While The Place of the Lion is an exciting story from a purely human point of view—with houses falling in, telephone lines down, and conversion to Christianity occurring after an attack by a pterodactyl—the spiritual side of the story is inextricable from these local events. Specifically, the “Angelicals” are essential to the action and the ideas. What are these “Angelicals,” and what is their association to classical concepts, to traditional Christian angels, and to similar beings in the works of the other Inklings? This is the subject matter David Llewellyn Dodds approaches in part, in his contribution to the series.
David Llewellyn Dodds is editor of the Charles Williams and John Masefield volumes in Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets series. While on his honeymoon, he delivered a paper concerned with Tolkien’s angels: “Technology and Sub-creation: Tolkien’s Alternative to the Dominant Worldview,” published in Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon, Turku, May 1992, ed. K.J. Battarbee Anglicana Turkuensia No. 12, 1993. He wrote the article on Williams as novelist for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 153. As Scholar Guest of Honor at Mythcon 32 he spoke about Williams in relation to the conference theme, Many Dimensions: Modern Supernatural Fiction.
Trying to Place the Apparent Oddness of Williams’s “Angelicals”
C. S. Lewis wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves, about The Place of the Lion: “Do get it, and don’t mind if you don’t understand everything the first time.” In the spirit of Lewis’s encouragement, let me note that I have quoted a lot from the novel, partly to give an idea of its flavor, and hope this gives no false impression and that the hefty dosage will not put off anyone in trying it for themselves. Rather, I hope this sampling encourages readers to experience the novel in full.
When C.S. Lewis first encountered Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion (1931), he wrote Greeves about it on 26 February 1936, and did so in terms of Platonic archetypes. But in the novel, Williams also speaks in terms of “Angelicals” and, indeed, Angels. Now, Angels turn up repeatedly in Lewis’s own work and that of his other friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien. For example, by 5 May 1919, long before he met Tolkien, Lewis told Greeves he had begun a poem featuring what he described as “‘the Dynasties’ or planets—the evil powers that hold the heaven, between us and something really friendly beyond.” And by the time he read Williams’s novel, Lewis had already become acquainted with the fictional angels of Tolkien’s myth-making: the Valar and Maiar. In his Legendarium, Tolkien imagined that these beings helped to make and look after the world. In commenting playfully, probably early in 1930, on Tolkien’s Lay of Leithian, a poem featuring his angels, Lewis imagines another old poem about a time when “Thought cast a shadow: brutes could speak: and men / Get children on a star.” In working on The Allegory of Love, he regularly thought about various ancient and mediaeval cosmologies,. Along the way, he encountered a book written in 1147 by Bernardus Sylvestris that mentioned the name “Oyarses”; Lewis would later use this title for some of the fictional angels in his “space-trilogy.”
At some point, Lewis and Tolkien decided to write their own space-travel and time-travel stories (Out of the Silent Planet and Tolkien’s unfinished novel The Lost Road were the results), but the exact time of this decision is tantalizingly uncertain. Tolkien wrote much later concerning the names of some other of Lewis’s “space-trilogy” angels and his own elves. He said he imagined that Eldil is an echo of the Eldar, but added that Lewis’s “own mythology (incipient and never fully realized) was quite different” from his, however much Lewis had been “impressed by ‘the Silmarillion and all that’.” Tolkien also felt that Lewis’s ‘mythology’ “was broken into bits before it became coherent by contact with C.S.Williams and his ‘Arthurian’ stuff”, with the result that That Hideous Strength “spoiled” the trilogy. However, Tolkien still thought that third ‘space’ novel was “good… in itself.” He does not make any explicit negative criticism of how Lewis uses planetary angels, there.
It is hard to imagine there were no fascinating conversations about angels among the Inklings between 1939 and 1945, when Williams was privy to the development of Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron, and Elbereth (not to mention a balrog) in The Lord of the Rings; the eldila of Perelandra and That Hideous Strength; and the fallen and unfallen angels of The Screwtape Letters—all characters who are in fact angels. Indeed, Williams was then working on what would prove to be his own last novel in the drafts of its abandoned early form, about the Devil trying to beget Antichrist. But if there were any such conversations, I can recall no recorded glimpses of them.
In any case, with The Place of the Lion, Williams was the first of the “Inklings” actually to publish a major imaginative work in which angels are a central feature. His was the oddest, too, because of the apparent lack of ‘personality’ of his “Angelicals.”
We might go further and add that, while all these Angelicals have the appearance of animals when encountered, they yet seem to exhibit less “personality” and “conscious interaction” than the fictional animals of Kipling or Jack London or even real animals from, say, accounts by Konrad Lorenz, Sterling North, or Joy Adamson. They contrast sharply in this respect with other ‘non-humans’ in Williams’s works, such as the Skeleton of Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936), the Flame of The House of the Octopus (1945), and even the elementals of The Greater Trumps (1932).
This matter of the personality of the Angelicals is explicitly (if not simply) addressed in The Place of the Lion itself: in Richardson’s translations from Berringer’s copy of “the De Angelis of Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna” (1514) and his remarks upon it. One remark is: “The idea seems to be that the energies of these orders can exist in separation from the intelligence which is in them in heaven.” This suggests that the great animals Anthony and others encounter are only emanations of energy from the angels, not the angels themselves.
