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A little less than two years ago, Father Malcolm Guite hosted a series of lectures on the Inklings. In his first, lecture, he dealt with the Inklings as a group, and with their common characteristics as thinkers and as writers. Father Malcolm argued that the Oxford Inklings, among whom he included CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, were more cohesive and presented a more common front against modernism, nihilism, and reductionism that than they are generally credited for doing. Most critics view the group as a subset of the personal friends of CS Lewis who shared a reactionary frame of mind and who were uncommonly fond of fables and stories. Indeed, if Tolkien had not singlehandedly created a market for epic and heroic fantasy, it is possible that the whole group would have been written off as a literary curiosity and quickly forgotten.
After introducing the Inklings as a group, Father Malcolm discusses each of them in turn; first CS Lewis, whose spiritual biography Father Malcolm presents as a healing of that great divide which was just beginning to open in lewis’ day between what was true, that which could be verified by Science [always capitalized], and that which Mattered, which was all of these myths and stories that moved the soul so deeply but which were of no value for discerning the truth. From Lewis, Father Malcolm proceeds to a discussion of one of Lewis’ earliest and closest friends, Owen Barfield. Barfield is hard to discuss in Christian terms; he comes with a lot of Anthroposophic baggage, but Father Malcolm does a first-rate job in addressing Barfield’s idiosyncrasies in a way that can help the average Christian to begin to process them. The Barfield lecture comes with an extra surprise; Barfield’s grandson, namesake, and literary executor Owen A. Barfield joins Father Malcolm to discuss the reprinting of his grandfather’s imaginative works, of which there were a lot more than saw publication in his lifetime.
Father Malcolm then moves on to a discussion of Charles Williams, and his exegesis of Williams’ biography and the class-related handicaps with which Williams struggled all his life were particularly illuminating to this American. Father Malcolm treats Williams’ poetry as central to any understanding of Williams’ thinking, which is something that Williams himself would have wanted. Charles Williams’ poetry gets overlooked because it is difficult. I don’t think Father Malcolm addresses this issue clearly, but those who find his criticism, his theological writing, and his hermetic novels difficult because of his private vocabulary are bound to find his poetry almost inaccessible. I know I do. However, Father Malcolm points out that Williams, out of all the Inklings, is a better place to start than any of the others for a criticism of our common economic life, and this last five minutes of the Williams lecture are highly recommended because of this.
Ending with Tolkien, Father Malcolm saves the most famous of the Inklings for the last. Surprisingly, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the great trilogy, but discusses a lot of Tolkien’s attitudes towards his own work. He reads Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia for a glimpse into what Tolkien understood himself as doing; subcreating in the image and after the fashion of the great Creator. Then Father Malcolm investigates a lot of Tolkien’s source material; the Norse myths, the Anglo-Saxon literature with which Tolkien as a professor of Anglo-Saxon was intimately familiar. The best line in Father Malcolm’s discourse comes towards the middle; ‘you have this one remarkable individual replacing an entire race as a creator of mythological material’, which of course, is precisely what Tolkien was and did.
It would be jejune for me to think I could fault Father Malcolm for what he failed to cover in this wonderful lectures. If the good father is amenable to adding a second series [he has already moved on to Blake, a poet with whom I badly need to acquaint myself], he may wish to discuss Tolkien fandom, Charles Williams’ concept of co-inherence and the perichoreisis of the Holy Trinity, Owen Barfield’s links to Goethe and others of the the German Romantic Naturphilosophie, and Lewis’ literary criticism, especially The Allegory Of Love and The Discarded Image.
Links to the podcasts are hosted on this blog. More people need to hear them. The first lecture is here. Press on the Magic card below to download the corresponding lecture on that Inkling. There were some issues with the volume which I addressed in reposting them.
Full size Magic The Gathering cards:
Oh, Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth
You who are everywhere and fill all things
Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life
Come and abide in us and cleanse us from every stain,
Oh, Good One!
From the Trisagion Prayers of the Orthodox Church
The concept of coinherence is foundational to Charles Williams’ writing; his prose fantasies, his poetry, and his non-fictional theological works, but it is very hard to understand exactly what he means by it. People claim it is too abstract, but it is based on the Patristic concept of perichoreisis, which is the mode of being of the most Holy Trinity.
As I delayed in getting this post out of WordPress’ penalty box, another blogger has essentially beaten me to the punch. The writer of The Orthosphere has written a three post series on The Economy of Forgiveness which is based on a meditation on Charles Williams’ novel All Hallows’ Eve , and which is expanded in two subsequent posts:
The first post introduces Williams’ key concepts of Co-inherence and The Way Of Exchange. The writer of the Orthosphere does a masterful job here unpacking what Williams meant by both of these terms.
There is no escape from the Web Of Exchange – all of reality, material and immaterial, is constructed to reflect the nature of the most Holy Trinity, that is to say, it is a Unity composed of interconnected parts which, as you rise higher and higher in the chain of being from inert matter through the biosphere into human society and culminating in the society of the Blessed Trinity, the component parts become more and more distinct and their interpenetration and mutual dependence more and more absolute.
