Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Charles Williams and the avoidance of Glastonbury

I am currently reading a book called The Avalonians by Patrick Benham (2nd edition 2006); which is about the people involved in the spiritual re-awakening of Glastonbury in the late 19th, early 20th century.

On particular series of events kept reminding me of Charles Williams's novel, War in Heaven (written 1926, published 1930) - which is about the Holy Grail (spelled Graal) turning-up in England and being pursued by various characters.

I shall try to summarise what happened in real life. In 1898 an English doctor, John Goodchild, bought a strange glass cup in Italy, and was guided by visionary experiences to conceal it in a well in a field Glastonbury. His hope was that it would be found by three maidens and would initiate a rebirth of the feminine aspect of Christianity.

in 1906, the cup was indeed discovered following a vision revealing its whereabouts experienced by Wellesley Tudor Pole. He sent two maidens (two sisters surnamed Allen) to seek it, they found it - and the cup ended up in Clifton, Bristol where it was venerated by a number of people, in a brief, priestess-led, Christian sect.

Tudor Pole regarded the cup as having been possessed by Jesus, and as a kind of physical version of the spiritual grail. He tried to get the cup evaluated and dated by various experts; and in 1907 the matter was taken in hand by Archdeacon Wilberforce (reminding me of the Archdeacon protagonist in War in Heaven), who invited all kinds of nobles and intellectuals to his house to view the cup and try to ascertain its provenance - the cup was later passed around several experts (also including mediums and occultists) with rather contradictory and inconclusive results.

This was supposed to happen in secrecy, and the process was by invitation only; but one of the participants seems to have 'gone to the newspapers' (specifically the Daily Express) and stories claiming some version of  'the Holy Grail has been found in Glastonbury' were investigated and splashed all over the English press in the summer of 1907.

At this time Charles Williams was 20 years old, working in the Methodist Book Room in London, commuting from his home in St Albans; where there was a large scale historical pageant at which he got to know his future wife Florence. Did Williams hear this press coverage of the (or at least 'a') Holy Grail being discovered in Glastonbury, and apparently taken seriously by some contemporary experts (plus some mystics) as being suitably ancient? And did he put some press-derived version of this story into memory, to be adapted and reused some nine years later when composing the early version of War in Heaven?

This led me to notice a further striking thing, an all-but omission from Charles William's published work on the Grail, and indeed on historical Christianity; which is that he seems to have no interest in Glastonbury.

This omission seems striking to me, since the many both Christian and Arthurian legends and histories that twine so luxuriantly around Glastonbury seem - on the face of it - to be exactly the kind of thing that would fascinate Charles Williams. The 'myth' that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury was very well known; and at times many people regarded it as the resting place of Arthur and Guenevere.

Furthermore Williams seems not to have had interest in (or contact with) the Christian esotericists who were during Williams's life associated with the place (e.g. Wellesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, and composer Rutland Boughton who wrote an opera The Birth of Arthur).

In short, Williams's neglect or avoidance of the subject of Glastonbury strikes me as More Than A Coincidence - but I have no explanation for it.

Any suggestions?



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

By coincidence, I read this post just after finishing a different book called War in Heaven (the self-published conspiracy classic by Kyle Griffith), which also doesn't mention Glastonbury at all!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I hadn't heard of that book, but I see it is available free online - is it worth a look?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

It's a very bizarre book, and very deeply and explicitly anti-Christian, but I found it to be thought-provoking in the same way that good science fiction can be.

John Fitzgerald said...

I think for Charles Williams it was all about London, the archetype of 'the City'. The City is what brought his Arthurian imagination alive. I don't think he's Glastonbury-phobic as such. Had the old legends centred around another town/city - Leicester or Harrogate, for example - he wouldn't have been interested in those places either. I think 'War in Heaven' is a good example of this. The Graal is discovered in Fardles, yes, but for me the book only really comes alive when the action switches to London. At the end of the day, I don't think Willams was much interested in excavating or tuning into established legends. He had his own Arthuruan mythology to create in his own way and style, and that was what became the centre and touchstone of his life

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thanks. By the sound, I think I'll not bother...

@John - I think you are correct - "Charles Williams it was all about London". He seems to have found Oxford uninteresting, and pined for London. Even the prospect of becoming a Reader at Oxford University after the war was only attractive on economic grounds, not in terms of setting or opportunities.

The only significant addition is a fictionalised St Albans as the setting for Descent into Hell - he did care for that place.

By contrast, the village of Place of the Lion is somewhat nebulous, and unconvincing.

I can certainly identify with this aspect of CW - not specifcially about London but in terms that there are some (but very few) places that are real for me, while other places are unreal whatever I try. e.g. For me Oxford is real, and I appreciate visiting there at quite a deep level, while Cambridge is just a facade.

I lived in the West End of Glasgow for three years, in an environment that was 'on paper' almost ideal for me; yet I could never connect with the situation.

For me, Newcastle (in parts) and (especially) Northumberland are like London for Williams - places where I can live and work at first-hand; not just a 'backdrop' or a 'setting' for Lifestyle. No mystery why this should be - since most of my ancestors are from hereabouts.

Anonymous said...

