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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Repaying the Debt

Guest post by John Mabry: The Rev. Dr. John Mabry is the owner of the Apocryphile Press, a small publishing company specializing in edgy spirituality. A retired United Church of Christ pastor, he currently serves as the director of the interfaith spiritual direction certificate program at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California. He is the author of 35 books, ranging from theology, spirituality, and spiritual guidance to science fiction and fantasy. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and three dogs.

In high school, I was an evangelical preacher-boy absolutely besotted with C.S. Lewis. I knew Charles Williams had been a friend of Lewis’, so when I came across a couple of paperbacks of Williams’ novels in a Christian bookstore marked down to nearly nothing, I snatched them up.

And then I tried to read one of them. I really did try. I didn’t get past the first chapter. So they sat on my bookshelf, forlorn and unloved.

Later, while at California Baptist College, I took a class on Many Dimensions.

Mind. Blown.

I then started reading the other novels. While I loved all of them, it was All Hallows’ Eve that had the biggest impact. I call it “the shout that started the avalanche that brought me here.” In Williams’ writing, I discovered just how mystically anemic my Christianity was. He showed me that the physical and spiritual worlds interpenetrated, that they informed one another, that they were in community (and communion) with each other. It was a vision that, once perceived, I desperately wanted for myself.

The Truth of co-inherence has completely remade my world view and has substantially impacted my pastoral ministry, my spiritual direction practice, and my writing. I began to teach co-inherence in my sermons, and I started to practice exchange with my friends and spiritual direction clients. I also started writing supernatural thrillers of my own—probably the closest to Williams’ own vision being the Berkeley Blackfriars series, but almost all of my novels have mysticism at their core.

Every time I visit England, I go to Oxford to visit Williams’ grave and lunch at the Eagle and Child. And so great has my debt to him been, that I made a promise at his graveside to get as many of his books back into print as I can.

I run a small publishing company called The Apocryphile Press where I publish…well, anything I fancy, really. (It is nice to be one’s own boss.) With a backlist of nearly 300 titles and more than 60 authors from around the world, we specialize in edgy spirituality that most religious publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. And one of our specialties is Williams and Williams studies.

We were so proud to produce Robert Peirano’s Under the Mercy: Charles Williams and the Holy Grail and Sørina’s own book on The Inklings and King Arthur, as well as her beautifully curated The Chapel of the Thorn, a “lost” Williams play now available to the world.

But I am most proud that we’ve been able to get so many of Williams’ non-fiction back into print through our Inklings Heritage Series, most notably such important works as The Figure of Beatrice, He Came Down from Heaven and the Forgiveness of Sins, The Image of the City, Outlines of Romantic Theology, and Witchcraft. Then there is the poetry, including Divorce, Windows of Night, Poems of Conformity, and Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. We have even brought out such obscurities as Henry VII, The Myth of Shakespeare, Poetry at Present, Stories of Great Names, Dean of Flecker Close, and Queen Elizabeth. Not that these are in high demand, but…there is a debt to be repaid.

I have only been sad not to be able to produce any editions of the novels. While the books are in the public domain in most of the world, they are still under copyright in the US thanks to the Sonny Bono Act of 1976. Regent College and Wipf & Stock publish the paperbacks in the US. We missed the boat on ebooks simply by not thinking of licensing them in time—Open Road beat us to that with their excellent ebook editions. But I saw a new opportunity with audiobooks, and I am very happy to report—crow?—that three of them are available now.

Featuring the talents of British narrator David Pickering, these editions are an absolute joy to listen to. And while Williams can be famously daunting in print, Pickering brings the text to life in surprising, delightful ways. They also feature excellent new introductions by Williams scholars Edward Gauntlett (All Hallows’ Eve), Grevel Lindop (Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion), and Gwendolen Grant (War in Heaven).

The Place of the Lion: (available soon)

I am happy to report that we’ve also been granted permission to produce new, beautiful hardcover editions of all seven novels—again, each with new introductions. Three of them are available now, with The Place of the Lion due to drop any day. These are not easy to find on Amazon due to the glut of illegal editions (you would not believe how difficult these are to weed out; it’s like playing whack-a-mole), but you can find them here:

All Hallows’ Eve

Descent Into Hell

War in Heaven

Hardcover editions of the other novels are still underway, but I am pleased to reveal the new covers to you. The new introductions will be by Grevel Lindop (Many Dimensions), Aren Roukema (Shadows of Ecstasy), and Sørina Higgins (The Greater Trumps). We’re working on getting lower-cost case laminate (library editions) out as well.

I want to thank Sørina for asking me to do this guest blog, and you, dear reader, for reading it! I’m grateful for the opportunity to let you know about the exciting editions we’re producing at Apocryphile. And if you have done any Williams scholarship of your own…let us have a look at your manuscript, won’t you? We’d love to consider it for publication.

John R. Mabry

Publisher

THE APOCRYPHILE PRESS

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Charles Williams & Dennis Wheatley: Writing of Dark Forces Part 2

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 and related figures to Inkling Folk Fellowship, and contributed his thoughts to A Pilgrim in Narnia and the Tolkien Experience Project. He works as an editor in Colorado.

Part 1 described how, in 1936, Charles Williams reviewed Murder Off Miami by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley ultimately became Britain’s second bestselling author behind Agatha Christie and reissued Williams’ books War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps for The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult.

It’s worth asking why Williams never achieved Wheatley’s success. After all, they were both students of pulp thrillers who “wrote of dark forces.”

They also both had ambiguous relationships with the occult. Williams was Anglo-Catholic but involved in A.E. Waite’s The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Grevel Lindop’s research in The Third Inkling indicates Williams also belonged to a private group that used the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s rituals.

Biographer Phil Baker shows Wheatley doubted occultists and theism but believed in reincarnation (322, 374). While Wheatley’s thrillers had prefaces warning readers against Satanism, they depicted it as sexy in a forbidden way: the climax usually involved virgins (nearly) defiled in orgiastic ceremonies (Baker 495-496).

Both Wheatley and Williams were fascinated by what C.S. Lewis called “Inner Rings,” rings that informed their lives and fiction. Williams belonged to two occult groups and founded the Companions of the Co-inherence, a Christian discipleship group with mystical practices. Gina Dalfonzo and others have highlighted Williams’ quasi-sexual manipulation of female disciples, how the group’s exclusivity masked Williams’ behavior.

