Mysticism, Magic, and Marriage: “The Greater Trumps”

Charles Williams Book Summary #25: The Greater Trumps (Gollancz, 1932)

9781504006606Hooray! At last I get to write about another one of the novels. It has been far too long. I often feel that I do penance, slogging through the slow biographies and difficult works of literary criticism, and am then rewarded by encountering one of the novels again. And each novel becomes my favorite as a re-read it or think about it again in a focused way.

I love The Greater Trumps. In some ways, it seems the most like a normal novel: it has a clear, recognizable plot that is fairly easy to follow until the last couple of chapters; the characters are varied and almost realistic; the syntax is not unbearable (although it is still confusing). There is still that feeling of being dropped into the middle of some world that functions differently than our own in which people talk in a manner wholly foreign to human conversation. Indeed, the book begins in the middle of a sentence:

“. . . perfect Babel,” Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper.
“But Babel never was perfect, was it?” Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. He did not choose, because at the moment he could not think of a sufficiently short sentence.

Yet on a second reading, these interactions become clear, and an insightful reader realizes that this passage describes a very realistic little family quarrel, the kind in which people twist each other’s words into puns for gentle (or not-so-gentle) mockery.

Anyway, it’s a wild and lively book, with an compelling cast of characters and exciting spiritual and physical action. Indeed, there are more actual external occurrences in this book than in several of his others, especially a memorable snowstorm which is publisher told him was “the very finest thing you have done.”

What is this book about? Well, it has a few main plot-threads that are brilliantly woven together. The first is the story of the lovers, Nancy and Henry. They are drawn together, wrenched apart, and—well, I won’t tell you whether they end up together or apart.

A. E. Waite's Tarot deck

A. E. Waite’s Tarot deck

Their love is deeply bound up with the second plot thread: a powerful pack of Tarot cards. Indeed, it transpires that these are the ORIGINAL Tarot cards, the primal pack from which all others are devised, and as such have a causal relationship with the nature and interactions of all things. They are in turn bound up with a set of golden figures, like little chessmen, that dance eternally, the dance of the universe and all things in perfect balance. (Yes, that this point you should probably think of the Great Dance in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra; does anybody know if CSL has admitted any influence here?) The idea is that if anyone manages to possess both the original Tarot pack and the golden images, he can bring them together and thus have power to control the entire created order. He would be, in fact, a little god, ruling and running all things. He, or she. For it is Nancy who—well, read the book to find out what Nancy does. Or does not do.

The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

The third plot thread has to do with Nancy’s father, Lothair Coningsby, and her aunt/his sister, Sybil. Lothair is the floundering soul in this story, caught up in the muck of his own wounded self-importance, who needs to be saved by forgetting about himself and serving someone else, even for just a moment, even with a kind of pomposity; Sybil is the Submitted Saint in this story who has suffered under “days of pain and nights of prayer” to achieve perfect submission of her will to what she calls Love. She is the still center of the novel, and Nancy moves towards that center as the tale unfold. These characters and a few others (including a kitten, an old gypsy, a mad woman who thinks that her baby is Osiris, and a gigantic simpleton who serves the mad woman in her quest for her lost child) meet on Christmas in a terrific snowstorm, and there the threads become tangled and confused. Here as elsewhere, Williams made a bold move, taking a huge narrative risk, when he let the threads run every which way and get tied up in knots with each other. Will he untangled them and lay them in their correct pattern before the end? Read it and find out!

[Wow, that sounded cheesy.]

Before I close, let me mention some of the great resources available about this book and some of the main points to notice when you read it.

Alice Mary Hadfield is surprisingly good on The Greater Trumps (given her usual useless circumlocutions); she devotes 3 pages to it in Exploration (pp. 99-101). She quotes bits of the original back-of-the-book blurb:

…the theme of the book…is far more original than that of the other two [War in Heaven and Many Dimensions]; and in [n]either of those does the prose rise to such superb heights of a rhetoric which is at once Gothic in its rich splendor and Greek in its restraint…. This is a work of genius.

An early reviewer wrote:

If the power of genius is to mirage spiritual realities, this is a work of genius, and one, too, which brings the mystery of the supernatural home to the hearts and minds of ordinary men and women.

[Talk about convoluted syntax! “to mirage spiritual realities”? Get a writing teacher, please!]

