, from Williams's idiosyncratic poetry and Tolkien's Fall of Arthur to Barfield's "Quest of the Sangreal" and Lewis's That Hideous Strength. This is a weighty tome of over 550 pages, its constituent essays densely argued and carefully sourced, with many footnotes and extensive bibliographies, the whole accompanied by valuable editorial apparatus such as "Inventory of Inklings Arthuriana" (a descriptive chronology of all four major Inklings' Arthurian works), a comprehensive bibliography, and a detailed index.
Considering that Higgins is primarily a Williams scholar—she maintains the Williams-centric website The Oddest Inkling1 to encourage scholarship on this relatively neglected Inkling and recently edited the previously unpublished early Williams play The Chapel of Thorns (2015)—it's not surprising that there are more essays on Williams (five) than any other Inkling. This is entirely appropriate, given that both Lewis and Williams himself considered the Taliesin poems Williams's most important work, the legacy by which he would most be remembered,2 whereas Lewis and Tolkien are best known for their non-Arthurian work.
Of these five, the most valuable is Bradley Wells' "Camelot Incarnate: Arthurian Vision in the Early Plays of Charles Williams" for its inclusion for the first time anywhere of excerpts from Williams's juvenilia. This is fascinating material, revealing that in addition to writing scenes from pseudo-Shakespearean plays Williams had his own private Ruritanian world as a teen, and that his penchant for basing characters on himself and his close associates manifested at a surprisingly early age. The only problem with this essay is that it's not Arthurian and thus while an excellent contribution to our knowledge of Williams seems an uneasy fit for the stated theme of the present volume.
By contrast, Suzanne Bray ("'Any Chalice of Consecrated Wine': The Significance of the Holy Grail in Charles Williams' War in [End Page 256] Heaven") writes illuminatingly on Williams's most popular (and most Arthurian) novel. Among other things, her close exposition of the book clarifies its puzzling ending by paralleling the fates of Williams's three heroes (the Archdeacon, Kenneth, and the Duke) with those of the three grail knights (Galahad, Percival, and Bors, respectively). Shifting from Williams's fiction to his poetry, Andrew C. Stout's "The Acts of Unity: The Eucharistic Theology of Charles Williams' Arthurian Poetry" argues that Williams deserves to be taken seriously as a significant mid-century High Church Anglican theologian who expressed his insights primarily through the Arthurian poetry.
Benjamin D. Utter's "'What Does the Line along the Rivers Define?': Charles Williams' Arthuriad and the Rhetoric of Empire" asks the important question: can Williams draw upon the symbolism of Empire without bringing along with it unwanted associations...