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The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain

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Will King Arthur ever return to England? He already has.

In the midst of war-torn Britain, King Arthur returned in the writings of the Oxford Inklings. Learn how J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield brought hope to their times and our own in their Arthurian literature.

Although studies of the “Oxford Inklings” abound, astonishingly enough, none has yet examined their great body of Arthurian work. Yet each of these major writers tackled serious and relevant questions about government, gender, violence, imperialism, secularism, and spirituality through their stories of the Quest for the Holy Grail. This rigorous and sophisticated volume studies does so for the first time.

This serious and substantial volume addresses a complex subject that scholars have for too long overlooked. The contributors show how, in the legends of King Arthur, the Inklings found material not only for escape and consolation, but also, and more importantly, for exploring moral and spiritual questions of pressing contemporary concern. —Michael Ward, Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and co-editor of C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner

This volume follows Arthurian leylines in geographies of myth, history, gender, and culture, uncovering Inklings lodestones and way markers throughout. A must read for students of the Inklings. —Aren Roukema, Birkbeck, University of London

567 pages, Kindle Edition

First published December 22, 2017

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About the author

Sørina Higgins

7 books171 followers
Dr. Sørina Higgins is an editor, writer, English teacher, and scholar of British modernist literature. She once founded and ran a University Press and has served as a writing tutor and consultant for everything from doctoral dissertations to a Jungian dream-journal. Her academic work focuses on Charles Williams (The Oddest Inkling) and magic in modern drama.

She is currently revising a volume of short stories, Shall these Bones Breathe?, and previously published two books of poetry: Caduceus & The Significance of Swans.

Sørina lives on a homestead in upstate New York with her husband, their Border Collie pup, a brace of cats, and a chattering of chickens.

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Author 7 books171 followers
January 16, 2018
In lieu of a review, here are the Table of Contents and also the endorsements this book received:

Table of Contents

Introduction—Present and Past: The Inklings and King Arthur.
—Sørina Higgins

Texts and Intertexts
1. The Matter of Logres: Arthuriana and the Inklings.
—Sørina Higgins
2. Medieval Arthurian Sources for the Inklings: An Overview.
—Holly Ordway
3. Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds:
A Study of Intertextuality in C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle.
—Brenton D. G. Dickieson
4. Houses of Healing: The Idea of Avalon in Inklings Fiction and Poetry.
—Charles A. Huttar
5. Shape and Direction: Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies. —Christopher Gaertner

Histories Past
6. From Myth to History and Back Again:
Inklings Arthuriana in Historical Context.
—Yannick Imbert
7. “All Men Live by Tales”: Chesterton’s Arthurian Poems.
—J. Cameron Moore
8. The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur.
—Cory Grewell

Histories Present
9. Spiritual Quest in a Scientific Age.
—Jason Jewell and Chris Butynskyi
10. The Stripped Banner:
Reading The Fall of Arthur as a Post-World War I Text.
—Taylor Driggers
11. “Lilacs Out of the Dead Land”:
Narnia, The Waste Land, and the World Wars.
—Jon Hooper
12. “What Does the Line along the Rivers Define?”:
Charles Williams’ Arthuriad and the Rhetoric of Empire.
—Benjamin D. Utter

Geographies of Gender
13. “Fair as Fay-woman and Fell-minded”: Tolkien’s Guinever.
—Alyssa House-Thomas
14. Beatrice and Byzantium: Sex and the City in the Arthurian Works of Charles Williams. —Andrew Rasmussen
15. Those Kings of Lewis’ Logres:
Arthurian Figures as Lewisian Genders in That Hideous Strength.
—Benjamin Shogren

Cartographies of the Spirit
16. “Servant of All”: Arthurian Peregrinations in George MacDonald.
—Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
17. Camelot Incarnate: Arthurian Vision in the Early Plays of Charles Williams.
—Bradley Wells
18. “Any Chalice of Consecrated Wine”:
The Significance of the Holy Grail in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven.
—Suzanne Bray
19. The Acts of Unity: The Eucharistic Theology of Charles Williams’ Arthurian Poetry.
—Andrew C. Stout
Conclusion—Once and Future:
The Inklings, Arthur, and Prophetic Insight.
—Malcolm Guite


