Academic journal article Mythlore

Hermeticism and the Metaphysics of Goodness in the Novels of Charles Williams

Academic journal article Mythlore

Hermeticism and the Metaphysics of Goodness in the Novels of Charles Williams

Article excerpt

Many readers have found Charles Williams's sustained use of hermetic themes and images too great for a full acceptance of his work. One of Williams's earliest formative encounters with these themes came sometime between 1912 and 1914 when he read A.E. Waite's The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909). He was so favorably impressed by its consideration of this Christian symbol from within the hermetic tradition that he wrote Waite to tell him so. This initial contact led Williams in 1917 to join Waite's own hermetic order The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. And while his reasons for ceasing to attend in 1927 and officially withdrawing from the Fellowship in 1928 remain unknown, his friendship with Waite continued through an amicable correspondence at least until 1931. Waite's influence and Williams's interest in hermeticism are, moreover, now widely acknowledged to have been lifelong (Ashenden 52, Brewer 54, King 165, Willard 270). (1)

Sometime in the mid-1920s, when Williams's involvement in the Fellowship was at its height, he began to write novels. (2) The first to be published, War in Heaven (1930), relies on Waite's hermetic study for both the inspiration and spelling of its central image: the Holy Graal. By 1933 Williams had published four other novels that, like his first, all freely employ themes and symbols drawn from Waite's work and from the wider hermetic tradition. Williams's second and fourth published novels, in particular, also have in common with War in Heaven narratives that are constructed around single hermetic objects of apparent magical power (Urang 51, 53). In Many Dimensions (1931) Williams sets before his reader the mysterious Stone of King Solomon, an image he probably drew from a brief description in Waite's The Holy Kabbalah (1929) of a supernatural cubic stone on which was inscribed "the Divine Name" (229). (3) Finally, in The Greater Trumps (1932) Williams uses as his central image the Tarot deck, a system of "high symbolism" that Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910) argues should be interpreted according to "[...] the Laws of Grace rather than the pretexts and intuitions of that which passes for divination" (xx).

It is generally understood that what Williams encountered of the hermetic tradition through Waite had already been Christianized: "Waite's order was mystical rather than magical; its membership was open to those desiring 'knowledge of Divine Things and union with God in Christ'" (King 165; see also Brewer 54 and Ashenden 52, 55). The distinction between magic and mysticism, on which Williams's critics have relied in coming to grips with these themes in his work, is commented on at some length by Evelyn Underhill, a notable Christian mystic who belonged with Waite to the original Order of the Golden Dawn (Ridler xxiv, Hadfield 29) and whose letters Williams edited in 1943. She writes:

  The fundamental difference between the two is this: magic wants to
  get, mysticism wants to give [...] In mysticism the will is united
  with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-
  world in order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal
  and ultimate Object of love [...] In magic, the will unites with the
  intellect in an impassioned desire for supersensible knowledge. This
  is the intellectual, aggressive, and scientific temperament trying to
  extend its field of consciousness [...] (Underhill 84; see also
  178ff.)

While mysticism seeks union with God, Underhill frames her concept of magic around the magician's fierce hunger for hidden knowledge through whatever supernatural means present themselves. King calls this magic black and writes that it "[...] is performed perversely in order to grasp powers and to control them. Its consummate evil is that it violates Coinherence" (172). Underhill's description of mysticism complements this assessment in its foreshadowing of Williams's own doctrine of Coinherence: "Mysticism [. …

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