Charles Williams: An Introduction to His Arthurian Cycle

Charles Williams is a much overlooked figure in literature; of the trio of Williams, Lewis and Tolkien who were arguably the most notable of the inklings, he is least well known, despite a prolific output in a range of areas from Theology to literary criticism, and in forms ranging from the biography and the thriller novel to the epic poem. It is the last of these, the epic poetry of Williams, that I want to focus on in this short essay; specifically, his unfinished Arthurian poetic cycle consisting of Taliessin Through Logres and the Region of the Summer Stars.1

His epic poetry can be compared to Blake and Milton in terms of its ambition – though not perhaps as consciously prophetic as Blake’s, it has the same inclination towards constructing a mythology for the world – in this case looking back into a golden past that preceded ‘history’ as we know it.

Charles Williams’ mythology adapted (in his own highly idiosyncratic way) the model of the Orthodox Oikoumene – the world of the Late Roman Empire (Byzantium as it is called in the West)2, establishing a poetical vision of a world participating in a golden age of Christian rule. Whether or not this idealised political body existed as such historically is besides the point; it is the basis of Williams’ mythology that is intended as a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Yet, true to life, this peace and harmony of a Christian Empire is constantly menaced by threat of schism, war, and barbarism at the gates. This is the external drama and action of the poetic cycle – but as we shall see, it is mirrored in the character-driven, internal drama.

Key to understanding this mythology is a notion of symbol and ‘type’. How does a poetic cycle focussing on King Arthur and his Knights relate to a kind of world politics of the Roman Empire and threats to its stability? By the direct association of Arthur to England, the King to the Emperor, the provinces to the Empire as a whole. Arthur, the King, is the image of the Emperor within England – they share precisely the same role, the Emperor to the whole, the King to the part. This is an authentic hierarchy, which transcends the realm of mere temporal authority and affects the fates of all the characters in this drama. If the Empire is in turmoil, so is England; if the Emperor falls into heresy, so do Arthur and his knights.

This harmony runs through all levels of the world – the King is the image not only of the Emperor, but of Christ the King,3 and where he fails in his divine duty, all suffer: droughts, famine, war, sickness and other ills ensue. Not as divine ‘punishments’ but as a direct correlative, because of this inter-connectedness of the world. Thus the symbolism of the mythology points to the ancient wisdom that all things within creation are connected in a delicate balance, based on natural hierarchies and God-given authority.

Taliessin spans a wide period of history, condensing major events into a single (rather convoluted) narrative. This enables Williams to incorporate later developments—the rise of Frankish kings like Charlemagne, their political ambitions and rivalry with the Eastern Roman Emperors—as negative forces undermining the hierarchy and dividing the harmonious rule. They upset the scales of balance and order, representing threats equivalent to the Islamic conquests of Christian lands in the East.

In this way, Williams is able to create a drama on a ‘world stage’; he correlates the turmoil of Arthur’s court, with its betrayals and schisms, with this global conflict.

This concept of inter-connectedness was central to Charles Williams’ world-view; he called it co-inherence. A counter to the idea of coincidence or chance, co-inherence, simply put, is the notion that all our actions, all events, impact and depend upon each other – not merely in their direct causal effects, but also across time and between people. In fact Williams at times scarcely distinguished between past events and present – unable to participate in the First World War, he lost two of his close friends in the conflict which impacted him deeply, to the point where he could not believe it as being a mere ‘event’ in the past. For him, ‘the whole thing was constantly happening. The clink of teacups at his own breakfast table seemed to him to be the tin mugs passing from hand to hand while dying men were crying for drink in no-man’s-land.’ These kinds of experiences haunted him for a long time until he struck upon his revelation of co-inherence, that not only the war and sacrifices of his friends but all events and choices depend upon each other in a web of meaning that constitutes history. This idea may have spurred him on to other of his concepts around ‘Romantic Theology’, but they also formed a vital part of his poetry and artistic vision.

Taliessin, which was intended only a part of a wider cycle which Williams did not live to complete, represents the peak of his artistic achievements, in terms of its status as ‘high art’ compared with his pulpy thriller novels (if we care to make such distinctions) which it merits for its depth of meaning, rich symbolism and indebtedness to a tradition of epic poetry that is almost as old as human culture itself.

Some have called aspects of Taliessin modernist because it dares to be obscure and at times even impenetrable, because it uses innovative metres and, also, because of the friendship Williams formed with T.S. Eliot and their appreciation of each other’s art. I think this is a misdiagnosis. While modernism enshrined a great deal of virtue in its own elitism and obscurity (Eliot’s Prufrock and even moreso the Wasteland are absolutely bristling with arcane references and allusions) I do not see Williams’ poetry as fitting within that same trend or sharing the motivations of modernist artists. It dares, as I say, to be obscure not, I think, to impress the reader with its own erudition or to evade understanding but, first of all, to inspire and evoke wonder and mystery, and secondly, to put us off any notion that we have ‘exhausted’ the poetry or solved the problem of ‘what it means’ in a limited sense. In terms of its values and themes, Taliessin is a work that belongs within a great tradition (that of Virgil, Milton and others), as much as it is many ways a truly original work.

His poetry is deeply musical, not only in the way it savours the sounds of words, but because it defies a full exposition in any other medium. Poetry is capable of going where prose cannot. The reader who demands clear-cut explanations, resolutions, definitive answers to the exclusion of other possibilities may find what he is looking for in Taliessin, but only if he digs deep into the text, penetrating its layers of symbolism.

Nevertheless, if we want to enjoy Taliessin and appreciate it on a deeper level of meaning we do need to follow at least its surface level narrative, for which, thankfully, there is a guide in the excellent introduction written by Sørina Higgins. After all, it is not intended to be pleasant-sounding nonsense, just as music is not mere noise. On the contrary, it is rich and full of meaning. Nor is it as obscure as its initial critics found it. Williams surely didn’t intend to perplex his readership. It may be that Taliessin was not understood in its time because no one wanted to hear what it had to say.

Are we in a position to hear? Thanks to the scholarship of others, we are at least better able to follow the plot (what there is of it) and to interpret some of the symbols. With Williams’ own theological writings as a background, too, we are able to understand some of the wider themes. None of this, needless to say, is able to exhaust what the poetry is, thankfully. It remains something in which we can always discover beauty and wonder; a vision of the world in which love, self-sacrifice and the plenitude of God triumph over an overwhelming threat of evil, failure and despair.

1 I will refer to the two of them, published in one volume by Apocryphile Press, as ‘Taliessin’ throughout.

2 Interestingly, the old English translation of ‘Oikoumene’ is most accurately rendered as ‘Middle Earth’ in modern English; referring to the sum total of civilised lands under the rule of the Empire.

3 This primacy of the Emperor was balanced in practice by the council of Bishops, who worked in symphonia with the crown – the Emperor could not act on his own authority, but only on that of God, and as such his policies had (in theory) to be endorsed by the Church’s hierarchy. This balanced approach was intended to guard against both ‘Caesaropapism’ and the practice of hierarchs of the Church exercising temporal authority.

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