The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Friday, November 17, 2006

Vocation In Williams' Arthuriad: Introduction

C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to the Arthurian poetry of his Inklings friend Charles Williams, titled Williams and the Arthuriad. It appears in one volume with Williams' two poetry collections; although out of print, you can find it on It was published by Wm B. Eerdmans in 1974.

I've been meaning for months to write a Lutheran/Vocation commentary on one of the poems in Taliessin Through Logres for months now, but it took this post at Backward Kingdom to get me off the dime. Iron sharpens iron, again.

What follows is the first of several installments on "Bors to Elayne: on the King's Coins," which starts on page 60 in the above mentioned volume.


Bors To Elayne: On The King's Coins
I came in; I saw you stand,
in your hand the bread of love, in your head lightness of law.
The uprightness of the multitude stood in your figure;
my fieldsmen ate and your women served,
while you watched them from the high seat.
When you saw me a southern burst of love
tossed a new smile from your eyes to your mouth,
shaping for that wind's while the corn of your face.
It was said once that your hair was the colour of corn;
he who said so was capable only to adorn
the margin of parchments drawn in schools of Gaul;
their doctrine is your hands' main. I am come again
to live from the founts and fields of your hands;
colour is art, but my heart counts the doctrine.

Bors is a knight of the Table Round, and Elayne is no small person herself (being the daughter of King Pelles); yet this love-poem is not written as knight to lady, but simply as husband to wife. There is something on his mind, something about a meeting he attended in London, having to do with the business end of the kingdom; but as he arrives home again, he sees in the simple order of his household the true business of a truer Kingdom.

Sure, he loves her, and he's happy to be home again after a long night's ride, but where Love is concerned, nothing is ever that simple in Williams. I cannot say it better than Mary McDermott Shideler in her fine introduction to the Eerdmans one-volume edition:
The supreme examples of imagery for Williams were the human body as it images the human spirit, and human love as it images divine love. . . As patience is always patience, whatever the circumstances in which it is exercised, so--Williams declares--love is love whether it occurs between God and man, or between men and women. Human love is not "suggestively similar" to divine love; the two have real identity. That is not to say that they are identical, but to maintain that the single reality can be expressed in two--or many--styles, as an idea can be expressed in poetry or prose, spoken or written words, or gestures or demonstrations. The central question for every man is what his real identity shall be: love, or hate or fear or detachment or any of the other possibilities. His second question is what style he shall use to express his identity: marriage or celibacy, politics or poetry, romanticism, classicism, or realism, and so on.

Further, to understand Williams' thought and poetry, you need to understand one of the foundational principles in his universe: the concept of Exchange. Love is a special case, a refined form, of this most common and workaday principle. None of us exists in isolation. We give and receive. As C.J.Keyser said, To be is to be related. Williams called this "co-inherence," deliberately drawing from the Athanasian Creed, for to Williams, the earthly interrelatedness of humans in labor, in business, or in love, is a parable of relations between the Persons of the Trinity.

So when Bors sees his household functioning in this "web of exchange"--his field hands sitting down to eat the bread served by Elayne's serving-women, so that they can be strengthened for the continuation of their labors, which will produce more wheat, resulting in future bread--he sees more than a welcome homely sight: he sees the pattern of what the kingdom ought to be. And his wife, supervising from her high seat, is an archetype of ruler-conceived-as-exchange-organizer/facilitator.

The poem continues:
On the forms of ancient saints, my heroes, your thumbs,
as on a winch the power of man is wound
to the last inch; there ground is prepared
for the cared and seeded harvest of propinquant goodwill,
drained the reeded marches, cleared the branched jungles
where the unthumbed shapes of apes swung and hung.
Now when the thumbs are muscled with the power of goodwill
corn comes to the mill and the flour to the house,
bread of love for your women and my men;
at the turn of the day, and none only to earn;
in the day of the turn, and none only to pay;
for the hall is raised to the power of exchange of all
by the small spread organisms of your hands; O Fair,
there are the altars of Christ the City extended.
I have ridden all night from organization in London,
ration and rule, and the fault in ration and rule,
law and the flaw in law, to reach to you,
the sole figure of the organic salvation of our good.

In her hand--the temple, as it were, at which he has worshiped before, in an earlier poem ("Bors to Elayne: the Fish of Broceliande")--he sees a microcosm of the engine which powers exchange. Her thumbs are his heroes. They are a means of exercising dominion over creation, but that in itself is not remarkable. All of Adam's children, fallen though they be, continue that part of the image of God. But in Elayne there is more than mere technology, mere power to cultivate: there is goodwill in the musculature, kindness that drives the process of taming nature. In her hand is bread, as there is in the hand of many a human, no small humanistic triumph in itself; but in her head there is "lightness of law" (lightness = quickness to action) so that it becomes the "bread of love" by her ordering activity.

Bors does see what is on the surface, his wife's obvious beauty, which even a hack artist can see. The artist is dealing only with the superficial, the margins of parchments. (I suppose there may have even been manuscript illuminators who could draw, but not read.) Bors moves past the golden scrollwork, to the doctrine, the content communicated in the parchment, the burden of its message: "their doctrine is your hands' main" and so his "heart counts the doctrine," because it is from the truths that Elayne embodies that he draws life. This is not some kind of Gnostic or Platonic idealism at work; the essence of Elayne is not buried under her hands and thumbs, but is realized and revealed there.

Elayne is, of course, lovable and adorable (in the original sense of the term) in herself. But Bors' moment of adoration here is Elayne-in-action, as she directs the distribution of "bread of love for your women and my men." The result of her work, the dance of giving and receiving, where none only earns and none only pays, means that "the hall is raised to the power of exchange of all/ by the small spread organisms of your hands" and thus these hands become altars of "Christ the City." For Williams, the City of God is Christ in us, but never in us only as individuals--the true glory of God is seen in the fellowship of Christian love and mutual service to one another. Order and organization do not dim that glory. (Recall that the election of the deacons in Acts chapter six, was at root an administrative organizing of the Church's work of mercy.) They give it sharpness and definition, as Elayne's hands give physical expression to her loving service lightly given, despite the fact that she is a princess.

It is an especially wholesome sight for Bors, because he has just come from a meeting where, as C.S.Lewis puts it in his commentary, "a different code of Exchange has just come into existence." This meeting was an exercise in law and "ration and rule," but there is a "flaw in the law" and a "fault in the ration and rule." Organization, in itself, is not toxic to Christian love and service. But something is amiss.

to be continued


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