In the second post the writer of the Orthosphere introduces another Williamsian concept, the idea of vicarious suffering as the medium of exchange in the moral universe, which allows for something akin to an orthopedia of the soul to occur. In the final post he introduces the Communion of the Saints through mutual intercession.
When I was in the process of converting from the Reformed version of Christianity to Holy Orthodoxy, I was continually reminded by friends who were nervous about my insistence on the intercessions of the Saints that ‘there was only one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus’. My response was that that word was mediated to us through Paul and the dubious ministrations of, among others, the Zondervan Corporation, now part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire of mediation.
Indeed, mediation is the point of the Universe.
2. The 7 Faces 0f Dr. Lao – 1964 This curiosity movie is as close to sui generis as anything I have ever seen, including Last Year At Marienbad, and showcases what has to be the finest performance ever in a fantasy movie. Tony Randall plays not only the enigmatic, if stereotypical, title character, but also six other phantasmagorical entities; The Abominable Snowman, the Magician Merlin, Medusa, Pan the “god of joy”, The Great Serpent, and Apollonius of Tyana, a blind soothsayer who has been cursed by the gods to speak only the truth.
Dr. Lao, a bald, opium pipe-puffing (I don’t think anybody thought there was anything but tobacco in Dr. Lao’s pipe in 1964, but times have changed), “me-no-speekee” Chinaman rides into the Western town of Abalone to set up his tent of wonders. The townspeople are busy having their community stolen out from underneath them by an unscrupulous real estate speculator, but they pause in their headlong rush towards chaos and dissolution to pay heed to the dusty and weatherworn marvels on display at Dr. Lao’s “circus”. Alternately astonished, cynical, unbelieving, and shocked, the inhabitants of Abalone are one by one coaxed out of their fantasies of individual power and significance to confront themselves as they actually are; ridiculous but necessary and beloved threads of the greater tapestry that is the community of Abalone.
Not all of them pass the test. One of the most uncomfortable moments in the film is when the blind soothsayer confronts a silly not-really-a-widow who is desperately clinging to an outdated self-image of herself as a young coquette. Apollonius tells her that she will never be rich, she will never marry again, and that her days will blur together into a dreary parade of sameness until she dies and is forgotten. For good or for evil, he tells her, she will have had as much effect as if she had never existed at all. As self-awareness breaks over her character, the talented actress playing this role displays for a brief moment the horror of the damnable truth Apollonius has just told her, but then her face relaxes again as she pulls her comfortable lies back around her.
This is a deeply Taoist film, whether by design or happy circumstance. I have always wished Christianity was more like Taoism. I wouldn’t want Christianity to be Taoism, exactly, because the Tao of the Old Boy is impersonal and, frankly, a bit scary. Nevertheless, when I look at the face of the personal Christ in the New Testament, I see a lot more that reminds me of the Tao than of the joyless moralist we have made Him into. Dr. Lao, who has to be based on the founder of Taoism Lao-Tzu (he disappears from the town of Abalone mounted not on a bullock, but on a donkey, the foal of an ass), strikes me as a Holy figure.
I have always wanted to study the idea of Holiness apart from the idea of Morality, with the idea of Morality being a declension from holiness, an oblique case of Holiness, as it were. Dr. Lao, despite his seeming amorality, is good place to start. Without striving, and without putting himself forward in any way, he gently diverts each of townspeople who are amenable to his guidance away from the stampede towards non-being they are pursuing back towards a position of Coinherence in the Web of Exchange that is the town of Abalone.
Interestingly, the author of the book that this film was based on, Charles G. Finney, was not only an influential writer of fantastic fiction in the thirties and forties, but he was also the great-grandson of the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who introduced so many fantastic elements into the American strand of Christianity.
A small group of friends, Reformed Christians, in the unlikely location of Central Florida, have initiated a small course for high schools and college students. They teach cultural criticism, classical languages, philosophy, and logic to young people. I would love to participate in their Film Nights, since as a rule they show better films than those playing at the local cineplex.
The Reformed are well-suited to this sort of cultural analysis, since the argument could be made that they created North Atlantic/Anglo-American culture and have only just had the controls wrested from their grasp in the last few decades by their successors and supplanters the social democrats.
Reviewing their list of offerings I was surprised to see that, although JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis figure prominently in their iconography, and in the lists of favorite books of the faculty, they don’t appear to have a literature course dedicated specifically to the Inklings and their works. Ruminating on this, I decided to see if I could construct a course outline for their students:
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE INKLINGS
Premodernism and Romanticism in Literature and Theology
I. The Inklings As Romantics and Counter-Revolutionaries It is important to place Tolkien, Lewis, Williams and Barfield in their milieu. In these days of blockbuster films based upon their imaginary works, it is hard to imagine how out-of-step the Inklings were in the literary world of wartime and post-war Britain. Realism and Modernism dominated both the best-seller charts and the academic departments. When JRR Tolkien submitted The Lord Of The Rings to Allen & Unwin for publications, they feared they wouldn’t be able to sell 1500 copies.
