Chapel of the Thorn selection

As you know, I am editing CW’s previously unpublished play, The Chapel of the Thorn, for publication by Apocryphile Press. To whet your appetite, here is the first 10% of the play. I encourage you to leave comments about the story, the characters, the poetry, the ideas, or anything else (as far as you can tell from this selection). I will mull over your thoughts as I write my introductory essay. Enjoy!

The Chapel of the Thorn:
A Dramatic Poem

by Charles Williams

edited by Sørina Higgins

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:
I come not to send peace but a sword. . .
a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
Matthew 10:34, 36

Dramatis Personae

The King Constantine
Theodoric: a lord
Innocent: Abbot of the Monastery of St. Cyprian
Prior John
Joachim: Priest of the Chapel of the Holy Thorn
Michael: acolyte at the Chapel
Amael: a singer and priest of Druhild
Gregory: the headman of the village
Men and Women of the village and township; Monks; Forest-men; Lords, Spearmen, and others of the King’s train.


imagesThe Chapel of the Holy Thorn is built between the high-road and the edge of a sea-cliff. To the southward this road descends to a fishing-village on the lower shore; to the northward it follows the curve of the coast as far as the capital city. In front of the Chapel two other paths also meet; one, from the north-west, comes directly through the hills from the capital; the other, from the south-west, connects the Chapel with the newly-built monastery of Saint Cyprian. In the open space at the meeting of these four roads the action of the poem takes place. The ground is steep and rough; beyond the Chapel, which is an old and small building, can be seen the edge of the cliff. The sound of the sea is continually heard. 

The first act passes in the late afternoon on the vigil of the feast of St. Cyprian; the second in the morning of the feast. The weather is dull and stormy. 

Act I

A woman and two men of the village are standing in front of the Chapel.

The First Man: Take heed, lest evil things be come abroad.

The Second Man: While yet the candles be alight, go pray.
For these, or a five-cornered shape of stones
Keep bad spirits far from men’s tombs.

The First Man: Go swiftly, ere the priest sing to an end,
If thou canst hope aught helpful from his god.

The Woman: My mother came, and I come.

The First Man: Well, good chance Be with thy prayers! 

The Second Man: May the white Christ-lord lay
Spells on the wood-witch till she heal thy son. 

The Woman: He had a mother.

She goes in to the Chapel.

The Second Man: Will her son live?

The First Man: No:
My mother’s father in such sickness died
On the ninth day. 

The Second Man: What, is it pestilence?

The First Man: No, for six nights of eight I slept with him,
Taking no harm, but when the plague was full,
It slew both Andreas and his chamber-maid
In a night and day-dawn: this is not the plague. . .
By token that I thought to buy the wench,
Later, if
she grew willing; fair, small-boned,
Clean-skinned, not much a talker, diligent.

The Second Man: They who work now about the convent hear
This sale betwixt ourselves of chamber-maids
Is frowned on, and shall soon be brought to end.

The First Man: What, must a man be bound in to his wife,
To wrangling lips, and hard, lean arms and hands?
Out on them!

The Second Man: Priests’ thought! they that have no wives
Know not what thing ’tis to keep house with one.
When comes your toll of labour round once more?

The First Man: Too soon, a seven-night hence. I have a mind
To sell my maid (lusty she is and young)
For a crown and that work done on my behoof.

The Second Man: Give also a mess at evening after work,
And we would talk of bargaining.

Gregory comes in from the town-road.

Gregory: Well-met,
Brothers: are ye bent town-ward?

The First Man: Aye; and thou?

Gregory: Hither I come to speak with Joachim,
For in the town is rumour that
this day,
Or morrow—on Saint Cyprian’s day—at last
Will the Lord Abbot seize by force the Thorn,
And set monks in this

The First Man: For the Thorn,
What care have we for that? but for this
It is the tomb of Druhild of the Trees.—

The Second Man: By the hight of Druhild, none shall wall it round.

