News: Mythcon 45 proposal

In connection with my work on The Inklings and King Arthur, I am sending in a proposal for a panel discussion at Mythcon 45. I include the proposal here just for fun, in case you’re interested. I withhold the names of the participants for now, as this is a rough draft. If our proposal is accepted, I can post again with names attached. Ideas are welcome.

Panel Proposal:
The Inklings and King Arthur

Moderated by Sørina Higgins


The 2013 publication of The Fall of Arthur complicated the generic complexities of Tolkien’s work; in addition to asking “How does Tolkien’s legendarium fit in with mythic texts such as Beowulf or the Norse Eddas, or his scholarship?” we can now ask: “How does Tolkien’s Arthurian poem fit in with the vast palimpsest of Arthurian legends through the ages?” and “How does it map onto Middle-earth?” In addition, we can entertain questions about the interaction of The Fall of Arthur with Arthurian works by the other Inklings.

The Inklings and King Arthur is an academic collection in progress, edited by Sørina Higgins, examining just such questions. The proposed panel represents some of the fundamental concerns of the volume by positioning the Inklings’ Arthurian works in their historical milieu, focusing especially on Arthurian geographies—looking at where the Inklings’ Arthurian works “fit” into time and place. The panelists will discuss Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield, as well as Arthurian source materials, MacDonald, and Chesterton, looking at the fantastical and historical aspects of these works.

The publication of The Fall of Arthur thus invites an examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications both of the actual Arthurian writings by the major Inklings and of an imaginary, composite, Inklings Arthuriad—and this panel would like to share those examinations at Mythcon 45.

Abstracts for the panelists’ topics are included in the pages below.

Panelist #1
Shape and Direction:
Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies

Owen Barfield’s believed that human consciousness is on an “inward” course. Whereas ancient humanity viewed itself as part of nature, modern humanity has viewed itself as separate. This inward course is evidenced in the perceived relationship between thought and speech; modern language is “fragmented,” whereas in ancient language meaning and poesy were experienced as a unity. Barfield’s understanding of the relationship between consciousness and speech had a profound effect upon J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

The Inklings’ views on this matter were formed and expressed against a backdrop of several centuries of upheaval. One was terrestrial: from a flat earth to a globe. Another was cosmological: from a terra-centric to a helio-centric view. Closer to the time of the Inklings were “scientistic” currents of mathematical reductionism, biological determinism, and technocratic utilitarianism. The Inklings’ response to these issues reflects the influence of Barfield’s view of consciousness, as well as their shared resistance to a scientistic worldview.

This panelist will argue that had the Inklings composed a Composite Arthuriad, this view of an “inward” direction of consciousness and the response to these cosmological and scientistic issues would have shaped their mythological geography in two main ways: 1. An “opposite direction”: an “outward” course for the location of Avalon, and 2. A change in “shape” from Wizard to Pendragon as the proper tension-holder between ancient and contemporary consciousness.

Panelist #2 (me)
King Arthur Was an Elf?
Arthurian Geographies in J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams

The Fall of Arthur contains hints that Tolkien could have woven this poem together with The Silmarillion, mapping his elvish history onto Arthurian legends to form a mythological and linguistic foundation for “real” English history and language. Lewis and Williams also used the Arthurian legends to unify diverse elements of their mythologies in a constant quest for holism. This panelist examines the theological implications of their multi-textual Arthuriana.

In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East, while God’s country is in West. Heroic characters achieve a great quest and leave this earthly realm, attaining spiritual fulfillment. All three include a secret tradition passed on to contemporary heirs of Arthur who are still alive in 20th-century England.

Yet their astronomy and cosmology do not map on to one another, Arthur’s fate is uncertain, and Merlin’s role quite varied. A differing approach to sacred objects is revelatory: There is no Grail in Tolkien’s story; there are sacred spaces or places in his geography instead. There is no Grail in Lewis; the people are the focus of the sacred energy. In Williams, the Grail is central. This illustrates their spiritual differences: Tolkien as a Roman Catholic who kept any explicit reference to Christianity out of his works, since they are set in a pre-Christian (even, some works, a pre-human) world; Lewis as a “mere” Anglican, wanting to teach plain doctrine; and Williams as an Anglican and an occult master channeling spiritual, sexual, and creative energies for doctrinal purposes.

