And here's the third and final of the three main points of my essay:
THE THIRD KEY: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
And here I think we come up against the third and most important of all the ‘Keys’ to unlocking the meaning of Williams’s Arthurian poems: the autobiographical element. The Inklings may have had the habit (derived no doubt from English public schools) of giving each other nicknames (‘Tollers,’ ‘Humphrey,’ ‘Hugo’), but Williams (who was not so fortunately schooled) carried the practice to extremes, assigning a persona to accompany the name thus bestowed. Thus for him Humphrey Milford (later Sir Humphrey), his boss at Amen House (the London office of Oxford University Press), was ‘Caesar’ and, in the Arthurian poems, Arthur himself. Williams’s most loyal disciple (and one of the few men among the Company), Raymond Hunt, was ‘Dinadin,’ the court’s unofficial jester. Taliessin is Williams himself, and the love of Williams’s life, Phyllis Jones, whom Williams had earlier dubbed ‘Phillida’ (by which he probably meant ‘the Loved One’) and then ‘Celia’ (‘Heavenly One’), appears successively as Taliessin’s beloved: first as The Princess of Byzantium (H&K), and Blanchefleur (TtL)/Dindrane (RSS). At first glance it would seem as if Lang-Sims’s somewhat problematic relationship with Williams is recorded in “The Queen’s Servant,” the story of the slave-girl sent from Taliessin’s house against her will, but the chronology argues otherwise: Lang-Sims entered Williams’s inner circle just a little too late to have inspired the poem in The Region of the Summer Stars, and it seems overwhelmingly probable that the poem “The Queen’s Servant” refers to some otherwise unrecorded events with yet another of his unnamed disciples. [Note 16]
Despite this, Lang-Sims’s account offers us a rare first-name look at how Williams created one of these personae and inserted it into his Arthurian myth—not (and this is crucial) because the myth had a lack that was thus filled but instead to bring the events in his daily life and his myth into parallel, so that the myth could serve as a kind of encoded autobiography, a roman à clef. In Letters to Lalage, she traces the various steps by which she was invited to join The Companions of the Co-inherence, given a name within the myth (“Lalage”), and assigned a role to play. After several hints that he sees her as a slave-girl (e.g. 40, 42) and ripe for punishment (ibid), Williams bestows her with a name in a brief vignette: “Lalage heard her name called and looked up hastily” (52; letter of 22 December 1943). Her full back-story arrives prefaced with a quote from Horace: Dulce ridemtam Lalagam amabo, dulce loquentam (Book I, Ode 22), which means roughly
Sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking, Lalage I will love.
And since he [Horace] was chronologically before Taliessin, I suppose the King’s poet might have seen a manuscript in Byzantium where, no doubt, in the suburbs, he—bought? say so in the Myth—the Greek slave Lalage, whose particular work it was (they say) to see that all the candles in the house were lit at the proper time . . . though sometimes (they also say) she was lazy and lay on her pallet-bed or lounged in the court till the water-clocks had told an hour beyond the proper time; indeed, it is even said that occasionally the Lord Taliessin, wishing to write verse, found his own room dark—after which (as might be expected) Lalage spent some time in general discomfort, though no one lost any joy. However . . .
—CW to LLS, letter of 1 January 1944 (Lang- Sims 53).
It’s disconcerting to see that even as he creates the character, Williams prepares the ground for yet another slave girl to get a supposedly well- deserved beating (the ‘general discomfort’ casually alluded to). [Note 17] Yet it’s of greater interest that Lang-Sims reports how she thereafter felt under constant pressure to stay ‘in character’ (Lang-Sims 16). Even, apparently, to the extent of not being able to refuse corporal punishment, since that would be to step out of character as a slave girl before her lord and Master. And when she finally broke character and insisted on talking to Williams in her own persona as Lois, not ‘Lalage’, he promptly ended both relationship and correspondence then and there (Lang-Sims 79–80).
In the end Lalage’s story found its way into Williams’s poetry only through the sonnets he occasionally sent her alongside the letters (duly included in Letters to Lalage), which may represent a kind of halfway house between creating a persona and fully integrating it into the existing myth. Lalage’s absence from the published works is probably due less to their estrangement than to his early death before he had time to write more than a few scattered bits of what he hoped would be the next book in his Arthurian cycle, to be made up of “the great narrative poems which are to follow” (Michal 233, letter of 23 November 1944). [Note 18]
Other autobiographical elements abound; so much so that they dominate the entire myth-cycle. Even Lewis, who was inclined to take Williams at face value (cf. his various references to Williams’s perfect marriage), thought one poem autobiographical, calling “The Founding of the Company” (RSS 34–38) “the most autobiographical element in the cycle” (Williams and the Arthuriad 141)—and, incidentally, using it as his model for the community at St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength, with his own series character Ransom, remade into an idealized portrait of Williams himself, appearing in place of Williams/Taliessin. Unfortunately so far as understanding his work goes, Williams would sometimes attempt subterfuge, giving a patently false identification meant to conceal, not reveal.
