An Arthurian Omaggio to Michael Murrin and James Nohrnberg

Article excerpt

Michael Murrin and James Nohrnberg are two of the most prominent Arthurian scholars of the past half century. Although neither works directly on Malory as a specialist, they share an interest in literary history, the influence of Arthurian literature, and the mythic structure that romances inherited from biblical and classical materials. This special issue of Arthuriana, based on work presented at two meetings of the Purdue University Comparative Prose Conference, highlights the influence on both scholars of both the Arthurian legend and the work of C.S. Lewis on myth. A meeting of the Comparative Prose Conference devoted to C.S. Lewis was held at Wittenberg University, November 1 and 2, 2007. Another meeting, an omaggio to Professors Murrin and Nohrnberg from their former students, was held in the Anniversary Drawing Room at Purdue University, November 5 and 6, 2009.

Arthurian literature, as Professor Murrin explains in a passage in The Veil of Allegor y (1969), relies on the connection between myth criticism and allegory that Lewis' work often exemplified:

Critics could identify myth and allegory because they recognized a basic kinship between them. A myth, like a metaphor or an extended allegory, is by definition open-ended: it invites interpretation. As Lewis demonstrates, a summary of the Orpheus myth-his descent into Hades in particular-evokes deep responses from anyone who hears it. This is true of allegorical tales as well. To take an example from Spenser: Saint George set out from the court of the Faerie Queene to kill a dragon in the Garden of Eden. The whole idea of reversing the Genesis narrative of the Fall is immediately arresting and demands interpretation. Or take an old romance like that of Huon, who on a journey from Paris to Babylon met the Fairy King Oberon in his magical wood and there received great gifts of power. The basic plot of an allegory must always be mythic. Where it is not, the poet has failed-has not succeeded in converting his tale into metaphor. (The Veil of Allegory, p. 99)

Murrin's reference to C.S. Lewis and to a journey from Paris to the Middle East takes us to two areas of Arthurian studies that further connect this selection of papers. Lewis wrote a celebrated review of the Oxford edition that Eugène Vinaver edited after the discovery of the Winchester manuscript of Malory's masterpiece, and he never ceased promoting Malory as essential reading, but he also promoted those Italian redactions of chivalric and Arthurian romance by Boiardo and Ariosto, whose hero Orlando leaves Paris for the Middle East and its magical landscape, like Huon of Bordeaux before him. These romances, in turn, were the models for Spenser's Faerie Queene. In 'The Arthurian Torso,' the third section of the first part of The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (1976), Professor Nohrnberg turns to Prince Arthur, the figure who connects each book of Spenser's romance, and at once suggests his mythic elements:

The multiple unity of The Faerie Queene has Arthur for its emblem. . . . His resemblance to the other knights turns up often. . . . It has more than once been suggested that Arthur was something of an afterthought on Spenser's part; he has been described as a device adopted late in the poem's composition to connect an otherwise disjointed Ariostan serial. . . . [But the] allegory presumes the possibility of a mind embellished with all the virtues that the poem celebrates. . . . Thus the once and future king in Spenser is the duodecimal or 'magnanimous' Arthur, in whose greater mind the virtues of all the other knights reside. . . . Spenser's knights might be said to rotate the service of virtue from legend to legend, while the stationless and free-lance Arthur functions once in each of their legends in their stead-like an itinerant Levite. . . . An obvious Arthurian symbol of completeness is the round table. In Malory, we read that Merlin devised it as a symbol of the wholeness of the world, or the unity of the Arthurian order. …