Problems with “Heroes and Kings”

Charles Williams Book Summary #14:
Heroes and Kings (1930)

Part 2: Sexism & Eroticism

On Wednesday I posted about racism in Heroes and Kings; yesterday I posted about Racism, Sexism, and Heresy

At the end of yesterday’ post, I wrote about how lovely these poems are, and about how CW moves beyond traditionally questionable scenes into making artistic inspiration the purpose of the characters’ interactions. I could leave the discussion there, letting the beauty of the verse, and its traditional form, speak for themselves. I don’t have to venture into the academically questionable waters of biographical criticism and reader-response.

But this is a blog, not an academic paper, and I want to voice my opinions of CW’s writings here, and I beg you to do the same. We have had some lovely, lively debates on a few previous posts (especially this one), and perhaps today’s will arouse more of the same.

 If I knew nothing about CW’s life, I would still be a little put off by these poems. Let’s focus on “Tristram’s Song to Iseult” and “Lamorack’s Song to Morgause.” Specifically, I am uncomfortable with three things: the S&M content, the objectification of the women, and the adultery.

Let’s take those in reverse order.


Do you know the story of Tristan and Isolde? Here is one good synopsis of the tale. So in this poem, Tristram and Iseult have fled into the woods together. A lesser writer than CW, or one less steeped in hermetic tradition, would simply have written of the sexual consummation of their love. Yet here, they do not sleep together. He uses her body and his words to create a work of art that is, arguable, on a higher sexual plane than intercourse. And then Tristram presents Iseult to her husband at the end. So it is not adultery in the plain sense—but, guys, would you seriously want another man stripping your fiancée naked and drawing pictures all over her flesh?

The plot of “Lamoracke’s Song to Morgause” is similar; he has long indulged an unrequited passion for her, the wife of King Lot of Orkney. In this poem, he fights with her, ties her up, strips her, and binds her to a bed. But again: he does not sleep with her. He sings a song to her. So I cannot call it adultery in the most obvious meaning of those words. Yet she is married to another man, so the spirit of the laws of marital fidelity would prohibit deep emotional attachment to someone who is not your spouse, being naked with that person, and making that person the object of a romantic-sexual energy, whether fully expressed or not. In other words, there is certainly emotional adultery in these poems, along with what I would call literary and aesthetic adultery: making someone other than one’s spouse one’s Muse, the focal point of one’s art.

And CW himself committed emotional, literary, and aesthetic adultery with Phyllis Jones and a few other women during his lifetime. He made Phyllis his muse. He devoted most of his literary energies to her for at least a decade. And he used other women as means of arousing and channeling his sexual energies into art, although apparently he never had sex with anyone other than his wife.


In “Tristram’s Song,” there is no mention of whether the lady has any say in this artistic-sexual “play” for which her skin is the canvas. She is certainly the object in the most literal sense: she is the thing, the paper, the material, on which he makes his art. This is a troubling kind of objectification even if it were consensual.

In “Lamoracke’s Song,” the woman absolutely does not give her permission for their interactions; she actively, physically fights him off. “She contended, with white hands,” she prayed “to be released again,” “high she thwarted all attack,” she “kept her battle overlong,” “she broke wrists out of my grasp, / my hand she wrested from her arm, / and her lithe body from my clasp–/ behold, her potency was past, ankles and wrists were corded fast,” and so on, and on, and on. Now, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know: I suppose some kind of mock-resistance might be part of this kind of role-playing game—but there is no indication of that being the case in this poem. All the evidence is that she is seriously, sincerely trying to fight him off, and he overpowers her and forces her to his will. That makes this encounter, then, a kind of rape, even though it was not sexually consummated. She was stripped, bound, and tied down against her will. That’s evil right there.

In CW’s other writings, even his works on Romantic Theology, there is a disturbing tendency to make the man the subject and the woman the object of the theological process: he is the one on the way to heaven, she is one of the rungs on the ladder he climbs up. Now, CW was careful to mention that this could certainly go the other way: a woman could be the subject and the man the object, or it could be a non-sexual relationship between two people of the same gender—but he does not develop that idea. Anywhere he expands upon or plays out his Romantic Theology, it is always a man using the woman to achieve his ends. I can think of only one possible exception right now (please do tell me if you can think of others): in The Place of the Lion, Anthony is part of the means of Damaris’s salvation. Yet even there, he is clearly the “subject” of the story; part of the purpose of her salvation is so that she would submit to his persistent demands for her love.

