Monday 27 February 2017

Review of The Celian Moment - selected essays by Charles Williams

Charles Williams. The Celian Moment and other essays. Edited by Stephen Barber. The Greystones Press: Carterton, Oxfordshire, 2017. pp xxvii, 127.

This is the first book-length selection of essays by Charles Williams since 1958 (The Image of the City, edited by Anne Ridler); this volume enables Inklings scholars to continue the business of evaluating Williams's stature.

The most significant works here are probably 'The Office of Criticism', which was the introduction to English Critical Essays: Twentieth Century - which Williams ghosted under the name of his Oxford University Press 'girlfriend' Phyllis Jones in 1933; 'The Celian Moment' which was Williams's introduction to the 1935 Gollancz-published volume The New Book of English Verse; 'The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins' which was CW's introduction to the 1930 OUP volume of the same title; and 'Ourselves and the Revolution' from a book called Russia and the West of 1942.  

The other essays did not make much impact on me - positive or negative; most seemed fairly routine commissioned work. And 'Religion and Love in Dante' was a presentation of the same argument as in The Figure of Beatrice (1943) - a book I do not enjoy, and which I find unconvincing and indeed tendentious.

(The review of TS Eliot's Four Quartets - in the form of a 'Platonic Dialogue' with four participants - struck me as arch and evasive to the point of obfuscation.)

The Office of Criticism and the essay on GM Hopkins are high quality literary criticism, which illuminate their subjects. These were matters which came from the heart for Williams, and subjects which he had long brooded upon - but about which he had no personal 'axe to grind'.

The Celian moment focuses on a putative idea that several of the great poets, as well as some of the very good 'minor' ones, all depicted a similarly-themed 'moment' in their work, the nature of which Williams tries to characterise.

However, Williams absolutely fails to convince the reader of the validity of his claim! My impression was that Williams merely found what he was looking for; and that he was looking for it, for the wrong reasons.
In other words, this essays lies within the reality-distortion field set-up by CW's infatuation with Phyllis Jones in particular, and various young women sex objects in general. This type of systematic extra-martial infidelity is something that Williams repeatedly attempted to justify and theologise in numerous writings (including The Figure of Beatrice). For me, the primary interest of The Celian Moment was, therefore, partly psychopathological, and partly as contributing evidence of the corrosive effects of unrepented sin.

Ourselves and the Revolution has a similarly negative, albeit interesting and illuminating, importance for the scholar of Williams; and his political Leftism. The first and most obvious feature is the extraordinary defensiveness of the essay - Williams's political perspective on the USSR  surrounded by so much obscuration and qualification as to be extremely hard to pin down.

But a careful reading indicates that Williams's stance is essentially pro-Communist in the sense that he is prepared to take the Revolution at its own valuation, and judge its intentions as sincere and - broadly - having been fulfilled. He lays great stress on the assumption that the revolution was about feeding the hungry - and that this was  successfully achieved. "The masses that are working and fighting in Russia are men and women of full stomachs, and even (in the ancient sense) of a high stomach." "The Russians of late have been (one gathers) reasonably fed but not altogether free; we [in Britain and The West] have been free, but not anything like enough fed." [High stomached means something like bold in spirit, haughty, aggressive.]

We now know (some of us know, at least) that the Soviet communists used deliberate famine as a political weapon, killing many (but uncounted and unrecorded) millions of their own citizens in the Ukraine (for example) by starvation. The allegedly 'high stomached' Red Army apparently advanced with their officers walking behind (not leading), their guns pointed at their own men and ready to shoot anyone who showed an inclination to retreat. The Russians later lost approximately ten men for every German killed, when advancing to conquer Eastern Europe.

So Williams's political views were objectively wrong - whether from ignorance (although there was plenty of real, observational evidence of the evils of Communism available to a member of the Metropolitan intellectual elite - such as CW); or wilfully (due to prejudice borne of wishful thinking); nonetheless it is important that this aspect of Williams is on record.

This collection is therefore well worthwhile for its best pieces and its general depiction of CW's level of work; although the evaluative significance is, unsurprisingly, considerably less than that of the 1958 selected essays which had 'first bite at the cherry' of William's oeuvre.

Monday 6 February 2017

Review of The Return of the King cartoon movie 1980

This 1980 made for TV cartoon version of the second half of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) comes from the same stable as The Hobbit of 1977 - which I recently reviewed positively:

But if the Hobbit is worth four stars (from a possible five); the Return of the King (RotK) is worth no more than two stars - and is a shambles all-round.

It could be said that it was an impossibility to make a really good movie from just the second half of LotR (the first half having been already made for cinema in the horrible Ralph Bakshi version of 1978; a film which I disliked so much that I will neither be re-watching, nor reviewing, it!). But even making all allowances, RotK is unenjoyable and unsuccessful in all important respects.

On the plus side - the animation quality is much better than with The Hobbit of 1977 - albeit there is a very irritating and unconvincing overuse of a technique of 'shaking' alternation of pictures, back and forth between two images, and supposed to represent something like anger or fear.

And there are a couple of good pieces of music- one lovely melody reused from The Hobbit and applied to the Gray Havens departure:

 And the legendary/ notorious 'Where there's a whip' is just a terrific song!

 (Although you can see there is shameless multiple re-use of animated segments.)

I don't think it is worth describing in detail the changes made to the story to accommodate the story - in a nutshell, the story is done as a flashback with the conceit of its being told to some of the Fellowship back in Rivendell after it is all over by a minstrel from Gondor. Not many of Tolkien's own words are used - and the dialogue often seems vulgar and inept.

The bulk of the depicted story is focused on Frodo and Sam escaping Cirith Ungol and then walking through Mordor to the Cracks of Doom, which makes for a miserable, visually-dull mood.

The most bizarre scriptwriting decision was to take Frodo to the point of claiming the ring and standing on the brink of the volcano - then having him go insane and get lost in the Cracks of Doom with Sam (and Gollum) searching for him for many days; until the Army has arrived from Gondor at the Black Gate...

The RotK of 1980 is not an actively-unpleasant movie, but it is just a waste of time to watch it except as a curiosity.

Eowyn and the Witch King is pretty good:

And at the very end, there is a very appealing notion from Gandalf, in response to a question about what will happen to hobbits in the future: he points-out that Frodo is taller than Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin taller than Frodo - and that Hobbits seem to be turning into Big People and blending with men - and he finally 'turns to camera' with an aside that some Men of the future (implicitly those watching the movie) may have more than a little bit of Hobbit in them... Nice!