This is the last in a series of eight posts about the ideas that occur most frequently in CW’s works. You can access each of the others by clicking on the items in the list below:
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 the last one: his use of Arthurian Legends and his development of a map that involved Europe, a woman’s body, and a symbolic system of virtues and qualities.
The Body Poetic: Arthurian Legends and Metaphysical Anatomy
Before we get into CW’s own particular, peculiar use of the King Arthur stories, you might want to familiarize yourself with some of the stories, their background, their usage, etc. Here are some links you might find helpful:
List of books about King Arthur
A timeline of King Arthur
Now, back to CW.
Charles Williams was interested in the King Arthur legends nearly all his life. He began keeping a “commonplace book,” a notebook of thoughts and ideas about Arthur, as early as 1912. He first published seven Arthurian poems in 1930, in the volume Heroes and Kings, four more in Three Plays in 1931, and a few others in periodicals or anthologies. In 1930, he published a novel about the Holy Grail: War in Heaven. From 1929 to 1931, he wrote a total of 24 poems on Arthurian themes; he eventually collected these together into a book called The Advent of Galahad, but it was not published during his lifetime. All the extant Arthurian poetry was finally gathered together by David Llewellyn Dodds and published in this volume in 1991. Actually, there are other Arthurian poems still floating around unpublished, and Dodds is working on an official, complete, scholarly edition.
It wasn’t until the last few years of his life, in 1938 and 1944, that Williams published his great masterpieces of Arthurian poetry: Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. He planned another volume, to be entitled either Jupiter Over Carbonek or The Household of Taliessin, in which he would rewrite all the previous poems into a kind of narrative whole in a new style he was developing. But he died unexpectedly, and the cycle remains unfinished.
Anyway, in these poems about King Arthur, Williams transformed the traditional legends to suit his own theology and politics. He had an extraordinarily visual imagination: to him, symbols took on physical form and theological doctrines took on flesh. He applied this incarnational principle quite literally to his Arthurian mythology. He got an artist, Lynton Lamb, to draw an illustration of a female body overlaid on a map of Europe. Here it is:
Williams also related the astrological associations of each body part to his “unified field theory” of poetry, legend, and spiritual reality. The body is “an index to other creations.”
Throughout his poetry, Williams talks about each country in terms of which body part it matches up to on the map. In addition, he refers to the countries by their body part’s anatomical function and also by particular spiritual virtues that corresponded to body parts in Rosicrucian thought. Here is a list:
England = the head = reason, logic
Rome = the hands = the pope serving the Eucharist
France = the breasts = the “milk” of learning in the theological universities
Constantinople = the navel = the center, the origin, of the Empire
Jerusalem = the womb = the source
Caucasia = the buttocks = natural pleasure, hedonism, sexuality
Knowing this provides a key to many otherwise unintelligible passages in the poetry. Here are some examples from the Arthurian poetry (as usual, without citations; ask if you want to know where they come from):
The organic body sang together.
(This means that all the provinces or countries of the Empire were in perfect harmony, religious and political unity).
hands of incantation changed to hands of adoration,
the quintuple psalm, the pointing of Lateran:
active and passive in a single mystery,
a single sudden flash of identity,
the heart-breaking manual acts of the Pope.
(This means that Rome turned from pagan rituals to Christian worship, and the Pope performed the Eucharist).
The milk rises in the breasts of Gaul,
trigonometrical milk of doctrine.
Man sucks it; his joints harden,
sucking logic, learning, law,
drawing on the breasts of intelligo and credo.
(This means, then, that the new seminaries are open in France where men can go and study theology).
Though the Caucasian theme throb with its dull ache
make, lady, the Roman motion.
(This means: “Although your bum is sore from sitting, reach out your hands and stand up”!).
lost are the Roman hands;
lost are the substantial instruments of being.
(This refers to the splitting of the Empire, when the Pope in Rome was cut off from England and from Constantinople).
As you can see from this brief survey, the mystical body of Christ and actual human bodies fascinated Williams. When two people are in love, he believed, Love is embodied in the flesh of the lover and realized in the flesh of the beloved; thus, each part of the body is significant. Only lovers see each other’s bodies in the perfection they ought to have. Each part has meaning and each part relates to all the others; the same is true of the parts of the empire in the Arthurian cycle poems, and the same is true of every believer in the Christian vision of reality. He layered the Arthur/Grail legend onto the human body and used the resulting physical myth as indexes to all his thought, and related all his experiences and inspirations to both. He studied the body as if it were geology: a microcosm of the earth. He believed that morals are incarnate in the joints of the body—although I have very little idea what that could possibly mean!
Finally, Williams related all this to events in his time. At the end of his King Arthur myth, the Empire falls apart. England gets separated from the rest of the Empire: an isolated island. This means the head gets chopped off of the body. Without England, the Empire became headless and brainless. This is exactly the image Williams uses for Hell: he created a country or state, not on the map, called P’o-L’u, ruled by a headless emperor.
Just one year after the publication of Taliessin Through Logres, England would face Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and suffer isolation from Europe under the torments of the blitz. It was during the horrors of World War II that CW wrote The Region of the Summer Stars, in which the headless Emperor of the reversed hell almost wins. Almost, but not quite: his poetry ends with hope of a sacred re-union.