I don’t read Charles Williams in quite the same way I read other novels, unless every novel is different, which is a possibility. I don’t read him for the puzzle, for the “Aha! I know that person!,” for the eye-popping descriptions. I know when I pick up one of his novels–or his poetry for that matter–that it’s not going to be a beach read, but I bought a used copy of The Greater Trumps a few months ago, and when I finally got around to reading it, it was as hard to put down as people tell me The DaVinci Code is (next on deck is a Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, another puzzler, and a different kind of delight altogether, but I was talking about Williams).
Williams is controversial in some Christian circles, and Trumps is a perfect example of why: An ancient Tarot deck has a perfect correspondence with golden figurines who illustrate the dance of the cosmos. Fortune-telling, manipulation of the environment, murder and mayhem–and those are the good guys; in another of Williams’s novels, a man who has practiced witchcraft his whole life is finally redeemed because he truly loved Satan, and that love is enough of a hook for Love to catch hold of.
Williams also has some unusual spiritual ideas, such as co-inherence, which I wouldn’t dare try to explain, but will only hint that people can really bear each other’s burdens, literally and truly, even spiritual ones. It’s an idea best explained through poetry, and his poetry is difficult (though it rewards the effort).
And if anyone can explain Shadows of Ecstasy to me, I would be grateful.
Compared to his Arthurian saga in poetry and Shadows, Trumps is a walk in the park (OK, walk in the park through a cataclysmic snowstorm). Here’s how the Charles Williams Society summarizes the plot:
The Greater Trumps (1932) has the original set of Tarot cards coming into the posession of an English legal official, with devastating results, of which the threat of a universal snowstorm is only one. Williams’s use of symbolism is close to its highest here.
His description of the cosmos as participating in a dance, from the atomic level through the decisions of human beings, is something that strikes very close to home for an Orthodox Christian (Williams was Catholic), and his character of Sybil Coningsby, the protagonist’s maiden aunt who is very advanced in the ways of Messias, as Williams calls Christ in his novels (why does he do that?), gives a speculative glimpse into the mind of a great saint.
I never know quite what to do with Williams. His works stir my soul in ways that I can’t say are bad, but they are so idiosyncratic that I can’t abandon myself to their currents either.
Here are a few lines that I copied into my notebook, thinking, “I wish,” but wondering . . . .
. . . responsibility, that task put into the hands of man in order that his own choice may render it back to its creator, that yoke which, once wholly lifted and put on, is immediately no longer to be worn.
I can proof-text it, too, but is it the mind of the Church?