This portion of the course would focus on predecessors to the Inklings; the great Romantic poets Wordsworth and Byron, George Macdonald, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison. readings would include, but not be limited to, CS Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Discarded Image, Owen Barfield’s Romanticism Come Of Age, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams”.
II. The Inklings As World-Builders This module would serve as an introduction to mythopoeia and mythopoetic literature. Now that Narnia and Middle-Earth are household words, it can be productive to study the metaphysics of the invented worlds of Lewis and Tolkien and contrast them with non-Christian or anti-Christian underpinnings of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, Stephen King’s Mid-World, or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.
Although these secondary worlds are as richly woven and as thoroughly imagined as Lewis’ or Tolkien’s , they don’t rings as true as either Narnia or Middle Earth, which were constructed as worlds congruent with the worship of the Holy Trinity, explicitly in Narnia’s case and implicitly in the case of Middle-Earth. Why would some metaphysics, the metaphysics of creation by a Tri-personal God, be superior for the construction of secondary worlds than metaphysics based on Taoism (which explains the obsession with “balance” in modern imaginative works as varied as Star Wars or Avatar: The Last Airbender), or on chance and necessity, or on dialectic?
III. The Inklings as Romantic Theologians It should be obvious that Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were not systematic theologians. Their relation of the body of their works to elaborated Christian dogma were informal and even tenuous. The jury is still out as to whether Owen Barfield is even an orthodox Christian despite his public baptism in his sixties, and Charles Williams’ Christian thought is impenetrable to most interpreters.
Nevertheless, the Inklings were instrumental in rehabilitating that most human of faculties, the much-maligned imagination, and especially Barfield and Williams made the observation that the failure of the Church in their day was not a failure of faith but a failure of imagination.
In the last week, I have been following an interesting exchange between David Theroux and my loyal friend Steven Hayes about the economic thought of CS Lewis. It appears Paul, whom I suspect of being a right-leaning American Catholic suspicious of governmental interference, found a kindred spirit in Lewis, who was certainly no fan of political ideologies.
Steve, a left-leaning South African with whom I share a concern that the benefits of “freedom” in the market sense have been inappropriately distributed, and with whom I share at least the apprehension that governmental coercion may be the only weapon available to whinge the behemoths currently dominating the geopolitical environment, responded saying that he felt that Lewis would not have allowed himself to be aligned with American Libertarianism, which is an ideology that wishes to extend to all Americans the benefits of that freedom from governmental restraint currently enjoyed by those who can afford seats at $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners.
Mr. Theroux offered a rebuttal to Steve, which Steve graciously forwarded to me in a mailing list, is unavailable for linking, although I hope to remedy that shortly.
I think that the whole problem of trying to pigeonhole Lewis’ politics and/or economic theorems [and, let us confess, all politics appears to have reduced to economics in our darkening era] is that Lewis’ thinking along operated primarily on a pre-Enlightenment, pre-”Victorious Analysis” basis.
I don’t know anything about Natural Law theory, except that it seems to be often on the lips of a certain type of Catholic. I am assuming that Natural Law is something akin to what Lewis dealt with when he introduced the concept of the “Tao” in ‘The Abolition Of Man’, so if I make mistakes in understanding the ideas begind Natural law, please bear with me. I have to admit that the whole idea of ‘law’ leaves me a bit cold, whichever phrase it is embedded in; “Natural Law”, “the Law of Historical Necessity”, “the Law of the Marketplace”.
I would like to bring the thought of another of the circle of Lewis’ friends, Owen Barfield, to play upon the issue of economic thought:
“[Francis] Bacon… was at least among the first to draw the analogy in English. so that in the history of thought, we have a here a pretty definite point – round about the beginning of the 17th century – at which the concept ‘laws of nature’ first begins to reveal itself as working in human minds.”
Barfield goes to to explain that the idea of Law, from the time of Bacon on, displaced the older idea of Form as a metaphor of “thinking Nature”. The older idea of Form, which was useful in explaining ‘natura naturans’, Barfield maintains, were the “memory of those elements which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings” was usurped by the menta habit of thinking of Laws, which dealt with ‘natura naturata’, as a static thing “which dealt with the rules that govern the changes which occur in the sense-perceptible part of nature.”
This helps me to distinguish the economic thinking of Lewis, and his companion Tolkien from the algorithmic thinking about The Market© that is so ubiquitious in our day. The Algorithm arose in the Seventeenth Century as a way of thinking and swept all before it. The United States, it is sometimes helpful for me to remember, is not a Nation based on ties of race, religion, or culture, but literally an Algorithmic state, based not on centuries of precedent and custom, but on ABORSGSIARTATBWTAADR (A Bunch Of Really Smart Guys Sitting In A Room Thinking About The Best Way To Achieve A Desired Result). And the temptation is, when confronted by undesireable results proceeding from the execution of the Algorithm, is to reach for the levers and tweak it until it produces the desired results.
The result of the triumph of the Algorithm has been an undeniable increase in the levels of comfort for those who benefit from its application, especially for those close to the levers and those who directly support them. Indeed, the limited liablity corporation and the ersatz personhood rendered to it by legal fiat represents kind of an Incarnation for this Algorithm. The pronouncements of those in charge of these entities indicate there is a kind of reverse-theosis underway in them that strips them of any concern that cannot be quantified by this Algorithm.