Then Hadfield includes a couple of pages of pretty dense plot summary, which will be useful if you are still not certain what happened after you first read it. Do give it a second chance.

The second resource I want to mention is a really surprising one. It’s the preface to The Greater Trumps (at least form 1949 onwards, in some editions), and you’ll never guess who wrote it. William Lindsay Gresham. Yup. Do you know who that is? Joy Davidman’s first husband! Remember Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis? C.S. Lewis’s late-life wife? The one who caused him to be really and permanently Surprised by Joy? So, yes, this preface was written by the husband whom she left, taking refuge with CSL in England. Gresham who was also quite a skillful writer himself and had cordial relations with some of the Inklings at various times. It’s a fascinating story of human passions–more relevantly for our purposes, he wrote a fascinating preface. Do read it. Its most useful feature is an explanation of the suits of the greater trumps in the Tarot cards.

The other super useful resource is Thomas Howard’s study The Novels of Charles Williams. It’s a lovely talk-through of each of the 7 supernatural thrillers, glossing events, characters, themes, etc. I think it was really Howard’s book that made me fall in love with CW’s works, even more than the works themselves. Thank you to my parents, who gave me this book for Christmas the year I discovered Williams—and to the professor and friend from undergraduate days who insisted I read CW.

So go and read The Greater Trumps, then read what Hadfield, Gresham, and Howard have to say about it, then reread the novel—then let me know if you want to write a guest post about it! And while you’re reading the novel, keep an eye open for the particular ways CW embodies some of his most significant ideas:

Doctor WHO?

Doctor WHO?

Romantic Theology
– Athanasian Incarnation
The Centrality of Sacred Objects (or, How to Handle the Hallows)
– The Great Dance of the Universe, with Christ “the Fool” at the center
– The identification of individual believers with Christ
The serenity of the Submitted Saint
– Mysticism and Magic

Let me know what you think of it!

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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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37 Responses to Mysticism, Magic, and Marriage: “The Greater Trumps”

  1. I don’t have a copy here, but Downing talks about the dance. So does… that other guy. Man I’m bad with names. Not Schaekel, but another person with a book on the Ransom Cycle. But neither, I think mention Williams.
    Another book to add to my bedside table!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Schwartz, maybe?

      You get bonus points for saying “The Ransom Cycle.” I want royalties when you make money off of that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I wonder about the possible influence on the table with figures in the last chapter of Lewis’s Great Divorce, too – it looks to me like a playful allusion (but I cannot think of any admission on his part in either case). I can’t help thinking it must have been very interesting if he read either of those bits out at Inklings sessions when Williams was present!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Nicely and enticingly presented, without spoilers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. fputnam says:

    Thanks, Sorina! As you say, each one becomes my favourite as I read it again, and the snowstorm in this is stunningly portrayed. Nancy (<–Annis (medieval English) <– Agnes ("chaste")) is another of his saints (as was Agnes, martyred under Diocletian), who would, I suspect, make wonderful, yet disturbing companions. Wonderful, because they are filled with a kind of subliminal light and truth; disturbing, because ditto. I ramble. Thanks again for the compelling introduction.\
    Best wishes!
    fred

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    • Thanks, Fred! Nice to “see” you here.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks! I was just wondering what, if any, resonance there might be to her name, and had only gotten as far as ‘Nancy’ as an nickname for Ann(e). (Williams’s young friend, Anne Bradby, (who married Vivian Ridler in 1938) would have been 19 when Williams submitted the MS. to Gollancz – I wonder if there might be any playful reference there, too?)

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      A curious name-feature of the novel is that (if I recall correctly) their father has taken advantage of the surname Coningsby to name his children after the title characters of two more novels by Benjamin Disraeli that followed Coningsby; or, The New Generation (1844): Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845) and his penultimate completed novel, Lothair (1870). I enjoyed Coningsby, but don’t recall it suggesting to me why Williams might have developed this play with Disraeli. I’ve not caught up with the Lothair or Sybil, yet, though I see the latter is read for LibriVox by the superb Nicholas Clifford (at just under 17 hours).