Meanwhile, Williams’ novels are built on what might be the ultimate conspiracy theory: all of humanity is involved in a mysterious network. This network requires we make “substitutions” for the master’s great cause. What is this network? The Co-Inherence: the spiritual ties binding us to each other and to God. Williams’ characters think they only belong to insider communities trying to retrieve the Holy Grail, hide the Stone of Suliman, or whatever. In fact, they can only navigate these supernatural dilemmas when they learn to live within the Co-Inherence, the inner ring containing all humanity.

Wheatley built an “inner ring of two” with Gordon Eric Gordon Tombe, a WWI buddy whom Wheatley credited with educating him about life. The education involved reading the right books (mostly 1890s aesthetes like Oscar Wilde) and learning private slang (ordinary people were “bimina,” women were “oggins”) (Baker 109-111). Wheatley’s bookplate shows Tombe as a satyr talking to a nude Wheatley, seated at Tombe’s feet like a Grecian initiate.

Tombe and Wheatley also engaged in “gentleman thief” activities; an insurance scam gone wrong led to Tombe’s murder in 1922. Wheatley mourned his friend’s death but didn’t take it as a warning of inner rings’ dangers. His novels follow insiders (Wheatley called them “modern musketeers”) fighting insiders (Satanists well-connected to British society). As we shall see, Wheatley’s heroic insiders follow a particular, exclusive ethos.

Despite their shared interests in pulp thrillers, inner rings, and the supernatural, Williams and Wheatley took different directions with their work. Wheatley stayed firmly in the pulp tradition, and his books are more about adventure than spirituality. Since his villains worship Satan, one expects the solution to be Christianity. Instead, Wheatley’s novels depict a Manichean struggle, an “all-out conflict between good and evil” (Baker 332).

For Wheatley, “good” didn’t mean Christianity as much as Edwardian values. His heroes are old-school British conservatives fighting “suspicious foreigners.” There are moments where God sneaks in—a flash flood kills the Satanists in The Haunting of Toby Jugg, thanks to “an inscrutable Providence” (Wheatley 305). Still, Wheatley’s heroes aren’t devout. They fight evil with fists, sacred pendants, hypnotism, and white magic… not exactly orthodox Christian methods. In short, Wheatley’s books are less about theology, more about preserving Olde England.

Williams was interested in Olde England in his own way via his Arthurian poetry. However, his novels have no socio-political agenda, and their theological themes (at least on the surface) seem heterodox. In fact, Williams’ whole approach to thriller novels was heterodox. Generally speaking, the difference between a thriller and a mystery is whether the puzzle or contest matters more. As Georgia E. Brown wrote in Mystery & Suspense, a murder mystery “is usually less concerned with the struggle between good and evil, and more with finding out who committed a particular crime.”

War in Heaven, Williams’ second novel, bridges mystery and thriller. It opens with a body found in a publishing office. The killer’s identity quickly becomes clear, the motive revealed later. While it has mystery elements, Sørina Higgins argues that Williams “departs from the rules that traditionally govern the murder mystery and manipulates the genre to serve his central purpose” (77).

The same can be said about War in Heaven’s use of thriller tropes. As police inspect the murder, an archdeacon visiting the publishing office peruses another manuscript. He finds a shocking reference: the Holy Grail exists, and experts believe it is in his parish.

At this point, Wheatley fans would know what to expect: The archdeacon would race home, arriving in time to see burglars driving away. The archdeacon would take trusted friends across England (with stops on the Continent, maybe Jerusalem) to get the Grail back. Between chapters 1 and 3, someone would give a Grail history lesson. At last, the archdeacon would deduce that the burglars belong to some conspiracy involving Bolsheviks, Kabbalists, breaking the astral dimension, and killing the Prime Minister.

None of this happens. In fact, Williams’ archdeacon is unconcerned. He finds the Grail at his parish, prays that God will trust him with it for now, and puts it back. When his friends worry about the Grail’s fate, the archdeacon says, “when the time comes, He shall dispose as He will” (Williams 180). When Kenneth asks if God wills the Grail-seeking Satanist Gregory Persimmons, the archdeacon replies, “Certainly He wills him… Shall there be evil in the City and I the Lord have not done it?” (ibid).

This “Chestertonian Archdeacon” (Higgins 79) takes Father Brown’s serenity to new levels. He believes so firmly in God’s will that intervention is unnecessary. If War in Heaven is a mystery novel, it’s one where the Father Brown figure believes so firmly in providence, he doesn’t even investigate the crime. If it’s a thriller novel, it’s one where he believes so firmly in providence that he doesn’t even enter the contest against evil. All things are “under the mercy.” Thus, Williams does to thrillers what his friend Dorothy Sayers did to mysteries in Gaudy Night: he breaks the mold, forcing the audience to rethink expectations.

Williams continued to subvert thriller tropes in his later novels, with more complex plots and themes. Since Williams subverts what most readers seek in supernatural thrillers, his books are fascinating but a niche taste.

Wheatley’s approach to thrillers was more conventional than Williams’s, and he got fame and fortune. Given how he merged supernatural material with action thrillers, we wouldn’t have writers like Frank Peretti, comics like Hellboy, or TV shows like Supernatural without Wheatley’s foundation. Some modern writers cite his influence—Neil Gaiman admitted his first issue of The Sandman is essentially a Dennis Wheatley plot.

However, Wheatley’s conventional approach also made him easy to surpass. Ian Fleming borrowed ideas from Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust novels, added a better writing style, and created James Bond. From Mike Mignola to Stephen King, countless horror writers used Wheatley’s occult-meets-adventure formula without his Edwardian snobbery.

While Wheatley may not be classic, his writing provides some things worth studying. He remains an important stepping stone in occult fiction, someone who “virtually invented the public image of Satanism” (Baker 9). Fans of Christian Suspense (particularly This Present Darkness) may be surprised to see how much the genre uses Wheatley’s style and Manichean tropes.

