TTL 1: “Prelude” — by Crystal Hurd

ttl rssHere is Post #1 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first.

Today’s post is about the “Prelude,” and it is by Crystal Hurd.

Dr. Crystal Hurd is an educator, writer, poet, and researcher. She lives with her husband and four dogs (among them “Jack” and “Lucy”) in southwest Virginia. Her interests include reading, writing, photography, and immersing herself in anything associated with England (especially Doctor Who). Crystal HurdOver the past decade, she has read and researched both biographical and rhetorical aspects of C.S. Lewis, fully endorsing his integration of faith and intellect. Her dissertation applied Transformational Leadership theory to the life and works of Lewis. Hurd works for the non-profit organization Develop Africa mentoring young women in Sierra Leone and Kenya. She is a staff writer for the art/faith blog All Nine Muses. You can visit her website at http://www.crystalhurd.com.

1. PRELUDE

Those of us who have studied Charles Williams for any length of time are aware that Williams was an…interesting sort of fellow. The Oddest Inkling site has done a marvelous job introducing the world to Williams and his peculiar stance on various issues, including Romantic Theology. He was seen as an outlier by many, someone on the margins of literature, yet securely subscribed to the ideas of the literary elite.

inklingsThat is to say: Williams was a genius. Take a good look at “the company he kept.”  A quick investigation reveals that Williams was acquainted with some of the best and brightest of his generation – C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield as Inkling associates, but also T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and many, many others. Williams did not befriend these luminaries simply because he worked in publishing or because he was a nice guy; Williams was a brilliant, talented, and fascinating individual. His work illustrates this.

Williams had been working on Arthurian poetry for a while. He was disrupted by other projects, but came back to them each time. In his biography of Williams, Grevel Lindop quotes from a letter from William to Anne Bradby (editor) providing a description of the project:

Palomides in a cycle of Arthurian poems was to pass from Dualism – which was Good and Evil, but as much as sensations as morals – […] to the Unity of Mahomet and Allah… -and so on to Iseult and Christendom and Logres, where one might very well symbolize the unity of life by marriage, so that all the Saracenic femininities become one, by the operation of the will. Since I darkly begin to believe that the operation of the will is necessary for this work, & that most of us do not achieve it because our will never operates. (235)

Before we dive in, let’s take Williams at his word. Dualism (and his larger theme of spirituality) is the anchoring theme throughout the Prologue. Focusing on the Arthurian legends, Williams hopes to show us how fragile we are, how we oscillate between peace and war courtesy of the “Twins” — Good and Evil. It is a character’s choice of Good and Evil that creates the crux of the story, and, as several players rise and fall throughout the Prologue, Williams continually guides us back to this primary conflict. This presentation is wrapped in a robe of gorgeous language — metaphors, assonance, alliteration. It’s a beautiful package. As Sørina suggests, the first reading should be strictly for aesthetic appreciation. Dissecting it too soon will steal the beauty away, which is a great shame for such a magnificent piece. Williams is channeling the old poets — Virgil, Homer, and the like — to a startlingly accurate degree. His reproduction of style hearkens back to the Greek and Roman tradition, and, I would dare say, of all of the Inklings, he is the best example of the great poetic standards that defined classical literature.

This dualism is present from the first lines of the Prologue. The aim of the Prologue, as Sørina mentions in her introduction, is to explain the “political and spiritual situation in which CW’s Arthurian mythology takes place.” Moslem storms Byzantium and the troubles begin. The issue derives from poor leadership –- “the blind rulers of Logres” whose tendency towards rationality places Byzantium in peril. harpTaliessin is our narrator, taking us through the chronology of events which culminates in Arthurian conflict. Williams introduces us right away to the contrasting concepts of dark and light. Taliessin is a “druid” who serves as a poet. With his harp in tow, he travels throughout the land, describing its lush landscape while outlining the various leadership changes (and spiritual changes) catalyzed by Christian reformation.

Let’s pause and examine some of the beauty of Williams’ verse:

“Bold stood Arthur; the snow beat; Merlin spoke:
‘Now am I Camelot; now am I to be builded.
King Cradlemas sits by Thames; a mask o’ergilded
Covers his wrinkled face, all but one eye.