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Speaking of names, if I may quote my Dictionary of Literary Biography article, “It seems impossible that Williams is not teasing” his close “friend, the occultist, vicar, and fanatically confirmed bachelor, A.H.E. Lee, when, in The Greater Trumps, he gives the young lover the name ‘Henry Lee’ and his grandfather the priestly name ‘Aaron Lee’ ” (vol. 153, p. 325) – ‘Henry’ being A.H.E. Lee’s nickname among his friends, whom I am equally confident forms the basis for ‘Henry’ in the novel, The Marriage-Craft (1924) by their mutual friend, D.H.S. Nicholson.

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  4. I’ve often wondered whether T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world” in Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, lines 62-65) was inspired by the scene in The Greater Trumps where the Tarot figures are observed dancing about the unmoving Fool. Eliot was a great admirer of Charles Williams, and is known to have read most of his works.

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    • I’ve wondered that as well, and have encountered something like that “still point” in several other words from the period, too, so it was clearly going around.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Humphrey Carpenter reported that “Eliot by his own admission took ‘the still point of the turning world’ in Burnt Norton from the Fool in Williams’s The Greater Trumps” in The Inklings (1978), giving as his source an “unpublished journal of Mary Trevelyan (in possession of the author)” (pp. 98, 270). She was his maternal aunt and he later wrote an article about her “View of T.S. Eliot” in the journal, English (1989). Whether that gives more details, and what, if any, relationship her journal bears to her memoir, T.S. Eliot: The Pope of Russell Square (ed. Ian Smith, Enitharmon Press), I do not know.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I heard a good sermon on this Trinity Sunday by an Inklings-loving priest including attention to Athanasius at the Council of Nicea and what is “commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius”, and it made me think of another high point of this novel, Nancy’s experience of a musical setting of that Creed – but I forgot to ask him, afterwards, if he happened to know any musical settings. The rubric in The Book of Common Prayer lists the Feasts upon which “shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer […] this Confession” and the Wikipedia article on it says “The creed was often set to music”, sadly, without giving any examples, beyond noting “A metric version titled ‘Quicumque vult’, with a musical setting, was published in The Whole Booke of Psalmes printed by John Day in 1562.” My forays into searching YouTube have so far only discovered the metal band Cradle Catholic with it recited in Latin against a musical background!

    I am left wondering what (if any) musical point(s) of departure Williams might have had, beyond his own imagination, and thinking how interesting it might be, if some Williams-loving musician would try to compose a setting exhibiting the features he describes in the novel.

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  6. tess says:

    Hi, new commenter here!
    I’ve been popping in and out of your blog this past year since a friend turned me on to the novels of CW. Your blog has been a most excellent resource! I’ve been reading Lewis since I was a teenager and Eliot the past few years, so whenever you point out the parallels it’s like a literary Easter egg. 🙂

    I have to admit that “Trumps” had a couple hurdles for me, mostly because I hit a point where Williams’ characterization of women started to make my eyes cross a little bit. But the Dance and the Fool more than made up for it. Some of the Juggler/Fool imagery reminded me of a favorite book, “The Solitaire Mystery” by Jostein Gaarder, the Jester in the story being the one who wants to meet his creator. 🙂

    Sorina, I was wondering if you’re speaking locally at all this summer? I understand you teach at LCCC and I’m kind of local to you over here in Berks county.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If you’ll pardon my intruding, it’d be interesting to hear it, if you would like to say more about that “point where Williams’ characterization of women started to make my eyes cross a little bit.” For example, where Sybil is concerned, are other “Submitted Saint” characters similarly problematical? I often think of her and Archdeacon Julian Davenant – two of my favorite Williams characters – together. But I have questions about some of the details of his characterization: am I ‘getting’ what Williams was intending, or is he not achieving what he’s aspiring to, there? (I like the details of sharing a name with the Lady Julian of Norwich and his answer to Sir Giles’ priest as “corpse woman” intended insult…) Or, for another example, what do you find more, and what less, convincing in the development of Nancy?

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      • tess says:

        Hi, David! Thanks for the reply.

        I’m just a lay reader of Williams, and I’ve only read the seven novels for the first time last year. I suspect that my impressions will probably change somewhat with a thorough reread.

