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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.

With commentary…

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.


I have to apologize for subjecting the readers of this blog to two rambling and practically incoherent essays on “epistemology” and Owen Barfield without taking the time to read much of what Barfield actually had to say.

Barfield is not easy reading. It takes effort to follow his arguments and even more effort to decipher where he wants you to go with what he is giving you. Fortunately, I started with a book of his that covers very familiar territory: Owen Barfield on CS Lewis is a collection of essays and addresses, written or delivered at various times after Lewis’ death, in which Barfield remembers and comments on the thought and writings of his intimate friend, CS Lewis.

What struck me deeply about the book was the profound affection Barfield felt for his absent friend. Although the period of their deepest communion was a brief two years while they were both still undergraduates, the two of them were fortunate in being able to continue their friendship for the remainder of their lives. In addition, their friendship appears to have been one of those which Lewis himself described in The Four Loves; one in which the friendship is enriched rather than diminished by the inclusion of other friends. Charles Williams, J.R.R . Tolkien, Walter Hooper, Barfield’s fellow Steinerite A.C. Harwood, Joy Davidson, and the phelgmatic Mrs. Moore, with whom Lewis conducted a maybe-not-so-platonic affair for the majority of his adult life, all make their way into the narrative and are all remembered by Barfield with great fondness.

The book is as much about Barfield’s thought as it is about Lewis. The best essay in the collection, “Either:Or: Coleridge, Lewis, and Romantic Theology” is also the densest and most impenetrable. Only twice have I had the unsettling experience of reading something that I was certain would tie up all the loose ends I have flapping around in my mind and present me with a Unified Field Theory of God, Life, Logic, Language, Imagination, Knowledge and Everything. Both times I have been following the thread of the writer’s argument with increasing excitement, saying “amen” under my breath to everything he has to say, when suddenly the writer sprouts wings and the argument flies into the Empyrean leaving me quite behind. I plod along through pages of material I cannot begin to assimilate until I come through to the other side, where the writer descends once again to my level of understanding. However, I find the world and everything in it completely changed as a result of something that occurred in that upper storey to which I, alas, still have no access.

The first time was while reading Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The second was while reading the essay I mentioned above. Interestingly, both works dealt with something akin to what Barfield says that Coleridge called “polarity”. When two concepts are logically opposed, they cannot both be right any more than two physical objects can occupy the same space. However, when two concepts are in polar opposition, each one necessarily generates the other and is transformed into it. Barfield states that the proper faculty for the apprehension of this is not so much the logical, critical faculties of the intellect but rather the imagination. Here we run into problems. The imagination is suspect in our day and age since it is routinely relegated to the realm of the non-existent or the false.

You can see this the most clearly in the modern (not post-Modern) attitude towards the traditional Lives of the Saints among most Protestants and their fellow travelers for whom whatever could have been recorded by a time-traveler with a video camcorder is considered true and everything else is imaginary; that is to say – false, illusionary, leading to deception. Of course, these same Protestants take it very hard when you approach the Bible itself with the same attitude. You are either told that if you refuse to hear the voice of God speaking in the Bible, you are not likely to consider the truth if it comes to you from another source (presuppostional apologetics), or you are buried in a avalanche of minutae about Darius the Mede or ingenious arguments about alternative dates for the regencies of Hebrew kings (evidential apologetics).

Remember my earlier discussion of Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge? Schaeffer is a firm believer in Christianity as the great historical religion. I take this to mean that Schaeffer believed with all of his heart that if he had been a time-traveler with a camcorder he would have captured a woman, a snake, and an apple. To be very fair to Schaeffer, I believe this myself and unapologetically, but I am getting very close to the opinion that it is the wrong question to be asking. For example, if someone had been present with a tape recorder at the time recorded by John 12:28,29 , would he have recorded the voice of God the Father, the voice of an angel, or a simple thunderclap?

I think that what Barfield is saying is that imagination is as active a component in establishing the truth of a thing, especially the truth of a person, as is what Carlyle referred to as “imperial analysis”. To illustrate what I mean, go and see Father Stephen’s embedded video of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, where the saint, at the end of the video, is portrayed in a series of photographs as an aging man, then finally, as an icon. Now an icon is a product of the Church’s contemplation of that saint. Barfield, I believe, would call it an exercise of the Church’s imagination, as if, when the man who can be caught on video and photograph perishes, he is meant to be translated into legend.


122303_sandmanendlessnights02.jpg

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:


Another barrier that exists between the average Christian and the works of Charles Williams is the indisputible influence that occult thinking had upon him. Both Christians and occultists seem to want to lay claim to him. The occultists discount his thoroughgoing Nicean Anglicanism, and place undue importance on occult ideas that make their way into his writings. A lot of Christians, on the other hand, wander onto Williams’ turf having heard that CS Lewis thought a great deal of him, and are baffled by the theological landscape they find defined in Williams’ works. They downplay his association with the Order Of The Golden Dawn, saying that his interest was desultory or superficial, a youthful enthusiasm that he later outgrew.

