TTL 18: “Palomides before His Christening.” — by Charles Huttar

ttl rssHere is Post #18 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. This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Palomides by Charles Huttar; you can read Part One here.

The Saracen’s Journey: Charles Williams’s Palomides Suite
Part 2
By Charles Huttar.

CAH at Wade

Background painting of Clyde Kilby by Deborah Melvin Seisner

Charles Huttar is Professor of English Emeritus at Hope College.  He is co-editor of The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams and the author of numerous essays on the Inklings, most recently “How Much Does That Hideous Strength Owe to Charles Williams?” (Sehnsucht 2015). When not writing he may be gardening or working KenKen.

Roma King considers “Palomides before His Christening” to be “one of Williams’s finest poems.”[1] C. S. Lewis compares it to T. S. Eliot’s later poetry and detects in it a possible echo of Eliot. [2] It is certainly one that reveals the maturing of Williams’s ideas, as well as his prose style, in the years leading up to Taliessin through Logres. That he considered Palomides an important part of the whole myth is evident from the presence of two more poems on Palomides in the list of further projected work that survived his death.[3] A passage in his Commonplace Book tells us how he viewed Palomides around 1930.[4] In Christmastide of the same year, in Heroes and Kings, he published three Palomides poems.[5] Of the conceptions underlying these older documents, little remains, but some of the information they contain, though no longer explicit in the 1938 poems, can be useful for interpreting them. The most important change is Williams’s new understanding of his hero’s character—more precisely, of the quality of heroism that  he represents—and with it, of the nature of his quest.

palomidesThe first part of the quest, as Williams came to see it, was the subject of last week’s post. It was his search (unbeknownst—he could not have put it in these terms) for a world-view more satisfying than those he had grown up with, the dualism of Persia coupled with the man-centered  philosophy of the Greek mathematicians. Though a seasoned knight—by reputation, one of the best in the world (Dodds 182-83)—he was still relatively young. What Palomides thought he was aiming for, a common career choice in medieval times (compare Chaucer’s itinerant Knight),[6] was to ply his trade with the most famous knightly company of all, those of the Table Round, and thereby win yet greater renown. That was more important than the mere fact of his being the Shah’s son (Dodds 181). Like many worthy young men, he would rather be known for his own achievements than for his inherited rank. Already by the time he arrived at King Mark’s court in the far corner of Britain, that restless spirit had worked in an unexpected way, so that what he remembers best of the long journey are the symbols of an intellectual, rather than a military, adventure. Then, another new experience awaits him. He meets Queen Iseult and falls in love.

Leighton-Tristan_and_Isolde-1902

Tristan and Iseult as depicted by Edmund Blair Leighton

But Palomides has yet to learn that there are different ways of responding to the visit of the god Eros. The result is what Lewis calls a Beatrician experience that goes wrong (Torso 125). It goes wrong because, to Palomides, love means only possession, and to possess Iseult is impossible: she resists him and she is totally given to love for another. Though he is visited by a glory that to Dante spoke of the divine and commanded his faithful obedience (and Williams’s knowledge of that Way was what made it possible in 1936 for him to recognize in Lewis a kindred spirit), such a response is beyond Palomides’ ken. The dazzling lights disappear. In their place is the squeak of the Questing Beast, sending Palomides off (consciously this time) on a new quest.

In “Palomides before His Christening” he tells of that quest—which, again, turns out quite differently than he expected. It is also very different from the one Williams had in mind at first.  Instead of Palomides’ coming to Arthur’s court victorious and being acclaimed as the knight finally able to tame the Beast—in his way a sort of double for Galahad, who will achieve the Grail (Dodds 250; see also Ridler 177)—in the 1938 version he abandons the quest. By line 55 the Beast has disappeared, and he doesn’t care.

As Lewis notes, there is no indication of how long it took Palomides to attain such a different sort of victory: possibly “fifteen or twenty years” (163). The knight’s narration begins in medias res but quickly (line 9) goes back and picks up the story where “The Coming of Palomides” left off. His love for Iseult is a self-defining experience which he cannot give up. An earlier version celebrates that (Dodds 228-30). If he can’t have Iseult he must, on his own, find a way to live with the fact. But now, looking back over the years, he knows that the Beast was an intruder from the darker parts of Broceliande (line 11), utterly repulsive (84-89). He may not yet realize how deep the problem goes (conversion does not require full understanding), but Williams does. The Beast is more than just an allegory for “carnal jealousy and thwarted ambition” as Lewis suggests (164). At stake (though Palomides would not put it this way) is his self-esteem. Tristram and Iseult belittled him (lines 17-20), as Mark had at the dinner-party, and the glory of Iseult’s arm turned to insects buzzing in his brain (25-26). Now before everything else he must “be someone” in the world’s eyes, must regain his “honour,” and the way to do that is to catch the Beast, succeeding where Tristram and Lancelot failed, and thus win admiration from “the crowd . . . , the City” (9-32)—a word to whose freight of sublime meaning, for Williams, Palomides is entirely oblivious. This becomes his quest. When that is accomplished it will be time to return to his quest for God, the Beatrician experience that went wrong: he will “consent to be christened, [and] come then to the Table on my own terms” (13-14). It is (to use a phrase not available to Williams) the path of mimetic desire.

He leaves the “city,” literally but also figuratively by “follow[ing]” his sole “self,” using other people as stepping-stones toward his ambitions (34, 37-40). (These lines may be taken to describe Palomides’ career as a knight lacking in chivalry, but they also apply more generally to any self-seeking ambition.) Dinadan’s friendly greeting, offered in hope of overcoming Palomides’ self-imposed isolation and giving him a new outlook (35-36), he ignores. Arthur’s knights—whose fellowship he aims incredibly to gain by these actions—he views not as persons but as things in his path (42-44). When the climb is over he is “above them all” (45), but more interested in rest than quest. He is glad for a cave’s shelter, and though the Beast is right there at hand—no need even to hunt—he sees it more as “company” than quarry (47-48).