Panelist #3

Anyone familiar with Arthuriana may be puzzled when they find in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength that Ransom has now been given the titles of two very different figures from the Grail saga: the Pendragon and the Fisher King. Why?

There is a clue within the long literary history of Arthurian literature. A slow change occurred in Arthur Pendragon himself. Arthur evolves from the pious once-and-future King of the Britons defending his people against invaders, to a self-indulgent ruler siring Mordred by an incestuous tryst. This change accelerates around the time that the role(s) of the Fisher King/Wounded King begin to take center stage with the development of the Grail saga. We begin to see that what used to be some of Arthur’s chief characteristics are now found in this other king. It is the Fisher King who is now known for his piety and for being ruler of a particularly holy, exemplary, and powerful kingdom. Yet the two kings remain quite distinct. Later Arthurian authors have had to face the Arthur-Fisher King duality.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis sacrifices neither Arthur nor the Fisher King. Ransom (known now as Pendragon and Fisher King) possesses fully the ideal virtues of both roles. By overtly drawing on the imagery and tradition of both roles within the Arthuriad and bringing them together under one head, Lewis successfully highlights the virtues of both without blurring or confusing their qualities. The result is a robust and multidimensional picture of Christ.

Panelist #3
Echoes Beyond Allusion:
Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’ Arthuriana

In the introduction to his George MacDonald anthology, C.S. Lewis said, “I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” There is a high degree of intertextuality in Lewis’s works. From epigraphical quotations to narrative allusions to the grafting in of entire frameworks, Lewis’ corpus is a playground of intertextuality. Making Lewis’ dialogical project even more complex is the intertextual nature of his source materials: the Arthuriad, for example, takes up the matter of Britain and classical and biblical material. Lewis also engages in contemporary intertextuality as he dialogues with J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.

In the field of biblical studies, Richard B. Hays offers a theory of intertextuality; this panelist explores the possibilities that emerge when applying Hays’ programme to the works of C.S. Lewis, focusing on his Arthuriana, including the WWII-era Ransom books, his poetry, and some elements of Narnia. By moving past allusion and quotation to an understanding of “echo” in reading intertextually, we can agree that a literary echo creates “an intertextual fusion that generates new meaning.” In asking how C.S. Lewis uses MacDonald, Milton, Wells, the Arthurian legendary, various mythologies, and the fiction of his contemporaries, we are really asking how these echoes function to generate new meaning. We see that Lewis, like the Apostle Paul, is a thinker in “profound disjuncture” with his religious context. And though Lewis’ Christian thinking is not as significant a paradigm shift as Paul’s was, it is likewise nonetheless a “reappropriation.”

Panelist #4
From myth to history, and back again:
Arthur as paradigm for understanding the Inklings’ view of mythological history

Defending a historical Arthur is a challenge. Arthur is usually relegated to the rank of symbolic figure. On the other side of the debate over the historical Arthur stands British historian Geoffrey Ashe, offering one of the last main attempts towards identification of a historical figure behind King Arthur. Ashe credited G.K. Chesterton for giving him the initial impulse for his research; thus, the importance of Chesterton in the debate over a historical Arthur should not be overlooked, nor his influence on the later members of the Inklings ignored.

The way Chesterton approached the question of the historicity of Arthur is a paradigm for his overall view of history. Chesterton was weary of modern historian’s suspicions toward history and towards ancient authors. He can be seen as presenting a correspondence-view of history, trusting that the texts provided enough reliable information regarding the historical matter at hand. But a more foundational element is his “supernatural” view of history. For Chesterton, there is no need to choose between a historical or mythological Arthur. Chesterton’s view of history can be called mythological history, a view that maintained the historicity of mythological figures because without historical basis, there would be no mythology.

Tolkien took a different approach, creating a mythological history wholesale from his imagination in a process that he likened to the archeologist’s work of discovering lost facts. Yet The Fall of Arthur reveals that he once considered using pre-existing materials as a means of exploring the lost linguistic past of his imaginary languages. Lewis defended the importance of history as the only comparison we have to balance out the present, yet turned to science fiction and mythology as a counterbalance to the scientism of his times. Charles Williams’ us of history is perhaps the most creative, as he conflated historical events to serve his own artistic and theological purposes.

