I’m in such a cram-packed phase right now—finishing The Inklings and King Arthur; working diligently on a novel and a series of short stories for a couple hours a day; teaching at two colleges; serving as Dept. Chair at a another; tracking down books to review in Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis journal; composing assignments alongside my Creative Writing class; celebrating the engagement of both of my sisters, within weeks of each other (!); thinking about my upcoming keynote talk at Taylor this summer; shoveling snow—that I’m struggling to keep up with the chronological blog-through. But then again, I always have struggled to keep up with that, haven’t I? My idea
right now is to blog whichever book I’ve got ready to hand, perhaps a little bit out of order, and you can follow along on the INDEX if you want to read in order. I’ll try not to skip around too badly, but right now I’ve got the Collected Plays in front of me, and plays are quick reads. So, here goes.
Book Summary: The Death of Good Fortune: A Christmas Play (1939)
Compared to Seed of Adam, about which I wrote most recently, The Death of Good Fortune is an extremely simple play. In fact, it’s refreshingly accessible compared to almost anything else by Williams. There is a very small cast:
The Old Woman
There is one setting: “an open place in a city.”
The story is straight forward, if strange enough not to disappoint lovers of the bizarre. It takes place sometime after the events of Christ’s earthly life; the play opens with Mary introducing herself thus:
I am Wisdom whose name is Mary. I wept by the Dead.
I arose with the Arisen.
She also introduces the other main character of the play:
There is on earth a being called Good Luck;
he has spun much joy; his nature is heavenly,
but when men fell, he was half-blinded;
he does not know himself nor do men know him.
It turns out that ever since Good Luck came to town, everything has been wonderful. The King has been having great military success; the Lover has been delighting in his sweetheart; the Old Woman is optimistic that she’ll get her heart’s one desire, a home of her own; the Youth is caught up in the fun of going to the Fair.
But Mary prophesies that all this will soon change—or rather, she decides that she will change it!
I have determined that in this town this very day
this gay popular lord shall come to his change
and a strange new vision of himself.
The magician, too, has foreseen that some “great event” would occur. He assumed that the arrival of Good Fortune was the great event,
unless beyond the bound
of all sidereal traffic, there were something more—
but that no astrology has ever found.
Indeed, the thing that is about to happen no astrology has ever found. (Or has it? Ask Michael Ward!)
There is one other character who is rather an outsider, one who stands apart from the reckless optimism of the others. This is the magician’s daughter, and she is a bitter skeptic. She says she lives in “a world where despair only is true” and that if Good Fortune is a god, “I am an atheist.” Rejecting the King’s offer to give her whatever she desires—she desires nothing—she announces:
I will wait a little to see if your god will die.
And indeed—spoiler alert!—that is exactly what happens. Good Fortune asks everyone to worship him, and they do, preparing a formal ceremony, a “divine ritual.” But Mary steps in to stop it. Not because it’s idolatrous (at least, she doesn’t say so, and the play does not seem to me to suggest that), but because “it is time that he should die.” And he does.
Good Fortune dies.
The King’s enemies defeat his troops and penetrate his kingdom’s borders. The Old Woman’s long-hoarded money is stolen. The Lover’s girl dumps him. The Youth’s fair is closed down. All bewail their bad luck. The Magician’s “hazel rod” and “banishing pentagram” fail to raise the god from the dead. Finally, in desperation, they all turn to Mary, and the Magician bids her speak. She does (at some length), ending with:
When your god Good Fortune dies, the only thing
is to bid your god Good Fortune rise again.
That’s all. Quite simple. So she does: she bids him rise again, and in a passage of masterful, creepy, Eliotic verse, he does.
In her opening speech, Mary introduced the play’s mantra, repeating it three times: “All luck is good.” She continues to say this throughout the play, once expanding it:
Since my Son died, all things are good luck,
and fate and good luck and heaven are one name.
When he rises from the dead, Good Fortune repeats that refrain, and so does the Lover, and then Good Fortune claims: “I will be called Blessed Luck for ever” and invites the people around him “to welcome all chances that may come.” Some do; some do not, rejecting their suffering and leaving in pain.
The point of all this is clear: everything that happens is part of God’s plan, and those who love Him must submit gladly to everything that occurs. But when I put it into plain Christian cliché like that, how weak and thin it sounds next to the powerful, strange, occult story of a dying and rising god, and to the saying “All luck is good luck”?
And what about evil, CW? Are you making God the author of evil?
That, indeed, is the question.
This seems a sensible blogging approach: (ahem) good luck with all the rest of it! (Or ought I too have learned to prefer ‘best wishes!’ ?)
I am reminded of Williams’s New Christian Year selection:
Philosophy said: “Every lot is good whether it be harsh or pleasing.” And at this I was afraid and said: “What thou sayest is true: yet I know not who would dare to say so to foolish men, for no fool could believe it.”
Boethius: Consolations of Philosophy, translated by King Alfred.
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Don’t know about Charles Williams’ view on whether God is the author of evil, but I find Tolkien’s metaphor of the Music of the Ainur one of the most compelling explanations, inside or outside of pure theology: that evil “assayed ever to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.” And Iluvatar says, a little later: “No theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” Tolkien the Calvinist, though he would probably turn over in his grave if he knew I said it.
Thank you for this comment! I think you’re exactly right!!