A Strange Kind of Glory
Charles Williams - Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass
‘All has been forgiven and all has been exchanged,’ is C.S. Lewis’s take on Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass, the concluding poem in Williams’s Arthuriad. ‘The dead knights,’ he writes, ‘are all invisibly present and adore. Here, out of time, the universal reconciliation hinted at in the last poem (The Last Voyage) is actual … for the order is at once hierarchic and republican, not flat equality but a whirling carnival of interchanged dominion and service.’1
That last phrase is worth repeating, ‘… not flat equality but a whirling carnival of interchanged dominion and service.’ As a one-line description of Paradise, I don’t think it comes any more arresting or compelling than that.
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The paragraph as a whole is, as one might expect of Lewis, a razor-sharp slice of analysis. Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass is indeed a carnival, a celebration of everything he refers to - forgiveness, exchange, dominion, service, and reconciliation. The Grail has departed, Logres has sunk into Britain, civil war has done its worst, the Saxons are back, and Arthur is dead. Yet Williams concludes his cycle on a note of hope and expectation. He presents us with a Mass which is at once solemn, high and playful, a glittering display of unity in diversity and, I believe, a glimpse into the age of grace to come once the turmoils of our own time have run their course.
This is the final and ultimate archetype, a future state of being so potent that it cannot but express itself through the novels and poems of Williams, Lewis, and others, who are aware of its presence and attuned to its reality. It is nothing less than the Eighth Day of creation, the New Jerusalem, ‘coming down from God out of Heaven,’ where He ‘shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’2
This is how the poem begins. ‘I came to his altar,’ Taliessin says, ‘when dew was bright on the grass …
he - he was not sworn of the priesthood - began the Mass
The altar was an ancient stone laid upon stones;
Carbonek’s arch, Camelot’s wall, frame of Bors’ bones.
In armour before the earthen footpace he stood;
on his surcoat the lion of his house, dappled with blood,
rampant, regardant; but he wore no helm or sword,
and his hands were bare as Lateran’s to the work of our Lord.
In the ritual before the altar Lancelot began to pass;
all the dead lords of the Table were driven from their graves
to the Mass;
they stood, inward turned, as shields on a white rushing deck,
between Nimue of Broceliande and Helayne of Carbonek.3
The barriers between the living and the dead break down. All band together in prayer and adoration. The Communion of Saints is conscious and at work, and the Eucharist is the place where all this happens, both in the world of Williams’s poem and here and now in our everyday lives. Heaven and Earth, past and future, the living and the dead, meet and interact - the point of intersection in Eliot’s phrase, the ‘still point of the turning world.’
The Liturgy is this still point - this regenerative, transformative space, which has all the answers to all our problems. Fragmentation and chaos cede place to clarity and integration. Our challenges and difficulties lose their edge in the light of its face. They shrink back to manageable proportions, transmuted and taken up into a higher level of meaning. Williams was right, therefore, to make the Liturgy the focus of this great poem of co-inherence and wholeness. Nothing else has the ballast and the inner force to hold the world’s tension and heal and transcend all its conflict and strife.
It needs to be well done, of course - grounded in tradition and conducted with reverence and warmth. We have to be open and receptive too. But in its essence the Liturgy is eternal, and the onus is on us to conform to its shape and form rather than the other way around. It goes on in Heaven all the time, and it has been handed down to us from that high place. The Mass does not belong to us. It is not ours to fiddle around with, and it is not something we can alter or amend on a whim. As the priest Pavel Florevsky noted:
Our liturgy is older than us and our parents, even older than the world. The liturgy was not invented, it was discovered, appropriated: it is something that always was… So it is beyond doubt that our liturgy comes not from man, but from the angels.4
It brings the past to life as well. It makes it present. As Valentin Tomberg remarks:
In the sacrament, memory does not become a journey into the past, but instead a making-present of the past, an evocation that summons something up out of the realm of forgetting, sleep, and death.5
It draws us forward towards the future too, ‘farther up and farther in.’ In the words of Alexander Schmemann:
The Eucharist is the manifestation of the Church as the new aeon; it is participation in the Kingdom as the Parousia … It is not the ‘representation’ of his advent or coming into the world, but the lifting up of his Church into his Parousia, the Church’s participation in the heavenly glory.6
This particular Eucharist - Lancelot’s Mass of reconciliation - does all these things and more. It takes an extra leap, however, when blessing and benediction segue into a ‘festival of flames’ and the renewal and restoration of ‘the imperial lands’:
Lancelot came to the Canon; my household stood
around me, bearers of the banners, bounteous in blood;
each at the earthen footpace ordained to be blessed and to
each than I and than all lordlier and less.
Then at the altar We sang in Our office the cycle of names
of their great attributed virtues; the festival of flames
fell from new sky to new earth; the light in bands
of bitter glory renewed the imperial lands.
