Charles Williams Book Summary #25: The Greater Trumps (Gollancz, 1932)
Hooray! 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.
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 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:
– 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!