What SUP?

Dear Readers! As you probably know, in June I took on my new job as Editor-in-Chief of the (then non-existent) Signum University Press, which I’ve been creating from scratch ever since. It’s been an amazing, exhausting, sometimes overwhelming, entirely fulfilling adventure so far. This is really my dream job, since I get to edit, write, research, manage projects, do networking and promotion, learn all about the business of publishing, work with the world’s most stellar team, and still teach my favorite courses to eager students. It’s really astonishing! 

Works About Williams

Among the works we’re publishing, there are a few related to Charles Williams, and please make sure you read to the end of this post, because YOU might have something to send us that could lengthen that list even more!

  1. A chapter in Channeling King Arthur Through the Mediums, an anthology of essays by Signum M.A. students on Arthuriana from Tennyson’s time to our own. The chapter is by Sarah Monnier and is entitled “The Body Sang Together: Charles Williams and the East in his Arthuriad.”
  2. A long short story, or short novella, or meditative narrative, or creative nonfiction essay or something genre-transcending by Catherine Madsen, entitled “You Will Not Find it Poison.” This work is astonishing. It’s beautiful, and brutal, and the kind of thing we all want to write but thought was impossible.
  3. A short story in my collection Shall These Bones Breathe? called “Incoherence” in which someone refuses the coinherent nature of the universe and, well, decoheres. Ooops, #SpoilerWarning.
  4. Then there are a couple more utterly amazing Williams-related projects that I can’t announce yet, because they’re not under contract! But stay tuned, and I’ll post about them in due time.

Then there are several works related to other members of “The Inklings” and so are informative about CW’s social context, themes, friendships, and more:

  1. Cardinal Vices in Middle-earth, an academic book by Dr. Martina Juričková
  2. Exploring The Lord of the Rings by Corey Olsen: more or less a book form of his long-running podcast.
  3. The Silmarillion Primer by Jeff LaSala: a helpful guide to JRRT’s confusing book. Basically just what it says on the tin.
  4. An interview series with Verlyn Flieger in which she talks about (among many other things) her relationships with members of the Tolkien family, the time she met Owen Barfield, and her work on Tolkien’s books and paper.
  5. A lecture series by Michael D.C. Drout on Beowulf, in which inevitably Drout’s deep knowledge of Tolkien and of Tolkien-on-Beowulf will come into play.

Finally, a lot of the poetry and fiction we’re publishing has touches of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Eliot, and their ilk, or of the literature they loved and that inspired them. We have poetry and short stories by Verlyn Flieger, a novel by Kay ben-Avraham, poetry by James Hamby, an Arthurian novel by Brad Patty, and several more short stories.

How You Can Help

So…. we’re a new, tiny, startup, struggling little Press, and YOU can totally help us to grow and thrive and get more great books out into the world! How, you ask? Thank you for asking! Here’s how.  

  1. You could boost the Press’s signal on social media, if you’re into that sort of thing. Here we are on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok. If you’d like, retweet, comment on, and share our posts, that would be great. 
  2. You could subscribe to the serial release of my upcoming short story collection or any of our serial release books: besides mine, we have Kay’s novel, Corey’s book, and Jeff’s Primer starting serial release soon. We’re trying out this old/new model of putting out a work in monthly installments. I got to be the guinea pig, and it’s going really well! If you like the idea of getting a story or a couple of chapters to read each month, please sign up. It’s only $2/month for ebook format and $2.50 for audiobook (which is more labor-intensive to produce).
  3. If you truly believe in what we’re doing–publishing excellent academic studies & accessible popular scholarship & creative literary works, paying our authors high royalties, releasing books in accessible formats, and mentoring emerging writers–you could consider patronizing me or another writer. Making money as an author has always been hard; financial patronage of the arts and scholarship used to be a big part of many civilized societies. So we’ve invented the Author’s Circle: SUP’s way of inviting readers to become part of a special community with their favorite authors.
  4. Finally…

Looking for a Publisher?

We are currently taking submissions of three kinds; take a look and see if you have anything to send us!

Photo by Giovanna Chinellato

We are gathering individual academic articles to release in monthly installments and eventually collect into anthologies. While we’ll consider anything in the fields of language & literature, we’re most interested in Afrofuturism/Africanfuturism, ecocriticism, fandoms, the Inklings, Germanic philology, medieval literature, and popular culture.

In addition to article-length studies, we are also eager to read academic monographs on any of those topics and will also consider suggestions for edited essay collections. While our popular and literary catalogs are growing quickly, we want to add more works to the peer-reviewed side of the Press, so please spread the word to your friends, former students, and colleagues in academia: in particular to those from under-represented demographics.

Photo by Giovanna Chinellato

We’re also harvesting single short stories to bind into lovely sheaves. We want previously-unpublished short stories of any length, in any genre, on any topic; our readers especially love fantasy, science fiction, mythopoeia, fairy tales, secondary worlds, dystopia, Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, dark academia, superhero tales, and adaptations of classic myths.

So there you have it! A new publisher, many new opportunities, several risky experiments, and endless good old timeless ideas finding their way into readers’ hands and minds via the Signum University Press. I hope you’ll grab your pocket-handkerchief and join us on this adventure!