One good example of this is when he tells his wife that he and she are represented in the myth by the characters Bors and his wife Elayne (Michal 93, 152, 234). This may be true, so far as it goes, but it is deeply misleading, and no doubt intentionally so. Sir Bors is a relatively minor character in the myth as Williams tells it; his defining characteristic is his utter devotion to his wife. Declaring that everything he does is inspired by her, he endlessly praises all she does to provide a home, a safe place to return to from the wars (“Bors to Elayne: The Fish of Broceliande,” “Bors to Elayne: on the King’s Coins”(TtL 24– 26 & 42–45) [Note 19]—just as Williams repeatedly laments in his wartime letters home to his wife about being deprived of all the little comforts of domesticity (which he extravagantly romanticizes) due to their enforced separation during the war years.
All this is well enough. And yet it is self-evident to anyone reading the poems that Taliessin, the central figure in the entire cycle, is Williams himself—or at least Williams as he saw himself. This has been universally recognized by everyone from C.S. Lewis (see above) to Hadfield (“Charles was Taliessin the King’s poet”; 151), from Carpenter’s mild “Taliessin [...] whose character and role had a relation to Williams’s own idea of himself” (108) to Lang-Sims’s observation about “Charles’s total identification of the King’s poet, Taliessin, with himself” (Lang-Sims 38). Even Williams made this connection elsewhere in his letters to Florence (Michal 247). All in all, Williams’s purported identification with Bors smacks of cover story designed to allay suspicions of Florence Williams (which were, we know from Lang- Sims, Phyllis Jones, and others, thoroughly justified). I cannot avoid a suspicion that Williams created Bors as the ever-faithful, ever-loving husband in order to give himself what used to be called ‘plausible deniability.’
The second example is more telling, and closer to the core of Williams’s myth, its essence. When Lewis queried the significance of the name P’o-lu, the dark inverse of Byzantium, where on the far side of the world the Headless Emperor and his cephalopoid minions await their chance to unleash destruction upon the Empire and drive the Kingdom of God from this world, Williams’s explanation is a masterpiece of misdirection:
P’o-lu is the Chinese name, of about the period, for the point of Java,— the extreme point (nobody knew New Zealand then). (Lost Letter, gloss on the next-to-last section of “The Vision of Empire”; rpt Gnomon 41 and Various Hands 18)
—That is, ‘P’o-lu’ represents not just the antipodes but ‘the ends of the earth,’ quite literally: the point on the other side of the world when land ceased and beyond which there was only empty ocean.
Except that it isn’t. Modern maps of Java show several places named Palau (which seems to be the modern spelling of the Javanese word for ‘island’): cf. Palau Panaitan, Palau Deli, Palau Tinjil, all off the western end of Java (not the eastern, or further, end, as we might expect); one, Palau Sertang, is within sight of Krakatoa. But beyond Java is not empty sea but, to the east, New Guinea and, to the south, Australia. Only by heading south and west into the Indian Ocean (that is, back towards Byzantium rather than away from it) is there emptiness of the sort Williams prescribes. This might just be geographical carelessness on Williams’s part, but is instead likely to be more myth-making, as with the moons of Jupiter, so that in his world there is no Australia or New Guinea or New Zealand, et al.: the world ends at Java.
Why Java, of all places? Because, Carpenter reveals (and Hadfield confirms), it was to Java that Phyllis Jones, his ‘Celia’, had gone after her marriage with her new husband, Billie Somervaille (an oil company executive), in September 1934 (Carpenter 108; Hadfield 117, 129). P’o-lu is thus of crucial, heart-breaking importance to Williams’s life, and hence was given commensurate significance within the myth: as Hadfield describes it, “[i]n the far seas [...] the place of chosen, willed and operative evil, P’o-lu, an island towards Java” (152).