In contrast, Lewis champions a kind of a pre-Algorithmic ordering of society, where The Market© digests other concerns besides the merely economic. Novelist Gene Wolfe in a masterful essay on Tolkien says this in a way I can only marvel at:
“Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.”
“Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have — but do not need — a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in the world makes chains; and they lay them on us.”
It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor.”
Please note that the essay by Mr. Wolfe is copyrighted, and the owner of the website from which I obtained the above fragment paid Mr. Wolfe for the privilege of publishing the essay in its entirety. Thank you, Mr. Robertson, for making this available publicly.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the way back is the way forward. Nostalgia for Holy Rus or the Anglo-Saxon Thengs or even the Scotland of David Ricardo will not assist us in our current extreme. We live in a time where children now consider it a judicious investment to bring a firearm to school, but I do not want to return to a time when such schooling was available to very few, if at all.
What Barfield indicates is that we need to have a different way of thinking;
“The economic life is today the real bond of the civilised world/ The world is not held together by political or religious harmony, but by economic interdependence; and here again is the same antithesis. Economic theory is bound hand and foot by the static, abstract (algorithmic) characte of modern thought. On the one hand, everything to with industry and the possibility of substituting human labor by machinery, or at very least standardizing it into a series of repetitive motions, has reached an unexampled pitch of perfection.”
“But when it is the question of distributing this potential wealth, when it is demanded of us that we think in terms of flow and rate-of-flow, in otherwords that we think in terms of the system as a whole, we cannot even rise to it. The result is that all our ‘labour-saving’ machinery produces not leisure but its ghastly caricature unemployment while the world sits helplessly watching the steady growth within itself of a malignant tumor of social discontent. this incereaasingly rancourous discontent is fed above all things by a cramping penury, a shortage of the means of livelihood which arises not out the realities of nature, but out of abstract, inelastic thoughts about money.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am clueless about the kind of thinking Barfield says we require at this juncture. Whether it is holistic rather than reductionistic I cannot penetrate at this time. If it holistic, it runs the risk of requiring somebody to know a system extensively before saying anything about it, and every time I head down that path, I find myself thinking algorithmically about non-algorithmic thought, and thus get myself all balled up in knots.
The closest I have gotten is, maybe, when meditating in a grove of trees about photosynthesis, I entertained a kind of a pre-sentiment that the trees “wanted” to trap the sunlight and turn it into useable energy, not only for themselves, but for all the biosphere, and if I could just ‘learn their language’, as it were, I could find a way to cooperate with the trees and help them do this.
I think another of the neglected Inklings, Charles Williams, with his concepts of Co-Inherence and Webs of Exchange, lends himself to an economic interpretation. Certainly Williams, as a lifelong City dweller, would have a different outlook than the bucolic Lewis or Tolkien. Certainly, a good case could be made for there being different Webs of Exchange; the Chemical, the Biological, the Semantic, the Anthro-Economic which exists over and above the others and which currently is returning evil for good.
I recently had the opportunity to re-sample a bit of Charles Williams’ Arthurian poetry, thanks to the inclusion by Google Books of a volume of criticism that, fortuitously, includes the poems and forgoes the criticism. The “Prelude” from Taliessin Through Logres is a particularly powerful piece of work. I don’t know much about the mechanics of poetry; drilling in iambs, trochees, and anapests had percolated their way out of the public school curriculum by the time I arrived to ninth grade English, and I am much the poorer for it.
Nevertheless, the poetry is splendid for reading aloud, at least as splendid as anything by Yates or Eliot. The problem comes when you try to puzzle out what the poems are about. I am almost certainly in over my head here. Williams is a difficult writer even when he’s trying to be straightforward. He uses a private theological language in his essays with terms like “under the Mercy”, “Web of Exchange”, or most famously, “the doctrine of co-inherence”.
I think that Williams’ Taliessin poems are all about coinherence, about mediation, and about the emergence of history from mythology. The Arthurian figures are counters, I think, for Williams, who uses them in a dialectic for which the grammar has been given us already by Malory. The subject matter of the Arthurian poems is the calling forth of Logres by the Emperor, the attempt and failure by Arthur to realize Camelot-in-Carbonek, and of the decline into Britain. It is like his commentary on the Tarot card of the Tower, where every human endeavor, even the most noble, partakes of the Shadow and contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Another theme that I notice: Williams is concerned about the matter of Europe; Europe as Christendom, Europe as the sacramental body:
the poetry is filled with that sort of imagery. For example, he sings that milk rose in the breasts of Gaul, (Western) man suckled there and his bones hardened. When I first read that line, it unpacked for me as the transition from a way of knowing during the so-called Dark Ages, also known as the Age of Saints, of whom the last who embodied this particular way of knowing would be the enigmatic figure of John Scotus Erigena. Then came the schoolmen, “the milk rose in the breasts of Gaul” in the teaching of Abelard, Albert Magnus, and Anselm. “Man drank, and his bones grew hard.”
