A Confusion of Court Cards

A while ago, I wrote an introduction to a new edition of CW’s novel The Greater Trumps, then this fall taught a couple classes on it, so I re-read the book more closely than ever. It’s a very, very beautiful and inspiring novel indeed. I feel I want to become a saint whenever I reread it, don’t you?

But I’m confused by something. (Only one thing, you ask? Well, let’s just deal with this one for now, shall we?)

There’s that memorable scene in which Henry calls up elemental beings of snow (water) and wind (air) by the court cards of cups and staves (118). Or does he? Does he use the whole of those two suits? Or just the staves, but the whole of that suit?? I really can’t tell from the prose exactly which cards he’s using.

Then when Nancy knocks most of the cards out of his hands, here’s his reaction: “‘You fool,’ he cried, ‘you fool! You’ve knocked the cards away.’ In his hand he held but a few; peering at them in the dusk, he discerned but the four princely chiefs; the rest, as she clutched them, had slipped or blown off, and were now tossing in the wind which rose from them” (121). So, he’s left with four court cards?

But then, when he and Nancy enter the room of the images, to try to use the remaining cards to summon the others and stop the storm, Henry holds out “the suit of sceptres, the suit of deniers, the princely cards of cups and staves” (161). I thought he lost the court cards of the cups and staves? So he’s carrying all the cards from the suit of sceptres/staves; all the cards from coins or deniers, and then also the court cards from cups and from staves? Where is the suit of swords? I suppose he doesn’t need that one, since he’s working on summoning water and air, but then why does he have coins/deniers? He’s not summoning earth. And why does the narrator say he has “the suit of sceptres” and also “the princely cards from the suit of staves”? Isn’t that repetitive? And again, didn’t he lose the princely staves when Nancy knocked them out of his hands?

Then on the next page, Henry instructs Nancy to “hold the eight high cards that are left to us” (162). This suggests they only have left to them the court cards of swords and coins, since they lost the court cards of cups and staves in the storm. But then why did the narrator say he still has “the princely cards of cups and staves”? Does that mean he lost all the non-court cards of cups and staves, but he still has the eight high cards from the two relevant suits (water and air)? But then why did it say he was holding out the sceptres and deniers?

I’m quite confused. Has CW made a mistake? Perhaps the mistake entered because he has changed the elemental correspondences from his sources. The Order of the Golden Dawn attributed the suits thus:

swords = air
wands (sceptres, staves) = fire
cups = water
pentacles (coins, deniers) = earth

So CW has switched the first two around, and I wonder if he momentarily forgot he had done so? No, wait; even that doesn’t solve the problem. It’s deniers that don’t belong in this paragraph; swords aren’t mentioned. Can anyone help me read these passages more carefully? Thanks!

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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10 Responses to A Confusion of Court Cards

  1. joviator says:

    Maybe he thought scepters and swords were names for the same suit? I know I have to look them up.


  2. salooper57 says:

    I wish I had an answer to your question – I don’t – but I do have a question about your comment. If you want to become a saint when you read The Greater Trumps (and I do too), what do you want to become when you read Shadows of Ecstasy?


  3. Steph says:

    These passages are indeed very confusing! I agree with your perceptive reading that there seem to be discrepancies. In fact, it seems to get even more complex on the next page as Henry and Nancy proceed into the mist. When the wind takes the cards from their grasp (at least I assume this is what’s happening), Nancy sees the “Queen of Chalices” and the “Esquire of Deniers” come to life (163)—so it seems they had the court cards of the cups as well? I can’t square the circle either! But this post is making me want to reread The Greater Trumps. Thanks for the prompting to revisit it—such a wonderful novel and with so much going on!


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Fascinating! I’ve never read it with this much attention to detail! Yet the general impression I have of the novel is of vivid attention to detail…

    My impression is that he is boldly making things up – a table which corresponds to an original pack, which only together enjoy ‘effectiveness’ of various sorts. In his introduction to English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis, discussing magic in literary texts of the Middle Ages, notes of Chaucer, “when magic occurs in the more realistic setting of the Franklin’s Tale, it is quite clearly an art of mere illusion which does not change Nature but only makes her appear changed”. Is the idea of it being possible to use Tarot cards to “change Nature” or at any rate manipulate it an invention of Williams? And, are the details of how that might work then something that he had to design as well? I would expect him to be meticulous – though that may be too unconsidered an assumption!

    In the Preface to Witchcraft (1941), Williams writes “No-one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet ‘the tall, black man’ or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient.” It occurs to me that he might both have worked out an imaginary manipulative Tarot ‘magical’ procedure in detail, and then proceeded to present it unclearly lest anyone should attempt to duplicate it with their Waite-Rider pack (or whatever).


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You have got me thinking about comparisons and contrasts between The Place of the Lion and The Greater Trumps. Berringer has somehow ‘entered’ or ‘engaged with’ “the world of principles” – I am not sure if we know whether his intentions in this apparent ‘violation’ include ‘operative power’ or not – but a lioness encounters him and the result is the release of apparently impersonal “Powers” which without any sort of reflection or self-restraint begin to destroy the world. Henry Lee’s intention is clearly operative throughout, and he is operating when Nancy encounters him with the result of releasing the “elementals” to continue their ‘assignment’ producing a wintry destruction of human – and now, all – life. They have human appearance but also seem void of any reflection or self-restraint.

    You accent a great difference between the novels: the distinct, detailed hierarchy of the Tarot figures (on cards and Table). In The Place of the Lion, the Eagle seems the only really distinctive hierarchical figure.

    Without rereading, I am not sure how clear Damaris’s place in the fallen but active ‘Adamic’ ‘naming’ and re-ordering of the Powers is. Nancy is distinctly active and “for the moment, near enough” according to Sybil to being “Messias” – here, I would have to reread to see how clear Henry’s place in this might be.


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