Getting an “Inkling” of the medieval world


My forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians will use C S Lewis and “the Inklings” (including Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and by extension others such as G K Chesterton) as guides to a usable medieval past. This is a good thing, because I myself am not a medievalist! So I’m having to do a LOT of reading on the period, and it’s good to have guides on this sort of journey. I’ve also traveled to the gargantuan Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (and hope to do so soon again). Yesterday I re-posted my anticipatory Christianity Today history blog post on my first trip to that conference (“The monks did it: Mining medieval resources“). This is my follow-up to that post.

Oh, and, in case you’re interested, here are some other posts dealing with the same theme of “the Inklings and the medieval”: A piece on how Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers were all inspired (in very different ways) by the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri. A piece on the medievalist work and thought of G K Chesterton. A posting of the summary of the introductory chapter from my Medieval Wisdom book proposal. A consideration of how the “Inklings” hated modernity and used medieval ideas against modern malaises. A summary of the medieval historian Norman Cantor’s assessment of C. S. Lewis as medievalist.

Now to the post at hand . . .

Getting an “Inkling” of the Medieval World

How to excavate a usable medieval past.

by Chris Armstrong | June 3, 2009

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Well, I promised to report back on the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I will, at least for a moment before turning to another set of lenses on a “usable medieval past.”

In a word, the congress was overwhelming. With over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions (averaging 3+ papers each) stuffed into a few days, many of them on topics very esoteric and technical, my head was swimming. Navigating the sessions became an exercise in close reading and careful exegesis of the program-book. Fortunately, more often than not I did manage to hit pay-dirt.

I attended sessions on everything from pleasure in medieval scholarship (turned out to be heavily laden with queer theory–didn’t know that from reading the program book) to the Cistercians Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux.

As a historian whose interest in history is firmly anchored to the church, I found the best sessions were the ones in which the seats were filled with monks and nuns – e.g. the Cistercian track. One exception was a wonderful session on “Teaching hagiography as narrative theology,” presented by a panel consisting of a professor who had taught a course on just that subject, along with an animated group of bright graduate students who had taken her course and done various fascinating papers for it.

Because I am still processing, I’ll leave the rest of my observations aside for now and turn back to another entree to this subject of medieval studies that has been very fruitful for me: the work of a select group of British Christian authors – medievalists all.

The circle of C. S. Lewis’s friends loosely referred to as “the Inklings” – though not all attended meetings of that circle in Lewis’s rooms – included a number of top-notch scholarly medievalists. These included Lewis himself, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Charles Williams.

Historian Norman Cantor has written a fascinating book called Inventing the Middle Ages. Essentially this is a survey of how modern thinkers and writers have created “medievalisms” – the term means “modern uses or construals of the Middle Ages” – that have impacted how we view the Middle Ages today. One chapter of this book deals with the authors just mentioned. He calls them “the Oxford fantasists.”

Cantor reminds us that Lewis “had established his reputation as a leading medieval literary historian with The Allegory of Love (1936), a pioneering and influential study of medieval romantic literature.” Tolkien did important work on Beowulf and was “the leading scholar on the subjects of two precious fourteenth-century poems written anonymously in the Midlands, about seventy miles from Oxford, in the dialect of that region . . . Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.”

Cantor makes a startling claim. Surveying the entire scholarly field of medieval studies, he concludes: “Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work.”

What does that mean for our attempts to “excavate” a usable medieval past today? Only this:

“In terms of shaping of the Middle Ages in the popular culture of the twentieth century, Tolkien and Lewis have had an incalculable effect, and the story is far from ended. Their fictional fantasies cannot be separated from their scholarly writing. Their work in each case should be seen as a whole and as communicating an image of the Middle Ages that has entered profoundly and indelibly into world culture.”

In other words, in their fantasy writing, Tolkien, Lewis, and their circle “wanted to impart a sense of medieval myth to the widest audience possible. They wanted to represent to the public the impress of the kind of traditional ethic they derived from their devotion to conservative Christianity.”

I think this insight of Cantor’s gets right to the heart of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s (and Sayers’s and Williams’s) fiction. They saw the medieval era and the Christian values it embodied as a vibrant corrective to many of the ills of their own age. And they saw imaginative literature (in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s case, a genre they called “fairy stories”) as the best way to communicate these values to our time.

But none of these authors stopped with fairy stories. Lewis, for example, summarized many years worth of his own lectures to undergraduates on the subject of medieval faith and culture in the fascinating Discarded Image. In this book he shows with great vividness that, for the medievals, the objective universe was alive with truth and meaning.

Sadly, for us (whether we consider ourselves “moderns” or “postmoderns” doesn’t matter), not only has truth been emptied from the universe, we ourselves have been emptied. In the face of this disaster, Lewis did not stand by. He addressed it both in philosophical essays such as those contained in The Abolition of Man and in his fiction.

Tolkien did the same, though in a subtler and perhaps more literarily successful way, in his Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and other stories.

Sayers wrote quasi-medieval mystery plays such as The Zeal of Thy House and The Just Vengeance and translated Dante.

Williams forged his own deep study of Dante into a full-blown “romantic theology” for today (in books such as The Figure of Beatrice), and he also injected strange and supernatural medieval elements into such modern-themed novels as The Place of the Lion, Descent into Hell, and The Greater Trumps.

Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and Williams found fame through their own works of imaginative literature. That literature itself has become a portal into a medieval world that, for all its faults, was shot through with biblical insights into the meaning of being human in a world created by God.

This is why these accomplished medievalists make such wonderful “guides” for Christians today who want to explore the medieval world and medieval faith. We know them well. We trust them because they have spoken truth to us in their stories and essays. And in those writings, they have already initiated us into the medieval world.

So why not follow them down that road, with The Lord of the Rings or The Space Trilogy in one hand, and The Divine Comedy or Beowulf in the other? We’ve enjoyed their writings. Now let’s explore their conviction that the medieval world still has some important things to teach us today – as 21st-century folks and as Christians.


Image: Facade of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (England), where the Inklings met (1930-1950). 2002 photograph by Stefan Servos via Wikimedia Commons.

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