For Inklings studies, Wheatley matters because he shows another side of myth-making. Tolkien, Williams, and Lewis enchanted readers with tales about eucatastrophe and other images from “true myth.” Wheatley enchanted readers with another set of mythic images, taken from Boys’ Own Adventures and national images of Olde England. Somewhere in the back of Boys’ Own Adventures and Olde England was a Judeo-Christian bedrock that Wheatley never understood.

Wheatley’s lack of understanding may explain why, although he fought in the same Great War as Lewis and Tolkien, he missed what Lewis called “The Necessity of Chivalry” (warriors combining bravery and mercy). Wheatley’s adventurous, problematic thrillers show what men without chests look like at the halfway stage, but also hints of romance and sacrifice that show what the genre could become.

Print Sources Cited:

Baker, Phil. The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Dedalus, 2009, pp. 9, 109-111, 322, 332, 374, 495-496.

Higgins, Sørina. “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible? Charles Williams’s War in Heaven as a Generic Case Study,” Mythlore Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 77, 79.

Lewis, C.S. “The Necessity of Chivalry.” Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. HarperOne, 2017.

Wheatley, Dennis. The Haunting of Toby Jugg. Wordsworth Editions, 2007, pp. 305.

Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Eerdmans, 1947, pp. 180.

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Charles Williams & Dennis Wheatley: Writing of Dark Forces Part 1

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 and related figures to Inkling Folk Fellowship, and contributed his thoughts to A Pilgrim in Narnia and the Tolkien Experience Project. He works as an editor in Colorado.

In 1936, Charles Williams reviewed a book that wasn’t a book. Murder off Miami by Dennis Wheatley was “not so much a book as a dossier of reports, photographs, documents, and even human hair with blood-stained cretonne, with the final confession and solution neatly sealed up at the end” (Williams 307). Williams called Murder Off Miami “a very good piece of publishing work and everyone who had a hand in producing it should be congratulated,” but found the concept “all wrong” (ibid). He felt the realistic clues kept readers from imagining the plot or solution:

“We must always maintain that a murder-book is still primarily a book; its purpose is to live in the world of the mind and to achieve its effects by the powers of the mind. Humanism and realism cannot (in this sense) co-exist, for one reason—you can never get realism.”

Charles Williams, G. K.’s Weekly, Vol. XXIII, p. 307

Williams couldn’t have predicted that Dennis Wheatley would become “second only to Agatha Christie as Britain’s bestselling author.” Nor could Williams have seen that 40 years later, Wheatley’s words would be helping his book sales.

Born in 1897, Wheatley was a WWI veteran and wine merchant before turning to prose. In Lives of the Novelists, John Sutherland notes that Wheatley started writing in 1932 amidst bankruptcy, when his wife mentioned the “King of Thrillers” Edgar Wallace (406). Wallace had just died in Hollywood writing the script for King Kong, but was best known for pulp thrillers: cheap novels featuring high adventure and less-than-plausible twists.

“Wallace’s books were for the day—the hour, almost.”

John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, p. 299

Pulp thrillers were important to both Williams and Wheatley. In his 1933 review of Sax Rohmer’s The Bride of Fu Manchu, Williams says Rohmer’s work inspired him to write a novel (Lobdell 104). As Mark Valentine obverses in his Wormwoodiana article on Williams and Rohmer, one can see Rohmer’s influence in Williams’ first finished novel.

Shadows of Ecstasy opens in London, with Nigel Considine giving a speech on Africa. Afterward, several listeners discuss the speech, and one realizes he met Considine decades earlier… and Considine looked the same age then. From there, we learn about Considine’s immortality-granting powers and the African armies he has raised to challenge the British empire. Heroes debate whether Considine is the antichrist, while he delivers lines like, “I think you dare encounter darkness.” (Charles Williams: Five Novels 501)

Summarized, Shadows of Ecstasy sounds like what you’d expect from a Rohmer fan-turned-novelist. There is magic and a dark master from “one of the world’s pagan places” (Dr. Fu Manchu from Asia, Considine from Africa). The British heroes must decide how to face this foreign threat. There are also battles in the street and travel by submarine. It sounds halfway between a Fu Manchu story and Rohmer’s Egyptian sorcery thriller Brood of the Witch Queen.

When read, Shadows of Ecstasy is distinctly not a pulp thriller. Its style lacks melodrama. It has a recognizable writer’s voice (unlike Rohmer, who had great set pieces but no writer’s voice). Its plot sets up Considine to be a Bond villain… then defies that expectation. Considine’s ambiguity may hurt the novel’s quality, but it shows Williams was not only writing above pulp style: he was also violating pulp conventions. Thus, Williams’ problem is partly the same problem Kingsley Amis had when he wrote a James Bond sequel: his style surpasses the material.

Wheatley never had that problem. His first book, Forbidden Territory, follows Russian-French aristocrat Duc de Richleau and his friend Simon Aron, rescuing their treasure hunter friend Rex Van Ryn from a Soviet prison. Wheatley wrote the book in several weeks and had a spy novel (Such Power is Dangerous) and a biography (Old Rowley: A Private Life of Charles II) out the same year. Wheatley released something closer to Williams’ area the following year: an occult thriller.

The Devil Rides Out begins with Richleau and Rex checking in on Simon. They find him hosting a “spiritualist group,” and Richleau removes Simon by force. At Richleau’s home, he tells Rex about modern Satan-worship and why Simon’s soul must be protected. Unfortunately, Damien Mocota, the Crowley look-alike who runs the Satanist group, doesn’t give up easily. By the time Mocata is defeated, Richleau and his friends have experienced black and white magic, traveled through the fourth dimension, and prevented a world war.

“All this bears not the slightest relation to literature, but it’s all a gloriously exciting romp….”

Roger Dobson, “He Wrote of Dark Forces” (24)

Wheatley’s biographer Phil Baker argues The Devil Rides Out invented the popular image of “hardcore occultism” (322) and a new subgenre: “Occult fiction had tended to be a relatively subtle affair, like the quality ghost story, but Wheatley dragged it firmly into the thriller genre, combining black magic with hand grenades and car chases” (332).