Under the Mercy, 

Sørina Higgins

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A Confusion of Court Cards

A while ago, I wrote an introduction to a new edition of CW’s novel The Greater Trumps, then this fall taught a couple classes on it, so I re-read the book more closely than ever. It’s a very, very beautiful and inspiring novel indeed. I feel I want to become a saint whenever I reread it, don’t you?

But I’m confused by something. (Only one thing, you ask? Well, let’s just deal with this one for now, shall we?)

There’s that memorable scene in which Henry calls up elemental beings of snow (water) and wind (air) by the court cards of cups and staves (118). Or does he? Does he use the whole of those two suits? Or just the staves, but the whole of that suit?? I really can’t tell from the prose exactly which cards he’s using.

Then when Nancy knocks most of the cards out of his hands, here’s his reaction: “‘You fool,’ he cried, ‘you fool! You’ve knocked the cards away.’ In his hand he held but a few; peering at them in the dusk, he discerned but the four princely chiefs; the rest, as she clutched them, had slipped or blown off, and were now tossing in the wind which rose from them” (121). So, he’s left with four court cards?

But then, when he and Nancy enter the room of the images, to try to use the remaining cards to summon the others and stop the storm, Henry holds out “the suit of sceptres, the suit of deniers, the princely cards of cups and staves” (161). I thought he lost the court cards of the cups and staves? So he’s carrying all the cards from the suit of sceptres/staves; all the cards from coins or deniers, and then also the court cards from cups and from staves? Where is the suit of swords? I suppose he doesn’t need that one, since he’s working on summoning water and air, but then why does he have coins/deniers? He’s not summoning earth. And why does the narrator say he has “the suit of sceptres” and also “the princely cards from the suit of staves”? Isn’t that repetitive? And again, didn’t he lose the princely staves when Nancy knocked them out of his hands?

Then on the next page, Henry instructs Nancy to “hold the eight high cards that are left to us” (162). This suggests they only have left to them the court cards of swords and coins, since they lost the court cards of cups and staves in the storm. But then why did the narrator say he still has “the princely cards of cups and staves”? Does that mean he lost all the non-court cards of cups and staves, but he still has the eight high cards from the two relevant suits (water and air)? But then why did it say he was holding out the sceptres and deniers?

I’m quite confused. Has CW made a mistake? Perhaps the mistake entered because he has changed the elemental correspondences from his sources. The Order of the Golden Dawn attributed the suits thus:

swords = air
wands (sceptres, staves) = fire
cups = water
pentacles (coins, deniers) = earth

So CW has switched the first two around, and I wonder if he momentarily forgot he had done so? No, wait; even that doesn’t solve the problem. It’s deniers that don’t belong in this paragraph; swords aren’t mentioned. Can anyone help me read these passages more carefully? Thanks!

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A Book of Victorian Narrative Verse

Here’s another of CW’s editorial efforts for Oxford University Press. It was published in 1927 by Clarendon Press–which was the name for the Oxford branch, while the London branch was (confusingly) called Oxford University Press. Further confusion is introduced, at least for me, by the fact that this volume was produced in London, not Oxford, and overseen by Humphrey Milford [later Sir Humphrey]). In any case, the important thing for our purposes is that it’s an anthology with selections by CW, so we can see what he thought the most important Victorian narrative poems were, how he abridged them, and how he arranged them. You can find the full work at FadedPage.

The Preface is CW’s distinctive work, with his characteristically surprising assertions. He often puts forward the wildest claims in a bland tone, sometimes accompanied by an observation about how commonplace his views are. Here, he states that “One of the most interesting things about the Victorian age” is how it ranked George Eliot so highly. He does not quarrel with this ranking, even adding to it that she possessed the quality of “nobility.” The high ranking of George Eliot does not surprise me, but his insistence on her “nobility” does–not that she or her work were ignoble, but that it’s not the most intuitive assessment and certainly not the first or second or tenth to come to my mind when I think about Eliot’s work. I’m more likely to come up with descriptors such as insightful, incisive, probing, intricate, accurate, culturally astute, morally courageous, and so on.

How about you? How would you describe the work of George Eliot?

But then again, I’ve never read any of her narrative poetry–nor am I a Victorian. And as a 21st-century American (and a Yankee at that), I am suspicious of hierarchy, monarchy, the peerage, and nobility. However, that’s not the kind of nobility CW has in mind (as Mary Ann Evans was not of “noble blood”): he is evoking a kind of nobility of mind or spirit that he admires in her work and that he believes most endeared her writing to her peers.

The rest of CW’s introduction continues to to put forward one staggering generalization after another: about art, about eras, about poems, about persons. On art, he claims: “All genius, at the moments of its full exercise, becomes symbolical not so much of the age in which it is produced as of the universal life of man.” I detect the influence of his occult studies here in the hint of the Doctrine of Correspondence, or the idea that everything here on earth is a microcosm for some spiritual reality. Specifically, Williams seems to believe in a universal archetype of “the universal life of [humans],” which must follow some set pattern of unfolding. The greatest poets (or other writers and artists) depict this pattern in their greatest works, he suggests. He gives an example of this working-out of a universal pattern in his discussion of Tennyson, stating that “in the Idylls Arthur is presented as the soul.” This reminds me of his own volume of poetry published three years later: Heroes and Kings, in which Blanchfleur’s body is a microcosm for King Arthur’s court. Each of her body parts is represented by one of the other Arthurian characters.

