Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sometimes a Single Word Says So Much

So, having finished a slim but dense book I've been working my way through for weeks*, along with many distractions to sustained reading, I'm finally returning to other books set aside at various points recently (as well as launching upon some new ones) -- among them CSL's ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, EXCLUDING DRAMA [1954]. While reading further in the "Sidney & Spenser" chapter, I came across one passage that surprised me.

In talking about how Spenser's Prince Arthur (more than anyone else Spenser portrays Arthur as a young, active knight riding about fighting his own battles, not the stationary king who stays at court and whose knights do all the adventuring for him) owed little to Malory and more to the contemporary Tudor tradition that saw him as a near-direct ancestor of Henry and Elizabeth, Lewis writes

. . . Malory's Arthur would not serve the Elizabethans' turn . . . The [Elizabethan] Arthur . . . was a different figure. The same blood flowed in his veins as in Elizabeth's . . . At Henry VII's coronation the Red Dragon of Cadwallader had been advanced, and Henry's son was named Arthur** . . . 'in honour of the British race of which himself was'. Arthur's conquests supported our claims to Ireland.***
--O.H.E.L. pages 381-382
(emphasis mine)

It's the pronoun choice that struck me. It's sometimes said that Lewis considered himself an Irishman, but when he was growing up "Irish" could mean one of three things. (1) There were the (original) Irish, Celts who'd been living there for two thousand years and more, who were for the most part poor, Catholic, and largely excluded from government (at least, before the Easter Uprising, after which Things Changed). These are the people we think of as "Irish" today. (2) There were the Anglo-Irish, descended from English settlers who had started arriving in the 12th century, who were generally well-off, Anglican, and very much in charge (think Yeats, Swift, Dunsany). (3) And there were the Scotch-Irish, descendants of Scots who had moved to north-east Ireland in large numbers starting in the mid-17th century (after Cromwell decided to treat the Irish the way Americans treated Indians), who were mostly middle-class, Presbyterian, and largely confined to the Ulster/Belfast area (today called the "Northern Irish").****

Of these groups, no member of the first would ever refer to the English occupation as "our" claims. That Lewis would do so naturally and apparently un-selfconsciously is a revealing bit of proof that he was more Unionist than Irish, more British than English.***** The same was v. much true of Dunsany, who never did understand people who thought the English and Irish were two separate peoples, who spent half of each year in his castle in Ireland and the other half in his country home in Kent (and who managed both to get shot in the head by the Irish during the Easter Uprising and, a few years later, arrested by the government on suspicion of being too sympathetic to the rebels).

--John R.

*Veyne's DID THE GREEKS BELIEVE THEIR MYTHS? [1983, tr. 1988]

**this prince Arthur, who died without coming to the throne, was Henry VIII's older brother.

***Dr. John Dee, the famed occultist and one of the most gullible men who ever lived, even tried to prove Elizabeth was the rightful queen of France, based on the story of Arthur vs. the Emperor Lucan.

****that Lewis belonged to this group is shown not just by his growing up in Belfast but his having what sounds to American ears like a strong Scottish accent -- surviving recordings of his voice show that he sounded just like Sean Connery impersonating Alfred Hitchcock.

*****cf. Tolkien's assertion, just after CSL's death, that Lewis had been far more of an Ulsterman than CSL ever realized.

1 comment:

Extollager said...

So did the Greeks believe their myths?

I was struck by Chesterton's remark in The Everlasting Man (I think) to the effect that he doesn't believe they did.