This is the fifth post in a series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can access the others via this index.
Charles Williams, devout Anglican, began reading the works of A.E. Waite when he was in his 20s, probably around 1909. I'm trying to find out if there is more precise information than that. It is known that a fairly early work of Waite's, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) had a big impact on Williams. Anyway, Williams and Waite began corresponding in 1915 (Williams sent Waite a copy of The Silver Stair , which I can imagine Waite liking very much, and “getting” more than most readers), then Williams visited Waite at his home twice.
Williams was initiated into the Fellowship on 21 September 1917. He took the ceremonial name “Frater Qui Sitit Veniat,” which seems to mean, in context, “Let he who is thirsty come.” [Well, the “Frater” bit just means “Brother”; everyone in the Fellowship was Frater or Sorore].
While the length and extent of Williams's involvement are still under investigation, it is clear that he attended meetings regularly for ten years, memorized the rituals, and climbed rapidly up the grades. He served as Master of the Temple for two six-month periods. He read many of A.E. Waite's books, even after leaving the F.R.C., and continued to cite from Waite in writings all his life.
He also founded (with some reluctance, or show of reluctance) his own fellowship: the Companions of the Co-Inherence, later on, in 1939. It has many surprisingly Rosicrucian elements about, but was not nearly so formalized as Waite's—at least, as far as we know. Willard claims that Williams's Order survives to this day (276).
The influence of the occult generally and the F.R.C. specifically can be seen in all of Williams's writing in one way or another. Some are obvious: The Great Trumps, for instance, is all about the Tarot cards. There is a Black Mass in War in Heaven. There is a rather Waitean, or perhaps anti-Waitean, sorcerer in All Hallow's Eve who engages in all kinds of nasty supernatural practices, including fashioning an eidolon or false body in which he brings back the souls of two dead women. Portals, grades, sacral objects, pentagrams, hidden meanings, powerful words, and ceremonial rituals abound throughout his works.
Even in the highly theological Arthurian poetry, mysteries, magic, secrets, and operative words aboud. Taliessin practices magic in “The Queen’s Servant.” Saying, “Know by Our sight the Rite that invokes Sarras” (l. 40), he makes roses and golden wool appear in the air, then weaves them into a garment for a freed slave. In this poem, the magic spell is a “blessing” (l. 56), an act of holy “Art-magic spiritual” (l. 62).
So, what did Williams really believe about magic? Did he ever actually practice incantations, spells, and so forth, during his years in the F.R.C.? Well, remember that Waite split the Order over the question of magic: Waite desired to pursue the path of mysticism, not magic. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone in the F.R.C. was performing a black Sabbath or other obviously “magical” rituals. However, there is an historical distinction between goetia or “black” magic and magia or “white” magic (thanks to Stephen Barber for a conversation about this), and many of the rituals and practices of the F.R.C. might look an awful lot like magic to the ordinary Christian. Fortune-telling, for instance, or at least some kind of divination with Tarot cards, continued in Waite's Fellowship.
And Williams? In his forward to Witchcraft, Williams explains that he “saw the magical dimension as not necessarily other than the world we already know” (Hadfield, “Charles Williams and his Arthurian Poetry” 65-66)—which suggests a possible real-life application of magic outside of the poetry. Yet he “came to regard magic as repulsive and corrupting [and consistently used] his extensive knowledge as a source of symbolic imagery for the evil in the mind of man” (Brewer 65). Magic is usually (although not always) a symbol for evil throughout his novels. All of this suggests that Williams did not recommend the actual practice of magic by Christians. Maybe.
Two questions remain. If Williams was never in the Order of the Golden Dawn, why have very good scholars and very close friends of his been confused on this point? Well, because Williams himself SAID he was in the Golden Dawn. Why on earth did he say that, if it wasn't true? There are [at least] three possible reasons:
- He was faithfully keeping his oath of secrecy to the F.R.C. He never spoke the name of the actual society he joined, thus maintaining fidelity to his vows even after he lft.
- The Golden Dawn was more prestigious than the F.R.C. and Williams wanted to overemphasize his connection with Yeats, Underhill, and others, to bolster the impression that he was a great magical poet among other great magical poets, sharing their secret knowledge, wielding with them great spiritual power.
- Williams hated schisms. He wrote the East-West schism of 1054 out of his poetic, mythologized church history in the Arthurian poems. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize continuity with the earlier Order, rather than the schismatic distinctives of the particular, localized Fellowship he actually joined.
All of this leads to the final question: Why did he leave? Willard writes that “No one knows why he stopped attending” (273). Well, no. But one may guess. I have my own theory, as I'm sure others have theirs (which I would love to hear).
My theory is that Williams learned all there was to learn in the F.R.C.—all the hidden knowledge, all the holy secrets, all the facts and fancies and systems of symbolic imagery—and discovered that this gnosticism had no substance. Or, to put it another way, that what lay at the deep root of all these supposed “secrets” was, quite simply, only—only!—public Christian doctrine after all.
Perhaps I'll post more on that another time. For now—your thoughts on CW & the FRC?