Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Arthuriad, by Charles Williams (Taliessin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso)

Charles Williams had a really strange mind, and with it he wrote really strange novels and poetry.  In these two books of poems built on the Arthurian legend, he brings in the legendary Welsh bard, Taliessin, and uses him to...well, to say what he wanted to say about Arthur and about a lot of other things.

To do what he wanted to do, he changed quite a lot about the Arthurian legends.  Here, Logres (an enchanted pre-Britain) is the far end of an enormous empire with the capital at Byzantium--which is a sort of heavenly kingdom of divine order ruled by the Emperor, who is probably God.  The lands between are Gaul and Caucasia, each with a symbolic importance.  Broceliande is an enchanted forest, even stranger that usual.  The antipodes are ruled by forces of chaos.  Logres is meant, under Arthur, to achieve its own divine order, but through the events in the poems, it fails and becomes ordinary Britain.

This partially happens because of Arthur's own fault, which is much more highlighted here than you will usually see.  Arthur falls into idolatry of himself as king, and fails to serve Logres as he ought.  Meanwhile, Guinevere is up to her usual, and Lancelot falls so low that he stops being human.  Palomides
allows his jealousy and lust to eat him up until he has to be changed.

On the good side we see a lot of mirror couples.  Bors and Elayne embody true marriage, and Taliessin is intellectually and chastely 'married' to his counterpart, Perceval's mysterious sister Dindrane/Blanchefleur.  Dindrane, a spiritual queen, seems always to appear with a slave girl (in the process of finding spiritual freedom) somewhere nearby.  Taliessin himself is both a poet and a war leader--and Virgil shows up too, oddly enough.

I read the poems in chronological order (not in the order they are in the books), and I read C. S. Lewis' helpful essay along with them.  I don't think I would have understood one thing without the Lewis help.  I would read a chunk of essay, then the poems he talked about, and then go back to the essay.  If I were able to read it again, I would do it in the book order, but for a dopey beginner like me, the chronology is easier to follow.

Arthurian Torso--and I haven't the faintest idea why it's titled that--is an unfinished collection of chapters or essays on the development of the Arthurian legend, mainly in England.  The Anglo-French come into it, but not the Germans or anything like that.

Things I learned: Williams loved ideas about mathematics, geometry, and divine order.  To Williams, accuracy is a heavenly characteristic, and so when he describes something geometrically--which happens often--you have to pay special attention.  He not-very-famously said "Hell is inaccurate."  Also, if you are used to Tolkien's and Lewis' pretty reticent attitudes and expect the same from their fellow Inkling, Williams will come as a bit of a surprise.  He was very interested in the physical aspects of marriage as sacramental and had some fairly peculiar ideas about what he called "Romantic Theology," such as that events in the development of a romantic relationship correlate with events in the life of Christ.  It gets rather more peculiar than that, but I'm no Williams expert and even the experts have a hard time explaining it. 

This book was really, really difficult to read.  I don't claim to have understood very much of it!  But it was quite interesting, in its bizarre way.  I'd recommend it only if you're very interested in Williams' work.  Besides, it's a bit tricky to find, at least if you want all three parts together.


inthelandofthedragons said...

Wow, I've never even heard of this one. Sounds like a bizarre take on Arthurian legend.

Jean said...

Pretty strange, yeah. I think he was using the material to craft his own message, so he changed it a lot.