TTL 23: “The Last Voyage” — David Llewellyn Dodds

ttl rssHere is Post #23 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 by David Llewellyn Dodds.

David DoddsDavid Llewellyn Dodds is editor of both the Charles Williams and John Masefield volumes in Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets series (and recommends Masefield’s Badon poem too). He is currently editing Williams’s Arthurian Commonplace Book and his largely-unpublished 45-poem Advent of Galahad cycle for publication.

‘The Last Voyage’

As we head from one Grail Mass to another (though neither is described), it is worth noting how very full of prayer this book is. There are glimpses of liturgical services (including an off-stage Coronation) and formal or spontaneous prayers. Some of these are prayed privately and some are sought from someone else (perhaps, most strikingly, by Bors from Elayne at the middle – the heart – of the volume).


Howard Pyle’s Blanchefleur

Here, the three Grail knights are riding the sea-wood Broceliande from Carbonek to Sarras in “the ship of Solomon.” With them is the body of Blanchefleur, Percivale’s sister, Galahad’s fosterer (and Taliessin’s beloved). There seems to be complex liturgical play, here: the “quadrilateral covers of a saffron pall” over her body recalls the ‘palla corporalis’ which covers and enfolds the Body [Corpus] and Blood of Christ in covering the Chalice of the Eucharist (including the Grail) and which did so in early practice by serving as the altar-cloth folded back over Bread and Chalice – and which seems in some cases to have been “used as a pall for a deceased pope.” It may also recall “the pall held over nuns while the consecratory preface is being said at their clothing or profession”.[1]

Williams says in his ‘Note’ in the back of the book, “Blanchefleur died from a letting of blood to heal a sick lady.” The poem treats the substitution and exchange involved in this in more detail.

[The interesting question of the interrelation of his retelling to the dark details of his source for this (Malory, Book 17, chs. 9-13), is one I will not pursue, here.]

shipAfter the first line stating “The hollow of Jerusalem was a ship,”[2] Williams turns to a painting of Solomon and Balkis (Queen of Sheba) on his ship (together with Jerusalem and his “temple”!), found “on the right wall from the stair” in Byzantium. Later, he tells us that Balkis in relation to Solomon “matched power to purpose and passion to peace,” here, speaking of “the sensuous” and “intellectual art.” In this painting, Solomon’s “right hand, blessing, whelmed the djinn.” As “master of all creaturely being” and “rule and road of seeing / for all those who have no necessity of existence in themselves” (and author of Scriptural prayers?), he is interestingly paralleled by Bors. Bors is described as the “action in Logres” of the three Grail knights together, “kneeling on the deck” to the right of the other two, and further described as “the flesh of fatherhood” as he prays “still for the need and the bliss of his household.”

[In terms of the sephirotic tree, why are Solomon, Balkis – and now Bors (and “his household’, including Elayne?) – on the right?]

Between the descriptions of Solomon and Bors, the ship is characterized as swept “from all altars.” We learn that Galahad, as “alchemical Infant,” is “in the prow.” After Bors, we learn of an “infinite flight of doves,” “numerous as men in the empire, the empire riding / in the skies of ocean,” whose “hosted wings trapped the Infant’s song.” What is this song? (Has it anything to do with the poets painted on the left wall?) At a later point, at any rate, it is “thick with a litany of names / from the king and the king’s friend to the least of the slaves.”

Of the ‘litany’, Francis Mershman says, “This form of prayer finds its model in Psalm cxxxv” [Vulgate/Septuagint; Masoretic 136] – the psalm which the significantly Galahad-like Archdeacon Julian Davenant goes about singing in War in Heaven. Litanies are intercessions, someone praying for the good of others, making them present before God, and can include asking others for their prayers. Mershman also notes that after Christianity was legal, public processions became common, often from one church to another, and these “processions were called litanies”.[3] This ‘Last Voyage’ up to this point might be considered a sea-borne ‘litany’ in this sense, and, in some startling imagery, perhaps a ‘litany’-borne one, as the doves’ wings direct Galahad’s song “along the keel, the song hastening the keel.”

Dolphins in both paintings recall Dinadan’s coat of arms, and prepare us for the account of his murder. As Galahad prays for his murderers, a light covers “with flame the spread saffron veil; / the heart of the dead Dinadan burned on the sun, / and gathered and fled through the air to the head of Percivale,” whose “inhaling the fine air of philosophical amazement” is thus connected with “the pertinence of curiosity” for which Dinadan was murdered.

