18 June 2012

Wade Report #3: Themes

As you know from my previous report, I spent several days at the Marion Wade Center transcribing an unpublished play by Charles Williams. The play is entitled The Chapel of the Thorn, and Williams completed it on August 24th, 1912. If you have any questions about this play, please comment below or email me: iambic dot admonit at gmail dot com.

So, what's the play about? 

The Chapel of the Thorn is set in Britian in an unspecified period that feels like the liminal historical space after the withdrawal of Rome -- i.e., in the 500s, right around the same time as the setting of Williams' later (highly anachronistic) Arthurian poetry. The main plot takes place just outside of the Chapel where the Crown of Thorns is kept--a very precious Christian relic. Several people are vying for control of this relic: the priest who keeps it, the Abbot, and King Constantine. Some want to keep it where it is, some to build a wall around it, some to move it to a nearby abbey for safe-keeping. 

But there's a catch. The local pagans also venerate this spot -- attending Christian services and participating in all Catholic rites -- because their heroic semi-divine figure, Druhild of the Trees, is buried right under the Chapel. These pagans first express a willingness to fight against Abbot and King to preserve the Chapel in its place; later, however, they withdraw their support. 

Not much happens by way of exterior action, as is common with Williams. The drama is nearly all spiritual, as characters find their true natures revealed through their responses to the Thorn and the dispute. This is consistent with his use of other sacred or powerful objects in his later fiction and poetry: in his published works, the Grail, a magical stone, the Platonic archetypes, a verse play, or a work of art serve as catalysts of spiritual revelation and change. 

There is one dynamic character, however, who serves as a source of real drama in The Chapel of the Thorn. His name is Michael, and he is an acolyte at the Chapel. He finds himself torn between his priestly father, Joachim, and a pagan priest-bard, Amael. Michael hates prayers and Christian rituals. In the end, he leaves the Church and goes off to travel as Amael's harp-bearer, embracing paganism and poetry. 

This leads to a discussion of the themes that pervade this early work.

First, there are some themes that I was not surprised to find in an early Williams work. There are hints of his later doctrines of coinherence and exchange. One character says that the priest, Joachim,grows old "with a greater weight / Than all his days upon him, for he bears / The times of twain his brethren, they who died / In the great plague, last followers of his creed” (15). Their deaths were given in exchange for his life, and he bears the burden of this substitution. Notice that this is a more negative view of exchange than we find in his later works. 

There is a little bit of discussion of concepts of sacred vs. secular: speculations whether there is a division or a unity between these two spheres of life. Similarly, there is the theme of church vs. state (secular vs. sacred power), whether a unity of these powers is necessary or dangerous. 

Most strongly, Williams' later doctrine of Romantic theology pervades these pages. The pagan villagers believe that they have been taught just such a doctrine by Joachim: they believe that every love, every lust, every desire is a way towards God. They have a practice of buying female slaves as concubines, and have somehow come to believe that this practice brings them closer to the divine. They are later chastised by the Abbot, but there is no narrative voice to take sides in this debate, or any other. 

Which leads me to a discussion of the themes that were a surprise to me. They all fall under what I can only call a startlingly strong sympathy for the non-Christian perspective. Several characters speak a kind of pluralistic relativism, and various forms of syncretism, relativism, and universalism permeate the text. Indeed, the play ends with a stirring dual anthem: the priests chant Christian texts in Latin while Amael and the villagers sing a rousing ballad to Druhild. A woman gets the last word, praising the Virgin Mary for healing her son. But the overwhelming sense of the ending is indeterminate. Pagan and Christian sing to their gods. The Christian song is indecipherable and unoriginal; the pagan song is folk poetry rather than high verse. The Christian song is high poetical Latin; the pagan song is a lively rhythmical ballad. Which one wins? 

Nobody wins. Or both win. Which leads me to wonder whether this was a phase in Williams' life when he was raising all kinds of spiritual questions, facing doubts, pondering the truth of Christianity, and considering agnosticism or syncretism/relativism. In his one published work from this same time, The Silver Stair, the narrative persona is struggling to decide between the Via Affirmativa -- the positive way, the Way of the Affirmation of Images -- and the Via Negativa -- the negative way, the Way of the Rejection of Images. In this case, the affirmation or rejection relates to romantic, sexual love. He decides in favor of Affirmation. In 1917, Williams married Florence Conway. He nicknamed her "Michal." They had one son, whom they name Michael. Hm. 

There is no external evidence that Williams went through an experience of conversion, like Lewis, or dedication, like Tolkien. But I wonder if the evidence of this play suggests that he did go through a serious period of doubt that resolved itself more slowly and less dramatically than Lewis's. Internal evidence suggests that he did.


Anonymous said...

Excellent job. I can say I was within inches of this play, though miles away from the content. I wonder if Michael wins in the play?

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Brenton! No, it's not clear whether anyone "wins." That's part of the confusing beauty.