So although I love CW and his works deeply, I see him as perpetuating the “Western” crime of putting men in the subject-position and women in the object-position. It’s a shame.


Finally, the most troubling aspect of these poems: the sado-masochistic or slave-master content. I do not intend to go off on a whole rant against “fetish” or BDSM culture. Suffice it to say here that I believe these relationships and practices are unhealthy and sinful. Therefore, I believe that the fighting, binding, stripping, and tying-up in these poems are immoral practices, not beautiful aesthetic acts of romantic and artistic love.


Now, come on, Higgins, don’t be such a prude. It’s poetry! It’s fiction. Literature brings sin to life all the time; that’s part of its point! Where would the human race be without the murders of Macbeth, the adultery of Anna Karenina, the miserly hatred of Scrooge, the bestiality of the boys in Lord of the Flies? Now, this poem goes on to praise the sinful actions, calling it “The glorious work,” but of course literature does that all the time. We have to keep our analytical eyes open, our critical thinking caps on, at all times.

I suppose I am more troubled because I know that CW himself, a self-styled Christian teacher and mentor, practiced behaviors like these in his personal life. I He worked hard in all of his writings to find out the “deeper meaning” of the bodies of the women he loved, trying to assign significance to each bone, joint, and fleshly part. OK, but this lead him into areas of strange, unhealthy experimentation. He wrote words on Lois Lang-Sims’ arms. He hit her on the palms and on the buttocks with a ruler. He made Joan Wallis bend over while he stroked her backside with a ceremonial sword.

In other words, his own actual sinful behaviors are embodied in this poem.

Does that matter? Does the author’s personal life influence the way we read a work?

Well, that’s rather the question. It’s one of the big theoretical questions of literary scholars and teachers for the last century, at least. So, shall we continue asking and debating it?

Oh, and happy 4th of July, Americans. Happy Good Riddance Day, Brits.

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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22 Responses to Problems with “Heroes and Kings”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In a letter quoted by Mrs. Hadfield, Williams writes to Phyllis Jones, “still Tristram does derive from your Circassian and inscribed hands” (Exploration, p. 82). If this includes ‘inscribed by C.W.’, then we know one thing he had already ‘got up to’ of a sort Humphrey Carpenter reported in The Inklings. Perhaps Grevel Lindop’s biography will give more information about the ‘what and when’ of such things.

    Who, if anyone, else knew of such ‘inscribing’ – Amen House colleagues? Friends like Nicholson and Lee? If it was at all an ‘open secret’ it was still ‘secret’ to a considerable extent.

    So, what might a reader between the appearance of Heroes & Kings and at least the early 1970s when darker biographical details first became public, make of these two poems? They express the adultery characteristic of these two couples in Malory and elsewhere in completely uncharacteristic ways. What is their intended ‘appeal’? Are they merely critical depictions of disordered loves or desires? Are they incidentally titillating? Are they deliberately titillating? Are they celebrations – and promotions – with ‘fig leaves’ of moral censure? Do they both seriously criticize and subtlely plead (f0r) ‘redeeming’ features? And how do they relate to ‘Percivale’s Song to Blanchfleur’ and its strongly recommended (by the singer within the song) way of regarding – a woman’s body (and inner self)? – anyone and everyone’s body (and self)? (It ends, “Wilt thou be perfect? teach thine eyes to see, / in all, in each, what thus I marked in thee.”)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      My reference was to the second of two things in particular which Humphrey Carpenter related he learned from Phyllis Jones which “made her draw back from him”: “his fondness for inflicting pain” (Part Two, chapter 1: ed. 1, pp. 90-91). The example he gives is her being “spanked on the hand with a ruler.” What I wondered was, if the later writing on another young woman’s “hand or arm with the tip of a metal paper knife or darning needle, or he would slightly prick or make circular movements or patterns” (Exploration, p. 106) is included in the ‘inscribing’ to which he refers and the ‘infliction of pain’ which made her draw back (though in the later case Mrs. Hadfield describes all this as ” causing no pain”).


