TTL 2: “Taliessin’s Return to Logres” — by Charles Franklyn Beach

ttl rssHere is Post #2 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.

Today’s post is about “Taliessin’s Return to Logres,” and it is by Charles Franklyn Beach.

Charles Franklyn Beach teaches literature and writing classes at Nyack College.  cfbjr orange shirtHe first discovered the novels of Charles Williams at a bookstore sale in August 1985, and he eventually worked with those novels on his MA thesis and PhD dissertation at Baylor University.  He is also a regular presenter at the New York C. S. Lewis Society, whose members he had not yet convinced to become fans of Williams.


After “The Prelude,” with its disheartening picture of the demythologizing, the deimaging (as it were), of the Empire at the hands of those who seek God through the rejection of images—and by connection, the rejection of creation itself—Taliessin journeys from Byzantium (Constantinople), the center of the Empire, and returns to its head, Logres, the kingdom over which Arthur will rule. His arrival in his homeland is filled with image and memory, as he reflects on what he has left behind and to what he is returning. The ship which has dropped him off at “a harbor of Logres” is sailing back the to south, while he journeys north toward his beloved Wales.

harpTaliessin here is both poet and spiritual figure: he describes himself as “Druid-sprung,” even as he carries a harp on his back—the harp he would strum gently as he recites his verse. This is what he can bring to Arthur’s court: the voice of one who has seen the world and who knows what place Arthur’s kingdom has in that world. And as someone who knows this land, its people, and its spiritual heritage, he can interpret for the king and for his court the meaning of the events they witness and even the meaning of their lives.


Circe offering the cup to Odyesseus

And that meaning will not be merely legendary, but rather mythic, as Taliessin suggests when he several times references his Druidic heritage. He also speaks of “the darkness where Circe’s son / sings to the truants of towns / in a forest of nightingales”—possibly a reference to Telegonus, the son of Circe and Odysseus, who in post-Homeric legends killed his father—perhaps a foreshadowing of Mordred’s later rebellion against Arthur. In any case, this reference connects Taliessin’s vision to Greek and Roman mythology, something developed further in “Mount Badon” when the poet sees the battle—which is the climactic moment that establishes Arthur’s kingdom both in history and in legend—through the eyes of the Roman epic poet Virgil. Furthermore, Taliessin “came by Broceliande,” the mythic forest of Arthurian lore that serves as the mysterious “other,” the place of magic and spells and spiritual danger. In some versions of the Arthurian stories, Broceliande is the place where Merlin is conquered and enslaved by his sorceress opponent. As Taliessin passes that dangerous place, he sees a “diagram” which “played in the night,” perhaps an image or symbol of evil. sickleWilliams might not have envisioned “golden sickle” or “signalling hand” to be necessarily signs of evil, but all three images suggest attempts to lure the poet from his set path. (And a reader who grew up in the Cold War era perhaps cannot imagine the “golden sickle,” a familiar image of the Soviet bloc, as anything other than an evil.) But the poet does not give way to fear, even when he faces Broceliande: “I cast my heart in the way; / all the Mercy I called / to give courage to my tongue.”

Yet Taliessin’s return is not all myth and imagination. He rides in an orderly fashion, much as the poem uses a set stanza pattern (with eight-line stanzas that include two sets of rhyming lines: one and four, five and eight). With its short lines, the poem suggests his ride is hurried; with irregular line lengths, the poem echoes the panting breath of the poet and his horse. And at the end, he sees the light of the king’s campfires—a light which seems to Taliessin to reflect the mythic world of the Druids and to indicate the faster-than-wildfire spreading of Arthur’s power and authority through Logres. And the final two lines say, “Into the camp by the hazels / I Taliessin came.” The poet names himself in the final line, in so doing claiming his place as a Welshman (for “Taliessin” is a Welsh name) and as the “radiant brow” who shall reveal in his verse the connections between Arthur’s kingdom and the Empire, between the traditional pagan beliefs of his people (hinted at in the reference to “hazels”) with the Christian faith which he, and Arthur, have embraced.

