Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Roger Lancelyn Green: Storyteller and Bard

'Then Galahad set the Grail upon the altar and knelt once more in prayer. And as he knelt his life was accomplished, and his soul was taken up to Heaven so that his body lay dead before the altar. Then the sunbeam descended from above, striking clean through the roof of the chapel, and the Bleeding Spear and the Holy Grail passed up and vanished from sight, nor were they ever seen again upon this earth.'

Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table


Roger Lancelyn Green (1918 - 1987) was a man of many parts - school teacher, stage actor, children's writer, biographer and librarian. He was also the hereditary lord of the manors of Poulton-Lancelyn and Lower Bebington in Cheshire. He studied under C.S. Lewis at Oxford, later becoming his close friend and biographer, and though Green was very much a lesser-known member of The Inklings, that famous circle of creative Oxford Christians, I would argue that his books have had a wider readership, at least in Britain, than any other Inkling, save J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis himself.

Green's lasting legacy lies in his storytelling, or in his retelling of stories, to be more exact. It is an impressive list of classics, his books appearing at regular intervals throughout the 1950s and '60s, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Tales of the Greek Heroes, The Tale of Troy, Myths of the Norsemen, The Luck of Troy and Tales of Ancient Egypt. I remember how popular these books were during my primary school days in the 1970s, and no matter how much has changed in England since then, that fact remains. Green's tales are as much in demand and just as available now as in 1970. You will find one or more in nearly every bookshop and library across the country.

This, surely, is a sign of great hope. As noted in previous Albion Awakening posts, recent decades have seen an unprecedented diminution in levels of spiritual integrity and vision in British public life. Roger Lancelyn Green's continuing popularity, in the face of such frantic levelling, shows the extent to which children (and adults) are naturally, and always will be, drawn to the sacred drama of myth. This attraction and receptivity is the essence of Albion - our island's saving grace - deeply embedded in the national consciousness and far beyond the reach of corrupting forces. Viewed in this light, Greens oeuvre can be seen as high quality raw material - a touchstone and first point of contact for any upcoming spiritual renaissance in this land.

Green's prose style is limpid and fluid, charged, like that of many other children's writers, with atmosphere and narrative tension. Yet for me there is something more, something almost holy about his books, some kind of numinous sheen that glimmers on the page as I read. Certainly, when I look back on times of alienation and spiritual aridity in my life, it was often the recollection of a line or a passage from King Arthur or Myths of the Norsemen, as much, it seemed, as any prayer, Bible reading or religious observation that reorientated me towards the Divine and the 'still small voice' of Christ. Balder's funeral in Myths of the Norsemen springs immediately to mind - the burning ship, the Western ocean, the blood-red sky, and Odin's one word whispered into his dead son's ear: 'Rebirth'. Then, after Ragnarok and the Twilight of the Gods, the emergence of a new world - clean, fresh and pure - and the return of Balder from the Houses of the Dead to a new heaven and a new earth. I remember how tremendously moved this made me feel, and I remember too how astonished I was, years later, to find C.S. Lewis articulating the self-same boyhood passion in Surprised by Joy:

'But then, like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read -

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful 
Is dead, is dead ...

'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 found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.'

My sense is that it was Green's proximity to The Inklings, and to Lewis in particular, that gave his mythic retellings their distinctively spiritual feel. As with Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, Green points us towards a wider, deeper, truer reality than that expounded by the cultural, media and educational establishments of our day. We should give thanks therefore for his witness and his role in our times as storyteller and bard. We live, after all, in a confused age, where the eye of spiritual vision has been dimmed and the Grail has passed up into Heaven and vanished from our sight. Or so it seems. Prophecy and poetry dare to suggest, however, that the Grail will come again, possibly to this very patch of earth, this 'jewel set in a silver sea', where it revealed itself so spectacularly in former times. How then will we recognise it? How will we perceive it? How will we discern its presence and hear its still small voice in the midst of our daily circus of commerce and distraction?

'Remember the signs,' says Aslan to Jill in The Silver Chair. 'Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.'

Reading, enjoying and reflecting on the work of Roger Lancelyn Green would represent an excellent step on the path to true discernment. Green guides us away from appearances and towards the essential - the recollection of the things that matter - the signs and symbols that will survive whatever Ragnarok awaits us, that heal and bring life to the Wasteland, that turn winter into spring, death into life and old worlds into new ...

'Then Galahad held the spear so that the drops of blood fell into the wounds of the Maimed King; and at once Pelles was healed of his sufferings, and his flesh was as whole and unscarred as if Balyn had never struck the Dolorous Stroke.'

Roger Lancelyn Green, King Arthur 


William Wildblood said...

I grew up with these books and, as a child, the stories of the Greek and Norse myths, as well as those about King Arthur and Robin Hood, fed my imagination in a way that almost nothing else did. (Except, of course, the books by CS Lewis and Tolkien.) In fact I think they would still be my favourite versions of these tales. Roger Lancelyn Green seemed to have the knack of retelling ancient stories in a way that preserved their archaic flavour while being fully intelligible for a modern person.

Reading some of them again recently with my 10 year old son made me appreciate anew how he brought out a sense of reality in these myths and legends. His use of the English language is always rich and expressive and often poetic.

Bruce Charlton said...


You've reminded me that I want to read more of RLG.

RLG played a role with the Narnia Chronicles in a somewhat analogous way that CSL did for the Lord of the Rings - especially with respect to the Magician's Nephew and the LAst Battle - he did not just encourage, but made important suggestions to Lewis.

This page has a fine photo portrait of RLG

Minor quibble: RLG was one of Lewis's closest friends for the last decade of his life, was an undergraduate taught by Lewis and a postgraduate supervised by Tolkien - and was certainly part of Lewis's circle -- but I would not call him an 'Inkling'; since he did not attend the evening meetings (which had apparently finished by 1950), and RLG is not featured as a member in Humphrey Carpenter's, Diana Pavlac Glyer's, or the Zaleski's Inkling group biographies.