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It has been a couple of weeks since my long-awaited [used] copy of Taliessin Through Logres – The Region Of the Summer Stars – Arthurian Torso arrived from the used bookstore in Michigan from which I ordered it. It was a surprisingly good copy, well worth what I paid for it. The edition is, I believe, pretty well known; Eerdman’s published it in 1974 and I could have picked it up for $7.95 at that time. It’s odd, but I remember seeing it in a Christian bookstore forty years ago, and shuffling through the pages. I was familiar with CS Lewis and I had heard that Charles Williams was a friend of his. Having puzzled my way through Many Mansions, I had already had a taste of Williams and wanted more. The dense and deeply self-referential poetry of Williams’ Arthuriad completely defeated my casual perusal and I put the book back on the shelf.
Not too many copies of the Eerdman’s volume were published. Maybe my recently acquired book was the same one I held in my hands forty years ago. Stranger things have been known to happen.
My eye was caught by a phrase that began an essay “The Coming Of The King” in the explanatory work by Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, which was included in the volume I purchased:
By the twelfth century the outline of the new metaphysical civilization in Europe was taking shape
and I knew that my reading of Williams was going to be different from that of a Western Christian. For me, the twelfth century marks an ending, not a beginning. The “new metaphysical civilization” that arose after the sundering of Latin Christendom is for me already a seminal apostasy, a long fading rather than a new quickening. The ruthless imposition of continental feudalism over the conciliar Anglo-Saxon polity, the suppression of the variegated local liturgies in favor of the Roman rite, to choose only two examples, speak to me more of
Union is breached; the imams stand in Sophia
Good Is God, the muzzein
calls, but lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial Being.
As I begin to attempt to dovetail Williams’ mythology of Camelot-as-the City with my own dreams of the pre-schism eucharistic Commonwealth [however vaguely or however imprecisely that Commonwealth may have existed or not in history], I find three great burning ideas stand out to me.
- The Arthurian corpus, I believe, is Charles Williams’ great clearinghouse for all of his literary and theological output. The themes that Williams touches upon in all of his writings; The Web of Exchange, Co-inherence, The Vision of the City, the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Denial of Images, are all present here and elevated from concept to archetype, or at least as far as Williams’ poetic abilities are able to carry them.
- Charles Williams was not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican. This is important. Forged in Tudor politics during an uncertain time, Anglicanism as a faith has had a more elliptical orbit than other Christian bodies. There have been times during its career when Anglicanism has wobbled close enough to Orthodoxy for the broad majority to thrive within something of a celestial “temperate zone”. I don’t want to go to far into this, but it appears to me that Charles Williams’ and CS Lewis’ time was just about optimal.
- Williams had the keen intuition to use the pre-Schism figure of Arthur [and the barely-historical figure of Taliessin] to anchor his romance of Christendom. The period of time between Theodosius and Alfred the Great is an interesting time. I always thought of pre-literate man as somewhat childlike, and high Roman culture was always more unstable in Britain than anywhere else in the Western Empire. The fall, when it finally came, was almost total, and there was enough “wiggle room” for the collective mythopoetic imagination to begin to accrete material around a minor Brythonic warlord with a shallow gloss of Romanitas, much as an oyster around a grain of sand, until the pearl of legend emerged.
Charles Williams’ Englishness is, among other things, something I would like to discuss before I tackle the daunting task of exegeting his Arthurian poetry. Like many Americans, I have something of a fantasy England tucked away somewhere in my heart. It is composed of bits and pieces of English high and popular culture that I have ingested over the years; a bit of Tolkien’s Shire, a bit of Lewis’ Oxford, landscapes from Gainsborough and Constable, screaming teenaged girls from A Hard Day’s Night, plenty of Downton Abbey, Chariots Of Fire, and Brideshead Revisted, both the Waugh novel and the Granada TV adaptation.
I was surprised at how well my American fantasy England weathered my exposure to the real article in the early 80s when I spent four months in the UK, visiting all four “nations” [Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England] in succession. What I experienced during my visit was more of a confirmation of my fantasy England, and an amplification and broadening of it, than it was a repudiation of it.