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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6 Responses to TTL 2: “Taliessin’s Return to Logres” — by Charles Franklyn Beach

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this!

    I wonder (I don’t think the possibility ever struck me till I read this commentary) if the “forest of nightingales” might be (among other things) a reference to the last stanza-and-a-half of Eliot’s ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ (1920):

    The nightingales are singing near
    The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

    And sang within the bloody wood
    When Agamemnon cried aloud,
    And let their liquid droppings fall
    To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

    (A piling up of misbehaving royalty and breaking kingdoms – and everyday applicability?)


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An interesting connection of the “golden sickle” here with “the hammer and sickle” of ‘The Calling of Arthur’ – as not “necessarily signs of evil” but nonetheless fraught with danger of luring anyone “from his set path”!

    In ‘The Calling of Arthur’, it seems to me that Williams’s use of “mallet and scythe” first, gives a concrete grounding to the ‘loaded’ image of “hammer and sickle” that follows, perhaps both exposing the evil Soviet use then as already long a misuse, and ‘reclaiming’ them for possible proper use – as symbol of the ‘populusque Romanum’ aspect of the proper exercise of popular force and as actual desperate weapons of an oppressed people.

    I was astonished when I saw in Edvins Snore’s film, The Soviet Story, how the Nazis were also (mis)using the hammer and sickle in the 1930s. And now, looking up the Wikipedia article, “Hammer and sickle”, I see the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) used the Starry Plough in 1914, before the Soviets took up the hammer and sickle in 1917. This is quite an interesting bit of possible background and context, as the “golden sickle” is related to the “seven gold stars” earlier in the second stanza. Following Wikipedia links brought me both to Sean O’Casey’s involvement in the ICA, and to ‘AE’ (poet, occultist, and artist, and friend of Yeats, as well as political activist) as designer of the original “Starry Plough (flag)” (as the wikipedia article is entitled)!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, election news wakes me up to – the Coat of Arms of Austria (as Republic) from 1919 till the Nazi Anschluss in March 1938, with the Eagle “armed Or, dexter talon holding sickle, sinister talon holding hammer”, that is, with golden hammer and sickle!


    • James Dobson says:

      As someone who grew up well after the Cold War and for whom the sickle doesn’t carry this instrinsic meaning, I read this quite differently. The first four mentions of gold in the poem all refer to the power of the empire (sails, Horn, cars, & stars). Gold is a descriptor of empire. When Taliessin describes the Druid’s sickle it is flashing i.e. not enduring. There were hints of the emperor’s glory in the teaching of the druids but not of an enduring type. The reference to the Broceliande woods would reinforce this as Taliessin is unsure how to interpret the sign, says it could be a golden sickle flash or a human power.

      Stanza four suggests that Taliessin is bringing the light of Byzantium across Logres (from the sea) and banishing darkness. However we see him praying for mercy for the druids as they have their flashes of revelation.


  3. Thanks for this post, Charles! You’ve got lots of really important thoughts here. I love your distinction between the “legendary” and the “mythic.” Could you expand on that, perhaps?
    I have a few questions:
    – I didn’t think that the Empire was destroyed by the Via Negativa, as you seem to be saying. I read CW as an author who attempts to balance the Two Ways. It was internal sins (Arthur’s, Balin’s, Lancelot’s, Guinevere’s, Mordred’s) that destroyed Logres, and it was Islam that destroyed the Empire. No?
    – Are the hazels just an emblem of paganism? Elsewhere in the poem, they are a symbol of the ordered (Christian) empire. I think the difference is whether they are “cut” (Christian) or “uncut” (pagan). Am I right about that?


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I can’t recall Williams specifically discussing Tennyson’s lyric, ‘Sir Galahad’, first published in 1842, but rereading it just now, I wonder if there is not intentional interaction on Williams’s part between this poem and that – especially Tennyson’s third and fourth stanza?:


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