Guest Post 5 on “The Place of the Lion” by Crystal Hurd

The Place of the LionThis is the fifth in a series of guest posts written by readers of The Place of the Lion, one of CW’s great novels. Today’s post is by Crystal Hurd.

Crystal is a writer, poet, reader, and public school educator from Virginia.  She is happily married with three beautiful Terriers (adopted from local shelters).  Her dissertation explored the leadership of C.S Lewis with postdoctoral work focusing on the leadership roles of artists. She also serves as a leadership mentor for the non-profit organization Develop Africa. An unapologetic book nerd, Crystal loves to read and research works involving faith, literature, art, and leadership.  Crystal HurdShe also possesses a deep, unrelenting interest in all things European, especially Doctor Who. You can read her weekly thoughts on her webpage/blog, friend her on Facebook, (Crystal Sullivan Hurd) and follow her on Twitter: @DoctorHurd and @hurdofficial. 

Place of the Lion Response – Crystal Hurd

After reading The Place of the Lion, my first encounter with Charles Williams, it is absolutely clear to me why he was such an integral part of the Inklings. Williams, much like his Inking counterparts, possessed a mammoth intellect and a profound talent for telling stories. I will not provide a comprehensive summary here, but rather my reflections after finishing the book. I wish to focus my critique on two areas: the conversion experience and the gender dynamic. In both aspects, Williams illustrates that reconciliation is indeed possible, if we dare to envision it. 

The Conversion Experience

Truth is always in the thing, never in the reasoning”

What happens when ancient archetypes, which are held at a philosophical arms-length, crash in upon the sterile world of academics? Lions appear and attack in broad daylight, serpents infiltrate a benign speaking engagement, and butterflies, hundreds and hundreds of them, whimsically dance in the air. Researchers are trained to foster a healthy curiosity (often coupled with a healthy dose of doubt) about such unexplainable, dare I say irrational, experiences. Damaris particularly eschews any serious consideration of these “signs and wonders” and, like other characters in the novel, is initially distrustful of these events until she experiences it herself. Even then, it is a hard sale. However, once she lets go, once she welcomes the possibility of a living mythology (“Go with God” as one character says), she becomes philosophically malleable, Eve reborn. The rigidity of her intellectual fortitude is frustrating for the reader. She hears of these events, which include her father and his fascination with the butterflies, and dreams of long, erudite titles to papers she wishes to write. Up until her conversion, she assumes her value as a purely intellectual one. She is a “new woman”, one who does not need the encumbrance of a family or husband to uncover her worth. However, her religious conversion lends her a renewed motivation and a fresh perspective. This perspective does not require her to compose long, yawn-inspiring lectures on Abelard, for her life’s ambition does not lie in resurrecting dead philosophers. Rather, Damaris can nourish her intellect while satisfying her emotional needs. It is each character’s discovery of God’s existence which changes the entire tone of the novel. Such examples are included in chapter nine:

It was true then – the earth, the world, pleasant or unpleasant, unaccustomed joys, habitual troubles, was the world no longer. They, this room in which they say, the people he knew, were all under the point of passing under and new and overwhelming dominion; change was threatening them. He thought of Tighe on his knees before his butterflies; he thought of Foster crouched back like a wild animal, and Dora Wilmot’s arm twisting like a serpent under his foot; and beyond them he saw in a cloud of rushing darkness the forms of terror that ruled this new creation – the lion, the soaring butterfly, the shaking ripples of the earth that were themselves the serpent. They grew before his blinded eyes moving to a kind of super-natural measure, dancing in space, intertwining on their unknown passages.

This novel truly is a literary triumph. Williams incorporates the “looking at versus looking along” perspective his soon-to-be-friend C.S. Lewis later discusses. He indeed illustrates that intellectual and emotional aspects can reconcile and successfully co-exist. The characters do NOT relinquish their intellect upon conversion, rather they revise former theories while warming to the larger, true mythology. In this way, it does not follow the conversion motif that many religious works still utilize today, which portrays the moment of decision accompanied by blinding light and birds flying through the air with a weepy crescendo of music. It is a slow and more realistic process, filled with challenges and anticlimactic moments. Despite all of the strange events that occur, the characters are not completely swept away; rather they weigh the incidents heavily against former philosophies. I would not call it “intellectual assent” as this often connotes a surrendering of the intellect. Essentially, they mature into a deeper understanding, an understanding that even their towering intellects alone cannot fully provide.

The Gender Dynamic

In recent years, some of the Inklings have come under great scrutiny due to their supposed “misogynistic” and “reactionary” views of women. Some may, on first reading this novel, argue that Damaris chooses to ignore her ambition and intellectual achievements to partner with Anthony. However, a deeper reading reveals that Damaris actually expands her worldview when she removes the emotional barriers she erected to focus exclusively on academic endeavors. In a way, she considers herself smarter and better than most women who “give in” to the cultural expectations of marrying and bearing children. However, Williams shows us that Damaris is not unsatisfied because she lacks what society claims she needs (a husband and children), but rather suffers when her pride prevents her from making meaningful connections with others. 

