THE FIRST KEY: ANSWERS TO C. S. LEWIS
Comparing the full letter, as preserved by Douglas and Hunt, with those excerpts Lewis chose to preserve and use gives us a window into Lewis’s re-shaping of his friend’s legacy. For one thing, we discover how little of the original letter Lewis thought worth preserving: his quotes and paraphrase total only about 347 words out of an original total of about 3471, or a mere ten percent of the whole. Also, seeing the excerpts used in Williams and the Arthuriad within their original context highlights what aspects of the work Lewis focused attention upon and what aspects he ignored, misunderstood, or suppressed. Unfortunately, the form this Letter took does not readily make for presentation here: Answers to C. S. Lewis is not another Letter to Waldman, setting out at length a private mythology and the connections between its various parts. [Note 7] Rather, it’s clear that Lewis had written Williams a (lengthy) letter asking specific questions, poem by poem, that had arisen during his close reading of Taliessin through Logres, the middle of Williams’s three Arthurian collections. It’s important to note that this Letter has nothing to say about The Region of the Summer Stars, as yet unwritten, nor The Advent of Galahad, which remained unpublished, nor Heroes and Kings, the earliest of the three published books in the cycle, which curiously enough there is no evidence Lewis ever read. And, as a caveat, Lewis tells us in some cases that a particular note he reproduces is somewhat abridged or recast (e.g., Williams and the Arthuriad 99); this turns out to be quite true and reveals that Lewis is skilled at the art of paraphrase. However, passages Lewis represents as direct quotes are, on comparison with Williams’s original, sometimes revealed to be paraphrase as well. [Note 8] Thus it’s evident that Lewis valued (some of) the ideas, but not the exact wording, of Williams’s glosses, and that all passages in Williams and the Arthuriad purportedly in Williams’s own words should be approached with caution by anyone without access to the original Letter: sometimes the reader is getting not Williams directly but Williams rephrased and refocused by Lewis—in the word of J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewisified (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 89).
The best way, I think, to convey some sense of Answers to C.S. Lewis is to give a few examples of its contents, both to emphasize its importance as a key to Williams’s thought and to highlight Lewis’s selectiveness. Aside from a general opening summarizing some major points, the bulk of the Letter takes the form of glosses. Each entry opens with a name or phrase and then expounds upon it: sometimes briefly, sometimes at length. Sometimes undue brevity renders the answer opaque, since we do not know the specific question Lewis was asking, merely the poem or passage concerned. Thus, whatever query Lewis posed about the poem “Mount Badon” (Taliessin through Logres [TtL] 16–18), Williams simply replied
—providing an answer that is brief, unambiguous, and unhelpful. There are a handful of such entries, whose main value is that they show Lewis did apparently apprehend a good deal of Williams’s symbolism on his own.
Usually, though, Williams expanded upon such affirmations. Thus in the entry on “The Star of Percivale” (TtL 46–47), Williams writes
yes, the same girl, & the same morning, I think, rather later. Or the next.
