Friday 9 March 2012

Arthurian Torso - CS Lewis on Charles Williams on Islam


From Arthurian Torso by Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis, 1948.

Lewis is here describing  C.W's Arthurian poem sequences on pages 124-5.

It is Lewis's most extended discussion of Islam (that I can recall, at any rate) and seems worth salvaging from obscurity for that reason.


Palomides the Saracen Knight, the unsuccessful lover of Iseult, comes out of Mohammedan Spain ‘through the green-pennon-skirted Pyrenees’ and the ‘cross-littered land of Gaul’ to Cornwall and the house of King Mark.

The anachronism whereby Islam is made contemporary with Arthur is deliberate: Islam was for Williams the symbol (as it is certainly the greatest historical expression) of something which is eternally the opposite of Sarras and Carbonek.

Islam denies the Incarnation. It will not allow that God has descended into flesh or that Manhood has been exalted into Deity...


It stands for all religions that are afraid of matter and afraid of mystery, for all misplaced reverences and misplaced purities that repudiate the body and shrink back from the glowing materialism of the Grail.

It stands for what Williams called ‘heavy morality’—the ethics of sheer duty and obedience as against the shy yet (in the long run) shameless acceptance of heaven’s courtesies flowing from the ‘homely and courteous lord’.

It is strong, noble, venerable; yet radically mistaken.

It had nibbled at Christianity almost form the beginning in the swarm of heresies which denied the full doctrine of Incarnation.

That is the point of the Prelude to The Region of the Summer Stars. St. Paul preached ‘the golden Ambiguity’—the irony beyond all ironies which the manger in the Bethlehem stable presents, the ‘physiological glory’. But the ‘ancient intellect’ shrank back from the new doctrine...


The prelude to Taliessin Through Logres is also concerned with this conflict between the ‘ambiguity’ of Incarnation and the heavy lucidity of mere Monotheism.

On the historical level it is a fact that ‘the Moslem stormed Byzantium’. On the spiritual level huge areas of the world fell back from the subtler and more ‘scandalous’ Faith—and fall back daily in the sub-Christian doctrines of Christ’s person which are dear to the modern world.

This is not the defeat of truth by simple error or of good by simple evil: it is the loss of living, paradoxical truths (for mere Monotheism blinds and stifles the mind like noonday sun in the Arabian deserts till we may well ‘call on the hills to hide us’).

It is the defeat of fine and tender and even frolic delicacies of goodness by iron legalism, the ‘fallacy of rational virtue’.

Islam is true so far as it affirms: we must rejoice that it conquered the old Dualism of Persia. But it affirms unity in such a way that ‘union is breached’; and then, however truly and with whatever grandeur the muezzin cried ‘Good is God’...



Bruce Charlton said...

What most struck me about this passage was the idea of Christianity as a genuinely complex and difficult Truth; a balancing act - because of the Trinity, incarnation and dual nature of Christ. These really are difficult matters, yet unavoidable for the Christian. Any attempt to do away with the difficulty, to clarify and simplify, and what remains is not Christianity.

Kristor said...

Yes. As Lewis said a number of times, all the other great religions are more sensible, simpler, they hang together better than Christianity. But they aren't as adequate.

Stephen said...

Christianity is not supposed to make sense (to the natural mind); for surely as soon as one thought of our own touches it, it gets perverted. Unfortunately, too much 'trying' to 'make it make sense' or 'trying' to 'be a Christian' only leads one further from The Truth' or in despair. The other option is just not to really care either way and settle with, 'what I believe about God and Jesus is good enough for me-ism'. In Him, it all makes Perfect Sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen - Not sure if I agree - Christianity isn't supposed to be an elite religion. The infinite power and scope of repentance ensures that.

Salvation is 'easy' (but of course, most people actively reject it, nonetheless) - what is difficult is theosis, sanctification or becoming saintly, or moving towards greater divinity.