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    With respect to Lamoracke, what leads you to place this song in a narrative context of “an unrequited passion for her,” “long indulged” – rather than, for example, one of adulterous copulating over a fairly long period (however “late” he is “come to her”: stanza 13)?

    “Now, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know: I suppose some kind of mock-resistance might be part of this kind of role-playing game—but there is no indication of that being the case in this poem.” Well, it is not critically inappropriate to want to know, and it is not clear that “there is no indication of that being the case in this poem.” The first couplet could very well be just such an indication: “I Lamoracke have bound to-day / the queen my mistress in our play.” And what of line 23 – “we have made a little lovely hour” – and indeed all of stanza three? (And, consider the last two stanzas.) Of course, the only evidence we have for anything is his words in his song. And, it would be conceivable that, let us say, knowing of her incestuous adultery with Arthur (stanzas 11-13), he blackmails her into putting herself in dangerous situations and into keeping silent about the sequel – but here there is indeed no textual indication of any such thing being the case.

    To “these relationships and practices are unhealthy and sinful”, I say, indeed. But I see no reason to think them other than “consensual” in being so.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A decade after the publication of these poems, Williams wrote that while it “has sometimes been said that it is necessary to know Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in order to follow” his later Arthurian poetry, “I very much hope that this is not so.” Much the same question arises immediately here with the publication of his first Arthurian poems. Does Lamoracke’s song presuppose (most of) the rest of his history as found in Malory? Here, he is adulterously with “King Lot’s wife”. There, Gawaine says to his brothers that Lamoracke “will never love us, because we slew his father, King Pellinore, for we deemed that he slew our father, king of Orkney. And for despite of Pellinore, Sir Lamorak did us a shame to our mother, therefore I will be revenged” (X, xxi). This seems to suggest, not adultery with a wife, but fornication with a widow (and cf. X, xlvi). Here, in the last stanza, Lamoracke promises the naked Morgause that he will come armed to her “in the midst of wreck” and she shall “be in the end set free”. But there, her sons bait a trap with her, and Gaheris, catching them in bed together, “suddenly gat his mother by the hair and struck off her head”, while Lamoracke “naked” but for “his shirt” and unarmed cannot prevent it, and finds himself let go by Gaheris who is “ashamed to slay” him in that state, though promising to kill him later (which they do: X, xxiv, liv-v, lviii). May the reader presuppose this sequel and find Lamoracke’s promise in the song vain and ironic? Does Williams further suggest, with the possibility of defeating this irony, that, beyond the present knowledge of either, “the binding of the limbs” may somehow help prepare her to die well in that sudden unexpected moment, escaping at the last the sinful “play” it is part of? (If so, how self-serving is that, in a biographical context?)


  4. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    Well, if you insist on discussing this…

    When we try to apply our own moral standards to CW’s life and works we should never forget that he is not exactly our contemporary. He stood with one foot in the 19th century, and he certainly grew up in a society very much different from ours (for one thing, he was probably much less concerned with gender equality than we are today). Moreover, he drew inspiration from literature and culture which is another few hundred years away from us.

    It would be absurd, of course, to accuse Dante of “emotional adultery”, although he was a married man, and he was not married to Beatrice. It would be equally absurd to dismiss the medieval idea of courtly love as sinful and unhealthy, although its object was often someone else’s wife, and there was a good deal of masochism involved. But somehow we are used to thinking that CW is much more a part of our own culture than Dante or the characters of Arthurian legends, and that chiefly makes us feel uncomfortable with his oddities. But is it really so? It is customary to say about men of unusual genius that they are “ahead of their time”, but sometimes it works the other way around. To me the fact that CW did not quite fit even into his own contemporary society suggests that the distance between him and us is in fact greater, not less.

    In “Witchcraft” (in my opinion one of his greatest works, a work of theology rather than history) CW treats the monstrosities and perversions of mankind not with horror and disgust, as we would likely treat them, but with supreme compassion for the fallen state of men and with unshakable belief in the final goodness of divine providence. Partly, I think, he was capable of this because he was all too aware of his own numerous faults, and his idea of co-inherence made him feel responsibility for the faults of others, even generations apart from him. The degree to which he takes this compassion is in fact so unusual that it may seem that he somehow tries to redeem sin and cruelty. Indeed, he seems to give more importance to the original intention and its sincerity than to the action itself and its results, but it is only because the ultimate result, the only one that matters for him, is the salvation of the soul, and it is ultimately God’s business to judge, not ours. If we could only treat CW’s own faults, whatever they were, with a fraction of such compassion, we would have fewer problems with manifestations of those faults in his works.