Perhaps I can find a scan of Williams’ scandalous [for the 1930s] frontpiece to Taliessin Through Logres. It is the figure of a naked woman with her navel in Jerusalem, her privates in Rome, and her arms and head in England. There is a lot, a lot, of astrological imagery in the Taliessin cycle and the correspondence of the superlunary body to the Index of the Body. As I have said before, Christendom is the greatest matter of myth we have, and it may be the only enduring myth.
In one sense, its a little misleading to speak about “successors” to the Inklings. The Inklings were not a self-conscious literary movement, and as far as I know, l there are no little coteries of academics gathering in a tavern on Saturday nights to drink and read excerpts from their works-in-progress. Would that it were so. Also, I think it is hard for us to appreciate how counter-cultural Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were, writing and publishing tales of the fantastic when the literary world was dominated by modern realists, by the likes of Lawrence, Hemingway, and Joyce.
These days, though, writing fantastic literature appears to be a lucrative pursuit., and the bastard children of the Inklings appear to have swept the field. “Fantasy and Science Fiction” occupies a healthy percentage of my local Barnes and Nobel bookshop, even more if you add the two or three shelves of “graphic novels”/manga with which it is customarily bundled.
What hath Tolkien wrought? There is so much fantasy on the shelves that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Trilogies abound, of course, and a lot of them take place in a pre-Modern setting where the red iron of brutish trolls and tragic High Elves clash on darkening plains. There is so much of this that I haven’t read because I don’t know where to start. In the ‘seventies I read the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin and found them engaging. I yawned my way through the first Shanarra book by Terry Brooks and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and found both of them tedious and uninteresting.
Nor do I think that the self-consciously Christian fantasy works that have belatedly crawled out of the Evangelical presses in Wheaton or Grand Rapids to sulk on the shelves next to Janette Oke’s prairie romances or the horrid Left Behind series will beget much in the way of mythopoeia. Sure, there are plenty of brutish Shadowghouls clashing with High Lightbearers on the Iron Plains of Bethania, but there is always a Lost Book of Hidden Wisdom that restores the Balance, or even worse, smites the agents of Darkness with the light that pours off its pages.
I think the problem with “Christian” fantasy is that Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien operated in the jagged edges of Christendom, whereas the modern Evangelical lacks that framework. “Christendom” as a political and geographical substance is great mythopoeia in its own right, and the fantastic works of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien don’t make much sense apart from it.
There are three series I feel bad about not reading. The first is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I have heard much good about this series, but also I have heard that it rambles badly. If I read something that requires that much patience and effort, I’d prefer to start with the Gormenghast series by Melvyn Peake.
The Harry Potter books I haven’t gotten around to yet either, although I did read the first volume in His Dark Materials. From a philosophical point of view, Christians should be far more concerned about Pullman, who definitely has a bitter axe to grind, than they are about Rowland, who just wants to tell a good story.
Finally, I think Steven King as a mythopetic writer has been woefully underappreciated. I haven’t yet read his Dark Tower series but I believe I shall have to. I believe King, along with such writers as William Vollman, Walker Percy, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, and even William Burroughs are participating in a project of which the Inklings would be proud; the mythopoesis of America.
Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, stumbled upon the main theme of this project; America is poor breeding ground for the supernatural. We have no myths. Our country is an abstraction, based not on blood or belief, but on a sort of least-common-denominator secular frame of exchange, and we don’t know our hills and our rivers from the inside yet like the Germans know the Rhine, the British the Thames, or the Central Europeans the Danube. The strength of the hills is not yet in us.
The tarot has always fascinated me. I bought a Waite-Smith deck when I was 16 and entertained people by giving a number of accurate “readings” . I would not now recommend this, even to non-Christians. There is too much power and too little certain knowledge for Tarot readings to be safe.
However, even at that time, I was puzzled by the amount of Christian imagery in the Waite-Smith deck. So much so, that non-Christians, ex-Christians, or anti-Christians prefer to use other decks with less overt Christian symbolism.
Now, I am not a Tarot scholar, and the only other tarot deck I have ever held in my hand resembled the Marseilles deck, which dates from the 17th Century. The imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is in the same tradition. This is important because, I believe, Charles Williams describes the Waite-Smith Tarot deck in his novel, The Greater Trumps.
“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”
“It is just that,” the other said.
The Greater Trumps is a the best example of William’s plundering of occult themes to make an overtly Christian point. Some of his other plot devices are too obscure, like his use of Neo-Platonic Ideal Eminations in The Place Of The Lion, or too downright weird, like whatever is the ascetic exercise used by Nigel Considine in Shadows Of Ecstasy. The Tarot, however mysterious it may have been in the 1930s when Williams wrote the novel, enjoys a high profile now.
I have to admit I stand in awe of Williams’ effortless use of occult themes in his novels. He never dismisses occult power out of hand, nor does he associate it strictly with the diabolical. You get the sense reading Williams that there is only One source of power, and all subsequent exercises of power through whatever mediation is either a discharge of rightful duty, or a theft.
