An Analysis of Charles Williams’ The Son of Lancelot
In William’s poem The Son of Lancelot, we are treated to a dramatic tableau of pagans dancing on the Palatine hill in Rome during the Lupercalia festival. This is led by vicars of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, who conceived the twins after being raped by the god Mars. Meanwhile, the Pope – who is made contemporaneous to these pagan events in a case of “co-inherence” – chants the prayers of the mass, evidently in some kind of spiritual battle against those pagan forces.
The action takes place chiefly during the ‘wolf-month’, which was the Anglo-Saxon title of January – the month of Janus. This bears some astrological significance as we shall see. The first reference to the Zodiac comes with the mention of ‘the window of horny sight’ – likely an allusion to Capricorn, the horned sea-goat. Goats were one of the standard offerings required during the Lupercalia, so it makes sense to associate the feast with January, although in Roman practice it took place in February.
The importance of Janus here is somewhat obscure – in that he is the god of transitions, holding the keys to the solstitial gates which I mentioned in my article on the octopods in P’o-lu. The winter solstice falls under the constellation of Capricorn, which is thematically appropriate since it bridges the transition from one year to the next, leading into the month of January. As we saw in that previous article, the solstices in traditional astrology represented two gateways; the divine and the human, corresponding to the ascent and descent of the sun.
We are told that Lancelot ‘grew/backward all summer, laired in the heavy wood’ in his transformation into a wolf. I think we can reasonably assume that this progression of devolution represents a kind of descent into hell, and as such it corresponds to the sun’s descent, beginning at the summer solstice.
It seems no coincidence that, preceding this, we are told that King Pelles had called on God ‘in midsun’. Perhaps the King had some kind of premonition or intuition about the danger that was at that moment beginning?
The interconnectivity of all events and beings in the cycle comes to the fore thematically throughout this poem – Pelles feels the ‘grating pain of the dolorous blow’ in vicarious suffering (or “substitution” in Williams’ terms) on behalf of the Empire. The dolorous blow is seen as the original sin in Williams’ cycle, that brings down the kingdom Arthur establishes on Earth, and as such its impact is felt wherever there is strife among the members of his company.
Yet the web of relationships is felt not just between persons, but in correspondences “above” and “below”, (hence Williams’ astrological references) and between the individual and the natural world. The Empire itself experiences birth pains, echoing Saint Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22 that ‘the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now’, ‘dilating and contracting’ as Helayne lies in labour with Galahad, Lancelot’s son. Galahad, after all, is the Christ-figure of the whole poetic cycle, and his coming is a prefigurement of the parousia – the second coming of Christ which Saint Paul’s statement anticipates.
This is doubly appropriate, as the Lupercalia was a feast specifically dedicated to fertility and childbearing, purifying women in particular from any malign influences that might impact their fertility. Helayne is in fact a kind of analogue to Rhea Silvia, not giving birth to the founders of Rome, but to the redeemer of another Empire.
Elsewhere I have addressed the significance of Galahad’s being wrapped in crimson wool, as a reference to Isaiah, suggesting the remission of sins through Christ’s blood. Thus the animal sacrifices of the Lupercalia are mere types or negative parodies of this ultimate sacrifice. The Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 (17th Volume), in its article on the Lupercalia, offers a further point of connection here:
The festival began with the sacrifice by the Luperci (or the flamen dialis) of goats and a dog; after which two of the Luperci were led to the altar, their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood wiped off with wool dipped in milk; then the ritual required that the two young men should laugh. The smearing of the forehead with blood probably refers to human sacrifice originally practised at the festival. The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the victims and ran in two bands round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, striking the people who crowded near. A blow from the thong prevented sterility in women. These thongs were called februa, the festival Februatio, and the day dies februatus (februare=to purify); hence the name of the month February, the last of the old Roman year. The object of the festival was, by expiation and purification, to secure the fruitfulness of the land, the increase of the flocks and the prosperity of the whole people. (My emphasis).
This could well have been one of Williams’ sources of knowledge about these rituals, and what may seem like an incidental detail at least supports the association I am drawing between the wrappings around Galahad and these pagan sacrifices.
With these connections in mind some of the stranger details in the poem begin to make more sense. The conflict between Lancelot and Merlin takes place at this transitional time, where the sun begins once more to rise in its orbit (according to traditional astrology), as the tide turns in the fight against evil. Lancelot is trapped in a hellish state, embodying one aspect of the god Janus whose two heads face forward and backwards. Guinevere sees him in a dream:
walking, a grotesque back, the opposite of a face
looking backward like a face; she burst the swollen sea
shrieking his name…
laughed backward in her mouth and drowned her tongue.
His anger and rage has transported him to the infernal regions of P’o-lu, in the lower hemisphere, where time flows backwards. This region is also associated with the solstitial gate of the human – the falling away from unity with God.
In Williams’ world view, however, this is a state which one chooses voluntarily – as long as Lancelot continues to look back in anger, he cannot escape from this hellish realm. As in the story of Francesco and Paola in Dante’s Inferno, Guinevere is joined with him there through her own volition, though her dream-vision of their mutual fate frightens her into a change of heart. It is only a literal repentance – a turning around – which can save Lancelot, and this is what Merlin seeks to bring about. In actual fact, he ends up beheading Lancelot – an oblique reference to Saint Valentine, whose feast day falls in February, displacing the real Lupercalia.
Of course, Merlin succeeds; Galahad is born; and Lancelot convalesces, finally recovering in time for Easter – the single greatest feast of the Christian year, celebrating the resurrection of Christ.