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An Introduction to Amen House

The next several works by CW that I’m going to be summarizing were all written during his happiest years of work at Amen House, the London Offices of Oxford University Press. I have written before about how important his workplace was to Williams. He made it the center of his life: it was probably more important to him than his family, church, the F.R.C., or his lecturing. This at least was true for the mid-1920s and early -30s: an intensely emotional phase in CW’s life.


Amen House

There were at least five reasons that Amen House was the main focus of CW’s mental and spiritual energy during this decade or so.

First, he found meaning and fulfillment in his work. It was not so much the editing itself (he had to perform many tedious tasks and do a lot of hack-work), as the fact that he spent his office hours among books and bookish people: he had to read an enormous amount of literature and talked books and poetry all day long.

Second, and directly related to that, were the friendships that he cultivated at OUP. He found many like-minded people there and forged deep relationships with them. He was a dynamic force at the center of the social network there, driving people to work, talk, and live to their utmost. He gave each of his friends a title and a role to play, then wrote dramas (“Masques”) that they actually performed in these personas.

amen_house library

The Library at Amen House

Third, he was allowed to write his own creative stuff during business hours, and churned out his poetry, fiction, biographies, book reviews, and other pieces in odd hours at his desk. He used the library at Amen House for his own person research as well as for looking up facts necessary in his editorial capacity.

Fourth, he loved order, hierarchy, organization, and interaction. He found all of these at the Press, in a kind of glorious chaos superimposed over an underlying order. He loved his boss, Sir Humphrey Milford, and seems to have simultaneously submitted himself graciously to that man’s orders and also rather twisted the whole Firm around his little finger, shaping them to his personality and will.

Fifth, Phyllis Jones. I have already written about CW’s relationship with Phyllis briefly (in this post about his life) and will do so again. For now, just remember that he fell in love with Phyllis soon after her arrival at the Press in 1924 and continued to adore her to some extent for the rest of his life.

Now, in order to understand the works that CW wrote during this time period, you need to know a little bit about his co-workers, the names he made up for them, and the ways he fitted them into his personal mythology. Therefore, this post serves as an introduction to the following texts, to be summarized over the next few weeks:
- “A Century of Poems to Celia”
- “Amen House Poems” and An Urbanity
- The Masque of the Manuscript
 - A Myth of Shakespeare
 - The Masque of Perusal
 - The Rite of the Passion
 - The Masque of the Termination of Copyright

Here, then, is an introduction to the characters CW assigned to his colleagues at Amen House.

Tityrus = CW himself, the Introducer of the Masques.
Phillida or Celia = Phyllis Maud Jones, the librarian, CW’s second love interest, the social center of life at the Press. She is also increasingly the spiritual center of the Masques, serving a kind of sacramental function.
Caesar = Sir Humphrey Milford. He appears to have been the perfect boss: intelligent, a good leader, a perfect gentleman, kind, solemn, understanding, and tolerant. As Bernadette Lynn Bosky writes in her introduction to The Masques of Amen House, “Besides cherishing Milford’s friendship, Williams honored the Publisher for what he represented: order, right work, the hierarchical head who bears his office with majesty and satisfaction but not personal pride.”
• Colin = Frederick Page, CW’s first friend at the Press (he got CW a job there back in 1908), and his office mate. Perhaps his closest friend in the ordinary human sense of the word “friend,” which is not often applicable in CW’s case (“disciple,” “colleague,” “rival,” or “inspiration” is more often accurate!)
• Alexis = Gerry Hopkins, nephew of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, expert in French literature, and rival for the love of Phyllis Jones. He and CW were close friends and managed to continue cordial relations after the awkward love-triangle debacle.
• Dorinda = Helen Mary Peacock, a German literature specialist, head of Production, and a rather imposing personality.
• Thyrsis, The Master of the Music = Hubert J. Foss, composer and musician, head of the music department, and probably the most accomplished and famous man in his own right from among this motley collection. Note that these Masques were set to music, which Foss composed.
• The Singer = Dora Stevens, who does not otherwise come into the story of CW’s life much.
• The Manuscript / The Book / The Thought = Nina Condron, who also does not otherwise come into the story of CW’s life much.
• Perigot = an unidentified colleague; the character is a forerunner of Periel in Descent Into Hell.

