Friday, 22 November 2013

C. S. Lewis the Medievalist: Baldr, Brunanburh, Athelstan, and Edmund the Just

King Athelstan in a tenth-century manuscript (image from wikipedia)

Today the internet is full of people paying tribute to C. S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago on 22 November 1963. It's difficult to say anything about Lewis that hasn't been said before, but I wanted to pay my own tribute anyway; he's been important to my imaginative life ever since I learned to read, and (although I only realised this rather late in the game) he was a big part of the reason I became a medievalist.  The Chronicles of Narnia are a splendid introduction to medieval literature, because Lewis delighted in cramming in as many allusions as possible from all kinds of literary sources, often, it seems, just for his own scholarly amusement. I've talked about this before in reference to Lewis' wonderfully playful attitude to literary language in the Chronicles; the language soars far above the average child reader's vocabulary to experiment and luxuriate and delight in different registers of literary discourse. Today I went and re-read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in the Bodleian - quite without shame, because I'm old enough to read fairy tales openly now! - and was pleased to be reminded of one lovely instance of this: by the end of the book, when the children have reached adulthood in Narnia, they've started to speak in the most ridiculously brilliant medievalese:

Then said King Peter (for they talked in quite a different style now, having been Kings and Queens for so long), "Fair Consorts, let us now alight from our horses and follow this beast into the thicket; for in all my days I never hunted a nobler quarry."

"Sir," said the others, "even so let us do."

So they alighted and tied their horses to trees and went on into the thick wood on foot. And as soon as they had entered it Queen Susan said, "Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron."

"Madam," said King Edmund, "if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof."

"By the Lion's Mane, a strange device," said King Peter, "to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!"

"Sir," said Queen Lucy, "by likelihood when this post and this lamp were set here there were smaller trees in the place, or fewer, or none. For this is a young wood and the iron post is old." And they stood looking upon it. Then said King Edmund,

"I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream."

"Sir," answered they all, "it is even so with us also."
Absurd, but so much fun! The narrator plays along too - 'answered they all' is straight out of Le Morte d'Arthur. And then the first thing that comes back to them as they return to England is their ordinary everyday language:

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamppost, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.
Within a sentence the narrator has switched back from 'a score of paces' to just 'twenty more'; we are back in the modern world.  I adore this kind of thing, and it's a fantastic introduction to the idea of literary language and appropriate styles of discourse; Lewis was forming his child readers into little literary critics.

This is true on another level too, because - rather like the Canterbury Tales - the Narnia books are a compendium of literary genres, a joyous introduction to all the different kinds of things literature can do. The Magician's Nephew plays in the world of E. Nesbit's children's stories, The Horse and His Boy in the world of the Arabian Nights; Prince Caspian offers the dynastic conflicts of Shakespeare's history plays, its hero a fine Tudor prince properly educated in the quadrivium (!); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is all Mandevillian 'Travels in the East', complete with sea-serpents and monopods; The Silver Chair starts with Middle English romance (Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and gets progressively more Norse as the story goes north, until we end up in the Prose Edda; and The Last Battle takes us to apocalypse by way of Brave New World.  This is something deeper than pastiche; it's born of a great love of literature and its many possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, Lewis famously talked of the 'baptism of the imagination' which literature could provide; he envisaged the Narnian stories producing an effect which was only to be fully realised in later life, when the reader encountered an idea (or image or story) which they recognised as having met before. According to his biographer:

His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. 'I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child's imagination.'
But this 'pre-baptism' works on a literary level as much as a religious one; reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child prepared me to appreciate a whole range of genres before I knew what genre was, to love literary exploration and experimentation before I had much idea what 'literature' consisted of. "So is there in us a world of love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be" - as Lewis, quoting Thomas Traherne, heads the chapter in Surprised by Joy where he talks about his own childhood reading. It's a particularly good baptism for a medievalist, and I know that in some indefinable way Narnia (especially the three books of Narnia's Middle Ages, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair) prepared me for the work I do now.

So it occurred to me that today I might post one thing I stumbled across in my medieval reading which made me think of Narnia (here's another I posted about previously).  If this parallel has been pointed out by anyone else, I would like to know - I don't keep up with Lewis scholarship!  It is, I think, the only bit of Anglo-Saxon literature to feature in Narnia - though I could be wrong...

Unlike Tolkien, Lewis was a late-medieval/Renaissance scholar by taste and training, and most of the medievalism in the Narnia books reflects that, apart from an occasional nod to the Norse texts which had inspired in him, as a child, a deep love of 'pure Northernness'. It seems to me that the moments of Northernness, although rare, actually occur at some of the most emotionally significant moments in the books: consider what it means that in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe the witch's reign is one long fimbulvetr, and that the return of Aslan is accompanied by a thaw such as that which, according to Norse myth, would have wept the god Baldr back to life again. It was Baldr - specifically, a line from Longfellow's Tegner's Drapa, 'I heard a voice that cried, "Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!"' - who gave Lewis one of his earlier experiences of Joy:

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

Lewis' love for Norse mythology was far more than literary appreciation; he continues in Surprised by Joy:

At the time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience—than the Matron Miss C., or the dancing mistress, or my chances of a scholarship. More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity. This may have been—in part, no doubt was—penal blindness; yet that might not be the whole story. If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not. It was not itself a new religion, for it contained no trace of belief and imposed no duties. Yet unless I am greatly mistaken there was in it something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to an object which securely claimed this by simply being the object it was. We are taught in the Prayer Book to "give thanks to God for His great glory," as if we owed Him more thanks for being what He necessarily is than for any particular benefit He confers upon us; and so indeed we do and to know God is to know this. But I had been far from any such experience; I came far nearer to feeling this about the Norse gods whom I disbelieved in than I had ever done about the true God while I believed. Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.

