Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around eight themes:
2. Romantic theology
3. The Two Ways
4. Ritual Objects
5. The Crisis of Schism
6. Mystical Tranquility
7. The City
8. Arthuriana and the Holy Grail
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.
The Blue Police Phone Box was such a familiar sight on the streets of Britain in the 1960s when Dr Who was first broadcast but now you have to go to a museum in order to see one. We have such a museum in the small town in which we live and the Blue Phone Box is one of the biggest attractions now.
As I read this the word, “Horcruxes” kept coming to mind. I don’t know if JK Rowling had read CW (I would not be at all surprised if she had) but she certainly knows about the use of ritual objects as did CW. I am currently reading War in Heaven and after a few minutes in the company of Persimmons and Tumulty I almost felt that Voldemort would be preferable. CW knows them so well. I am struck by your reflection on CW’s besetting sin or temptation being a hunger for power. He was really in touch with that temptation. There is a moment in War in Heaven when the Archdeacon (a truly wonderful character) says to Persimmons and Tumulty that those who adore power do so because of weakness. I wonder if CW saw that in himself. As you can tell this reading of CW is an exciting experience for me. Thank you for putting me on the path.
Yes, you’re right: Horcurxes or Hallows! Both ritual objects, but one set that’s essentially evil (due to its method of creation and its absolute nature) and the other sets that’s neutral, to be used for good or ill (but also more pronei to temptation towards evil, which is why Harry rejects them in the end). Well said!
“Descent into Hell is a bit more ambiguous and complex”–oh great! I just finished The Place of the Lion, and I am reeling from it! Descent into Hell is next.
I do think, in my limited experience, that you are right about Power. But think of the context of the 1930s. Couldn’t “Power and Powerlessness” sum up the zeitgeist?
Probably! That’s kind of what I want to do my PhD on. 🙂
Then far more friends may talk about this issue
It is probably worth noting that the initial context of the first three novels is 1925, rather than the 1930s. For example, Mussolini assumed dictatorial powers in November 1922, and Giacomo Matteotti was murdered on 10 June 1924, but his murderers were not tried until 1926. Williams’s first novel was written between 8 July and the end of August 1925, with his second underway by January 1926 and a third already in view (with the first two both offered to, and rejected by, Faber by the end of May 1926). He also refers to his long poem “Lilith” (later published in Heroes and Kings), which includes a Stone of Solomon, on 30 December 1925. Two days after beginning his first novel, he became adeptus exemptus of the FRC (in practice the top grade). But his “ritual sword”, which he was apparently still using in Oxford during WWII, certainly did not date “from his time in the F.R.C.” as Waite’s Ceremony of Reception notes “There is no Sword in a Temple of the Rosy Cross.” Presumably in the background of his first novel is that of his friend, D.H.S. Nicholson, The Marriage-Craft, published in 1924 and including characters clearly based on Williams, Nicholson, and their friend A.H.E. Lee, and almost entirely devoted to discussions of the possible purposes of sex and marriage.
Thank you very much for adding these specific details. Where do you think he got the sword, then? Do you think it was a ritual addition of his own? Perhaps related to his Arthurian legend?
Thank you very much for the Nicholson information. I have added it to my reading list.
Where, indeed? A very good question. (I have not redone my homework about this, but ritual swords were a part of the Golden Dawn, presumably a part ‘reformed away’ by Waite in his FRC: explicit Arthurian dimensions in ‘tradition’ and innovation would be worth pursuing!) And what-all ritual stuff was buried, after his death (see Gavin Ashenden’s notes)? In the 1940s, Williams was teaching someone (a Christian) in London the ‘banishing pentagram’ as possibly helpful against fear during the bombing (except, I think he taught it wrong, in ‘traditional’ terms: but investigation is needed, here). The (earlier, 1930s) ‘Stella’ material, letters and verse, in the Wade, where Williams talks explicitly in terms of his innovations, are important in this general context. Unfortunately, all the (as-yet unpublished) evidence I have ever seen is fragmentary rather than systematic. One could provocatively (though defensibly) speculate over the ‘post-FRC’ Williams being much more magical than the earlier adeptus exemptus and Master of the Temple.
You should definitely write a study of this topic! I think you are probably right, that CW is more magical than Waite’s rituals called for (or possibly even approved of).
