Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 2: Cabbalistic beliefs about words

Doctor WHO?

Doctor WHO?

Countdown to Doctor Who Season 9! Two days to go! Yesterday I wrote about The Nature of Time. Today, let’s talk about WORDS. Words of power. Magic words.

In the Harry Potter universe, speaking the right words (even inaudibly) has magical results. There’s no discussion of the metaphysics of this: how does it work? Do you have to get the pronunciation right in order to set up certain powerful sound waves? Are you evoking deities who do the magic for you? Or what? Last night I listened to part of a podcast of This American Life episode called “Magic Words.” In Act One, a reporter tells about a book he received as a child that purported to teach him how to manipulate psychic atoms to control objects and people.

In Doctor Who, there’s a quasi-scientific explanation for how words can be magical. In the episode “The Shakespeare Code,” the Doctor figures out that the enemies, the Carrionites, have devised a method for “using shapes and words to channel energy,” for speaking “the right words with the right emphasis at the right time” to cause destruction.

At one point, the Doctor confronts one of these monsters:

DOCTOR: Creature, I name you Carrionite!
(Doomfinger screams and vanishes in a slow flash of light.)
MARTHA: What did you do?
DOCTOR: I named her. The power of a name. That’s old magic.
MARTHA: But there’s no such thing as magic.
DOCTOR: Well, it’s just a different sort of science. You lot, you chose mathematics. Given the right string of numbers, the right equation, you can split the atom. Carrionites use words instead.
SHAKESPEARE: Use them for what?
DOCTOR: The end of the world.

3-02-The-Shakespeare-Code-the-tenth-doctor-24141356-1280-720But at the end of the episode, it turns out that the three malevolent aliens—the models for the witches in Macbeth—have dictated the lost play, Love’s Labours Won, to Shakespeare: “the final words like a spell, like a code. Love’s Labours Won. It’s a weapon. The right combination of words, spoken at the right place, with the shape of the Globe as an energy converter!” The idea seems to be that the correct sound waves cause particular physical results, which these creatures know how to harness and use just as we know how to use electric, X-ray, and so forth.

Our heroes succeed by turning the weaponized words back against their enemies: Shakespeare improvises a poem that just happens to hit all the right notes and send the creatures back into the crystal ball from which they have come. Do have a look at this scene:

It’s hilarious, especially as the punchline is “Expelliarmus!”

The only problem is that the poetry is terrible. THOSE are words of power? Give me a break. The last lines aren’t even in iambic pentameter.

So, the point is that words have real, physical, scientific, magical power.

In Charles Williams’s writing, words also have real power. It’s spiritual power, but it certainly takes on a magical tone, and not only in his fiction. Check out this previous post, The Magical Name of God: “Windows of Night,” 1925, and this one, Mysticism, Magic, and Marriage: “The Greater Trumps”.

The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

Throughout The Greater Trumps, naming is particularly important. The young magical practitioner Henry Lee frequently names things as a way of gaining power over them or taking their power for himself. The mad old woman Joanna and her servant Stephen perform a ceremony of calling on the names of their gods. The great saint in the story, Sibyl, ponders that perhaps “the strange and half-mystical signs and names of the Greater Trumps had meaning and life.” When Henry thinks he sees all his plans for world domination going astray. He ponders whether

…the dark fate that falls on all mystical presentations, perhaps because they are not presentations only, had fallen on this; the doom which struck Osiris in the secular memory of Egypt, and hushed the holy, sweet, and terrible Tetragrammaton in the ritual of Judah, and wounded the Keeper of the Grail in the Castle of the Grail, and by the hand of the blind Hoder pierced the loveliest of all the Northern gods, and after all those still everywhere smote and divided and wounded and overthrew and destroyed…

Magic cannot work when the Name of God, the Tetragrammaton, is silenced.

But this is fiction! This is a wild fantasy in which Tarot cards create storms and golden figures dance the pattern of the entire universe. Surely Williams didn’t believe any of this in real life?

