An Introduction to Taliessin through Logres
This post is meant especially for those of you who have never read Charles Williams’s Taliessin through Logres, who have tried to read it but given up, or who have read it but felt that you didn’t really grasp it very well. It also serves as an introduction to the upcoming series in which various guest bloggers will write their way through all 24 poems in the volume. And, of course, I hope it provides insights even to those of you who have read, loved, and (is it possible?) understood these dense, complex, gorgeous poems!
My first piece of advice is: Do NOT follow C. S. Lewis’s recommended reading order. No, no. Read Taliessin through Logres straight through from beginning to end, as Charles Williams designed it. Lewis, surprisingly, missed the poetry, narrative, logical, and spiritual structure of this book in his commentary in Arthurian Torso. He was looking for purely chronological plot elements, thinking to simplify the reading for a newcomer, but I think his suggested reading order ruins the poems. Just take them as they were designed.
And then, read just for the sounds and the images. Revel in the phonoaesthetics and the lavish visual descriptions. That is the really first thing to realize about Taliessin through Logres; it is beautiful. The poems are rich with musical appeal and dancing with gorgeous imagery. I recommend that your first reading should be a purely aesthetic immersion, in which you listen as to the sound of strings and look as at galleries of abstract oils. Don’t try to grasp the content of the poem intellectually on a first reading; don’t even worry whether you’re understanding the story fully the first time through. You probably won’t, because the *plot* isn’t really the point, and is a bit buried under layers of symbolism and convolutions of verse. So, first of all, just swim in the beauty. How about luscious sentences like this one:
The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.
or this piece:
A forest of the creatures: was it of you? no?
monstrous beasts in the trees, birds flying the flood,
and I plucked a fish from a stream that flowed to the sea:
from you? for you? shall I drop the fish in your hand?
in your hand’s pool? a bright-scaled, red-tailed fish
to dart and drive up the channel of your arm?
Just listen to the music of the poetry, and let it swim in your bloodstream. Take the masterful one-sentence, 36-line lyric “Taliesin’s Song of the Unicorn” all in one breathless gulp, glorying in its ravishing loveliness.
And then let it sit for while. Then return for a second reading. On this time through, you can read for Story. Don’t worry about all the symbolism, the layers of meaning, the occult references, and the impenetrable idiomatic phrases. Just understand the people and the events of the poems. To help you out, here is a synopsis of the action as it unfolds in the 24 poems of Taliessin through Logres, in the order in which they were published.
A Prelude lays out the political and spiritual situation in which CW’s Arthurian mythology takes place. Don’t get hung up over the exact historical details, especially because CW has conflated 1000 years of European history down into the span of Arthur’s lifetime, and also erased the East-West schism of the Church, for his own theological purposes. All you need to get is that the Gospel was racing across Europe, transforming the globe, until Britain’s sins at home and the advance of Islam abroad interfered with the realization of the doctrine of Incarnation.
The first character you will meet is Taliessin. You don’t know anything about him when you meet him, except that he is returning to “Logres” (England/Britain as the center of God’s kingdom on earth). As you read, you realize that he unites two identities in himself: he’s a Druid, with pagan power and poetry, and he’s been traveling on the Roman road and calls upon “the Mercy”—so he’s a Christian, uniting pagan magic and Christian mysticism in himself. He plays the harp; he’s a poet; he’s bringing all of these united contraries with him into Arthur’s camp. So he sets up the spiritual and poetic themes that will be important in Arthur’s kingdom.
Then Taliessin shares his “Vision of the Empire,” and you find out that he has travelled across Europe to Byzantium, to Constantinople, and that’s where he heard the Gospel. He also had a grand vision of the whole Empire working together, like one great body, under the Emperor’s command. He’s communicating this vision to Arthur, because it will be the inspiration and motivation for his heavenly-kingdom-on-earth, Logres.
This is where the “gynocomorphical” map comes in handy: Taliessin pictures the Empire as a female body, and he often refers to provinces (or “themes”) of the Empire by their anatomical correspondences. Don’t let this trip you up; for now, just think of the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, and you’ll get the general idea.