To follow up your horcruxes/Hallows comparison (which could, of course, be extended to Tolkien’s rings, especially ‘the one ring’), and bring in your attention to a person in the first novel and a play in the sixth, one might profitably extend the comparison of ‘method’ to Williams’s plays, as well – especially his ‘breakthrough’ Canterbury Festival play about Cranmer, where the character or ‘figure’ of the Skeleton (‘scary’, but ‘structural’) is called Figura Rerum.
Grail, Stone, Angelicals, at least, all clearly seem ‘abusable good things’, and as such examples and images of God’s good creation – figurae rerum.
It is also striking that what is apparently Williams’s invention of the table with golden dancing figures, in union with the original pack, in the fifth novel is made decisive for any real ‘functioning’ of Tarot cards. Apart from them, any and all Tarot cards are seen as basically ‘impotent’. And the originals seem, after centuries, to have fulfilled their truest purpose in their good effects in the lives of some four people.
Yes, yes, and yes! Indeed. So is his rewriting of the source of the Tarot’s power controversial and innovative, then?
Yes, I think so (though I do not recall ever encountering any detailed discussion of this). It is very different from the real history of the Tarot and its late, fantastical connexion with ‘fortune-telling’ (presumably unknown to Williams), as recounted in A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by the late Professor Sir Michael Dummett, Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis (St. Martin’s Press, 1996) (see also Sir Michael and Ronald Decker’s sequel, A History of the Occult Tarot, 1870-1970 (Duckworth, 2002) ). They are, however, perhaps analogous, in their final effect (!). Williams’s bold innovation imagines a real antiquity and greater power, which have passed away forever by the end of the ‘history’ related.
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I wonder how my contact with William’s novels and theology in the 70s & 80s influenced my development as a designer of objects. In the early days, I was asked to make ritual or ceremonial objects on occasion. I tried to keep this hidden as I was trying so hard to be a mainstream furniture designer and sculptor. I did it to be helpful and, honestly, for the rent. It took a lot of personal experience with the difficulties of life, to start to see these requests as occasions for some serious art. Now, 30 years later, it is a specialty that I give my best talents and exploration to. I make objects and furnishings for liturgical churches and synagogues. Also for homes – mostly cremation urns and meditation tables. I am ambivalent about the role of ritual objects. I think any maker of these things should have a healthy skepticism about what they are for and how they work. As with any tool, they can be used to create or injure. However, I don’t think they are qualitatively different from other designed objects. And with that statement, I mean to do what hermeticism does, to elevate the common object, not to demote the ritual object. Through a long practice of making objects I’ve come to see the many layers of meaning that get embedded in the acts of designing, making, and using – I conveniently count seven layers. Each layer has a physical and esoteric aspect that are not really separate. For example, even the basic level of “material” is full of loose associations that work via culture and more universal resonance – gold, for example, will always interact with steel or a “shou sugi ban” burned wood with fairly predictable alchemical/spiritual resonance. Other layers include “structure” which is never just practical, but also about the transmission of energies – the cosmos on the level of the object. More fragile layers include the mythical & mystical.
I struggle mostly with the question of how an object can be a threshold – a thin place. Such objects must be engaging enough to draw us out of shallow orbits, but not so engaging as to hold us in one place, or worse, lower orbits. For example, I don’t like too much ornamentation – distracting, tantalizing, superficial. Simplicity, common materials, and abstraction can used to “spiritualize” a cultural object – reducing the element of “attraction” and the manipulation of the intellect. Touches of ornament and rare materials, however, really blow my hair back – and I think spark the right alchemy of shock, fear, and beauty – alerting me to the ‘mysterium tremendum’ in Otto’s language. My work (and a page from an essay on ceremonial objects) can be seen here: http://www.orthsculpture.com/pdfs/Liturgical-Art-Orth.pdf or here: http://www.DifferentCremationUrn.com
Williams may have come to different notions about ritual objects, but I believe he and other Inklings first brought me their esoteric or hermetic intuitions/questions.
Thank you for this beautiful comment and for sharing the link to your work! I am fascinated by the combination of practicality and ritual in what you do. Your work is truly beautiful and inspiring.
Maybe Charles Williams never gained the fame and power he lusted for because God had mercy on him. Even when He denies us what we most desire–aside from Himself–God acts in love to His children.
Thank you for that comment, Rachel! It’s a very good point.
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