This is the sixth 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 Hannah Eagleson.
Hannah Eagleson has a PhD in Renaissance literature from the University of Delaware, where she wrote her dissertation on John Donne and George Herbert. She is currently writing study guides on Tolkien, Lewis, and Sayers for an Inklings curriculum to be released by Classical Academic Press. Hannah is also working on a children’s novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights and took up tea importing in 18th century London. In between, she enjoys writing poetry about everything from Petrarchan arguments to the dog who lives next door.
Response to The Place of the Lion
A huge proportion of my reading life has been filled with the Inklings, so it’s strange that I’d never read any Charles Williams before Sørina asked if I wanted to read The Place of the Lion. On my first direct encounter with one of Williams’s novels, I find his work compelling, exciting, arrestingly strange, passionately mystical, and surprisingly good at everyday scenes. In trying to describe it to people, I find myself saying things like “Imagine A Wrinkle in Time rewritten by C. S. Lewis, and you might get something close to it.”
But Williams really does defy comparison. The Place of the Lion is filled with erudite references, but it is very much its own. I never understood what people meant before when they called Williams’s novels “spiritual thrillers,” but it’s a very precise description of The Place of the Lion. The novel introduces a thrilling adventure with incredibly high stakes – potentially the end of the world as we know it – and all the action centers around spiritual choices. The characters are regularly plunged (or caught up?) into the world of Angels and Platonic Ideas, and the choices they make in that world have drastic effects on the world that contains kind country doctors and mildly unpleasant social situations and impatient academics writing up their dissertations.
What makes the story thrilling, to me at least, is this combination of intense peril and passionate engagement with the intellectual and spiritual world. Every decision in the novel matters: how Damaris thinks about Plato is a pressing question, just as pressing as whether Quentin will run from supernatural terrors or face them. Part of the thrill lies in the way Williams associates those decisions with spiritual perils that are becoming part of the visible world: they matter because the world may come undone at any moment. But another part lies in the way that Williams portrays intellectual questions as alive and passionate in a way beyond the question of peril. The supernatural is perilous because it is powerful, and Williams made me feel that power and the passion associated with it.
The novel is passionate about the mystical and the intellectual, and yet the everyday matters just as intensely as understandings of Plato. Kindness and friendship have vast power in the spiritual world. Anthony and Damaris realize that doing what they can for their friend Quentin is urgent and central, even though the world may be literally coming apart around them. The kindness of the old couple at the Wesleyan communion service is a great good; they may not understand the relationship between Platonic Ideals and the angelic world in the same way that Richardson does, but their charity does him good. As buildings are collapsing under the pressure of spiritual powers far beyond them, a shed where two boys loved to play is spared by the care with which they have inhabited it.
I’m surmising that the reason Williams can fuse the mystical and the mundane in this way is his sacramentalism. When Anthony and Richardson talk about what each of them must do, they recognize that Anthony is a sacramentalist. Anthony sees the world as an arena in which the spiritual drama plays out, and an important one. It is through life in the world, through small acts of friendship or familial love or human romance, that great spiritual battles are won, as it is through the taking of bread and wine that God’s grace is received.
I find this combination very compelling, the novel’s weaving in and out of everyday human charity and passionate engagement with a mysterious spiritual world. There remains a great deal that I don’t understand about the world as Williams imagines it, but I expect I will be exploring it again.
Having stuck my oar in once already, I will now thank Hannah Eagleson for her fine response, as well! I hope the experience will encourage her to return to the world of this novel, but also to range about widely in his work, not least, given her own scholarly attention to Donne and Herbert. She might, for example, find his two books about poetry especially interesting.
When I was working on Donne with Dame Helen Gardner, I could not resist asking her about Charles Williams. Among other things, she expressed her admiration for both his book about witchcraft and his biography of James I. But something she spoke especially warmly about, was his New Christian Year, which I understood her to say she read through again every year – which would also mean, every day! When he spoke self-deprecatingly about it as mere ‘scissors and paste’ work, she demurred, insisting to him how good it was. Tom Wills has placed it, and its analogous Lenten predecessor on the Passion of Christ (“Being the Gospel Narrative of the Passion with Short Passages Taken from the Saints and Doctors of the Church”), online, with the bonus of indexing all the authors drawn upon. It is conveniently linked from the Charles Williams Society homepage.
I think Hannah Eagleson is right about Williams’s sacramentalism. And when she says, “it is through the taking of bread and wine that God’s grace is received” she also implicitly touches upon his distinctly ‘Anglican’ sacramentalism. Having worked on Donne and Herbert, she might well have some very interesting things to say about that, when she knows more of Williams’s work.
Very well said. Thank you for this. I love “When I was working on Donne with Dame Helen Gardner” !! Not something many of us can say. 🙂
This post does a great job of showing the strange interdependence of spiritual and physical realities in Williams’ work. There are times when I understand his take on it and when I see evidence of it in my quotidian life. Then there are times when the doctrine he makes of it seems, well, doctrinaire and too much of a declaration of a pattern for something that seems to show up and not show up at its own will or the unpredictable bidding of a greater will. I love that he perceives it, sometimes though it lacks verisimilitude even to me, a believer in such things. Does anyone else feel this way?
Your observation, “Then there are times when the doctrine he makes of it seems, well, doctrinaire and too much of a declaration of a pattern for something that seems to show up and not show up at its own will or the unpredictable bidding of a greater will”, seems a very good one, and important to try to follow up. It reminds me a bit of Robert Conquest’s essay, “The Art of the Enemy”, though quite without his annoying doctrinaire cast of argument. (Stephen Medcalf had an interesting paper published by the Williams Society sifting Conquest’s essay, among others, though still not exactly covering the matter of your observation, if I recall correctly.)
The link between Williams and Madeleine L’Engle [perhaps Williams’s influence on ML’E] is clear — to me at least — but I think rewriting by CSL might take the L’Engle world, with its very real and individual children, further away from Williams. But that’s less important than the fact there is a link. Other points briefly occurring to me: is Jane Studdock a Williams character? the influence of TPL on Lewis’s view on animals and souls? the degree to which Narnia is the Place of the Lion? Btw, curious, is it not, the ML’E’s papers are at Wheaton — and that her birthday was Nov 29 — no?
A three-way comparison between Damaris Tighe and both Jane and Mark Studdock would reward discussion, as would a four-way comparison bringing in Lawrence Wentworth – even if someone has already done a good job of it in print (it seems likely, but no details come to mind).
For that matter, the different ‘Adamic’ features of The Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell are also intriguing – including the question of whether Berringer is to be compared with The Adam of the later poem, “The Vision of the Empire”.