The Chapel of the Thorn, 1912

Today is an important day on The Oddest Inkling! Today we enter the most important phase of this project: the posting of summaries of each of CW’s books, one book per week, in chronological order. These will be punctuated by related posts on themes, events, and people in his life as they relate to those books or to where we are on his timeline. Note that this process applies mainly to his full-length books; I will not be moving exhaustively through each and every poem, essay, preface, and review that he wrote. However, I do plan to include unpublished works as far as I have access to them, and to give each of his plays an individual post. So, here goes!

Book Summary #1: The Chapel of the Thorn, 1912

WadeFront-contIn June, 2012, I spent time at the Marion E. Wade center at Wheaton College, IL, transcribing the text of The Chapel of the Thorn, an unpublished play by Williams. You can read a personal account of my adventures here. My fellow researcher Brenton Dickieson has written a description of the Wade Center, which I recommend to you. What follows is an account of this manuscript and its contents.

Note that Williams wrote one earlier work, another play entitled Ministry at the end of 1902, but I do not even know if it is extant. Any information on this point is welcome.

The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem.

The MS from which I was working is dated, in Williams’s hand, 24 August 1912. It is contemporaneous with Williams’s earliest publication: The Silver Stair, a volume of poetry published with the support of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell by Herbert and Daniel. 1912 also may be the year that he started the Arthurian Commonplace Book: a notebook in which he recorded ideas related to the development of his great (unfinished) Grail myth. This is the period in which he was trying to find his poetic style, but many of his distinctive ideas were already there, at least in nascent form. This is before he got married, spent ten years in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, had a son, edited Hopkins’ poems, or met The Inklings—all experiences that honed and clarified his thoughts and (more dramatically) his style.

Very few people have read this play. He did show it to his office mate, Frederick Page, and Fred wrote notes on the MS. Williams took some of Page’s suggestions—just minor line edits, but it is nice to know that CW was not intractable when it came to suggestions for revision. It is fascinating to see their friendship, as they interacted on those pages. According to Alice Mary Hadfield, Williams sent the play to one John Pellow on 10 May 1924. At some point, Williams sent the MS to Margaret Douglas. Douglas mailed it to Raymond Hunt, a friend and student of Williams’s who wanted to act as a kind of Boswell or Walter Hooper to him. Hunt received it on 1 April 1942. Then in 1973, Hunt donated it to the Wade.

I was surprisingly moved by handling the actual MS. Until the last hour of the week, I was working from a research photocopy. Then at 3:00 pm on Friday afternoon, I was handed the actual notebook. It is a small bound blank book, about 6”x8”x1”. The binding has mostly come off so that the stitching is visible. Several of the sections are loose and falling out. There is no cover. Williams wrote in a thin, Edwardian script only on the right-hand pages, and Fred Page wrote on a few of the left-hand, er, pages.

What’s the play about? 

CrownOfThornsBedfordMuseum

The Chapel of the Thorn is set in Britain in an unspecified period that feels like the liminal historical space after the withdrawal of Rome—i.e., in the 500s, right around the same time as the setting of Williams’s later (highly anachronistic) Arthurian poetry. The main plot takes place just outside the Chapel where the Crown of Thorns is kept. Several people are vying for control of this very precious Christian relic: the priest who keeps it, the Abbot, and King Constantine. Some want to leave it where it is, some to build a wall around it, some to move it to a nearby abbey for safe-keeping.

This conflict is further complicated by the local pagans who also venerate this spot—attending Christian services and participating in all Catholic rites—because their heroic semi-divine figure, Druhild of the Trees, is buried right under the Chapel. These pagans first express a willingness to fight against Abbot and King to preserve the Chapel in its place; later, they withdraw their support. Not much happens by way of exterior action, as is common with Williams. The drama is nearly all spiritual, as characters find their true natures revealed through their responses to the Thorn and the dispute. This is consistent with his use of other sacred or powerful objects in his later fiction and poetry: in his published works, the Grail, a magical stone, the Platonic archetypes, a verse play, or a work of art serve as catalysts of spiritual revelation and change.

There is one dynamic character, however, who serves as a source of real drama in The Chapel of the Thorn. His name is Michael, and he is an acolyte at the Chapel. He finds himself torn between his priestly father-figure, Joachim, and a pagan priest-bard, Amael. Michael hates prayers and Christian rituals. In the end, he leaves the Church and goes off to travel as Amael’s harp-bearer, embracing paganism and poetry.

There several themes here that I was not surprised to find in an early Williams work. There are hints of his later doctrines of coinherence and exchange. One character says that the priest, Joachim,grows old “with a greater weight / Than all his days upon him, for he bears / The times of twain his brethren, they who died / In the great plague, last followers of his creed” (15). Their deaths were given in exchange for his life, and he bears the burden of this substitution. Notice that this is a more negative view of exchange than we find in his later works.

There is some exploration of concepts of sacred vs. secular: speculations whether there is a division or a unity between these two spheres of life. Similarly, there is the theme of church vs. state (secular vs. sacred power), whether a unity of these powers is necessary or dangerous.