Wheatley also added ingredients Edgar Wallace and John Buchan hadn’t considered. He wrote adventure, but with strong romantic subplots that attracted many female readers (Baker 11). They also featured details imported from Wheatley’s wine merchant days about “the finer things,” heroes sampling Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and Imperial Tokay wine. In A Spy is Born, Jeremy Duns shows how Wheatley’s emphasis on consumer brands influenced one of his dinner party guests: Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Wheatley wrote over 60 books, from adventure to science fiction. However, supernatural thrillers became his brand, especially in the 1960s. The alternate spirituality counterculture that made J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield into celebrated figures also loved Wheatley’s stories about “real Satanism.” After all, Wheatley maintained the magic was all researched.

This windfall lasted until 1977, the year Wheatley died and punk killed the occult revival (Baker 597). From 1974-1977, Sphere Books published The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. The collection of 45 books, each with a Wheatley introduction, included nonfiction (Studies in Occultism by Helena Blavatsky), classic horror (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley), and forgotten books (Moonchild by Aleister Crowley). It also included War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams.

Wheatley praises Williams highly in his introduction to War in Heaven: “Among writers of the supernatural, Charles Williams stands apart. He is a true mystic…” (5). In his introduction to The Great Trumps, Wheatley says, “few authors possessed a more profound knowledge of the occult than Charles Williams” (9).

However, after these compliments, Wheatley gives perfunctory plot summaries with general praises—“this strange war between a group of Satanists and the Powers of Light represented by the Archdeacon, Lionel, and a Catholic Duke cannot possibly fail to intrigue any reader” (War in Heaven 6).

A look at Wheatley’s introduction to Goethe’s Faust shows he wasn’t just perfunctory toward Williams. Wheatley praises Goethe’s book as “a conception of the relation between the physical and the supernatural” (11) and compares Mephistopheles to Shakespearean fools (ibid). Later, he pokes fun at “the literary egg-heads” who prize ancient Greek drama over everything else (11-12). Beyond that, Wheatley devotes his introduction to history lessons about Dr. Johann Faustus, Faust stories before Goethe, and Goethe’s career.

All told, Baker said it best when he called The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult “an inexpensive series of reprints with undemanding introductions” (597). Wheatley’s thoughts didn’t add anything to Williams scholarship. However, he put two Williams novels in circulation when the author was mostly forgotten.

Today, the opposite is true: Wheatley is mostly forgotten, and Williams is rising again. Why their fortunes took such opposite directions, then flip-flopped, requires looking deeper at their prose.

(Come back Next Week for Part 2!)

Print Sources Cited:

Baker, Phil. The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Dedalus, 2009,    pp. 11, 322, 332, 597.

Dobson, Roger. “He Wrote of Dark Forces: The Weird World of Dennis Wheatley.” Wormwood  19, Autumn 2012, p. 24.

Lobdell, Jared (ed.) and Williams, Charles. The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams,    1930-1935. McFarland, 2003, pp. 104.

Sutherland, John. The Lives of the Novelists. Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 299, 406.

Wheatley, Dennis (ed.), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust: Parts 1 and 2 (The Dennis       Wheatley Library of the Occult #15). Translated by Taylor Bayard with alterations by Dennis Wheatley. Sphere Books, 1974, pp. 11-12.

Wheatley, Dennis (ed.) and Charles Williams. The Greater Trumps (The Dennis Wheatley            Library of the Occult #35). Sphere Books, 1975, pp. 9.

—. War in Heaven (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult #44). Sphere Books, 1976, pp. 5  6.

Williams, Charles. Charles Williams: Five Novels. Benediction Classics, 2020, pp. 501.

—. “Letters to Peter—VI.” G. K.’s Weekly, No 593, Vol. XXIII, July 23, 1936, pp. 306-307.

Note: the writer would like to thank Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center for graciously providing scans of this review.

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Poems of Home and Overseas

Here again is another work that Williams edited in his job at Oxford University Press. You might be able to access a scan of it at HathiTrust if you have an academic login. As you can see from the title page, below, CW worked together with Vere Henry Collins (1872-1966). I have been unable to find out much about Collins; I gather that he worked at OUP as something of an anthology-collecting grunt man, though his title was head of the Education Department. He put together such volumes as Poems of War and Battle (1914), Poems of Action (1917), Ghosts and Marvels and More Ghosts and Marvels (1924, ’27), and three volumes of English Idioms (1956, ’58, and ’60). Williams was reportedly less than enthusiastic about the Poems of Home and Overseas anthology. In a letter to John Pellow in January of 1922, he complained it was

not a book to be vain about: scissors and paste and much toil. He had the idea, I did the toil. Poems of Home and Overseas–the title almost makes me weep; with Mrs Hemans and Conan Doyle and O.W.Holmes in and Shakespeare to round all up and Blake to give it an air and Kipling to give it a flag. […] The book would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for me. Mrs Hemans and Shakespeare without the Blake.

qtd. in Lindop, The Third Inkling p. 85

I’m intrigued that Williams is identified as the author of Poems of Conformity rather than either of his other two volumes of verse that had been published by this time: The Silver Stair (1912) or Divorce (1920). But I’m really more surprised that he would be identified as a poet at all, considering how minor those books of poetry are.

Anyway, the current work under consideration is a “school anthology”; i.e., the kind of book assigned in those days to secondary school boys and in our time to undergraduate themed literature survey courses. Published in 1921 in the aftermath of the first World War, it partakes in and contributes to the frantic patriotism and nationalism flaring up hot at home in England. Read in this light, the Table of Contents is revealing: four of its five sections (126 of its total 158 pages) are about “Home” (i.e., England), while only the last fifth is about “Overseas”–and mostly by English poets, too. It is a nauseating banquet of racist, imperialistic, jingoistic, nationalistic verses that have not aged well. At least, not for this reader. I can’t speak for any Q-Anon types out there, but I seriously doubt they’re reading this blog.

Section I is “In Praise of England” and features poems in no apparent order by Shakespeare, Blake, Coleridge, R. Browning, Wordsworth, E.B. Browning, Sassoon–and Charles Williams, among others. There’s a mini-section at the end called “Voices from America,” and it has a total of two poems: one by Oliver Wendell Holmes and one by John Greenleaf Whittier.

The poem of his own that CW chose to include in this section in praise of England is entitled “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”: a predictably pretentious title next to “England,” “England, my England,” “A Song of England,” “Ye Mariners of England,” “England, Queen of the Waves,” “Return to England,” “Men of England,” and many more. You get the idea. Here’s his:

It’s a surprisingly straightforward piece for CW, and also surprisingly negative about the land it’s meant to praise. There are hints in it of his later doctrine of Logres: the spiritual kingdom existing with England but on another plane.