While he’s sharing his vison of the Empire, Williams also retells his Myth of the Fall of Man. The most helpful preparation for understanding his view of the Original Sin is found in He Came Down from Heaven, a highly idiosyncratic theological work. Chapter II, “The Myth of the Alteration in Knowledge,” presents a new reading of chapter 3 of Genesis. I wrote about that here; I recommend that you read it before trying to wrap your head around “The Vision of the Empire.”
Anyway, to get back to the story. Taliessin tells Arthur all about the Emperor’s vision for his kingdom, and then Merlin meets Arthur on the road and tells him to build Camelot. The last of the corrupt kings in London dies, and Arthur begins his work. Lancelot comes to join him. Order begins to take shape and to set up its patterns in Logres.
Then Arthur must fight the Battle of Badon hill to beat back the invading Saxon “pirates” (as CW calls them). All his best knights are there, commanding divisions of his army: Lancelot, Gawaine, and Bors. Taliessin has not only been appointed King’s poet; he’s also the King’s Captain of the Horse—the cavalry, the mounted troops. He watches the battle, waiting for the precise moment to strike. At the same time, he envisions Virgil writing the Aeneid, waiting for just the right word to finish a line. Virgil finds the word, Taliessin sees the enemy’s weak point, and he charges. The battle is won; Logres is established, and Arthur’s kingship assured.
Arthur’s coronation follows the battle, in a heraldic poem filled with the blazing colors and beasts of the knights’ and ladies’ coats-of-arms. Merlin watches all the animals on the banners swirling in Camelot, and he senses things of the future. Arthur asks himself the vital question: Do I exist to serve the kingdom, or does the kingdom exist to serve me? Merlin then sees the Dolorous Blow: the wicked spear-thrust by which Balan wounded King Pelles, sealing Camelot’s doom. This suggests that Arthur answered his question wrongly, setting himself above the kingdom and refusing to serve. It is the first example of the theme of this whole book: Love Gone Wrong. There are many kinds of love in these poems, and most of them are perverted, twisted, doomed.
But first, Taliessin, court poet, sings his debut: his Song of the Unicorn. It is a perfect, virtuosic performance: a masterpiece of modernist verse. Its one long sentence unwinds with speed and grace, weaving all of CW’s major themes into one consistent setting, one contained metaphor. It’s sexual, passionate, shocking, and powerful. I won’t spoil it; wait for Jennifer Raimundo’s guest post on it. Yet I’ll wager you’re going to love it. I do. I will never recover from my first reading of it, six years ago, on a cold, rainy day, after I had walked from a train station to a greasy little café. I sat clutching a cup of tea, feet soaked and chilled, drawn into this strange, dangerous, mysterious world where a woman might submit to being impaled by the mythical beast. I was wounded and moved.
So, we gather, were Arthur’s knights, when they heard this song sung in court. The first to speak of his wounding is Sir Bors—the only example in the poetry of Love Gone Right. He rides home from court to visit his wife, and gives her a “fish” that he has “plucked” out of Taliessin’s song, and it swims up her veins and through her body, which he worships. The fish is love, certainly, but it is also myth, truth, and meaning. It is, in short, CW’s Romantic Theology, embodied, personified, brought to life as an animal, and in Elayne’s body. It is the Affirmative Way in action.
Following on the Arthur’s military victory, the establishment of his kingdom, and the display of domestic love in action at the heart of the kingdom, Taliessin goes to visit the School of the Poets. Because, you know, the first thing you do after winning the war is to start educating kids to write epic poetry. Right? Well, maybe you should. Only after giving life to verse should you start setting up banks. Taliessin visits and lectures the young writers on order, anatomy, law, and empire. Then he speaks a poem for them, presumably as an example of great verse: “Taliessin on the Death of Virgil.” What the first “Bors to Elayne” poem was for Romantic Theology, this poem is for The Way of Exchange. In it, Taliessin tells how Virgil died and was falling, falling, falling, on his way to the grave, on his way to hell. But later readers, who would be saved by reading Virgil’s works, reached back from the future and gave him eternal salvation. “Virgil was fathered of his friends. / He lived in their ends. / He was set on the marble of exchange.” Thus CW lays the theological foundation for Logres in simultaneity, service, poetry, romantic theology, and exchange.