Later, Richardson himself confronts an “Angelic energy”: “The subtle eyes gazed at him, without hostility, without friendship, remote and alien.” Marcellus and his Greek source from the 1100s, Alexander, certainly do seem “to confirm the idea that there was another view of angels from that ordinarily accepted”: angels, it seems, not unlike Tolkien’s, characterized by “the days of their creation within this earth.” But very unlike Tolkien’s, where their personality is concerned.
God’s good creation can be subject to abuse, its elements and phenomena (such as fire) function without pity, and you cannot count on wild animals to be friendly. And yet, do angels have detachable energies that “can exist in separation from the intelligence which is in them in heaven”? Do they have “spectres,” or an “appearance,” which can be subject to magical invocation, or even “power” which can be “arrogated to themselves for sinful purpose by violent men,” as Marcellus writes? Can wicked people somehow use angels for evil purposes – even if it is not exactly “those Celestials themselves” being used?
What about their unfallen intelligences, obedient wills, “proper operation,” and freely loving? (Williams pointedly quotes Raphael, “the affable Archangel,” in Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost where he says, “We freely love,” in a fascinating discussion of that poem in The English Poetic Mind, published in 1932, the year after this novel: “It – and it alone – is the complete and final answer to Satan’s spoken taunts and Adams’s perplexities; the following books are a kind of descant on it.”) Well, as the action proceeds, these angelic attributes do not seem always lacking. Those beautiful and terrible manifestations are also “serene,” perhaps in the same sense as Marcellus calls God “the Serene Majesty”.
The Eagle, “who knows both himself and the others and is their own knowledge,” faces Anthony Durrant, its eyes burning at him with a piercing gaze, engaging and enabling him. Indeed, having “accepted the challenge of the Eagle” , he is under the protection of that Angelical, described as “that Wisdom”: “the great Power… lived in him”, and he abandons himself to its “purpose.” Yet we are also told that it knew “the faint sounds of the lesser world…, but what to it were those sounds, however full of distress they might be?” The Eagle appears to ignore the sufferings of humans.
Then again, the “Divine Unicorn” moves “its head gently in the direction of each” person receiving the Bread of the Communion at a service and “some eidolon of itself, though it remained unchanged in the centre, went very swiftly to each.” Later this “Angel of their Return” frees people from fear, enabling them to work to rescue others who are trapped in collapsing houses.
The Lamb, “the Innocence,” while it frisked in the sunlight and “jumped and ran and rested and gave itself up to joy” and “took no notice… whatever” of Mr. Foster, who is described as a “possessed being” and who stalks his victims very like a lion, yet in fact kept him at bay, protecting Damaris Tighe and Quentin Sabot. And Williams has earlier said, the Lamb “everlastingly formed and maintained” the sheep which “alone in their field seemed to know nothing of the Angels of that other world.”
Anthony perceives more about this creating and sustaining of the mutable world, seeing the blazing Phoenix “momently consumed, momently reborn,” “and as it sank all those other Virtues went with it, themselves still, yet changed”: “All of them rose in the Phoenix” and “the interfused Virtues made a pattern of worlds and stayed, and all the worlds lived and brought forth living creatures to cry out one moment for joy and then be swallowed in the Return.”
“Ephemera of eternity”: Anthony sees that they include Quentin and Damaris. But he also sees a “white light substituting itself” for the red glow of the blazing Phoenix, “in the midst of which there grew the form of the Lamb.” Not long after this, he has a further vision that seems to correspond with the Fourth, and perhaps also the Fifth, Day of Creation: “Among the forests he saw a great glade, and in the glade wandered a solitary lamb. It was alone—for a moment or for many years.”
When he is operative in the conversion of Damaris Tighe, Anthony is described as “Merciless and merciful,” “pitiful and unpitying.” Perhaps the Angelicals (even when not exhibiting “personality,” “conscious interaction,” intelligence, and love) are in fact serenely, patiently so, as well – merciful and pitiful, despite any appearances to the contrary, and relentlessly so. As Anthony confidently asks, before “the interposition of the Mercy veiled the destroying energies from the weakness of men”: “Won’t He have mercy on all that He’s made?”
Brooding on hints about the Days of Creation and Orders of Angels, I wonder if Williams is subtly stressing an ascending order of both. And that we – people in the story, readers, and author – must correspondingly change and grow spiritually before we can see things, including Angelicals, as they are. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” as St. Paul says. Indeed, you can fruitfully read 1 Corinthians chapter 13, and Psalms 8 and 91 through, in comparison with the novel, and vice versa. And yet…
After Lewis first read The Place of the Lion, he wrote: “It is not only a most exciting fantasy, but a deeply religious and (unobtrusively) a profoundly learned book.” If one agrees with this description, ought one not to remain nonetheless disappointed with, and disturbed by, the odd lack of evident loving intelligence exhibited by the Angelicals, and in some instances by Anthony, and so by their author, Charles Williams?
David Llewellyn Dodds