Yes, that’s weird.

The broad brush strokes continue. Comparing eras, he claims: “where the thirteenth century sought to base its stability on an assumed supernatural basis, and the eighteenth within accepted rational limitations of the mind, the Victorian seems rather to have settled its stability upon conduct.” I mean, maybe he’s not wrong, if we’re looking at certain sectors of certain societies (like, literate land-owning white men, probably, #amirite), it seems like that his characterizations of majority discourse are correct. And it’s not as if he’s uncritically accepting Victorian standards; he goes on to point out that they were obsessed with “conduct without any adequate end, duty without interior and eternal significance, morals without metaphysics,” all designed to prop up an outdated notion of chivalry that in turn used its power to uphold monarchy.

Indeed, I am pleasantly surprised to see CW criticizing establishment institutions. When analyzing Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, for example ( a poem he greatly disliked), he asserts: “Tennyson’s King Arthur is an example of nobility become unmanageable, and wavering between nobility and mere pomposity.” I admire his cheek here, even while I myself am too feeble-minded a reader to encapsulate Idylls with anything like his ease. He ties together his overarching concern about the era with his criticisms of this poem: “The weakness therefore of the Victorian age, as of the Idylls, is in its concern with conduct but its failure artistically to suggest an adequate significance in conduct.” In other words, neither Tennyson’s Arthur nor Tennyson himself nor Tennyson’s era had sufficient reasons motivating the kind of behavior they praised and sought to practice or promote. I can’t say whether or not I agree with him; I have a hard time analyzing longer works and whole historical periods–they don’t stick in my head well, and I don’t find it easy to stand afar off and overlook the entire landscape–so I haven’t got the chops to agree or disagree with him.

What do you think? Does Tennyson’s Idylls ultimately present a wavering, out-of-control, pompous Arthur? Does Victorianism put forward a standard of conduct without sufficient moral or metaphysical motivations for such conduct?

Given that CW didn’t like Tennyson’s Idylls, didn’t particularly like Tennyson, and thought pretty poorly of the Victorian era, it might be surprising that he put together an anthology of the era. It was his job, after all, and I doubt that it was his idea. It’s yet another example of the kind of grunt-work he had to do for his day job at the Oxford University Press: putting together anthologies on topics he didn’t particularly fancy. He always committed to doing a good job even on tasks he didn’t like, and this appears to me to be yet another example of that principle.

The controlling idea for this book is that all the poems and selections included should be “concerned chiefly with one thing–telling a story.” Some of the stories don’t have great content, but the quality of the poetry makes up for that, in his opinion. You’re probably interested, then (if you’ve read this far) in what he chose to include. He’s got two poems each by Tennyson, R. Browning, Matthew Arnold, D.G. Rossetti, and William Morris. Then there’s one each by Longfellow, Thackeray, Kingsley, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and a couple of dudes I’ve never heard of. No E. B. Browning, which is an unacceptable oversight, considering she wrote the greatest narrative poem in English by a woman up until that date (and maybe since?? let me know if I’m wrong!). The most interesting inclusion, IMO, is George MacDonald, who is known nowadays neither as a poet, nor as a great writer, nor even really as a Victorian in the strict sense. Whether those observations say more about me and the 21st century or more about CW and the 20th, I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you like the selections he included? Who would you have left out? Who would you have put in?

Posted in Book Summaries | Tagged | 11 Comments

Was Charles Williams an Anthroposophist? An Interview with Owen Barfield’s Grandson

A Guest Post by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter has a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has presented on the Inklings to Inkling Folk Fellowship, and contributed his thoughts to MythloreA Pilgrim in Narnia, Fellowship & Fairydust, and the Tolkien Experience Project. He works as an editor in Colorado.

Halfway into our 80-minute conversation, Owen Barfield’s grandson tells me I’m the first American to interview him for a published profile.

“The first one was from a Canadian with Radix Magazine,” he says, “So you’re the first American interview.”

I feel very small and remind myself not to screw this up.

The interview, conducted over FaceTime on September 13, happened in a surprising way. I had written an introductory article on Owen Barfield, probably the least-known of the four major Inklings. When I contacted the Owen Barfield Literary Estate about using some pictures, Barfield’s grandson, Owen A. Barfield, not only let me use the photos. He also offered to do an interview. Emails were sent. Schedules were compared. Plans were tweaked when tech malfunctioned. Then we talked.

For those unfamiliar with Barfield’s biography, he met C.S. Lewis when they were both students at Oxford. Barfield’s first book, Poetic Diction, presented theories on language that impacted both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (and informed their famous Addison’s Walk conversation). While Barfield spent most of his career years as a lawyer, he wrote many books, from a groundbreaking Coleridge study to the comic novel This Ever Diverse Pair. After retiring from law, Barfield became a prestigious visiting scholar at Brandeis University and other American colleges. When he passed away in 1997, a month after his 99th birthday, he was the last living major Inkling.