Then we see the first of the Loves Gone Wrong. Palomides, a Muslim, travels from Iran to become a Knight of the Round Table. On the way, he lands in Cornwall, where he is offered hospitality by King Mark—and sets eyes upon Iseult. Tristam is there, too, and they all fall in love with Iseult at the same time. Talk about awkward. King Mark is oblivious; Iseult has eyes only for Tristram; and Palomides sings her a love song about her arm’s perfect geometry. He catches a glimpse of her true, perfected nature and sees the meaning of the universe—but she moves, she speaks, she is imperfect, and his vision flees away. He determines to chase it, this “questing beast,” this “division stretched between / the queen’s identity and the queen,” and make something of himself before he will submit to conversion and baptism.
And then there’s another Love Gone Wrong. Lamorack, Knight of the Table, brother of Sir Percivale, travels north and sees the stone sculptures carven on the coasts of the Orkney Islands. He also sees Queen Morgause, the living image of the cold stone ancestors, and his heart is bruised and broken on her hardness. Back in Camelot, Lamorack talks to Merlin, who sees a vision of Morgause and her brother Arthur in incest, and from their evil union will come a child, “the web of all our doom,” Mordred.
But that’s still in the future, or at least, it is hidden. Arthur, secure, begins minting coins. Sir Bors—image of Love Gone Right, remember—reports to his wife the conversations the economic committee had about the minting of coins. Taliessin is afraid of them: they are symbols, set loose from verse, running unchecked about the kingdom, separating exchange from community. But Sir Kay and the Archbishop think the coins are a great idea, because “money is a medium of exchange.”
Then there’s a short, ambiguous moment of Love, but I’m not quite sure whether it’s Gone Right or Gone Wrong. A slave girl hears Taliessin singing and falls in love with him. He tells her to love another—presumably Christ—but we’re unsure whether she is able to make that great leap. Meanwhile, others commit idolatry: while celebrating the Eucharist, Balan is thrust through with anger, Arthur sees only himself in the elements, and Lancelot sees only Guinevere.
Next, Taliessin comes across a slave girl—possibly the same one who loved his singing—who has been set in the stocks. He speaks to her, and her pride breaks, and she is set free. This follows thematically on the concepts of order, discipline, and hierarchy that have been set up.
And then it is Taliessin’s turn to fall in love. He is lying on a wall on a stormy July afternoon, watching a slave draw water, making a metaphor of the whipping scars on her back, when Blanchefleur enters the scene. Blanchefleur, Percivale’s sister, will be the focus of his Romantic Theology. But the story of their love doesn’t come in this poetic cycle; you’ll have to wait for The Region of the Summer Stars for that.
Because next up, it’s the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Or, rather, the story of Lancelot and Helayne. Do you know the tale? Lancelot came to Carbonek, the castle of the Hallows, where King Pelles lives, and was beguiled by magic into thinking Helayne was Guinevere. Doubly unfaithful to his vows to Arthur as knight and to Guinevere as courtly lover, he slept with Helayne. Their child would be Galahad, the pure knight, the High Prince, the achiever of the Grail. But in CW’s poem, we don’t get all this directly in the narrative. Instead, we get Merlin, high in a tower, watching all things by his magic. Merlin sees winter and famine gripping the kingdom. He sees the Grail quest, and the Islamic invasions. And then… he sees Lancelot waking, realizing what he has done—and running mad, turning into a wolf, living in a nine-months nightmare, “a delirium of lycanthropy.” Lancelot, crazy, hungry, desires nothing for those nine months but to devour his own son. Merlin sees this, and leaves the vision, leaping into action in real time. Merlin turns himself into a wolf, a great, white wolf, and lopes across the kingdom to meet Lancelot, a great, grey, lean, shaggy wolf, and they arrive at Carbonek just as the child is born. The wolves leap and clash, just as the Emperor in Byzantium sends out his army against heretics, and the Merlin-wolf sends the Lancelot-wolf crashing to the ground. Merlin’s sister, Brisen, takes the baby from his mother and ties him on Merlin’s furry back. Merlin gallops away, and brings the baby safe to Blanchfleur, who is a nun at Almesbury. There, she will be Galahad’s foster-mother. Lancelot loses the wolf-shape and is tended in Carbonek. By Easter, he is well and can ride for Camelot.
