NaNoWriMo the Signum way!

Ekphrasis: Allentown's Fellowship of Christians in the Arts

nanoDear creative writers:

Remember that awesome flash-fiction contest Signum University hosted last year? Well, this year we’re doing something different. November is National Novel-Writing Month; check out And Signum University, with NaNo’s blessing, is hosting its own NaNo-within-NaNo, right signumLogo_100here: So if you’re writing a novel this month, especially one with a science fiction or fantasy slant, and you want to join a creative community to discuss your project, please join Signum’s NaNo forum! You are very welcome there.

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How the occult helps my faith

I have promised that as I go through my PhD program, I’ll post bits of my writing that are related to Charles Williams or the Inklings. Here’s a draft of a “reading notebook” entry I made for my class on Yeats & Joyce. Enjoy — and your comments are welcome. 

Thornton, Weldon.  “Between Circle and Straight Line: A Pragmatic View of W. B. Yeats and the Occult.”  Studies in the Literary Imagination 14.1 (March 1981): 61-75.

Short Summary:

In debate with other scholars on Yeats and the occult, Thornton critiques the narrow-minded “Western” epistemology that rejects such spirituality out of hand because it does not pass the test of reductive rationalism. Questioning assumptions about belief, Thornton encourages readers to take Yeats’s occultism seriously; without it, we lose the richness of his poetry.

Long Summary:

Most critics, Thornton laments, reject Yeats’s occultism as silly or irrelevant. On the contrary, he argues: it is absolutely central to Yeats’s poetry. Yeats was involved with many secret societies and hermetic activities from childhood through death, and he integrated its concepts into all his thought and work. In particular, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, and between this life and the next, were of crucial importance to Yeats.

Why, then, Thornton asks, have good scholars ignored or denigrated the most significant ideas of the poet they study? Because, he suggests, Yeats was in fundamental opposition to Western presuppositions about knowledge and belief. The occult does not fit into our narrow empiricism, and so it is jettisoned or ignored. But Thornton proposes that it is our reductionism, not Yeats’s spirituality, that is close-minded, parochial, and unrealistic. We only allow extremely limited forms of evidence or of experience to hold validity, and we prefer philosophical simplicity (à la Occam’s Razor) to rich experience and open-minded skepticism.

After establishing that broad philosophical basis for rejection of Yeats’s occultism, Thornton next surveys particular scholars’ dismissals, including Yvor Winters, Karl Shapiro, Austin Warren, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Richard Ellmann. All of them try to put distance between themselves and Yeats’s weird beliefs.

But were they beliefs? Did Yeats really believe in spirits, séances, reincarnation, etc.? Thornton presents this question, then comes at it from a different direction, questioning the limited definitions we have permitted the word “belief.” There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well. Yeats was different. He could tentatively try on a belief to see how it worked in a certain situation, treating it more like a thought experiment than like a quiz-question for getting into heaven.

Finally, then, Thornton considers what all this meant to Yeats as a poet. He was neither a philosopher nor (primarily) a mystic, using spirituality as an end in itself, but a poet who enriched his own life and work by lived experiences of the supernatural. He was the opposite of an escapist: he studied the other world in order to enrich this one, and did so with his poetry.


In this powerful article, Thornton raises profound questions about “Western” tradition’s limited epistemology. We are only allowed to believe a very narrow swathe of ideas, he points out, if they pass certain tests of empirical validity and philosophical simplicity. His ideas are refreshing and encouraging, not least because they are practical. They suggest ways that literature can live beyond the page and scholarship can thrive outside the academic. I have been challenged and heartened by his writing in ways that go far beyond my study of Yeats. For this one response, then, I would like to take a different approach than usual. Rather than reading a Yeats poem through Thornton’s lens, I would like to explore practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis as it relates to Christian belief and public intellectualism. Finally, I would like to close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. While I will not use these ideas as an approach to the poetry of Yeats per se, the broader concepts I will be exploring have to do with the practical and personal application of literature, and so they are reflexive back to Yeats and his work.

