Here is Post #17 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! It’s a long one, but a good one. Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.
Today’s post is by Brenton D. G. Dickieson.
Brenton D. G. Dickieson (@BrentonDana) holds a B.A. from Maritime Christian College and an M.C.S. from Regent College and is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chester. Brenton teaches at Maritime Christian College, the University of Prince Edward Island, Regent College, and Signum University. Brenton is the author of the popular Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction blog A Pilgrim in Narnia. Brenton lives with his wife Kerry and their son Nicolas in the almost-fictional land of Prince Edward Island.
Charles Williams’ Arthurian Apocalypse: Thoughts on “The Son of Lancelot”
I was relieved when I came to this first line of Charles Williams’ “The Son of Lancelot”:
The Lupercalia danced on the Palatine
I only had to look up two of the words. I’m pretty good with prepositions (on) and articles (the), though it’s true that Williams might have some obscure layering in even a simple word like “dance.” I’m left with these two to look up: Lupercalia. Palatine.
I can guess that “Lupercalia” has to do with wolves—remember Professor Remus Lupin, protector of Harry Potter. Given the context I would guess “wolf dance” for Lupercalia, and I would be close to right. Whenever I see a word like Palatine I assume it is some sort of architectural term; I can never keep the architectural terms straight, which kept my career in biblical archaeology to a short five minutes in length.
I am, in fact, pretty close on both points. Palatine is one of the Seven Hills of Rome, a place my wife occasionally reminds me I have yet to take her. We get the architectural term “palace” from this very hill (and, no, I haven’t taken her to any palaces either). The name “Palatine” is an old pre-Tuscan word for the heavens, which is itself an architectural concept to the ancients. It was here in Palatine, in a little cave, that the twin brothers of Rome were birthed and raised by a wolf. The brothers, Romulus and Remus—see the Harry Potter connection: do you think this sort of thing happens by accident?—fought for the throne, and it is Romulus whose name we recount as the patron of Rome. But both boys are remembered in the Roman festival called Lupercalia, where worshippers dance at the foot of Palatine Hill to the wolf god (whom we may know as Pan).
Now that I know those two key words, the line comes into focus.
Rather than leaping to conclusions and missing some salient point, though, I pause to look up the word “dance” in the Online Dictionary of Etymology. Though the history is uncertain, it probably two-steps back to the Old Frisian dintje, which has ecstatic religious connotations. Even here, Williams finds more to pack into a few words then most have in entire poems.
I have read through Williams’ Arthurian poems twice—once with the aid of C.S. Lewis as commentator, and once with David Llewellyn Dodds, who also supplements the Lewis-Williams volume with some previously unpublished pieces. Each read-through was too quick: I could well have spent as much time on each stanza as I did on just this first line. Look how the stanza continues:
The Lupercalia danced on the Palatine
among women thrusting under the thong; vicars
of Rhea Silvia, vestal, Æneid, Mars-seeded,
mother of Rome; they exulted in the wolf-month.
The Pope’s eyes were glazed with terror of the Mass;
his voice shook on Lateran, saying the Confiteor.
Over Europe and beyond Camelot the wolves ranged.
It would be never-ending to chase Williams from word to word. Now that I know what Lupercalia and Palatine are, I see what vicars (priests) of Rhea Silvia (the mother of Romulus and Remus) means. Is “vestal” referring to the Roman goddess of the sacred fire? If so, we see Virgil as the mythologian of Rome, whose seedbed is myth and war and brutality (in both senses of the word, wolf-born and battle ready).
Then we see the Pope: a spiritual shift as the geographical centre remains the same. What an image of the Pope! He is filled with terror as he says “I confess” (Confiteor), his voice shaking on Lateran. Is that an architectural reference to the palaces and Basilica that sit on the hill opposing Palatine? Or is it the Lateran councils, of which there were many? Williams would have been attracted to Lateran IV (1215), which confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass—a key aspect of Williams’ Grail imagery. Or it could be both: material and trans-material reality caught up in the same incarnational image.
In any case, we see that despite the Christian supersession of Rome, wolves still call out in the night across Europe, all the way to Camelot in the North, which is the court of Arthurian romance and the bishopric of romantic love.
I wrote in the margin next to this first stanza: “so evocative, even when I don’t know all the references.” Even in this exegesis I am likely missing something, and all of Charles Williams’ hundreds of pages of poetry could be treated in the same way. To do justice we must walk word by word, and into the woods of many words behind each word. How do I treat “The Son of Lancelot” in a single blog?
I will have to latch onto one of the individual threads and tug on it. In doing so I am leaving behind architecture, geography, liturgy, the cross and the crescent, the physicks and mysticks, and colour. I am also leaving behind the ways in which Williams plays with the Arthurian canon, trusting that others in the series will pick this idea up.
Instead, I will look at one idea and inadequately suggest a context for Williamsian intertextuality in this poem. “The Son of Lancelot” is, I think, an elegantly beastly poem, a poem that plays with the double meaning of brutality.