    Going back to “Lamorack’s Song”, all I can say is that the text strongly suggests that the pleasure is mutual, and Lamorack’s behavior is not at all sadistic in the strict sense of the word. But the main focus of the poem is not the struggle between Lamorack and Morgause but Lamorack’s grim vision of past and future. There is a parallel between Margause lying still in bonds and the stillness of death to come. Here CW is obviously not entirely successful, but in the later poem “Lamorack and the Queen Morgause of Orkney” the same stillness is conveyed quite differently with images of rocks and stone, but also some kind of perpetual movement (“rigid tornado”), which invokes parallels with the fate of Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno. In that later poem there is no longer any mutual joy. Lamorack is still drawn to Morgause, but it is only because he cannot help it. He shows no admiration or love for her, and Morgause herself becomes a menacing figure. The images in the poem are nothing short of horrifying, and it is of course much deeper and better poetry than the “Heroes & Kings” version.

    BTW, it would be interesting to know who (or what) exactly is the “mother of dragons” in the earlier poem:

    “For when the frenzies of love awoke
    in Balin’s wrath and the Dolorous Stroke,
    and darkness fell on the earth
    and mischief drew upon Camelot,
    then all fair things that had one birth
    their amity and love forgot,
    and wounded was the Hidden Crown,
    and Balin smote his brother down,
    and the mother of dragons struck her claws
    in the queen of Orkney, the queen Morgause!”

    Dragon is usually associated with Arthur but it doesn’t seem to work here…


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      An excellent exegetical question about (st. 10) “the mother of dragons struck her claws / in the queen of Orkney, the queen Morgause!” Dragon is – or dragons are – associated with Arthur, strikingly in the third section of another poem of this cycle, “Taliessin’s Letter to a Princess of Byzantium” (Arthurian Poets ed., pp. 184-85). So, they might by extention be associated with Mordred as son of Arthur (perhaps the “malice in his breath” and “great venom” of st.13 play with this imagery), and with Morgause both as mother of this ‘dragon’ and as sister of Arthur. But who is this “mother of dragons” who “struck her claws
      in” Morgause, and so is distinct from her?

      I wonder if Sørina’s remarks in Part 2 about the longest poem in Heroes & Poems, may be relevant, here? ” ‘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”. Could Lilith be indicated by “the mother of dragons”, here? Could Morgause’s letting “a stranger […] for his hardihood and grace […] prevail on her embrace” (st. 12) be a succumbing to illusion, against her knowledge of marital fidelity, even as Arthur succumbs to the illusion of copulation without consequences (whether this is fornication or (double?) adultery on his part)? (Perhaps we may further compare the later poem, ‘The Vision of the Empire’, section Eta, where, of “the Adam”, it is said, “their thought twined to its end, / crying: O parent” – “their thought” both imagined as offspring and clothed in the imagery of the Serpent in the Garden.)


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        Yes, I thought about Lilith too. The connection seems quite weak, but it is indeed possible.

        “The mother of dragons” also brings to my mind images of Milton’s Sin, Spenser’s Errour and ultimately Echidna from Greek mythology (who is the mother of all other monsters).


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Interesting! Williams could only have Lamoracke explicitly refer to something in Spenser or Milton with a very pointed anachronism, but he could allow him to mention Echidna, even as he grants Tristram his Greek mythological references in stanza 4 of his song. So, why does he not specify his monstrous clawed “mother of dragons” with reference to, say, Greek mythology, Jewish demonology, or traditional Christian personification of Sin?


          • Dmitry Medvedev says:

            Lamorack does refer to the Blatant Beast, who appears only in Spenser’s “The Fairie Queene”, as far as I know. The Questing Beast would have been more appropriate in the context of the poem, but for some reason Williams chose to invoke Spenser’s monster.