First, then, there are valuable practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis to Christian belief—to my own Christian belief. He points out that Western intellectualism puts a high value on “belief”—but has not adequately defined the term or delineated what does and does not count as belief. There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well (71). He implies several important questions: Is it doctrine that matters? Or feelings? Or a decision driven by will power? Or relationship? Or sensory events, such as voices or visions?

These questions are relevant in many contexts, including political, philosophical, legal, and scientific communities, but Thornton points out their application to religious, specifically Christian, creeds:

Can even an orthodox person say what it means to “believe” in the “existence of God,” or in the “resurrection of Christ”? Does one have any control over whether he believes any such assertions, and should one then feel pride or guilt about belief or lack of it? But in spite of how vague a category belief is, most Westerners inherently feel that they have precipitated something real when they ask whether a person believes something, for this constitutes a powerful intellectual shibboleth in our culture. (71)

Now, most orthodox people do say what it means to believe in the existence of God. Some will emphasize doctrine: it means intellectual assent to certain stated propositions about the nature of God, historical events, their spiritual significance, their application to the individual, etc. Some will emphasize subjective experience, such as an emotional feeling of love for Jesus or God’s love for oneself. Others will prioritize choice and commitment, pointing to a particular date on which they “gave their hearts to Jesus” or made a public profession of faith or were baptized, and so forth. And yet others will focus on actions as evidence of a heart change, looking for works of service and sacrifice in themselves or others as proof of saving belief.

I found Thornton’s questions refreshing and liberating. I am and have always been a member of the Reformed/Evangelical branch of the Protestant church, which requires people to attest to come kind of affective, relational sort of belief, usually articulated as “A relationship with Christ.” I find this sort of emotive metaphor difficult to manufacture in myself, and instead cling to a volitional form of belief—but even then, I am often stymied. I have made a commitment to follow Jesus, but I am often at a loss as to what that means at any given moment when I don’t feel something emotional about Him and when I even intellectually question the historical or propositional doctrines I am meant to be affirming. This often rises to an internal crisis right before participation in the Lord’s Supper, which is “fenced” by warnings about the danger of partaking without an appropriate kind and level of belief. Thornton reassured me that I am not alone in my questions about belief: wiser minds than mine have debated what belief actually is or entails, and he is confident in asserting that it is a vague category. My Calvinism agrees with his question about whether anyone has control over belief and forbids either pride or guilt at a subjective sense of having or not having achieved it. Perhaps it is all right, then, for me to have questions about the narrow ways in which any given denomination or congregation fences the table or defines emotive reactions to the reciting of creeds.

This is a significant way that his article lives outside the academy: It could be usefully read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, and Christian educators to encourage them to interrogate their assumptions about what constitutes belief. One need not be a scholar of Yeats to know that such questions are relevant and powerful. Narrow answers to them are terrifying.

This leads to my second point, which is that Thornton’s article could be performing a much-needed service as public intellectualism. I doubt that it has done so; it was published in a scholarly journal, after all, which is hardly ever read (and difficult to access) outside the academy. I don’t know, but I doubt, that Thornton ever turned any part of the contents of this article into, say, a blog post or a newspaper editorial. I doubt that it has ever been read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, or Christian educators unless they were studying Yeats as a hobby or side-field. And yet, “Western” culture is in dire need of public intellectualism. The very narrowness of popular concepts of proof, evidence, empiricism, rationalism, and philosophical simplicity are themselves symptomatic, I believe, of a deep disease of anti-intellectualism in our culture, often disguised as a kind of cheap intellectual savvy. I will not pursue this point in any depth, but I strong believe (believe!) that the current U.S. Presidential election debacle is a result of wide-spread intellectual weakness. This campaign season has revealed that the truth-content of claims is no longer valued. Facts are of little importance. Ethics have been discarded, as a candidate’s assertions of future usefulness are given more weight than his or her past dubious (possibly criminal) actions). A narrow and intolerant, even cruel, ethnocentrism has replaced an earlier over-application of political correctness. I believe that these are not only moral failures, but the results of poor education, under-education, and wrong-headed education. Public intellectuals are badly needed to foster an open-minded, ethically sound culture that is capable of detecting logical fallacies and courageous enough to reject rhetoric, whether hateful or suave, that does not align with facts and with historical wisdom. Thornton’s open-minded approach to belief could help to challenge the narrowness of the current American climate.