During his prolific writing career, Barfield did something equally impressive: he and his wife Maud raised three children—Alexander, Lucy, and Geoffrey. Owen, the son of Alexander, got to know his grandfather well.

“I was the only grandchild, I was 28 years old when he passed away,” Owen explains. “I liked going to visit him—we had quite a special relationship in terms of old person-young person, so much so that from the age of 14, I’d go by myself to visit him.”

Owen tells me a lot about his grandfather. The bimonthly visits by train and bicycle where Owen spent a Sunday with his grandfather, often playing chess and sharing walks. Owen’s journey to becoming a literary trustee for his grandfather’s estate in 2007. Things Owen learned about his grandfather’s friendships with other Inklings—either in conversation or from later research. We cover enough for several articles (which I’m looking to publish in various places). Here are some of Owen’s insights concerning his grandfather and Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling.

Much has been said about what Barfield and Williams shared with other Inklings—for example, writing Arthurian poetry. However, beyond “Inklings all together” discussions and Stephen Dunning’s 2004 compare-and-contrast essay, little has been written on how much Barfield and Williams overlapped. One rare contribution comes from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, where he claims the first time Williams and Barfield met, Williams (knowing nothing about Barfield’s devotion to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy movement), remarked, “I have just been talking to someone who told me I was an Anthroposophist.” (155). According to Grevel Lindop, “sadly, the conversation was diverted, and a potentially fascinating discussion lost” (308).

Even so, the story raises an interesting possibility. Williams an anthroposophist? Did Barfield and Cecil Harwood know there was a third Inkling who sympathized with Steiner’s ideas?

Before our interview, I email Owen about this story. Not surprisingly, he says his grandfather never told him about it. Even if the conversation went longer, it’s the sort of thing one tells a biographer when discussing famous friends. Owen’s conversations with his grandfather were always more personal.

“Grandfather quite often mentioned Lewis, but only in the context of a good friend,” Owen says. “The same went for the other Inklings… He really did not want to participate in a kind of celebrity culture at all.

So, no inside track about what Barfield and Williams said on this occasion.

Owen also admits that he sometimes feels there isn’t enough nuance when discussing how much the Inklings influenced Williams.

“I think what set him apart, and people forget, is that Charles Williams was about 12 years older or so, quite a bit older,” Owen says. “But the thing is, if you’re 12 years older, and you see some young men setting up a society and doing some stuff, and doing their things, I think you sort of think, ‘Oh, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve joined my own societies. I’ve done this kind of thing before, I don’t need to do it all over again.’ There’s a little bit of distance because of the age gap. And I don’t think that’s ever sort of brought out enough, or really teased out.”

It’s a good point. After the interview is finished, I reflect on how Williams and Barfield were both more than just Inklings. More so than Tolkien or Lewis, they had prior experiences or commitments (Barfield’s anthroposophy, Williams’ two secret societies) that equally influenced them.

However, this doesn’t mean that Owen thinks there’s no Williams-Barfield connection. In fact, he suspects the two men were already on similar wavelengths:

“I don’t think the conversation would have necessarily been that revealing, because I’m sure that Charles Williams knew a lot about anthroposophy,” Owen says. “Grandfather was a founding father of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain. They had a place—which they still have, near Baker Street in London. Charles Williams walked past there. I’m sure he would have attended talks and lectures there, because some of the things I’ve read about Charles Williams sound so much like the talks that Cecil Harwood would have been giving. I’m sure there’s a connection there. And of course, that’s why that man said [to Williams], ‘you must be an anthroposophist,’ because Williams was saying things that sound like anthroposophy, and it’s because he would have heard things from anthroposophists such as Grandfather and Cecil Harwood.”

This connection is the first of three areas where Owen believes Barfield and Williams overlapped.

“When Grandfather was teaching in Streatham, South London, Charles Williams was also teaching in Streatham,” Owen says. “The coincidence of them both teaching there is too strong. There must be a mutual person who brought them both there, put them in contact—and that was in the 20s. In the 30s, there’s all this work around the Anthroposophical Society and the talks, which were public talks, and Charles Williams would definitely have gone to them, because he was living in that area.

“And then the third occasion is during World War II, when Charles Williams was moved to Oxford, Grandfather also moved his family to Oxford. Although he was working in London, his family was near Oxford. His wife lived near Oxford, and his wife was a good friend—a confidant —with Lewis, and Lewis put her in touch, I’m pretty sure, with an amateur dramatic society called the ‘Oxford Players’ putting Christmas plays together. Charles Williams wrote some Christmas plays. So, this hasn’t been researched. It hasn’t been written up. It hasn’t been explored. But I’m sure there’s a connection there between the plays that Charles Williams wrote and the Christmas plays that Lewis and Maud were connected to.”