The occultists in The Greater Trumps, Henry and his uncle Aaron, enter as thieves, attempting to obtain and exercise power that doesn’t rightly belong to them. Through the bequest of a distant relative, Lothair Coningsby has come into possession of the original deck of Tarot cards. These cards can be used not only to predict events, but to cause them; not just to interpret reality, but to generate reality. The occultists first try outright theft, but when this fails, as it must in Williams’ cosmos, they fall back on Henry’s legal and emotional relationship with Nancy, Lothair’s daughter, to effect a loan of the cards, and from this all the conflict in the novel ensues.
But it is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition. This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something apart from the lever that Henry (and Nancy) wished to make of it, and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love.
All of Williams’ novels portray the only story there is; the struggle between the Empire and the City, between those who would illegitimately place themselves at the center and beggar the periphery in order to glut themselves upon the surplus and those who receive from the true Center, add their poor, derivative contribution, awaiting the day when the fissures are repaired, and the whole fabric is awash with light and power.
One of the real charms of the imaginative literature of the Inklings is that their works come in such well-numbered series: There are three volumes in The Lord Of The Rings, but if you add The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Hobbit, Smith Of Wooten Major, Farmer Giles Of Ham, and Leaf By Niggle, and if you reduce the trilogy to a single work, you get a seven-fold opera. There are three books in the Ransom series; Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, and seven Narnia books. Charles Williams’ metaphysical thrillers number, conveniently, seven, although I wish he hadn’t written Shadows Of Ecstasy. Until We Have Faces and the Taliessin poetry of Charles Williams don’t fit this tidy Trinitarian/Zacarian scheme, but they shouldn’t be overlooked because of that oversight.I have my favorite moments from these works, and in Letterman fashion, I’d like to count them backwards.
10) The Progress of the Suicide, from Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell.
There is a lot to complain about in Williams’ literary style, but when it comes to depicting supernatural, sub-natural, or post-natural modes of existence, he has no peer. In Descent Into Hell, an unloved workman commits suicide to escape from the torment of life. He awakens in a silent universe illuminated by a furious moon that will not allow him to escape into himself. He conceives the idea that he needs to go to London. The purgatorial landscape he crosses, and the unexpected help he encounters on the way remain the most vivid depiction of the spiritual geography of the Afterlife I have ever encountered in literature.
9) Bilbo Surrenders The Arkenstone from JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit.
This plot device took me entirely by surprise, and prepare me for the centrality and necessity of hobbits in The Lord Of The Rings. Now, The Lord Of The Rings is a very mannish book, by hobbit standards, but any race that could prize peace between those who should by rights be friends and allies over wealth and comfort would be the only race that could ever be entrusted to carry the One Ring to its destruction. Men could be ensnared by power, Elves by beauty, and Dwarves by Craft (that wonderful old Germanic word!), but how do you corrupt a race that values above all things, “peace and quiet, and good tilled earth”?
8 ) The Descent Of The Gods Upon St. Anne’s from CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength.
Actually, That Hideous Strength is my least favorite among Lewis’ imaginative works. Lewis is a good preacher, and a great storyteller, but he doesn’t mix the two voices as well as Bunyan or Langland. In That Hideous Strength, he is covering the same ground as he does in Abolition Of Man, and there are places in the narrative where Lewis is trying so hard to be Williams, and places where is trying so hard to be Tolkien, and there are even traces of Barfield in the mix. I prefer Lewis when he is being truer to his own Muse, as in The Horse And His Boy, or Till We Have Faces. Nevertheless, I had the extreme felicity of having put a copy of Gustav Holst’s The Planets on the stereo before settling into my easy chair to the chapter where Ransom is inviting the Oyéresu, the planetary geniuses of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, into the body of Merlin. The music blended so powerfully with Lewis’ language that I slowed practically to a crawl for the full effect. It was, as may well be expected, a peak experience.
7) Anthony’s Vision Of The Griffin/Eagle in Charles Williams, The Place of The Lion.
I had a hard time deciding between this and the vision of the butterflies earlier in this same novel. The butterfly scene is more charming, and more accessible. But Anthony’s vision of the Eagle, the platonic Form of Perception and Discernment, is central to understanding Anthony’s character and the whole dynamic of the novel. Only by means of the Eagle is Anthony able to assimilate the other Archtypes and sew up the rupture between the world of the Ideals and their playground of the quotidian world, where all the other characters wander about in their deadly delusions.It is a scene that I needed to read several times before the grandeur of what Williams was trying to say began to emerge from his difficult language. Williams is not a visual writer as is Lewis or Tolkien. When it did, it was as breathtaking as Plato’s original parable of the Cave; I saw gods arising out of the Earth, and, like the sibyl of Endor, I cried aloud.
Mention should be made of the Eucharistic unicorn of the twelfth chapter. Nowhere else in all his writings does Williams show any sectarianism I have been able to discern, save here alone, yet the effect is graciously ecumenical and heartwarming.
6) Random’s Landing Upon The Floating Islands and His Encounter With The Lady Of Venus from CS Lewis, Perelandra.