Finally, I would like to move back from broad questions about public intellectualism to more specific ones about the occult, and close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. My own a response to occult materials in writers I have studied has not been disbelief in it. I have not thought it silly or tangential or irrelevant. In fact, I have tended to believe that these writers (Blake, Yeats, Waite, Crowley, Underhill, Williams) meant what they said. They probably did have converse with spirits. But my response has been rather one of fear: They probably did interact with spirits, but which spirits? I do not doubt the existence of the spiritual world in which they believed, but I am afraid it is the wrong spiritual world. I have assumed they are talking to demons, rather than angels; that their afterlife is hell, not heaven. And I have never accused them of escapism from the “real world”: rather, the vice I have ascribed to them is a lust for power. I see dabbling in the occult not as an attempt to get away from this mortal life, but to control it—and to control the people in it. In my research, I have encountered high-ranking occult initiates who manipulated their families, friends, and coworkers into performing roles in their constructed myths. I have encountered those who have abused people, physically, emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. I have encountered those who have abused themselves, through neglect of their bodily needs or through active mistreatment of their bodies or minds as they were consumed by this lust to control nature, spirits, other people, or themselves. I have seen them worn out, used up, made ill, driven mad, and dying young because they drained their bodily energies to serve a creative genius. I have heard of the terrible deeds they have done, the terrible sins they have committed, in service of this other world with which they were in contact.

This ugly picture of the occult is quite different from the picture Thornton paints of the thoughtful, broad-minded sensitive Yeats whose “experiences deserve to be regarded seriously and sympathetically” (75). I understand that Thornton is correcting an error he sees in the scholarship, so it would be no surprise if he over-corrected. I am more surprised, however, and pleasantly surprised, to find that his investigation of an area I have feared and been repelled by has helped my own spiritual condition. I am not prepared to say that I have been wrong to fear and condemn occult involvement, but I stand by my claim that we need scholars like Thornton to come forward and serve as public intellectuals. Clearly, there are debates we need to have about the validity and value of the occult, about our assumptions regarding what constitutes belief, and about the place of spiritualit(ies) in “rationalist” Western culture.

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Bandersnatch and Creative Collaboration by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Here is an excellent, glowing review by Brenton Dickieson of Diana Glyer’s awesome book “Bandersnatch.” I love this book so much, I have a Bandersnatch hanging from my keychain to remind me to work with others! I’m giving a talk on collaboration at this upcoming conference: Enjoy Brenton’s post!

A Pilgrim in Narnia

old-typewriterI am a rapid writer, someone who works in fits and starts. I benefit from binges of work, closeted away to get down what’s been rolling around my chest for hours or days. It took a decade for me to figure this out—and another half-decade to be okay with it—but I know how I work best.

Still, even when my confidence is highest, I admire that slow and steady scholar, the artist who paints leaf by leaf, the writer who writes bird by bird.

Diana Pavlac Glyer is one of the latter kind of wordsmiths. I don’t know how long her The Company They Keep took to write from concept to cover, but it was at least a couple of decades. The painstaking investment of time, the careful scouring of archives and texts over years and years led to one of those rare scholarly achievements: a book that changes the…

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Tiny Intro to the Canterbury Plays

logoA dear friend and fellow scholar asked me to give a little explanation of what the “Canterbury Plays” were. I’m delighted to do so, especially in their Charles Williams connection.

