Long ago I wrote a book about contemporary Arthurian Fantasy—that is to say, about all the post-WW2 stuff, of which there’s a ton. The context was that, back in the 1990s at RHUL, I used to co-teach a course on Arthurian Literature with my colleague, medievalist Professor Ros Field. Ros taught Term 1 on Medieval Arthurian romance (up to Malory), and I taught Term 2 on the Victorian Arthurian revival (Matthew Arnold, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Morris, Swinburne, Pre-Raphaelite art) and into the 20th-century—T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Monty Python, Rick Wakeman, all sorts.
My interest in the topic predated this course. The truth is I’ve long been fascinated by the legends of King Arthur, something that goes all the way back to a teenage passion fostered by reading Geoffrey Ashe, seeing Boorman’s Excalibur and then discovering Tennyson. (I’d still make the case that Tennyson doesn’t get enough prosodic credit for what he does with blank verse in the Idylls). The book I wrote about the 20th-C Arthurian florescence was not very good, I'm sorry to say. I gave it the title Silk and Potatoes because one of its main arguments was about the way these texts use anachronism: their notionally dark ages peasants all scoffing potatoes, their aristocrats swanning around in silk. I’m not defending myself, mind. It’s a ghastly title, and it is a mercy that the book has now all-but ceased to exist. Even I don’t own it; the author copies I got from the publisher I gave away to friends/students years ago. A small-print-run obscure academic work: you can’t put your hands on a copy now for love nor money, I’m pleased to say.
Anyway bygones be bygones. Recently I've been thinking once again about the appeal of Arthuriana (there is of course a significant overlap between Arthurian Fantasy and Commercial Fantasy of the Tolkien and post-Tolkien variety, more broadly conceived), and something has occurred to me about this form that I didn't realise before, something to do with the reason why King Arthur has appealed so very much, and in the particular ways he does, to the British. And this belated realisation about Arthuriana has implications for how I'm currently thinking about Fantasy fiction more generally.
So: there are plenty of medieval Romances that include Arthur, in English and French, legends in which he is one of the seven worthies, along with Charlemagne, Roland and so on. Fun for all the medieval-romance-reading family: battles, quests, courtly love. But after the medieval period Arthurian legend falls pretty much into cultural desuetude until (there’s been a fair bit of scholarship on this) it comes roaring back into popularity in the 19th-century: Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult, Morris’s Defence of Guenevere, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Wagner’s Tristram und Isolde. This second flourishing of Arthuriana is, inarguably, a significant cultural phenomenon in its own right, as well as something that—it seems to me, obviously—pays forward in significant ways into the next century’s big boom in Fantasy.
To be a little more specific: the latter has to do with a handful of elements on which modern Arthurian fantasy particularly focuses: specifically, the return of the king (rex quondam, rexque futurus with a special attention paid to the latter); the Holy Grail; and Arthur as an English rather than a Continental king. In the medieval Arthurian romances Arthur conquers the whole continent, and his knights are as much French chivalric ideals (Lancelot du Lac: check the surname) as anything else. Recent versions of the story aren’t interested in that. Nowadays Arthur is almost always pointedly English, defending England against incursion from pagan Saxons.
Step back to an earlier piece of Arthuriana. There's a 1962 Frank Kermode essay on Spenser [collected in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays, 1971] that argues readers misunderstand the allegory of The Faerie Queene by failing to grasp how, for Spenser and his audience, myth, history and religion braid together. In particular, according to Kermode, Spenser's poem expressed a distinctly English Protestantism, one where Una is ‘the True Church’, Prince Arthur the secular true knight and Redcross the true knight of faith. For Kermode the important thing is the breadth, as it were, of Una’s signification, premised on ‘the claim that English Christianity was older than the Roman church.’ Renaissance Anglicans considered this claim—that Anglicanism predated Catholicism, and was the true and aboriginal version of Christianity as such—to be historically as well as theologically true. ‘All the apologists of the Settlement made the appeal to history as a matter of course’:
Whoever agreed that the English was the true catholic church had to think of her history as beginning not with the convulsions of Henry VIII’s reign, but … with the arrival in England of Joseph of Arimathea. For Christianity came here not from Rome, but from the East; and Una is descended from kings and queens whose ‘scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore’ [Fairie Queene, 1.5] … but ‘this catholic unity did not long continue’ says Foxe—thanks, of course, to the papacy. And Foxe enables us to recognise in Spenser’s text the features of certain especially guilty popes who were the progenitors of Duessa. [Kermode, 17]This is the context in which Spenser’s fantasy worldbuilding and allegorical signifying is best understood: ‘Rome has divided the world and exiled the catholic church. Who will restore and re-establish it?’