Endorsements from the back of the book:

My thanks go out to Sørina Higgins, for her driving force which has pulled together this impressive collection of essays. These shine a light on a fascinating aspect of the Inklings’ work. I’m struck by the appreciation of Britishness that weaves through the selection. The list of contributors reads as a Who’s Who in the field of Inkling Studies. This valuable work would be a fine addition to the shelves of scholars and thinkers everywhere.
—Owen A. Barfield, Grandson & Trustee, Owen Barfield Literary Estate

These richly varied essays are a welcome introduction to the Arthurian writings of the Inklings, the group of Oxford intellectuals who included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. Each essay explores an aspect of the Arthurian legend as it was re-imagined in the first half of the twentieth century, shaped by two world wars and far-reaching social change. Engaging with key themes of Arthurian reception, from medieval origins to mythic geographies, Christian modernism, gender, and imperialism, this vibrant new collection is the first comprehensive overview of Arthur in the world of the Inklings.
—Helen Fulton, University of Bristol, editor of the Blackwell Companion to Arthurian Literature

This serious and substantial volume addresses a complex subject that scholars have for too long overlooked. The contributors show how, in the legends of King Arthur, the Inklings found material not only for escape and consolation, but also, and more importantly, for exploring moral and spiritual questions of pressing contemporary concern.
—Michael Ward, Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and co-editor of C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner

During the earlier twentieth century, the period of the two World Wars, “King Arthur” became (once again) a potent symbol of defiance, national sentiment, Christian unity, and secular failure for politicians like Churchill, historians like R.G. Collingwood, and more creative writers than can readily be remembered. Prominent among the latter were “the Inklings,” the group of friends which included Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. Sørina Higgins’ compilation of twenty essays provides a survey both of the Inklings’ contributions, which culminated in Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (2013), and of their wider context in life and literature; as also a number of closely-focused studies of works both familiar and little-known. Packed with information, and engagingly written, this provides a new view of the Inklings and of their intellectual and cultural world.
—Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth

Endorsements from the inside of the book:

A gathering with an acknowledged bias toward and emphasis on Charles Williams, The Inklings and King Arthur offers new insights on the difficult and demanding Arthurian poetry of this least critically studied Inkling. But it has as well an impressive array of essays on all the preeminent Inklings—Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and Barfield—that will be a significant contribution to the study of their Arthurian works in particular and of twentieth-century Arthurian literature in general.
—Verlyn Flieger, Author of Splintered Light, A Question of Time, and Interrupted Music

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the Arthurian legends and their world were of vital importance to the writing and thought of the major Inklings. Under Sørina Higgins’ enterprising editorship, this adventurous and illuminating volumes offers a wealth of insights—from theoretical, contextual, interpretative, and other viewpoints—which will move the study of Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and their immediate predecessors into new and exciting territory, showing that the Inklings’ concern with the ‘Matter of Britain’ was motivated not by nostalgia but by urgent concern for the present and future.
—Grevel Lindop, author of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling

Sørina Higgins has performed a wonderful service in opening our eyes to the living presence of King Arthur in the scholarship, imaginative writing, and wartime religious reflection of the major Inklings. With its stellar cast of scholars and interpreters, this volume is an indispensable resource for Inklings and Arthurian studies, and indeed for all who seek to understand the modern mythopoeic imagination.
—Carol and Philip Zaleski, co-authors of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

The Inklings and King Arthur: Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams on the Matter of Britain is a powerful collection of essays that fills a gaping hole in Inklings’ scholarship. While many readers have long noted the presence of Arthurian motifs and allusions in the works of the Inklings, few are aware of how extensive these connections are. Sørina Higgins has drawn together an impressive group of scholars who offer scholarly yet thoroughly readable essays covering the scope, depth, and influence of Arthuriana in writings of Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams. This book should be on the shelf of all Inklings readers.
—Don W. King, Montreat College, author of C. S. Lewis, Poet