The First Man: For this our fathers came to watch these priests,
This Joachim and his like, since Cyprian first
Built over the tomb an alter to his god. 

Gregory: Aye. Well, let be. To-morrow or to-night,
Joachim first to me, then I to you,
And ye to all our village-men give word.
They cannot build walls in a single sun. 

The two men go out: Michael comes down from the Chapel.

Hail, Michael!

Michael: Hail, Gregory! 

Gregory: Why, lad,
Where is thy
benedicite? be sure
Thou hadst it prompt enough upon thy tongue
When first thou hadst thy lesson. Hast forgot? 

Michael: No.

Gregory: Must I speak then—benedicite?

Michael: Benedicite! pax tecum Domini! 

Gregory: Where is the priest?

Michael: In the Chapel! where else, he? 

Gregory: How long in the Chapel shall he watch the Thorn? 

Michael: Till my lord Abbot take it. Well, good speed
Hasten the hands of my lord Abbot then!

Gregory: Art thou old Joachim’s acolyte, to speak
Thus? thou wilt yield the Thorn up, and not fight?

Michael: Fight! will the village-men dare fight the monks?
Joachim is too old, but I will fight!

I will fight—I will not fast and watch the Thorn.
For I am weary of these prayers and hymns
And mysteries of the holy bread and wine,
And spiritual visions to be seen
In due time, if I fast and watch the Thorn!

Gregory: Nay, how wilt thou in after-years endure
To keep this place when Joachim is dead,

If thereof thou be weary even now? 

Michael: I will not be a priest: better it were
To be a trapper, herdsman, fisherman,
Or else a shipman. Gregory, how oft-quoted
Hast thou gone over the sea to cities?

Gregory: Once.

Michael: Once! and this father Joachim not at all!—
Blessed saints! What have these old men done with life?

Gregory: Yea so? What matter have those lands to show?

Michael: What matter? what to show? All men and things!
Ports where a thousand ships may ride at ease,
And markets of sweet perfumes, images,
White stone and purple,— iron-caged animals,
Flat scaly fish as long as thirty spears,
Lions caught in the desert,— sun-stained palaces
Whose stairs are lit as if upon each wall
Innumerable altar-candles burned,—
Kings who have black men for their cup-bearers,
And yellow-featured slant-eyed slaves for guard,
And twisted crowns cut from a single jewel,
And swords graved thick with spells of warlocks
And broideries so rich—all men! all things! . . .
It is thy brother’s son himself whose tales
Are all about this shore, and even here

Were told when he brought offerings to the Thorn.
Hast thou heard nothing?

Gregory: Aye, aye: he is young.
Nevertheless, thou yet shalt be a priest
In spite of him or my lord Abbot.

Michael: Priest! . . .
What like were they who were the priests of old
Long ere the blessed Cyprian brought the Thorn

Over the sea and drove them out?

Gregory: He? Nay,
Those priests fled not for Cyprian or his Thorn
(Albeit it was about the white Christ’s brows
When he was slain):— naught but the king’s decree

And all the land being wrathful in the fear
Of famine, drove them hence. Nor thou shalt be
As the least among those strong-limbed boys
who stood—

Amael descends from the hill-path.

Amael: Hail, Gregory!

Gregory: Amael?

Amael: Hail, in the name of the gods!
Or even by now have ye forgot the gods?

Gregory: Why hast thou come hither? there be still
Edicts put forth against all singers, bards,

Minstrels, and priests of ancient things. Get hence.

Amael: The ships of Gorlias wait yet seven days
Ere they and I go south; in which space I,
Last singer and high-priest of this land’s gods,
Walk through the land once more;
for I have dwelled
Amid the Western peoples till your king

Came with the Cross-banner, and all his host,—
And on a day their last bedizened chief
Stood up beyond his city, in the hills,
When all his house and bards were slain, and he
Even while his sword swung over Constantine. 

Gregory: Are then thy gods so utterly cast down?
It is no long time since those Western lords
Held Constantine to tribute.