An English friend suggested to me that what I was experiencing was what the English themselves called “Deep England”. “Deep England” is part nostalgia for a simpler life more attuned to the natural rhythms of the English countryside, part fable about a vanishing face-to-face village life, part family oral history, and a large dollop of national self-deception. Nevertheless, it has a powerful pull on the national sentiment. “Deep England” could be classist, different things for different people. A retired slate miner would wax sentimental about the days when the mines were humming and one’s mates had plenty of energy for sport and plenty of money to spend in the pubs. An Anglican parish priest would sigh and remember a “time when the Church had more influence in people’s lives.” “Deep England” seemed to be something which you were always perpetually losing, something that was always just slipping away. For me, an outsider, the musical expressions of this “Deep England” will always be the austerely beautiful “Pastoral” Symphony #3 of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a church choir performing that unsurpassably mad hymn by William Blake, “Jerusalem”.
As an American, it is hard to know what to make of this Englishness. Whatever it is, we don’t have it, although we speak a common language. Eight generations of republican life now separate us from the fountains of “Deep England”, and all that remains is the notion of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a kind of gold standard for white people. In a way, it is kind of a collective unconscious mythopoeia, a mythopoeia built up scrap by scrap from the raw material of language, climate, and a long tenancy on the land. From this mythopoeia, all of the particular myths forged by Englishmen down through the long years have their provenience.
Already I am thinking about what Williams’ Arthur poetry is most like. If it is idiosyncratic and difficult, it is idiosyncratic and difficult in a particularly English way. Like William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the prophetic work of William Blake, or the contemporary Gnosticism of David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus.
All of my life, and it has not been a short one, I have been interested in what is called by students of literature the matter of Britain, and its best known segment, the stories and legends of King Arthur. I cannot remember my first exposure to the stories of the Round Table, but it was either by means of Andrew Lang’s Tales of King Arthur with the wonderful Art Nouveau illustrations by H.J. Ford, or the Walt Disney animated movie The Sword In The Stone. I am leaning to the first, because The Sword In The Stone came out in 1963, when I was trembling on the brink of adolescence, and I already knew that Merlin was a darker and more powerful figure than Disney’s avuncular buffoon. The movie version of Camelot came out about this time as well.
In the years that followed, I devoured T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, puzzled my way through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur, and discovered that even John Steinbeck had set his pick into the Arthurian trench. The result was his last work of fiction; The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Since the 1970s, there have been several other works of Arthurian fiction that I have enjoyed as well; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and the sequels, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, Nikolai Tolstoi’s The Coming Of The King.
What attracts me to the stories of Arthur and his knights is the matter of the Grail. The Grail lifts the whole Matter of Britain out of the realm of Story and into the realm of myth and metaphysics. It is interesting to me that Malory devoted most of Le Mort D’Arthur to the achievement of the Grail. The adulterous love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot doesn’t appear to have much occupied him, although since Tennyson and the Victorians, the love story has been center stage, and the Grail forgotten. The Grail stories, though, are where the real mythopoetic power of the Arthurian material resides.
Charles Williams dealt with the stories of Arthur in two volumes of poetry, possession which I have just recently come into after an extended search. He deals almost exclusively with the Grail, and with the mystical aspects of the Arthurian stories. I would like to do a read-through of his poetry, although it is famously difficult. I am not a Williams scholar. I can’t go to the Kilby collection and dig up old letters of his, and there is a lot of introductory material to get out of the way first.
But I have been promising myself that I would do this, and it’s high time I started to do something worthwhile with this moribund blog anyway.
Tolkien proposed to the love of his life, Edith Bratt, as soon as he was legally able to do so; at midnight on his 21st birthday. They married three years later and remained married until her death in 1971. They had four children. Looking for references to sex in Tolkien’s Legendarium is a tedious task for those accustomed to modern salaciousness. The Elves and Men in his narratives are monogamous and well-behaved, seeking glory on the battlefield rather than in the boudoir.
