As you know, I’ve been blogging my way through a series of posts on CW’s eight characteristic topics:
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 “Mystical Tranquility.”
Jedi Masters: CW’s Mystical Tranquility
In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm that might be “the peace that passeth understanding.” Nothing can ruffle this person: “Murders or mice, the principle’s the same.” He or she gives great love to other people, often at enormous personal cost. Remember the previous post on Ritual Objects? In each novel, there is an object or force of great spiritual power that is being used for evil and destruction. In every case, salvation and preservation are achieved by the imperial mastery of a man or woman who steps into the center of the danger and becomes the conduit for the re-ordering of the universe by the voluntary, intentional surrender of his or her body, desires, and will power to the Omnipotence.
Here is a brief discussion of each of these saints (spoiler alert!), followed by some more general observations.
1. Shadows of Ecstasy: Isabel Ingram. Isabel’s husband, Roger, becomes a disciple of the evil magus, Nigel Considine. Throughout all of the changes of plot—Roger’s confused devotion, murders, massacres, betrayals, and many ambiguities—Isabel remains a fixed point. She is totally committed to Roger and his happiness, regardless of what form that happiness may take and what decisions he may make on the way. This makes her also an embodiment of CW’s Romantic Theology.
2. War in Heaven: Archdeacon Julian Davenant. The Archdeacon is a little man who comes into possession of the Holy Grail. He has to defend it against (and then give it up to, and then recover it from) a band of thugs, and gets knocked on the head, engages in a spiritual battle of prayer, fights the effects of a Black Mass, initiates a wild car chase, exchanges the Grail for the soul of a possessed woman, nearly gets his body married to a dead man’s soul via black magic, and is eventually taken up to Heaven during a celebration of the Eucharist. During all this, he keeps cool and maintains a gentle sense of humor.
3. Many Dimensions: Chloe Burnett. This novel was written at the height of CW’s love for Phyllis Jones, and the character of Chloe is probably based on Phyllis, or at least based on CW’s idealization of Phyllis. Chloe is a quiet, submissive, strong woman who sacrifices everything for the sake of righteousness (although she has a limited understanding of spiritual realities) and for the sake of an older man with whom she has a kind of teacher-disciple relationship (like those CW cultivated with many young women). In the end, she gives her life in order to make her body a channel through which all the chaotic forces are gathered up, so that they cease their havoc.
4. The Place of the Lion: Anthony Durant. Anthony’s saintly tranquility reveals itself in three primary ways. First, in his friendship: he makes sudden, deep friendships and is then profoundly faithful to his friends. He has a kind of intuitive understanding of his two closest friends, Quentin and Richardson, in quite different ways, and does a lot to help Quentin (who is being pursued by Platonic forms in the shape of gigantic carnivorous beasts), primarily by sending his own fiancée out to rescue Quentin. Second, in his love life: he is in love with his cousin Damaris, who barely puts up with him. He is patient with her, waiting for her for years before an encounter with a stinking Pterodactyl and the image of Abelard drive her to accept the Christian mythology. (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!). He gently, constantly, reproves her for idolatry and frivolity, then accepts her when she comes round. Finally, in his mastery of the Platonic beasts. He accepts his identification with Adam, names the animals, and sends them back into their own world before they destroy ours.
5. The Greater Trumps: Sybil and Nancy Coningsby. Sybil is the master-saint of this story, and we get to watch Nancy mature into a tranquil, faithful lover and spiritual conduit (like Isabel and Chloe combined). Sybil’s righteousness manages to be more active than that of the previous women, as she ventures out into a storm to save her brother (and, incidentally, a kitten) and persuades a crazy old lady that she has found her lost child, called Osiris and Horus (and also Nancy). Whew.
6. Descent Into Hell: Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther. At the beginning of this novel, there are two of these saints. Margaret Anstruther is dying peacefully, and manages to guide a dead man along the path to Heaven on her way. Peter Stanhope is a great playwright, rivaling Shakespeare, and his play has great spaces of silence and profound verse that lift people’s minds to God. He carries Pauline’s fear for her in an act of Substitution and Exchange, putting her on her way to becoming a submitted saint herself.
7. All Hallow’s Eve: Betty Wallingford and Lester Furnival. These two girls meet in a land like Limbo, a land after death, and participate in more acts of exchange. As you can see, CW’s imagination was developing more and more complex and profound images of Mystical Tranquility over time.
So there you have it. Eleven characters whose impenetrable calm could rival that of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Qui-Gon Jinn. Eleven saints whose wills are submitted to God’s so that they no longer have desires of their own, but who serve others with perfect peace.
It should be clear from this description that these characters are designed to be role models, examples, whose actions are offered to us as inspirations. There is also a sense that these people are CW himself, or Phyllis, or others he knew and loved, as he imagined them to be, or as he imagined they could be.
It is far from clear in the novels how these characters attained to saintliness. Yet there are subtle hints that their method may have been something like what CW may have practiced, or at least known about in theory, in the F.R.C. This order practiced visualization techniques in which the initiate’s soul climbed a ladder towards enlightenment, mastering one spiritual discipline after another. The idea could very well be to submit one’s will entirely to that of the Divine by the end, and it seems that these saints in the novels do just that. However, there is one difference between CW and the F.R.C.: his saints always do what they do for love of someone else, not for the sake of their own individual souls.
This is a terrific blog Sorina. I’m delighted I found it. There’s a flair and a freshness to your writing which acts as a nice counterbalance to a lot of the academic sites on CW out there.
It would, of course, have been absolutely fascinating to see how Williams would have developed as a writer if he hadn’t passed away prematurely. As you say, his style was deepening all the time. Sibyl Coningsby, for instance, in ‘The Greater Trumps’ is already the finished article in terms of her mystical tranquility, rather like Athene springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. Lester Furnival, on the other hand, has to grope and work towards this state of grace – after her death as well!
I wrote a short meditation on ‘War in Heaven’ a while ago on my own blog –
I hope to write a similar piece for each of the novels. I look forward to your next piece. Good luck with your studies.
All the best,
Thank you for these kind words, John! I am glad you found me. Your blog post is really wonderful. I love the connections you draw to a Tarkovsky film (even though I haven’t seen it!). I hope you do go on to write posts about CW’s other six novels. Would you be interested in participating in my “Place of the Lion” series? http://theoddestinkling.mymiddleearth.com/tag/place-of-the-lion/ Hope to see more comments from you in future. Cheers.
I’d love to. It’s a smashing idea. I’ll write again in a couple of weeks.
All the best,
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