In 1928, the Canterbury Cathedral revived the tradition of liturgical drama by commissioning a play to be performed in their Chapter House. They continued this tradition until the start of World War II, and then tried again with two more plays after the war. They hired some of the greatest living playwrights to compose news work specifically for their space and occasion. The results include a few enduring masterpieces, and the Festival as a whole is in important cultural occurrence. I hope to study these plays in my PhD program, looking at the theology they presented; the dialogues the plays were engaged in about politics, war, peace, theatre, and public and private religion; the material conditions in which they were performed; their reception (who attended? what did they think?); their poetry; their subsequent performances; or anything else that needs studying. The Festival has been revived since; please check out its website.

I also hope to have all 9 performed somewhere, in some capacity or other, during my 5 or so years at Baylor.

The nine plays were:

John Masefield & Gustav Holst, The Coming of Christ, 1928
Laurence Binyon, The Young King, 1934
T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 1935
Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, 1936
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Zeal of Thy House, 1937
Christopher Hassall, Christ’s Comet, 1938
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Devil to Pay, 1939
Laurie Lee, Peasants’ Priest, 1947
Christopher Fry, Thor, With Angels, 1948

They also performed Everyman and plays by Marlowe and Tennyson during the course of the Festival. That’s all I know so far! Please read this post on Williams’s contribution, and stay tuned for more discussions of these fascinating plays as time goes on.

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The Inklings and Celtic Mythology

Oops. I haven’t posted on here in a while. I didn’t finish my series on the “Magnum Opus” Inspector Lewis episode. I haven’t continued my book summaries of CW’s works. What happened?!?!

Oh, the little matter of a PhD.

That’s right. I started my PhD in English Literature at Baylor University a couple of weeks ago. This is a decade-long dream come true. It is extremely intense, of course, with more work than is humanly possible, but I do believe I am where I was meant to be.

But I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to regular Charles Williams blogging. I do want to complete the chronological blog-through of book summaries, so I shall endeavor to squeeze in time for that now and again.

Meanwhile, would you be interested in reading snippets and drafts of my work at Baylor when they relate to the Inklings? Do let me know!

In case you are, here’s something from this week. I’m taking a seminar on Yeats & Joyce, and right now we’re reading lots of Celtic mythology and scholarship about it as background. We keep an enormous “reading notebook” in which we right short essays on topics of importance to the course. Here is a very rough draft of a response to the book Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana. I would love your suggestions for revision, comments on the ideas, etc.


brendanThroughout Celtic Mythology, MacCana constantly returns to the idea that Irish tales are one stream of the great river of Indo-European mythology. It is full of archetypes that can be found in legends all across Europe. What is more, MacCana shows, these archetypal stories and characters persisted into the versions written down by Christian scribes in the sixth century and later. Whether in spite of or because of their Christian vision, these monks created passionate tales in which pagan and Christian values do not so much vie with each other as serves one another as the vehicle for deeper truths. I propose to examine two of the stories, the Voyage of Bran and the Fate of the Children of Lir, to show how the doctrine of True Myth is operative in the Christianized versions of these ancient tales.

“The Voyage of Bran” was written down in the seventh or eighth century. It tells of a mysterious woman who recites a poem to Bran, inviting him to travel over the sea to a realm of magical islands. He sets out, and encounters Manannan son of Ler, who recites additional stanzas in praise of the islands, which are called “the land of Manannan son of Ler.” Mananannan speaks what sound like a Christological prophesy:

A white law will come over seas,
Besides being God, He will be man. (48.3-4).

But the song goes on, claiming that it is Manannan’s son who will be born thus, “A fair man in a body of white clay.” Bran travels on, comes to the islands, where he sees wonders and stays for many years. Eventually he travels back to Ireland, where “he wrote these quatrains in Ogam, and then bade them farewell. And from that hour his wanderings are not known” (66).

