Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 3

lewisPlease check out post one and post two about the Inspector Lewis episodes “Magnum Opus,” all about Charles Williams. Let’s proceed!

Hathaway starts explaining CW’s distinctive ideas to Maddox:

Charles Williams believed in a living breathing spirituality in which we could all become as Christ. … about forgiveness. That because we are like Christ we too can take away the sins of the world.

Now, this is right and wrong. It’s right because Christianity itself teaches that Christians become like Christ through the process of sanctification. I had a conversation with Dr. Ralph Wood yesterday, and he discussed how he thinks the Eastern doctrine of theosis influenced C. S. Lewis. He thinks there is a far deeper theology of becoming like Christ in Lewis’s works than has been previously studied; think of Lewis’s saying that God wants to make us all into “little Christs.” Anyway, whether Williams was taking a more “eastern” or “western” approach to sanctification, he certainly did believe, along with all Christians, that we strive to become like Christ.

But did he believe that we could take away the sins of the world? I cannot recall anything in his writings that suggests this. Can you?

The quote I gave you above was from the shooting script. What Laurence Fox actually says on screen is “we can forgive all the sins of the world.” That’s not exactly the same as “take away.” But again, I can’t recall anywhere CW said that we can forgive all the sins of the world.

In the next scene, at a tattoo shop, Hathaway asks if the tattoo artist is a Charles Williams fan. His reply?

“Yeah. Not all tattooists are pagans.”

Hm. I’d wager that there’s probably a large number of “pagans” among CW’s fans. There certainly would be a huge number of occultists (not at all the same thing), as well as Christians—but Jay Fennell’s remark seems to suggest that all CW fans are Christians, which is entirely misleading. Not all Christian readers of his work are comfortable with his occult (and specifically alchemical) material, or his sexual experimentation, which will come up again later.

Lewis and Hathaway walk into a lecture on alchemy, and the lecturer says:

Jung was convinced alchemical images were unconscious archetypes, keys for unlocking the psyche. Surely they have meaning. Clearly they are profound.

After the lecture, Lewis asks the professor: “Can you think of any connection between alchemy and Charles Williams?” and he answers: “There isn’t one.” Well, we’ve already talked about this, so I won’t belabor the point, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. Since alchemy is at the heart of CW’s work, I have a hard time following this story. It’s like a mystery that depends upon there being nothing Platonic in C. S. Lewis, or nothing about the “long defeat” in Tolkien. So it’s hard for me to understand the plot. Since these two things—Christian mysticism and alchemy—are united in CW’s thought, where’s the mystery? Obviously someone interested in one would be interested in the other, so what’s the problem?

A. E. Waite agreed with Jung that alchemical symbols were profound archetypes, and so did Williams’s close friend and mentor A. H. Lee. Lee:

“was deeply interested in the works of Mary Anne Atwood (1817-1910), who had taught that the chemical operations spoken of in alchemical texts were really allegories for a process of spiritual transformation, aimed at transmuting the ‘base metal’ of the ordinary sinful human being into the pure ‘gold’ of a purified person in contact with God.” (Lindop 78).

Gavin Ashenden wrote an entire book on this point: Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration. In it, he explains that

Although the alchemical tradition that Williams made use of had begun in pre-Christian syncretism, the form in which he encountered it had been deliberately Christianized by Waite.

How did CW use alchemy? Ashenden tells us:

This alchemical culture, so far form undermining theological credibility, provided Williams with the remedial means of holding together the disjunction between the two “Ways” and between the material and spiritual it was the language and means of integration.

It was central to his thought. It was, arguably, what made his system of thought work.

Sorry; I guess I belabored that point after all. Apologies.

Here’s an interesting bit from the shooting script that was cut from the episode. The murdered guy’s widow tells Hathaway that the library is where she and her husband:

did most of our courting, if you could call it that. He was terribly shy and kept getting me to order Williams books so he could talk to me. He ran out of titles in the end and had to ask me out instead. It’s as well Williams wasn’t more prolific.

Not more prolific? OK, he wasn’t Isaac Asimov, but he did write 58 books by my count. That would take them well through a year or so, if she had to order each one, then he read it, then she ordered another.

Then Hathaway asks her whether there was anything going on between her husband and a young woman. She says:

His boundaries might have been loose but his morals weren’t. Williams again you see.

That’s confusing, too. Does she mean he wouldn’t have sex with the young woman because of the influence of Williams? Well, maybe, but Williams himself had many intense, strange, sexual-but-unconsummated relationships with young women; certainly not the kinds of interactions his wife would be okay with!

This episode moves toward its emotional highpoint: the Companions gathered at a ritual to do something spiritual to or for Annapurna. The words of the ritual are:

DAX: I, Dax Kinneson, desire to take your sins upon me, to substitute them for love, so that you may be released from your suffering.