It's no surprise, then, that when Lewis came to write his own myth he drew quite openly on Norse motifs, circling round again to the literature which had first baptised his imagination. [ETA: for discussion of Lewis' lifelong engagement with Old Norse myth, see now this book.] By comparison, Anglo-Saxon literature is not well represented in the Narnia books; I don't get the impression that it had the same emotional or spiritual resonance for Lewis as the Norse texts did (or as Old English literature did for Tolkien, whose direct and indirect 'quoting' of Old English poems like The Wanderer and Christ I held a deep personal significance). But there is one exception, which may or may not exist only in my own head.  See what you think.

It's about Peter and Edmund, or rather, about their names. Now, the inspiration for the name of Peter is obvious; Wikipedia helpfully observes that it was the only one of the four children's names to be there from the early stages of planning The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and it must have seemed like a natural choice for the boy who was to be High King. If Aslan is Christ, Peter is - well, St Peter; a High King over other kings is prima inter pares. That's straightforward enough - one of the most common English male names, and one full of Christian meaning. 

Edmund, however, is not anywhere near as common (even in the early twentieth century, when it was more popular than today). It's an Anglo-Saxon name, and there are three famous Anglo-Saxon Edmunds to whom we might look as Edmund Pevensie's namesake. St Edmund of East Anglia, king and martyr, is perhaps the best-known, but in the Anglo-Saxon sources he is so simply purely virtuous that he doesn't have much in common with the more human Edmund, the traitor. Then there's the valiant Edmund Ironside, but this too doesn't feel quite right: the fictional Edmund is not known for his skill in battle, but for his hard-won wisdom. I think instead we should look to another King Edmund, brother of King Athelstan, because it may have been that brotherly relationship which inspired Edmund's name.

Wordplay on St Peter's name is a key part of his story: Peter means 'rock', and thus, 'You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my church'. Etymological wordplay of this nature was dear to the medieval mind, as Lewis knew very well; names mean things, and those meanings tell you something about the person who bears the name. Take the wordplay one step further into Old English, and there is no better equivalent for 'Peter' than Æthelstan, a name which means 'noble stone'. Athelstan is less well-known today than some other Anglo-Saxon kings (notably his grandfather, Alfred the Great) but he had a truly magnificent reputation in the Middle Ages, as a wise and pious king who was also triumphant in battle. He appears in later medieval chronicles as the greatest of the English kings, and also features in a Middle English romance or two; his reputation endured.

Athelstan's most famous triumph was his victory at Brunanburh in 937 over the combined forces of Constantine of Scotland and Óláfr Guðfriðsson. This is perhaps the greatest victory in Anglo-Saxon history and it is commemorated in an important Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, known to every student of Anglo-Saxon literature. Lewis would certainly have known this poem. Apart from being a standard text, it had obtained some degree of popularity in the nineteenth century, as witnessed by the fact that Tennyson wrote a poetic version of it (which this useful site compares with the Old English poem). The poem is preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and is the only surviving example of an Old English poem celebrating victory in battle (rather than glorious defeat!). It begins like this:

Æthelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beahgifa, and his broþor eac,
Eadmund æþeling, ealdorlange tir
geslogon æt sæcce sweorda ecgum
ymbe Brunanburh.

Æthelstan king, lord of earls,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Edmund the prince, eternal glory
won in battle with the sword's edge
around Brunanburh.

This poem is a panegyric, an unabashed glorification of the kings of Wessex - and key to it is the mutual triumph of Athelstan and his brother, joint-victors in this crucial battle. This praising of king and prince together is unusual in Old English poetry and springs probably from the poet's desire to extol the whole royal line; since Athelstan had no children, Edmund inherited the kingdom from his brother. The brotherly relationship struck some later medieval historians as significant: William of Malmesbury, who esteemed Athelstan very highly because he was buried at Malmesbury, claimed that Athelstan was notable for his kindness to his brothers. (Athelstan is also famous among medievalists for marrying his sisters to foreign rulers, something earlier Anglo-Saxon kings had not really done - and which forms a plot point in The Horse and His Boy.)  So if Lewis, having chosen the name Peter for all its many associations, was musing on an appropriate name for the king's brother, 'Eadmund aetheling' would be a natural namesake.

I don't know whether these two brother-kings and their victory at Brunanburh were really in the back of Lewis' mind as he wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but two more details make me think they might have been. One, we are told that after many years in Narnia Edmund becomes known as 'Edmund the Just' - a name also given to King Edmund by some later historians Lewis might have known (here's an example).  And two: although the battle which Peter and Edmund fight together receives little attention in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (far less than in the recent film), we do learn that it takes place at Beruna - close enough to 'Brunanburh' for me!

1 comment:

Steve Billingsley said...

I stumbled across this post from the ASNC Department website of Cambridge. I thought I might suggest an interesting book to you about Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Dr. Michael Ward wrote a book called, "Planet Narnia" which contains some quite original work regarding medieval cosmology interwoven throughout The Chronicles. I think you would find it a worthwhile read.