After these insights, our interview moves on to other Barfield subjects (which I hope to release soon in other areas). For Inklings researchers, here are some questions this information raises:

  1. Has anyone established if Williams and Barfield had mutual contacts that led them both to teach at Streatham schools in the 1920s?
  2. Has anyone researched the Streatham school where Barfield taught, particularly how Harwood co-founded the school, and any other Inklings connections?*
  3. Do records of Harwood and Barfield’s 1930s Anthroposophical Society talks show any common ground with Williams’ ideas?
  4. Do Williams’ letters reference the Anthroposophical Society’s Baker Street headquarters?
  5. Did Maud Barfield perform in any Oxford plays written by Williams?
  6. What was Maud Barfield’s friendship with Lewis like, especially during World War II?
  7. What does Lewis’ friendship with Maud Barfield tell us about Lewis’ interactions with women?
  8. Beyond Simon Blaxland de-Lange’s recent Harwood biography, what has been written about Harwood’s contributions to anthroposophy, the Inklings, or his friendship with Barfield?
  9. Has enough work been done on how Williams’ age difference and prior commitments (the Companions of the Co-Inherence, etc.) influenced his time with the Inklings?
  10. Is there any common ground between the ideas that Barfield explored via Steiner (mysticism, spiritual evolution, etc.), and the ideas that Williams explored in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross or the Order of the Golden Dawn (or ideas explored by his friends D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee)?

I want to end by thanking Owen A. Barfield again for a great interview. And encourage researchers to check out the Owen Barfield Literary Estate’s website.

*Note: After our interview, Owen clarified that Williams taught evening classes at one Streatham school, while Barfield taught at the New School Cecil Harwood co-founded in 1925. The school (relocated to Sussex, renamed the Michael Hall School) still exists today. See Simon Blaxland de-Lange’s Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age: A Biography and Sun King’s Counsellor: Cecil Harwood: A Documentary Biography, and Joy Mansfield’s A Good School – A History of Michael Hall.

Sources Cited:

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. HarperCollins, 2006.

Lindop, Grevel. Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Ghosts & Clairvoyants Galore: Notes on Endings to Edwin Drood

In 1870, the great novelist Charles Dickens was fifty-eight years old and quite ill, having suffered a stroke the previous year. Nevertheless, he began work on a new novel and arranged for it to be published serially by Chapman & Hall, with twelve monthly installments to appear starting in April 1870. However, on June 8th, 1870, reportedly after working a full day on this novel-in-progress, he was attacked by another stroke and died the next day. He had completed only half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the book unfinished and the mystery unsolved.

Undeterred by death, apparently, Charles Dickens appeared to a Vermonter named Thomas Power James and dictated the rest of the novel to him. James provided a “Medium’s Preface,” then included an “Author’s Preface” (supposedly dictated by Dickens’ “spirit-pen” and taken down via automatic writing), and a massive “completion” of the novel that more than doubles its length.

Let’s just say that death did not improve Dickens’ writing style.

Other folks wrote more honest continuations, putting their own names on them (or at least their initials), such as W.E.C. and Gillian Vase. Those were both published in 1914, which was a good year for Edwin Drood, as it also saw the amazing, parodic Trial of John Jasper for The Murder of Edwin Drood in Aid of Samaritan, Children’s Homeopathic, St. Agnes and Mt. Sinai Hospitals: a delightful piece of theatre in which such lofty and exalted persons as G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw took roles.

G.K. Chesterton as Judge in the Trial of John Jasper
G.K. Chesterton as Judge in the Trial of John Jasper

As if that’s not cool enough, no less a personage than the great Sherlock Holmes himself finally solved The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as reported by Harry B. Smith in 1942.

Okay, but back to ghosts for a moment. T.P. James was not the only medium to publish a work putatively received from a famous author after death. Hester Travers Smith brought out Oscar Wilde from Purgatory: Psychic Messages in 1926. Mark Twain’s spirit came to Emily Grant Hutchings in 1917 and communicated a novel called Jap Herron (which Clemens’ daughter deplored and successfully sued to have destroyed) and then to Mildred Swanson, who published their conversations-across-the-veil as God Bless U, Daughter.

But this post is not going where you might think it is, and I need to remind myself this blog is about Charles Williams, not Charles Dickens. Perhaps surprisingly, Williams did not jump on the spiritualist train to meet Dickens in the afterlife. Instead, he joined another, more respectable tradition: that of scholarly investigation into evidence about how Dickens might have finished the book had he lived to do so.

In 1924, Oxford World’s Classics issued a charming little hardback edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood “With a Supplementary Note by CHARLES WILLIAMS,” shown here with my small Penelope-cat for purposes of scale. After the text of the novel, Williams provides a ten-page survey of scholarship on Edwin Drood. It is remarkably professional, written in a clearer style than he’s usually known for, and does not stray into the bizarre nooks and crannies of this fascinating field. Instead, with admirable lucidity and logic, Williams lays out the points in the case–both the case of Edwin Drood and the case of Edwin Drood–articulating the problems created by the novel’s unfinished state and then surveying solutions provided by various scholars. The plain prose and matter-of-fact style are unusual for Williams, and it’s good to see him at work in his day job, producing a piece of professional writing far removed from his avocational passions of pursuing strange spiritual byways–especially when he could have done so, given the oddities with which I began this post.