In 1944, he wrote to his young disciple Lois Lang-Sims (“Lalage”), giving her instructions on how to draw a Pentagram properly “for the Banishment of Evil Spirits or Elementals and the stabilizing of the good.” He says he wouldn’t dare to draw a reversed Pentagram, nor should he

care to say the Lord’s prayer backwards or (like the Wicked Man in my new novel [Simon Magus in All Hallows’ Eve]) try and pronounce the Reversed Tetragrammaton-if you know what that is. Do you know the Hebrew letters for it—Untitled
which are the Letters of the Divine Name that once a year before the Temple fell the High Priest pronounced in the Holy of Holies. Under the Shekinah. But (Blessed be He!) since it fell, we do not at all know the true pronunciation.

According to CW’s biographer, Grevel Lindop, (who has been tweeting 100 odd facts about The Oddest Inkling as a countdown to the publication of the biography), CW was involved in some practical magic. When his platonic sweetheart Phyllis Jones was in the hospital, he gave her Wallis Budge’s Amulets & Superstitions because it had diagram of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and he circled the building sunwise to provide magical energy for recovery! Anne Ridler reported that he psychically detected site of Dark Age battle at Aisholt Somerset; another time he joined Oxford friends using a ouija.

Where did he get all this? Well, he probably got most of it from A.E. Waite, his occult mentor, wrote several works on Kabbalah—the Jewish form of mysticism that includes, among many other features, profound meditation on the Name of God. In Waite’s book The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah, a central doctrine is that “that Jehovah is one and his Name is one,” that “It was the form of celestial man that God assumed at the beginning of his manifestation. This is the Shekinah, this the Mercabah or chariot, and this also is the sacred name of Jehovah” (208). One level of initiation “investigates the mysteries of the Divine Majesty, of sacred names and pentacles” (368).

Now, I don’t want to overstate the case: Waite writes that “most popular writers, for almost all encyclopaedias which have not had recourse to a specialist, the Kabalistic art is simply the use of sacred names in the evocation of spirits” (23). And also, those quotes I used above are taken from an historical study, in which Waite is working as an historian to reveal what practices and beliefs have been in the past in particular times, places, and texts. But Aren Roukema wrote in his recent, ground-breaking article on CW’s involvement in the FRC that Kabbalah continued to be an important part of Golden Dawn and later FRC thought and practice.

All this scholarly stuff is to say: CW probably practiced mystical, if not magical, rituals involving the Name of God while he was in the FRC, and apparently continued practicing them forever after.

So perhaps HE should have been there with the Doctor at the Globe Theatre to banish the witches—he certainly would have written better poetry!b1bc4514db82c10276d7130653586e68

Tune in tomorrow for CW & DW on coinherence, and on Saturday for True Myth.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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11 Responses to Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 2: Cabbalistic beliefs about words

  1. Brandon says:

    Nice connection Sørina! That looks likr an AMAZING book by CW! I must put it on the list. Also I would add that Names, & Naming are super important in that magical children’s story The Hobbit, and even LOTR (e.g. Gandalf speaking the Black Speech in Rivendell, etc..). Kabbalah is a bit more than just this, but this is a very nice condensed version. Interesting reference to The Golden Dawn. Hope this opens the door so more of us can start talking about the Western Hermetic tradition and its relationship to the Inklings and all literature for that matter. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For ease of reading your quotations from The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah in context, and any further reading in it, there are two scans of copies in the Internet Archive – along with scans of a lot of his books, including The Secret Doctrine in Israel.

    About the Kabbalah and related matters, I would recommend the many and various works of Gershom Scholem. His Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism appeared while C.W. was alive, but I do not know if he knew it (Grevel may tell us!) – in it, Scholem discusses Waite a bit (q.v.).

    Among Jewish Kabbalists there are Kabbalists who are practical magicians, there are Kabbalists who are Gnostics, there are Kabbalists who are orthodox theists… And then there are the various things which non-Jews from at least the Renaissance on ‘make of’ Kabbalah.

    To take the matter you quote from C.W.’s letter to Lois Lang-Sims (which informs the quotation from The Greater Trumps), there are differences about this! Some are convinced that “we do not at all know the true pronunciation”, others are not. (Interestingly Simon in All Hallows’ Eve seems to have thought he knew it well enough pronounce it backwards as well!)


