22 July 2007

Charles Williams: Writing Style

This is the fourth installment in a series:
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Personality & Influence
Writing Style


Williams wrote in several different genres, including novels, poetry, plays, theology, literary criticism, and letters. His books were not widely read in his own time, primarily because of his confusing syntax, "needless obscurity" (CS Lewis), and sizable episodes that are simply bizarre. Indeed, his writing is very hard to understand, as if it is a private language. However, once a reader struggles through several novels or sizable portions of his verse, that reader begins to understand the language. Once this mastery has occurred, the obscurity melts away—but the bizarre remains, delightful and uncanny as ever.

His most notable works are his seven novels—shocking, glorious, convoluted, startling, unpredictable, obscure prose narratives—characterized as “spiritual thrillers”(T. S. Eliot) or “metaphysical thrillers” (himself). They are really unparalleled. Maybe it’s his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls it “agile.” I think that’s a good word. “Labyrinthine” might work. Thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, and confusing as anything.

The Christian faith is “an unstated background” to his novels (Hadfield 101); which means that characters very rarely talk about religion, in only one book do they go to church, and even when they do talk about their faith it would take quite the careful reading to figure out which faith they were discussing. Williams’ prose characteristically avoids and transcends traditional Christian diction. The beauty of this technique is twofold. First, these books can be read and loved by anyone, Christian or not. Yet they might serve to invade a jaded, skeptical mind with truth. Second, they offer a new, fresh, timeless diction of dogma—the same old doctrines explained in totally original terminology. See, for example, Descent Into Hell p. 188-189, or just about any chapter of The Greater Trumps. Also, even though spiritual truths resonate throughout every word of these books, they are not Christian allegories, nor can their plots be as easily related to the Bible as, say, The Last Battle. They function on two levels: “Their underlying structure derived from religion, romantic love, and his work; their superstructure from his interesting the workings of material and magical power; their excitement from the clash between the two” (Hadfield 103).

His best known (and best) novels are probably Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion. In each novel, sacramental objects or powers break loose, expand into a swirling chaos, develop outward from some central vortex, and threaten vast—even universal—temporal or spiritual destruction. Salvation and preservation are achieved by the imperial mastery of a woman or man who steps into the center of the danger and by the voluntary, intentional surrender of her or his person, desires, and volition to the divine will. In Shadows of Ecstasy, that center is not an object, but a person—Nigel Considine—and his insidious “gospel”; although there is a lavish set of jewels that figures prominently in the drama. In War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, and The Greater Trumps, respectively, the focal point is an object of legendary or sacramental significance: the Holy Grail (which Williams spells Graal after the French fashion), the Stone out of King Solomon’s crown (who is called, by the Muslims in this tale, Suleiman the Great), and the original set of Tarot cards corresponding to mysterious dancing chessmen. The Place of the Lion employs great animals who turn out to be the visible manifestations of nine Platonic archetypes who also happen to be the nine orders of angelic beings according to the Medieval hierarchy. Great stuff!

With each new choice of nucleus, Williams seemed to be reaching further and further behind the veil of material reality, searching for the ultimate Power that created and guides it. Each symbol corresponded to some sacred core of existence beyond itself, some mystery even more closely associated with transcendence. Behind the Grail is its keeper, Prestor John, who is somehow identified with the Grail itself and all true believers and Christ Himself. Behind Solomon’s magical chunk of original matter is his signet ring, which contains or is the divine light that made the universe. Behind the tarot cards, and even behind the dancing images, is the Fool, who moves and does not move, and who is the meaning of all things. Even the Platonic archetypes are only orders of angels, fairly far down the ladder of celestial promotion according to Dante, answerable to the Unity, the Three-In-One.

Yet each of these powers is mastered by a human being. Williams grants his heroes or saints—Isabel Ingram, Archdeacon Julian Davenant, Chloe Burnett, Anthony Durant, Sybil and Nancy Coningsby, Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther, Betty Wallingford, and Lester Furnival—a profound serenity that might be called “the peace that passeth understanding.” I will comment more on this tranquility in the post on themes; but for now, let me just say that this is the center of his books for me.

Although CW’s novels are both the place to begin when approaching his oeuvre and will probably always carry his reputation, his genius really found its niche in his Arthurian poetry. His poems, I believe, are his greatest works and the only ones that might earn him a place in “The Western Canon” (whatever that is). In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), he unites two story-threads that had previous been more or less separate: The Lancelot & Guinevere tale, and the Quest for the Grail. These poems should not be read without C.S. Lewis’s guide and commentary, contained in Arthurian Torso (the full text is available online at Questia). The plot (as far as there is one: it’s wandering, non-chronological, mystical, and visionary, but it’s there) follows Taliessin, the poet/bard of Arthur’s court. CW worked his favorite themes into these poems; as a matter of fact, he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britian” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence. The Doctrine of Exchange is operative: Galahad’s household was the ideal civilization of the True Logres where reciprocal love and the bearing of one another’s burdens were practiced. He names the Divine Trinity “the zenith of exchange,” as He/They is/are the quintessential example and locus of exchange, inhabiting and co-inhering with one another. Christianity as true myth comes in, as well, when Taliessin hears of this story and travels to Byzantium to discover its truth and applicability. Some of CW’s shorter poems can be found online here, to give you an idea of his dense, crystalline, many-lighted verse. I recommend “Saint Michael” and “Christmas” as closest to his later, characteristic style.

His theology is written in a more straight-forward style as to syntax and diction, but is so counter-intuitive and extraordinary as to seem extremely confusing. Most of the time I found myself saying, “He can’t really mean what he seems to be saying, can he?” But he can. Oh, definitely so. For example, in the posthumously published Outline of Romantic Theology he sketches the correspondences between the personal romance of a man and a woman and the earthly life of Christ. He seems to take for granted that this has always been the Church’s position; but I had never heard of it before! He believes that romantic, sexual love is the best way on earth to understand Christ’s work and the nature of God.

That’s all I can think to say right now. Your additions are more than welcome!

Does anyone have a description of his plays for me? And how about his literary criticism?

1 comment:

Ariel said...

This is fascinating. I feel like I need to read your post again with a highlighter...thanks for sharing your research.