30 September 2010

Williams as Medieval Myth-Maker

I've just have a paper accepted for a panel entitled "Medievalist Fantasies of Christendom" at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies. Here's the abstract.

Double Affirmation:
Medieval Chronology, Geography, and Devotion
in the Arthuriad of Charles Williams


In his masterpiece, an unfinished cycle of Arthurian poems, Charles Williams developed a totalizing mythology in which he fictionalized the Medieval—historically, geographically, and devotionally—in order to defend, embody, and recommend his peculiar Christianity. Under an Anglo-Catholic exterior, Williams fostered mystical asceticism: the result of destabilizing asceticism vs. hedonism. His reenactment of this mythopoetic Medievalism led not to synthesis, but to syncretism.

Williams’s first Medieval fictionalization is historical: he employs anachronisms and chronological conflation, juxtaposing events and cultural references from a millennium of European history and aligning each with his doctrinal system. Logres is God’s kingdom on earth; Byzantium signifies divine order; Islam represents a repudiation of Incarnation; and chivalry is metonym for the Way of Romantic Love.

Secondly, Williams mythologies the Medieval as apologetic via topography. Following the Biblical metaphor of the body of Christ, Blake’s symbolism, and the occult tradition he learned as a Rosicrucian initiate, he embodied theology in the Medieval landscape. He superimposed the figure of a woman over a map of Europe, then described each country in terms of an anatomical- ecclesiastical function.

Finally, Williams worked to show the validity of two Scholastic approaches to spirituality: the kataphatic and apophatic paths. His position is controversial, since his Affirmative Way involves renouncing love. This attempt to balance via negativa and via positiva resulted in syncretism, rather than harmonious Christianity. Specifically, it led Williams into the study of magic, sexual rituals with female devotees, and (perhaps) marital celibacy. While chastity, romance, and even theurgy have precedents as devotional practice, mixing them in modern life and marriage led Williams to practical misapplication—but also to creation of a landmark work of twentieth century poetry.


Teresa said...

Congratulations, S! This topic sounds very complex and interesting. Love the Arthurian legend: myth, magic, faith, history, fantasy. Wish I could be there to see you present!

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, T! Wish you could be there, too. Maybe you should submit a paper to the Medieval conference?? (haha, in the midst of your new and important work on other topics, that's an absurd but fascinating suggestion!)