Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams was recently printed by Mythopoeic Press.

When I was in high school and had lots of time to read, a book arrived at our home comparing Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. I knew the first two, of course, but the third was new to me and his novels sounded wonderfully strange. I mentioned this to Tucker Callaway and he offered to lend me his copies, and said he envied me the joy of first reading them.

Since then I've read his poetry (of which he apparently was the most proud), plays (well, what was available anyway--I got permission to copy a book that is still out of print), theology, and history of witchcraft. Some of the work was only recently collected and printed.

Working at Oxford University Press when he was there must have been interesting. These "masques" were performances done by the staff (playing themselves, by and large), with Williams writing the script and the music written by the music editor. I have never been in a workplace that put on original opera for its own entertainment.

A masque in the sense Williams used the term seems to have been based on entertainments of song, drama, and dance performed by guests for a host--the host in this case being "Caesar", the publisher. The old masques were one-shot events, never repeated.

Williams wasn't being ironic when he called the publisher Caesar.

For Williams, as critics have stated, the supernatural was not a separate realm, but constantly around us. Analogies were not invented by the artist, but... discovered. In The Greater Trumps, William's novel about the Tarot, Nancy Coningsby experiences the correspondences, seeing a local policeman as the Tarot card that embodies authority and order, The Emperor.
Indeed somthing common to Emperor and Khalif, cadi and magitrator ... shone before her in those lights ... it was certainly true that for a moment she saw in that heavy official barring their way the Emperor of Trumps, helmed, in a white cloak, stretching out an arm, as if Charlemagne, or one like him, stretched out his controlling sword over the tribes of Europe... and bade them pause or march as he would.

These works are much more light-hearted than his novels, and much more specific than his usual poetry, since they were about the work of the firm. They are The Masque of the Manuscript, The Masque of Perusal, and The Masque of the Termination of Copyright (never actually performed). (plus some poetry written about the masques at the time)

Thumbnails: A manuscripts comes to the offices, the staff take pity on it and publish it. Someone actually buys it. And, as copyright expires and the fate of the book is uncertain, it is republished and the government needs 5000 copies. The title of the book? "I am called A Short Treatise on Syrian Nouns As used in the Northern and Sub-Northern Towns In Five Hundred B.C., with two maps and three charts: By Walter Lackpenny, poor Master of Arts."

The characters are themselves but also their roles and their "forms"--the principle of which the role is an instance.

Although they'd almost stand without the introduction and background material, it helps a lot to know in advance who is the publicity man and who the music editor. I'd not have realized that the changes in portrayal of Phyllis reflected a breakup--but I doubt that I needed to know that in any case.

If you're a Williams fan, I think you'll enjoy it. The poetry is much less dense than (say) Taliessin through Logres. Like this query about an editor's bete noir:

PHILLIDA [making the sign of the magical pentagram] Art though purged as by fire and by water made clean?
THE MANUSCRIPT I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

I wish we had a team like theirs at work.


Texan99 said...

I've just sent off for "The Greater Trumps." I've read a few CW books with pleasure, though perhaps I'm not a committed fan. This one sounds interesting.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The sense that something dominant but unseen underlays much of life was common among writers in GB in that generation and the one preceding it. Inklings friend Owen Barfield was an anthroposophist, for example. Yeats was a pretty thorough occultist. American fundamentalists, perhaps more influenced by German and other continental theology, have never felt as comfortable with Lewis and Tolkien because their response to such ideas was not reflexive and entire rejection.

I was interested in the occult before I became a Christian, and so have kept more distance than others might for entirely personal reasons.

Texan99 said...

I have no idea whether Lewis et al. were correct in thinking that many traditions of fairies, spirits, magic, and so on were reflections of truth that were all properly subsumed in Christianity, but it's a terribly appealing approach for me. I'm not one to worry about whether Christmas trees are pagan, for instance; I celebrate the cycle of the seasons as a part of creation that's lawful for me to appreciate, and therefore am completely open to most pagan seasonal rites. I'm prepared to accept that God could speak through archetypes like Tarot cards if He chose. I don't actually think He does in real life, but it works for me in a story.

Lewis always was careful to note the overriding need to keep God at the pinnacle. Powers that would lead to black magic and spiritual ruin if pursued for themselves might be no more than servants of God if practiced obediently. Also, more mundanely, magical elements in stories are very satisfying as metaphors for power and insight into the reality behind surfaces.

I find that I can't enjoy magic stories unless they're in a strongly moral framework. That was true even when I was an atheist. I can't abide nihilistic magic or horror stories. Give me good guys and bad guys, and the good guys should win.