Racism, Sexism, and Heresy: oh my!

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.

Lynton Lamb's map1. “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. write love

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.

Or these:

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…

Sir Lamorak

Sir Lamorak

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

bound to-day
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:

MorgauseAnd yet, what does Lamoracke do to her once he has her tied up?

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.YHWH 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.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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3 Responses to Racism, Sexism, and Heresy: oh my!

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is probably always worth looking at an Arthurian volume – or selection of poems – by Williams as both a collection of parts of a larger, though unfinished, whole, and as, at least possibly, an ordered entity in its own right.

    So, I suggest at least entertaining, with this first selection, a sort of eighteen-leaf booklet within the book, of which it constitutes an eleventh (!) more than half.

    It mostly varies between songs “to” (3) and song “of” (3) someone, ending with the exception, a song “of” something by the one doing it. It begins with a pair of songs “to” and “of” Iseult, by successful (Tristram) and unsuccessful (Palomides) adulterous lovers respectively. It follows with a pair of songs “to” adulterous lover and beloved virginal “sister in sanctity” respectively by two very different brothers, Lamoracke and Percivale. There follow a pair of songs “of”: the second, “Taliessin’s Song”, but including a third-person description of him in the first two lines; but the first of the two simply “A Song”, though with a varied three-line third-person refrain about Taliessin ending each eight-line stanza, conceivably by Taliessin, but later revised into a “Colophon” by a monastic copyist in AD 1000. The lone last song is sung by Galahad of himself and of his riding “to King Pelles’ hold”, during that very riding.

    The last three are clearly in chronological order, and they may all be (if Percivale’s is knowledgeably prophetic of possible future events).

    I wonder if another ordering is Kabbalistic, working and playing with the Sephirotic Tree and Man? There is an undeveloped ‘left-right-middle’ attention in Tristram’s song which, in Perivale’s, is (as you suggest, creepily) elaborated at once jokily and (on some level, or levels) meticulously seriously. Thus, the ‘left pillar’ (so to call it) includes both Morgause and her sons – notably Gawaine, while the ‘right pillar’ includes both Guinevere and Lancelot’s younger half-brother Sir Ector de Maris and his cousin Sir Lionel, as well as Percivale himself and (more surprisingly) his brother Lamoracke, too (and, notably, Palomides, as well). The ‘middle pillar’ includes Lancelot, Helayne, and their son, Galahad – as well as Taliessin. All topped “in the shining topmost of the hair” by “the crown which is the King” – an allusion to the Sephirot Keter, if I am not mistaken.

    Would it be too much to see this ‘middle pillar’ further reflected in the last two poems – Taliessin’s song followed by Galahad’s? Or even, the last three, with “A Song of Palomides”, as it were, taking him up from the second song, now seen to prepare for this, and moving him into the middle when he, “having tamed the Blatant Beast, comes to his christening” , “in whom was the high prince recognized […] and the Saracen prince in Galahad”?

    If Palomides moves from disordered to ordered love, Tristram and Lamoracke’s (and Iseult and Morgause’s) loves remain disordered, and the ‘kinkiness’ could be seen to portray this – yet that does not seem a sufficient account, and there is also the creepiness of what is presumably intended to be the near-highest-ordered love of Percivale. And how is the adulterous love of Lancelot treated, throughout?


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Ouch! The singular is, of course, Sephirah, not Sephirot: I must have been dozier than I realized.


  3. Pingback: Problems with “Heroes and Kings” | The Oddest Inkling

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