This may seem at first glance to be a strange poem for a Christian monk to copy and disseminate. Is its incarnational claim not blasphemous? Is it presentation of an earthly paradise not contrary to the doctrine of a heavenly afterlife? Should not the good monk rather have suppressed this poem and replaced it with solid, Biblical teaching?

Well, that is certainly not what happened. The poem was preserved and passed on, and other versions developed later. Indeed, as MacCana claims, “In all the vast range of traditional material handled by the monastic scribes and literati nothing seems to have captured their imagination quite so completely as the theme of the voyage to the happy otherworld” (MacCana 131). One important poem is “The Voyage of St. Brendan.” Charles Huttar writes in a chapter in my forthcoming collection The Inklings and King Arthur that “The Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani achieved great popularity, being circulated and translated all over Europe and surviving today in well over a hundred manuscripts” (Huttar 116). In this poem from c. 900, Brendan reaches the Land of Promise of the Saints—a distinctly Christianized version of the original pagan story. What has happened? How did this Celtic tale with its island on earth peopled by goddesses turn into a Christian location, an earthly Eden, where a saint can travel? Did not the monks struggle with the tension between the two opposing religions?

Perhaps some of them did. Insight can perhaps be gained by the poem MacCana discusses from the eighth or ninth century about the goddess Bui becoming a nun. Bewailing the happy pagan times, she laments:

Happy is the island of the great sea,
for the flood comes to it after the ebb;
as for me, I do not expect
flood after ebb to come to me. (qtd. in MacCana 95).

This is an astonishing work for a Christian monk to compose. The nun regrets her choice, mourning for her lost pagan fertility. She specifically evokes an island in the sea as a place of life-giving tides, yet sees herself cut off, worn out, and dried up. This poet had remarkable insight into how the experience conversion might be for someone who felt she had given up sexuality, youth, liveliness, and the riches of nature for a the straightened life of a nun.

Given such a bold aesthetic choice by a ninth-century monk, we should be less surprised to find the more subtle methods of True Myth employed in the retelling of the Bran/Brendan story. There, the original elements of the tale still remain: the voyage, its adventures, the wonders on the blessed island, and the return to Ireland. From a structuralist point of view, the architecture of the story is the same, with Christian names and imagery inserted into the spaces vacated by pagan characters and objects. Yet it is the same tale. How can this be? Are not the Christian and pagan narratives diametrically opposed?

To understand what may have been happening here, I would like to turn to a later author of an “Imram”: J. R. R. Tolkien. In The Notion Club Papers from the mid 1940s, he wrote something he called “The Death of St. Brendan” (it can be found in Sauron Defeated 261–64). In 1955, it was published in Time and Tide, then titled “Imram” (Sauron Defeated, 296–99; see Huttar 115). In his version, St. Brendan hears

of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elvenkind.

In other words, in Tolkien’s world, the Celtic Island of the Blest is his Tol Eressëa, or, more broadly, Elvenhome: the lands of the Elves in Aman, the Blessed Realm. What Tolkien—a Christian writer—did, then, was the opposite of the technique employed by the ninth-century monks who composed “The Voyage of St. Brendan”: he took a Christian story and moved it backwards in time, making it a pre-Christian (and thus pagan) story once again. And yet he wrote that all of his mythology was implicitly Christian. How can this be?

He went further than this. Not content to corral only St. Brendan into his own Legendarium, he noted similarities between Arthur, Lancelot, and Beowulf’s King Sheave (a royal boy who came out of the West and went back into the West, carried by mysterious spirit-beings) and laid out possible connections among all of these to his own Earendil, the half-elven mariner who sailed away, searching for the blessed islands in the West. They all sailed into the West; none of them ever returned. They were all seeking a magical island of healing.