The right and duty of restoring the Church to her pre-Hildebrandine purity (Canterbury independent of Rome, the sacrament administered in both kinds to the laity, no transubstantiation, proper respect for Romans 13) belonged to the heiress of Empire, to Elizabeth, whom Spenser in the dedication of his poem calls ‘most high, mightie and magnificent Empresse.’This is the reason contemporary Arthurian Fantasy makes such a big deal of the quest for the holy grail—a feature (of course) of medieval and Maloryian texts, but not the central or defining episode the way it later becomes. And I’m interested in this because it seems to me centrally to inform important aspects of contemporary Fantasy. This, in other words, is what is at stake in a commitment to English Arthurianism: the direct line of Christ's ‘true’ church from Jerusalem to Glastonbury, via Joseph of Arimathea: Eden relocated to Avalon, Christian transcendence specified as an English topographic intensity.
Joachim of Fiore is, it seems, important this larger story. People, from medieval thinkers to seventeenth-century radicals were captivated by the thought that the first two of the three ages ordained by God (a ‘Father’ age, a ‘Son’ age and a ‘Holy Spirit’ age) were completed, and the time for the tertium status was at hand. Various critics have stressed the important Joachim’s weird cyclical historiography and ‘eternal evangel’ theology has been to the later development of Western society— Erich Vögelin isn’t messing about when he asserts ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’ [Vögelin, New Science of Politics (1951)]. The four symbols Vögelin specifically identifies are: (1) a ‘third age’, which Vögelin reads into the third positive stadium of Auguste Comte and the Third Reich of the Nazis. (2) a leader or ‘Fuhrer’ who shows the people the way into the third age (3) an inspired Gnostic prophet. (4) a new order of a spiritual community.
The connection with Fascism can’t be ignored, and the fascistic political logic of much commercial Fantasy certainly shouldn't be brushed under the carpet: the valorisation of the warrior-king, the conflation of politics and magic, the emphatic racialisation of the built world. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (2nd ed 1993) explores in detail the throughline connecting Joachimites to what he calls ‘modern Nietzschean primitivists and their elite of amoral supermen’ and so on to the Nazi revival of a medievalist chiliast known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. Kermode quotes Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein’s theory that ‘Third Reich’ was a translation of Joachim’s tertius status. Lenin and Hitler both, according to Cohn, knowingly ‘secularised and revived’ traditions of apocalyptic fanaticism to serve their own political ends. ‘There are aspects of Nazism and Communism alike,’ he notes, ‘that are incomprehensible, barely conceivable even, to those whose political assumptions and norms are provided by liberal society’ [Cohn, 288]. Very important truth, there; and one that can be restated, in more watery form, by saying: Fantasy, and its idioms of magic and myth, because they are not rational, can never really be liberal, and so are structurally (ideologically) simply more compatible with fascism. I mean, I love all this stuff, and pointing this out is painful to me, but there we are. The dangerous charisma of the warrior-saviour shines in almost every classic example of the mode.
