"The Inklings and King Arthur: Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield on the Matter of Britain"


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Here's a place to discuss a thick collection of academic-style essays on the four authors named -- with plenty of attention having been given to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Information about the award-winning essay collection is here:

The Inklings and Arthur wins the Mythopoeic Award!

The book appeared a year ago.


Here's an enthusiastic comment on the book:

The Inklings and King Arthur

I intend to post here on this book from time to time, to give me a reason to dig into it & maybe (I hope!) to start some good discussion.
Arthurian works by the Four Authors (Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and Barfield) include:

Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur
Lewis's The Hideous Strength
Williams's War in Heaven (thriller with the "Graal") and his two major books of poetry, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars
Barfield's unpublished The Quest of the Sangreal


Much Arthuriana was easily available when these men were young, in Everyman's Library editions.
  • 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.

I would imagine that most or all of these would be available to us today at archive.org.
At the very least, this book might stir a few Tolkien fans who haven't read The Fall of Arthur yet to catch up with it!
At the very least, this book might stir a few Tolkien fans who haven't read The Fall of Arthur yet to catch up with it!
Ahem! I wasn't even aware of The Fall of Arthur. I've just ordered a copy.
Although I've read around Tolkien a fair bit, this was pretty much LOTR centred.
I need to reread The Fall before going much farther with The Inklings and King Arthur. My memory is that the Tolkien work is good, definitely worth reading, though it is unfinished.
One ought to try to hear Tolkien's voice reading this poem. Part of a description of Guinever:

....lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
in the world walking for the woe of men.


I've begun reading one of the Inklings and King Arthur (hereafter IKA) essays, Cory Grewell's "The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur." It seems verbose to me, as I expect other essays will seem, but I mean to try to glean some good things from it and them if I persevere.

Grewell cites Tom Shippey's proposed definition of medievalism: "Any post-medieval attempt to re-imagine the Middle Ages, or some aspect of the Middle Ages, for the modern world, in any of many different media; especially in academic usage, the study of the development and significance of such attempts" (p. 221).

Tolkien and C. S. Lewis really knew a lot about the real Middle Ages, which were the focus of virtually all of Tolkien's professional activity, but of only some of Lewis's; he wrote a great deal about Renaissance literature too. One of his chief scholarly ideas, however, was that the distinction between "the Middle Ages" and "the Renaissance" had been much overdrawn, and he preferred to emphasize continuity. I think he proves his point in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, my favorite of his scholarly works, one that I read, at least in parts, again and again, and believe would be helpful to some fantasy writers.

Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, most writers of "medievalist" fantasy aren't scholars, and are much more indebted to the writings of other modern fantasy writers (and perhaps to fantasy movies, etc.) than to the Middle Ages. Some of these writers may have produced really good works of fantasy: I'm thinking of Ursula Le Guin's first three Earthsea books, which I would say are "medievalist" fantasies (for all that they are set, presumably, in some world other than ours). What Ursula Le Guin actually knew about the Middle Ages, I don't know; I imagine she'd acquired some general knowledge of the period as a university student, at least.

Anyway, I think Shippey's definition is a good one, and, I suppose, in the notes I will be writing here, that I will refer to it.

Grewell says that Umberto Eco wrote an essay in which he suggests multiple "medievalisms" exist, one of them being the "medievalism" of political-social movements that are focused on nationalistic goals, i.e. they use "medieval" trapping(s) for the sake of the future. This was done in 19th- and 20th-century Germany in the service of aggressive nationalism. Grewell contrasts that sort of thing with what Tolkien's doing in The Fall of Arthur -- which mourns an irretrievably lost grandeur.
As I read The Fall of Arthur, I'm thinking that Tolkien is "trying to cast a spell" in a way familiar to readers from his Middle-earth stories and also works such as Smith of Wootton Major. The way he does this is interesting -- a great deal of what he writes is not "fantastic," dealing with magic, but rather evokes the natural world, notably rapidly-moving clouds, the moon, great forests, high winds and tall waves, uninhabited regions ("houseless hills"), wolves, etc.

That's the realm that, at least in some degree, awaits us still, though we may be so surrounded by walls, streets, lights, artificial sounds and images, etc. that we have to make serious efforts if we are going to enter it.

Related to this is his presentation of human beings -- Arthur, Mordred, Guenever. Whether the person is given over to evil or not, each possesses human dignity. The outward trappings thereof are signs of the inner reality. Perhaps one of the needs that fantasy often deals with is the restoration of a sense of human dignity and significance -- in contrast to the cant today about human dignity that is so entangled in political and cultural ideology ("identity politics" of the Left, notably).

Tolkien regretted the overly sophisticated and prettified presentation of "fairies" that he associated with French culture, if I'm remembering On Fairy-Stories correctly. He also regretted the obscuring, or even obliterating, of English mythology and fairy-tale by the Norman Conquest -- again, I'm just approximating what I think he says in the Fairy-Stories essay. That Tolkien was moved by the desire for a "mythology for England" is a common notion.

So -- is that part of his intention with The Fall of Arthur? I could see a couple of things, so far, as suggesting that: (1) his use of alliterative verse modeled on Middle English or even Old English; (2) his emphasis on Sir Gawain -- a representative of the Celtic British heritage -- rather than Lancelot as a French knight.

Grewell sees Mordred, in The Fall of Arthur, as like Saruman, a "pragmatist," representing the false values becoming ascendant.