Meanwhile, Palomides tries to catch the Questing Beast. It leads him to a stony cave, where he lies, lonely, skeletal, longing for bones to lie down beside his bones for company. Brought to nothing, he is humbled and decides to submit to baptism.
And then Galahad comes to Camelot, a young man. The time in between his birth and his coming is telescoped into that one poem of Palomides’ lean years alone. And when Galahad comes, and there is great rejoicing in the hall, he is set by ritual substation in King Arthur’s bed, as if he is the child of Arthur and Guinevere, instead of the son of Lancelot and Helayne. He is, by substitution, the prince of the realm. A child of sin, he will be the means of grace. At his coming, the Grail is manifested in Camelot.
But the reader doesn’t get to watch that powerful scene first-hand. No, it is discussed behind the scenes, as it were, by Taliessin, Gareth, and a slave-girl—out among the kitchen-waste and sewage-pits of the castle. Even the refuse, the rubbish, the dung, is part of the grand pattern of being.
And thus, after the arrival of Galahad and the revelation of the Grail, Merlin departs. He sails away, leaving all things apparently in order. Palomides is baptized, then goes to study Kabbalah, learning of the hard way of endurance God has granted him, and then he dies. Percivale, Bors, and Galahad come to Carbonek to achieve the Grail.
And then the cycle skips ahead again, to the end, or nearly the end, of the story. The three Grail Knights are on a ship, sailing, sailing away. It is not clear (to me) whether they have the Grail with them, or whether they are sailing to find it. I think they are sailing to Sarras, the land of the Trinity. Also on the ship is the dead body of Blanchefleur. She gave her life’s blood to save another woman’s life, in the ultimate act of Exchange. As they sail, Galahad sings a litany for all the kingdom’s losses—and in this way the reader learns that Logres has been destroyed. Dindan has been murdered by Agravaine. Lamorack killed in an ambush. The sons of Morgause have slain their mother. Gawaine has “hewed the Table in twain”—presumably for the accidental death of Gareth (or is it Gaheris?) that is told in some of the tales, but not in this one. All of this, over the scandal of Lancelot and Guinevere, but again, CW’s poems do not say that. At the end of the penultimate poem, “The Last Voyage”:
In Logres the King’s friend landed, Lancelot of Gaul.
Taliessin at Canterbury met him with the news
of Arthur’s death and the overthrow of Mordred.
Logres was withdrawn to Carbonek; it became Britain.
And that would be the end of the story—betrayal, infidelity, defeat, death—except that this is Charles Williams’s story. Death is not the end. No, indeed. Lancelot (Lancelot, who is not a priest, and who is arguably the author of much of the horror) performs a Mass. Taliessin attends, and helps to sing some of the liturgy. During this Mass, several substitutions take place. It appears that Pelles has been healed, and somehow he and Arthur make an exchange, such that the dead King is present at the Mass. Guinevere, through another substitution, becomes Galahad’s mother (I think). Her substitution is also somehow responsible for Arthur’s exchange. I’m not sure whether to say that Lancelot’s celebration of the Eucharist heals all things, but the poem ends in joy and the prayers of Taliessin’s Company. It seems that the political kingdom of Logres has failed, but the spiritual kingdom of the Grail lives on in the prayers of those few who remain, and in the company of all the co-inherent living and dead.
That, then, is the “plot” of Taliessin through Logres. I hope it helps you on your second reading.
And then! Then you can go on to a third reading, in which you can start to move deeper, through the layers, tracing the anatomical imagery, searching for the working-out of CW’s major themes, learning the significance of recurrent phrases and images. So, after the series of guest posts on the individual poems, I’ll come back again and talk about some of that. OK? Meanwhile, do let me know how your first (or second, third, or thousandth) reading of Taliessin through Logres goes!