            With the “mother of dragons” it is, of course, far less evident, and I actually think that the associations with those other monsters of literature and mythology are more likely the result of my own imagination rather than author’s direct intention.

            I feel that this image must have some exact meaning, just like the Dolorous Stroke, the Holy Thing, the Guardian King, etc. But for some reason the words “the mother of dragons” are not capitalized, unlike the others, so it could be something different in nature…


  5. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    As an example of literary criticism utterly lacking any compassion or simply basic understanding and common sense may I suggest:
    “Loathsome Jews and Engulfing Women: Metaphors of Projection in the Works of Wyndham Lewis, Charles Williams, and Graham Greene” by Andrea Freud Loewenstein.
    This book is so absurd in its seriousness that it becomes amusing.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      At the risk of tooting my own trumpet, I reviewed (if I may quote myself) this “remarkably slipshod” work, “full of errors, omissions, misrepresentations, and dubious assertions unsupported by evidence or argument” where “Dr. Loewenstein’s handling of Williams’s life and work” is concerned, in the Charles Williams Society Newsletter [subsequently Quarterly], No. 75, Autumin 1994, now available online at the Society site.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dmitry Medvedev,

    I would now like to try to (start to) tackle some of your discussion of Williams, Courtly Love, and Dante. Dante seems to distinguish himself with respect to Beatrice from those Arthurian readers, Paolo and Francesca, with respect to each other. So, whatever his experience with respect to Beatrice, it was not simply or inescapably one of “emotional adultery” or of the “viderit mulierem ad concupiscendum eam” of Our Lord’s words in St. Matthew 5:28. But it is quite conceivable that at one time or another he may have found himself guilty of the one or the other or both with respect to Beatrice, and that, if so, he would believe his place might be with Paolo and Francesca, had he not contritely repented (and confessed and received absolution).

    And the stern rebuking of adulterous and fornicating knights – including Lancelot – is not only a feature of the Queste del Saint Graal but of what Malory makes of that work in his, as well. We may also recall Tolkien’s 1953 Ker Memorial Lecture on a work written between the times of Malory and his source, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which he writes of the author having “drawn our attention to the divergence of values, by the clear distinction expressed in lines 1773-4; lines which place the moral law higher than the laws of ‘courtesy’, and explicitly reject, and make Gawain reject, adultery as part of courtesy possible to a perfect knight.”

    Whatever he was doing in his life and thought and work, Williams was consciously part of this understanding of sexual sin from its sharpening by Our Lord’s words noted above through the emphatic attention of St. Augustine around a half-century before the period often suggested for a historic Arthur, and on down through the times of courtly love in Arthurian romance and of Dante and still further to those of Tennyson and Chesterton, which were also Williams’s own (and, indeed, to ours).

    In Outlines of Romantic Theology (written in 1924), Williams writes, rather astonishingly (at least at first sight, to me), “The love between Lancelot and Guinevere is an inevitable and tragic love (as the love between any Christian man and woman may be said to be, on the hypothesis of Romantic Theology).” But he soon adds, “Yet it is not from such a love that Galahad can be directly born, since even love is here of the nature of sin.” Whatever sins, against God/Love and each other, may, with something resembling inevitability, characterize “the love between any Christian man and woman”, not least when married to each other, the adulterous “love between Lancelot and Guinevere” is in a distinct sense “of the nature of sin.”


    • Dmitry Medvedev says:

      There is a long discussion of courtly love in C.S.Lewis’s “Allegory of Love” (and I trust Lewis more than Tolkien when it comes to medieval literature). According to him the main characteristics of courtly love are: “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love”. He continues: “So far from being a natural channel for the new kind of love, marriage was rather the
      drab background against which that love stood out in all the contrast of its new tenderness and delicacy. … Any idealization of sexual love, in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by being an idealization of adultery.” Basically, it means that there is simply no such thing as emotional adultery in a society where marriage has very little to do with emotion.
      And indeed I cannot think of examples when pure emotion was condemned as sinful. In the case of Paolo and Francesca, as well as Lancelot and Guinevere, we have to deal with physical adultery (the case of Lancelot is actually even more complex, as there are several sources, and their treatment of the whole affair is quite different). What medieval people did care about was treachery, and it was considered a far graver sin than adultery, and arguably Sir Gawain is more concerned with treachery towards his host than adultery:

      “He cared for his courtesy, lest a caitiff he proved,
      yet more for his sad case, if he should sin commit
      and to the owner of the house, to his host, be a traitor”

      It seems to me that our modern idea of emotional adultery is largely the result of mixing these two concepts of adultery and treachery.

