Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Reality Bites

The Place of the Lion

by Charles Williams

This piece originally appeared as part of a 'guest blog' series on Sorina Higgins' Williams site:
I thoroughly recommend this site (as well as Sorina's own blog: for anyone with an interest in Williams, C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even if you're not an 'Inklings' fan, they're still very much worth a look. Like Alan Garner's Elidor, in many ways, they prowl the borderline between the everyday and the numinous. But, as The Place of the Lion series illustrates, this 'otherworld' is anything but a cosy, cuddly, sub-Freudian slice of wish-fulfillment. It's the real thing - so real, as Lewis remarks of Heaven in The Great Divorce, that you 'could cut your finger on a blade of grass'.
Reality bites ...

 It seemed that at any moment one was going to be able to walk right through the screen of surface appearances, as through a mirror, into a strangely violent but exalted world of poetry and revolution.
David Gascoyne, Collected Journals, 1936-42.
The Place of the Lion contains little in the way of characterisation and psychological depth. It is not that kind of book. But this is by no means to suggest that Williams's fourth novel (published 1932) is in any way a shallow or a trivial read. Quite the reverse. It is a 'novel of ideas', certainly, but also a carefully crafted work of art about the power and reality of ideas themselves. It is about ideas in a way that most twentieth and twenty-first century literature, with its tendency to foreground human emotion and sensibility is not. It deals with ideas in the raw.
Viewed from another angle, however, one could equally construct a case that the human condition is central to the text's concerns. The story explores, in sixteen tightly-knit chapters, the turn events might take were angelic intelligences to break through from the archetypal realm and start disturbing the everyday commerce of the safe, predictable world human beings have fashioned to keep them at bay.
How men and women react to this rupture - how imaginatively (or not) we respond to the challenge - is always going to be germane. It will never be far from the heart of the matter:
"You're doing what Marcellus warned you against," Richardson said, "judging them by English pictures. All nightgowns and body and a kind of flacculent sweetness. As in cemeteries, with broken bits of marble. These are the principles of the tiger and the volcano and the flaming suns of space."
What results, as the narrative unfolds, is nothing less than the collapse, re-imagination and re-integration of an entire world.

The clash of levels, collision of worlds, and ensuing discordance, portrayed in The Place of the Lion, occurs more frequently (if less dramatically) in our daily lives than we might think. Illness, bereavement, redundancy, any kind of trauma or emergency or - conversely - experiences of joy, love, harmony and connection, can strip us of our egocentric defences and open us up to what reality might be like at deeper, more essential levels.
The moral of the novel, if there is one, might be for us to try and remember (though it's hard to think straight when worlds collide) never to batten down hatches, curl in on ourselves and drift aimlessly with the flow. Better by far to dig deep, kindle our specifically human qualities - integrity, faith, creativity - and map these onto the world, as best as we can and in concert with others, as Damaris, Anthony and Richardson are compelled to do in the book.
'Human kind cannot bear very much reality,' wrote T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton. He was right. It bites. But, as Williams shows, here and elsewhere, that need not always be a bad thing.
"You'll never be comfortable," says Anthony to Damaris. "But you may well be glorious."



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