Earlier in the novel, Damaris exhibits a strong resistance to extending any emotions toward Anthony. She enjoys rebuffing Anthony’s affections and clearly does not desire a conventional relationship because she detests the possibility of relegating herself to “a simple wife.” She aspires to be a great scholar, one who gives lectures and publishes frequently in The Two Camps. For Damaris, the roles of wife and intellectual cannot peacefully co-exist. After her conversion, Damaris develops a deeper understanding of her new identity, one that disposes of the arrogance, condescension, and pretension of her former attitude. Emotionally, she becomes vulnerable and eventually dismantles her resistance.

Perhaps the strongest evidence against the indictment of sexism is found when Damaris asks Anthony if she should give up her studies of Abelard. Anthony responds, “Darling, how can intelligence be wrong…I should think that you knew more about [Abelard] than anyone else in the world, and it’s a perfectly sound idea to make a beautiful thing of what you know. So long as you don’t neglect me in order to do it.” Notice that Anthony does not relegate Damaris and her intelligence. Rather, he simply asks that she achieve balance between her head (her studies) and her heart (her relationship with Anthony).

{I find this last portion particularly poignant. When I was a graduate student, I realized that I was neglecting my husband and the whole tone of the house began to suffer. I could not successfully achieve balance. Thankfully, our marriage survived the dissertation process, but unfortunately many do not. In fact, one of my professors admitted that he and his wife divorced after sixteen years of marriage while he was pursuing his doctorate. It reiterates the importance (for both the male and the female) of maintaining emotional priorities during scholarly pursuits. The significance of this exchange made me weep.}

At the end of The Place of the Lion, Damaris (the “new Eve”) feels safe beside Anthony after she “breathed all herself back.” She states that she’s “not cold” and doesn’t require a jacket (perhaps Williams’s way of illustrating her “warming” to a new role).

Charles Williams is one of the great literary giants of his time. It is a grand shame that he is not as familiar as his Inkling brethren. It is my hope that interest in Williams will blossom with the excellent blog posts provided on The Oddest Inkling and a burgeoning enthusiasm in work by other Inklings. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it. 

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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8 Responses to Guest Post 5 on “The Place of the Lion” by Crystal Hurd

  1. Alvin Kimel says:

    Are you aware the Part VI is not available to the rest of the world? I get a message saying that I do not have permission to access it.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If it is not out of order for a future contributor to comment on his predecessors and their reviews, perhaps Michaelmas is the appropriate time – for is it not also called ‘St. Michael and All Angels’? It not only delights and instructs but it is also heartening to read so many different insightful and thought-provoking observations on this novel from such varied hands. And when Crystal Hurd’s “first encounter with Charles Williams” leads her to conclude “Charles Williams is one of the great literary giants of his time” and hope “that interest in Williams will blossom with the excellent
    blog posts provided on The Oddest Inkling”, I can only say, it certainly has, in
    this case, with fine result indeed!


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you, David! Excellent thoughts. I am delighted to be bringing together lovers of Williams’s works — and making more fans, too, I hope.


  3. Ian Russell Lowell says:

    One of the striking things about Charles Williams’ writing is his strong female characters. I suspect that this comes from: (a) his working life being outside academia, and a very make-orientated and prejudiced academia of interwar Oxford; and (b) not being brought up in the same privileged background as much of the group he was to join, the Inklings, when the OUP moved to Oxford in WWII. Damaris, in this novel is a case in point. However, I feel I cannot quite agree about the quality of Williams writing. The dialogue is very unconvincing, and the characterisation is rather thin. If I was not interested in Williams as a writer and a theologian, I would not persevere with his novels. However, it is through his novels that Williams comes to present a depth if understanding, and this is certainly the case in Damaris, especially in her thoughts,mand indeed consequent actions, after her ‘conversion’. Two of these passages stand out.
    The first is at the breakfast table — “…she realised that, very surprisingly, she wasn’t worrying. Until that moment it had never seemed to her that she did worry very much; other things worried her, but that was different. It was not she who fretted; it was she who was fretted. It occurred to her suddenly that of all the follies of which she had been guilty, and they seemed to have been many and stupendous, none had ever been greater than that.” The passage then goes on to question her previous blind and insesnsitive ego-centricity.
    The second comes later that day when she acts selflessly in searching for Quentin — “Damaris realised that interpretations nearly always are wrong; interpretations in the nature of things being particularly personal and limited. The act was personal but infinite, the reasoned meaning was personal and yet finite.”
    This is a very vivid interpretation of the Teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, for example in the Parable if the Sheep and the Goats, where the action of care and consideration far outweighs any understanding of why the care and consideration should be given.
    Obviously the plot and subplots of The Place of the Lion provide the context for these words, but they have a value outside this novel.
    I really wish that Williams had mastered earlier a style of writing novels that was more accessible to people. It is a barrier to his work being more widely known.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for these thoughts. I agree; his greatest writing strengths came out in his later poetry, not in his early poetry or in his novels. But I don’t think he should be judged primarily on dialogue and characterization; rather, he shows to his best advantage when he is describing psychological and spiritual conditions, states, and changes.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        An ‘unscientific’, anecdotal poll among readers might be interesting. How did they get acquainted with Williams? Which of his things led them to what others? I would guess his novels were a frequent starting – and going-on – place, whether by direct encounter, word-of-mouth, or running into Lewis’s enthusiasm for The Place of the Lion. But, who knows?


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