We’re at that dangerous intersection where history blurs into—or is deliberately confused with—myth. As Kermode puts it:
Arthur is not merely a Tudor ancestor, not merely a mirror of that chivalry which preserves the virtues in a troubled time, but also a Tudor version of that ancient eschatological dream, the Emperor of the Last Days. [Kermode, 21]The eschatological emphasis is particular striking, I think. The question could be framed this way: is Fantasy, as a mode, eschatological? A short answer might be: in a fairly complicated way, yes it is. I’d need a space longer than a blogpost to unpack all the ways in which it is. Wagner’s Ring is, straightforwardly, about the end of the world; Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the Third Age, as the world of magic and wonder the novel construes is dying, and its main storyline is an apocalyptic war to end wars (‘I am glad you are here with me,’ Frodo tells him companion, as Mount Doom spews its cataclysmic lava. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.’) in Westeros the dead have declared war on the living, and winter is coming. So there’s an end-of-the-world vibe at play, certainly. The wrinkle is that Tolkien adds-in a new terminus to the Götterdämmerung-y protoype: the eucatastrophe—something so widely copied in subsequent popular culture that it has now become a cliché. (The more I think about it, the more intriguingly problematic the eucatastrophe becomes. I'll say more about that in a moment).
Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, owes much to this English tradition. And there’s one other element which is important here. The religio-political discourse that frames Spenser’s epic is one deeply suspicious of the Papacy for political as well as theological reasons. One last quotation from Kermode:
The most insistent of all [Protestant] complaints against the papal antichrist is, probably, that which concerns the usurpation. Thus Foxe, like Luther, is always on the emperor’s side against the pope, and, like John Jewel, holds that the emperor has the power to call General Councils and the right to exact temporal obedience from the Bishop of Rome; an argument of great importance to the English. [Kermode, 17]Now, Tolkien was of course a Catholic; but he also self-identified as intensely English, and there are certainly ways in which the broader cultural assumptions of English politicotheology feed into his legendarium, and so through him into late 20th-C early 21st-C commercial Fantasy more generally. Spenser posits two knights, Arthur and Redcrosse, because he believes the secular knight and the knight of faith are both equally needful in the battle against the antichrist. Tolkien divides his anti-Sauron labour between his quondam-et-futuris king Aragorn on the one hand, and Gandalf, an Istar (a kind of angel) on the other, for related reasons. The Tolkienian eucatastrophe is a theological device rather than a plot-trick to toy with our emotions. It is a way of saying that our individual mortality (our human deaths, as functions of our human sinfulness) is brilliantly if unexpectedly redeemed in Christ, such that although it looks like we are doomed and continues looking like we are doomed until the very last moment, in that lastness lies the possibility for doom to be miraculously averted. As for the individual, so for the whole: the gloom of Pagan dying, and the severity of the Old Testament version of the Law, is unexpectedly transformed into mercy by the coming of Christ.
Slavoj Žižek somewhere says of contemporary culture's passion for apocalypsēs, that we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of Capitalism. There's something in that, although it might be closer to the truth to say that it is the very immanence of capitalism today that means we imagine every end as the end of the world. Capitalism, the reduction of everything, including subjectivity, to the cash-nexus, is the apotheosis of a kind of super-charged narcissicism, and one of the features of the common-or-garden narcissist is that s/he finds it genuinely hard to imagine the world will continue after they have ceased to be. I mean, how can it? I'm reminded of a recent bulletin from Donald Trump's White House, where we learn D.T. is perfectly unconcerned by the stored-up disasters of such policy decisions as massively raising the US deficit, just as he is unbothered by non-policy facts-of-life like climate change, because he knows he personally won't be around to have to face them. That's the characteristic psychopathology of the modern world in a nutshell: I'll be dead before this comes to pass, therefore this won't ever come to pass. And this, I sometimes think, is the nature of twenty-first century eschatology. It inheres in this realisation, denied and suppressed though it be: the tragedy is not I am going to die; it’s that even though I am going to die the world will carry on. All these endless cultural recyclings of world's-end, meteors smashing into Earth, ice or fire wiping out humanity, viruses picking the cities clean and leaving us nothing but rolling green fields and a hare sitting up—what these really signify is our variegated resentments, imaginatively projecting our punishment onto a cosmos that cruelly insists on remaining after we have shuffled off our mortal coil.