For such a sensuous book, Perelandra has inspired surprisingly little visual art. Most of what has been produced concentrates on the image of the Green Lady, although nobody in sad Thulcandra will ever depict her unfallen eros. There is a privately commissioned icon of St. Brigid of Kildare in my church that comes close. It partakes of the same spirit of Lewis’ description of the Lady of Venus. Perelandra was a crucial book for me because it convinced me of the basic materiality of Christianity and of the basic goodness of matter. Lewis’ descriptions of the sights, sounds, and tastes of that unfallen world worked on me like a tonic. I may not have realized it in high school, when I first picked up this book, but the material world can be nothing other than sacrament if we can but cleanse our perceptions aright.Som,e years ago, when I still attended a church in the Reformed tradition, there occured a discussion about how to reach the “unchurched”. I don’t remember now what action the board of elders decided to take, but a wise friend of mine offered this advice to me privately:
They should throw a party, a harvest party. Let the maidens weave vines in their hair and serve steaming cider on the first real cold moonlit night of the year. Let the young men compete in contests of strength and fleetness. Let the good dames of the church load the tables until they groan. At the end, invite all and sundry to a Divine service giving proper thanks to God who so liberally supplies all things for our enjoyment.
God, I miss Christendom.
5) Beren Happens Upon Luthien Tinuviel Dancing In The Starlight from JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion
I don’t think there can be any doubt that we are closest here to the heart of Tolkien’s Legendarium. If any man ever poured out love onto paper and page, Tolkien does so at just this point in his narrative. Tolkien prized three earthly things above all else; starlight, trees, and his wife Edith. All three are masterfully commingled in the Lay of Luthien, and all three – starlight, trees, and married love, are under siege today.
Light pollution keeps most of us from seeing the heavens that declare the glory of God. Having spent most of my adult life in Florida, I can say that I have never seen the stars the way Ptolemy, Johannes Kepler, or even Fred Hoyle must have seen them. As a boy, I was led out into a field on a midnight hike with the Boy Scouts. There, we were shown the principal stars with their fascinating names; Betelgeuse, Antares, Spica, Vega, and how to find them using the Pole Star, Polaris, as our center of reference. I can still find Polaris, with difficulty, but my night sky is illumined now by billboards and neon, and I am much the poorer for it.
I never learned any of the names of trees growing up. Our family was four generations off the farm, and we now paid people to know about trees for us. I do remember that in my early boyhood (even before the Boy Scout hike), the majestic elms that were the trademark of the local college were dying of a fungus infestation. By the next summer, they were dead and needed to be uprooted. Tolkien’s love of trees and his unsuccessful defense of them against various development projects is well documented.
I never knew that Edith Tolkien was three years and change older than “Ronald”, nor that she converted to Catholicism at his insistence and against the wishes of her family. That helps to explain some of the “unapproachableness” of Thingol Greycloak’s daughter in the narrative. Tolkien was intimidated by the older and more accomplished Edith, and was instructed by his clerical guardian not to pay court to her until his 21st birthday. On the midnight of that day, he proposed to her and was rebuffed. He persisted though and was finally victorious. The union was a happy one, and a fertile, producing four children.
The four words “sex”, “marriage”, “babies” and “without” create a perfectly infernal matrix in which web we are as trapped as any hapless fly. Try it: Sex without Marriage, Marriage without Sex, Sex without Babies, Babies without Sex, Marriage Without Babies, Babies without Marriage.
Anyone care to call me out on this?
4) Digory And Polly In Charn from CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew – The passage of Digory and Polly through the royal chamber of Charn displays for me what is Lewis’ principal charm; his ability to put into simple, everyday language the effects of sin and virtue on the human person:
Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to face that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt as if you would have to mind your Ps and Qs, if you ever met living people like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel, but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and had suffered dreadful things.
And there you have all the story of our glorious and tragic Humankind -
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow -
Nothing we ever do turns out right. There is always the Law of Unintended Consequences, whose iron rigor penetrates all our endeavors, be they the democratization of the Middle East, the redefinition of marriage (homosexual marriage is the caboose on this train, not the engine), or the establishment by legislation of “family values”. The primordial image of this is the Tower of Babel. It reaches for Heaven, but ends in rubble and division. Logres devolves into Britain, the Dawn of the Proletariat into the Gulag Archipelago, Woodstock Nation into the horrors of Altamont and the Tate-Manson murders.
Still – You have to wonder whether or not Lewis didn’t have a problematic attraction to the “bad girl”. Joy Davidson definitely appealed to this part of him. This happens to a lot of good men, especially spiritual men. Lewis himself commented on the Celestial and the Infernal Venus, and Queen Jadis of Charn is easily the sexiest in the whole Inklings canon, including the lusty Redival from Till We Have Faces.
3)The Repentance Of Lester Furnival from Charles Williams, All Hallow’s Eve. All of Williams’ best characters are either mad or dead. Lester Furnival (what a splendid amalgam of “carnival” and “funeral”) is dead and only gradually does she awaken to that fact. But Williams’ Afterlife is not, thank God, Tim Burton’s snarky Afterlife. It seems not much changes, but events no longer are connected by temporality, but by another principle altogether, a principle that can be called, loosely, sympathy.