Many thanks for continuing to post your thoughts. My copy of The Fall of Arthur has yet to arrive. Of course once arrived, it's not a given that I will get into it, but I'm hopeful.
Thanks, Hugh. I hope you'll get your book soon & enjoy it! When you do, perhaps a thread devoted to The Fall of Arthur should be started; it seems there never has been one at Chrons. There could have been a thread on the Sigurd and Gudrun book, but it never took off:

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

Again, there could've been discussion of the Beren and Lúthien release, but that too didn't take off.

Beren and Luthien--a New Tolkien Book

No thread on the recent Fall of Gondolin -- which I admit I haven't read yet.

All of these are unfinished works or, at least, ones that Tolkien didn't release as works he had completed. I can understand that many people are not so greatly interested in Tolkien as to be much drawn to such things -- okay. (I think, though, of how eager we'd have been even just for some information about these things, some of us, back in the day in the late Sixties or early Seventies.)

The posthumously-published, unfinished work that, I suppose, I've found most fascinating since its publication (in Sauron Defeated) is that peculiar work The Notion Club Papers.

Interested in The Notion Club Papers?

I turn from Grewell's paper -- which seemed to me, basically, to take a lot of time stating obvious things -- to Alyssa House-Thomas's "'Fair as Fay-woman and Fell-minded': Tolkien's Guinever," in IKA. She has some interesting data regarding various treatments of the queen before Tolkien.
I want to read & perhaps comment on "The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to The Silmarillion" by Christopher Tolkien in the Fall of Arthur volume again. It's interesting to think of what might have been (I won't say should have been) if Tolkien had presented his Middle-earth tales as connected in some way with the "truth" about King Arthur.

C. S. Lewis just barely does this in his wonderful interplanetary trilogy. (It really is a trilogy, i.e. a set of three related but self-contained novels.) Specifically, he does this in the final volume.

One starts to imagine a shared "mythos" between Tolkien and Lewis grounded in the Arthurian legends. They actually came pretty close to that.
In The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien reviews scraps that his father wrote. He considered having Lancelot try to follow Arthur into the unknown West after the former is taken to Avalon. In this way, Lancelot links with Tolkien's Eärendil, the Elven-human mariner who sailed into the West to beseech the Valar for help (pp. 136ff.).
Is it the case, then, that Tolkien, at some point, imagined Avalon as the abode of the divine Valar? -- Rather, it seems that Tolkien thought of the realm of the Valar as being beyond Avalon. perhaps he was thinking of something along these lines:

Britain, England, Logres: westernmost of known mortal lands -- to the west of which is
Avalon, the realm of Elves (?), to the west of which is
the realm of the Valar or created "gods."

Elsewhere I've seen Tolkien playing with the idea of the imram, the monk's voyage ever farther into the unknown West.

This isn't necessarily spoiled by our knowledge of the New World to the west of Europe if one considers (perhaps whimsically!) how the New World could be imagined as a land to the east of the known East, i.e. east of the Cathay and even Cipangu (Japan) that Marco Polo described in his Travels. At what point the West, where the sun sets, meets the Land of the Rising Sun, might be an amusing topic for thought. In a Tolkienian context, this gets into the Professor's unresolved (I think) difficulties with the idea of an originally flat earth that was "bent" at the end of the Second Age, when Númenor was overthrown (NB a key subject for that wonderful unfinished Notion Club Papers!).
In the second posting above, I listed cheap editions of Arthuriana that would have been available to Lewis and Tolkien & their friends. Of course, expensive scholarly books also existed. Christopher Tolkien mentions (p. 147) that his father acquired, in 1927, "a very fine copy" of Sir Frederick Madden's 3-volume edition of Layamon's Brut (1847), a "rare and costly" edition. The year 1927 would be plenty of time for Tolkien to consult it in writing The Fall of Arthur.

See this edition here:

Lazamons Brut : Layamon, fl. 1200 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

I am keen to get a forthcoming book about Tolkien's personal library:

New book on Tolkien’s Library announced
House-Thomas mentions Tolkien's essay-address "English and Weelsh" -- given, Christopher Tolkien says, the day after The Return of the King was published, i.e. the essay was delivered at Oxford on Oct. 21, 1955. The essay is in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, and from my copy it looks like I read it once, in 2004, so a rereading might be considered to be overdue, ... Tolkien mentions the interesting fact that "English printers ... were really responsible for spelling Kymry with a C" (MCOE p. 165). So is that why we have Celts (not Kelts)? I'm out of my depth here.

Looks like Tolkien's essay is available here:

...No, "English and Welsh" is too esoteric to get a rereading without a stronger reason than I've implied above. If one is interested in the man Tolkien, though, some remarks late in the essay are worth a look (though one may have encounteredt them in a biography already, without looking into the original essay). Tolkien talks about how the remains of the Gothic language took him by storm, moved his heart (pp. 191-192). Tnen Finnish gave him "overwhelming pleasure"; but greater still was the delight he experienced from Welsh (p. 192), which he saw even on as humble an object as a coal-truck. The connection between Finnish and Welsh, on one hand, and Quenya and Sindarin, on the other, is a commonplace of Tolkienian discussions. I enjoy the bits of Tolkien's imaginary languages in LotR, but have never really gone into them, or gone in for them. People such as Carl Hostetter and the artist Patrick Wynne have derived endless hours of interest from them.



Similar threads