Cold and small he settles his rump in the cushions.
Through the emerald of Nero one short-sighted eye
Peers at the pedlars of wealth that stand plausibly by.
The bleak mask is gilded with a maiden’s motionless smile.

The high aged voice squeals with callous comfort.
He sits on the bank of Thames, a sea-snail’s shell
Fragile, fragilely carved, cast out by the swell
On to the mud; his spirit withers and dies.”

(from “The Calling of Arthur”)

First off, read these lines to yourself. Read them aloud. Let them roll off of your tongue like a rehearsed and adored poem you were taught as a child. Notice the alliteration emphasized in italics:

Cold and small he settles his rump on the cushions.           
Through the emerald of Nero one short-sighted eye
Peers at the pedlars of wealth that stand plausibly by.
The bleak mask is gilded with a maiden’s motionless smile.

Williams presents an oxymoron in “callous comfort” and a few stanzas later uses the phrase “brick and pickle” (assonance). Sonically, these lines are incredibly pleasing. It’s difficult to keep the history straight because you are tangled in the revelry of language.

lancelotChronologically, Lancelot and Gawaine arrive and Cradlemas is defeated. Virgil also appears after the battle (which is important because Taliessin is a poet). He is seen “leaning” and Taliessin feels “the deep breath dragging the depth of all dimension.” Arthur is crowned the new king. Of course, we know how it all turns out. Peace and goodness reign until Guinevere eventually sows destruction by fooling with Lancelot. Virgil passes — the poet, the voice of warning. When Taliessin returns from a sea voyage, he finds Arthur flanked by his wife Guinevere and half-sister Morgause (King Lot’s wife). The legend follows that Arthur has affair with Morgause and fathers a bastard son Modred (Mordred) who eventually kills Arthur. Thus the child foreshadows the end of Camelot (“Arthur tossed loves with a woman and split his fate”).  Darkness enters with Arthur’s sin:

“Over Camelot and Carbonek a whirling creature hovered
As over the Adam in Eden when they found themselves uncovered,
When they would know good as evil; thereon it was showed,
But then they must know God also after that mode.”

Morgause26Morgause is painted as a dark figure, and their unborn child will deliver death and destruction:

“The child lies unborn in the queen’s womb;
Unformed in his brain is the web of all our doom,
As unformed in the minds of all the great lords
Lies the image of the split Table and of surreptitious swords”

(from “Lamorack and the Queen Morgause of Orkney”)

Williams continues to illustrate how bad decisions and corrupt individuals slowly dismantle the once-glorious Camelot. Taliessin, concerned for the state of affairs, warns of a darkening tone:

when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant

We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
Are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?

from “Bors to Elayne: On the King’s Coins”)

Lord Balin the Savage is “through-thrust with a causeless vigil of anger” while “the king in the elevation beheld and loved himself crowned.” Williams varies his line length before the “Ascent of the Spear” to express Taliessin’s slow rise of panic and confusion. He, the poet, believes that these signs are harbingers of demise; he fears what is coming. Taliessin then finds a girl tied to the stocks as punishment. She admits that she is there “for taking a stick to a sneering bastard slut, a Mongol ape, that mouthed me in a wrangle.” Taliessin begs for mercy and asks to unlock the stocks. Illustrating Christ’s forgiveness, Taliessin releases her: “Let come the fellow whose duty unlocked the stocks’ bar: is it ours to undo the fetter whereto the world’s order consigned its own disordered mind?” Later, Taliessin travels to the rose garden, where he finds “the feminine leadership of Logres, the queen Guinevere, talking to Dindrane, Percivale’s sister; beyond, as the ground-work she was and tended, a single maid hardened with toiled on the well-gardened roses.” As mentioned in Sorina’s introduction, the province is interpreted gynomorphically; thus, the image of woman is a deep undercurrent in Taliessin’s narrative.

During the prologue, we travel through substantial conflict, but redemption is coming. Galahad’s arrival is imminent, and hope is blooming with a promise of restoration. The Prologue presents a brief history, but places the rest of Taliessin through Logres firmly in context. Williams’ poetry is absolutely stunning, and carries the story with such skill, such beauty, that one cannot help but turn the page and begin “Taliessin’s Return to Logres.”

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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10 Responses to TTL 1: “Prelude” — by Crystal Hurd

  1. Sarah Thomson says:

    There is a typo in the quote from Williams’ letter to Anne Bradby–‘week’ should be ‘work’ (and in my copy of the Third Inkling this passage appears on p. 235).