The Inklings and King Arthur is a very significant addition to serious study of the Inklings circle of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends. It distinctively focusses upon the group rather than only on Lewis, Tolkien, or other members individually, as has often been the case. The circle is represented convincingly in featuring four of the shaping members, all important writers, and their common interest in King Arthur and the Matter of Britain as a living and breathing tradition. This theme is demonstrated to be an important key for unlocking the heartbeat of the informal group, and dispels the persistent myth that the Inklings were not part of, nor relevant to, the concerns of modernist writers after World War I. This deeply researched, sharply up-to-date, and well-unified collection of essays provides a wealth of discoveries for the reader and opens many doors for further Inklings’ study.
—Colin Duriez, author of The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien and Their Circle, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, and other books relating to the Inklings

Taken as a whole, the essays in this collection lead to the surprising but inescapable conclusion that it is in their Arthurian works that the Inklings’ thoughts and writings are most intertwined, not only with each other, but with the wider currents of the twentieth century. This book is essential reading, not only for scholars of fantasy literature, but for all those interested in understanding how traditions and writers shape each other.
—Michael D.C. Drout, Wheaton College

Just when serious students of C.S. Lewis’s writing think there is nothing new to be said about his work—at least nothing original and significant—Sørina Higgins has edited The Inklings and King Arthur. In short, this is an important book. Every contributor’s essay is fascinating. I intend to recommend it to my students.
—Lyle Dorsett, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University

The historical, legendary, and literary King Arthur lay at the heart of much of what the Inklings wrote—sometimes explicitly, sometimes concealed as deeply as the Isle of Avalon itself, and always filtered through the unique interests and interpretations of the authors as individuals, as Higgins’ introductory essay demonstrates. This ground-breaking collection presents new scholarship on topics as diverse as violence, historicity, gender, medievalism, ecology, mysticism, and personal biography at the nexus of Arthuriana and Inklings studies. Especially exciting is the inclusion of some of the first published criticism on Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur and its unique re-visioning of the Matter of Britain. Those interested in the Inklings or in modern interpretations of the Arthurian mythos will find much thought-provoking material in these pages.
—Janet Brennan Croft, editor of Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature

Sørina Higgins collects twenty essayists’ discussions of twentieth-century British Arthuriana, primarily but not quite exclusively that written by the Inklings. Some essays compare thematic aspects of Charles Williams’, C. S. Lewis’, J. R. R. Tolkien’s, and Owen Barfield’s Arthurian writings; other essays give historic backgrounds, consider the Inklings’ treatments of gender, or discuss the religious significance of the Holy Grail (that is, discuss mainly Charles Williams’ treatments of the “Graal”). Some readers will think the lengthy focus on the Inklings’ Arthuriana too restrictive, but these writers’ continued-and-growing critical acceptance as exponents of types of Christian Romanticism that survived through Modernism(s), and seem to be doing better than some Modernists through Post-Modernism, means that the Victorian fragmentation of the literary culture is still the basic truth. Here are discussed some fascinating cultural shards.
—Joe Christopher, Professor Emeritus, Tarleton State University

This book identifies a very important thread in the intellectual curiosity, creative work, and spiritual convictions of the Inklings. For students of the Arthurian tradition, it will reveal an under-appreciated chapter of the Arthur story from the early twentieth century. For Inklings enthusiasts, it will unfold a fascination they might never have known that the Inklings shared.
—Corey Olsen, President of Signum University, author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

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 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 one of the Inklings himself (Barfield, who went by his middle name, but whose full name was Arthur Owen Barfield).
—John Rateliff, author of The History of The Hobbit

This volume follows Arthurian leylines in geographies of myth, history, gender, and culture, uncovering Inklings lodestones and way markers throughout. A must read for students of the Inklings, particularly those interested in Charles Williams.
—Aren Roukema, Birkbeck, University of London

