I have already posted so much about The Place of the Lion here on this blog that you may wonder why I am writing on it again. After all, I had that 8-post series of guest writers on this novel, and it features heavily in my Readers’ Guide for Beginners. But I’m attempting to go diligently through each of his works in chronological order, providing a summary of the plot, themes, and importance of each, and today we have reached The Place of the Lion, so I’m not going to skip over it! Besides, it may be my favorite of all CW’s works, and it’s the first I ever read, so it occupies a special place in my memory. I wrote about it once before on my old blog about the arts and faith, so some of the material below is recycled.
The Place of the Lion is perhaps the work that most evenly balances CW’s oddity with his greatest appeal. It is weird, very, very weird, but it is also largely comprehensible and filled with startling beauty. It is an “island of joy” for me: a work of art that evokes Sehnsucht and trumpets the heraldry of heaven in my soul’s hearing. How is this so?
First, there are passages that are visually gorgeous. There are descriptions of an enormous golden lion, a humongous multi-colored butterfly, a fire that burns in the shape of a phoenix yet does not consume, and a visionary mystic soaring like an eagle.
Second, the events of the book are shocking in a very particular spiritual way; when I first read it, Williams kept smacking me upside the head with philosophical surprises. I know I’m wired strangely: I get my kicks from the appearance of Platonic forms. (OK, I also get kicks from the appearance of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch—but that’s a different story!) When a gigantic lion appeared in the sunset and turned out to be the Platonic form of strength, a shiver of heaven ran through me, lifting me into realms of glory.
Third, the spiritual lesson this book teaches is hard and painful every time I read it, because it is so perfectly relevant to some of my particular sins, but (perhaps therefore) also glorious. Every time I reread it, I am convicted. One of the main characters is a woman trying to be a scholar, and she has turned her studies into a kind of dry idolatry. I do that. So Williams terrifies me.
But what is it about? That is a good question.
On the surface, it is a story of huge, supernatural animals—Lion, Snake, Unicorn, Lamb, Eagle, Butterfly, Horse, Phoenix—roaming about the English countryside, devouring (or “absorbing”) smaller animals of their own kinds. It is a lively, compelling adventure story, as one hero dares to face up to the creatures and command them to go back to their own place and leave the earth alone. There are impressively disgusting villains, including a woman who apparently was possessed by a gigantic snake that rips and tears its way out from inside her body, leaving her corpse a horrific twisted mess (Nagini, anyone?), and a man who seems to transform into a jackal. So that’s cool.
But under the surface, as always with CW, there is another layer. The gigantic Beasts are “Angelicals”: nine Platonic Forms that correspond to the nine orders of angels, and each is also the quintessence of some quality or virtue. In turn, there are also the evil opposites of each, in which the virtue is twisted into its evil counterpart. Yet CW never provides a handy list of them, nor does it appear possible to identify every one of these in the narrative. I started trying to make a chart of these once, in a comment on David Dodds’ guest post, but I will make a new one here.
- Lion/Angels (strength) — Jackal? Wolf?
- Serpent/Archangels (subtlety) — Leviathan? Behemoth? Dinosaur?
- Butterfly/Principalities (beauty) —
- Horse/Powers (??) —
- Eagle/Virtues (balance) — Pterodactyl
- Lamb/Thrones (innocence) — Wolf? [tiger, after Blake? there is no evidence of this]
- Unicorn/Cherubim (speed) —
If you can make any additions or corrections to this list, please do!
Most of Williams’ signature themes are operative in subtle ways in this remarkable novel. The most pronounced is that of the “tranquil mystic.” Anthony, his will submitted to God’s, is the means of earthly salvation, and his fiancée-cousin Damaris becomes (instantly! immediately!) another such surrendered saint after she accepts “the whole gospel—morals and mythology at once.” Romantic Theology works in a different kind of way here, in that the man is the means of salvation for the woman, rather than vice-versa (this would be a marvelous locus for a gender analysis, but pace that!). Order, organization, pattern, affirmation, and negation all feature.
Anyway, there is much more to say, but some of it has been said and some should wait until you read the book. Please do, and then come back and leave a comment here!