His membership in the Order Of The Golden Dawn lasted from 1917 to around 1938, and Williams never had a dilettantish interest in anything in his life. His interest in the occult was real and lively. Because of Williams’ interest in the occult and his use of occult themes in his work, many Conservative Christians consider him off-limits. Even JRR Tolkien lamented Williams’ influence over Lewis, and referred to him as “that witch-doctor”, although he admitted that Williams appeared to operate under an unusual degree of [Divine] protection, given the intellectual precincts he frequented.

But Williams had other, more salutatory, influences as well. He was a friend of Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican spiritual writer who had a Roman Catholic mystic as a spiritual guide. I don’t know whether to call Mrs. Underhill a mystic or more of a travel-writer of the mystical experience. Through Underwood, Williams gained a familiarity with the Western mystical tradition and the Christian Neo-Platonism of Pico Della Mirandola. Also, through his lifelong association with emigres Nicolas and Militza Zernov, he had more than a nodding acquiantance with the Eastern tradition.

I think the most important idea that Williams garnered from his occult involvement was the very ancient idea of man-as-microcosm, although this idea is found in Maximos the Confessor as much as in Hermes Trimegistus or the astrological tract Almagest of Ptolemy. The ancient idea of the Zodiac signs ruling over certain parts of the body fascinated him from a poetic point of view, and worked its way into the poem Taliessin’s Vision Of The Empire. All of this would be just counter-pieces in an academic game of chess if Williams’ thought on The Index Of The Body hadn’t preceded and foreshadowed Pope John Paul II’s Theology Of The Body:

Secondly, there is the human body, and the movements of the human body. Even know, when as a general rule, the human body is not supposed to mean anything, there are moments when it seems, even in spite of ourselves, packed with significance.

Magic is transmogrified by the Eucharist, because a cosmos in which bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ is a cosmos in which anything, literally, can happen. Thus, the dark transformations of occultism (and all of Williams’ villians are in some way occultists) make way for, and bend before, the miraculous emergence of the New Man in the center of the Web of Exchange.

NB: JRR Tolkien doesn’t seem to have resented Charles Williams’ influence over CS Lewis as much as I infer.  That Tolkien called Williams a “witch doctor” I gleaned from Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent book on the Inklings, somewhere around pages 121-127.    Tolkien’s view of  the extraordinary level of divine protection Charles Williams enjoyed I believe came from Dick Plotz’ interview of Tolkien in 1967[?] that I vaguely remember hearing on the radio when  I was in the first flush of Tolkien fanboy-dom.  It may be apocryphal.


My mother despaired of all the pulp science fiction I kept devouring as a young boy, and the only time I ever read anything decent was when I had to read something off the “required” list at school, which is how I acquired a lifelong taste for Jack London and JD Salinger.

I ran with a well-read and articulate group; Catholics and Democrats who were reading Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, and Thomas Pynchon in high school. One of my friends went to California and had his only acid trip in Bishop James Pike’s swimming pool.. Looking back on them now, I am certain that I was the idiot jester of the group, who was put up with for comedic relief.

But I was the first in my high school to discover Tolkien. I had seen the Ace paperbacks on sale in a local drug store and had paged through a bit of the The Fellowship of The Ring. It seemed terribly confusing. Later, in January of 1967, the first Ballantine paperback came out. I purchased The Hobbit and read it in a single night, finishing at about 3 am.

The trilogy was next. At that time the whole Ballantine trilogy had not been published, only The Fellowship Of The Ring. The other two volumes arrived at my local bookseller later that spring. I finished the whole series sometime in July of 1967, not long after hearing The Grateful Dead for the first time. By the time I went back to school in the fall, I was a full-fledged Tolkien fanboy, complete with a membership in Dick Plotz’ Tolkien Society of America, and a vintage Frodo Lives button.

I still kinda like the Grateful Dead too.


After finishing Tolkien and Lewis, a lot of people wonder where to go from The Lord Of The Rings or The Chronicles Of Narnia. You can descend into the miasma of post-Tolkien fantasy, which has its high points and its low points. Terry Brooks’ early Shanarra books almost did it for me, and I have heard good things about Robert Jordan’s almost interminable Wheel Of Time series, but I haven’t read it. The best post-Tolkien books for my money are Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and, unfortunately, Phillip Pullman’s series, His Dark Materials. Post-Tolkien fantasy literature either tends to be very derivative (as Brooks’ earlier books were) or dark in their metaphysics (as Pullman and Rowling)

The Good Stuff, the Afghan Blond of Fantasy Literature, is the pre-Tolkien material, the stuff that was written since the late Victorian age and into the ‘fifties, when Fantasy was very much a minority taste. Here is a sampling from that era.

Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. This is the overlooked gem of the 20th Century. Hope Mirrlees was an Edwardian heiress whose only production was this little gem. Set in the comfortable and oh-so-respectable Whig utopia of Dorimare, this book is for the inner Jacobite in all of us.

Governed by her prosperous commercial oligarchy, Dorimare doesn’t lament the Revolution that overthrew her fairy aristocracy some 300 years ago. Master Chanticleer, one of the leading families in the capital of Dorimare, is enjoying a calm and well-ordered life until his son is accused of that most horrifying of crimes, eating fairy-fruit….

The Worm Oroboros by E.R. Eddison. I believe this book may be out of print. That would be a shame. In the first few years after the initial success of The Lord Of the Rings, a lot of fantasy was published by Ballantine, and this was one of them.

E.R. Eddison’s Spencerian sympathies makes English sound like one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages. His names are wonderfully evocative (the protagonists Spitfire, Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha) and the exploits are all of a heroic cast. Fair ladies, treacherous villains, noble knights, and heroic self sacrifice abound.

Really, the plot isn’t that inventive if you’ve read Beowulf, Malory, or Gawain And The Green Knight, but the sheer shimmering beauty of Eddison’s wordsmithery is certain to pull you in and carry you through.

Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsay This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and for sheer imagination, it tops them all. Linday is the only writer in this or any other genre who ever attempted to describe a new primary color or different media of perception spawned by the numerous new sense-organs the protagonist grows and discards as he progresses through the landscapes of Tormance.

Lindsay’s metaphysics are difficult to parse. I found the ending unsatisfying after being enchanted by the rest of the book. I have heard him referred to as a “triply-distilled Calvinist”, but I never saw that. For someone whose book is awash in sensory data, his denouement is austere and ascetic. I know I’m not the only person who enjoyed this book, as I have met a young woman named Joiwind.

It would be close to a capital crime not to mention the work of clairvoyant Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, although he is not thought of as a fantasist. It would be hard to recommend any one of his books over the others, and since most of his published books are anthologies of his shorter works, I really don’t have to.

I enjoyed Fictions, The Book Of Sand, and Labyrinths. Borges is one Spanish writer who translates well into English, since he was bilingual and spent a lot of time in English-speaking countries. The creepiest story of his I have ever read is Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which, if it is “about” anything is about the emergence of Berkeleyan ideal world into ours, piece by coin by candleabra.


The work of Charles Walter Stanley Williams (1888-1945) is not likely to spawn a blockbuster motion picture, although I would like to see one of the better directors such as Wim Wenders or Guillermo Del Toro take a crack at All Hallow’s Eve.   He is a cinematic practioner of what is called Magical Realism, and could come close to the eerie sense of Supernaturalism interpenetrating and existing “under, with, and in” the elements of ordinary waking life that is the food and drink of Williams’ work.

Charles Williams doesn’t enjoy the celebrity of his better known colleagues among the Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis for several reasons. First of all, I don’t believe that he is nearly as good a writer of prose as either Lewis or Tolkien. There is a lot of churn in his narrative, it is hard to tell sometimes what is going on, and he has the bad habit of obscuring his thought with what appears to be a private language.

This is especially true when he treats religious or theological material. At times he can be deciphered when he refers to a well-defined dogma of the Church in a new or novel way, but what keeps me coming back to Williams isthe suspicion that, buried in the idiosyncracies of his language are orthodox truths that have been neglected or under-scrutinized and that Williams alone of all his contemporaries has been mining these neglected nodes and wrenching some fresh jewels from them.

A second complaint that I have about Williams is that his characters are not very well developed. Now that I think about it, vivid characterization is not a hallmark of either Lewis or Tolkien either. Puddleglum is Lewis’ best fictional creation, as Éowyn is Tolkien’s. Puddleglum doesn’t attain to much more than a burlesque, and Éowyn is a very minor character. If you want vivid characters, you’re better off reading Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene.

But Williams’ characters are even more iconic than anything in Lewis or Tolkien. Quite often, they exist to illustrate or incarnate one or another of the theological virtues or one or another of the Seven Deadly Sins. Justice or Temperance is who leaps off the pages at you, not a just or temperate person. And those are the good characters. Whereas in Tolkien, the evil characters have an industrial proletarian cast to them, and Lewis’ evil characters are usually consumed by some evil ideology, Williams’ villains are stultifyingly bland.

Then, finally, for Evangelical readers, Williams is obscure because he is the least Evangelical of the Inklings, as Lewis is the most. In Williams’ novels, the evil machinations of the villains are almost always undone not by heroic virtue or right belief, but often by simple courtesy, kindness, or pardon; the sort that would be sought by a middle-class housewife of her neighbor after her dog had dug up her neighbor’s gladiolas. Natural virtue gets short shrift, referred to as “works-righteousness’ or “filthy rags”, but it takes a Williams to get us to notice that natural virtue was God’s original plan, and that the small, insignificant acts of goodness we perform every day can be transformed by grace to become the building blocks of an unshakeable castle.

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