Clearly, Lewis had asked if the Caucasian slave-girl who falls in love with Taliessin (the figure in the poem-cycle who stands for Williams himself) in this poem is the same slave-girl whom Taliessin finds sitting in the stocks for striking a fellow servant in the next poem, “The Ascent of the Spear” (TtL 48– 50). The two figures are certainly similar, but there’s no way we could have known for sure it was the same person, since poet-worshipping slave-girls are a recurrent motif moving through Williams’s Arthuriad; they appear in at least two other poems in this book, plus two more out of the eight in Region of the Summer Stars. [Note 9]
Other times, Williams’s answers raise as many difficulties as they solve. Thus, he explains four different layers of symbolism represented by ‘Islam,’ which dominates the southern half of his gynecomorphical map, telling Lewis that
Islam is (a) Deism (b) Manichaenism (c) heavy morality (d) Islam [Note 10]
—Thus, Williams tells Lewis that his primary meaning for ‘Islam’ is to equate it with Deism; that is, the idea dominant during the 18th-century Enlightenment that our world was made by a remote creator-god who has entirely withdrawn and plays no part in our daily world (as opposed to The Emperor in Byzantium, who in Williams’s myth is God Himself, sending out ‘logothetes’ [administrators] and ‘nuntii’ [envoys] who are not just messengers but literal angels). This helps explain Palomides’ logical and detached highly rational mind, and his expressing his passion for Iseult in geometrical terms (“The Coming of Palomides,” TtL 33–37). But the equation of Islam and Deism would come as a surprise, to say the least, to most Muslims, or any non- Muslim student of that religion. Furthermore, it seems entirely at odds with the second layer of meaning, since Deism and Manichaenism are starkly different things. That Williams connects Islam with Manichaenism (the idea that our world is a battleground between two great powers, one good and the other evil) explains his otherwise baffling reference in “The Son of Lancelot” (TtL 57) to “iconoclastic heretical licentiates of Manes” preaching war against the Empire (that is, Christendom) from pulpits in Cordova. But again this identification bears no recognizable resemblance at all to real Islam, whose caliphs suppressed Manichaeism wherever they encountered it. The third layer of symbolism, using ‘Islam’ as shorthand for any repressive religion with a strict code of conduct, is more familiar, being alive and well in our time, unfortunately. And finally and fourthly, to paraphrase Dr. Freud, sometimes ‘Islam’ is just Islam—which is good to know, but unhelpful. The fourth meaning is the obvious one any reader would assume, and the third layer is not that hard to guess at simply through reading the poems. But those first and second layers are, I would say, difficult to tease out, and I doubt that it’s possible to combine all four into a coherent whole (though Lewis tries manfully, but I think unsuccessfully, in Williams and the Arthuriad, where he equates Williams’s Islam with ‘all religions that are afraid of matter and afraid of mystery’; 124).
For all practical purposes, I think the lesson we should take from this and similar glosses is that it’s best to think of ‘Islam’ as it appears in Williams’s Arthuriad as a composite fictional religion created to hold up in contrast to his own idealized Christianity, assuming chameleon-like whatever aspect of non- Christianity he needs at the time. The simple truth is that Williams has no interest in actual Islam (elsewhere he praises the crusades, likening them to the Allied liberation of France from Nazi control—The Figure of Arthur 60–61) any more than he cares about the actual history of the Byzantine Empire or Dark-Age Britain. The historical situation represented both by the map accompanying Taliessin through Logres and events in the poems are Williams’s mythic invention: aspects of his subcreated mythic world, and as such do not correspond to real-world history, any more than do the usual knights-in-armor in Malory et al. that we usually associate with the names Lancelot, Guinevere, and Galahad (in any case, a historical Arthur would have lived and died a century before Mohammed proclaimed Islam).
Or, to pick a simpler example, Williams at one point refers to Jupiter and its two moons (“The Coming of Galahad,” TtL 74). Lewis simply remarks in passing “Williams seems to have forgotten that [Jupiter] has four” (171). But it’s far more likely that Williams knew and didn’t care: if the symbolism in the poem requires Jupiter to have only two moons, then in Williams’s world two moons Jupiter will have. Compared with this, it only seems oddly quirky that Williams would identify the Great Red Spot on Jupiter with the Dolorous Blow:
Pelles [the Fisher-King] bleeds
below Jupiter’s red-pierced planet.
(“Taliessin in the Rose-Garden,” Region of the Summer Stars [RSS] 27)
Or, as Lewis helpfully explicates (a good example of his ability to elucidate Williams’s more obscure lines), “Jupiter, the planet of Kingship [...] becomes, like the wounded King Pelles, another ectype of the Divine King [Christ] wounded on Calvary” (Williams and the Arthuriad 150).
7 Tolkien’s lengthy letter to Milton Waldman, reproduced in part as the preface to the second edition of The Silmarillion.
