Charles Williams Book Summary #14:
Heroes and Kings (1930)
Part 2: Sexism & Eroticism
Yesterday I posted about racism in Heroes and Kings. Let’s move on to the next problem, without solving that one. I am even more disturbed by the totally inappropriate, even flat-out immoral, sexual content and gender prejudice in this book than I am by the mild racism. The sexist content ranges from mere teasing of his wife (“To Michael: On Her Hearing Mice”), through naïve idealization of legendary women, to a poem in praise of Phyllis Jones’s perfect, the buying and selling of women, a strip-show involving drawing art all over the lady’s naked body, a weird sexual composite idealized body, and a full-scale S&M scene of bondage and abuse.
I am going to write now only about the three most flagrantly bizarre instances of sexually inappropriate content.
1. “Percivale’s Song to Blanchefleur”
This poem makes me infinitely thankful that CW continued to evolve his anatomical geography. If he had stopped here, what a disaster that would have been. For in this poem, Blanchfleur’s body is a microcosm for King Arthur’s court—which means that each of her body parts is one of the other people in the story!
Fingers = the knights Lamoracke, Bedivere, Kay, Mador, Agravaine, Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, Persant, and Dinadane.
Palms of the hands = the Bishops of Winchester and Canterbury
Arms = King Bagdemagus, King Pellinore, King Lot, and King Ban
Breasts = Queen Guinevere (the right breast) and Queen Morgause (the left breast)
“lo, beneath” = “the Mystery of Helayne.” And there, in her loins, the poem lingers for 13 lines, including such breathless ecstasy as
This is the destined and thrice holy place
where is the Action and the last embrace,
this is the Mother of the Achievement, here
the Symbol that is fashioned everywhere
is passionate, mortal, and familiar…
That’s so awful that it would be hilarious. if it were parody. But let’s continue.
Thighs = Sir Bors and Sir Percivale
Forehead = Lancelot
Eyes = Merlin
Mouth = Taliessin
Crown of the Head = Arthur
Throat = Camelot
Back = the Law
Heart = Galahad
Feet = Tristram and Palomides
Toes = ten more lesser knights
You can see how the idea—of the beloved woman as a microcosm for the beloved kingdom—is good in the abstract, perhaps, but seriously breaks down when applied literally. Using countries of the Empire for her body parts later on was bad enough; but this is downright creepy.
2. “Tristram’s Song to Iseult”
Here again, CW presents an idea that is a beautiful poetic conceit, but unsettling when considered as if it were literal. In this poem, the lovers Tristram (or Tristan) and Iseult (or Isolde) flee from her husband into the woods. There, she strips naked (he says, “Uncover ceremonially”) and he draws pictures and writes words all over her body.
At the end, it turns out that he was decking her for her husband (“Call now on Mark, and bid him come and see / the woven piece that I have wrought for thee!”). Then she washes it all off in the stream, to “put on that clearness thou art native to.”
It is a gorgeous poem. Its meter and music far surpass many of his early works, and its images are lush and lavish. Listen to how beautiful these lines are:
thou, now shalt thou my precious vellum be.
Wear my new song, O thou my song enclosed,
for mine, its maker’s glory, till the day
redden the rose-rhymes thou hast still outrosed.
Sink on this boar’s skin, and on either side
let the supporting arms and pedestalled hands
be as a living frame, where, rayed and eyed,
the soft-chased vessel of thy spirit stands.
In fact, the poem is like a traditional blason—a poem that praises the beauty of the beloved’s body, part by part, often starting with the head and moving downwards (the Blanchefleur poem above follows that traditional pattern to some extent, too):
Round calves and ankles draws a golden chain,
around the very parts it glorifies!
Now, for the culmination of the strain,
turn to obscurity those happy eyes:
to arms and shoulders stanzas we allot;
the mid spine hath the penultimate; the knot
and envoy at the very bottom lies.
There the proud syllables, marvellous and slow,
utter themselves, never in prouder guise,
and all my manuscript is ended so….