Most strongly, Williams’s later doctrine of Romantic theology pervades these pages. The pagan villagers believe that they have been taught just such a doctrine by Joachim: they believe that every love, every lust, every desire is a way towards God. They have a practice of buying female slaves as concubines, and have somehow come to believe that this practice brings them closer to the divine. They are later chastised by the Abbot, but there is no narrative voice to take sides in this debate, or any other.

Some themes were a surprise to me. They all fall under what I can only call a startlingly strong sympathy for the non-Christian perspective. Several characters speak a kind of pluralistic relativism, and various forms of syncretism, relativism, and universalism permeate the text.

Indeed, the play ends with a stirring dual anthem: the priests chant Christian texts in Latin while Amael and the villagers sing a rousing ballad to Druhild. A woman gets the last word, praising the Virgin Mary for healing her son. The overwhelming sense of the ending is indeterminate. Pagan and Christian sing to their gods. The Christian song is high poetical Latin; the pagan song is a lively rhythmical ballad. The Christian song is indecipherable and unoriginal; the pagan song is folk poetry rather than high verse. Which one wins?

Nobody wins. Or everybody wins.

This leads me to wonder whether Williams, in 1912, was raising spiritual questions, facing doubts, pondering the truth of Christianity, and considering agnosticism/syncretism/relativism. In his one published work from this same time, The Silver Stair, the narrative persona is struggling to decide between the Via Affirmativa—the positive way, the Way of the Affirmation of Images—and the Via Negativa—the negative way, the Way of the Rejection of Images. In The Silver Stair, the affirmation or rejection relates to romantic, sexual love. He decides in favor of Affirmation. In 1917, Williams married Florence Conway. He nicknamed her “Michal.” They had one son, whom they named Michael.

Michael? That is the name of the young apostate in this play, written ten years before Michael Williams was born. Yet Charles Williams was still circulating this play two years after his son’s birth, in 1924, when he sent it to Pellow. The name was, then, still in his mind.

I have found no external evidence that Williams ever went through an experience of conversion to Christianity, as Lewis did, or serious commitment, as Tolkien did. Yet The Chapel of the Thorn suggests, more strongly than any other text of his that I have yet read, that he did go through a serious period of doubt that resolved itself more slowly and less dramatically than Lewis’s. This internal evidence of serious spiritual question would make The Chapel of the Thorn worth reading, even if nothing else did.

It is a slow drama, yet the poetry is beautiful, and I do think it could be performed if it were approached as a stylized masque. Music, dance, choreographed gestures, and a lofty sense of ritual could bring this psycho-spiritual drama to life.

Is anyone up for the challenge?

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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17 Responses to The Chapel of the Thorn, 1912

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Sørina,

    “One book per week” – yikes! More power to your elbow!

    ‘Ministry at the end of 1902’: Mrs. Hadfield discusses it, briefly, and identifies it as being in the Wade (Exploration, p. 8, note 18, p. 126, and p. 103, note 22, p. 242): I have not yet combed the online “Charles Williams Manuscripts/Held at the Marion E. Wade Center” for it.

    For interest’s sake, why have you chosen to start with C.W.’s second major work (so far as I know), rather than a full-fledged post on his first major work, that very impressive sonnet-sequence, The Silver Stair? Anne Ridler conveniently quotes from Michal Williams’s published 1953 account of his proffering it to her to read and give him her opinion if it, presumably in January 1909 (Image, p. xvii); Mrs. Hadfield draws upon his correspondence with Alice Meynell, noting his accepting her offer to read it on 25 June 1911 (Exploration, p. 19, note 13, p. 237) – which eventually led to its publication in November 1912.

    By the way, I do not know if you are contemplating, under posts on “people in his life as they relate to those books or to where we are on his timeline”, one on Alice and Wifrid Meynell, but it is worth noting, for anyone wanting to become further (re)acquainted with their work, that the English Wikipedia article has links to works by, and about, her available online. Internet Archive is ‘down’ at the time of writng this, and the only work by Wilfrid I can readily find online is his edition of Francis Thompson’s poetry at Project Gutenberg.

    At the risk of becoming boring, as one of the “very few people [known to] have read this play” (or dramatic poem), and until your edition appears, I would direct the reader interested in reading more about it, and substantial quotations from it, to my paper, “The Chapel of the Thorn: An unknown dramatic poem by Charles Williams” in the Inklings-Jahrbuch, volume 5 (1987), pp. 133-54 (including brief German notes on the discussion when it was read, p. 154), available in libraries scattered throughout the world, and also still available for purchase via the AsaphShop link at the Inklings-Gesellschaft website).

    You ask, “Which one wins?”, and suggest, “Nobody wins. Or everybody wins.” My suggestion was, Christ won on the Cross, kenotic in His victory, and “the Thorn is a Hallow because of this kenosis, and a witness to, and a memento of it, and a call to its imitation.” And for “professed Christians to fight each other over – or with – relics of the Passion is therefore heavy with a grim irony.” Further, that “the Chapel of the Thorn stands, significantly, over the tomb of Druhild. Druhild has not risen again. His tomb is not in that sense empty.” And does the reader or viewer expect his return, which the pagan characters wish and hope for?