      Indeed, we also have the words of Christ about “looking at a woman lustfully”. Lust is certainly condemned, but strong emotional attachment does not necessary involve lust, and I believe that Williams did make such a distinction, both in his life and in his works. In “Beatrice” when he talks about Paolo and Francesca he puts much more emphasis on their lust rather that the actual act of adultery:

      “The adultery here is only the outer mark; the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital”.

      Now, let’s compare it with what Lewis has to say about medieval love:

      “According to the medieval view passionate love itself was wicked,
      and did not cease to be wicked if the object of it were your wife. If a
      man had once yielded to this emotion he had no choice between
      ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’ love before him: he had only the choice, either
      of repentance, or else of different forms of guilt.”

      Williams was of course far from condemning all passion as sinful, but he did quite consistently condemn excessive passion, indulgence, lust – both of physical and emotional nature – and adultery often bears the mark of it, but it is not quite the same thing as adultery, and I think that is precisely why Williams would have been able to justify (at least partly) some practices that we regard as unambiguously sinful.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I don’t think Lewis knew more about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than Tolkien (who edited it: Lewis’s carefully annotated copy of his edition is extant, if I recall correctly). I certainly don’t know as much about Courtly Love as Lewis (the source for much of what I think to know!), but find it curious that he devotes no attention to the Courtly Love in marriage in Wolfram’s Parzival. I would think “Basically, it means that there is simply no such thing as emotional adultery in a society where marriage has very little to do with emotion” is too bold and sweeping a generalization.

        Perhaps we are understanding “emotional adultery” and concupiscence differently.

        I think “the sin is a sin possible to all lovers, married or unmarried, adulterous or marital” is a very good quotation and very apt. The millennial Christian understanding has been that that is a marital danger, and one often actualized, which I think may be part of what C.W. had in mind in comparing Lancelot and Guinevere to “any Christian man and woman”: yet their love being “of the nature of sin” is still a distinction, and one (so far as I can see) not simply, or even primarily, a matter of physical consummation.

        (To be continued!)


        • Dmitry Medvedev says:

          Good point about Wolfram… I have to admit that there are a few problems with Lewis’s definition of courtly love, and with my remark about medieval marriage.


  7. Sørina Higgins says:

    Thank you very much, gentlemen, for this excellent discussion. I find that I have very little to add right now, but greatly appreciate your taking the time to go through the sources and discuss these topics with intelligence and sensitivity.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dmitry Medvedev,

    I want to leap-frog back to “the mother of dragons” and your very interesting point about “the Blatant Beast”! In the process of trying to find out if anyone had addressed the latter (something of which I had no memory), I noticed that the late Professor Sir Fernando de Mello Moser, in his published dissertation, Charles Williams: Demanda, Visão e Mito (1969), had a footnote to “the mother of dragons” (p. 290, n. 52) confidently identifying it (without further discussion) as an allusion to Lilith, and adding “aqui, imagem da inversão de valores no espírito de Morgause” (something like ‘here, an image of the inversion of values in the spirit of Morgause’ – if Google Translate may be believed – which seems plausible in this case!).

    But I have not found a discussion of the choice for “the Blatant Beast” in his book, or in Lewis, or in the late Dr. Gisbert Kranz’s notes to his German translation of the later Arthurian poetry, or in Professor King’s book (though I did not yet reread it extensively)! I have encountered the suggestion online from The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed. 3) that the “Glatysaunt Beast” is the “creature in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur which is the original of Spenser’s ‘blatant beast’ “.

    The Camelot Project (at has a very interesting background essay by Kara L. McShane on “The Questing Beast”, which does not mention Spenser, but does say that “in French and in Middle English, glatisant means barking or baying, while in Middle English, the verb questen means to bark as well as to hunt.” And the usual suggestion for Spenser’s coinage ‘blatant’ seems to be that it may be sound-related (e.g., COD’s “perhaps after Scottish ‘blatand’ = bleating”).