And Tolkien was not alone in his carnivorous literary nature. His fellow inkling C. S. Lewis connects the Classical Hesperides, the Celtic St. Brendon’s Island, the Arthurian Avalon and Sarras, and the planet Venus, making them all the paradisaical repository of the Holy Grail. With Lewis’s method, the Christianizing impetus is clear again: he takes these literary elements and uses them all to communicate the beauty of the Christian life that is lived toward knowing Christ fully. Tolkien’s method is more subtle: he trusts that the universal spiritual questing archetype is present in all versions of the story and does not need to paste Christian doctrine over the stories.

This, then, seems to be to be the method employed by the Medieval monk who copied out (and possibly altered) “The Voyage of Bran.” He likely saw in it an analogy to the soul’s quest for God and was not compelled to make the message explicit. Perhaps he took seriously such verses as Psalm 91:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” and Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” These verses have often been taking to teach the strength of the image of God in creation, including in imaginative people, who are “subcreators” making stories after God’s own heart. In short, they teach “True Myth”: the idea that God has put His stories into the minds of pagan poets, who, by telling these tales, prepared the world’s imagination to accept the Historical Myth of Jesus Christ when it actually happened in history.

lirThe redactors of “The Fate of the Children of Lir,” on the other hand, chose a different method. MacCana, speaking about Celtic mythology in general, noted that it is short on cosmogony and eschatology, which was probably excised by the monkish scribes because they couldn’t make it harmonize with Scripture. As I read the story of the Children of Lir, I suspect that something similar has happened. The tale reads as if something has been cut out and the story reshaped to serve a different purpose.

The four unfortunate swans in the story are the children of Lir. They are condemned to the confines of various bodies of water in Ireland for nine hundred years before their eventual release. Manannan, who appeared to Bran, was also a son of Ler/Lir/Lur, the sea god. The island to which Bran sails is Manannan’s island—in other words, the swan-children’s brother. This tale appears to me to start out as if it will fit the westering-quest pattern: the children, turned into swans, condemned to suffer for nearly a thousand years, and confined to the water, should naturally use their powers as waterfowl to seek out their (half-?)brother’s paradisaical island home in the West. One would think that they could take refuge there. Or perhaps, since the curse included specific locations for each of their three three-hundred-year sojourns, maybe they could not seek him until after that time. But had they set out, maybe they would not have died upon the moment of transformation back into humans. Perhaps they could have gone on living on the magical island forever, healed from their sufferings.

But that does not happen. Instead, the “pagan” myth of the Island of the Blest is cut out, and an explicitly Christian story is pasted in. First, in Marie Heaney’s version of the story, it is pasted into Aoife’s repentance after the curse. She says to the swans: “When…you hear the sound of a bell pealing out a new faith, you will know your exile is over” (Heaney 39). And then at the end of the tale, they come to the above of a Christian hermit, who baptizes them the moment before their deaths, thus saving their souls. Lady Gregory version ends in triumph, awe, and mystery: “heaven was gained for their souls. And that is the fate of the children of Lir so far” (Gregory 136, emphasis added).

What has happened here? Regardless of whether I am right about an earlier westering-journey being cut out, it is clear that the Christian elements have been added, and that their cumulative effect has been to change the genre of the story drastically. “The Children of Lir” has been transformed from a Hansel-and-Gretal-evil-stepmother kind of story into a theodicy.

“The Children of Lir” has all of the necessary features of a good theodicy. Innocent children suffer terribly, due to no fault of their own. They have done nothing to deserve the terrible fate that comes upon them. How could a good God allow this to happen to them? It has a compelling narrative structure, following the children from when they were happy and loved, through their millennium of torment, to the ending when all their misery is seen in a new light. At the end, it becomes clear that not only was their suffering for a purpose, but that every event was necessary in order to bring them to salvation. Had they not been turned into swans, they would not have taken to the seas. Had the curse not limited them to certain bodies of water (perhaps preventing them from journeying West to Mananannan’s blessed island), they would not have come to the hermit. Had they not suffered for some many centuries, they would not have lived long enough for the coming of the Gospel. Had they not heard the bell, which frightened the boys by its strangeness, they would not have found the hermit. And had they not come to the end of their term of metamorphosis at the moment and in the location they did, restrained as they were by silver chains and confused by Lairgren’s attack, they would not have been baptized in human form before their deaths. Everything that happened was for the saving of their souls, and thus are God’s ways justified to men (and perhaps to swans): if they had not suffered temporally, they would have suffered eternally. Thus the genre, message, and moral of the story are metamorphosed, from mythical swans into theological gospel.