        I guess one could say that “Trumps” has better developed female characters than in the other novels; but I still couldn’t shake the sense that the women in “Trumps” did not share in the same type of personhood as the men; they don’t seem to have the same type of agency. I think that all of the women in CW seem to be more or less walking Jungian archetypes of femininity— the hagiography of Sybil being an example of that. I found it distracting, to be able to read the men as people, and have to read all of the women as personifications of Ideals. So I think that Nancy was more convincing as a representation of the idea of repentance, or reorientation, than she was as an actual flesh-and-blood woman. Whether or not this was CW’s explicit intention, or just an artifact of his complicated relationships with women, I have no idea. I’m sure Sørina could set me straight on that. 🙂

        The “corpse-woman” quote and response is an interesting example to bring up. On one hand, I think it flirts just a little bit too much with a patriarchal anthropology— the idea that the masculine is active and the feminine is receptive/passive. I think that the metaphor of Hosea and Gomer, that God is the masculine to the feminine of humanity, is just that: a metaphor. Not a defining rule of spiritual hermeneutics. What did you find most compelling about that particular conversation?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Thanks for taking this up, with such a lot of interesting and weighty matters! I’m reading around in Helen Luke’s Jungian approach to the novels, and rereading in War in Heaven, and hope to attempt an intelligent response before too long!

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          • tess says:

            I look forward to reading your thoughts! Thanks for the tip on Helen Luke— now I’ve got more books to add to my book-budget list.! 🙂

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              You’re welcome! It seems strange to me that, for example, while Amazon’s Helen M. Luke Page lists 12 tiles (nine books, including some different editions), none of them is Through Defeat To Joy, The Novels of Charles Williams in the Light of Jungian Thought (1980), which only turns up second-hand when searched for, and seems never to have been reprinted! It appears to be earlier and shorter than any of the others, but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit odd that it’s neglected in this fashion. Perhaps Williams is considered too specialized, taken alone? – for, the reviews of Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays mention Williams as among authors discussed and quoted…

              I’ve been avidly rereading on right through The Greater Trumps, and, having finished the chapters entitled “Sybil” and “Nancy” will at least read “Joanna” as well before trying to respond!

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              With apologies, I now seem bent on finishing rereading the whole novel, and some pressing responsibilities are catching up with me, too – so it may be several more days, yet – but I am brooding over things enjoyably as I reread… (a thought I have begun to toy with is that it is like a reversal of The Place of the Lion – in some ways, at least – with Nancy here more like Anthony there, and Damaris there more like Henry here…).

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    • Welcome to the blog! I’m delighted that you’ve commented. I’m happy to have you here. I’m not speaking anywhere locally this summer, but I do host a group you might be interested in: http://ekphrasisarts.wordpress.com/. You’re very welcome to attend. I’d love to meet you in any case.

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  7. tess says:

    Thanks, Sørina! Your group sounds positively lovely. I will keep an eye out for your summer meetings. 🙂

    David, take your time! All good things are worth the wait. 🙂 It’s not like I’m going to go have this conversation with my neighbor at the checkout counter of the grocery store, lol.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks, Tess! I tend to read in long check outs, and did once have a very interesting conversation (leading to friendship) when I was reading a Dorothy Sayers Dante translation, and my line-neighbor was also interested in both Dante and DLS! (So, you never know…)

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  8. tess says:

    Oh my word! David, thank you for pointing me in the direction of Helen Luke. I just finished rereading “Till We Have Faces,” and a used copy of “The Way of Woman” came in the mail today. Turns out there’s a whole chapter devoted to Orual, and it’s A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

    There’s nothing like the pleasure of discovering a new cherished author. 🙂

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    • tess says:

      Oh! Just FYI, I found the essay, “The Novels of Charles Williams” in the Kaleidoscope anthology. I’m not sure if it’s the same as the book you pointed out, David, but it looks promising nonetheless!