    What I cannot find, for example, in the texts linked to Valerie B. Johnson’s interesting background essay, “Palamedes”, at the same site, is any earlier poet who has made the same connection Williams does. (A site search for “Blatant Beast” does, however, yield W. Lucas Collins, in his King Arthur and His Round Table (1860) calling “that strange creation, the ‘Questing Beast,’ or the ‘Beast glatisant,’ the undoubted original of the ‘Blatant Beast’ of Spenser”.)

    All four references in Heroes & Kings are, indeed, to “the Blatant Beast”. But in ‘Palomides’ Song of the Questing Beast’ from the same cycle (Arthurian Poets ed., pp. 179-83), Williams uses “the Questing Beast” once after the title (l. 2), “Galtisant” four times (ll. 1, 114, 126, 155) and simply “the Beast” once (l. 130). In the later, published poetry (unless I have missed any examples) he uses “the questing beast” twice, “the blatant beast” once, “the beast” simply, three times, and “the small, slender, pointed, crimson beast”, “the blatant agile beast”, and “the beast out of Broceliande” once each.

    Elizabeth Heale, in The Faerie Queene: A Reader’s Guide (CUP, 1987), says something in discussing “the Blatant Beast” (with a debt to Thomas Starkey: p. 151) which seems apt, if C.W. understood Spenser in the same way. Referring to Artegall at the end of Book 5, with Envy and Detraction raging, and the Beast baying, at him, she says (p. 145), “he can bind those who break the law, but he cannot reform those whose resolute ill will is confined to their thoughts or expressed only in words. […] To complete the task, by teaching men to love good as well as to obey the law, requires the skills of Sir Caladore, the Knight of Courtesy.”

    I am inclined to feel, with you, “that this image [ of “the mother of dragons”] must have some exact meaning” – that seems so likely, with Williams! Given his explicit use – or linking with Malory – of “the Blatant Beast”, your suggestion of Echidna, the Beast’s mother in Spenser (Book 6, Canto 6, 9-12), may well be the result of more than simply your own imagination! Or, perhaps he was working out some linked or compound reference, even as he did with Questing and Blatant Beast(s)… but I fear we may never know, for certain.


    • Dmitry Medvedev says:

      It appears that Lilith is sometimes called “the mother of demons”, just like Echidna. The source of this tradition remains unclear to me. Babylonian Talmud is often mentioned as a source, but the passages referring to Lilith are brief, and somewhat ambiguous, as far as I can see; Lilith’s title as “the mother of demons” is probably a rather late development.

      Anyway, now it seems to me much more likely that Williams indeed alluded to Lilith.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It is probably worth mentioning here that the Internet Archive has a scan of a copy of A.E. Waite’s The Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913) (as well as two of recent reprints): a work we know C.W. knew. The five page references under “Lilith” in the index lead to comments surveying a wealth of varied and contradictory matter. Footnote 8 on pages 85-86 calls “Naamah, the sister of Tubal Cain […] the mother of demons” and says she “is associated with Lilith”. Footnote 1 on page 104 says Lilith “is the mother of demons”, and also that “Rabbi Elias recognised four mothers of demons, namely, Lilith, Naamah, Ogeret, and Machalath.” In a series of references far from clear and giving no female names, pages 86-87 tell of Samaël riding “the serpent” who is “female” and his “wife”, and including an obscure sentence (obscure to me, at least) speaking of “the kind of union which is predicated” of them and saying “they seem to pass easily one into another, and it is presumably in this way that we hear of a great serpent – the dragon of later Kabalism” – which is the only “dragon” I have encountered in looking up the references.


  9. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    There is one more thing that I would like to mention concerning Williams’s awareness of his own faults and sins, which is not exactly related to out previous discussion, but still… This probably should have been discussed in the context of 100 poems to Phillis Jones, but better late than never. I remember reading Gavin Ashenden’s book “Charles Williams: Alchemy & Integration” in which he quotes one of these poems called ‘Daydream’, and this poem made a huge impression on me. How it relates to other poems written before and after it and often showing quite different sentiments is open for discussion, but there is no doubt that Williams was, at least at times, capable of extraordinarily honest and ruthless self-analysis.