The Empire is reborn in these lines, not yet physically but spiritually and imaginatively. The Wasteland, though it might feel to us more jagged and harsh than ever, is already blooming back to life. It flourishes anew in the higher realms, and ultimately these are the only realms that count. It will blossom again on our own plane of existence in due time and season. We must remain vigilant and active (I will say more about this later) but there is no need to tear at the net or try to take the Kingdom of Heaven by force. It will come in its own time. A thousand years, as St. Peter reminds us, is but a day to the Lord.7
In October’s essay, I quoted from Anne Ridler’s poem Taliessin Reborn, a reflection on the deep Platonic identity of Britain and how, through the centuries, it has made itself visible in hints and flashes to those with the capacity to discern its presence:
Lastly the very few had seen
Cast on the level sand as if on a screen
Their own vast shadows, shapes of the true self
In the moment of heaven or the narrow eye of love -
The depth and height of an unguessed perfection …
There was the real map of England …8
In the concluding section, Ridler brings Williams directly into play. His Taliessin poems, for her, are the definitive manifestation in our time of the partial glimmers of the past, what she calls ‘the slow sea-coming.’
‘It is time,’ she writes, ‘that we saw this country again …
And remember that our footsteps echo in another worl
(Even concrete cannot imprison that reverberation)
But now for our generation this world is understood,
Is named and commanded in its pathos and significance;
The symbols that would burn the naked hand
Conveyed to blood and hand by the insulation of verse,
This poetry of which I write, in its coarse flexible mesh,
Rich with a strange juxtaposition of colours,
Here and there snarled or gaudy, but still strong-fibres,
With common words in a strange dye, with knots of metaphysic,
This is the mesh that drew the loud myth so close …
This at last compelled the slow sea-coming
And loosed upon England the invisible virtues.
The appearance in our world of Williams’s Arthuriad - its irruption into modern life - is a Heideggerian Event of the first order. It is a herald of the transfiguration that awaits us on the far side of what Ernst Jünger termed the ‘Wall of Time.’ From eternity’s perspective, of course, this transfiguration has already occurred and is occurring now, but our vision has become murky and occluded and we cannot see or sense it. A clearing must first be made. Then the lightning can strike. Williams’s poetry will be seen in its true light then, and we will be astonished that we did not always grasp its significance or perceive the weight of glory now self-evident in its lines. It will all seem so obvious, for we will live inside the Transfiguration story then, not like Peter, James and John, blinded by the light and tumbling down the hill, but as Moses and Elijah, standing beside the Lord and partaking in the uncreated glory.
We fight and strive to forge this clearing, to free up a space for the Divine to hit upon. It is vital, therefore, that we put our shoulder to the wheel and play our part, constructively and creatively, in what Kathleen Raine called the 'Great Battle.’ Victory is assured, yes, but its actualisation in this world, as Williams’s cycle shows us, can be postponed, for a millennium and a half (at least!) in this instance. It is a strange, elusive kind of glory - unfathomable, ungovernable, unpredictable - but Williams, like the angel who freed St. Peter from prison, breaks the chains that bind and leads us out and through.9 He has gone before us into the hallowed places and has returned with these twin poetic jewels, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. That is his legacy, his bequest to our era and beyond. His visible presence, like that of the Grail, has passed beyond, but his presence and his spirit and his vision live on and continue to work among us. Il meglio deve ancora venire, as the Italians say. The best is yet to come …
That which had been Taliessin rose in the rood;
in the house of Galahad over the altar he stood,
manacled by the web, in the web made free;
there was no capable song for the joy in me;
Joy to new joy piercing from paths foregone,
that which had been Taliessin made joy to a joy unknown;
manifest Joy speeding in a Joy unmanifest,
Lancelot’s voice below sang: Ite; missa est.
Fast to the Byzantine harbour gathered the salvaged sails;
that which was once Taliessin rides to the barrows of Wales
up the valley of the Wye; if skill be of work or of will
in the dispersed homes of the household, let the Company
pray for it still.
‘I dreamt of Charles the other night,’ his wife noted, thirteen years after he died. ‘He was standing on a niche in a cathedral I could not identify. His garments were beyond whiteness and he looked very very grave, and he looked and looked at me …’10
C.S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso (Oxford University Press, 1948), p.186.
Apocalypse 21: 2-4
Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres (Oxford University Press, 1938), pp.89-91.
Steven Underdown, Living in the Eighth Day: The Christian Week and the Paschal Mystery (Pickwick Publications, 2018), p.238.
Valentin Tomberg, Covenant of the Heart: Meditations of a Christian Hermeticist on the Mysteries of Tradition (Element Books, 1992). I found this quote on the Gornahoor site. I do not have a page reference.
Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (SVS Press, 1996), p.57.
2 Peter 3:8
Anne Ridler, Collected Poems (Carcanet Press, 1997), pp.46-48.
Acts 12: 5-17
Grevel Lindop, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press, 2015), p.427.