Farewell to Alastair Fowler, Mythopoetic Scholar Extraordinaire

Time's Purpled Masquers a book by Alastair FowlerOn October 9, a bright scholarly light left the world, with hardly a whisper in the press or online. Alastair Fowler, CBE, FBA, and distinguished literary critic and poet, studied under C.S. Lewis at Oxford and received his degrees from there before going on to teach at universities in his native Scotland, England, and the United States from the early 1960s until the late 1990s. Our readers here have surely felt the influence of Fowler, whether or not they realize it. He edited Lewis’s brilliant Spenser’s Images of Life, and, since he extrapolated upon Lewis’s notes and lectures, Fowler’s input upon this brilliant volume, published four years after Lewis’s death, was vital. He made numerous contributions to literary scholarship, particularly upon the works of John Milton and Edmund Spenser.

His edited volume of Paradise Lost, along with his Spenser and the Numbers of Time both made important additions to scholarship in the 1960s, but he was still publishing in the early 2000s, producing How to Write and often criticizing the growing influence of new historicism. Considering Lewis’s abhorrence of “the personal heresy,” it is not surprising Fowler was suspicious of a critical trend that often focuses less on texts and more on the author’s personal life and issues of power and culture.   Spenser's Images of Life. by Lewis, C.S. Edited by Alastair Fowler: (1967)  | Raptis Rare Books

His scholarship on Spenser provides vital tools for understanding some of the crucial symbols that come into play in Troubled Blood: ChrisC mentioned Fowler in our comments here as Louise Freeman pondered possibilities prior to the novel’s publication two years ago and a few months ago as John Granger speculated on Ink-Black Heart before its release. Thank you, Chris, for making that great connection! A brief Google search reveals no other articles linking Fowler to the Strike novels, but it would certainly have been interesting to hear his take on Strike and Spenser.

Although it is unlikely that any of us who study Lewis, Milton, and Spenser have not, somewhere, used or been influenced by Fowler’s scholarship, his death has not received much public attention. A brief obituary in the Times gives his honorifics but none of his publications or other literary achievements, simply listing his family. Since he and his wife, who passed away three years ago, were married for 68 years, and he was apparently loved by his children and grandchildren, his personal achievements were pretty spectacular. Sadly, his tremendous academic impact, which should continue upon the printed page for many years to come, does not have the interest of an internet trend or celebrity scandal. However, we here at Hogwarts Professor will continue to be grateful for his contribution to the study of important authors and for the tools he has given us.

Thank you, as well, to ChrisC for those great comment shout-outs and for letting us know of the passing of this brilliant scholarly voice.


  1. Prof. Hardy,

    Thank you for this kind, and generous tribute.

    Perhaps the most gratifying thing to learn is that Prof. Fowler had someone to be there for him in his final moments. Somehow, that just counts a lot, for me at least. It’s a consolation, in other words, to know that he never left this place alone, and with no one to mourn for him.

    Beyond this, I’ll have to admit I’m not the ideal person to pay any proper respects to someone like this. In many ways, Fowler was a name that I discovered a bit too late, in one sense, anyway. If I ran into him anywhere, at first, then it was as part of the byline he shared with Lewis on “Spenser’s Images of Life”. What really made him stand out as a name worth paying attention to, however, was seeing his scholarship cited here, on this very website. In particular, it was the praise that Fowler’s “Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry” received in the post entitled “Rings in the Dock: C.S. Lewis and the Meaning in the Middle” that made my mind sit up and take notice that here was one of those old school literary critics that might be worth paying greater attention to. I ordered a copy of “Forms”, and found myself re-acquainted with one of the primary pleasures of being an Inklings fan.

    The great thing about writers like Lewis and Tolkien is the way they wear their influences on their sleeve. Sometimes they’ll drop hints, or clues in their writings to the authors that inspired their art or thought. What’s great about it is they always do it in such a way as to let the careful reader know that this or that person, or book is something worth checking out if it seems important enough to reference in a simple work fantasy, or popular apologetics. I think that Fowler and his efforts in criticism are another one of those sources that tend to fall into this fascinating, esoteric, or indirect frame of reference. In his case, one of the great things to be said about the work of a former student of “Jack” Lewis, is here we have the work of a pupil who was more than willing to return his master’s favor.

    This is something that can be seen in the actual content of Fowler’s critical studies. The influence of Lewis’s thought and teachings can be easy to spot, if you know what to look for, in books like “Triumphal Forms” and “Spenser and the Numbers of Time”. At its most basic, all Fowler’s work does is more or less take over where Lewis leaves off. This is notable in terms of the three main elements of Fowler’s major works. They are (1) a careful notice of the formalism in the fictions of writers like Spenser and Milton, two of Lewis’s favorite poets. (2) A close attention to the iconographical nature of a lot of the symbolism in works such as “The Faerie Queene” and “Paradise Lost”. The final, and most telling element is (3) that Fowler is one of the few critics out there with a keen awareness of Literary/Planetary Alchemy. This last feature is given its best display in studies such as “The Numbers of Time”, or “Time’s Purpled Masquers”.

