Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around eight themes:
Today we are talking about “Ritual Objects.”
Please leave me a comment if you want me to add any other themes to this list.
A Magic Blue Box? Ritual Objects in CW’s fiction and poetry
Each of Charles Williams’ seven “metaphysical thrillers” centers around some object with spiritual power. These items draw the characters towards themselves, then reveal each person’s true spiritual nature by how each reacts to its offered power. Good characters are calm about their relationship to the object, willing to take care of it, use it, let it go, or even destroy it as necessary. Evil characters strive to bend the object to their will, attempting to force it to serve them. Here is a brief discussion of the object or focal-point of each novel, then of the poetry:
1. Shadows of Ecstasy breaks the rule about the ritual object right away; there is not one concrete item at the center of the story. Instead, the spiritual focal-point is a person: Nigel Considine. He is an evil magus who preaches a “new gospel” about the ritual transmutation of energy, and has discovered how to refocus all his passions inward and thus live forever. This is a wild, racist, violent tale made all the more confusing by the attractiveness of the villain (is he the villain?), the ways in which the best characters are drawn to him, and the ambiguous ending, which I won’t spoil. Yet in some ways, Considine is actually the best example of the ritual object: He gathers and focuses spiritual powers in on himself, transmuting them into something else that he can use. This is what all the objects do, in more subtle ways. As this was the earliest of CW’s novels, written during or just after his years in the F.R.C., it may not be surprising that it is the most occult and the least obviously moral.
2. In War in Heaven, the object is the Holy Grail. One character says: “it is conceivable that the Graal absorbed, as material things will, something of the high intensity of the moment when it was used, and of its adventures through the centuries.” So these items have absorbed spiritual intensity or power, the way a sponge absorbs water, which can then be released and manipulated by people who know how. What can the Grail do? Well, one character uses it for a Black Mass, then several use it for an evil ritual in which they attempt to wed a dead man’s soul to a live man’s body. The good characters use it to celebrate the Eucharist, at which each person is revealed in his or her true nature.
3. In Many Dimensions, the “august Relic” is the Stone of Solomon. It is “a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters.” Any readers acquainted with hermeticism or mysticism will be unsurprised to learn that the letters spell the Tetragrammaton: God’s name. The Stone can take its holder anywhere or anywhen in space or time. It can heal the sick. It can be divided, and each piece is exactly the same size, weight, and mass as the original, while the original loses nothing by being infinitely chopped up into identical pieces; each copy has all the powers of the original. Again, each character is revealed by what he or she wants to do with it: heal people, make money, control transportation, cheat on a test, or merely bask in the radiance of the Thing.
4. In The Place of the Lion, there is more than one object: the Platonic archetypes become incarnate in the world as enormous animals. There are nine, based on the “thesis of a correspondence between the development of the formative Ideas of Hellenic philosophy and the hierarchic angelicals of Christian mythology.” They appear to match up to the nine powers in Dante’s heavenly spheres. Anyway, each takes the form of a gigantic animal—lion, butterfly, eagle, etc.—and starts tearing apart England. The world will follow if they are not stopped. People, again, respond differently to each animal according to their spiritual condition. First of all, their soul’s state will determine which animal they encounter: the Eagle or its evil double the Pterodactyl, for instance. Second, they will either be unafraid of the animals, even able to master them, or they will be terrified and run away, or they will be eaten, or they will be transformed into the animal that their soul most resembles.
5. The Greater Trumps contains the “original” pack of Tarot cards and a corresponding set of little gold dancing figures. These together represent, or even embody or control, the orderly processes going on in the entire universe at all times. Thus whoever controls them controls everything—or can be submitted to and part of the great design.
6. Descent into Hell is a bit more ambiguous and complex. The object that reveals everyone’s spiritual state is a play, written by the great playwright Peter Stanhope, that is being performed in a little community one hot summer. How they read, speak, and understand the language of the play exposes whether they are ascending into Heaven or descending into Hell.
7. All Hallow’s Eve is even more ambiguous and complex again. There is a painting that changes to reveal its subject’s true nature. There is a magically-created hideous body inhabited by two dead women. And there is the City of London itself. All of these prompt responses of fear, hatred, control, or submission, peace, and tranquility.
Finally, there is the Arthurian poetry. The Holy Grail appears again in the poems, with a similar but much more limited function. Characters also serve as the centers of power: most notably Galahad. Finally, the Empire (an imaginary combination of the Roman and Byzantine empires, without the Church’s East-West split) serves as an image of the Kingdom of God on earth, and the ways in which individual people or countries relate to the Empire shows their true selves and determines their eternal course.
With each new choice of nucleus, Williams seemed to be reaching further and further behind the veil of material reality, searching for the ultimate Power that created and guides it. Each symbol corresponded to some sacred core of existence beyond itself, some mystery even more closely associated with transcendence. Behind the Grail is its keeper, Prestor John, who is somehow identified with the Grail itself and all true believers and Christ Himself. Behind Solomon’s magical chunk of original matter is his signet ring, which contains or is the divine light that made the universe. Behind the tarot cards, and even behind the dancing images, is the Fool, who moves and does not move, and who is the meaning of all things. Even the Platonic archetypes are only orders of angels, fairly far down the ladder of celestial promotion according to Dante, answerable to the Unity, the Three-In-One.
So, there you have it: ritual objects in CW’s fiction and poetry.
But I don’t want to end quite yet, even though this is a longish post. Notice that each of these objects has to do with POWER. The owner of these things has the potential to control everyone and everything else.
I believe that CW’s besetting sin—or at least besetting temptation, which is quite different—was a ravenous hunger for power. Spiritual power, creative power, relational power. He even used ritual objects in his attempts to wield power over other people: he kept a ritual sword from his time in the F.R.C., and on at least one occasion made a young woman bend over while he stroked her backside with the sword. This then released a flood of words, a creative flight-of-speech, as a result of some kind of “transmutation of energies” like that practiced by Nigel Considine in Shadows of Ecstasy. For descriptions of these encounters, read Letters to Lalage by Lois Lang-Sims and Hadfield’s Exploration. For a much longer, in-depth discussion of CW’s use and later rejection of magic, read Alchemy and Integration by Gavin Ashenden. I’ll report on each of those books in due course, and will also post specifically about ritual and magic at some point. But here I just wanted to point out that there is some kind of biographical basis for these ritual objects.
And yet, it appears that CW knew this was his particular temptation, and that he attempted to bring it under God’s control. He never actually did start his own magical order—only a loose Christian companionship. He never did have affairs with other women, but kept his love for Phyllis intellectual and held his other disciples at a distance. He never became the public Great Man he believed he was: he was not famous or influential in his own time as he believed he deserved to be. In other words, he never had the power he craved. Whether that was his own self-discipline or his own rotten luck, I do not know. More on that anon.