Section II is “Merry England,” packed with poems by Chaucer, Keats, Hardy, Herrick, and some of the other old favorites from Part I, as well as lesser-known writers (to me, anyway). These pieces seem to tell quintessentially “English” tales (whatever that means) and to invoke nostalgia for the cheery old days of feudalism and the pastoral idyll/ideal. Section III is “The English Land,” and it means what it says: These poems dig into the soil of England, reveling in her fields, coasts, brooks, trees, flowers, birds, gardens, seasons, and weather. In addition to those previously included, we get Tennyson, Arnold, Clare, Kingsley, Bridges, and others. The fourth English section is “Places,” and most of the poem-titles call out the location that they celebrate: London, Westminster Bridge, Cambridge, Essex, Berkshire, Dorset, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and more. I’d have thought the Scottish locations would be controversial inclusions; and then why aren’t there locations in Wales or Ireland? Well, let’s not get too mired in the vexed history of the British Empire and the “British” Isles here, or we’ll never get out!

Finally we get to the last section, V. Overseas. The poems in this part are by Kipling, Felicia Hemans, Doyle, Hardy, Stevenson, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, and others. But they are not really about overseas, at least not in the sense of having the slightest interest in other nations for their own sake, nor in their cultures, peoples, heritage, traditions, languages, or anything else.

Nope. These English authors think about overseas only–if this anthology is taken as definitive–as pieces of soil in which to bury the heroic English dead, or colonies to add to the Empire, or battlefields to conquer, or places where one can sit and daydream about the lovely land left behind. It’s quite sickening jingoism. There’s a sonnet by one Wilfrid Scawen Blunt that praises Gibraltar, “the famed rock which Hercules / And Goth and Moor bequeathed us” (147). Bequeathed?! More like you murdered them and stole it. Somebody called Thomas Pringle crows about being the first European to walk through a bit of desert “Where the White Man’s foot hath never passed” before (148). There are occurrences of the typical, troubling equation of the conquered landscape with a woman’s body. Andrew Lang trumpets the Empire’s power across the globe, boasting that even if England herself should fall, “Still ‘Rule Australia‘ shall be trolled / In Islands of the Southern Cross!” (153). And this in an anthology put together just at the end of the bloody history of genocides in Australia–at least 111 separate massacres over a period of 137 years in which Indigenous people were hunted, slaughtered, and eradicated.

I’m ashamed of Charles. Given his later, progressive politics, I’m disappointed in the narrow-minded view this collection reveals. Of course, we don’t know how much say he had vs. Collins, and he was still fairly low down on the OUP hierarchy. I doubt he had the power to change the direction of the anthology. He basically had to do as he was told at this point. Plus he was always poor or terrified of becoming so, forever taking on more work than should be humanly possible just to make a buck (or a quid), producing pot-boiler biographies or book reviews in short order to purchase a coat for his wife or shoes for their son. I shouldn’t judge him too harshly. Besides, who in 1921 could see where nationalism would take them?

Given those considerations, I’m inclined to go back now and re-evaluate the poem of his own that CW managed to sneak into this collection. If you read it carefully, you’ll see it is not about the earthly England (the geo-political entity) at all: it’s about its spiritual model, its platonic form, that is “starry and invisible,” hiding in “celestial darkness.” It has not yet been discovered. Only the greatest painters and poets have caught glimpses of it with their inspired vision. The real “heart of England,” Williams argues, is not on earth: “it is found / Only by such as set their souls to find / The harbours and great cities that abound / Beyond the waters of the temporal mind.”

That true England exists on the astral plane. “Within man’s soul she dwells,” not on earth. I should have anticipated that Williams’s one contribution, from the fourth year of his intense involvement in A. E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, would be hermetic in nature. Really, when it comes down to it, his Ideal England can only be accessed by the long, arduous, precise practice of divination via visualization techniques. Some great artists have bypassed that method through the sheer imaginative power of their genius, but everyone else must employ occult arts to access the true England.

And by the way: England is not alone on the astral plane. It’s not as if England has this spiritual archetype and other countries do not: No, she is there “with her sisters” (l. 23). Compare the passage in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength when Dr. Dimble says:

This haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter. There’s no special privilege for England–no nonsense about a chosen nation. We speak about Logres because it is our haunting, the one we know about […]

and goes on to discussion the “ghosts” behind France and China.

In the end, I think I’ve talked myself around. Far from being disappointed in CW for putting together this horrifyingly “patriotic” anthology, I’m extremely impressed at the subtlety with which he managed to undermine its very principles in his own contribution. If he’d had his way, the collection should have been entitled something like Poems of Home, Overseas, & Spiritual Skies.

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[Insert Title Here]

I need you to help me choose a title, friends. This has nothing to do with Charles Williams (as far as I know), but hey: My blog, my rules. Anyway, I’m working on books one through four of my Sixteen Books To Write After the Dissertation, and #4 needs a title.

Here’s the idea. It’s a volume of weekly meditations on poetry as practical ecology. In each entry, I take a poem (not by me: a classic or contemporary work by somebody famous or noteworthy) and write a little meditation on what we can learn about creation care from it. Then I’ll end each entry with a practical tip for nurturing the earth.

I don’t know whether this is really a thing in eco-crit land. Those of you who do real ecological criticism: Is it ever practical in application? Or is it always and only theoretical? Well, I think it could and should be a thing, so I’m trying it out to see what happens.

I’ve been hand-writing these little pieces of creative nonfiction in a lovely cork-covered notebook given me as a graduation gift by a friend. Hand writing anything is such a luscious, precious sensory experience these days. I find it’s easier to listen to the narrator in my head who is good at determining my chosen audience, sensing what level of diction would be good for them, gauging their imagined feedback, and guiding my rhetoric. The slower pace means I can craft better sentences, too, using hand and ear and eye together in the structuring of syntax.

So I don’t have a complete sample entry for you, but here’s a partial one that’s typed up (and isn’t as good as those scratched out in cursive with a Micron .005 pen on rich paper). It’s just to give you an idea of the sort of thing I’m attempting.