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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!

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Notes on “Magnum Opus” Part 2

lewisThe Charles-Williams-themed two-episode story of Inspector Lewis will air in the US this Sunday, so I’m blogging about it in some detail. Here’s yesterday’s post.

Now, onward! Yesterday, I ended with a quote about how the Way of Exchange is just like carry a heavy box or parcel for someone else. Interestingly, the next shot is of Hathaway’s sister carrying a heavy box through his doorway. He doesn’t get up to take it from her. Rejecting the co-inherent nature of the universe, are you, Gorgeous?

After Beskin’s talk, several of the attendees are talking in a pub. The script is a bit stilted here, but I’ll point out one quick little quote. A character says: “Williams was a minor theologian and no academic” and another says that’s in his favor. This is a topic of conversation in CW scholarship: some writers play up his outsider status, going so far as to call him an autodidact, while others downplay the fact that he had no college degree and emphasize that he taught at Oxford along with Lewis and Tolkien. so, depending on one’s attitude towards higher education, one might say Williams was or wasn’t an “academic.” But he certainly was a minor theologian, if that!

Beskin gets a text message from someone he’s nicknamed “The Lioness.” This introduces an animal symbolism for characters that’s roughly based on the Platonic archetypal animals in The Place of the Lion.

51KzHDR-TwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_As Lewis and Hathaway walk to the murder scene, Hathaway says that Beskin was giving a talk on Charles Williams, “The third Inkling.” Is this a nod to the title of Grevel Lindop’s bio, or only a cheerful little staff work of the Omnipotence?

Curiously, the shooting script says that Hathaway’s line is “Charles Williams, the Third Inkling, a regular at their pub discussions,” but Laurence Fox didn’t say that bit about CW’s being a regular at the pub discussions—which makes his line more accurate. CW was a regular at the pub discussions, but that wasn’t the Inklings proper. The Inklings proper was the Thursday night meetings in C. S. Lewis’s rooms at Magdalene College, Oxford. That’s when they shared works in progress. The pub discussions were much more informal.

Hathaway, that walking encyclopedia, after reading an obscure quote left with the body, immediately knows that it has something to do with alchemy. Lewis asks: “Turning lead into gold?” And Hathaway replies with a very intelligent answer, one that might have come from A. E. Waite himself—or from Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson:

More than that. A precursor to modern science, trying to understand the secrets of nature in order to unlock the mysteries of the universe. … For some alchemy is more of a spiritual process. Converting the lead of ignorance into the gold of enlightenment.

At the station in the morning, did you catch the cute little Tolkien reference? Maddox says: “Hardly the Battle of Helm’s Deep.” 🙂

Now, here’s a point where Hathaway makes a mistake. Lewis looks at the alchemical quote found on the body and says:

 You were right about the alchemy. Quote is from a seventeenth century German alchemist. Question is, what’s that got to do with murder? Or Charles Williams? Did Williams write anything about alchemy?

In the script, Hathaway replies:

Not that I know of. Everything but. The Grail. Tarot. Ritual magic. But not alchemy. Wrote theology, supernatural novels and was something of a mystic. (a glance at MADDOX) No film franchises yet.

[That’s pretty sweet, considering several of us, including the author of “Magnum Opus,” really want films made of the seven novels!]

This line is considerably shortened in the episode. Hathaway only says: “Wrote theology, supernatural novels and was something of a mystic.”

