When this post goes live at 2:00 pm EST on Sunday, August 10th, I will be participating in a panel about “Faith and Fantasy” at Mythcon 45 with Chip Crane, Carl Hostetter, and Lynn Maudlin. Below, I’ve posted the thoughts I wrote out in preparation for this panel. I do not intend to read this paper verbatim, but writing it out helped me to focus my ideas, choose quotes and examples, etc.
I’m also moderating a panel on The Inklings and King Arthur right afterwards, and I’ve been spending time with The Tolkien Professor and other amazing people from Mythgard. I hope to post about the highlights of this weekend later. For now, please enjoy these notes from the “Faith and Fantasy” panel.
Fantasy and Faith
How does fantasy “fit” with faith? Can fantasy writing effectively express or affirm faith? How or when does it fall short of doing so? Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams are known for their Christian faith, and all three took distinctive approaches toward expressing it (or not) in their fiction. Are these writers successful in their approach?
Does Charles Williams’s faith influence his fantasy writing?
Yes. In fact, both aspects of Williams’s faith—his Anglican Christianity and his mastery of the Rosicrucian occult—appear in his writings in both implicit and explicit ways. Williams saw the created order as so thoroughly Christian that everything had meaning inside his complex spiritual system, and there was no kind of meaning or even existence outside that system. Therefore, every last detail of setting, plot, or character, fits into his mystical, hermetic Christian view of the world and is a means of expressing that worldview. However, at the same time, Williams never used trite or clichéd word choices—his diction is startlingly idiomatic—so that what may have seemed like an obvious expression of Christian doctrine to him often strikes the reader as totally new, or heretical, or occult, when he meant it to be plain Anglican orthodoxy.
How does Williams portray faith or religious practice explicitly within the stories themselves?
Williams does depict traditional Christian rituals in his seven “metaphysical thriller” novels and his Arthurian poetry. In Shadows of Ecstasy, Christians are shown praying or celebrating the Eucharist in ways that are directly efficacious in the story. In War in Heaven, Williams depicts the Eucharist at a simple country church. But the priest serving the elements is Prester John, a figure of Christ, and the vessel that holds the wine is the Holy Grail.
In the Arthurian poetry, the cycle ends with the pope’s prayers and Lancelot’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper (although “he was not sworn of the priesthood”). But there again, something strange and mystical happens: the pope’s prayers result in the healing of the divided Empire, and Lancelot’s mass brings about, apparently, the mystical unification of the wounded Arthur with the dead king Pelles, and “all the dead lords of the Table were drawn from their graves to the Mass.”
In The Greater Trumps, three of the characters go to church on Christmas morning. Williams describes the service, in which they listen to “the vicar’s new [musical] setting of the Athanasian Creed” and sing “Christians, awake, salute the happy morn.” One phrase in the hymn, “Rise to adore the mystery of love,” awakens a deep meaning in one young lady’s heart:
“the waves of some impetuous and greater life swept in upon her. [She] whispered a question, ‘Is it true?’ [her aunt] Sybil looked at the line, looked back at Nancy, and answered in a voice both aspirant and triumphant, ‘Try it, darling.’”
Williams’ faith is so broad and deep, so much of a fabric with all things and with all thoughts, that it is necessary to him to depict Christian ritual, but at the same time to transform it to something filled with glory—or, arguably, to reveal the glory that is often veiled by the dusty rituals dutifully or grudgingly gone through in most churches on Sunday mornings.
Yet, curiously, Williams also depicted rituals that are in stark contrast to those of the Anglican church, including a guru’s teachings on the sublimation and transference of energies, devilish experiments in space and time with a magical stone, an eidolon or false body created by sorcery, and people coming back from the dead.
In War in Heaven, he depicts a Black Sabbath, a devil’s mass, in which the villain uses the Holy Grail in an abominable ritual and promises to sacrifice a child’s soul to the devil. There are two particularly odd features about this Witches’ Sabbath. First, Williams seems to possess a remarkably accurate knowledge of how such things are done. It reads almost like an instruction manual on how to perform the Black Sabbath oneself: “He marked various figures upon his body—a cross upon either sole, a cross inverted from brow to foot, and over all his form the pentagon reversed of magic.”
Second, there is a tone of strange enjoyment, of delicious titillation, in the descriptions: the villain feels “a delicious venom,” “a deep sigh of pleasure,” “an ancient desire,” and “an ecstasy beyond his dreams.” One is tempted to say: Charles, you are enjoying this a little too much. Are we supposed to enjoy it? —especially when the narrator calls the villain the only truly religious character, and says: “not by such passions was hell finally peopled and the last rejection found.” I was under the impression that it is precisely by such passions that hell is peopled.
Do his depictions of religious ritual strengthen or weaken the power or effect of the story?
Williams is not popular. His novels have occasionally enjoyed a small cult following, but it is very small. There are several reasons for this, including the obscurity of his prose style, his privatized references, the abundance of his literary allusions, and the complexity of his philosophical thoughts.
But I think there is another reason. I think his works appear to be, from the perspective of market conditions, too Christian for the world and too worldly for the church, or for the Christian publishing industry. Or, not too worldly, exactly, but too interested in the occult, and too accepting of hermetic imagery and ritual. He wouldn’t exactly fit on the shelf next to your typical Christian romance novel. And he doesn’t precisely fit next to Lewis and Tolkien, either. He presents the strangest practices as if they were salvific, Christian acts: conjuration with Tarot cards, self-immolation, Islamic prayers, a mystical deed of making the self a channel for spiritual power, spirits returning after death, and mystical acts of substitution and exchange. All this is amazing; it’s beautiful. It would work perfectly well in a full-fledged fantasy setting, in another place or time or dimension. But in an English countryside, at an ordinary Anglican chapel, it is jarring. I believe that this kind of jarring is good and powerful and necessary, and that it increases the effect of the story on a certain set of readers, but it hasn’t proven to be very marketable.
How can Christians engage with Williams’s works, and how can help Christians better understand what the works may have to offer them that would be beneficial for their faith (or not)?
Christian readers should not be put off by the occult content, even while non-Christian readers should not be afraid of some kind of superficial proselytizing, because CW’s works are primarily built upon implicit, rather than explicit, expressions of his faith. He builds his faith into:
Setting—the novels are set in this world, his own time and place, in England in the 20th century (not Narnia or another planet or Hell or Middle-earth or an elvish historical period before our own time). The Arthurian poetry takes place in a mythologized version of European history, from c. 500 to 1453 AD, and reveals deeper theological meanings in the geography and events.
Narrative perspective—no Everyman character, no persona to bring the reader in and guide the reader through the strange new world (No Lucy Pevensie, Jill or Eustace, Shasta, Elwin Ransom, Bilbo or Frodo Baggins). Instead, we are dropped in medias res as regards events and the thoughts of his strangely spiritual characters. This leads to a profound sense of disorientation and alienation, which, combined with his privatized writing style, makes for difficult reading. Instead of a “relatable” everyman, he offers submitted saints: characters with a Jedi-like calm who consult God’s will for every decision. I find them challenging and inspiring. Reading his novels is, for me, a devotional experience. And even the disorientation has a theological impact: to CW, the world is a strange place. Heaven impinges upon our daily lives, the supernatural can break in at any moment, and we shouldn’t get too comfortable.