Archives For Kolbitar

Which type of epic are you most likely to write? The two basic choices are either a natural epic, or a literary epic.

Actually, it’s a bit of a trick question, since it would be extremely challenging to draw together all of the pieces necessary to compose a natural epic. You can see just why, in this passage from one of C.S. Lewis’ early letters to his father.

I came across it while searching for references to elegies in Lewis’ writings, as I discussed in my previous post. Lewis mentions an elegy in a letter to his father. One of Lewis students referred to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” from which I had included an excerpt. As I mentioned there, it was common for schoolchildren to be required to memorize the poem at the time.

I include a portion of Lewis’ letter, however, not because of the elegy reference, but due to the distinction he draws between the two types of epics. In addition, it is entertaining and ends on a positive note despite the disappointing performance of the student in question.

I have got quite recently one pupil [who] is a youth of eighteen who is trying to get a Classical scholarship. I am to coach him in essay writing and English for the essay paper and general papers which these exams always include. I fear we shall win no laurels by him.

I questioned him about his classical reading: our dialogue was something like this:

Self: ‘Well Sandeman, what Greek authors have you been reading?’
Sand: (cheerfully): ‘I never can remember. Try a few names and I’ll see if I can get on to any.’
Self: (a little damped:) ‘Have you read any Euripides?’
Sand: ‘No.’
Self: ‘Any Sophocles?’
Sand: ‘Oh yes.’
Self: ‘What plays of his have you read?’
Sand: (after a pause): ‘Well–the Alcestis.’
Self: (apologetically): ‘But isn’t that by Euripides?’
Sand: (with the genial surprise of a man who finds £1 where he thought there was a 10 [shilling] note): ‘Really? Is it now? By Jove, then I have read some Euripides.’

My next . I asked him if he were familiar with the distinction that critics draw between a natural and a literary epic. He was not: you may not be either, but it makes no difference.

I then explained to him that when a lot of old war songs about some mythological hero were handed down by aural tradition and gradually welded into one whole by successive minstrels (as in the case of ‘Homer’) the result was called a natural epic: but when an individual poet sat down with pen in hand to write Paradise Lost, that was a literary epic.

He listened with great attention and then observed ‘I suppose “Grey’s Elegy” is the natural kind.’ What idiots can have sent him in for a Scholarship? However, he is one of the cheeriest, healthiest, and most perfectly contented creations I have ever met with.

I have often thought how pleasant it would have been to enjoy C.S. Lewis’ company. Yet, when I read about his expectations for his students, I’m not confident I would have measured up. (If I didn’t possess so much respect for teachers, I suppose I could just blame mine.)

Currently, it appears that the two types of epics are usually referred to as folk epics and literary epics. I prefer the word “folk” to “natural” in this regard. It elicits the image of older cultures sitting around the fire telling tales (as some of the Inklings replicated in kolbitar).

And so, we arrive at a question. Not the question of which Greek authors we’ve read. Nor the question of whether we know the difference between folk and literary epics—since we have all now mastered that distinction.

The question is this: will your personal epic be of the literary variety? Or, will you lay aside all of your responsibilities and journey to some primitive environment like a sociologist conducting field research for their PhD—and compile ancient oral traditions into a monumental folk epic destined to be celebrated by one and all?

Actually, it does not have to be one or the other. Since they are not mutually exclusive, perhaps you should be one of the first people in history to ever create both.

A Final Caveat When Authoring Epics

Whatever your path in pursuing your epic dreams, do not fall into the same trap as James Macpherson (1736-1796). He was the first Scottish poet to become widely famous in Europe. Unfortunately, his fame was built on the foundation of a Scottish folk epic attributed to Ossian.

Fortunately for Macpherson, he was already interred in Westminster Abbey by the time his Gaelic “originals” were published. It is widely recognized they were back translations from his English “translation” to create the supposed source material. Not the legacy one would desire.

At least C.S. Lewis evaluated Macpherson’s legacy temperately. In his essay “Addison,” he mentions the poet in passing.   

If [we suppose that] sublime genius lies all in the past, before civilization began, we naturally look for it in the past. We long to recover the work of those sublime prehistoric bards and druids who must have existed. But their work is not to be found; and the surviving medieval literature conspicuously lacks the sublimity and mysteriousness we desire.

In the end one begins inventing what the ‘bards,’ ‘druids,’ and ‘minstrels’ ought to have written. Ossian, Rowley, and Otranto are wish-fulfilments. It is always to be remembered that Macpherson had written original epics about prehistoric Scotland before he invented Ossian. By a tragic chance he and Chatterton discovered that their work was marketable, and so make-believe turned into fraud.

But there was a sincere impulse behind it: they were seeking in the past that great romantic poetry which really lay in the future, and from intense imagination of what it must be like if only they could find it they slipped into making it themselves.

Should you decide to compose a fictional folk epic, feel free to do so. It could end up being quite well received. Please though, for the sake of your future literary reputation, don’t pretend that it is anything but a work of fiction.

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).