    By the way, my ‘take’ was that Constantine was meant to represent the Emperor Constantine the Great, who was declared Emperor by the legions at York, and who could, after the victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312 might be imagined uttering what I take to be a farcically ironical brag, “I shall be boasted over all old kings / Because I have set Christ above all gods” (102).

    You ask, “Is anyone up for the challenge?” When you edition is in their hands, who knows? – here’s hoping! It would be fascinating!

    Finally, Mrs. Hadfield refers to C.W. attempting to reivise the Chapel before sending it to John Pellow on 10 May 1924, and notes Pellow sent her “eight pages of extracts he had made”which were still in her possession in 1983 (Exploration, p. 39, note 10, p. 238). I have not yet tried to comb the new online Williams Society Archives catalogue in an attempt to see if these are among the papers she gave them.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      “Ministry at the end of 1902” is not listed in the Wade’s catalog.

      I think that I chose to start with “Chapel” rather than “The Silver Stair” because (1) it feels like a more youthful work; its style is less well-developed; (2) We — or at least I — do not know how long he worked on “Chapel,” so he may have started it sooner; (3) I already had my notes for it typed up!

      Yes, I’ll be doing a post about the Meynells. See here: http://islandsofjoy.blogspot.com/2012/11/an-early-cw-influence-alice-meynell.html.

      Yes, Christ wins in salvation history, but I do not believe that His victory is dramatized at the end of “Chapel”

      I’ve been wondering whether this Constantine was that Constantine; I think your comment clinches it for me!

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  2. Thank you for doing this series. I look forward to each installment.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ‘ “Ministry at the end of 1902″ is not listed in the Wade’s catalog.’ Curious! Mrs. Hadfield seems to have read it, had not (so far as I can see from a quick rereading) mentioned it in her 1959 Introduction, and gives the Wade as its location. Might it not be catalogued, yet? Or subsumed under something else? Perhaps there is something among her papers given to the Williams Society which will shed light on this.

    The Chapel MS. of 24 August 1912 might be a fair copy, but is there any evidence to place any antecedent drafts earlier than The Silver Stair sequence? The stylistic differences might reflect turning from lyric poetry (no matter how well-built the sequence is as sequence) to attempt one long “Dramatic Poem” (as the MS. subtitle calls it). But more light on the composition-histories of both would be very welcome! (I cannot recall having encountered any, but that need not be saying much.)

    I would agree that Christ’s victory is not dramatized at the end, as, for example, in the much later “Mount Badon” where it would seem, in imagery echoing Revelation 1:14, His hair “drew the battle through the air up threads of light.” But I think a case could be made for its intention as a sort of touchstone for the actions of all the characters. In my paper, however, I said, “even more than in Shadows of Ecstasy, it does not seem immediately obvious where Williams’s own sympathies chiefly lie” while going on to make a case for thinking they are in fact with Innocent. (Is it too far-fetched to think, if it was The Chapel which C.W. was attempting to rewrite c. 10 May 1924, that it may form a distinctive element in the background of the novel he was to begin some 14 months later?)

    If the Constantine of The Chapel is the Emperor Constantine the Great, that would make for one historical character, and an approximate date (between 312 and 337) – unless C.W. was engaging in the kind of play with anachronism he would be contemplating for his Grail epic before long in his Commonplace Book. I wonder, in this context, if the abbot Innocent is meant to be connected with, or even to be, the future Pope Innocent I, about whom the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia article relates “very little is known concerning the life of this energetic pope”, including his date of birth, before ” his elevation to the Chair of Peter” , but that “his father was called Innocentius”.

    Thnak you for the link to the very interesting paper on the Meynells, especially Alice! It is somehow astonishing to think that though Wilfrid was nearly 34 years C.W.’s senior, he survived him by more than three years. The Internet Archive does have a number of his works, I now see.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “The Christian song is high poetical Latin”and “indecipherable and unoriginal”. Most of the Christian characters are presumably Latinists of some sort or another. When Michael says, “I am weary of these prayers and hymns” (MS. p. 9) he almost certainly means Latin ones. Actual Latin in Williams’s poetry is infrequent, but often striking and significant. But the two main examples of Latin “song” that spring to mind are here and in “The Son of Lancelot”. I cannot immediately remember what commentators have said about the second of these. And I have not worked on “Regis et pontificis”, here. I can believe “high poetical Latin” aptly describes it, but in what senses is it “unoriginal” and “indecipherable”?

    And I cannot recall anyone having surveyed Latin in Williams in one article or section of a book. Has anyone, yet?

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      I wouldn’t think the villagers knew Latin.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A good question – or range of questions! Are they imagined as so far off the beaten track that centuries of Roman occupation would not have brought them to some form of spoken Latin? But, if not, what gap might there be between that and ‘Church Latin’ – how hard might services, or such a song, be to follow?

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  5. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Sorina– Thank you for your summary–and I gather from Dodds’ notes you are planning an edition. I look forward to it. (Your energy is amazing.)

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you, Joe! Yes, I’m planning an edition with Apocryphile. I hope it will be out next year sometime, d.v. I appreciate your encouragement.

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