But of course, CW did write a lot about alchemy. Not much of it was very explicit—it was the spiritual kind, not the metallic kind—but his play The Chaste Wanton is explicitly about alchemy. Got one wrong, Cutie!

The screenwriter, Chris Murray, told me that this separation between CW and alchemy was a deliberate choice. He wrote to me that

the story is kind of a clash between some people into CW and someone into alchemy and in order to get not one but two esoteric notions into a mainstream TV show (normally producers get very nervous of anything esoteric) I had to simplify massively and keep stating as part of the detective puzzle ‘but there is no link between CW and alchemy, they are two entirely separate things’ when I know full well that in fact there is a degree of crossover and that CW did touch on notions of spiritual alchemy… but that all got edited out over the process.

So there you are. Poor Hathaway had that mistake written into his script. What’s a fictional character to do? This separation between Williams and alchemy is emphasized more and more as the story goes on, which I find very confusing.

Hathaway also doesn’t catch on when they find that Beskin’s contact list had not only “The Lioness” but also “The Butterfly,” “The Serpent,” and “The Eagle.” But it’s not long before he picks up a copy of The Place of the Lion at Beskin’s house and remembers. Aha! These animals are characters in that novel! Beskin’s sister is the Serpent. Don’t bother asking who the other two are, though; Murray told me he doesn’t know.

Around about 16:30, a tattoo is revealed on Beskin’s chest. It’s this coinherence symbol, that I’ve used several times on the blog:


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

And here’s a funny thing. Do a google image search for “coinherence.” OK? Have you done it? What did you come up with? The first image is probably that one. And what’s the source? My blog. Yeah, but that’s not my image. But if you google “perichoresis,” you find that the image is on Wikipedia. Again, Chris Murray shows his brilliance behind the scenes, in making that visual connection between “coinherence” and “perichoresis.” Nicely done. There’s more about this symbol later, too.

Now, the Easter egg! At 18:00, Carina Sargent picks up a printed copy of her brother’s talk on Charles Williams. Here’s a screen shot:


Do you recognize that? It’s this blog! It’s my Introduction post! Hooray. We’re famous.

Come back tomorrow for more.

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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!


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Next Sunday: ‘Inspector Lewis,’ Starring Charles Williams

Remember when this blog appeared in an episode of “Inspector Lewis” last fall? Well, that episode is finally going to air in the USA, this coming Sunday! Don’t miss it! In honor of the US showing, I’ll blog in some detail about the show’s adaptation of facts and fantasies relating to Charles Williams. Stay tuned, and check out Hanna’s blog post, reblogged below.

Book Geeks Anonymous

You may remember last Fall, there was a slight brouhaha among Inklings fans online when the British detective series Lewis aired an episode centering around a murdered Charles Williams expert and a shadowy cabal reminiscent of Williams’s own Companions of Co-inherence. The episode, whose premiere coincided with the publication of Grevel Lindop’s long-awaited biography of Williams, was titled “Magnum Opus” and appeared as part of Lewis‘s ninth season. The series airs in the US as well on PBS (where its called Inspector Lewis instead), but because of some odd scheduling, the numbering for the seasons is a bit off. So what was Season 9 for the Brits is Season 8 for us.

I mention this because Season 8 of Inspector Lewis premieres tomorrow on PBS. “Magnum Opus” is the second episode in the season, which means if you want to see it, next Sunday, August 14 is your chance.

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Election Results!

Thank you to all of you who voted in my poll for your favorite guest bloggers on Taliessin through Logres. Here are the top five winners:


Congratulations to Jenn, Arthur, Brenton, Andrew, and David! I hereby invite you five to write another guest post in the future when we get to The Region of the Summer Stars. It will be a while yet, but you can sign up in the comments below for which poem(s) you would like to write about.

And there will also be a special surprise post, an academic article on “The Prayers of the Pope” written by a noteworthy CW scholar, when the series is over! (One of you can still pick that poem; I want two posts on it, one “popular” and one “academic.”)



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