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Helen M. Luke’s Through Defeat to Joy: The Novels of Charles Williams in the light of Jungian thought has a five-line Preface (p. [I]V), a two-and-a-bit page Introduction (pp. V-VII), and 82 mostly very full pages of main text, with very narrow margins (plus a two-page Glossary: pp. 83-84). It is divided into four chapters: I Power (with separate discussions of the first five and the seventh novels: pp. 1-55), II Exchange and the Doctrine of Substituted Love (discussing the sixth novel: pp. 56-67), III Incarnation (pp. 68-74), and IV Joy (pp. 75-82). Amazon lists 341 pages as the length for a couple editions of Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays which it offers, so, if it does reprint Through Defeat to Joy, that must take up nearly a quarter of it, at least.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Glad to discover I’ve been of service! I’ve heard good things of her and her work from various people, including an old professor and friend who recommended her book, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity, without (as I recall) having known her work on Williams. Anne Ridler passed on to me the copy I have of Through Defeat to Joy: The Novels of Charles Williams in the light of Jungian thought: she did not agree with everything, but was favourably impressed and thought it worth reading (critically).

      I’ve been reading, and reading about – and occasionally attending lectures on – Jung, in a very haphazard, piecemeal way for decades, both interestedly and uncomfortably. R.C. Zaehner’s discussion of Jung’s thought in Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) – a book I’d highly recommend in its own right! – is something of a touchstone in practice for me, without my having read enough of Jung directly to evaluate it thoroughly.

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  9. Hi Sorina et al,
    Your summary series is good incentive to mix the CW novels into my reading regimen and I’m glad I’ve finally caught up with you having just finished The Greater Trumps. I welcome the coming “dry phase” between novels to catch my breath!

    The tarot is the first sacred object from a novel that has no particular historical connection to Christian doctrine, which I liked. The tarot provided so much potential imagery and symbolism that, while I enjoyed it, I also felt that Williams left a lot unused in that department. The resolution of the dead child subplot I found utterly inscrutable–until I read Outlines in Romantic Theology just afterwards. Outlines also had the effect of making me like less Williams’ ideas on Love, since it makes his theological view explicit. As he writes there:

    “To students who do not accept the doctrine of the Incarnation, the suggestions made will probably appear fanciful; it is at any rate certain, as a compensation, that to no Christian can they appear as anything but natural and probable, even if in the end they should have to be, for one cause or another, rejected.”

    There are some things I like about the CW’s portrayal of love here and the novel allows one room for interpretation (even if due to the impossibility of full understanding without a crib). Through the lens of Romantic Theology and the Incarnation (which I do not accept), it does indeed appear fanciful. And in the case of Joanna’s child, bordering on self-parody.

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    • Thanks, Dave! I’m delighted you are reading the novels.

      I have exactly the opposite problem. I accept the doctrine of the Incarnation, yet the suggestions he makes there appear anything BUT natural and probable!

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It would be interesting to know what, if any, place the Tarot had in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross as compared with the Golden Dawn, before Waite’s ‘takeover’ (and after, under Waite – again, if any).

      If I am not mistaken, Williams imagines out of whole cloth both the figures and their interrelation with the ‘original pack’, as part of one representation of reality (‘figura rerum’?) based on a certain degree of spiritual experience by their artefactor. In the course of doing so, he radically critiques the predictive fortune-telling value of the cards – or seems to do so (as what can alone be really effective in this is the (re)union of figures and original pack – and perhaps someone of sufficient spiritual maturity, where perceiving the Fool is concerned). What, though, I wonder, of any continuing ‘analytical’ usefulness of the ‘imitated’ cards where the inner person is concerned?

      Colman O’Hare, in his dissertation, looks at Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild (1923) in comparison with (and as a possible – even likely? – source for) certain elements in Williams’s fiction – I think (if I recall correctly) including the attempt of Joanna and her husband to procreate their child ‘in the dance’.

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  10. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 2: Cabbalistic beliefs about words | The Oddest Inkling

  11. CW Seper says:

    Just thought I would mention here, that while tarot cards hold absolutely no interest for me, I did research them many years ago. If anyone is interested, I believe the Great Dance of CW’s novel was greatly influenced by The Vision (WB Yeats). The Vision is arguably Yeats’ worst literary effort; nonetheless, the influence on CW seems apparent. Also, for those trying to comprehend Yeats’ contribution to the tarot system, Arland Ussher’s book, The XXII Keys of the Tarot, will be a great help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, yes; you are right. Williams quotes from “The Vision” on at least one occasion. And then I believe that CW’s Great Dance influenced C. S. Lewis’s in “Perelandra.” Thanks for the book recommendation!

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  12. Pingback: The Dispassionate Sybil and The Greater Trumps | Eclectic Orthodoxy

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