    All three aspects go well together to highlight what I’d have to say is the real achievement of Fowler’s efforts. In essence, he doesn’t just write or criticize from a Mythopoeic perspective, he’s also one of the few voices in the field who was always willing to pull back the curtain just a bit further than either Tolkien or Lewis did in their works on the same subject. What I mean is the hermetic, almost William Blake style aspects of Mythopoeia were things that make up a great deal of works such as “Out of the Silent Planet”, “LOTR”, or even non-fiction studies like “A Preface to Paradise Lost”.
    The trick is both Tolkien and Lewis made the deliberate choice to not force these aspects clear out into the open in their work. They were always content with hints that are often so subtle that they still appear to go over the heads of even their most ardent readers. Fowler was more willing to bring the subtext into the forefront, and he often seems to have done this with the willing connivance of Lewis cheering him on, just visible in the background.

    The result has been one of the most unique, and also somewhat sadly neglected legacies that the Inklings left behind. It was a storehouse of their own Literary Tradition, which was passed on to, and contained within the mind of a single critic. While it’s perhaps a mistake to claim that Fowler is the only secondary source with immediate ties to the Oxford Christian Writer’s Group that you need to know about in order to get a better grasp on their collective artistry, it’s fair to say he’s one of the key essentials for a better understanding of what makes books like the “Narnia” series tick. In addition, Fowler can help give fans a greater sense of the kind of literary scope that Lewis and Tolkien drew on for their own efforts. It’s a legacy that is best compared to a treasure chest that has been filled with a rich vein of ore and gold, and then was tucked away in the corner of an attic and almost forgotten about.

    If Fowler’s efforts live on anywhere in the world, then its within the confines of his own chosen profession. His findings and conclusions can still be found echoing on in the works of various academic scholars focused on the same, chosen field of Medieval and Renaissance Studies that Fowler shared with his famous, Narnian mentor as a student at Oxford. It’s not much. It will never be anywhere near the impact that Lewis and Tolkien together have managed to leave behind. However, it is the kind of legacy that is able to do the Inklings, and the concept of Mythopoeia itself, proud. That’s why I think it would probably help if others out there made sure that the work of writers like Alastair Fowler aren’t forgotten. There’s just too much of value in his criticism to be left gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.

    Perhaps from here on in, the real challenge will be knowing how to keep Fowler’s work alive on at least some level, whether in the academic, and (hopefully) to some extent, even a bit within the public consciousness. All of his books are currently either out of print, or edging toward that same status. Personally, I think it would be a shame to have a great critical talent fall off the map into an over-priced, hard to find, bargain bin where no one would ever think to look. Maybe it’s time the work and reputation of Alastair Fowler experienced a popular renewal of some kind. At this point in time, it would have to amount to the best possible tribute that a great voice in English criticism could deserve.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you both for post and comment: I had missed this news, and am glad for the addition of ChrisC’s first sentence!

    I was delighted to learn of Spenser’s Images of Life, back in the day – that Alastair Fowler had done this work – and to read it.

    But I have clearly failed to catch and keep up with his own, related work, further A treasure-chest full to look forward to, indeed!

    One thing that sticks in my mind – in itself, and once more in my failure so far to follow it up, is Fowler’s little annotation in Spenser’s Images of Life concerning Charles Williams’s saying, ‘This also is Thou, neither is this Thou’. I see that he refers the reader to a 1964 article by Victor de Waal, ‘The History of Doctrine, in Life of the Spirit. And, ah, the virtues of the Internet (to play with that rich word, virtues) – Wikipedia tells me of Victor de Waal, among other things Chaplain of King’s when Lewis was at Magdalene – and 92-and-nine-months as of All Souls. And JSTOR informs me that Life of the Spirit was what the journal Blackfriars was called for a while (now, New Blackfriars) – and enables (some of) us to read that article in Vol. 18, No. 213, June 1964 online.

  3. D.L. Dodds,

    Just to give some an idea of the kind of legacy Prof. Fowler has left behind, the following represents just a handful of studies in which the great humanist has left his mark, and which broaden the definition of Mythopoeia itself.
    From William E. Engel’s “Chiastic Designs in English Literature from Sidney to Shakespeare”:

    “Like any author seeking to recover the recessed patterns prevalent in Renaissance literature, I am indebted to Alastair Fowler’s magisterial research in the field, especially Conceitful Thought (1975) and Triumphal Forms (1970). Chiastic Designs draws on Fowler’s insights (at times steadily, especially in the chapter on Sidney), but goes on to treat chiasmus more particularly, as an aesthetic expression of self-duplication and self-referentiality made more comprehensible in its historical moment by situating it in terms of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Also, while Fowler was concerned exclusively with poetry, my book embraces Elizabethan prose romance and scenes from Jacobean drama as well (11)”.

    Fowler is also cited numerous times as a source in Thomas Owens’ “Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the ‘Language of the Heavens’”. The official summary reveals a concerted scheme of celestial poetics in the works of the world’s two, foremost Romantic writers. Owens shows that their shared “planetary conceit” is apparently an adaptation of the same literary tactic used by the likes of Homer, Dante, and Milton (this is where Fowler’s efforts shape the study). It further helps clarify the extent and accuracy of Michael Ward’s 2007 thesis, by demonstrating the actual scope of stellar poetics in English literature.

