Today’s book summary is a guest post kindly written by the great CW scholar Richard Sturch. Richard was born in 1936 and holds a BA (Oxon) 1958, MA 1961, and D Phil 1970. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1962 and retired in 2001. He is the Secretary of the Charles Williams Society. He has taught at various times at Ripon Hall, Oxford; the University of Nigeria; and the London Bible College. Dr. Sturch is married and has two daughters and four grandchildren. I recommend that you check out his book Four Christian Fantasists. A Study of the Fantastic Writings of George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien and his edited collection Charles Williams and His Contemporaries.
Scene from a Mystery
This piece was published in G.K. Chesterton’s weekly The New Witness on December 12th, 1919, pages 70-73. As its name suggests, it purports to be part of a Mystery Play: specifically, that dealing with the Nativity. It is written in rhymed couplets, or quatrains when Love is speaking. The form of the play is ritualistic, with trumpet-calls and “great ceremony”; there is even a thurifer on stage, though he does not seem to do anything.
No later Scenes were written, nor probably ever meant to be; but there are strong resemblances between this “Scene” and the later ”Rite of the Passion” in Three Plays. As in that play, the central figure is Christ under the name of “Love”. On either side of Love are Gabriel and Satan – again as in the “Rite”; but in that Satan is definitely a servant of the divine will, whereas here that is only hinted at.
The play opens with a speech by Love, curiously ambiguous (well, perhaps not curiously to aficionados of Williams); he is “the odour of sweet hallows” but also “the hands that catch and crucify”; he is Love, but his other “lordly name” is Death. The suggestion is made that the play will be both an “outer tale”, showing the story of Christ, and also an “inner” one, in which we are to see God’s (and Satan’s) workings in the soul. Hence Satan is to appear as a tempter – whether of “Love” or of us all.
Four sections follow. The first depicts the Annunciation and the entrusting of Mary and her child to Joseph (“as intellect is wed to sanctity”). Then come the Shepherds, who represent the oppressed classes hoping for deliverance (”O if the tyranny of rich men cease!”) and are reassured first by Mary and then by Love. The third section gives us the Kings (“Masters of knowledge, potencies in man”): Gaspar, wise in economics (to borrow a phrase from the later Williams) and law; Melchior, lord of poetry and art; and Balthasar, lord of “vengeance, penitence and sacrifice”. Love accepts their offerings, but with the warning that if they forget their (and Love’s) higher purpose they will be destroyed.
In the fourth section Satan tempts Herod (“all men’s lust for power”) with the fear of revolution, and incites him to the massacre of the Innocents. But he is also testing Love; will he dare leave them to die? He will, and the Scene ends on a very dark note.
The verse of the Scene is very much “early Williams”. But the ideas in it were developed in later writings. The links with “The Rite of the Passion” have already been mentioned, but three very similar Kings reappear in “Seed of Adam”, and the trio of Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate which we find in “The Three Temptations” is hinted at (though Pilate naturally has no place at the Nativity, and Caiaphas, also strictly an anachronism, has only a few lines to speak.)
Thank you! This is fascinating! Perhaps, Williams now being to a considerable extent out of copyright, the Society could post the text on its website, allowing this to lead the reader into the thing itself.
The Three Kings – and Herod the Great – make interesting appearances elsewhere in Williams’s early poetry, too: for example, the three poems under “The Epiphany” in Poems of Conformity (1917: pp. 92-96), scanned in the Internet Archive.
The quotation “the hands that catch and crucify” makes me think of what is said to Cranmer in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936) about the rack and the cross – by the Skeleton, who obviously looks deathly, but describes himself as the Back of Christ.
Finally, I am reminded of Elizabeth Goudge’s “By the Water of Babylon” in The Ikon on the Wall and other Stories (1947), and wonder whether there is much modern popular literature about the Holy Innocents.
Speaking of Christmas verse, Tolkien’s 1936 poem, “Noel”, has just been rediscovered:
And, speaking of verse drama retelling Biblical events, it has a much longer history than I realized:
Curious, too, to think that Herod, Caiaphas, Pilate, any First-century A.D. Greek-speaker, could conceivably have read Ezekiel the Tragedian!
Interesting to think that this is obviously a play for at least the mind’s eye (with its silent thurifer!), but, that by the time Williams seemed to be trying to rewrite The Chapel of the Thorn a few years later, radio drama had begun – a medium and form which he would in due time add to those he worked in.