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A good quotation (from a source never published before Grevel quoted it, as far as I know) showing how the ‘Prelude’ foreshadows Palomides in particular. Williams imagines him as a Persian Zoroastrian believing there are competing Principles of Good (Ahura Mazda) and Evil (Ahriman) who becomes convinced by the conquering Moslems that there is only one Principle, that God is One, and “Good is God”, but then having entered the Christian Empire has an experience which convinces him that God has become “not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God”. But in the ‘Prelude’, Williams also imagines the sinful failure of Arthur and other members of the Body of Christ in his kingdom – as you illustrate in the rest of the book – contributing to and followed by the fall in 1453 of Byzantium, which had sent out missionaries “to the ends of the world”, to subjection to Moslems who have not yet seen that God Incarnate is perfectly One.

    Your attention to Mordred when he as “The child lies unborn in the queen’s womb” makes Williams’s word-choice in the ‘Prelude’ light up for me – “Galahad quickened in the Mercy”, growing and making himself known in a lively way from when he was a babe moving in the womb, until “The Last Voyage” he takes out of the world to the Land of the Trinity. As you say, despite all the real, intense and culpable suffering and loss, “redemption is coming. Galahad’s arrival is imminent, and hope is blooming with a promise of restoration.”

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  3. Thank you for this post, Crystal, and for starting off the series! I have a question. You write: “The issue derives from poor leadership –- ‘the blind rulers of Logres’ whose tendency towards rationality places Byzantium in peril.” CW calls Logres’ particular sin: “a fallacy of rational virtue.” That has always confused me, because the sins that bring down Logres don’t strike me as particularly rational. The sins are:
    1. Arthur’s pride, his incorrect answer to the question “the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king?”
    2. Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s adultery
    3. Arthur’s incest with Morgause
    4. Balin’s “causeless vigil of anger” and the dolorous blow.
    So, how are these rational? Can you help me out here?

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    • thatlewislady says:

      Hi Sorina!

      This is a great question. I agree with you that Arthur’s action and thus “poor leadership” led to rehearsal fall of Camelot. The crux of my statement relies on the question of moral leaders. Can immoral individuals make good leaders? Can a person who lacks personal ethics still lead public policy effectively? In my leadership classes, we asked this question many times. Consider Bill Clinton. He committed adultery during his term as president. Does this indiscretion thus inform us that he is an unethical ruler.

      In more contemporary examples, the answer is vague. Do we judge someone by their actions alone? We see in literary tradition, the one that Williams emulated and that I reference, that moral leadership is paramount. Take, for example, Odysseus. He never once waivers in his devotion to Penelope despite the many temptations he faces (Circe, Sirens, Calypso, etc.). Throughout the early literary traditions, failure of character is also a failure of leadership. As you mention, Arthur’s many personal sins – Pride, Lust, Anger – impact his diplomatic performance. True to our earliest literary works, Williams own work underscores the need for MORAL leadership. It also highlights Christian leadership specifically.

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      • thatlewislady says:

        Sorry that the word “rehearsal” accidently appeared above. I’m typing on a phone and the autocorrect is misbehaving!

        As far as Williams use of the word “rationality,” I think we often see this words used as a foil for “faith” as rationality is associated with the mind. I think this is more a Victorian perspective. Of course, Williams’ friends C.S. Lewis would easily argue that faith and reason aren’t opposed, but reason would also allow for some of the sins committed in Arthur’s story. For example, justifying anger seems to be “rational” in Camelot, but in Williams’ story, grace and forgiveness trump anger and reason. The woman in the stocks deserved her punishment perhaps through a “rational” lens, and yet Taliessin shows us that the desire for grace and redemption is stronger than the need for justice. This is what I personally interpreted Williams’ use of “rational” as but I would love to hear what you and others think. 🙂

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I think your noting “Victorian perspective” is good. My impression (which I could probably try to argue in detail) is that there is a distinct level of critique of ‘modernity’ (meaning, the last 400 years of western thought) in this poetry.

          For one example, the young atheistical Lewis seemed to think doing away with ‘all that religious superstition’ would leave morality intact. But, for another, in Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, someone says, ‘we’re all equal before God’ – and the answer comes, ‘But now that god had died!’ So my ‘take’ would be ‘a fallacy of merely rational virtue’ – as if human reasoning could construct a just society out of sheerly instrumental rational resources.