Let’s begin with the story as best we can discern it, for the story is not too unlike Malory’s account of Lancelot. The great knight Lancelot on quest comes to a castle near Carbonek. Deceived by magic, he mistakes Helayne, the daughter of Pelles, for his lady, Guinevere. They make love through the night and the lovers fall asleep in one another’s arms. When Lancelot turns in the morning light to see his lady, it is another woman in his arms. He has betrayed Guinevere and is cut off from her grace. Filled with grief, Lancelot leaps from Helayne’s window and flees to the wilderness as a madman. He finds himself in Broceliande which, as Lewis puts it so neatly, is the place that “leads down to the world of D.H. Lawrence as well as up to the world of Blake: the soul that enters it will be likely to ‘grow backward’” (343).
I don’t remember reading Malory and feeling the Lenten, wintery feel of Williams’ poem. Yet the seasons are key as we move toward Easter and restoration. And in Malory we see that someone tends to the madman Lancelot, naked and barbaric as he is in his form. In Williams’ poem, there is no care for the lycanthropic beast-man. In Williams, Lancelot in wolf form threatens to devour the child that is born to Helayne, the young Galahad. Merlin, whose role we will discuss in a moment, transforms himself into wolf form and stands against Lancelot. The wolf-Lancelot defeated, Merlin takes the messianic child to safety. Lancelot, by
… the fire built in Carbonek’s guest-chamber
… lay tended, housed and a man,
to be by Easter healed and horsed for Logres; (80-81)
Lent is over, the winter breaks into spring. The child is safe, and Lancelot is whole again for resurrection Sunday.
Between the story and the lyrics there is a great, rich store of Williamsian imagistic play. What I want to highlight is the apocalyptic backdrop of the poem: if I as a modern reader struggle to recover the classical references in Williams’ poetry, most of our generation is likely to miss the biblical framework Williams uses in “The Son of Lancelot.”
Knowing what people mean when they say “apocalypse” today will not help. Apocalypse is a genre of Jewish literature that emerged in the last few centuries as Jews looked forward to the coming of Messiah. It is a complex, multi-layered genre that combines prophetic and wisdom literature to create a new “images”—metaphors, symbols, and sometimes allegories that invest Israel’s story with theological significance.
In “The Apocalypse of Abraham” for example, we see the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac on the mountain. The story is the same, yet the imagery changes. Following a forty day fast (think Israel in the desert), an angel comes to discourse with Abraham. The angel heightens Abraham’s view, pulling back the camera angle on the scene, so that Abraham sees not only the prepared sacrificial lamb that he is missing, but a parade of creatures that prefigure the salvation history of Israel. Then the vision ends with Abraham ascending on wings of a bird, so that Abraham
may be able to see in heaven, and [look] upon earth, and in the sea, and in the abyss, and in the under-world, and in the Garden of Eden, and in its rivers, and in the fullness of the whole world and its circle – you shall gaze into them all (12:10).
At first the camera is in tight looking at the literal, physical scene, the walk of the faithful father to the dreaded altar. Then the camera pulls back to show Abraham in Israel’s history (both the past and the future). Then, finally, the camera pulls back all the way to the cosmic view—looking at Israel in terms of her entire mythological framework. We see the literal, the spiritual, and the mythic all bound up in the same Apocalyptic peak.
The features that are in this tiny Apocalypse are in all apocalyptic literature: mythic and symbolic language, angel-mediators of revelation, a response to difficulty or oppression, a cosmic view of history, and hope—all bound up in biblically imagery that is filled with symbolism. It is not about “the end of the world,” but it might be about the end of an age, and a birth of a new one. Some of our messianic literature fits in here.
We see in the poem that Charles Williams uses Apocalypse as a genre rather deftly.
Merlin is the angel-mediator, with Providence as the spiritual reality of God in the background. Merlin is the only one who is able to see the action at the three levels of literal, historical-spiritual, and cosmic-mythic, and we are invited (like Abraham) to rise to the heavens to see the story of Galahad’s birth in its true significance. As Lewis says, “Merlin has risen to where he sees things from the point of view of the third Heavenly sphere” (345).
On the physical-literal level, we have the story of Lancelot’s failure and the war of cross and crescent. With this level of knowledge in place for the reader,
Merlin grew rigid; down the implacable hazel
(a scar on a slave, a verse in Virgil, the reach
of an arm to a sickle, love’s means to love)
he sent his hearing into the third sphere—
once by a northern poet beyond Snowdon
seen at the rising of the moon, the mens sensitiva,
the feeling intellect, the prime and vital principle,
the pattern in heaven of Nimue, time’s mother on earth,
Broceliande. Convection’s tides cease
there, temperature is steady to all tenderness
in the last reach of the hazel; fixed is the full.
He knew distinction in three abstractions of sound,
the women’s cry under the thong of Lupercal,
the Pope’s voice singing the Glory on Lateran,
the howl of a wolf in the coast of Broceliande.
The notes of Lupercal and Lateran ceased; fast
Merlin followed his hearing down the wolf’s howl
back into sight’s tritosphere—thence was Carbonek
prodigiously besieged by a feral famine; a single
wolf, grey and gaunt, that had been Lancelot,
imbruted, watching the dark unwardened arch,
crouched on the frozen snow beyond Broceliande.