Astonishing stuff I don't think I've ever heard of - wow!

I don't have the impression of a lot of attention to Glastonbury on his part, though A.M. Hadfield in Exploration (pp. 39, 238: note 8 in ch. 3) quotes a letter to John Pellow of 6 July 1922 where Williams says "even Rome hasn't the sacred heart of Glastonbury or the divine legends of the Graal." The Figure of Arthur in Arthurian Torso would be worth checking (which, however, I do not pause to do). Nor do I pause to peruse my (idiotically still-unpublished!) edition of his Arthurian Commonplace Book, for the reference(s?) tugging at my memory. But I note his uncle J. Charles Wall's reference on page 153 of his Relics of the Passion (1910) - I find that there are also five Glastonbury references indexed in his Shrines of the British Saints (1905) and another reference in his Alfred the Great (1900) on pp. 98-99, though none of all these are Grail related: all three books are scanned in the Internet Archive. I feel Wall pays more attention elsewhere, but can't think where, or readily rediscover it, if so...

Williams does follow Malory in referring to various cities in his verse retellings, but I can't immediately think of a Glastonbury reference (in contrast to John Masefield in his Arthurian poetry).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks very much for that!

I though you would probably find something to contradict the thesis! There isn't anything in The Figure of Arthur - which is, for me, the most striking omission (e.g. the stories about Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury); or Descent of the Dove (I would have thought Williams would have had a special interest in the legend that a church at Glsotonbury was the first Christian church in Europe, or anywhere!). I would also have expected something in the Arthurian poems, and in War in Heaven itself...

My point is not really refuted by 'obscure' references, but by the lack of Glastonbury where it would most have been expected - as Avalon in the Arthur work, or having a large (albeit partly legendary) place in the church in England, and a big connection with the Grail (in the 20th century public mind, at least).

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's interesting that - for whatever reasons (worth speculating about!) - he chooses not to attend to Glastonbury when he finally gets launched on his Grail-centred verse retelling, especially when he has had the Graal in long-extended local presence and use in War in Heaven (assuming it is the Graal, and not that Prester John graciously interferes merely because the Satanists and Sir Giles mistakenly assume it is: an interesting thesis to test...). In the whole stretch of the verse retelling, from the 'Advent of Galahad' poems in the late 1920s on, he seems to put Carbonek and the Grail right outside Logres and the Empire.

His decision about what to do with Monsalvat is also interesting, in this context...

By the way, did you happen to see this (including the 'Antioch Chalice' comment)?:

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I did read it last year.

I must admit to finding the grail to be a confusing business... As a child, it was a part of the Arthur story I disliked - and to some extent I still feel the same!

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to tackle (early 19th-c.) Romantic attention - or lack of attention - to it, right now, for a paper. There are so many (to my thinking) fascinating things about it - its mix of accessibility and inaccessibility, not least; its relations to and distinctions from other sorts of quests, relics, rites.

I really enjoyed Pauline Matarasso's translation for Penguin of The Quest of the Holy Grail, and her related book, The Redemption of Chivalry: A Study of the Queste del Saint Graal(Histoire des idées et critique littéraire). They left me wondering if Williams had any access to a translation or discussion(s) of the Queste del Saint Graal, apart from what Malory made of it.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: Speculation - might Williams have avoided Glastonbury just because of all the attention, and distinct esoteric elements, that might already have had too definite a form and 'life of their own' and so 'bog him down'?

Anonymous said...

Rereading a bit in the Everyman Caxton's Malory, e.g., XI,2 and XIII,3, I wonder if Williams either presupposes, or, does not exclude, the connections of Pelles and Galahad with Joseph of Arimathea in his retelling(s) - I should probably do some 'fine combing' to see what, if any, evidence there is.

Rereading the Arthurian bit of The Descent of the Dove (half-way through chapter 5), I see it's clear Williams has some sense of "the Queste del Saint Graal" - and have tracked down a quotation from page 136 of Howard Maynadier's The Arthur of the English Poets (1907), which I neglected before, and which has got me realizing he must at least have read the context, and wondering in how far his own retelling is variously consciously interacting with what he calls Maynadier's "absurd nonsense" (and other elements), not least by way of implicit correction!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

I happened recently to read two enjoyable (youngish-reader) novels which had a significant Glastonbury Grail element: Catherine Fisher's Corbenic (2002) and Gwendolyn Bowers' The Lost Dragon of Wessex (Oxford University Press, 1957 - though read in Dutch translation).

Taliessin is of no little importance in the latter, and it is intriguing to consider it (in at least some respects) as a sort of sequel to Williams's Arthurian poetry cycle. I am left keen to catch up with her Brother to Galahad (H.Z. Walck, 1963).

The former also, in its way, seems a Williams-compatible or -analogous or perhaps -alternative novel, with respect to the 'location' of Corbenic.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

David. Ive tried Corbenic previously, but it didnt grab...

Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of it (or, so far as I recall, its author), before - and had some trepidation about starting it, and am not sure just 'what I make of it' (other than as evidence that I do not have all my comparative Perceval tellings in sharp detail at my disposal!), but it drew me along and I did enjoy it, and would recommend people giving it a try!

David Llewellyn Dodds