AmenHouse bombed

Amen House bombed by the Germans in 1942

Keep these characters in mind as you read the next several posts about The Masques of Amen House and the associated poetry. Enjoy!

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Your Wife is Jesus: “Outlines of Romantic Theology,” c. 1924

We’re back to the book summaries! This is the posting of summaries of each of CW’s books, one book per week, in chronological order, that I was doing for a while and then abandoned at the end of January. I plan to pick this up again for a while, then take breaks for other themes and topics, and continue on through his entire corpus. Just hang on six more years, and we’ll start to get to Williams’s more mature works. But meanwhile, today’s book is a fascinating work that is one of his ODDest.

Charles Williams Summary #7: Outlines of Romantic Theology (1924?)ORT

Outlines of Romantic Theology is CW’s first attempt to explicate, in prose, one of his signature concepts: the idea that the “sexual love between and man and a woman…is capable of being assumed into sacramental and transcendental heights” (pp. 7, 9). In the words of this book’s editor, Alice M. Hadfield, Romantic Theology is the belief that “In experiencing romantic love, we experience God” (p. xi).

Williams kept working out the nature and implications of this idea throughout his life; this volume was only the first of many such attempts. It was never published in his lifetime; Hadfield edited and published it after CW’s death. His final statement on Romantic Theology came in one of his last books—accounted his best work by some readers—The Figure of Beatrice (1943). The reader should keep in mind, then, that Outlines of Romantic Theology is an incomplete work, a partial statement, an immature view.

With that caveat, what follows is some attempt to summarize the concepts and contents of Outlines of Romantic Theology with great brevity.

Williams begins Outlines of Romantic Theology somewhat in the middle of things: with his stated assumptions that his peculiar interpretation of love is universal, commonplace, obvious, and orthodox. He says that the suggestions he makes cannot appear to every Christian “as anything but natural and probable” (p. 8) and that “Romantic Theology is part of Christian Theology” (p. 8). This is part of what I find both endearing and perplexing about CW: he always appears to think that his own quirky ideas are mainstream. Some scholars argue, in his defense, that they are, only oddly expressed. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The definitions of Romantic Theology that I quoted above emerge gradually, worked into the fabric of his introductory remarks about Christian Theology in general. This contributes to the idea that he thinks his interpretation is commonplace, and also makes it difficult to determine exactly what Romantic Theology is.

In the second chapter, CW discusses the “principles” of Romantic Theology, which goes a great distance towards defining it. He begins: “The principles of Romantic Theology can be reduced to a single formula: which is, the identification of love with Jesus Christ, and of marriage with His life.”

That’s it. That’s Romantic Theology. Love = Jesus, and marriage = Jesus’s life.

What do you think of that? Let me slow it down a bit:

I. Love equals Jesus Christ. Throughout this little book, CW insists that this equation is exact, definite, and literal. It is not a metaphor; love is not “like” Jesus; we are not “like” Jesus when we love someone (well, we are, of course, but that’s not what he’s talking about here). The love between a man and a woman IS JESUS. I think it would be accurate to say that when we are in love, that is one of the many ways that we experience God’s love—but that is to reduce and to sanitize the wildness of CW’s teaching. It does mean that, certainly, but it means more. It is half of a mantra that CW would use frequently in his later writings: “This is Thou, this also is not Thou.” He believed that we had to say that to God about everything.

When we are smashed by tragedy, we have to say of the tragedy: This is God (i.e., God has sent this, it is under His control, He is manifested to me through it—but again, that simplifies and domesticates CW’s more feral diction). But we also have to say of the tragedy: This is not God (i.e., this is because of sin and the fall of humanity, God does not want me to suffer, God has a plan in place to save me from my suffering ultimately, and so forth). We always have to say both of any object, person, experience, event, etc.

So it is with romantic love. When I look at my Beloved, I need to say: he is God (in the sense that God is revealing His divine love to me through this man’s love), and I need to say: he is not God (he is a created being, he is a sinner, etc.). Of the love-experience itself—the whole course from falling in love through marriage until death—I need to say: this is God (I know God through it) and this is not God (I must not idolize this experience or have false assumptions about its blissful continuity).