  3. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 3: Coinherence and Exchange | The Oddest Inkling

  4. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 4: True Myth | The Oddest Inkling

  5. Tovah says:

    The one day in which the name of G-d was pronounced in the Holy of Holies was Yom Kippur (described in Leviticus 16:31). This year (2015) it starts Tuesday September 22 and ends Wednesday September 23. In Orthodox Jewish synagogues the temple service is re-inacted (to a point), but without the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton because, as Mr Williams so rightly put it, that tradition has been lost through the mayhem that permeates much of Jewish history.

    A caveat though: in Jewish thought, Kabbala is meant to be studied by “advanced” students of Torah. When you see “kabbala for dummies” books they often do not hold a lot of weight, and kabbala, while used for white magic, is also used to understand G-d.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In a biographical sketch he wrote for an American professor, Lewis Chase at Duke University, when he contacted Williams as part of his plans to give a course on contemporary poets in the early 1930s, Williams noted his father “had a very strong feeling for the Jewish tradition” which “to some extent” he passed on to his son.

      I suppose Williams’s birthday, today 20 September!, sometimes coincided with Yom Kippur, but not in the year of his birth, according to

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hannah says:

    Your fascinating discussion on magic words of power led me to many other thoughts and questions. Words have lost so much of their meaning in our scientific and also image oriented culture:
    e.g. in the Medieval worldview everything is seen as a Word of God, so they looked for biblical truths in everything (e.g. Augustine compared the walnut to Christ’s redemptive work: the shell to the wood of the cross, the bitter substance surrounding the nut to Christ’s flesh and the sweet nut to divine revelation), the worldview CS Lewis describes so well in ‘The Discarded Image’.
    But it also made me wonder about the relation between Williams and Barfield as they must at least have known each other as Inklings. Barfield’s influence (e.g. Poetic Diction) on Tolkien is well described by e.g. Verlyn Flieger in ‘The Splintered Light’ and there are many examples in the LoR of the powerful usage/effect of words. And much is known about the relation between Barfield and Lewis (e.g. the Great War), but there seems little to nothing on Williams/Barfield.
    It also seems related to your ‘True Myths’ discussion as nowadays all meaning apart from the so-called objectively scientific is seen as subjective, hence the huge current interest in the LoR movies and Dr. Who series in reaction to that?


    • There is a huge amount of work yet to be done on Barfield at all, and specifically on Barfield and Williams. I know barely more than nothing on that subject. There is a little, bit of exploration of Barfield and Williams in the forthcoming “The Inklings and King Arthur,” but not much.

      On your last point, about “True Myth” — I’m not sure I understand it! Could you develop that point more?


      • Hannah says:

        There are so many aspects to it! Here some more thoughts!
        Re: “The idea seems to be that the correct sound waves cause particular physical results, which these creatures know how to harness and use just as we know how to use electric, X-ray, and so forth.”
        Is that all it is, only “correct sound waves’” The great interest in “Words as most inexhaustible source of magic” rather seems to indicate that man cannot live with that, so that there must be more to reality. But now it seems to be magic coming in through the back door with very vague notions about its source.
        This might tie in with your six options in ‘True Myth’ and then with option #5 and the Night of the Addison’s Walk with Tolkien and Dyson, when Lewis discovered “myth that entered history, being actually true”.

        Another approach ties in with your Shakespeare quote in Dr. Who –> in Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ Prospero, actually dóes cause a storm through his magic powers, being both scientist & magician alike.
        CS Lewis in “Abolition of man” (ch 3, p 46) has a great explanation of this co-existence:
        “There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the 16th and 17th century are the high noon of magic. The serious magical and s. scientific endeavors are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and strove …. they were borne of the same impulse …..
        There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise man of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. ……. For magic and applied science alike the solution to that problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of man through the practice of technique ….”

        Another CS Lewis quote, from his introduction to ‘The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth’ by D.E. Harding, gives a great summary of the process although I now understand that there is a quite a lot of Barfield’s influence in this: “At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe : first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As those items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. ……….. “

        Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, I wonder if Gareth Roberts in The Shakespeare Code is playing with the science-fictional elements of Anthony Burgess’s Enderby’s Dark Lady, or, No End to Enderby (1984), or whether any parallel is simply unavoidable?


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