Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Roller Coaster of a Read

I’ve been looking forward to revisiting Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps for many years now. If so especially eager for this one, why did I place it as late as year 8 when I first drew up The Plan? I can only answer myself by saying that I look at the Tolkien/Williams category of my list and wonder what else I would have delayed to make room for it.

But I did have a special anticipation for this one. I first read it while I was in bed with the flu one time in the 90s. Now the problem is – well, it’s a beauty and a wonder if you’re in good health and a problem only if you have the mental diffuseness that comes with a fever – the problem is that Charles Williams covers his prose with a layer of mysticism. And three or four times in each book, that mystical patina digs deep down into the body of the drama where one or more characters undergo a transcendent encounter with the weird. These passages, usually five to twenty pages long, are hard to follow in the best of conditions. I generally treat them the way I treat the giant drops on a roller coaster: I tense up, realize I’m going to lose control to an overpowering force, and hang on while I enjoy the free fall knowing it will be over soon. In the semi-delirium of 102 degrees, though, I lost my grip on the lapbar of The Greater Trumps and ended up getting thrown out into the trees.

But this time, fifteen or more years later, I climbed onto the ride much better prepared to follow its track all the way to the end. Not only did I enjoy my full faculties, but just last year GAMES magazine ran a story on the history of the Tarot cards, the main prop, if you will, of this Williams fantasy. It turns out that the stories about the cards’ origin in ancient Egypt were fabricated in the nineteenth century. Their medieval or early-modern Christian provenance is actually quite clear. The Hierophant wears a Pope’s mitre and sits over the keys of Peter. The Ace of Cups is the chalice of the Lord’s Table. The Judgment involves an angel with a trumpet and bodies rising from the grave, right out of I Corinthians. The Priestess sits between two pillars marked J and B, the Jachin and Boaz of I Kings. The World is surrounded by the traditional symbols for the four gospel writers. And on and on. This knowledge made it much easier for me to buy Williams’s fictional conceit that the cards represented the eternal dance of the biblical God’s creation, that their figures were symbols or types of objects and attributes from the eternal world.

Williams had his own set of types that he drew on in writing his novels. All his stories seem to have a character of a faith so strong that it is almost sight of the Blessed: a character with a Marian acceptance of every adventure of God’s will. In The Greater Trumps, Sybil plays this role, the woman for whom “nothing is certain but everything is safe” because God is in control. They all have the young person entirely ignorant of the ways of the Lord, totally inexperienced in the supernatural, but ready to learn at each new surprise. Such is Nancy in this book. They all have the worldly skeptic with a “rational” explanation for everything (Lothair Coningsby here), the person who believes but only wants to possess the Power (Aaron), and the pagan ready to worship the Power but under the wrong name (Joanna).

Everything fell into place this time, and I felt very comfortable. The characters all seemed familiar according to their types, and the mystical cards worked well as portals to the Other Side. But halfway through, I came across the totally unexpected. The interaction with the uncanny that began around chapter 10 (magic snow storm, glowing mist, a crazy cat, visions of towers made out of hands, a guy who can’t feel his own head – you know, the usual stuff) didn’t last just part of a chapter, not just one whole chapter, not even just two chapters. It went all the way to the end. This plunge of the tracks never let up. I definitely stayed in the car this time, but I was pretty rattled by the time it pulled back into the station. Well, I’ve scheduled the book once more for the next decade, and I’ll be even more prepared for the next ride.

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