Then comes an astonishing bit of play with liturgical prayer. It is a curious question whether they are bearing the Grail with them, as in Malory (Book 17, ch. 21). But in any case, they are headed for a Grail Mass. At the beginning of the Latin Mass, the “priest goes with his ministers (deacon, subdeacon, and acolytes) in solemn procession to the altar.” Standing at the foot of the altar, they say or sing “alternately and in a loud voice (vox alta) the antiphon: Introibo ad altare Dei… (“I will go in unto the altar of God”), then the forty-second psalm”[4] Psalm 42 begins, “Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam” (“Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause”). But Galahad

sang Judica te, Deus; the wind,
Driven by doves’ wings along the arm-taut keel,
Sang against itself Judica te, Deus.
Prayer and irony had their say and ceased;
The sole speech was speed.

Presumably ,‘Judge Thyself, O God’! (With some further play with various senses and Biblical echoes of wind/spiritus/pneuma/ruach – if “the wind sang against itself”, ‘o God’!).

In his notes for Lewis, Williams speaks of “the point where Galahad is so united with Christ that he has almost a necessity of being in himself; doctrinally heretical, I fear, but pass.” The penultimate line of the penultimate section, which includes, “Judica te”, is “the necessity of being was communicated to the son of Lancelot.” While one can think of heretical senses, one need not: especially if Williams pays proper attention to his own “almost”.[5] Need this be more extreme than the prayer later in the Ordinary of the Mass, “da nobis per hujus aquae et vini mysterium, ejus divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est, particeps, Jesus Christus” (“by the mystery signified in the mingling of this water and wine, grant us to have part in the Godhead of Him who hath vouchsafed to share our manhood, Jesus Christ”)? ‘Judge Thyself, O God’ could mean Galahad has been brought to an obedient faith content with God’s Providence in everything, or to a state such as Paul’s when he says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20).

[Whether someone brought so far, would express himself with such cheeky Scripture-twisting playfulness – whether Williams does well or wisely to imagine this of Galahad, is another question.]

In his Arthurian Commonplace Book (p. 159), thinking about A.E. Waite’s discussion of one idea of the etymology of ‘Carbonek’ as “the Sovereign Chair”, Williams thinks of Galahad in these terms: “the soul assumes the rights which, until the moment arrives, have been delegated to the priestly order. (Cf. Dante – ‘king and bishop o’er thyself’.)” (seemingly quoting Purgatory, canto 27, line 142 by heart). Is ‘The Last Voyage’ something like a working out of this idea?


[1]Most of the information about the ‘palla corporalis’ is from Herbert Thurston, “Corporal” (1908), but the first quotation is from Francis Mershman, “Funeral Pall”(1909), while the last quotation is from Herbert Thurston, “Ritual of Marriage” (1910), all from The Catholic Encyclopedia as transcribed online at New Advent: Williams drew on another of Thurston’s articles in his Commonplace Book.

[2] The connection to the genitals in the gynecomorphic map-image of the Empire is something to which Williams implicitly attends in his notes of December 1938 for Lewis. “ ‘the hollow of Jerusalem’ – the generative organs of this life are no more than the shoulder-hollows of Galahad. What his generative organs are, no-one has begun to imagine.”: as published by Anne Ridler in The Taliessin Poems of Charles Williams by Various Hands (1991), p. 75.

[3] Francis Mershman, “Litany” (1910), The Catholic Encyclopedia as transcribed online at New Advent.

[4] [Vulgate/Septuagint with verse 4 supplying the antiphon, which concludes “to God who giveth joy to my youth”; Masoretic 43]. Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, translated by Frederic C. Eckhoff (St. Louis, MO / London: Herder, 1940 “Fifth impression” of 1936 ed.), p. 64 (Dr. Parsch’s interesting history of these prayers suggests that Williams was probably being anachronistic here, though his discussion of Psalm 42 with antiphon as “the baptismal hymn of the liturgy of Milan, chanted by the neophytes as they went in procession on Easter night […] to assist at their first Mass and to receive their first Holy Communion” in the time of St. Ambrose offers an interesting parallel to ‘The Last Voyage’, and his discussion of “the spirit of these prayers” rewards reading in this context: pp. 66-70): as scanned at the Internet Archive.

[5] Curiously, Lewis leaves the “almost” out in quoting this: see John Rateliff’s discussion in “Charles Williams: The Lost Letter (Part two)”, note 8, as posted at his Sacnoth’s Scriptorium blog on 28 February 2016.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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