Now is the Witching Hour

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!

three playsThe Witch

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.”

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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7 Responses to Now is the Witching Hour

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I know I’ve read The Witch – in reading all of Three Plays – but, strangely, I can’t remember a thing about it! In the last speech, I was struck by the lines “being that which first God saw when he beheld / pure evil.” This reminds me of the retelling of the Fall in “The Vision of the Empire”, section Eta, in Taliessin through Logres, and the discussion of it in He Came Down from Heaven, chapter two. In the latter, Williams says of “man” (p. 21), “He knows good, and he knows good as evil. These two capacities will always be present in him; his love will always be twisted with anti-love, with anger, with spite, with jealousy, with alien desires.” Without endorsing Williams’s ‘version(s) of the Fall’ in all their details, I think it is simply realistic – Christianly-speaking – to be “thinking of the evil that ‘shall be among you till you die.’ ” We will (practically speaking) not be perfected in this earthly life. To take a New England parallel, recall Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” with its “Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.” Again, as you summarize The Witch, I am reminded of Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”: “And yet God has not said a word!” It is horribly true as far as it goes – and the Twentieth century had shown and the Twenty-first century is showing how very, nightmarishly far things can go – or some of us can go, with ‘practical’ impunity. But The Witch is only part of the whole truth. It is like War in Heaven without Prester John. And who can say how much, how far, how much of the time, Williams was tempted to despair, to being like Young Goodman Brown in the last three paragraphs of the story? But it is certainly not his last word on the subject, nor, I think – and hope – his last spiritual state. So, I would say, it is a “Christian play”, but it sounds like the reader must supply the cheeriness on the other side of Christ’s Passion. Presumably, while Three Plays is not one work, the juxtaposition of The Witch with The Rite of the Passion is significant.

    [By the way, it looks like something’s gone wrong with the lines “you who sit by fires of train you flowers / in gardens, as the wind blows;” is that as published in 2009, or a transcribing slip? I’m pretty sure I have The Witch somewhere, but ti would take a lot of nearly literal digging to consult it…]

    In any case, Happy Thanksgiving!

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  2. What came to mind as I read this was Bulgakov’s wonderful “The Master and Margherita” in which the devil comes to create mayhem among the stifling world of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s & especially among so called literary critics who destroy the lives of creative writers just to save their own skins. In both stories it is the devilish, the impish, that punctures the complacency of the powerful. A Hindu would have little difficulty in understanding this as an aspect of the divine but we Christians have a much harder time. I have much to think about here & confess there are times when I wish that the “comfortable” could have a really good fright. But then when they do my heart goes out to them, seeing them as fellow human beings once again & not just as the “comfortable”.
    A Happy Thanksgiving to you! That is a good spiritual discipline and definitely one to practice in challenging times.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’d heard of the Bulgakov, but you make me keen to try it! Your mentioning it somehow jogged me to think of several works by Pär Lagerkvist (another May 1891 nearish contemporary!) by way of comparison: Bödeln (“The Hangman”/ “The Executioner”, 1933) both the prose original and the 1934 adaption as play, Dvärgen (“The Dwarf”, 1944, English trans. 1958), and the short story translated as “The Lift the Went Down into Hell” (in The Marriage Feast collection: I only know him in English translation).

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Still haven’t gone excavating to see if I have a copy…

    But, on the way to looking up something else, I ran into the fact that on this day, 2 December, is commemorated the Blessed John of Ruysbroek – beatified in 1908 – from whom Williams’s includes excerpts in The New Christian Year (1941) (see the link at the Williams Society site), one of which sounds like about the clean opposite of the life and thought of the title character of this play:

    “Christ was common to all in love, in teaching, in tender consolation, in generous gifts, in merciful forgiveness. His soul and his body, his life and his death, and his ministry were, and are, common to all. His sacraments and his gifts are common to all. Christ never took any food or drink, nor anything that his body needed, without intending by it the common good of all those who shall be saved, even unto the last day . . . He ate and he drank for our sake; he lived and he died for our sake.” (From Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage.)

    The current Wikipedia article on Evelyn Underhill (as of 1 November) has a lot about her attention to Ruysbroek (of the various spellings!), including a link to her 1914 book about him as available online – which C.W. could have read at an interesting point after The Chapel and before his marriage. Lots of references to C.W. in the article, come to that! I certainly have never paid enough attention to what authors, works, and thoughts Williams might have met in the writings of Evelyn Underhill, and am not up-to-date enough in the Williams literature to have caught it, if others have! But I strongly auspect better acquaintance with the Blessed John, among others, would give us a better sense of some of the background and context of C.W.’s working out of Romantic Theology in his second through fourth published books and the posthumously published Outlines.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I ought to note further, that Internet Archive also has a scan of C.A. Wynschenk’s translation of The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage (together with two shorter works) as “Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Evelyn Underhill” (1916).

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  5. Sharon says:

    The witch is right though, isn’t she? Evil may not be reigning anymore now that Christ has conquered, but it is still very present and will be until Jesus returns. When I read her lines, it struck me as CW warning and reminding his readers how evil lurks around “like a lion, looking for someone to devour.” The witch as a character would have to deliver those lines triumphantly, but its possible CW meant them differently…

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    • Excellent points, Sharon. Thank you for giving CW the benefit of — well, the benefit of faith, rather than the benefit of doubt. He was a man of deep faith, but he was also extremely conscious of the presence of evil. Perhaps you are right.

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