JAY: We offer your transgressions up to Christ for substitution in the hope of blessing and redemption through His grace.

So, this is close to what the real-life Companions of the Coinherence did, and yet wildly different. The Company was commanded, in the “Promulgation” that CW wrote, to the  contemplation:

on the active side, of methods of exchange, in the State, in all forms of love, and in all natural things, such as childbirth. As it was said: Bear ye one another’s burdens.

Okay. But look closely at the words of the ritual. Dax says he will substitute her sins for love. That’s backwards; doesn’t he mean he’ll substitute love for her sins? And he says he’ll take her sins upon himself, but Jay says they offer the transgressions up to Christ. I can see how those two actions could be connected, but the ritual does not explain how they are. Is Dax standing in the place of Christ in this ritual? Perhaps. Or is Dax offering himself up to Christ as the one who will substitute for Annapurna? Perhaps. Is either of those things quite what Williams taught to his disciples?

Well, the best evidence we have for what he actually told his disciples to do is in Letters to Lalage. He wrote to Lois Lang-Sims (“Lalage”), telling her to perform an act of substitution on behalf of Alice Mary Hadfield (whom Lois did not know). Alice Mary was taking a three-week journey, sailing over very dangerous seas mined by the Germans; her life was in serious danger. Lois was to substitute herself for Alice Mary. CW wrote:

You will therefore, without anxiety and in tranquility, pray for her and present yourself shyly to Almighty God in exchange for her. … This is a real thing, and you will do it handsomely and even gaily—without fancy or invention—for the Company and the Doctrine.

He said that perhaps nothing would happen, or perhaps Lois would experience some inconveniences on Alice Mary’s behalf. That is the clearest real-life example of Exchange and Substitution we get in CW’s writings. I would be interested to hear what you think of it. Is it like what Chris Murray presents in the Lewis episode, do you think?

Oh, by the way, at some point we get a glimpse of the title page of this ritual, which apparently Dax Kennison wrote, and he’s headed it: “A Second Golden Dawn.” There’s a lot to unpack in that, but I’ll move on.

All right, we’ll end for today with one more scene. Hathaway is reading his way through a pile of books on alchemy. He’s reading one called Secrets, and we get a glimpse of the page. It reads:

The Companions of Co-Inherence.

Below this is the image:



By 1stEc.Domnowall, 2ndUser: Perhelion – tonquedec et église,melrand et chapelle,berrien et chapelle,cruas, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There it is again! The perichoresis image! I wrote to Chris Murray to ask him how the connection was made between this image and CW’s Order; we’ll see what he has to say. That’s enough for now, eh? Plan to watch the episode on Sunday evening!

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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7 Responses to Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 3

  1. Joe R. Christopher says:

    “I had a conversation with Dr. Ralph Wood yesterday…” Your new environment is showing.


  2. It is! And it is already shaping me — for the better, I heartily believe.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There’s a nice article in The Journal of Inklings Studies,Vol. 4, No. 1 (April 2014) by David Meconi, SJ, “Mere Christianity: Theosis in a British Way” – and his contributor’s note includes his authorship of The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

      Hurrah for what sounds a good move and settling in (in moving house and academic situation – and intellectual/inner – senses)!


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Not more prolific?” Maybe that was an ‘insider joke’ on the part of both Chris Murray and the widow! And, might the late husband have been ordering them ever more numerously and rapidly (and without reading the previous one/batch, first), in a growing tussle between shyness and resolve? (Perhaps a sweetly innocent variation by Chris Murray on Lionel Zipser’s haircuts in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (1974)? – concerning which, an appropriate content warning, to those who do not know the book: I never saw the television adaptation!)


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Having caught up this far (substituting (!) reading this in whatever spoiler-richness, for a first viewing, over which I dither all the while, on the basis of Bruce Charleton’s content warning, which your first of this series substantially repeats!), I thank you for this thoughtful comparative consideration of matter and manner of episode (and, delightfully, script version, as well!) and the works and thought and practice and life of Williams!


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In Part 2 you noted, “CW did write a lot about alchemy. Not much of it was very explicit” – maybe that combination of facts, by authorial intention or otherwise, can give a fruitful dimension to the confusions and (apparent) errors in “Magnum Opus”.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    With respect to the ritual, it reminded me a bit of the idea of a ‘sin-eater’… (We know C.W. knew some of the works of William Sharp writing as ‘Fiona Macleod’ – I can’t recall for sure off the top of my dozy head if The Sin-Eater and Other Tales (1895) was one of them.)

    Points perhaps worth remembering are the history of the exegesis and application of passages such as Sts. Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 and John 20:23.


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