CS Lewis was a celibate academic until late in life. My suspicion is that “Jack” Lewis had something of a thing for the ‘Bad Girl’. It surfaces from time to time in his fiction (most transparently in The Magician’s Nephew), and I certainly think Joy Davidson scratched that itch admirably.
Owen Barfield married the beautiful and gracious Maud Douie. They had two children of their own and fostered a third. His devotion to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy was a thorn in her side throughout their lives together. Barfield is interesting in that he contemplates sex in his philosophical works at a time when the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and the 70s was just beginning to gather momentum, and he already had the advantage of a long memory and could discern it in seminis in the works of Swinburne and Lawrence.
Charles Williams, among the Inklings, is the most interested in developing a theology of sex, erotic love, and marriage. According to many, he is not a pristine fountain from which to draw water; his own marriage was troubled, he had dalliances with younger women who were drawn to his circle, and he held some heterodox opinions about the role of sex in the Early Church.
Nevertheless, Williams remains almost alone among Christian thinkers in investigating erotic desire from a theological perspective. This essay of his I lifted from a copyrighted sources which I believe is either out of print or so obscurely marketed as to amount to the same thing. I reproduce it here for the benefit of Williams fans and other people who may find it useful. It pulls together several strands in his thinking; the hermetical or occult, the Poetical, and the Christian. It is a remarkable essay and a true tour-de-force.
THE INDEX OF THE BODY
From the ‘Dublin Review,’ July 1942
IN the Prelude (book viii, 11.279-81) Wordsworth wrote:
the human form
To me became an index of delight,
Of grace and honour, power and worthiness.
The most important word there is index. There are moments in all poetry when the reader has to ask himself whether a word used by the poet is accurate not only for the poet’s universe but for the reader’s own. It is a secondary decision, since the first must be only of the poetic value, but it is sometimes important. That is so here; the word index, pressed to its literal meaning, is a word which demands attention, and afterwards assent or dissent.
It is true that Wordsworth himself did not develop the idea; he is speaking generally, and in other passages his genius suggests that the index is to a volume written in a strange language. This is no weakness in Wordsworth; it was, on one side, his particular business. Thus the image of the Leech-Gatherer in Resolution and Independence is drawn at least as inhuman as human; so is the Soldier in Book IV of the Prelude who is the cause of such terror, and the other wanderers; the woman with the pitcher, and even Lucy Gray, are of the same kind. They are on the borders of two worlds, which almost pass and repass into each other. Wordsworth, of all the Romantics, came nearest to defining and mapping that border-land.
There are, of course, also his more exclusively human figures- Michael, for instance, in the poem of that name. Here the human form suggests to him the grandeur of the moral virtues; it is the suffering and labouring spirit of man which he sees. That may have been what he had chiefly in mind in the passage I have quoted: man as ‘a solitary object and sublime’, but man also ‘with the most common; husband, father’, who
suffered with the rest
From vice and folly, wretchedness and fear.
But the passage is capable of another reading, and one which proposes to us a real, if less usual, sequence. It is that reading which I wish now to discuss, and the word index is the beginning. The question proposed is whether we shall take that word seriously as a statement of the relation of the human form to.’grace and honour, power and worthiness’. The human form meant, to Wordsworth, the shape of the shepherd seen among the hills. There it was high and distant. It was a whole being significant of a greater whole-which is, in some sense, the definition of objects seen romantically. But the lines might be applied to the same shape, seen near at hand and analytically. They might refer to the body itself; it is that which can be considered as an index.
What then would be meant by the word? Nothing but itself. An index is a list of various subjects, with reference to those places where, in the text of the volume, they are treated at greater length. But, at least, the words naming the subjects are the same; and a really good index will give some idea of the particular kind of treatment offered on the separate pages. Some such idea, Wordsworth’s lines suggest, the body and even the members of the body may give of the delight, grace, honour, power, and worthiness of man’s structure. The structure of the body is an index to the structure of a greater whole.