What we're yearning for, with all this imaginative evil-eyeing of the cosmos, is something larger than ourselves; a sense of continuity with the land that predates and therefeore will survive us. A belonging. And so we're coming back around to the handsomely mounted cine-fascism of Boorman's Excalibur, and more broadly to the fascistic logic manifested by so many contemporary Fantasy novels. Boorman's Perceval retrieves the Holy Grail (the magic trophy uniting political leadership, English patriotism and mystic Christianity) by identifying it as Arthur. ‘What is the truth I have forgotten?’ the grail/king booms at him out of a gleaming dream-castle, and Perceval replies: ‘you and the land are one’ (he is echoing a moment earlier in the movie: ‘you will be the land, and the land will be you,’ Merlin barks at young Arthur when he first becomes king. ‘If you fail, the land will perish; as you thrive, the land will blossom’). At the movie's end Perceval returns the grail to the now elderly and ailing monarch and instructs him: ‘drink from the chalice and you will be reborn and the land with you.’ Even without all the visual splendor and Wagner blaring majestically out of the soundtrack, it could hardly be more straightforwardly fascistic, and one of its unarticulated implications is that, by this logic, the death of the monarch (the king, the President, the emperor-reader in command of his/her favourite imaginative fantasy) is the death of the world, quite literally.
The larger question is the extent to which this strange confabulation of king-and-land-are-one mystic nationalism, rewiring of Christianity to make it an English rather than a Middle Eatern religion and eucatastrophic tinkering with mortality in the service of (to adapt Robert O. Paxton's definition of fascist belief from 2004's Anatomy of Fascism) a ceremonial affirmation and conformity reconfiguring relations between the individual and the collectivity so as to erase the difference between the two qualities—the extent that all this informs Fantasy as such, rather than just being a description of Tolkienian Fantasy, is too spacious a question to cover effectively here, I think. And as for the question of why this peculiarly English religio-mythology has migrated so far out of specifically English contexts to become a strand of world culture (since this kind of Fantasy is globally popular): well that's also a large and puzzling question, larger, indeed, than Tolkien (I talk about it a bit here, or at least I ask the question). It's there, up to a point, in the Faerie Queene, hidden in plain sight behind the more trivial allegorical mode of the poem, where (to quote Mary Thomas Crane) ‘allegory repeatedly breaks down into more complex and confusing figures like metaphor.’ It's because this is a function of the poem's worldbuilding, I think, that it says something about Fantasy as a whole: ‘throughout the Fairie Queene Spenser presents us with a world—landscape and characters—which, he repeatedly tells us, ought to be intelligible but rarely is’, Crane, Losing Touch With Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England (Johns Hopkins University Press 2015), 101-02]. We could say something similar about Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. It's integral to the mode.
A postscript on Curiosity
One thing upon which Tolkienists agree is that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. ‘We’ know this because Tolkien specifies that it is not, and ‘we’ are far too mistrustful of the whole Author-is-Dead gubbins to contradict him. ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’ he announces, rather haughtily, in the novel's preface. Some had suggested that the The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, a reading Tolkien denied, although—interestingly—this was a denial offered not on grounds of applicability as such but rather of the inappositeness of the fit:
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-Dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.Tolkien's point is not that The Lord of the Rings exists in some hermeneutically sealed-away bubble by which it signifies only itself, but rather that its broader relevance works according to the right sorts of decoding. The problem is not allegory as such but of too narrowly-conceived an allegory. ‘Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power,’ he wrote to a friend in the later 50s, ‘but of Power (exerted for domination)’ [Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995) 246]. We could put it this way: Tolkien's Fantasy means, in extra-textual and complex ways, because he believed the world as such had been created to mean, in extramundial and complex ways (Robert Browning's famous lines: ‘this world's no blot for us,/Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good’). Kermode distinguishes between the trivial or obvious allegories of Fairie Queene and the more involved, opaque and complex allegories, and there's something similar at work in Lord of the Rings, I think.