This is a wonderfully rich and long overdue examination of a theme in the Inklings that has never had the attention it deserves–a theme that locates them firmly within the mainstream of the British imagination. These studies are theoretically sophisticated, lively and original, and will be of the greatest interest to students of English literature in general as well as Inklings enthusiasts.
—Dr. Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge
Profile Image for Andrew Higgins.
Author 24 books39 followers
February 25, 2018
This is one of the most important volumes i have read to date that use several different contextual frameworks to explore how the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield) each dipped their creative ladles into that vast and intertextual soup of Arthurian literature and tradition to shape stories that each reflected their own thoughts and creative aspects. The brilliant author of this volume Sorina Higgins (no relation) whose brilliant academic work and passion has made me continue attempting to crack the rather daunting Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams - has assembled an incredibly focused series of papers that explore these themes with very helpful notes and suggestions for further research. For me the stand out paper among all these brilliant explorations was Alyssa House-Thomas’s essay on the role of Guinevere in Tolkien’s unfinished The Fall of Arthur - her combination of excellent close reading and source analysis offers a new contextual reading of Arthur’s queen that for me was revelatory in understanding Tolkien’s version of Guinevere as well as other woman in Tolkien’s creative work. This must read book gave me new ideas and interest in research on the Inklings and the number of notes I made is a tribute to how this volume greatly contributes to Inkling studies and will motivate research from many more scholars. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Tom.
136 reviews4 followers
April 23, 2019

This review first appeared in Sehnsucht vol. 12 (2018) 154-56

With the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, writes Sørina Higgins in her introduction to this volume, three truths became evident: that The Fall of Arthur is an important text worthy of study per se and for what it can add to our understanding of Tolkien and his legendarium; that in this work Tolkien draws on the significant cultural figure of Arthur whom many other British writers of his era found socially, morally, and spiritually relevant to their times; and that the coming of Tolkien’s Arthur also afforded the best opportunity for a study of the Arthuriana of the major Inklings. To illuminate these truths, Higgins has gathered twenty different scholars, herself not least, who turn their lights upon the Inklings and Arthur from a series of five different viewpoints. Through diversity in scholarly experience and choice of text, as well as in theoretical approach and theological perspective, this volume succeeds in all its goals. As often as scholars return to Arthur and the Inklings, they will return to this fine work.



Since intertextuality is integral to the entire concept of this book, the first section, “Texts and Intertexts,” quite properly begins with chapters that define terms (Higgins), review the history of Arthurian texts (Ordway), and demonstrate the lush web of significant connections between the Inklings and their sources as well as the among the works of the Inklings themselves (Dickieson). A splendid investigation of the place of Avalon as an evocation of the spiritual world that lies beyond ours reveals much about the ideas which Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien shared on the healing of the world and of ourselves (Huttar), while an initial exploration of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances leads to a provoking analysis of the role that myth, here in the form of the Grail, can play in helping us to regain a perspective on ourselves as part of a greater whole (Gaertner).



“Histories Past,” the second section, approaches the crossroads of myth and history that Arthur bestrides. For Lewis this crucial position revealed the struggle between the two; for Williams their coinherence meant that each affected the other; for Tolkien myth and history resonated together with spiritual truth (Imbert). Chesterton’s poems on Arthur similarly address the conflict between myth and history, which only the return of Christ will reconcile, and which takes place within the same broader context as Tolkien’s view of the Gospel as the Fairy-story that came true (Moore). The Fall of Arthur and The Lord of the Rings mythically reimagine the Middle Ages, constructing their perspective on nature, chivalry, and Christendom as a part of a cultural conversation with the Modernism of the Twentieth Century (Grewell).



“Histories Present” opens with a survey of the rise of Scientism, the prevailing intellectual culture of the Inklings’ time, and their responses to it, both their counterattacks on the narrowness of its vision, and their construction through Arthur of alternative moral visions (Jewell and Butynskyi). The Fall of Arthur subverts Arthurian myth by showing what harm the misappropriation of myth can do in the struggle between medieval community and individual domination, thus proving a dark foreshadowing of the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings (Drigger). In The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis seeks by quest and by healing the blighted land to recover from the despair inflicted by The Great War and mapped out in The Waste Land (Hooper). Through Arthur, often a racist or nationalist symbol, Williams holds up Otherness as a mirror in which we may see our own faults staring back at us, and mourns what humanity loses because of our attitudes towards the Other (Utter).



With “Geographies of Gender,” the scene shifts first to Tolkien’s Guinever, who, as heir to a mythic and literary tradition every bit as varied as Arthur’s, weaves together its Celtic and Germanic strands with the threads of Fate and Free Will, to create a figure embodying the transition from Britain to England, and challenging the notion that Tolkien’s female characters are lacking (House-Thomas). Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry, with labyrinthine brilliance, seeks to advance his understanding of the City, or the Kingdom of God, through the essential interplay of Masculine and Feminine, but falters owing to its author’s troubled attitude towards women (Rasmussen). Similarly, in That Hideous Strength Lewis construes the Masculine and Feminine of the Spirit through the dual roles of Pendragon and Fisher King inhabited by Ransom (Shogren).