I attribute his insightful writing in this piece not only to the fact that it was a commission from his employer, the Oxford University Press, but also to his love of murder mysteries. A little later, in the 1930s, he began regularly reviewing mysteries for The Westminster Chronicle and other papers. He did so at a remarkable rate, reviewing 290 books in five years!! So even though his Dickens project was before that time, we know he greatly enjoyed reading and analyzing mysteries, and that hobby served him well in commenting on the novel and on scholarship surrounding it.

I found one point particularly insightful. He writes that notable scholars, in analyzing the Drood fragment, have come to the conclusion that there could have been no satisfactory solution to the mystery: that, indeed, Dickens wrote himself into an awkward corner and could not have gotten himself out of it had he lived to try. “The reason for this,” Williams summarizes, “is that although the details are capable of several more or less satisfactory readings, not a single one of these readings gives a convincing account of the behaviour or the characters involved” (366). Wait, he is talking about Season One of The Rings of Power?? Oops, sorry. #SorryNotSorry

In a slightly more characteristic move, Williams ends his short essay with a series of questions about the novel that he clearly thinks are unanswerable without further evidence being discovered. Clearly, he liked the unsolvable mystery more than any tidy solution, which I find the least surprising detail about his “Notes” on Edwin Drood.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share your own thoughts on Whodunnit to Edwin Drood in the comments below.


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CW’s Nativity Plays

Although Charles Williams is known more for obscurity and difficulty than for compelling drama, he was capable of the latter, and wrote a few “unusually intelligible” Nativity plays. These include Seed of Adam (1936), The Death of Good Fortune (1939), The House by the Stable (1939), and Grab & Grace (1941), all of which you can get on Faded Page via the links I’ve embedded in the titles.

This being CW, the plays are quite strange–but I find them powerful and moving. The House by the Stable is particularly accessible and could be easily performed. In fact, some friends got together with me over Zoom to read this play aloud two years ago (December 18th, 2020). The cast only calls for six actors: MAN, PRIDE, HELL, GABRIEL, JOSEPH, and MARY. Here are some notes from Anne Ridler’s introduction to Seed of Adam and Other Plays (1948), p. ix:

The House by the Stable was one of “three plays” which “were written for Ruth Spalding’s company at Oxford.”  Spalding “was then beginning to form the company which first worked in association with E. Martin Browne as the Oxford branch of the Pilgrim Players.” THS was “written and produced in the autumn of 1939.” The manuscript bears the date October 26th, 1939. After the Oxford performance, “the same company gave performances of The House by the Stable in halls, air-raid shelters, garages, churches, schools, and theatres in many parts of the country.”

The House by the StableMaybe you could get five of your friends or family members together and read this play for Christmas! If you do, please let me know how it goes. It seems that it was once filmed for Australian television?? Does anybody know more about that? Taylor University put on a production in 1964; I rather suspect that Joe Ricke has done readings of it since then. The Davidson Community Players in North Carolina performed it in 1966; a few other colleges and local companies have put it on. I’m surprised there haven’t been more. It’s simple to stage with a small cast, a simple plot, and compelling moments. Anyway, try it out!

The others are less straight-forward, but still fabulous. Grab & Grace is a sequel to House by the Stable. The Death of Good Fortune is not really a Christmas play; I’m stretching things quite a bit to include it here. It’s more of an Easter play, but it does feature this baffling and beautiful speech by Mary:

Before the advent of the necromantic kings
in the beginning, I saw a star sliding,
shining, guiding their god-divining caravan.
Its name was called TYXH, its flame was fortune,
its messenger and shape on earth was this lord here [Good Fortune],
whose sphere above attended my Son’s birth….

I don’t know about you, but I find “the necromantic kings” to be a pretty astonishing description of the Magi, even rivaling W. B. Yeats’s strange characterization of those wise men:

The Magi -

And identifying the Star of Bethlehem with the Greek goddess Fortune is a bold move, too. But that’s what our boy is about.

Okay, and then there is Seed of Adam, the earliest and weirdest of the bunch. I’ve written about it previously here. Its necromantic kings are microcosms of various earthly cultures or kingdoms: Gaspar, the “King of Gold,” he calls”The Tzar of Caucasia”; tradition associates Gaspar or Caspar with Tarsus or Turkey. Williams makes Melchior, “King of Frankincense” the Sultan of Bagdad, which is more or less consistent with his traditional origin in Saudi Arabia or thereabouts. His “King of Myrrh” is king of nowhere in particular in the play, but is called (in the diction of white Englishmen of the 1930s) “a Negro”; Balthazar is often portrayed as hailing from Africa. This Third King is identified with the Apple that Adam and Eve ate in Eden, and from his seed sprang Hell. Hell has now come to devour Adam, Eve, and all the human race alive–and she’s especially keen to munch on Mary. Mary and the Hell-woman have a sword fight! A sword fight! Isn’t that awesome? Mary wins, and Hell then serves as her midwife, assisting her to give birth to the baby Jesus–the true Seed of Adam.

Whew!

Okay, so I hope that you have the merriest of Christmasses, avoid the plague, and read some Charles Williams. Happy Holy Days to you and yours.