The next few stanzas (years?) depict a dark night of Palomides’ soul. His “fire” for Iseult (compare “Coming,” lines 88-90) burns itself out, and perhaps his fire of ambition as well, the need to “be someone,” for the Beast is gone (49-55). The quest is over. Still, though famished, Palomides has no impulse to leave the cave: his dark night continues. He lies among dry bones onto which he projects his own longing for reconnection (an Augustinian restlessness?), but even a slight current of air is useless so long as he rejects it, insisting on solving the problem on his own (65-69). What moves him “at last” to allow the wind to carry him out of the cave is a mystery. A guess might be that after suppressing for all those years his moral failings, winning the tournament at Lonazep by cheating (that event loomed large in Williams’s myth though he never composed the projected poem on it), only to have Lancelot repay him good for evil, and then taking pleasure in Lancelot’s madness (21-24), at last a memory of how the easy-going Dinadan, unencumbered by the worldly values that clung to most of the knights (98-100), had congratulated him on the win brought to mind also Dinadan’s offer to sponsor him for baptism when he became ready (89-96). At the mouth of the cave his view of the world (his Weltanschauung?) has altered, “the sky had turned” (1, 77, 82, 94).

A decision is in the making. When it comes, it is (in keeping with Williams’s remarkable tour-de-force in characterizing this unique personality) more like a shrug: “I could not think / why I should not be christened . . . / It was true I should look a fool before everyone; / why not . . . ?” So much for self-esteem. Palomides has in fact caught something of the spirit of Dinadan (see Torso 164) and of St. Paul. Dying to self is never easy, and Williams avoids making the biblical allusion, at least verbally; Dinadan’s epigrams (36, 92) are the closest hints. And something else that might have been part of his quest, the satisfaction of putting together all the pieces intellectually, Palomides no longer requires as a precondition. Even if “the Chi-Rho is only a scratching” on the rocks that make up the world, he has discovered no other scratching that gives meaning. For now, that is enough. As Williams said in the note he provided Lewis on this passage, Palomides “believes unbelievingly” (Torso 163).  He is, as Lewis reminds us, “still only a spiritual infant” (166).  But he has begun.

So unspectacular, almost apologetic, is Palomides’ conversion, we may wonder why Williams retained the idea of his being in some way Galahad’s double. Yet in the next poem, “The Coming of Galahad,” it is reported that when Palomides was baptized, he bore a mystical sign linking him with the Grail-seekers (lines 96-98). Perhaps you will learn in tomorrow’s blog what qualifies him, also, to be called a hero.

NOTES

[1] The Pattern in the Web, 84.

[2] Arthurian Torso, 163.

[3] Ridler, Image of the City, 174-75.

[4] Ridler, 176-77; for the dating, 169.

[5] David Llewellyn Dodds, ed., Charles Williams, in the Boydell series “Arthurian Poets,” pp. 179-83, 228-30, 250-51.

[6] Canterbury Tales, lines 44-72.

 

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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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5 Responses to TTL 18: “Palomides before His Christening.” — by Charles Huttar

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    Sorina,

    Thanks for posting. In my haste I missed one typo. the colon after “possibly” should appear one word sooner, after “victory.”

    Charles

    On Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 12:02 PM, The Oddest Inkling wrote:

    > Sørina Higgins posted: “Here is Post #18 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. This is part 2 of a > 3-part series on Palomides by Charles Huttar; you can read Part One” >

    Like

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is excellent – thank you!

    I hope I am not going too far afield here, but that climbing and remaining in the cave reminds me of some of the details of Williams’s action and description in his novel, Descent into Hell (1937), where Lawrence Wentworth is concerned: avoiding spoilers, I find your commentary making a comparison and contrast between Wentworth and Palomides very interesting, their jealousies, their ambitions, their dishonesties, the opportunities they are given to change, and their responses.

    Like

    • Charles Huttar says:

      Thanks for this illuminating comparison/contrast with Wentworth in the 1937 novel. For Palomides’ response, see my forthcoming post on “The Death of Palomides.” Re the cave image, since writing this post I’ve come across two lines worth quoting from other critics. Thelma Shuttleworth calls it his “mental bolt-hole,” and Alice Mary Hadfield (in CW Introduction, p. 152) says that he “searched the cave of his own skull,” seeking “meaning without exchange, meaning which preserved his sense of himself.”

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you! At the hope of not getting too far-fetched or far-afield (or arcane!), that last observation by Alice Mary Hadfield, about Palomides at this stage “seeking ‘meaning without exchange, meaning which preserved his sense of himself’ ”, makes me wonder about another possible layer or ‘connection’ of imagery. Wentworth has an rather phantasmagorical experience of himself as Adam being selfish, while Arthur is, in the poetry, a sort of Adam figure, re-enacting, or direly participating in the Fall. Another part of this Adam imagery is, that the knights are united to and, as it were, integrated into Arthur – with, for instance, “the king’s brain working in Lancelot’s blood.” Perhaps Arthur’s ‘Fall’ entails not only his (even unconsciously) seeking that most like himself, in his incest with Morgause, but that this is (in its degree) particularly reflected in this part of Palomides’ experience as well.

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  3. Pingback: TTL 21: “Palomides before His Christening.” — by Charles Huttar | The Oddest Inkling

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