A model might be the Bible itself. Parables have simple morals, to be more-or-less straightforwardly deduced, and more complex interpretations, some of which may strike us as counter-intuitive or even rebarbative. Biblical legends figure as actual events, such that if one is a believer one may believe that Satan literally appeared to Christ in the desert and tempted him; but also as exemplary stories and allegories of deeper spiritual truths. Another and much more influential Frank Kermode book, The Genesis of Secrecy (1980), explores this topic rather brilliantly as a way-in to the reading of narrative as such. Kermode is particularly fascinated by what he calls the double function as parables, something he defines as their ‘simultaneous proclamation and concealment’, and the way these two things feed through into very similar ‘hermeneutic ambivalences’ in a whole range of non-Biblical narratives. [Kermode, 47]
The Lord of the Rings is, importantly amongst the various things it is, a book about sin, as Tolkien understood that concept. The one ring figures primarily as a sort of temptation-mcguffin, and only secondarily as an artefact in the internally-consistent worldbuilding of Middle Earth. Indeed, in the latter sense there are ... problems (I mean, how, exactly does it work? How exactly would one ‘use’ the ring to conquer the world, say? Do you need actually to own the ring to be corrupted by it, or not? And so on). But in the former sense Tolkien has created something genuinely memorable and effective.
Sin. In his commentary on Psalm 8, Saint Augustine insists that there are three kinds of sin (‘namely, the pleasures of the flesh, of pride and curiosity’) that in themselves contain all sin:
Now these three kinds of vice, namely, the pleasure of the flesh, and pride, and curiosity, include all sins. And they appear to me to be enumerated by the Apostle John, when he says, Love not the world; for all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. 1 John 2:15-16 For through the eyes especially prevails curiosity. To what the rest indeed belong is clear. And that temptation of the Lord Man was threefold: by food, that is, by the lust of the flesh, where it is suggested, command these stones that they be made bread: Matthew 4:3 by vain boasting, where, when stationed on a mountain, all the kingdoms of this earth are shown Him, and promised if He would worship: Matthew 4:8-9 by curiosity, where, from the pinnacle of the temple, He is advised to cast Himself down, for the sake of trying whether He would be borne up by Angels. Matthew 4:6 And accordingly after that the enemy could prevail with Him by none of these temptations, this is said of him, When the devil had ended all his temptation. Luke 4:13 [Augustine Enarrationes in Psalmos: Exposition of the Book of Psalms (transl Tweedy, Scratton and Wilkins 1847) 1:70]It was a common-enough Renaissance attitude (Lancelot Andrewes: ‘under these three heads come all temptations’; The Wonderfull Combate Between Christ and Satan , 23) although it strikes a strange note by modern standards to see curiosity singled out like that. We are, I suppose, more likely nowadays to see curiosity as a positive, and indeed as the crucial virtue shared by the scientist and the creative artist. Not so traditional church teaching. It is one of the ways that Lord of the Rings is really quite an old-fashioned book that it takes the Augustinian line here. The most ‘curious’ individual in the novel is, perhaps, Saruman, who uses his gifts and skills to peek and pry into the mysteries of nature, to build all manner of curious devices and generally to make the world a worse place. Gandalf, by contrast is wise rather than curious, and part of Tolkien's point is to encourage us to reflect on the ways those two terms not only aren't the same thing but are actually mutually exclusive.
This line of thought, indeed, leads me to wonder about the ways we fans have, in effect, failed Tolkien's test. Temptation exists in the world for us to measure our powers of resistance against. Boromir, for example, is led astray by his pride and fails the test the ring represents. But the novel itself embodies a manifest temptation to a particular sort of fan: it gives us glimpses, in song and allusion, to a deep past lying behind the story's now. It teases us with bits and pieces in imaginary languages. We could, if we chose, simply take those things as they are offered, and enjoy the affect (let's say: awe, wonder, whatever the opposite of vertigo is) they generate in us. But we don't. We are overwhelmed by our curiosity, and become positively Sarumanic in our eagerness to winkle out all the myriad trivial details of that past, constructing for ourselves elaborate textual machines to that effect. I mean, look at me: I'm doing it now! I'd better stop.