On to the next point in that quote above:

II. Marriage equals the life of Christ.

true loveCW means this quite literally. He means that each love-affair (yes—I chose those words deliberately, and will come back to that) follows the narrative pattern of Jesus’ life on earth. He lists ten moments in the life of Christ and tentatively suggests how they might match up to the events of a romantic relationship. He is absolutely adamant, however, that we must not force these identifications too far: it is dangerous to try to determine which stage my marriage has reached at any given moment. I offer these points here, then, much more schematically than CW would like (with apologies):

  1. Christ’s Birth ≈ falling in love
  2. Baby Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple ≈ dedicating the lover to God; giving over the relationship to God’s guidance and providence
  3. The Massacre of the Innocents ≈ the “normal human relapse and boredom which follows swiftly” after the initial “high experience” of the first days of passionate love (p. 19).
  4. Jesus’ Childhood in Nazareth ≈ I am not certain, but I think this corresponds to the engagement period; it is what CW calls the “years of retirement” that intervene before the wedding (p. 20). Maybe this somewhat explains his own nine years of engagement to Florence?
  5. Jesus’ Baptism ≈ the Wedding.
  6. The Temptation ≈ perhaps the temptation to give up on the pursuit of Romantic Theology, to stop doing the hard work of seeing the spouse as God sees him/her, and to stop working at the difficult process of sanctification as it specifically plays out in marriage. It is also a temptation to give in to “depression, boredom, monotony, dislike” (p. 21).
  7. The Transfiguration ≈ again, CW is not explicit here, on purpose. He does not want to reduce this theology to a neat chart (as I am doing!). But based on the discussion of the Temptation, above, it seems clear that the Transfiguration is transforming the lovers out of that phase of passivity. Later, he mentions that any number of these stages can be gone through over and over, and not in this order. That seems like common sense.
  8. The Passion of Love, i.e., the Crucifixion ≈ the time when “the mere process of things seems to destroy love—duties and obligations seem to abolish it” (p. 22). It is not the actual, physical death of one of the lovers, because this is the life of their Love, not of themselves as individuals. But this is not the end of the story: CW adjures us to remember “that Death is assuredly consummated in a universal and heroic sense in Jesus Christ” (p. 22). I have written about the narrative recurrence of Christ’s story elsewhere, in a blog post about christology in Doctor Who, and hope to write more about that topic on this blog in future. Finally:
  9. The Resurrection ≈ well, the resurrection of that love after its temporary death. But that is not the end of the story. The end is:
  10. the Ascension ≈ the time when “Love that was visibly present, a light and a wonder, withdraws himself into the secret and heavenly places; and in His stead there descends upon the lovers the indwelling grace of the Spirit, nourishing and sustaining them” (p. 25). Whether this is after the death of one spouse is not stated. Quite likely CW intend this point, as all of them, to have multiple applications.

Now I really have done a disservice to this book by using up more than my usual word allotment and only talking about the first two chapters. Yet it is essential to understand the principles CW lays down in this unusual little book. I encourage you to get a copy of this slim volume and evaluate it for yourself. And keep in mind, again, that this is his early statement on the topic; for his final thoughts, we’ll have to wait 20 years (or at least 20 blog posts) for The Figure of Beatrice.

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Request for Information on Early Plays

Dear Charles Williams Scholars:

As you know, I am editing The Chapel of the Thorn for publication by Apocryphile Press. As I am drafting the introductory essay, I have a few questions that I would like to crowd source. Any answers, suggestions, citations, links, etc. are very welcome.

*  Does the Bodleian have a copy of The Chapel of the Thorn? My tracing of the MS history suggests that there were two copies: the one from 1912 that CW sent to Fred Page, then to Margaret Douglas, that ended up in the Wade, and another from 1924 that he sent to publishers, then to John Pellow. The earlier one is in the Wade. Where is the other? I have searched the Bod’s catalog but am not convinced that I know how to exhaust that resource.

* I know about David Dodds’ article “The Chapel of the Thorn: An unknown dramatic poem by C. Williams” in the Inklings-Jahrbuch 5 (1987) — although I have not been able to obtain a copy — but I do not know if there are any other published articles about this play. Do you know of any?

* What do you know about Ministry at the End of 1902? Have you read it? If so, can you tell me about it? Is it any good? Where is it? Hadfield says it is in the Wade, but I do not find it in their catalog. Is it in the Bodleian?

