Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 1

lewisI was delighted and honored to have this blog appear in a two-episode story on the British detective show Inspector Lewis last fall. I love Lewis, and I hope I can get my hands on all the seasons; I’ve only succeeded in watching about three so far, and it’s eye-candy and brain-candy for an Oxford lover like myself.

The story in which The Oddest Inkling appears, entitled “Magnum Opus,” is a dramatization of what might happen if a group of fanatics applied an extreme version of Charles Williams’s doctrine of Co-inherence to their lives, with creepy and eventually fatal results. ITV sent me dvds of the two episodes last fall, and I watched them with voracious interest. It’s a compelling story, with some twists and turns and wrenches of the gut. Then the writer, Chris Murray, was superabundantly generous in sending me copies of the script! So now I’d like to go through the show scene by scene (ish), commenting on the ways in which CW’s ideas are adapted for dramatic purposes. Please note that I am NOT critiquing Chris Murray or anybody else who worked on this show when they used artistic license in deploying elements of CW’s thought; that’s their creative prerogative, and I’m enough of a student of adaptation theory to revel in changes to some original text. Besides, the show is fiction. It’s not the History Channel or a PBS biopic on CW (although that sounds like a great idea to me; Grevel, what do you think?)

Anyway, this is a great chance to bring CW’s ideas and writings to a larger public, and I hope that anyone who watches “Magnum Opus” will also read this commentary in which I compare it to the writings of the Third Inkling. I have two warnings: First, this post series is TOTALLY FULL OF SPOILERS. It’s designed to be read after you’ve watched the episodes, ideally as you re-watch them. Second, “Magnum Opus” contains lots of extremely adult content, including an S&M club, a wide variety of sexual relationships, and some pretty creepy violence, so consider yourself warned.

1“Magnum Opus” opens with a scene in a forge, where an alembic in a fire and mysterious drawings and Latin sayings in an old book suggest that someone is practicing alchemy. A Latin banner held in an eagle’s beak, while partially obscured, says something about white and red. See if you can translate any more of it for me.

Alchemical imagery is extremely important in CW’s writings, especially his late Arthurian poetry. He writes about Galahad:

“Fierce in the prow the alchemical Infant burned,
red by celerity now conceiving the white.”

He certainly practiced some kind of alchemy when he was in A. E. Waite’s Rosicrucian fellowship. Whether this was actual magic, or physical experiments to transmute substances, or purely spiritual exercises to enlighten the soul is unclear—mostly likely it was purely spiritual alchemy, where the “base metal” being transmuted was the initiate’s soul.

Next we see a shotgun and a big bucket full of maggots. Gross. I don’t know anything about maggots anywhere in Rosicrucian imagery (thankfully) – but we’ll see later that this is actually a plot element and part of the murderer’s cover-up. So it’s not necessarily occult imagery, although I can see how it could be construed so in a kind of debased popular imagination that likes to think of human sacrifice and sickening rituals taking place in underground tombs and so forth. There’s nothing like that in F.R.C. practice.

Then a raven gets shot. I can’t find my Rider-Waite Tarot pack right now (I haven’t begun unpacking my books after the move to Texas), but I don’t recall ravens having any special significance in the FRC other than their general association with Doom throughout literature.

2Day 1

The shooting script reads: “A dove descends. Pull back to reveal a stained glass representation of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the window of a chapel.” This is very apt, given that one of CW’s best and most influential books is his 1939 theological work The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Interestingly, I don’t see a dove anywhere in the stained glass image that actually made it on screen. In fact, the images don’t even look particularly Christian: they seem to be mainly portraits of Renaissance gentlemen. The central figure could be Christ carrying two little children, or it could be a woman with two infants; it’s very ambiguous. It does suggest bearing one another, which leads nicely into the first spoken words of the episode:

As the Bible says ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’. To do this Charles Williams promoted the concept of Coinherence…

Indeed he did. The reference is to Galatians 6:2, and this was probably THE central concept of CW’s works: that we could literally bear one another’s burdens. He founded a society or order to do this: the Companions of the Co-inherence. So the concept behind this episode of Lewis is that there’s still a current-day Order of the Companions who continue to practice this idea. But, as we’ll see, they’ve gotten very far indeed from CW’s Christian teaching.

The shooting script says that there’s supposed to be a poster telling us that Phil Beskin is speaking on “Forgiveness in the Works of Inkling Charles Williams,” but I don’t see it anywhere. Too bad; that could have helped clarify things a little and put CW in context for those who don’t know him.

Beskin goes on claim to that CW’s coinherence:

“held that we are all spiritually connected and can, through ritual, share suffering and ease one another’s burdens of, for example, guilt.”

That seems pretty strong. Did CW really believe that, or is this television exaggeration? Well, in his definitive essay on this subject, “The Way of Exchange,” Williams quotes from the desert fathers:

it is right for a man to take up the burden for those who are akin {or near) to him… he must suffer, and weep, and mourn with him, and finally the matter must be accounted for by him as if he himself had put on the actual body of his neighbor… and he must suffer for him as he would for himself.

In expounding upon this quotation, CW writes:

Compacts can be made for the taking over of the suffering of troubles, and worries, and distresses, as simply and effectually as an assent is given to the carrying of a parcel. A man can cease to worry about x because his friend has agreed to be worried by x.

In his next-to-last novel, Descent Into Hell, CW brought this principle to life. His altar-ego character, Stanhope, says to a terrified young lady:

“ ‘Haven’t you heard it said that we ought to bear one another’s burdens?”

‘But that means—’ she began, and stopped.