          Arthur would probably deny he was doing anything of the sort, but he also seems self-deceptively (in ‘The Son of Lancelot’) to dream “of a red Grail in an ivory Logres / set for wonder, and himself Byzantium’s rival for men’s […] worship”: he is not taking ‘religion’, Christianity, ‘the Grail’, deeply seriously enough, whatever lip-service he will probably give.

          In this, he resembles lots that is wrong with ‘the Enlightenment’, and 17th-19th-century ‘liberalism’. And, I think Mordred (in an earlier poem, reworked in The Region of the Summer Stars) sees this self-deception and hypocrisy, but only to go further in the wrong direction – he becomes like what is sometimes called ‘second-wave liberalism’, openly skeptical, even atheistic, and nihilistic. Such problems are not purely modern (if I think, for example, of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic – or what you say about rational(izing) attempts to justify indulging passions), but are in many ways characteristically modern.

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  4. Huh. Interesting ideas. I wasn’t questioning your interpretation, Crystal; I’m questioning (trying to understand?) CW’s. I’m still not sure we’ve gone far enough in understanding what he means by “rational fallacy.”
    Here’s a idea. In his myth of the fall (told in “He Came Down from Heaven” and referred to in “The Vision of the Empire”), CW argues that the fall was a specifically rational sin: the desire to know evil, and thus to know good as evil. So perhaps that could be a “rational fallacy” — but that’s certainly not peculiar to the English, so I still haven’t grokked it!

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    • Jenn says:

      When it comes to Williams, whenever I see the word ‘rational’ I think less of ‘reason’ and more of math, and therefore of symbolism. His relationship of Broceliande to the rest of the world, in essence. As we see in Taliessin over and over again, symbol and word and picture and shape are very interconnected and directly related to the way things ought to be. So when I hear of rational fallacy, I immediately think of someone somehow marring the picture of What Ought to Be. A rational fallacy is a symbol ruined. Of course, King Arthur epitomises this and Logres is lost. It’s basically the reverse of a successful Incarnation? I don’t know if that makes any sense or if I’m ‘cohering’ correctly…

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The latest demonstrations, last Saturday, pushing for Hagia Sophia to be turned from a museum to a mosque, got me checking what happened when. The current Wikipedia article (“last modified” this morning) cites an online OUP article behind a paywall when it says, “The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.”

    This gives an interesting, immediate context to the half-line in the ‘Prelude’, “the imams stand in Sophia.” They would have stopped openly doing so in 1931, able only to return among the tourists effectively taking their place early in 1935. I know embarrassingly little of the history of the Republic of Turkey since its proclamation on 29 October 1923, though I enjoyed the glimpses of its impact on everyday life in H.V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul (April 1937 reprint of Oct. 1936 ed. 2).

    But it is not for nothing that Mustafa Mond has the first name he does in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) – that imagined future world looks back, among other things, to the then-recent, and -current, success of Mustafa Kemal (who, in 1934, would be officially – and exclusively – granted the name ‘Atatürk’).

    Interestingly, those ‘Sophia’ references in the ‘Prelude’ were not in earlier versions of that much-revised and long-evolving poem (compare the two earlier versions in my edition). Did they only come after the imams no longer stood in Sophia used as a mosque, and after its opening as a museum?

    And how might Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s brave new Republic be related in Williams’s mind to one or another ‘fallacy of rational virtue”?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      All of which dates also mean, the Hagia-Sophia-like appearance of Father Christmas’s house in paintings of 1920 and 1925 – and of his new house, as well, in 1925, 1926, and 1927 – among Tolkien’s Father Christmas letters, was in each case rendered in these paintings while the great church building was still being used as a mosque.

      Also from that period is the wonderful quotation from Fr. Sergei Bulgakov’s Autobiographical Sketches, describing his experience in visiting Hagia Sophia in January 1923, given by Andrew Louth in his paper, “Theology of the ‘In-Between'”, in Communio viatorum, 55 no 3 2013 (recently reposted by Fr. Aidan Kimel at Eclectic Orthodoxy). It is fascinating to compare with this poem, but I do not know Williams would have had any way of encountering a translation of it, before bringing the poem to this final state.

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