Amael: Nay, the gods
Change not until the worlds b
e wrecked, but now
Are angry with their servants.

Gregory: If it be,
Linger a little, secretly, hard by,
And thou shalt yet perchance behold a thing
To make a last song—yea, perchance thyself
Shalt do a work that other bards may sing.

Amael: What wilt thou do? wilt thou burn up the Thorn?
If still that sign of the white Christ be kept
As ere the bards w
ere driven forth.

Gregory: ‘Tis here.
I go to warn the dwellers by the shore
That my lord Abbot (he that drave thee forth)
Gathers the king’s men: needs we all must fight
Who were content to watch and wait, till now
This Abbot needs must seize and build a wall
(Being jealous of the old man Joachim)

About this plot, till none shall more go in,
Or point, saying ‘So, the tomb of Druhild!’— 

Amael: Gods!
Avenge yourselves!

Michael: And therefore will ye fight . . .
But Joachim deems you zealous for God’s Thorn!

Gregory: Ah, boy, the heroes of this land are dead
Unto King Constantine, their names forgot,
Save if a man dare speak th
em he is slain . . .
But we are from
their land, their race, their kind:
Let Joachim keep his Thorn, and let the monks
Plead, plot, or fight to gain it from him. We
Fight for the tomb of Druhild of the Trees.

Amael: Ye do well. Let the people, the poor folk,
Bow down their heads indeed, before the Cross,
But in their hearts remember as they will.
Keeps Joachim still the wardship of the Thorn?

Gregory: Aye, with young Michael here for acolyte.

Amael: Grows he not old?

Gregory: Aye, 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.

Amael: Do his eyes grow more dim that theirs are shut,
Or his limbs weaken because theirs are still?

Gregory: Nay, yet their hands pluck at him from their grave. 

Amael: How many years have passed since they two died?

Gregory: Seven.

Amael: Seven, by a sign. There fell
Since then each year a trial upon the land,
For first there blew the pestilence, and then|
Famine—albeit there were but few to feed—
And the third year the king went forth to war,
And warred three years more; and for twelve months since
Hath built a co
nvent for his thanks to God.

Michael: That is the white Christ . . . who hath given him power.

Amael: This man hath served your white Christ long enough.

. . .

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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4 Responses to Chapel of the Thorn selection

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! It is good to be rereading this again, right through, after so many years! Not to mention tantalizing to screech to a halt…

    Going back to our discussions in the comments at your 6 November post, brooding over the ‘chronological’ details, here, about the king’s years of warring and building, have me wondering again whether this Constantine “with the Cross-banner” is indeed meant to be Constantine the Great, or ‘merely’ someone else of that name – though perhaps with a play with the ‘resonance’ of that being that Emperor’s name. I need to dig into the biographical chronology of the Emperor Constantine, some more…

    Similarly, I am brooding on “St. Cyprian” to an extent I do not recall ever having done before! Is this any of the known St. Cyprians? What, if any, ” blessed Cyprian brought the Thorn / Over the sea and drove them out” – the pagan priests – and “Built over the tomb an alter to his god” – the tomb of their (euhemeristic?) divinity. (Or did not himself drive them out, according to Gregory.) Missionaries with relics, and the supplanting of pagan sacred sites, are characteristic of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, but are any of the saints named Cyprian associated with one of the Thorns from Christ’s Crown of Thorns or with such activity? Or is this another play with the ‘resonance’ of a well-known name. Again, I need to dig some more…


  2. Pingback: Why Didn’t Someone See it First? Discussing the Screwtape-Ransom Discovery | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I suppose this is the apt place to notice that a relic of a Thorn is in the news, one which “traditionally ‘bleeds’ each time that Good Friday falls on March 25,” the Feast of the Annunciation, and “has done so again this year”, which “occurrence has been recorded since 1633”:

    Uncle Charles Wall notes its existence, but not this occurrence:


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