___________________________________________________________________________

God’s Grandeur
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Everything is packed full of the possibility to burst into beauty. Seeds are nearly bursting—and then actually bursting—with their coiled up burden, the tendrils of vine or tree. The word “charged” makes us nowadays think of batteries, charged full of electricity, ready to provide power. This is not a bad analogy: the bud is ready to turn on, to glow, to illuminate its surroundings. But nature is even better than a battery, because it doesn’t wear down. Its power doesn’t leach out when unused. Charge up your Tesla, unplug it, and leave it in the garage—and the battery wears down, even without driving. The energy leaks out. No so with this green and growing earth! The caterpillar in the cocoon, the chick in the egg, the larva in the compost heap, the seedlings in the shell: they will not wear down or wear out while waiting. Their coiled and waiting power grows, “gathers to a greatness,” until the moment when they explode outward with all their joy in flower. Hopkins’ phrase “flame out” makes me picture trumpet-shaped blossoms, like on the Esperanza, Honeysuckle, or Foxglove: flowers whose bright orange or scarlet cornets flash against their drab backgrounds, playing their own visual fanfare to announce their dramatic arrival.

If you want to understand the bit about “shining from shook foil,” take a piece of aluminum foil, crumple it up a little, smooth it out again, then go stand with it in a patch of bright sunlight, and shake it. Watch how the light sparkles, darts, dances, and flames off of the varied surface. Imagine instead of ordinary household aluminum foil, you have a sheet of gold leaf, or the background of one of those Medieval icons, sunbeams glinting off the precious foil. That’s how the glory flashes out of nature: a yellow jessamine blooming unexpectedly in a shady corner; a fountain of native grasses cracking the asphalt in an abandoned parking lot; a goldfinch darting through your field of vision, one bright streak and then gone. 

This glory, says Hopkins, is like something that seems kind of strange at first: “the ooze of oil / Crushed.” Well, we’ve got to get out of suburbia to see what he’s describing here. Have you ever eaten really, really, really good olive oil? I’ve never been able to afford a truly artisan olive oil. The closest I’ve come is watching Samin Nosrat gushing about it in the “Fat” episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. *describe the pressing, the ooze…

[*Another paragraph about how things wait, then burst out]

[*but of course, next Hopkins describes how we’ve ruined it.]

[*But it’s not used up! It will still come back. Chernobyl.]

Practical Tip: When you encounter those horrible, depressing places where nature seems thoroughly dead—a mini-Mordor in your own neighborhood—don’t despair! Clear away the debris of trade and toil, then leave it alone. Maybe help it out with some water and compost. It will come to life again, and you’ll be amazed.

___________________________________________________________________________

Okay, that’s an example. I hope to write 52 of these, one for each week of a year. But what should I call the book?? I’m hoping for a beautiful, memorable, poetic phrase that suggests poetry as practical creation-care. I’m using “Fold, Fallow, & Plough” as a placeholder in my mind (and my filenames). That doesn’t communicate enough, though. Got any good ideas? Thanks!

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The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your dose of CW for this week. Instead of a work that he wrote, today I’m talking about a book that he edited. His connection with its compilers contributed one of the more important aspects of his life, as I’ll explain. Do let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about this book or his friendship with the two men who put it together. BTW, Apocryphile Press has a new edition of this work.

1917, The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

There are three things I find interesting about this strange anthology: the people involved in it, the ideas in the introduction, and the authors included (or excluded).

PEOPLE

Williams worked on this collection while he was still establishing himself as a Personality and a Force around the London offices of the Oxford University Press; Nicholson and Lee first proposed the project to OUP in 1915, and they worked on it with Williams for a few years thereafter (Lindop 54). I think it was the first significant volume that CW edited, working under the supervision of the formidable Humphrey Milford–whom he calls “Caesar” in his later office dramas. The poems were selected by D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee, about whom I’ve written before. They were both high-ranking occultists, and they soon invited CW to join them in bi-weekly meetings at Lee’s vicarage (he was an Anglican priest as well as a magician). There, they talk about all kinds of mysterious matters, many of which CW went on to develop into his signature doctrine of “Romantic Theology.” In short, his friendship with these two men–along with A.E. Waite–was essential to the formation of his hermetic belief system.

INTRO

In their surprisingly brief and prosy introduction, Nicholson and Lee trace the origins of English mysticism to the 5th or 6th century AD, when they claim that the works of Pseudo-Dionysius were wildly popular on that island. They assert–in convoluted syntax very like CW’s own–that the practice or acceptance of mysticism has waxed and waned but never died off, and they observe that it is experiencing a revival in their own time. They hope that the whole world is going through “a spiritual revitalization” and that mysticism will soon rule a “kingdom” larger and more fertile than it has ever done before. Therefore, they thought it was a good time to provide a poetical retrospective, as it were, of mysticism in the past.

They make no attempt to define “mysticism,” instead directing the reader to formulate their own understanding from the poems themselves. However, we get some glimpses from the diction they use. Most revealing, IMO, is their choice of the phrase “Inner Light” (capitalized), which is drawn directly from occultism (although also used in the Quaker faith and a notable Star Trek episode). They straight-up admit that they have a secret knowledge (“the secret of the inmost sanctuary”), but they’re not worried about giving away anything they shouldn’t, since the acquisition of those secrets is not a matter of imparting information, but of long years of intimate experience and initiation.

Of course, they acknowledge the futility of such a pursuit right from the beginning: Mysticism is by definition ineffable, inexpressible, beyond the resources of language. Poetry at least does a better job than prose, but even it can’t get very far in expressing the sublime heights of spiritual ecstasy. Given my recent studies of the power of spoken verse for magical workings, I find the literal nature of their faith in poetry fascinating; they claim that poets, “By the rhythm and the glamour of their verse, by its peculiar quality of suggesting infinitely more than it ever says directly, by its very elasticity, they struggle to give what hints they may of the Reality that is eternally underlying all things.” Thus they chose poems on their individual merit in giving some glimpse of that divine union, not on the reputation of the poet him- or herself. The collection is necessarily very selective and probably unrepresentative, given the limitations of their resources and historical perspective.

