So many very exciting, wonderful, and horrible things have been going on here in Oddest Inkling land recently that I’ve gotten away from the original purpose of this blog. I’ve been distracted by the Mythgard Webathon, my friend’s injury, the release of Chapel of the Thorn, the editing of The Inklings and King Arthur, the upcoming 3rd Hobbit movie, and another project that’s confidential for now. (You can view the videos from the Webathon online now, by the way: the Doctor Who discussion with Kat & Curt, my conversation with Ed Powell on the Lives and Loves of the Inklings, and the Great Hobbit Debate. And you can pre-order a copy of Chapel on amazon. And you can attend my pre-Hobbit talk if you’re local).
But the raison d’etre of this blog was to work my way through each of Charles Williams’s books, in chronological order, writing summaries and brief analyses of them. So let’s get back to that. I will still punctuate those with guest posts, news, announcements, and other Inklings-related material, but it’s time for another few book summaries, as a heavy snow falls and Americans fight their way through dangerous traffic or labor over masterpieces in their warm cozy kitchens. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
The Witch is the first drama contained in the volume Three Plays: The Early Metaphysical Plays of Charles Williams, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock. It is a reprint of an edition published by Oxford University Press in 1931. In addition to The Witch, it contains two other plays—The Chaste Wanton and The Rite of the Passion—as well as five random Arthurian poems and an admirable foreword to the 2009 edition by Arthur Livingston. In fact, the foreword is so excellent that I will reproduce the first paragraph here:
How can Charles Williams be presented to anyone coming to his writing for the first time who does not know what to expect? Stripped of his linguistic difficulties, his work would doubtless be read widely and his name spoken in the same breath with G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, other Christian literary figures of the highest order. Twelve years younger than Chesterton, Williams contributed articles to G. K.’s Weekly; twelve years older than Lewis, Williams’ thinking was the catalyst that sparked much of Lewis’ full maturity as a thinker. Williams, however, lacked the firecracker popular wit of the older man. Nor did he possess the pellucid simplicity that marked the younger man’s prose.
Indeed. That’s an understatement. Lewis is nearly all the way on the “clarity” end of the spectrum, while Williams is fairly far along towards the “obscure to the point of inarticulate” end in his prose. But his verse dramas tend to be a bit easier to understand, especially when performed or read aloud. They are inherently dramatic, as he had an ear for powerful spoken verse and a knack for dramatic timing. So The Witch is in many ways easier to understand than, say, his biographies or theological works.
So much the worse, perhaps, for the story is troubling and the play’s apparent sympathy for evil disturbing. It centers on a witch named Bess. She hates the Squire, the local lord and landowner. He wants to annex her little house and piece of ground and thus make the boundaries of his holdings more aesthetically pleasing, while she desires to bring destruction and despair on him simply out of love for destruction and despair. She eggs on her slut of a daughter, Rhoda, to toy with the affections of most of the local men, until she plays at least one of them to death. Throughout it all, the witch wants nothing but to cause others pain: there is no gain in it for herself. And she sings the praises of her Familiar, her own particular guardian demon, Malkin:
My sweet boy, my dear imp, my little black
bad-hearted agile fancy; he that sits
couched on my shoulder or my knee, and sings
of what he runs about the world to do,
drop sparks, lame cows, or whisper in the ear
of squires night sick for walls that can’t get out
over the common. Little Malkin sweet!
It is a lively play, full of tension, as Bess’s criminal son comes home running from the law, Rhoda makes promises of marriage and elopement and rendezvous with several men and gets pregnant by the squire’s son, and violence is threatened on many sides, finally breaking out in a bloody end.
And as if that is not enough, the play closes with a direct address to the audience. The witch turns and says into the faces of the people watching—or reading:
And all you else,
comfortable pleasant people through the world,
you who sit by fires of train you flowers
in gardens, as the wind blows; you who talk
most of your neighbours’ doings, all you fair
lasses and jingling-penny boys, and plump
matrons, a thing goes wandering o’er the earth
you cannot see, a thing that dark or day
are all alike to, burrowing through all walls,
that is madness, and is sickness, and is hate,
and is marvelous thing beyond all these—
being that which first God saw when he beheld
pure evil. Into your houses and your breasts,
till you shall wither and look all awry
with twisted faces, it shall slide along;
farewell, fair lasses; farewell, gallant boys;
farewell, you comfortable folk, farewell,
but this shall be among you till you die.
And thus the witch triumphs and has the last word, a word in praise of eternal evil forever ravening in the world.
That’s a cheery Christian play, isn’t it? It raises all the most fundamental questions about CW’s faith, which sometimes appears as dualism, or about his psychology, which is often in the dark basement of despair. Whose side is he on, anyway?
Well, I’m going to leave it there. Later on, years from now, when I have blogged my way through all of his works, I should be able to look back and make the bigger overarching analysis of his development as an author and a thinker. Meanwhile, there are others who have done that: Gavin Ashenden in Alchemy and Integration and Stephen Dunning in The Crisis and the Quest, most notably. They and others have some interesting suggestions about how CW grew through and beyond the use of magic in his works, eventually showing that magic was an empty and meaningless system, only used by those who lusted for a temporal and ultimately destructive power.
But for now, go read The Witch, and have a happy Thanksgiving thinking of the evil that “shall be among you till you die.”