    The basic publisher’s summary explains it all:

    “Thomas Owens explores some of the exultant visions inspired by Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s close scrutiny of the night sky, the natural world, and the domains of science. He examines a set of scientific patterns drawn from natural, geometric, celestial, and astronomical sources which Wordsworth and Coleridge used to express their ideas about poetry, religion, literary criticism, and philosophy…

    “Most significantly, the book illustrates that these sources are not simply another context or historical lens through which to engage with Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s work but are instead a controlling device of the symbolic imagination. Exploring the structures behind Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poems and metaphysics stakes out a return to the evidence of the Romantic imagination, not for its own sake, but in order to reveal that their analogical configuration of the world provided them with a scaffold for thinking, an intellectual orrery which ordered artistic consciousness and which they never abandoned”.


    Finally, a final offering from Fowler himself. The following is an abstract of the great critic’s last, major publication, a career retrospective known as “Remembered Words: Essays on Genre, Realism, and Emblems”:

    “Remembered Words collects essays on Renaissance literature written across a span of almost 50 years, from the era of New Criticism through (and often against) the rise of deconstruction, cultural materialism, New Historicism, book history, and feminist and postcolonial studies. Driven, he writes, by ‘a sense of literature’s unsearchable complexity’ (p. 1), Alastair Fowler forged his own distinctive, indeed idiosyncratic, methodology: a search for the occulted rules, habits, assumptions, and techniques by which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers defined the meaning of their own works. At its expansive and ingenious best, the Fowler method unearths intricate patterns of formal significance within and across Renaissance texts, alerting readers in the present to hidden compliments and ancient jokes, but also to the implications of once obvious cues—the swift, subtle machinery by which a poem’s opening lines might signal its affiliation with pastoral, the names of characters a play’s liturgical resonance, or the frontispiece of a book its relation to an entire philosophical tradition. Not simply the intelligibility but also the interest and perceived value of a literary work depend—I would say, ‘in part’; Fowler might say, ‘altogether’—on readers’ capacities to tune in to such higher frequencies of allusion, symbol, and convention, and Fowler’s own capacity to do so is prodigious: he diligently tracks images and motifs, notes symmetries, counts syllables, lines, and stanzas, spies out puns and anagrams, and reanimates the forgotten logics of emblem and allegory in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers and playgoers were both deliberately and unconsciously steeped”.


    By the way, Prof. Dodds,

    You’re mention of Fowler’s citation of Charles Williams reminds me that a new study of the “Taliesinn/Summer Stars” cycle has been published. It’s called “A Light Beyond Jupiter: Charles Williams’ Poetic Vision of the Trinity”, by Hal Brunson. What makes it stand out for me is that it is one of, if not the first (?), critical studies to pay significant attention to CW’s use of the same planetary symbolism as that used by both Lewis, as well as one of his main poetical sources in Dante. Much like Owens’ text, it helps broaden the initial perspective given by Michael Ward, and suggests that the poetical use of the “Heavens” was not limited to just one prominent member of the Inklings.

  4. Thank you all. Fowler’s edition of Paradise Lost is a magisterial work – genuinely one of the most famous and successful editions of an English poetic text. One of the joys of editing is that you are in conversation with the much wider number and range of readers who read poetry rather than criticism. Fowler’s Paradise Lost is simply wonderful – and I am sure it will add to the enjoyment & understanding of Milton’s readers for many years to come. In fact, I have just finished an article on marginalia (for publication in Renaissance Quarterly) which opens with a little anecdote which now feels particularly apropos: ‘My undergraduate tutor instructed us to read all the notes in Alastair Fowler’s incomparable Longman edition of Paradise Lost – informing us that the last student to obey this injunction was now one of the world’s leading Renaissance scholars.’ It is something I tell my own students to get them scouring those notes!

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Thank you once more! What an exciting lot of further – Fowler-indebted – books to long for a look into! And a new Charles Williams study! These seem great days for Williams (Arthurian) studies – I am savouring Paul Fiddes’ Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis: Friends in Co-inherence (OUP, 2022) page-by-page, and paragraph-by-paragraph, resisting the temptation to jump ahead to his main discussion of Williams’s Arthurian retelling (while thinking I should reread Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur as I brood over the possible breadth of his interaction with Cynewulf…). I was astonished by the planetary aspects of the gods in Camões’ Os Lusíadas (with which I finally caught up in the late Landeg White’s lively translation) – and tantalized by Lewis’s inclusion of it in his OHEL-volume bibliography, when I do not recall any discussion in the text (or elsewhere in his critical works!) – and then by Tolkien’s reference in Alan Bliss’s edition of his Finn and Hengest material, and wondering if Williams knew it, too (maybe Hal Brunson has the answer!).

  6. D.L. Dodds,

    Pleasure to pass along good information.

    Prof. Groves,

    Thank you for the input, and that sounds like a wonderful article.

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