‘I know,’ Stanhope said.  ‘It means listening sympathetically, and thinking unselfishly, and being anxious about, and so on.  Well, I don’t say a word against all that; no doubt it helps.  But I think … he meant something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else.  To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of.  If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you—however sympathetic I may be. … If you give a weight to me, you can’t be carrying it yourself; all I’m asking you to do is to notice that blazing truth. … You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden. I haven’t made the universe and it isn’t my fault.  But I’m sure that this is a law of the universe, and not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.’”

Now, what I have not been able to find is any place in which Williams specifically mentions GUILT; does he anywhere say we can take another’s guilt upon us? That seems pretty extreme! Yet he does say, in “The Way of Exchange,” that “Our chief temptation is to limit its operation,” and in the poem “Taliessin on the Death of Virgil,” readers who love Virgil’s writings manage to carry his burden of sin to the extent that they obtain salvation for him! So perhaps “Magnum Opus” is not going too far in saying that CW believed we could carry one another’s guilt.

Yet it does go too far in Beskin’s next claim. He says:

Forgiveness is not a solitary affair. It can be, and is, a shared experience. Because through active engagement with The Holy Spirit, it’s not only Christ who can forgive sins. So can we.

Now, this is tricky. It’s standard Christian teaching that we must forgive those who have wronged us. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But does that mean we are actually forgiving their sin, i.e., doing some kind of atonement for them? Well, let’s return to this concept of “not only Christ can forgive sins” when we see where it goes in this story.

[Incidentally, the building where Beskin is speaking is the Westin Library of Oxford’s Bodleian system, which is where I read Barfield’s Quest of the Sangreal last June.]

More tomorrow!


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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10 Responses to Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 1

  1. Wurmbrand says:

    This kind of careful review will be a good resource! People need to link to it.


  2. Pingback: Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 2 | The Oddest Inkling

  3. Pingback: Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 3 | The Oddest Inkling

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Ego sum niger albus citrinus et rubus”: ‘I am black white lemon-yellow and red’ (I suppose the “r” of “niger” is carried over part of the furl as the “us” of “citrinus” is, further along. Wiktionary says ‘citrinus’ comes from ‘citrus’ (‘lemon tree’) and gives the senses ‘citric, citrus’. Google Translate renders it as “yellow”. So does the 2011 exhibition title of works by Beat Frutiger in Basel blogged about briefly by Christoph Roos:

    Maybe my opting for ‘lemon-yellow’ is a bit precious and wrongheaded).

    You’re quite right about the C.W. Arthurian use: Bors is associated with black in the imagery, and (as I note in my edition, pp. 160-61) in the final version of ‘The Last Voyage’, C.W. suddenly and untraditionally (as far as my exceedingly limited ‘alchemical scholarship’ has reached) swops (that part of) the color-sequence around from ‘black-white-red’ to ‘black-red-white’. He also includes ‘silver’ for Percivale. I do not remember seeing/noticing/paying proper attention to ‘yellow’ anywhere, but it now strikes me that the “saffron” imagery associated with “pall”, “sun”, and ‘Blanch(e)fleur’ may be taking up this “citrinus” (though the Latin for ‘saffron-yellow’ is ‘crocus’).


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      With what looks like an eagle on the mountain top and (apparently) a crow flying past lower down, I am also moved to wonder about the mountain and eagle imagery in the Palomides poems having possible alchemical dimensions of reference.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Window: do we know which it is, and where? The portrait on the right looks like St. Charles the Martyr, to me; the figure on the left, looking left, also looks like a martyr with sword (instrument of martyrdom) and palm (of victory as martyr), and looks like a woman to me – here’s a list of saints associated with a sword:

    The lower, central woman I take to be an allegorical figure of Charity – compare:


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Window: do we know which it is, and where? The portrait on the right looks like St. Charles the Martyr, to me; the figure on the left, looking left, also looks like a martyr with sword (instrument of martyrdom) and palm (of victory as martyr), and looks like a woman to me – here’s a list of saints associated with a sword:

    The lower, central woman I take to be an allegorical figure of Charity – compare, for example, Domenichino’s study for an allegorical figure of Charity c.1622-7, in the Royal Collection and the statue In the entrance vestibule of the St Peter and St Paul Chapel, at the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) in Greenwich, London.

    (I tried a different version of this comment, probably with too many links to appear without more ado!)


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Phil Beskin: I wonder if there is some playfulness in his surname, as Geraldine Beskin is (according to Wikipedia) owner of the Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, in London, and was contributor to “The Cauldron, a magazine catering for modern Pagan Witches” founded by Michael Howard in 1976 (see his article), and editor and publisher of books about Austin Osman Spare for her Beskin Press (see his article, and search for Beskin Press generally).


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I wonder if “a big bucket full of maggots” might have anything to do with ‘putrifaction’ in alchemical symbolism? (About that I know so little, that I don’t know if the positive medical use of maggots to purify by cleaning wounds of dangerous dead tissue may come into it, or an ominous variation of caterpillar-pupa-butterfly imagery (cf. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto X, 121-126) with maggot-fly have alchemical connections – which in turn makes me wonder about a possible bit of play with Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) ?)


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just embarked on a Dutch translation of Stanislas Klossowski de Rola’s Alchemy: The Secret Art (1973) – because I happen to have it to hand, without ever yet reading it – hoping (I fear, vainly) for additional useful information. He does have a striking quotation from Transcendental Magic by ‘Eliphas Levi’, presumably from Waite’s translation – the first two sentences of chapter 12 of “The Doctrine” on p. 106 in the 1896 first edition as scanned in the Internet Archive (which I found by looking in the index under “Magnum Opus”!). Maybe I’d do better just to browse the alchemical bits of Waite’s Levi further…


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