SELECTIONS

The index of authors included in this anthology is super weird to anybody interested in English literature of this period. Here are some of the living poets they include: Lascelles Abercrombie, G. K. Chesterton, Aleister Crowley, Eva Gore-Booth, Laurence Housman, John Masefield, Alice Meynell, William Sharp, A.E. Russell, Evelyn Underhill, A. E. Waite, and W.B. Yeats. That’s not exactly a catalog of influential modernist poets of the nineteen-teens, now, is it? It’s basically their friends in the modern occult revival.

The rest of the volume is also oddly imbalanced, due to their particular purpose of providing an historical survey of English (and Irish, and a little bit of American) mystical poetry. The poems are in chronological order, and the arrangement is telling. From a couple of anonymous early-middle-English verses, there’s a huge leap through time to John Donne. Other recognizable names include Herrick, Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell, Vaughan, Traherne, Pope, Cowper, Blake, Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, P.B. Shelley, Cardinal Newman, Emerson, E.B. Browning, Poe, Tennyson, R. Browning, E. Brontë, Whitman, Arnold, Patmore, George MacDonald (interesting), D.G. Rossetti, C.G. Rossetti, Swinburne, Hopkins, Wilde, Frances Thompson, and Mary Coleridge. I’ve skipped over the names of lots of writers I didn’t recognize, but it might be worth skimming through the Index of Authors to see if there’s anybody else of interest to you. There are huge swathes of work by Traherne, Blake, and a few others (not surprisingly), but nothing from the Elizabethan era, a teeny snippet from the 17th century, and a heavy sampling of living-but-totally-unknown poets.

I wonder what it would be like to read through this book cover to cover. I wonder whether doing so, in a suitably quiet environment and open state of mind, might induce any mystical experiences. I imagine so, especially if one were in a vulnerable, transitional life-phase, such as the undergraduate years, or, say, an existential spiritual crisis brought on by a pandemic and extreme political-religious polarization.

Maybe I should go rent a cabin in the woods and try the experiment. I shan’t, but let me know if you do.

The book is 666 pages long. Coincidence, much?

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Theatre Games: Summary of Early Unfinished Plays

Welcome back! Don’t forget about the CFP for Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach us to Care for This One. Do you have a friend, colleague, or student who might be interested? Please forward it to them!

Last week I wrote about Williams’s earliest work, an unfinished gallimaufry of juvenilia set in his imaginary word of Silvania. There are a few dramatic elements in that work, including an actual ritual of initiation. Today we turn to other early experiments in drama, where he was trying out various theatrical tales and techniques that would later develop into his office dramas, the Masques of Amen House, and eventually his last great plays, such as Terror of Light and House of the Octopus. These early works are all fragmentary, and all are housed in the Marion E. Wade Center. Here is the identification information for interested scholars:

CW / MS-161: Play about The Three Kings. 8 pp. pc. TMs. in 8 lvs. with revisions.

CW / MS-82: Fragment of an unidentified play between a young man/ knight and a maiden. 14 pp. TMs. in 14 lvs. with revisions.

CW / MS-399, pp. 57–65: The Meeting. (n.d.) 78 pp. in 73 lvs.: 65 pp. AMs. in 60 lvs., 11 pp. cc. TMs. in 11 lvs., 2 pp. TMs. in 1 ff.

CW / MS-51: fragment of A Crowd Bringing the King of the North. 13 pp. cc. TMs. in 13 lvs. with revisions; 4 pp. AMs. in 4 lvs. See also CW/MS-394: another fragment A Crowd Bringing the King of the North. 6 pp. cc. TMs. in 6 lvs. with revisions.

Although perhaps a little dry in itself, that catalog information does allow us some insights into his early ideas and methods. These four works are Biblical or faux-medieval in content; quite short, ranging from eight to fourteen pages, mostly with revisions. These facts reveal that Williams was no slap-dash writer: he tried out ideas multiple times, sometimes starting a piece over again, returning to manuscripts to revise them, sometimes more than once.

While none of these works are finished, I think they should nevertheless appear in a Complete Plays of Charles Williams—which, BTW, really super seriously needs to exist. Somebody should get on that right away. Ahem.

So let’s get into what these bits and pieces of plays are about.

I.

The Three Kings fragment is, as that cataloger’s note suggests, a Christmas play. In Scene 1, “In the Desert,” Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar gather to talk about what they have achieved so far. A year ago, they promised that they would each follow one thing and try to find the meaning of life. Gaspar asks them: “What solace hath the year[’]s course brought to thee?” Melchior says that he fought great battles and saved his country from oppression—but now all he gets is grief from widows who lost their husbands and parents who lost their sons in the wars. So he hasn’t achieved anything. Balthazar says that he chased after beauty and found it (I think he was a sculptor and composer?). But beauty proves that it is never enough. So he has failed, too. Gaspar, however, has realized that there is only one thing worth seeking: God.

The converted Gaspar calls on the others to join him in prayer. As they pray, the angel Gabriel pulls back a curtain so that they can peep at Mary as he brings her the Annunciation. The three magi speak of their visions, and each has see something different. (As a side note: compare the three differing “grail” visions in Barfield’s Night Operation). At first, the discontinuity of their visions discourages the Magi, but then Gaspar tells them that all three visions gave various perspectives of the truth, and that one truth is “Power! The Truth of God! A Maiden’s son! / If God be born as man, He is Emmanuel – / God with us.” (p. 3 ll. 36–38). Just then an attendant rushes in and tells them about the Star. Without even going to look at it, they take it as a sign, and give orders to pack up camp and head out to follow it.

In Scene 2, “The Hills Above Bethlehem,” three shepherds talk about how many travelers are going past on their way to Bethlehem. They curse Rome, and one makes a beautiful speech in praise of their pastoral existence. Enter the Innkeeper, who wants to buy some lamb from them to feed his many guests. They quarrel and bargain until Joseph and Mary come by looking for somewhere to stay. The Innkeeper tells them he has no room, but the shepherds persuade him to let them stay in “the cave, used as a cattle fold” (p. 6 l. 39). Joseph is concerned about letting the baby be born in a cattle “lair,” but Mary says:

It matters not! the Lord God’s everywhere;
He made us all, the lowly and the high;
He will not shrink with his own kine to lie.

(p. 6. ll. 46-48).

