Current Reading: Arthur & Augustine

This blog started as simply a way to “think aloud” about what I was reading at the time — in this case, two of my favorites: Arthurian literature and Saint Augustine.

The first post on my old blog, A Catholic Reader. I introduced two topics that I’ve been meaning to say more about for all these years: Arthurian literature and St. Augustine’s masterwork City of God. Someday soon, I finally will. But honestly, when I started the blog, I was just talking to myself.

I’M CURRENTLY (re)reading a couple of things that I have loved for a while. First is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I’m reading for the first time in many years, certainly since I began seriously studying the Arthurian literary tradition (in fact, wrote my doctoral dissertation on one of the earliest Arthurian romances, Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail). I loved White’s story of the boy Arthur as a kid, after reading (about 40 times) the “Golden Book” story based on the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, which itself was based on the first part of White’s novel. At age 13, I took part in a performance of the stage musical Camelot, based on the latter part of the novel, but I don’t think I made the connection. As an older teenager, I finally read all of T. H. White’s novel (“The Sword in the Stone” is just the first of four parts), and was rather dismayed at the tragic turn the story takes (at that point, I must have made the connection with Camelot). Well, I hadn’t read Malory or Tennyson, so it kind of took me by surprise.

Now that I’m familiar with the whole length of the literary tradition and, of course, “all grown up,” not only am I enjoying White’s novel even more than I did as a kid, but I find all sorts of oblique commentary on the Arthurian literary tradition and its effects on the popular imagination (something Chretien was already engaged in back in the 12th century!). I’m planning to (re)read some of the other major (“literary”) modern additions to the canon of Arthurian literature, too — Tennyson, maybe Steinbeck, and definitely Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, with C. S. Lewis’s commentary. This is my idea of fun!

My battered copy of City of God

The other book I’ve started recently is the Doubleday/Image edition of St. Augustine’s City of God. This is an abridged version of the Fathers of the Church translation, cutting out most of Augustine’s digressions, with an even more abridged version of Etienne Gilson’s foreword to the original edition of that translation. I picked this copy up cheap second-hand because my Penguin edition of the complete City of God is, alas, like most of my books, in storage and inaccessible. I will definitely go back at some point and read the chapters that the Image abridgement leaves out. I’ll be commenting on Gilson’s foreword, as well as Augustine’s tome, book by book. I’ve read (and taught) portions of City of God in the past, but that took some of his major ideas out of the context of his larger argument, so I’m interested in putting the familiar bits back into their proper context. This will be my first go at reading the whole argument, so I’m actually glad — for the nonce — to be able to skip over the digressions. I’ll note the “skipped” parts as I get to them.

I’m glad to be reading something Arthurian and modern alongside something theological and ancient, particularly something by Augustine of Hippo, who I think had a greater influence on the beginning of the Arthurian literary tradition than most modern critics recognize or admit. We’ll see if the juxtaposition provokes any interesting, new ideas.

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