This is, as it promises to be, an un-sensationalising account of the history of witchcraft from Roman times until the end of the Salem Witch trials in the late 1600s.
I read it in the hope of unwrapping something more of the mystery of Charles Williams, the man himself, but quickly became drawn into the drama as he tells it, particluarly, through historical documentary evidence from trials.
Williams handles the material carefully. It is almost impossible to disentangle fact from fiction in this particular aspect of history, where hysteria and confession under torture were commonplace. He nevertheless outlines atrocities on both sides of the conflict between witchcraft and the church and secular authorities throughout the ages and makes it clear that he senses evil at work in both the prosecutors and the prosecuted. He doesn’t enter his opinion into the debate on whether witchcraft is material or illusory, but proponents of both views come under his scrutiny.
Surprisingly and unfashionably, the Spanish Inquisition comes out in a more favourable light when compared to other Inquisitions across Europe at the time, and King James I is commended for his intelligent handling of the issue in England. The medievals and the philosophical movement of the 1600s also seem to embody something closer to Williams own sympathies, while he draws the centuries in between as a full-scale war, a morass of perversion and confusion, touching every level of society and the church and fuelled by an unhealthy obsession with the Devil and sin. Ultimately, in Williams’ reckoning, it was the skeptics who saved Europe from insanity.
I did not obtain from this book much illumination to apply to the growing interest in Wiccan practice in our own times: Williams is talking about something quite different when he speaks of witchcraft. However, it speaks pertinently to the handling of our society’s spectres – real or imagined – in which a spark of truth ignites a profane fire that quickly gets a life of its own. Proponents of the “war on terror”, for instance, would do well to heed its lessons.
As far as the mystery of the author goes, there are precious few hints about his own spirituality, although a brief mention of the Zohar provides recognisable elements that are also found in his novels.
Ultimately, I was surprised not to find more of his penetrating vision of underlying spiritual realities in his description of the conflict. But I’m coming to realise that this is Williams to the core: the historical plane, to which he limits his analysis, incarnates and reflects all others such that there is virtually no need to be initiated into mysteries other than the open secret of Love.
On the back cover of this book, the Saturday Review states, “Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience.” Its true. Coming away from one of his novels, the world always seems intensified, as mediated through his vision. He gives me a taste of reality that rings true and reawakens my deepest convictions about the way things really are.
I am sure I held my breath for entire paragraphs during the unfolding of this novel, almost afraid to break the spell of the words.
In Descent into Hell, Williams uses a play within a play, within a setting that is itself merely a shadow of the cosmos, to build a story that simultaneously pierces several layers of heaven and earth and pulls them into each other. The characters are recognizable and, as a reader, I was constantly trying to work out which one was me. This had the effect of the best kind of fantasy literature, enabling a vicarious exploration of all the “what ifs” of our possible selves and their choices that is both instructive and therapeutic.
If you like a story that processes your soul and opens your eyes to the darkness of dark and the lightness of light as well as the blueness of blue and the redness of red, dive in.
This is one of those few books I expect to revisit – just after I’ve read everything else he’s written.
Some 18 leagues due north from my front door lies one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe: Barter Books, lodestar of literary pilgrimage and home to the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster as well as an impressive mural of authors.
Ah, you know, between those shelves it is possible to forget the passage of time; I can’t remember the last time I was so distracted by the present. Here are a few of the things I saw this afternoon on my voyage along the platforms of the old train station that houses the shop.
Biographies are front and centre as you walk into the main part of the store and this volume was on display. The author is a friend; I had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit while he was training as a minister in the Church of England. Tom fed me westerns and frontier-flavoured theology, warned me off crappy writing gigs (said I’d be be happier going back to nursing) and encouraged me on every level in a series of conversations that are burned into my soul. Seeing this reminded me that I still have not followed up on his recommendation to read more … Raymond Chandler.
Now here’s something you won’t find on any editions of Kipling’s work these days, nor even any editions later than 1935. Rudyard Kipling adopted the symbol, which is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for wellbeing, long before the Nazis got hold of it.
Two of Kipling’s books stand out in my life as a reader. I read “Kim” when I was about 12 and it proved an extremely significant influence on my unfurling spirituality and lead me into further reading and an early exposure to eastern philosophy and religion that has coloured everything that has happened since.
When I was much younger I read a wonderful collection of Kipling stories told from a dog’s point of view, called “Thy Servant a Dog”, which was easily one of my favourite childhood reads. I’ve never been able to find myself a copy of the book, but I keep my eyes peeled in second-hand bookstores.
This was the hardest book to replace on the shelf: the price tag of £39 was more than I’ve ever paid for a book, but if any book were to come close to having that kind of value to me, this would be it. GM is the brightest burning star in my literary galaxy and “Donal Grant” (quoted on this page) certainly my favourite of his “novels”. His shadow has presided over a latter unfurling in my spirituality but, apart from his “Diary of an Old Soul”, I have read very little of his poetry. Ahhhh … well … another time, perhaps.
The woodcut illustrations by Nora S. Unwin were just the icing on the MacDonaldian cake!
Merely four books sat on the Gaelic shelf, including this New Testament. I don’t read Gaelic (yet) but feel as if I have had a lot of exposure to it in recent weeks through getting deeper into celtic music. I’ve given some serious thought to studying the language because it sounds so beautiful when spoken and I’d really like to solve once-and-for-all the ongoing dispute in my band over the correct pronunciation of the names of tunes like Chi Mi Na Morbehanna and An Phis Fliuch.
This ranks among the most curious finds of the day. A book on Swedenborg and John Wesley is coming from left field to begin with, but this one uses “reformed spelling”! Yes, published in the earlier part of the twentieth century before two world wars gave us something more serious to think about than spelling reform.
After about three hours of browsing, I walked off with this in my rucksack. At £1:50 it was kind of in that sweet spot of providing a decent number of hours of rewarding reading of something I knew I’d like at a price I could manage. I’ve been on a D.H. Lawrence kick since Xe Sands reawakened my dormant interest in his poetry with some of her readings. I’m hoping this will bring a dose of bygone English summers to the remaining days of winter for me.
I have been labouring my way through the complete tales of the brothers Grimm, on and off, for the last three years. At first, there were curious and enchanting moments but, I have to admit, it has felt more ‘uphill’ recently. I’m not sure how to understand the resurgence of interest in Will and Jake’s collection. There has been a popular TV series and a couple of movies have tried to reclaim the tales for the dark side, after years of disneyfication; Philip Pullman has turned his pen to them, and several others have delighted in re-working them for the ‘Potter, Buffy and Twilight’ generation.
Having almost finished reading the complete works, I have my own take on the oeuvre.
When the brothers rolled into a village on their collecting expeditions, I reckon that the locals thought it would be a jolly jape to ply them with schnapps and treat them to lengthy, extemporized tales that endlessly recombined a basket of popular motifs in spirals of fantasy. These plot lines were not authentically handed down through the generations until they were captured and immortalised with pen and ink; they were made upon the spot, like the rambling narratives that children play out in the tree house and at the bottom of the garden or the anecdotes of a boozy uncle who can’t remember the end from the beginning.
For example, here is the tale of the Three Black Princesses. It is wryly amusing for the fact that it barely goes anywhere, it is clearly unfinished and there are some serious issues with overall coherence. I hope my rendition is faithful to the original.
Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.
My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.
The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:
“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”
Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:
“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”
He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:
“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”
Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.
I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.
I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.
Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.
Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.
There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.
“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”