That is beautiful poetry. It is quite skillful poetry. In it, I see the promise of what CW would finally achieve in his great final works.
So what’s wrong with it? In part 3 of this analysis of Heroes and Kings, I will write about my concerns with this poem. For now, moving on…
3. “Lamorack’s Song to Morgause”
This is the freakiest poem in the collection—perhaps in CW’s whole oeuvre. It is straight-up S&M master-slave sexual role play. In it, the knight Lamoracke has
the queen my mistress in our play.
Though she contended, with white hands,
I have driven her courage into flight
and made her body fast with bands,
tying her naked to a table until she begs to be released. He calls her “my vassal,” “a victim,” and “helpless.” The woodcut illustration accompanying this poem is alarming:
He sings a song. He praises her beauty, then retells her all her story: how Balin destroyed the kingdom by his Dolorous Stroke, how Lamoracke himself sought her love, and then how Morgause herself came to her brother Arthur (unknown to either of them, in this retelling) by night and committed incest from him, and how their bastard child Mordred is now making war against Arthur and the Table Round. At the conclusion of his song, Lamoracke promises that he will be her friend and ally in all things: that he will be her true knight. Then he unties her, and she embraces him. He cries:
I will set my spear at thy foeman’s face,
I will ride and cry, as the kingdoms end,
“I am Lamoracke and her friend,
Lamoracke, Lamoracke, in her cause,
the queen of Orkney, the queen Morgause!”
Thus CW simultaneously enacts and overturns S&M conventions. He makes the man her servant, instead of making the woman the slave. He has the master-figure sing a song to heal her, rather than performing sexual acts to hurt her. So that’s good, isn’t it?
Hermetic & Heretical?
The final category of concern relates to the strange spiritual ideas put forward in this collection. However, I want to tread carefully here. I cannot accuse CW of holding a certain doctrine merely because it is explored in his poetry. I have written before how in his early works, notably The Chapel of the Thorn, he seems to have been trying on a variety of beliefs to see what it was like to walk in them for a while. And of course, my theological analysis of a writer has nothing to do with his or her literary value! But since CW set himself up as a Christian teacher and mentor to many disciples, it might be worthwhile to examine this aspect of Heroes and Kings. Also, this book was published just a few years after CW left the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, so it might shed some light on why he left. Did he leave because he discovered that the FRC was contrary to Christianity? Or because it only taught the basic doctrines of Christianity and nothing more? Or, on the other hand, did he leave because it was not magical enough for him? Did he want to be free to pursue occult practices that even A. E. Waite frowned upon? I do not know. But let’s look at some of these ideas.
In “To Michal: On Her Hearing Mice,” the narrator claims that Michal has been reincarnated several times, and also says that some “visionary mind” sat “on a silent Babylonian roof” and “designed” “the earliest myth of Genesis.”
“Lilith” is the most fascinating poem, and the most difficult to construe. It builds upon the myth of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, but makes her Lucifer’s mother. I have not found whether any sources claim Lilith as the devil’s mother, although many myths make her the wife of Samael and the mother of demons. Anyway, this poem, “Lilith,” is a beautiful and complex narrative-within-a-narrative that I will not explicate in detail here. It tells of the meeting of Balkis, the queen of Sheba, and King Solomon. Like in the novel Williams was soon to publish, Many Dimensions, Solomon has a ring set with a powerful stone on which the letters of the name of God appear. Solomon tells Balkis a creation myth, that incorporates elements of Plato’s Symposium (that humans were originally androgynous), Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kabbalistic legend, and elements that seem to come from William Blake. It is a highly hermetic account of original unity broken into schism by a “fallen Demiurgis,” and it involves “goblins, dreams, miasmas, incubi, / fables, illusions, phantasm!” It follow the Via Negativa in calling God “the Unnameable.” And it follows CW’s own Romantic Theology in seeing God’s “Shekinah” glory in a beautiful woman.
None of this is necessarily heretical. I am just pointing out the hermetic elements.
And I think that’s enough for today. Come back tomorrow for a discussion of my concerns with this book and the problems of biographical criticism.