The path of Lester’s salvation looms before her in the person of a schoolchum that she had previously treated shabbily, and in the person of her husband, Richard, whose love she had taken for granted. In the realm in which she find herself now, these sins of omission loom enormous, and worse, are being used by an evil sorcerer as a breach by which he can enter the atemporal realm, affect the future, and precipitate the Apocalypse. Lester needs to ask forgiveness of her schoolmate, and just as importantly, receive it. Then she needs to assure her grieving husband that she did appreciate his love. In doing just these simple things, she thwarts cosmic evil and knits the Earthly City to the Heavenly
The first few times reading Williams’ fiction, I was surprised at the great weight he placed upon what would to anyone else appear to be very small courtesies and the exchange of social conventions. Three decades of contemplation, I believe, had led me to believe that the answer lies in Williams’ peculiar doctrine of coinherence. I want to discuss coinherence more rigorously in later posts, but right it will suffice to say that coinherence is an extension to human life of the con-substantiality of the Holy Trinity, how the Blessed Three can simultaneously exist, and be adored, as One and as Many.
2) The Dawn Treader‘s Approach, and Reepicheep’s Departure, To Aslan’s Country from CS Lewis, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
I think there are a lot of people for whom Reepicheep, the courtly Lord of the Talking Mice of Narnia, is a favorite character in the series. Certainly, he is a throughback to an earlier time, when Honor and Chevalrie mattered. Despite his obvious authority, Reepicheep is no tyrant. He understands that there is greater glory of to a king by being the free Lord of a free people than by being the master of slaves.
The approach of the Dawn Treader to Aslan’s Country, in increasing power and light, reminds me of two things; the first is the passage of Bunyan’s Pilgrims through Beulah Land on the very outskirts of the Celestial City:
Now I saw in my dream, that by this time the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering into the country of Beulah, whose air was very sweet and pleasant, the way lying directly through it, they solaced themselves there for a season.
Yea, here they heard continually the singing of birds, and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth, and heard the voice of the turtle in the land. In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle. Here they were within sight of the city they were going to; also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in
this land the shining ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven.
The second is the Seraphic hymn sung in every Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the termination of the Liturgy of the Word and the commencement of the Liturgy of the Mysteries.
Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες, καὶ τῇ ζωοποιῷ Τριάδι τὸν τρισάγιον ὕμνον προσᾴδοντες, πᾶσαν τὴν βιοτικὴν ἀποθώμεθα μέριμναν, ὡς τὸν Βασιλέα τῶν ὅλων ὑποδεξόμενοι, ταῖς ἀγγελικαῖς ἀοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν. Ἀλληλούϊα.
“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the thrice holy hymn to the life giving Trinity. Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.”
There are those among us who seem always to dwell in Beulah Land, in the suburbs of heaven. I seldom meet these people these days. The last was an old-school Pentecostal preacher-woman in her 90s. But the language of the Liturgy reminds us that there is passage into Aslan’s country every week. Most of us, like the other sailors on the Dawn Treader have to return to the difficulties and cares of the “biotikan merimnan”.
But, like Reepicheep, we don’t have to.
1) Frodo And Sam At The Cracks Of Doom from JRR Tolkien, The Return Of The King
Her is the recapitulation of all things Inkling; the triumph of the lowly and merciful over the arrogant pitilessness of power, the fatal inability of egotism to discern the motivations of sacrificial love, and the intervention of Providence when all the best intentioned plans of Men, Wizards, Elves, and Hobbits fail.
True good wins a substantial victory over true evil, and although the Shadow, though submerged, always takes new form and reemerges, the Days of the King may soon be upon us.
May they last while the thrones of the Powers endure.
What a sheltered world I live in. One writer who is a guilty pleasure of mine; Neil Gaiman, is, unbeknownst to me, also a fan of the Inklings. Neil is best known for his graphic novels, especially Sandman, and his work on the current Beowulf film. I have been meaning to get around to Mr. Gaiman’s work for some time, along with that of Tim Powers, whose Declare was nominated for best work of Adult Fantasy by the Mythopetic Society the same year that Mr. Gaiman’s American Gods won.
This is from Mr. Gaiman’s online journal:
I was thrilled — partly I think because I was really surprised — to learn that American Gods has been nominated for a Mythopoeic Award by the Mythopoeic Society.
(The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature is given to the fantasy novel, multi-volume, or single-author story collection for adults published during the previous year that best exemplifies “the spirit of the Inklings.”)
Several years ago Charles Vess and I won the Best Novel award for the illustrated version of Stardust.. The award is a statue of a Lion — Aslan, I assume.
The candidates this year are:
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, Adult Literature
Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion (Morrow/Avon)
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (William Morrow)
Sarah A. Hoyt, Ill Met by Moonlight (Ace)
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind (Harcourt Brace)
Tim Powers, Declare (William Morrow)
(My favourite for the award — of the books I’ve read so far — would be The Other Wind. At least, I think it’s the one that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien would have liked best. Although, on reflection, I like to think that Charles Williams might have preferred Declare or American Gods.)
Of course, anybody who knows anything about any of these works is invited to comment: