I am currently engaged in writing the introductory chapter for my edited collection The Inklings and King Arthur. In it, I include a section in which I attempt to capture the essence of each of the four writers’–Barfield, Tolkien, Lewis, Williams–approaches to Arthuriana. Here is a draft of the section on Williams. Your comments, suggestions, critiques, etc. are very welcome.
Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945) was the most serious Arthurian author of the four. Indeed, he took his the legends of King Arthur so seriously as to shape his life and the lives of his friends and family after his unified vision of the stories. Whereas Barfield took one or two snippets from the Matter of Britain to serve his own Anthroposophist didacticism, Tolkien tried to draw Arthur into his own Mythology for England, and Lewis cut convenient elements out of their original context and pasted them into his modernist Mere Christian fairy tales, Williams took everything else—love, religion, work, history, geography, anatomy, politics—and viewed them sub specie Arthuriana. For this reason, as well as because he wrote the fullest, most complete Arthuriad, he is treated at greatest length in this volume.
Williams’s vision of the Grail quest also resulted in the highest-quality poetry any of the Inklings ever produced. On the level of sheer mechanical skill, I believe that Williams was the best writer of the group, although he certainly lacked Tolkien’s storytelling and world-building skills or Lewis’s clarity. His efforts are marred by obscurity and by a layering of systems of symbolism without a key, but Lewis was only exaggerating slightly when he assessed Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars “both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the century” (Preface to Essays Present to Charles Williams, vi-vii). Granted, Lewis was a personal friend of Williams’s, one of many who fell under the enchantment of his charms—but even Norris Lacy writes that Williams is “among modern English poets, the foremost reshaper and recreator of Arthurian mythology” (Lacy Encyclopedia 630).
Williams brought many fresh insights and startling innovations to his Arthuriad, both in narrative changes and, especially, a spiritual depth at once orthodox and occult. As many of his ideas are discussed throughout this volume, I will only touch on five of his innovations here.
Perhaps his greatest Arthurian innovation was making the Grail essential to the story: it is the sacred object that serves as a catalyst for the characters’ spiritual conditions and as the apex of the narrative arc. In an essay entitled “The Morte darthur,” Lewis wrote: “In the most recent and one of the most vital rehandlings of the legend, in Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, the Grail has been made central and the final tragedy is seen as the inevitable ruin of a society that had refused its high vocation.” Williams has given the Arthurian world “a dynamic orientation towards a new spiritual centre” (Göller 471): the unification of all the elements of the vast, sprawling Matter of Britain in the object of the Grail. In these poems, the Holy Grail is a synecdoche for all objects and actions of Christ’s passion: “Almost any article connected with the Act served for its symbol,” Williams wrote in The Figure of Arthur (206), meaning that any object associated with the Crucifixion could be used in commemorating it.
The Holy Grail is traditionally associated with Christ’s passion, as it was either the cup from which Jesus and the apostles drank at the Last Supper, and which Joseph of Arimathea subsequently used to catch blood from Jesus’s side, or it was the platter or plate on which Jesus ate bread for the last time before His crucifixion. In his quite learned (unfinished) prose study The Figure of Arthur, Williams traces the history of the doctrinal developments in the Christian Church related to the Eucharist. He reveals his wide knowledge of ecclesiastical, literary, and historical sources, and easily refutes “cauldron of plenty” theories. These hypotheses, put forward by such writers as James Frazer and Jessie Weston, claim that the Grail is merely a common archetype and that our idea of it evolved from earlier Celtic stories about a great magical pot that could provide endless food or raise the bodies of the dead that were flung into it. Williams gracefully disposes of these theories of primitivism: at the beginning of his chapter entitled “The Grail,” he writes about “that Cup which in its progress through the imagination of Europe was to absorb into itself so many cauldrons of plenty and vessels of magic” (197). At the end of the essay he gives a summary of the Frazer-and-Weston school of thought, then asserts again:
If it [the Grail] swallowed up its lesser rivals, it would exactly because it was greater. The poetic inventiveness of Europe found itself presented with the image of a vessel much more satisfying to it—merely as an image—than any other…. …the Grail contained the very Act which was related to all that existence. Of course, it absorbed or excluded all else; sui generis, it shone alone. (207)
This is what could be called Williams’s academic magnifying of the Grail. Later on, in his chapter on Chrétien and the French romances, entitled “The Coming of the Grail,” he claims that in the evolution of Arthurian literature, the Grail “became particular and the grand material object of Christian myth” (244). He traces the Grail’s path through poetry, as it becomes more and more closely related to high and holy mysteries. In discussing The High History of the Holy Grail, he complains that this romance “does not entirely unite the Arthur theme and the Grail theme, and this is the more disappointing because it starts off as if it were going to do precisely that” (258-9). He goes on to talk about moments when Arthur comes very close to “the mystery” of the Grail, but does not quite achieve it.
And there is the key to Williams’s own Arthurian poetry. His purpose was to unite the episodic, knightly tales of King Arthur and his court with the spiritual quest for the Holy Grail in a relationship closer than had ever been done in literature.
He does this in his poetry by a structure of narrative interlace and by using the Grail as a catalyst of spiritual disclosure. Characters’ responses to it are revelatory of their eternal salvific or damnatory condition. It functions much the way the crime does in many murder mysteries: as the detective investigates, the reader learns many dark secrets in the pasts of all of the characters, bringing them all under suspicion. The crime reveals their true natures. Similarly, the Grail itself functions this way in Williams’s Arthuriad: knights and ladies are able to approach the Grail when their souls are in right relationship with God, while those who have turned away from righteousness are unable to achieve it.
In his prose study, Williams talks through a literary history of King Arthur, then comes (on page 263 in the 1974 Eerdmans edition) to discuss his own contributions to the myth. He states “that the centre of the myth must be determined” (267)—meaning that he had to determine what the center would be in his adaptation—and then immediately determines it: “The problem is simple—is the king to be there for the sake of the Grail or not?”
That is the center of Williams poetry: will characters serve themselves, or will they serve God and the kingdom, revealing this service by their submission to the Grail? “It is the central matter of the Matter of Britain,” Williams boldly claims (267). It is certainly the central theme of his life’s literary work.
This theme reveals itself over and over again through the cycle, as characters face moments of decision. In each case, they must decide whether to satisfy their own self-turned desires or to serve something larger than themselves. On the day of his crowning, Arthur “stood to look on his city: / the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king?” (“The Crowning of Arthur,” TTL, ll. 62-3). This is the question he asks himself on the first day of his rule: Will I serve the kingdom, or will I use the kingdom to serve me? He answers the question wrongly, and this act of rebellion, of setting up himself against God (much like Satan’s in Paradise Lost) is the first of many such decisions that cause the destruction of the Empire.
One more example: members of the Court gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Arthur and Lancelot are there among the others, but “the king in the elevation beheld and loved himself crowned; / Lancelot’s gaze at the Host found only a ghost of the Queen” ((ll. 33-36). Arthur and Lancelot look at the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine, but they do not discern the Body of Christ. Instead, each sees his own object of idolatry. Arthur sees himself; Lancelot sees Guinevere. They suffer greatly for their sin, but something immeasurably worse than personal grief also occurs: the very Kingdom of Logres is lost, and then follows the most dreadful catastrophe that could possibly befall the human race: “Against the rule of the Emperor the indivisible / Empire was divided; therefore the Parousia suspended / its coming, and abode still in the land of the Trinity” (145-47). The sins of Arthur and his kingdom postponed the second coming of Christ!
These are the second and third of his Arthurian innovations: the nature of Logres and the postponement of the Parousia. “Logres” is a name for Arthur’s kingdom, “sometimes applied to Britain in Arthurian romance” (Lupack Encyclopedia 457). It can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In many versions of the tales, it is a kind of ephemeral, Edenic dream-kingdom: the ideal of what Arthur’s kingdom could be if all were ordered aright.
But Williams took this further. He developed the idea of two kingdoms coexisting simultaneously: the earthly, worldly, natural, political kingdom of Britain, and the heavenly, theocratic, archnatural, spiritual kingdom of Logres. These are analogous to (or more than analogous to: perhaps even sacramentally related to) the doctrine of the Old Man (the sinner) and the New Man (the saved saint) in Christian doctrine. In each kingdom, as in each person, the sanctifying spirit strives against the sin-enslaved self. In chapter three of this volume, entitled “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle,” Brenton Dickieson expands upon this definition of Williams’s Logres and shows how Lewis took up this idea and deployed it in That Hideous Strength.
His second innovation, then, was to posit a spiritual reality coexisting behind the geopolitical one—and his third is the logical extreme application of that principle. In his Encyclopedia, Norris Lacy wrote that the two volumes of Williams’s poetry take varying perspectives on their subject matter: “Taliessin Through Logres portrays the establishments, growth, and fall of the realm of Arthur. In a sense it shows the progress through the earthly kingdom. The poems of Region of the Summer Stars (the ‘third heaven’ of poets and lovers) take up the same themes, but from a perspective sub specie aeternitatis” (Lacy Encyclopedia 631). While this is partly correct, it would be more thoroughly accurate to say that both books investigate the relationship of the natural and the archnatural in Arthur’s kingdom(s). Heinz Göller praises this innovation: “Williams gives the story of King Arthur an entirely new slant…. Charles Williams provides us with a completely different concept of the Arthurian myth. The major innovation consists in the exclusion of an antithetical opposition of Logres and Rome…. The result of dropping the rivalry between Logres and Rome is a denationalisation of the Arthurian myth” (Göller 466-7).
If individuals’ decisions in the geopolitical realm are also, then, actual occurrences in the spiritual, it follows that failure in the one is disaster in the other. So when Arthur uses the kingdom as a mere tool for his own pleasure, when Lancelot replaces worship of Christ with idolatrous adoration of Guinevere, when “Balin and Balan fell by mistaken impious hate. / Arthur tossed loves with a woman and split his fate” (“Lamorak and the Queen Morgause of Orkney,” TTL, ll. 49-50): Balin killed his brother, then struck the Dolorous Blow against Pelles, then Arthur slept with his sister Morgause and fathered Mordred—when all of these people chose self above service, the kingdom of Britain fell.
But with it fell the spiritual kingdom of Logres. In Williams’s myth, Arthur was made king (from the point of view of Providence) in order to prepare a place for the coming of the Grail. Then, when the Grail was established in Logres, Jesus’s Second Coming would occur. When the chief actors in the Arthurian drama sinned, they rejected the Grail, so it left the shores of England and was hidden away in Sarras, the land of the Trinity, a mysterious island in the west across the sea. And then the Parousia itself was postponed.
This is a terrifying, startling innovation. To suggest that human decisions could wreck the plans of God is an extreme application of the doctrine of Free Will, but one that is perfectly in harmony with Williams’s usual practice of pushing a teaching to its further limits and discovering new perspectives on the truth there. Whether those farthest shores were always within the bounds of orthodoxy is an open question.
His fourth innovation is related; all of his ideas are inter-related in an unusually consistent, if idiosyncratic, system of thought. Not only is Arthur’s Britain shadowed by the heavenly (or Platonic) Logres; it is also a province of a Byzantine Empire of his own invention. This creative geopolitical entity is the product of layered historical conflation and hermetic imagery. In his Arthuriad, Williams conflates events from as early as c. 500 A.D. with those as late as 1453 (and, arguably, some references that are contemporary to his own time as well). I will not go into this topic in detail here, as I have done so elsewhere, and as aspects of this vision of empire are covered with insight and panache by Benjamin Utter and Andrew Rasmussen in their chapters in this volume. Suffice it to say that he lays the figure of a woman’s body over a map of Europe, then layers astrology, the Sephirotic tree, the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire, church history, and political history into a complex—but self-consistent—system of symbolism worthy of William Blake. It is a difficult symbolic system to decode, but its riches of imagery and meaning fully reward the diligent decoder.
Really, though, Williams was his own only decoder. He was the only one who held all the documents, all the keys, in his mind. Yet here is his fifth and final innovation: he required his friends, co-workers, and associates to participate in the system he had set up. He drew together autobiography and myth in a way that is perhaps unprecedented. This alone makes his life a worthy topic of literary study, as if anyone committed the intentional fallacy, it was Williams himself. Just as he drew no distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, so he drew none between work and life, between the literary and the living. He endeavored to shape his life, and the lives of those around him, after the pattern of his own Arthurian myth. One young disciple of his wrote that after first reading some of the poems that would later appear in RSS, “I was, not surprisingly, confused and bemused by the way in which the ‘Company’ [in ‘The Founding of the Company’] appeared to be at the same time the ‘household’ of the King’s poet in Charles’s own highly original version of the Arthurian myth, and the circle of his own personal friends” (Lang-Sims 38).
Some of Williams’ attempt at synthesis is described and analyzed by Bradley Wells, in chapter twenty of this volume: “Camelot Incarnate: Arthurian Vision in the early plays of Charles Williams.” In his workplace, the London Offices of Oxford Univserity Press at Amen House, Williams gave mythological names to his co-workers, wrote plays for them to perform, and behaved towards them on a daily basis as if they were all participants in a high and holy ceremony. One friend wrote that “In his mythical world [his workplace] was sometimes Byzantium, sometimes Camelot (the one being an extension of the other in the Taliessin poems”) (Lang-Sims 27). In one play, his colleagues processed through the library of Amen House in a publishing company’s Grail procession, carrying an inkpot, a pen, pieces of type, paper, and periodicals: he has brought the Grail into his workplace. In his personal relationships, he gave his friends (“disciples” is an apt word) nicknames taken from a variety of literary sources, then treated them according to the roles he had given them, such as slave, disciple, servant, etc.
All of this is to say that the Arthurian legend, according to the way in which he remade it, was at the center of Williams’s life. Or to put it another way: Tolkien and Lewis brought the Arthurian legend into their works, but Williams brought everything else into his Arthurian legend. To him, it was truth: biblical, spiritual, historical, mythological, occult, personal, and apocaplytic. It was his one story. It was his metanarrative.