* What do you know about Prince Rudolph of Silvania? I assume this is the Wade’s CW/MS113. Have you read it? What is it about? Is it a play? Is it in verse? Tell me everything!

* Now, the big question: Would anyone like to volunteer to read my introductory essay in draft and give me comments for revision? I plan to have the draft complete by April 1st and can send it to you then. I would need comments back in about a week. What do you think? Anybody up for a little exchange of critique? I would be delighted to edit something of yours in return.


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Report on Dramatic Reading of “The Chapel of the Thorn”

This past Monday evening (St. Patrick’s Day), we made history! For the first time in human existence, Charles Williams’s as-yet-unpublished play The Chapel of the Thorn received a performance: a semi-staged read-aloud by members of my group Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts. We gathered in the chilly basement of Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church to bring Williams’s high, ceremonial poetry to life. Everyone read extremely well, bringing the play into sound and action for me. IMG_20140317_195146_531

Here was the cast:

Innocent—Betsy G.
Joachim—Jim F.
Amael—Andrew MacD.
Gregory—Josh L.
Michael—Nick M.
Constantine—Dominic C.
Theodoric—Sharon G.
The villagers and monks were taken up variously by members of the cast. I read the stage directions and followed along in the script so I could keep an eye out for typos in my transcription.


The reading went very, very well! I sent out a nicely-formatted .pdf of the text ahead of time and most of the readers read through either the entire play or at least their lines before we met. Most of the attendees have significant theatrical experience; one is director of the Players of the Stage youth theatre, another is assistant-directing Midsummer Night’s Dream this spring, and three have acted with that company for years. Everyone took his or her part seriously and stayed in character most of the time. The poetry is extremely hard to read, as Williams’ sentences go on and on for eight or more lines sometimes. Yet everyone pressed on valiantly, infusing monologues and dialogues with emotion and drama. The tensions among characters were palpable. The narrative arc of the story was clear, and the climax was powerful.

This is not to say we didn’t indulge in lots of our typical Ekphrasian hilarity! On the contrary: there was a liberal sprinkling of our usual teasing, quoting, punning, and general poking-fun. And our evening was made complete by funny English and Scottish accents, an enormous knife grabbed from the kitchen as an impromptu prop, chanting in Latin, a heroic ballad, and a druidic folk-song sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Most importantly, this reading gave me a deeper understanding of the play.

I had not realized, for instance, how central the Abbot Innocent was to the plot: how he is at the center of most of the conflicts, and how his character undergoes a shift during the course of the action.

I had not known just how gorgeous the poetry is: it reads even better in context than it does on the page or as spoken by only one voice (I read some of it out loud to my fellow researcher A Pilgrim in Narnia when we were working at the Marion Wade Center, and I found it extremely beautiful and moving then; it was more so spoken by a variety of trained voices).


I had not seen what the most important theme is: Law vs. Grace. I was so busy looking out for CW’s more common later themes (coinherence, the Two Ways, the City, the Sacred Object, etc.) that I missed this one. It’s right at the heart of the action, and it is the character of Innocent the Abbot who speaks for Law, while Joachim the Priest and keeper of the Crown of Thorns speaks for grace. Each goes too far to the extreme end of his position, with Innocent speaking for the value of law in itself as an external restrain and Joachim permitting immoral actions in the name of freedom.

It also had not struck me how shockingly sexist and racist this play is—or at least, characters in the play are, which is not by any means the same thing.

After the reading, we had a long and thoughtful conversation about the play. My friends helped me think about the historical, theological, and dramaturgical aspects of Chapel. One pointed out that the conflict of law vs. grace between Innocent and Joachim somewhat resembles the Protestant vs. Catholic debates of the 16th century: an anachronism that would have interested someone of Williams’s unifying nature. He wrote the East/West split of the Church out of his later Arthurian poetry, after all, and would have been interested in exploring theological debates in a localized, non-historical setting.

We discussed Universalism, and Andrew MacD asked whether CW knew the writings of George MacDonald by 1912. I believe that he did, but have no evidence that he knew MacDonald’s sermons. Yet a tendency towards Universalism runs through CW’s works all his life, even while he writes such a chilling account of damnation as Descent Into Hell. (On this topic, see Richard Sturch’s essay about “CW as Heretic” in the Charles Williams Quarterly).

