In my forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, a number of British writers will serve as guides into the period: C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and others. The medievalist Norman Cantor, in his 1991 book Inventing the Middle Ages, spends a chapter talking about how Lewis, Tolkien, and their Oxford colleague Frederick Maurice Powicke shaped modern views of the Middle Ages. Together he labels these men “The Oxford Fantasists.”
There is good stuff in this chapter of Cantor’s on the sort of medievalism (that is, “modern uses or construals of the Middle Ages”) that Lewis and friends (including Barfield and Williams) fashioned.
Tolkien, as medievalist, though he didn’t do much in his field apart from the fantasy writing that absorbed so much of his time, was for example “the leading scholar on the subjects of two precious fourteenth-century poems written anonymously in the Midlands, about seventy miles from Oxford, in the dialect of that region. These poems, Sir  Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, are now regarded, along with Beowulf (c. 800) and the works of Chaucer (late fourteenth century), as the greatest medieval poetry in the English language. There is no more beautiful poem in any medieval language than Pearl, an allegorical elegy for a dead child. Tolkien was responsible for the definitive text of Sir Gawain, published in 1925. . . .” (205-6)
“Lewis in the war years was by far the best known of the Inklings group, both within the academic world and even more among the general public. He had established his reputation as a leading medieval literary historian with The Allegory of Love (1936), a pioneering and influential study of medieval romantic literature. . . .” (206)
“Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work. They are among the best-selling authors of modern times for their works of fantasy, adult and children’s. . . . In 1949 Jack Lewis’s smiling face graced the cover of Time magazine, and he gained a huge audience in the United States.” (207) Continue reading →