    All this unhappy afternoon
    I have been dazed by an evil moon
    that floats within me and turns my dreams
    into visions nearer the truth, it seems;
    I am not I, and if we talked
    of God or poetry as we walked,
    it was that they should be panders both
    to an old man, full of lust, and sloth,
    crawling and peeping and slinking about
    behind those masks and only to find
    for his greasy slimy and feverish mind
    the thought that pleases him; in what guise
    so’ever, ‘tis that he hath longed to surprise.
    If I chat of Wordsworth or of Donne
    it is that old man that I put on;
    if I speak of eternity,
    it is that old man grows in me;
    if I seem to talk of your soul
    I am grown whole to that old man’s whole,
    who in his own manner enjoys your youth:
    and this I know at last is truth.

    …[t]he great fat crocodile lifts his head
    and drags himself forward with feet outspread
    on the compost of damned souls that is hell,
    and each body breaks like a breaking shell;
    and above, O how far away none knows,
    glimmers the faint light of the Rose:
    and the crocodile snaps at it, and again
    with all his horrible mouth in vain
    stretches and snaps, and far away
    the Rose folds up, and the Night and the Day
    are perfectly closed – but over me
    the crocodile waddles eternally.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Samples having been given, with the Masques and by Gavin Ashenden, perhaps an edition of The Century is some sort of desideratum: I have only seen Margaret Douglas’s type-transcription in the Wade, and my memory is not sharp enough, and (though I have not dug them up) I am sure my notes are neither complete nor even selectively detailed enough, to address something as substantial as just how ‘Daydream’ “relates to other poems written before and after it and often showing quite different sentiments”. Is “that old man” part of a differentiated analysis or characterization of himself, corresponding to his tripartite Celia-Phillida-Circassia symbolization of Jones? I cannot recall – if I ever noticed!

      But it does indeed seem, as you say, an example of “extraordinarily honest and ruthless self-analysis.” One striking detail of that is its attention to manipulativeness, as, in “if we talked / of God or poetry as we walked, / it was that they should be panders both / to an old man, full of lust, and sloth”. (I wonder how much a recollection of the Pauline “old man” (Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9), which he uses explicitly in later work, is intended, here? “Sloth” with respect to not avidly ‘putting away’ and ‘off’ would be relevant.)

      I wonder how apt Eric Voegelin’s analysis of “three stages in the action” of some thinkers’ spirits, may be to dangers surrounding Williams, here? “On the surface lies the deception itself. It could be self-deception”. But a second stage is when “deeper than the deception itself will be found the awareness of it.” What does one do at this stage? Undergo a Christian repentance (metanoia), or Platonic conversion (periagoge)? But it can be that the “thinker does not lose control of himself: the libido dominandi turns on its own work and wishes to master the deception as well.” This can lead to “the deepest reach of persistence in the deception, where revolt against God is revealed as its motive and purpose.” With the confession, it can be that “the game of masks continues” – if so, Voegelin says “the deception further become ‘demonic mendacity’ ” (Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Regnery, 1968), pp. 28-34).

      We can be like Claudius when he realizes “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (Hamlet III.iii.97); worse yet, we can make confession a further ‘pander’.

      I think that in the case of his experiences of appearances of images “of the Beatricean kind” (Figure of Beatrice (1943), pp.48-49) and his responses to them where both his wife and Jones are concerned, Williams works with and imaginatively explores different responses, actual and potential, in his creative works.

      I think he is (among other things) properly critical of faults and sins that he is aware are among his own. He does not, for example, seem to be glorying in the adultery of Lamoracke and Morgause in Heroes & Kings as it seems to me Wagner is in that of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre (or of his and Cosima Liszt von Bülow’s own). Yet he also writes Jones that the poem derives “from a not unworthy fantasy of you”! Whether that is subsequently among his dreams turned “into visions nearer the truth”, I cannot say.

      But what is ‘Perivale’s Song to Blanchfleur’, for example, apparently supposedly presenting as a positive contrast to responses such as those of Tristram and Lamoracke and Lancelot?


  10. Pingback: TTL 12: “Lamorack & the Queen Morgause of Orkney.” — by Robert Ghrist | The Oddest Inkling

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