Mint Nightmares: Williams on Vocation, Part I
The next installment from "Bors to Elayne: on the King's Coins" from Charles Williams' Taliessin Through Logres.
The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon's loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king's smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snout crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king's head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs' epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets' eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.
The meeting in London, from which Bors has just returned, was about King Arthur's new mint. "We are to suppose," writes C.S.Lewis, "that since the collapse of the Roman rule Britain has been without coinage, has lived by barter."
The new coins being minted have Arthur's head on one side, and dragons on the other. They will make the work of empire easier; "the themes" [provinces] "acknowledge our king's head." Bors is uneasy about this "crowded creaturely brood" that has sprung from the king's loins. In his nightmare, they teemed--picture yeast multiplying out of control, as you watch through a microscope. Lewis writes, "Money has bred money. He has seen house roofs creaking and breaking under the weight." Despite the obvious practical value of money, something is being lost with the passing of barter as the normal mode of doing business. Something has died, and in it there is a foreshadowing of the death of the King himself.
Recall that in the first part of the poem, Bors saw Elayne's hands as extensions of "the altars of Christ the City." An altar is a physical place that receives worship, not for itself, but for redirection to something invisible. His Beatrician vision, mediated through his wife's thumbs, redirected his devotion to Christ the City with its doctrine of exchange, and its Servant Messiah stooping to serve. Bors has, in a sense, heard the Savior call Elayne to "Feed My lambs," by seeing her answering actions.
In his dream of money multiplying on house-roofs, Bors has seen men looking at money the same way he has looked at his wife's thumbs. But these men in his dream--to whom is their worship redirected, when their altar is a pile of coins?
A note on "Christ the City"--although this topic could really use an essay by itself, the short answer is that in Charles Williams' world, this is shorthand for "Christ at work on earth through His people." It is roughly equivalent to Paul's (Holy-Spirit inspired) picture of the Church as the "Body of Christ." In Paul, the organic connection and unity is in the foreground, whereas in Williams, the main thing is results, the accomplishing of the mission, with that being the occasion for the celebrating of relationships. There is a taste of this in Paul too, in his picture of gardeners connected by a common goal : I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building (1 Corinthians 3:6-9 NIV) . It is a City because it is patterned on Byzantium. Williams knew that this was anachronistic, but he seems to have wanted Logres (Arthur's kingdom) to be taking shape on the frontier between Byzantium (representing the orderly glory of Christian faith) and Broceliande (the wild wood representing chaos and untamed spiritual landscapes). Logres grows in the interstices, and that is why Taliessin, the king's poet, is the ideal person to narrate the growth of mere Britannia into Logres, because he himself comes out of Broceliande (he was raised by druids), but a visit to Byzantium harnessed his spirituality with the yoke of Christ. The City of God, Augustine's great concept, is no doubt a strong influence here too. The drama of the whole cycle of poems contained in Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars can be summed up in this: will Logres grow to become Camelot, an outpost of the City of God, or will it fail to achieve this dream?
In a sense, this is where the Lutheran concept of vocation comes through. All must work--it is so universal, it even predates the Fall--but those who have been called by the Gospel and enlightened with the Holy Spirit's gifts do their work, in the memorable words of Uwe Siemon-Netto, as "priests in aprons and overalls." Christ the City is the Risen and Ascended Jesus, working through His people on earth as they organize to proclaim His truth and live out His love. The service we render to our neighbor is offered to Christ as a living sacrifice. The Risen Jesus reinstated weak, shamefaced Peter with the words "Feed My lambs." And every Christian, in our regular need for repentance and reinstatement, hears Jesus issue the same call. Our lives are tinged by the same drama: will this forgiven sinner continue to live for self, just doing his job, or will he intentionally offer his time-talents-treasure as the living sacrifice of a grateful heart? Will his work be just a job, or will it become a living demonstration of Christian joy? The apostle Paul warns us to exercise care in the way we build a life on the foundation of the Gospel. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 NIV).
Christ the City calls also to, and through, King Arthur, and his response has been to mint coins, to "tame dragons to carriers." Ok, he can do that. It is a testament to his majesty and power. But where Elayne's heeding of the new law ("love one another," John 13:34) is a matter of direct action, or the directly supervised action of another, Arthur's way of heeding the call is leveraged to gain spread and scope, but at the cost of direct and personal contact. Money can become not only a means, but an object, of business. (How much of the current price of gasoline is related not to actual supply and demand, but to speculation in oil futures? Yet one has difficulty imagining such speculation under a barter system.) The dragons, once tamed, might carry just as well for another master; perhaps even a master with treasonous intent; how ironic if an assassin's knife was hired with Arthur's own coin. What shadowy forms might be calling to the coins, urging them on what dire business? And so Bors urges Elayne to "redeem the new law," addressing her as "mother of children," for he fears that Arthur (father of little coin dragons) has sold out the new law somehow. I wonder if this is the significance of the eye-rhymes in this section of the poem: words that look like they ought to rhyme, but don't when pronounced:
"flat in houses squat"
"creak and break"
as sort of a structural representation of the dissonance between the King's intention and the results he gets.
Why is this idolatry seen on roof-tops? My guess is that we are to think of King David, walking on the roof top of his palace, whence he spotted Bathsheba bathing. From this small trickle of lust grew an avalanche of adultery, murder, and the ensuing cover-up.