With all of the bad news today, many people may look on our nation as having lost sight of its destiny, lost God’s favor, become cursed, and begun a rapid decline to a second-rate power. While we may become discouraged by our current situation, it is then that we should remember the Matter of Britain – the legend of King Arthur and how the Holy Grail healed Great Britain. It is possible to find renewal, but it requires a spiritual rebirth.
I’ve been working through my annual rereading of Taliessin Through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars, the collections of modern Arthurian poems by poet, playwright, novelist, and critic Charles Williams. Williams was a friend of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and T.S. Elliott and a member of the Oxford University literary group, the Inklings. His Arthurian poetry was the culmination of his poetic work, both in terms of the poetic accomplishment and treatment of the subject. Due to wide familiarity with the legends, he preferred to discuss discrete events in short modern verse rather than an epic metered poem. At the same time, he also treated many aspects of the legends in his own mythopoeic world, Logres. Much like Middle Earth, this was a kingdom outside of time on the edge of a mythical wood, Broceliande. Most of the poems include or are from the perspective of the Welsh poet, Taliessin, who was a converted bard and druid. As for the legends themselves, Williams believed that the poets of the nineteenth century had largely underemphasized the most important elements of the story, which he sought to correct. These included the fall of Britain, the exchange of Galahad for Arthur, and the healing of the land by the Grail. These same elements speak to the challenges of today.
In Williams’ version of the Matter of Britain, it was the sins of King Arthur that led to the fall of Britain, symbolized by the wounding of King Pelles. In the poem “The Crowning of Arthur,” given the choice of “the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom made for the king,” Arthur chose for the kingdom to serve him. Thus, although Logres was part of the Byzantine Empire, representing civil authority, and the church, representing religion, Arthur rejected these connections in favor of his own interests. His warlike nature resulted in a childless marriage and Guinevere turning to the love of Lancelot. Meanwhile, Arthur fathered Mordred with his own half-sister. In “The Vision of Empire,” Williams presented the Byzantine Empire as a body, suggesting the spiritual interconnectedness of people. One of the major concepts of his work was the idea of co-inherence, that all Christian believers are bound with each other and with God. In “The Founding of the Company,” he presented a group of friends in Camelot led by Taliessin who carried each other’s burdens. It was a rejection of these ideas that led to Arthur’s downfall. Whenever a people lose sight of the common bonds of humanity and love in favor of their own selfish ends, they are headed for a fall.
A second element of Williams’ poems that is relevant to today is the necessity of self-sacrifice and exchange. In line with his belief in co-inherence, Williams believed it possible for people to take the place of others in a redemptive exchange, similar to that of Christ for us. Thus, since Arthur and Guinevere were unable to bear a child, it fell to Lancelot, bewitched by Lycanthrope, and Helayne, the daughter of Pelles under the spell of Merlin’s sister. The resulting offspring was Sir Galahad, the one destined achieve the Grail quest and heal the land. Dindrane (called Blanchfleur), the sister of Percival, helped to raise Galahad at the Convent of Amesbury as a surrogate mother. Though Taliessin loved Dindrane, he gave her up for this greater mission. In one particularly poignant poem, “The Coming of Galahad,” when Galahad finally arrived in Camelot, Arthur and Guinevere took him to their own bed, recognizing the spiritual adoption of him as the son they never had. They made declarations of love, “and measured them the medium of exchange.” There were other exchanges, such as Bors leaving Carbonek in the place of Galahad to carry the son’s pardon to Lancelot, or Lamorack’s love of Morgause to cleanse her of fathering Mordred. For good to triumph over evil, there must be self-sacrifice, where those who are strong take the place of those who are unable to do what is right in the best interests of the nation.
Perhaps the most important element in Williams is his presentation of the healing of King Pelles by Galahad using the Holy Grail, which represented the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper). While other poets and authors mention the events in passing as one of several events in the Matter of Britain, Williams presents it as the central element that led to the restoration of Logres. He concludes the poem “The Last Voyage” about the trip of Galahad and the Grail to Sarras, “At the hour of the healing of Pelles / the two kings were one, by exchange of death and healing./ Logres was withdrawn to Carbonek; it became Britain.” In other words, only the healing provided by the Eucharist could heal the broken land. It is a message as powerful now as when he wrote it, and indeed it is the same with all nations. Our healing comes in embracing, not a Christian heritage, but Christ Himself. Afterwards, this healing of the land resulted in the healing between the knights of the Round Table, as seen in “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass” – “all the dead lords of the Table were drawn from their graves to the Mass”; the queen repented; Lancelot and Arthur were reconciled; “the wounded and dead king [Pelles and Arthur] entered into salvation to serve the Holy Thing.” Each partook of the Lord’s Supper and sang, “We exposed, We exalted the Unity.” They obtained unity in Christ.
There are many other interesting themes and ideas presented in the poetry of Williams, such as his views about romantic love leading us to divine love. I have in recent years continued to reread the poems, first because of their beauty – they are the only modern poetry that I have truly enjoyed – and also because of the power of the themes. While many complain of the complexity of the verse, which can seem obtuse to the uninitiate, the importance of the work and its influence on Lewis in particular make them worth many readings. Most of all, they teach us that even the most accursed lands can be healed through sacrifice and faith. As we enter this Christmas season, let us look to the Savior, who alone can heal this land, but only as we pursue Him and sacrifice ourselves for others.
© 2021 J.D. Manders