I am anxious not to use words which seem too much to separate the physical structure from the whole. The fact of death, and the ensuing separation of ‘body’ and ‘soul’, lead us to consider them too much as separate identities conjoined. But I hope it is not unorthodox to say that body and soul are one identity, and that all our inevitable but unfortunate verbal distinctions are therefore something less than true. Death has been regarded by the Christian Church as an outrage-a necessary outrage, perhaps, but still an outrage. It has been held to be an improper and grotesque schism in a single identity-to which submission, but not consent, is to be offered; a thing, like sin, that ought not to be and yet is. The distress of our Lord in His Passion may perhaps not improperly be supposed to be due to His contemplation of this all but inconceivable schism in His own sacred and single identity. If our manhoods were from the first meant indivisibly, how much more His!
It is one of the intellectual results of the Fall that our language has always to speak in terms of the Fall; and that we cannot help our language does not make it any more true. The epigrams of saints, doctors, and poets, are the nearest we can go to the recovery of that ancient validity, our unfallen speech. To treat the body as an index is to assume that, as in an index the verbal element-the word given-is the same as in the whole text, so in the physical structure of the greater index the element-the quality given-is the same as in the whole structure. Another poet, Patmore, put the thing in a similar light when he wrote that
from the graced decorum of the hair,
Ev’n to the tingling sweet
Soles of the simple earth-confiding feet
And from the inmost heart
Outwards unto the thin
Silk curtains of the skin,
Every least part
‘The spheres’ there are likely to mean, first, the outer heavens. This idea is practically that of the microcosm and the macrocosm: the idea that a man is a small replica of the universe. Man was ‘the workshop of all things’, ‘a little world’, mundus minor exemplum majoris mundi ordine, filius totius mundi. It is a very ancient idea; it was held before Christianity and has been held during Christianity; it was common to Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans; and, for all I know, the scientific hypothesis of evolution bears a relation to the union of the two. Into that, however, I am not learned enough to go. The idea went through many changes, but its general principle remained constant: that man was the rational epitome of the universe. It led, of course, to many absurdities, and (if you choose like any other idea) to some evils. Some writers catalogued painstakingly the more obvious fantasies: hair was the grass or the forests; bones were mountains; the sun was the eyes, and so on. Astrology, if not based on it, at least found the idea convenient; however we may reject that ancient study, it had at least this philosophic principle mixed up with it-that each man, being unique, was a unique image of the universe, that the spatially greater affected the spatially lesser, and the calculable influences of the stars were only calculable because each man represented and reproduced the whole. Astrology then was a high and learned science; it was forbidden for good reasons, but it was not fatalistic. It did not say ‘this will certainly happen’; it said: ‘Given these stellar and individual relations, this result is likely.’ But the will of God and the wills of men were allowed much freedom to interfere with the result. Sapiens dominabitur astris. The paragraphs in our papers today bear as much resemblance to the science as texts lifted up on boards outside churches do to the whole dogmas of the Church. The paragraphs are, I allow, more likely to harm; the texts, on the whole, are innocuous.
Beside, or rather along with, this study went the patterns of other occult schools. The word ‘occult’ has come into general use, and is convenient, if no moral sense is given it simply as itself. It deals with hidden things, and their investigation. But in this case we are concerned not so much with the pretended operations of those occult schools as with a certain imagination of relation in the universe, and that only to pass beyond it. The signs of the Zodiac were, according to some students, related to the parts of the physical body. The particular attributions varied, and all were in many respects arbitrary. But some of them were extremely suggestive; they may be allowed at least a kind of authentic poetic vision. Thus, in one pattern, the house of the Water-carrier was referred to the eyes; the house of the Twins to the arms and hands; the house of the Scorpion to the privy parts and the sexual organs; and the house of the Balances to the buttocks.
It will be clear that these four attributions at least had a great significance. It will be clear also that in such a poetic (so to call it) imagination, we are dealing with a kind of macrocosmic-rnicrocosmic union of a more serious and more profitable kind than the mere exposition by a debased astrology of chances in a man’s personal life. It may be invention, but if so, it is great invention; the houses of the Zodiac, with their special influences ruling in special divisions of the spatial universe, may be but the fables of astronomy; it must be admitted that few certain facts support them. But they are not unworthy fables. They direct attention to the principles at work both in the spatial heavens and in the structure of man’s body. Aquarius is for water, clarity, vision; Gemini are for a plural motion, activity, and achievement; Libra is for that true strength of balance on which the structure of man depends.