Thus, Williams was sometimes deliberately obscure, withholding information that would explain a poem, diverting attention elsewhere, because to do otherwise would reveal his most closely-held secrets. Yet such information is vital to understanding the poems; the autobiographical element in this cycle became more important to him than any internal cohesion of the story. [Note 20] The failure of Williams’s Arthuriad lies not just in factors like its inversion of the Arthurian story to move the Grail from the periphery to its core or its remote and unsatisfactory Arthur but in precisely this: characters do things in the cycle not because that furthers the story Williams is purportedly trying to tell (and which Lewis was so diligent in trying to extract from the published poems) but because they are thus acting out their appointed roles in his private myth, recreating the events of his life as they should have been. Thus his fictional Blanchefleur does not have an affair, marry, have children, divorce, and remarry, as did her original, Amen House librarian Phyllis Jones; she enters a convent, from which she and Taliessin (the Williams figure) love each other chastely to the end of their days. The reason so many find Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars difficult to read lies not in any inherent inability to communicate on Williams’s part but in the fact that it is a roman à clef autobiography with no key provided.
16 Williams’s first letter to Lang-Sims is dated September 9th 1943; less than two weeks later, on Sept. 20th, he invites her to join his Order and sends her its Credo on October 5th; they met for the first time on Thursday October 14th (Lang-Sims 24, 26, 28–30, 31). Yet he mentions proofs for the book having just arrived in a letter to his wife on October 7th and complains on October 13th that the book is supposed to be out but he has not yet seen any copies for sale (Michal 171, 226). Finally, he sends Lang-Sims a typescript of the poems on December 10th and makes no mention of any role she might have played in inspiring any of its contents, which we would expect him to have done if any of these poems did owe anything to their relationship (Lang-Sims 48–49). Thus the time-frame is simply too tight to allow time for Williams to have written a poem about Lang-Sims, gotten it typed (no doubt by the ever-faithful Douglas), added it to the typescript, gotten it typeset, and arrive. And, of course, her break with Williams did not come until much later, in April 1944 (Lang-Sims 80).
17 It may be relevant to note that Williams once described himself as a sadist, albeit “a cerebralizing sadist.” He then immediately ordered the person to whom he was writing (who was not one of his disciples but instead the love of his life, the inspiration for Blanchfleur/Dindrane) not to look up the word in a dictionary because it would “give you the wrong idea of me” (Hadfield 104, quoting from an unpublished letter to Phyllis Jones).†
†#292 of a series that ran to at least 354; cf. Hadfield 242 and ff.
18 The move towards longer, more narrative poems had begun with The Region of the Summer Stars and marks a distinct improvement in Williams’s verse. The fragments are printed by Dodds, in the section of Arthurian Poets: Charles Williams devoted to “Poems after Taliessin through Logres” (Dodds 265–291), which includes only seven poems, most of them unfinished and fragmentary, and at least one of which (“Divites Dimisit”) is a draft for a poem that had appeared in The Region of the Summer Stars (the concluding piece, “The Prayers of the Pope”).
19 We might have expected Bors to feature more prominently, given that he is one of only three knights who achieve the Grail (the others being Galahad, whom Williams sees as godlike,† and Percivale, whom Williams oddly enough makes less important than his own sister, Taliessin’s beloved). In addition to being an extravagantly devoted husband, Bors as a soldier plays a role in Arthur’s victories establishing his realm, albeit a less significant one than that rather improbably played by Taliessin himself (“The Calling of Arthur,” “Mount Badon”; TtL 14–15 & 16–18).
Bors appears in two more poems associated with the cycle but found outside the three published books. The first, “Bors’ Song of Galahad”, part of the unpublished Advent of Galahad, depicts him instead as a fond father (Dodds 214–217); Elayne is mentioned (here as Helayne) but much less prominently. The second, “The Return of Bors,” is a fragment that breaks off after just fifteen lines, describing Bors’s return from otherworldly bliss to the hell of Mordred’s war; its placement by Dodds suggests it might be Williams’s last Arthurian poem (Dodds 291).
†This is signaled by Williams’s applying to him the term ‘necessity of being,’ in his lexicon an attribute of the godhead not of created beings (who are ‘contingent’).
20 Williams did not limit his habit of arranging and re-arranging elements in his work to correlate with events in his own life, and vice versa, just to his Arthurian cycle. Lyle Dorsett, in his study of the six biographies of historical figures written by Williams (of Sir Francis Bacon, James I, the Earl of Rochester, Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII, and Rev. W.H. Flecker), discovered that Williams was apt to change biographical facts so that the lives of his subjects reflected the events of Williams’s own private inner life (Dorsett 36–37, 47). I am grateful to Dr. Dorsett for sharing his discovery and the Wade Center for providing me with a copy of his essay.