In “Cartographies of the Spirit,” the fifth section, we find George MacDonald mining the medieval revivalism of Victorian times to re-imagine contemporary notions of chivalry, seeking a moral way forward, not back, in which the true knight is the servant of all (Johnson). Similarly, in Williams’s Arthurian plays the choice of servitude brings freedom, another example of the paradoxical coinherence of the City of God, whose greatest expression is the Incarnation (Wells). War in Heaven shows the quest for the Grail to be more important than the Grail itself, because through the Eucharist it creates a communion of faith and experience (Bray). In Williams’s Arthurian poetry the Grail and the Eucharist again promise the union of Heaven and Earth, which may be achieved through service to the Grail, but the failure of Arthur and Logres is a failure to serve, thus causing the Grail to depart, but leaving still the promise of the Eucharist (Stout).



The literary Arthur, revised and re-visioned, is always a myth for its time, so Malcom Guite suggests in his conclusion to this volume. Through Arthur writers such as Malory and Tennyson addressed the spirit of their age. So, too, the Inklings. With a characteristically prophetic insight that seeks a recovery of vision, their Arthurs answer the despair and the marred self-image of the West since the First World War. That vision, that rex quondam, rexque futurus, is the mythic whole which we have lost that gives the parts meaning. In The Inklings and King Arthur Sørina Higgins has given us a study equal to its subject.

Profile Image for G.M. Burrow.
Author 1 book109 followers
March 30, 2019
Here’s the thing. I haven’t read much about King Arthur (just a few Rosemary Sutcliff children’s books here and there) but that’s not why 60% of this book didn’t make sense and was no fun. It didn’t make sense and was no fun because a good chunk of the essays (starting with Sørina Higgins’s intro) were dense as a foghorn and clear as mud. Have you read That Hideous Strength? Remember John Wither, deputy head of the N.I.C.E., who talks and talks and talks without saying anything? That’s what these essays do. So many words. Sentences in knots. Dead constructions and weird negatives and awkward phrases and no friendly vocabulary in sight. It’s like the writers actively hated their audience and did their mightiest to keep us from tracking their line of thought. I enjoyed a few refreshing pieces (especially on Lewis and Tolkien) but man, I would have failed most of this book SO HARD if a freshman had ever turned it in. Three stars for the amount of research, I guess.
Profile Image for Ailed.
167 reviews7 followers
November 5, 2020
I still haven't read almost anything by the Inklings, but it's usual for me to put the cart before the horse. And anyway, now, when I read them, I will be able to spot and enjoy the nuisances more fully. I love the Arthurian legend, and recently, I have been reading a lot of the medieval texts that made it so popular, so I decided to go ahead and read this book. It didn't disappoint.
Each chapter is an essay written by different authors that usually focuses on an Inkling and an aspect of their work. It's a very engaging read that progressively fetters out the details of Arthurian influence in the Inklings' work and how they, each, used the legend differently.
Profile Image for Ashley.
402 reviews5 followers
July 24, 2019
This hefty tome was a challenging but very rewarding read. I have to be honest: I did not read every single essay. I read about 6 of them plus the introduction.

It’s been a long time since I was immersed in the world of academic writing, but it was definitely worth the stretch. The essays deepened my understanding of Arthurian literature throughout history, the Inklings in context to their own historical moment, and the brilliance of Lewis’ fiction. (I’m sure Barfield, Tolkien, and Charles Williams are brilliant, too, but Lewis is my main interest.)
Profile Image for Allison.
449 reviews
June 26, 2023
I skipped a few essays that didn't interest me, but on the whole, this book was brilliant and accessible. Glad i took the time to read it
Profile Image for Sarah Monnier.
3 reviews1 follower
August 12, 2023
This book is absolutely a must-read for any Arthurian OR inklings scholars. The breadth and depth of scholarship is exquisite and the topics are fascinating. As an aspiring Williams scholar, I particularly appreciate the attention given to his Arthurian poetry in this volume.
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