With this suggestion, we are on the point of deserting the spatial heavens for something else. The like regions of the spheres, of which Patmore spoke, here begin to be transferred to the spiritual heavens. ‘As above, so below’ ran the old maxim, but even that dichotomy is doubtful. The houses of the Zodiac, in this, do but confuse the issue, except in so far as they, like the whole universe, exhibit the mystery by which spirit becomes flesh, without losing spirit. Perhaps the best verbal example is in the common use of the word ‘heart’. Even in our common speech the word is ambiguous. To call Hitler heartless means that he seems to be without the common principle of compassion. It is said that Tertullian (but I have not found the reference) said that ‘the supreme principle of intelligence and vitality’, ‘the sovereign faculty’ of man, resided ‘where the Egyptians taught- Namque bomini sanguis circumcordialis est sensus, the sense of man is in the blood around the heart’. At least the pulsating organ presents, for man, his proper physical rhythm in the whole mundus minor exemplum majoris mundi ordine. As our meaning – physical life or compassionate life – so the word heart. Compassion is the union of man with his fellows, as is the blood. The permitted devotion to the Sacred Heart is to the source of both. The physical heart is, in this sense, an ‘index’ to both. Gerard Hopkins wrote, of the Blessed Virgin:
If I have understood
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The death dance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
The visionary forms of the occult schools are but dreams of the Divine Body. All these brief allusions show that there have been some traditions of significance-poetic, occult, religious. Christians, however, may be permitted to press the significance more closely; they may be allowed to ask whether the body is not indeed a living epigram of virtue. There have been doctors who held that Christ would not have become incarnate if man had not sinned; there have been doctors who held that He would. Either way, it is clear that the Sacred Body was itself virtue. The same qualities that made His adorable soul made His adorable flesh. If the devotion to the Sacred Heart does not, in itself, imply something of the sort, I do not know what it does imply. The virtues are both spiritual and physical – or rather they are expressed in those two categories. This is recognized in what are regarded as the more ‘noble’ members in the body-the heart, the eyes. But it is not so often recognized as a truth underlying all the members-the stomach, the buttocks. That is partly because we have too long equated the body as such with the ‘flesh’ of St. Paul. But ‘flesh’ is no more that than (as Mgr. Knox pointed out recently in the Tablet) it is ‘sex’. The body was holily created, is holily redeemed, and is to be holily raised from the dead. It is, in fact, for all our difficulties with it, less fallen, merely in itself, than the soul in which the quality of the will is held to reside; for it was a sin of the will which degraded us. ‘The evidence of things not seen’ is in the body seen as this epigram; nay, in some sense, even ‘the substance of things hoped for’, for what part it has in that substance remains to it unspoiled.
It is in this sense then that the body is indeed an ‘index’ to delight, power, and the rest. ‘Who conceives’, wrote Prior,
‘Who conceives, what bards devise,
That heaven is placed in Celia’s eyes?’
Well, no; not so simply as that. But Celia’s eyes are a part of the body which (said Patmore, who was orthodox enough)
And sweet replies to some like region of the spheres.
And those spheres are not merely the old spatial macro cosmic heavens, but the deep heaven of our inner being. The discernment of pure goodwill, of (let it be said for a moment) pure love in Celia’s eyes, at some high moment of radiant interchange or indeed at any other moment, is no less part of the heavenly vision (so tiny and remote as it may be) because it is a physical as well as a spiritual vision. The word ‘sacramental’ has perhaps here served us a little less than well; it has, in popular usage, suggested rather the spiritual using the physical than a common-say, a single-operation.
Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. Nor has the stomach a less noble office. It digests food; that is, in its own particular method, it deals with the nourishment offered by the universe. It is a physical formula of that health which destroys certain elements-the bacteria which harmfully approach us. By it we learn to consume; by it therefore to be, in turn, consumed. So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure, no image of any seated figure, which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them: into even greater images and phrases we need not now go.