They leave with the innkeeper, who is still grumbling, and the shepherds marvel at Mary’s beauty, her voice, and the peace they feel. She’s like a mother and/or daughter to them. They lie down to sleep, and a boy among them sings Psalm 23.

The angels come and sing to them. (stage directions indicate voices only for the choir of angels—but then Gabriel appears). They rush to see the Baby, bringing him gifts, and leave the boy behind to watch the sheep. He is very sad to be left behind, but Gabriel tells him it was a test of whether he would choose duty or passion. Apparently he passes the test, for Gabriel tells him: “with thy spirits [sic] eye thou now shalt see / The adorable eternal mystery / Of God made Man. Eastward then turn, / And see in Manhood’s flesh the Godhead burn.” (p. 8 ll. 38-41). The curtains open, and there’s a tableaux of the Shepherds at the manger. The boy kneels in worship.

I am not sure whether this fragment is completed, but I think not. It feels like there should be a third scene as the Wise Men come to see the Baby Jesus. In any case, there’s some bad poetry and some beautiful poetry in this manuscript, and I hope it gets published some day.

II.

The next bit of manuscript is about a young knight and a maiden. It starts in medias res—whether by design or incompletion, I know not. Apparently the young knight is singing, because when the girl speaks, she talks about his song. (It would be interesting to compare Taliessin’s song, which a slave girl overhears and falls in love with him). The poetry is quite modern, without much plot so far. Really all that happens is a young man sings and a Chorus speaks modern verse. The chorus seems to be just one actor (there is a reference to his “stretching an arm out” on p. 7), maybe like the Skeleton in Thomas Cranmer. addressed to three figures—not sure who they are? There’s a great wheel casting shadows across the stage (p. 8), and there is a dumbshow of the knight and the maiden on page 3, which I do not understand. It enacts a maiden weeping by the bed of a wounded knight, but it ends: “And by that bed there standeth a stone, / Corpus Christi written thereon.” (p. 3 ll. 13-14).

There is more going on here than initially appears in this scrap of verse drama, and now that I’m going through my notes, I suspect this is quite a late work and not an early one, after all. Here are the hints that it’s a later piece:

The poetry is in CW’s later, more modern style, its rhythms influence by his editing of Hopkins and its diction and imagery influenced by Yeats and Eliot. For instance, the Chorus chants:

This is the blow that is the world’s pain,
and by the bed the world weeps for it.
Here statements are the story and the show
of what perpetually is; is no solution
unless you so decide. And further,
in your lives’ idiom interpret the decision.
But here might angry wishes find their quietus,
and might bodies, riven at birth, find ease;
here as this pain was known as peace, learn to be peaceful,
here as this grief relentless, illusion of pain forgive.

(p. 3, ll 15-18; p. 4 ll 1-6)

A little later, these lines appears (again spoken by the Chorus):
And while this Catherine wheel of poetry
firing its dark-defying sparks, whirls,
allow its impetus, not for a beacon
this would-be Morality, but a mind’s show.

(p. 5 ll. 14-17)

I don’t think CW could have written these lines until the 1930s. furthermore, there’s quite a modern dialogue between young man and maiden, full of Christmas trees, machines, and so forth, more in the style of Judgment at Chelmsford (1939) than of Chapel of the Thorn (1912). I think the young woman is arguing for the permeance of modern machinery, perhaps as against myth, while the young man is trying to talk about eternity. There is lofty hieratic language about choosing what myth to make of one’s life—which I don’t think CW would have composed until a good several years into his occult explorations (beginning in 1917, although his high-ranking initiation came later).

In any case, there is more evidence for a later date. In an interesting contemporary reference, the singer refers to “the periscope of poetry. / (useless enough against torpedoes)” (p. 2 ll. 7-8); torpedoes were used in both world wars, which suggests 1914 as the earliest possible date. There is also some honesty in the poetry about the difference between the image of the girl and the girl herself (p. 6); could this suggest he drafted these lines after Lois Lang-Sims confronted him on that subject? I think that is likely. So now I’ve written myself into thinking this is a late work and should have appeared in a different blog post. Ah, well; hopefully you found my speculations interesting.

III.

The tiny fragment labeled The Meeting tells of an encounter between the Devil and Five Princes. Each prince gives a monologue, then Death responds to each in turn, saying “Fool, till [some particular trait] fail thou hast not entered death.” They are relying, respectively, on memory, courage, hope, and irony. Prince #5 doesn’t give a monologue, and he is the one who gets to know Death’s true nature.

IV.

A Crowd Bringing the King of the North exists in two versions with some variations. I think it’s early (the handwriting looks early to me; it occasionally has that distinctive loop in the final “d” of some words). There is no dramatis personae and no cover page.

When the action begins, a king is brought in, bound. The Fool begins speaking in trimeter quatrains, mocking the king. Members of the crowd speak in tetrameter quatrains, invoking Earth to ask her for justice (in what situation, we don’t know). They move from antiphonal lines into a unison invocation with a sing-song rhythm, first couplets, then quatrains. They cry out to Earth, declaring: “O mother Earth, our hope lives but in thee” (p. 4). And she answers!! She replies: “Children, what seek ye?” (p. 5 l. 9). And they say: “Justice!” She doesn’t know that word, so they have to explain it to her. All she knows about are death and birth – / birth and death intermingling” (5). Sadly, she believes “there is no such thing as justice found in me” (5).

The next character to whom they turn is Chaos, who comes to talk after the men of the crowd mention him. He claims to be the lord of all (6). The Fool tries to remind the crowd of moments of justice, joy, etc., in their past, but they contradict each one with some memory of lies, war, death, and hell—in short, of Chaos. He tries to sow dissention among the people, but—mysteriously—former enemies become friends and agree to help one another.

This is because, on the heels of Chaos, “Love comes swiftly and silently in.” In the midst of a dance, Chaos is defeated and chained up. At the end, Earth asks: “Shall there be found an end to all the sobbing / since I went forth upon my path, alone?” (13). And Love replies: “Depart, O Mother, all shall yet be well, / but by what means, ye cannot know…. / this is still a darker mystery” (13).

Classic CW stuff. We’ve got so many of his signature themes: the victory of Love, personified; the power of ritual; highly symbolic or archetypal characters; unity out of Chaos; and more. Do you see any others I’ve overlooked? Do tell!

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