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 However, I do plan to include unpublished works as far as I have access to them, and to give each of his plays an individual post.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
In 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I spent time at the Marion E. Wade center at Wheaton College, IL, transcribing the text of The Chapel of the Thorn, an unpublished play by Williams.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?
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?