8 Thus Lewis writes on p. 99 of Williams and the Arthuriad
A note in my own hand (but it is either transcribed or abridged from a letter of Williams’s) runs as follows: ‘Broceliande, West of Logres, off Cornwall; both a forest and a sea—a sea-wood. It joins the sea of the Antipodes. Beyond it (at least beyond a certain part of it) is Carbonek; then the open sea; then Sarras. A place of making, home of Nimue. From it the huge shapes emerge, the whole matter of the form of Byzantium—and all this is felt in the beloved.’
The passage as Williams wrote it runs as follows; I have highlighted the words and phrases picked up by Lewis in his paraphrase:
Broceliande is somewhere round Cornwall and Devon, to the west of Logres. It is regard both as a forest and as a sea—a sea-wood; in this sense it joins the sea of the antipodes which lies among its roots. Carbonek is beyond it, or at least beyond a certain part of it; C. stands between B. and the full open sea, beyond which is Sarras.
Mystically it is the ‘making’ of things. Nimue is the Nature of Creation as the mother of Merlin (Time) and Brisen (Space); she is the source of movement and of distance (p. 77).† She is almost the same state represented by the Emperor’s Court, but more vast, dim, and aboriginal. The huge shapes emerge from B.; and the whole matter of the form of the Empire. And all this is felt in the beloved. (this is reproduced almost verbatim in “Notes on the Arthurian Myth” 179 and in Gnomon 41-42)
†[JDR Note:] the reference is to the next to last stanza of “The Departure of Merlin” in Taliessin through Logres. It will be seen that Lewis’s skillful paraphrase clarifies the natures and relative positions of various major sites, while the information about Williams’s idiosyncratic family tree of Nimue as the mother of Merlin and his invention of Brisen, Merlin’s sister, as well as these magical siblings’ embodiment of Space and Time, respectively, appears elsewhere in Lewis’s commentary (see Williams and the Arthuriad 102).
By contrast, Lewis presents the following as a direct quote from Williams’s letter (Williams and the Arthuriad 178):
According to Williams’s note ‘For them (i.e. Galahad and his companions) all that was Logres and the Empire has become this flight of doves. Galahad as a symbol of Christ now has necessity of being in himself.’
However, what Williams actually wrote is slightly different; again I have highlighted the parts taken verbatim from Williams’s Letter in Lewis’s version:
[...] from the point of view of the lords, Logres is dissolving behind them (although Bors is to return); all that was Logres & the Empire has become the flight of doves driving the ship on its way; at the point where Galahad is so united with Christ that he has almost a necessity of being in himself; doctrinally heretical, I fear (reprinted with only minor changes in Gnomon 45)
As will be seen, this is skillful paraphrase, but paraphrase nonetheless, and in this case wrongly presented as direct quotation. And, just as significantly, Lewis has quietly excised Williams’s cheerful admission of heresy.
9 “The Sister of Percivale” (TtL 51–53), where Taliessin enjoys watching the body of a Caucasian slave-girl as she goes about her work drawing water; “The Coming of Galahad” (TtL 69–74), where a favored slave she asks an insightful question which Taliessin evasively answers; “The Departure of Dindrane” (RSS 29–33), in which the slave rejects freedom in order to choose a lifetime of slavery with Taliessin as her master; and “The Queen’s Servant” (Region of the Summer Stars [RSS] 39–42), in which a slave girl (it is unclear whether it is the same or another) is unwillingly freed and forced to leave Taliessin’s service. That Williams romanticized slavery is evident not just from these poems but from his expressing a wish, in a letter to his wife, that he could personally own a slave (To Michal from Serge 220).
10 Also reproduced almost verbatim in “The Arthurian Myth” 178 and in Gnomon 40, except that the latter substitutes “Theism” for “Deism”; the manuscripts differ as to which reading is correct.XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
More (Part Three: The Second Key) to follow tomorrow -- JDR