There were two big topics we spent most of our time discussing.

First: Who wins? What is the conclusion of the many conflicts—between Joachim and Innocent, Constantine and Innocent, Amael and Innocent, Michael and Joachim, Gregory and Joachim….? And, asking the same thing another way: Which character speaks for the author (if any)? Does anybody in this play speak for Williams?

There are ways in which Joachim seems to win, by choosing defeat and exile rather than being forced into them. Yet he only does so once all material support has been withdrawn. Innocent gets what he wants, but at the end of the play, Theodoric is hatching plans to take down Innocent in future. Gregory is the easiest to sympathize with, and gets what he wants: for himself and his villagers to be left alone. Amael certainly gets what he wants in the most dramatic visual way. He is darkly manipulative, and sees that everyone else is to there be outmatched. He gets some of the most beautiful poetry, and is in a way a forerunner of Taliessin, the hero bard of CW’s later Arthurian poetry.

The play ends (or almost ends) in indeterminacy: with monks chanting a Christian hymn in Latin on one side of the stage, the villagers singing a pagan folk-song on the other, and Amael declaiming a tale of his hero Druhild inside the abandoned chapel. Does this ambiguity speak for Williams?

But a simple village woman gets the last word. And her last line is: “Mary, Mother of God, be pitiful.” Does she speak for Williams? WP952014031795199512954595Pro

Or, as was suggested in the course of our conversation, do the questions themselves speak for Williams? I have speculated before that in 1912 Williams may have been going through something like a crisis of faith or a period of deep questioning before he committed himself thoroughly to the Christian religion. (He may have experienced a different kind of questioning while he was in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross later, from 1917-1927). In this play and in The Silver Stair, published the same year Chapel was written (sorry, folks from last night; I misspoke on that point!), he is asking lots of questions about the right things to believe and the right way to live. Maybe none of the characters speak for Williams, or all of them do, and he is playing with all the philosophies, trying them on.

He was also, of course, figuring out the right way for him to write—which led us into our final question: Is this play performable?

I hadn’t really thought so. I found it a bit dry and boring when I read it on the page. But the conclusion of the group last night was: It is playable! It would work on stage!

Sure, it’s in verse. There is not an enormous amount of external action (although there is a lot of shouting). The sentences are too long. There are too many characters standing around without saying anything while one or two ramble on. The long speeches are hard to listen to. All this makes me think CW never heard this read aloud. There is certainly a great improvement between this play in 1912 and his “Masques of Amen House” from the mid ’20s. Those have shorter lines, shorter sentences, more punchy dialogue, lots more vivid action.

But still, Chapel is playable. It takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of character arcs, as it is very plot- and character-driven. The sound of the sea always in the background would add depth to a live performance. The weaving in and out of characters keeps one’s attention and drives the motion forward from one inner motivation to another. It is somewhat similar to Julius Caesar or Oedipus Rex with the small casts of characters fighting internal battles, with betrayals and self-revelation. In this case, the religious debate is the focus of the drama. In the first act, the characters are more static but their motivations are gradually being revealed through monologue and dialogue. In the second act, the elements become more chaotic, building to a tempest of speech and song at the end. Finally, all becomes bright and quiet at the end.

Some said this play would work as a movie: that it is “filmable.” The long speeches could be given more significance and interest through the addition of pan-and-zoom, bringing the audience closer for the most fraught lines, showing background and context when necessary, using light and motion to enhance the meaning of the poetry.

We thought maybe it could work really well on stage if it were staged as a Masque, with gorgeous sets, elaborate costumes, lots of music, choreography, visual interest, royal and ceremonial robes, and symbolic colors. Amael should sing more of his lines, as he is a bard. Its climax, after all, is a religious processional. So the whole action and vision could build up to the majestic glory of that final scene. Then the last conflict between the groups would appear as a clarification, a narrowing of the chaos. At the last moment, cut off the singing before the last lines so that the Woman speaks her prayer to Mary in the sudden silence.

I wish you had been there last night. I think you would have walked away with a happy head full of poetry and lofty ideas. Keep your eyes open for The Chapel of the Thorn in a bookstore and online when it’s finally published!


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