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The Masque of the Mischievous

In case you’ve been wondering what I’m up to and why I haven’t been posting even though I finished my PhD a year ago, here’s an update! Last spring, Corey Olsen (The Tolkien Professor, President of Signum University) tasked me with starting up the publishing arm of the university. Along with the most remarkable team of colleagues, I launched the Signum University Press in June and have been working like a madwoman since. It’s a glorious, magnificent, insane, innovative endeavor. It’s my dream job, because it requires all of my skills and abilities and more: writing, editing, teaching, research, networking, managing people, managing projects, communicating with the public, and, oh, figuring out hose this whole publishing industry works! I couldn’t do it without my awesome Press Gang: James, Sarah, Christopher, Giovanna, Nick, and especially my multi-talented Managing Editor, the writer and marketing magician Kira Tregoning.

Please do check out the Press: We have several books that we’re just about to start making available by serial release; a few authors who are asking for patronage; and an exciting catalog of upcoming works. These include books by Mike Drout, Verlyn Flieger, Jeff LaSala, Corey Olsen, myself, and more.

We’d be very grateful if you’d follow the Press on social media, patronize some of our writers, buy our books, and spread the word!

Anyway, now on to the Williamsian connection and the real point of this post. On Saturday, Nov 19th, during the Signum University annual fundraiser, I gave a SUPdate, then the Press Gang performed an adaptation of The Masque of the Manuscript. We had a ton of fun rewriting the play to fit our personalities, then performed it with great gusto and glee (if not much theatrical polish). The play starts around 42 minutes in the video below (FORTY-TWO); please watch if you like, and I hope it makes you laugh!

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CFP: “Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One” by Sørina Higgins and Brenton Dickieson (Academic Deadline Extended to May 30th)

A Pilgrim in Narnia

I am about to talk about gardening while my own garden is suffering from busy-related neglect. Even my little seedlings, planted with plenty of time for our last frost day (usually about June 10th in Prince Edward Island) have not fared very well. It may be what my grandmother once called a “bean garden summer”–a crop that grows without fail up here in the North Atlantic. At least, it has often done so.

Well, perhaps I am being a little overly dreary. After all, the hops grow without bidding, as do the dandelions. And my garlic pushed through winter cover with the snowdrops. There will be good garden days ahead, I am sure. My garden-dreary mood is perhaps because it is a dreary day, I have had tooth work, and I long to sing my fingers into the earth.

I have, though, survived my marathon of marking, conferences, and papers…

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A Strange Bugle Call

The Oddest Inkling

On this day in 1945, Charles Williams died suddenly. C.S. Lewis wrote this little poem out of his grief:

Your death blows a strange bugle call, friend, and all is hard
To see plainly or record truly. The new light imposes change,
Re-adjusts all a life-landscape as it thrusts down its probe from the sky,
To create shadows, to reveal waters, to erect hills and deepen glens.
The slant alters. I can’t see the old contours. It’s a larger world
Than I once thought it. I wince, caught in the bleak air that blows on
the ridge.
Is it the first sting of the great winter, the world-waning? Or the cold of
spring?

A hard question and worth talking a whole night on.
But with whom? Of whom now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless—oh unless it were…

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Christian Symbolism

Here’s an odd little item for your contemplation: Christian Symbolism, supposedly written by “Michal” Williams. ‘Michal’ is the somewhat unflattering nickname CW gave to his wife Florence, but which stuck so hard she even chose it as her nom de plume and it’s on her gravestone. Apparently Florence mocked him for reciting poetry loudly in crowded settings, so he called her “Michal” after King David’s wife, who scorned her husband for stripping and dancing in ecstasy before the Lord in public (see II Samuel 6:14-23).

In any case, it seems that although this little book is supposedly “by Michal Williams,” Charles wrote most of it. Lois Lang-Sims, describing the end of her relationship with CW, records that he awkwardly “took a small book, seemingly at random, from a shelf and presented it to me as a keepsake. (It was called Christian Symbolism and was under Michal’s name; though Charles murmured, as he handed it to me, that most of it had been written by him.)” (Lang-Sims 80). As we’ll see, I’m not sure “most” of it was by him, but certainly some of it was, and perhaps he had a shaping role in the whole volume.

Christian Symbolism contains quite simple discussions of various images and ideas that have been used throughout church history in art, architecture, illumination, and other places to communicate spiritual ideas visually. The body of the book reads almost like an artist’s manual or encyclopedia of imagery, with each symbol mentioned in a heading, then followed by a few paragraphs or so of commentary. It contains six chapters:

I. What is Symbolism?
II. The Nimbus–The Aureole–God the Father–The Holy Spirit
III. Our Lord in Symbolism
IV. The Trinity–The Soul–The Devil–Hell–Heaven
V. The Church–The Four Evangelists–Baptism–The Lord’s Supper–Churches–Vestments
VI. Miscellaneous–St. George

1920’s boy scout badge in the shape of a swastika with a fleur-de-lis

For example, the Church is shown as an ark or a ship. The writers of the four Gospels each have their traditional associations: Matthew = Winged Man/Angel; Mark = Lion; Luke = Winged Ox; John = Eagle. Chapter III talks about Jesus represented as a lamb, a lion, the conqueror of dragons, a panther (I didn’t know about that one), a fish, the phoenix, the pelican, the eagle, a Jonah-figure, and a shepherd. Chapter VI, Miscellaneous, talks about the dolphin (faithful believers), salamander (faith), centaur (Christ’s two natures, or the Christian’s old man and new man), griffin (omniscience and omnipotence), unicorn (chastity). Chapter V illustrates and discusses, various representations of the cross, including the fylfot cross or swastika. Remember, this was written in 1920, but for us after the second world war, it is strange to see a swastika used as “a sign of fire-gods and rain-gods, or good-fortune and of life,” “the most primitive and most universal of symbols,” and “the witness of the Cross which lies at the centre of all things” (21). I suppose the Nazi appropriation of that image has wrested it from its Christian context forever.