We see here the “tritosphere”—the literal, spiritual, and mythic—all caught up in Merlin’s apocalyptic view. This is all happening at the same moment that King Pelles has received the Dolorous Stroke, bleeding as a woman menstruating (“his flesh from dawn-star to noontide day / by day ran as a woman’s under the moon”). The moon imagery is not insignificant to wolf tales, and here Merlin views woman’s menstruation in the same mytho-moment as Lancelot’s breaking Helayne’s hymen and Pelles’ fateful wound.
As Lancelot flees his betrayal of Guinevere, “he grew backward all summer, laired in the heavy wood.” Lancelot is now, as wolf-man, “a foe by the women’s well.” But, of course, in the logic of Apocalypse, he has become what he already is. Like Eustace becoming a dragon while thinking draconian thoughts (remember Rowling’s play with this image too), Lancelot becomes the beast that he is inside. Finally, as the bastard messianic child his born to begin a new age, we see that
what was left of the man’s contrarious mind
was twinned and twined with the beast’s bent to feed
Hungry, devoid entirely of humanity, “it”—not “he”—“crept to swallow the seed / of love’s ambiguity.” The child is in mortal danger and the new age threatens to fall just as it begins.
Remember that we have the cosmic view of things as readers, and we know the geopolitical context of Williams mytho-poetic Logres:
And infinite beyond him the whole Empire contracted
from (within in) wolves and (without it) Moslems.
And in the cosmic view of things wee see all the layers of literal, symbolic, and mythic in the child’s birth:
Helayne, Lancelot’s bed-fellow, felt her labour.
Brisen knelt; Merlin watched her hands;
the children of Nimue timed and spaced the birth….
Merlin from the hazel’s divination saw
the child lie in his sister’s hands; he saw
over the empire the lucid flash of all flesh,
shining white on the sullen white of the snow.
What follows this poetry are densely symbolic lyrics with deep, pathetic meaning. While Lancelot is lost to animality, Merlin is able to take up Lupercal’s form to save the child, thus uniting (in Williams’ mind) Lupercal and Lateran, the two hills of Rome, Carbonek and Camelot. The child cries, “his wail was a song and a sound in the third heaven,” and the wolves crash, flesh against flesh, a maddening heap of snarling teeth and claws. But the emaciated man-wolf is no match for the magician. After a brief canine joust, Lancelot falls and lays senseless in lupine shade. Thus, “warm on a wolf’s back, the High Prince rode into Logres.”
It is not difficult to see the messianic imagery in the poem. Galahad, the “Merciful Child,” is protected by the nuns of Blanchefleur until his time might come and the new age is inaugerated. And like the Christ-child of old or the Nativity of Harry Potter sleeping in “crimson wrappings” or “swaddling clothes,” the moment of birth is filled with meaning beyond the physical. We know the Nativity stories repeated each Christmas, but we often miss the Nativity of Revelation 12.
This book, the Apocalypse, does what all Jewish Apocalypse does: by the aid of a mediator, we are risen to a cosmic view so we can see the true significance of history through mythic-spiritual symbolism. So we see the Nativity from a cosmic angle in Rev 12:
12:1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down….
We see how Charles Williams echoes the Apocalyptic significance of the Nativity in his Galahad myth, but also how he copies some of the elements of the Apocalypse form.
Beyond the form of Apocalypse and the Nativity of Galahad-Christ, the figure of Lancelot and the Lycanthropy find their root in Jewish Apocalypse. While I will not dwell there, you can see what I mean when you turn to Daniel 12 and read about the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. Because he was proud, and despite the warning of the Hebrew seer, we see that Nebuchadnezzar, to use Williams’ words, “grew backward” until he was “laired in the heavy wood.” In Daniel’s language,
His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird (4:33).
Finally, when the time was full, Nebuchadnezzar raised his eyes to heaven and his sanity was restored. Within the narrative logic of Daniel, we see this is where the book moves from the history of the exiles to Apocalypse, also beginning to move from prose to poetry. Throughout the book of Daniel, beastliness remains a theme, so that it is very much the case that the insides and the outsides of the human soul-body begin to entwine, as they have in Lancelot. In both Daniel’s Babylon and Williams’ Logres, it remains to be seen whether the empires will be beastly or humane.
Nebuchadnezzar’s beast-beard dripping with dew, Lancelot crouched on the frozen snow beyond Broceliande, the dragon crouching to devour the child upon its birth, the wolf-man
Slavering he crouched by the dark arch of Carbonek,
head-high howling, lusting for food, living
for flesh, a child’s flesh, his son’s flesh.
It is poignant imagery. In Williams’ Arthurian Apocalypse we see his direst warnings of the mytho-prophetic danger of sin—of the animal heart in all of us that, left untamed, that threatens to overtake the man or the kingdom. I cannot help wondering to what degree Williams himself understood his own heart. He certainly believed of himself that his actions had the tritospheric realities of the literal, the spiritual, and the mythic.