It will be thought I labour the obvious; and I will not go through the physical structure suggesting and propounding identities. The point will have been sufficiently made if the sense of that structure being heavenly not by a mere likeness but in its own proper nature is achieved. It is a point not so much of doctrine as of imagination. That imagination is at once individual and social. The temples of the Holy Ghost are constructed all on one plan: and our duties to our material fellows are duties to structures of beatitude. The relation of the Incarnation to our own mode of generation is blessedly veiled. But its relation to those other identities of power is not at all doubtful. It is not only physical structures we neglect or damage by our social evils; it is living indexes of life. The Virtues exist in all of them materially, but it is the Virtues which so exist. Christ, in some sense, derived His flesh from them, for He derived it from His Mother, and she from her ancestors, and they from all mankind.
The Sacred Body is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the centre of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form as including the whole universe are in this less than the truth. As His, so ours; the body, in this sense of an index, is also a pattern. We carry about with us an operative synthesis of the Virtues; and it may be held that when we fall in love (for example), we fall in love precisely with the operative synthesis.
Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye;
In every gesture dignity and love;
Is much more a definite statement of fact than we had supposed; footsteps are astonishing movements of grace. That we cannot properly direct and control our sensations and emotions is not surprising; but the greatness of man is written even in his incapacity, and when he sins he sins because of a vision which, even though clouded, is great and ultimate. As every heresy is a truth pushed disproportionately, so with every sin; at least, with every physical sin. But, however in those states of ‘falling in love’ the vision of a patterned universe is revealed to us, the revelation vanishes, and we are left to study it slowly, heavily, and painfully. All that the present essay attempts to do is to present a point of view which has behind it, one way and another, a great tradition-a tradition which, for Christians, directs particular attention to the Sacred Body as the Archtype of all bodies. In this sense the Eucharist exposes also its value. The ‘index’ of our bodies, the incarnate qualities of the moral universe, receive the Archtype of all moralities truly incarnated; and not only the pattern in the soul and will but the pattern in the body is renewed. Or, better, in that unity which we, under the influence of our Greek culture, divide into soul and body. ‘Socrates’, Dr. William Ellis writes, ‘invented the concept which permeates every part of modern thinking, the concept of the twofold nature of man, of man as a union of the active, or spiritual, with the inactive, or corporeal; the concept, in short, of the organism as a dead carcass activated by a living ghost. Even if we repudiate this idea, we are still half-dominated by it, so deeply does it underlie our pattern of culture.’ I am far from suggesting that this is the proper Christian view. But there is, I think, no doubt that it is not far from the popular Christian view. The fuss that has been made about Browning’s line (not that that was Browning’s fault)-‘nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps souI’-shows that. It was repeated almost as a new revelation, though indeed the Lady Julian had said almost the same thing centuries before. We have to overcome that lazy habit of the imagination-the outrage of death notwithstanding. We experience, physically, in its proper mode, the Kingdom of God: the imperial structure of the body carries its own high doctrines-of vision, of digestion of mysteries, of balance, of movement, of operation. ‘That soul’, said Dante in the Convivio, ‘which embraces all these powers [the rational, the sensitive, and the vegetative] is the most perfect of all the rest.’ The rational, or self-conscious, power is indeed the noblest, but we must ask from it a complete self-consciousness, and not a self-consciousness in schism.
It was suggested that the stress of this imagination may be an incentive to our social revolution. For if the body of our neighbor is compact of these heavenly qualities, incarnated influences, then we are indeed neglecting the actual Kingdom of God in neglecting it. It is the living type of the Arch-typal. We have not merely to obey a remote moral law in feeding and succouring and sheltering it. It is the ‘index’ of power; tear away the index, and we are left without the power; tear away the index, and we are left without the delight. Let the whole to which that index witnesses be as immense as any volume of truth may be, and still the value of that small substance remains. Every student of a learned work uses the index attentively. A good index can indeed be studied in itself. To study the body so is to increase our preparation for the whole great text.
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.