Here’s a sample entry, describing a mosaic depicting “The Wasters of Baptism” in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome:

“The Waters of Baptism”

This combination of symbols may be summed up thus–the Holy Spirit (the dove) sheds the radiancy of His great gift upon our Lord (the Cross) in His baptism (the medallion), and upon the waters of baptism (the four rivers) free to all who seek (the harts), and by which the faithful (the sheep) are admitted to the City of God (fortified against evil), the entrance begin guarded by the archangel whose office is to lead souls into the presence of God (St. Michael). Those who attain their habitation therein are victors (the palm) over evil, and rise again (the phoenix) to Eternal Life.

Christian Symbolism 68

Although simple, Christian Symbolism is a learned study, drawing on a wealth of sources. Indeed, there are a few comments that suggest occult knowledge, such as a discussion of the Tetragrammaton (10-11), a use of man as microcosm of the universe (5), a claim that the whole universe is a symbol of the Trinity (6). and a reference to Egypt as “the place of profound religious mysteries and symbols” (20). Did Charles tell his wife more about his Rosicrucian studies than we’ve thought? Or did he, as he “murmured” to Lang-Sims, write most of this book? Or both?

Some of the diction is distinctively recognizable as coming from Charles’s pen, as is much of the content. Even in the Table of Contents, the syntax, possessive pronoun, and idiomatic preposition usage of “Our Lord in Symbolism” is characteristic. On the very first page of the first chapter, the examples of symbolism include “the red cap of the Revolution, the nimbus of sanctity, […] a sword of St. Alban,” and other such odd instances that it’s hard to imagine anybody but CW coming up with them. There is a Coleridgian distinction between ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ (3); the application of Aristotelian definitions of the accidental and a discussion of symbols vs emblems. The authors asserts: “a symbol is rather a representative than a representation” (1). The discussion of the independent existence of a symbol (as opposed to an emblem, which exists only as a representation and not as something in its own right) is quite similar to the beginning of The Figure of Beatrice, where he talks about the difficulty of finding just the right word for the kind of symbolism he intends. There, he decides as ‘symbol’ is not sufficient and settles on ‘image.’ It is easy to speculate that as early as 1920, he was working out his exact definition of and scope for ‘symbol’ and ‘image,’ then either talked to Florence about it or wrote this part of the book.

For some reason, I find it funny to think of CW and Michal working together. I don’t know why, but I think of their marriage as rather cold and distant. Maybe that is completely wrong. As Christine Mary Hearn writes:

Michal Williams encouraged her husband in all his pursuits; she collaborated with him on a book of Christian symbolism, listened to him as he read his books in progress, and advised him when she thought he had made a mistake. It is generally acknowledged that the first chapter of All Hallows’ Eve was completely rewritten because Michal said it was wrong.

Charles Williams: Poet of the Affirmations (18)

However that may be, it seems unlikely that Florence wrote much of Christian Symbolism without his input. Here is what Grevel Lindop has to say about this short book and its putative author:

Although she could write well on occasion, Michal was not highly literate. She never used joined-up writing, her grammar was erratic, and to the end of her life she never mastered the possessive form of her husband’s name, often writing it as Charle’s. Only indomitable optimism could have convinced anyone that she was capable of writing a book. yet Williams must have thought it possible, for around 1918 Michal contracted with his uncle’s Talbot Press to write a book on Christian symbolism. The idea can hardly have been hers. Probably it was an attempt by Charles to involve Michal in his own interests and line of work. Predictably, it was a disaster.

The Third Inkling 70

If I had to guess, I’d conjecture that CW wrote most of the introduction, but Michal wrote most of the interior prose, the descriptions of each symbol. Those entries are in a much plainer writing style, without many of CW’s distinctive phrases. There are still some, however, such as the opening of Chapter III, which claims “Blake’s great saying will be remembered” before quoting these lines:

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

It seems odd that any woman (or, really, any normal person) would choose those lines to head up a chapter on Christological imagery. But for CW, lust and nakedness were part of his Romantic Theology and thus fitting emblems for our Lord. I shudder to think what his wife made of that idea, especially later when she found out he was in love with another woman.

In any case, Christian Symbolism is an odd, funny, intriguing little book. I’d be fascinated to know what a visual artist would make of it and whether its discussions of visual symbolism are at all useful in that field. As far as a sample of CW’s domestic arrangements, I think it creates more mysteries than it solves.

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