Skip to content

The Chapel of the Thorn

11 May 2017

The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic PoemThe Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem by Charles Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An early play by Charles Williams, long thought to have been lost, and edited and prepared for publication by Sørina Higgins, who has also written a comprehensive introduction. There is also a preface by Grevel Lundop who has written a biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams:the Third Inkling.

I began reading it two years ago, and began with the introductory material, which I think was a mistake. The book was mislaid in a reorganisation of our bookshelves, and so when I rediscovered it I began again, but this time reading the play itself, and saving the commentary for afterwards. And I’m glad I did, because the play speaks for itself, and it is perhaps better to read it without too many preconceptions.

It is set in an unnamed country, which has recently been evangelised by Christian missionaries, but pagan ideas have not been forgotten. The action of the play takes place at a crossroads, in front of a chapel which has a relic of a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. Beyond the chapel is a cliff, and below the cliff can be heard the waves breaking.

The crossroads is also symbolic of the four social groups or forces represented in the play. One road leads to a new monastery, whose abbot and prior want the relic for the monastery. Another leads to a seaside village, whose parish church the chapel is. They earn their living by fishing and farming, and find life hard. The villagers are also aware that the chapel is the burial place of their semi-divine folk hero, Druhild. Two roads lead to the capital, the secular city, the seat of secular power. One road is rough and winding and follows the coast, the other is smooth and direct.

The priest of the chapel wants to keep the relic there, but the abbot of the monastery enlists the secular power of the king to help him seize it. The villagers are in two minds, and at one point are inclined to support Joachim, the local priest. The drama plays out between characters representing these four forces..

The play was written about 1912, and only published a century later, I don’t know if it has been performed since it was published, but it would be quite easy to perform, or could even be done as a simple play reading.

The explanatory material (which takes up more space than the play itself) is useful. Sørina Higgins compares it with Charles William’s other work, and gives information on his personal background, which is useful in helping to understand the play, though I don’t always agree with her conclusions. I’ve noted some of these disagreements in a comment below. I haven’t included it here in the main body of the post because it may contain spoilers.

Because of its setting, in a place where Christian missionaries were still active, and people were between Christianity and paganism, I found it useful as a missiologist, and if I were teaching missiology to live students (most of my previous teaching was by distance education) I might incorporate a reading of it in my course, as it raises many missiological issues, and could provoke useful discussions.

I might ad that more than 50 years ago our church youth group wanted to have a play reading, and I asked a monk if he could recommend a play, and he recommended The House of the Octopus, one of Charles Williams’s later plays. I suspect that if The Chapel of the Thorn had not been “lost” at that time, he might have recommended that instead.


View all my reviews

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 May 2017 5:55 pm

    * * * Spoiler Alert * * *

    If you haven’t read the play, and would like to, be warned that the following comments could reveal some of the plot that you might prefer to find by reading the play itself

    Some additional points (spoiler alert)

    I mentioned that I disagreed with Sørina Higgins’s interpretation at some
    points. That’s probably a bit of a cheek, as she is far more familiar with
    it than I am, having edited it, and she is much more familiar with
    Williams’s other writing, and writings that influenced him. I did once try
    to read “The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail” by Waite, but I found it
    excruciatingly boring, like most occult literature, and gave up about a
    quarter of the way through. So I interpret Williams’s novels in my own
    idiosyncratic way.

    Also, being an Orthodox Christian probably gives me a slightly different
    frame of reference, and so I offer these thoughts for anyone interested.

    The tension between the views of Joachim and Abbot Innocent struck me as
    similar to the difference between Orthodox and Western monasticism.
    Joachim resembled many Orthodox holy men and missionaries, like St Herman
    of Alaska.

    Something that also struck me is that relics were a big attraction for
    pilgrims, who made up the bulk of the tourist trade in the middle ages.
    That could be quite lucrative, and it could have been part of the
    motivation for Innocent and John wanting the thorn.

    It is even more reminiscent of the controversy between Joseph of
    Volokolamsk and Nil Sorsky, who represented two different styles of
    monasticism, dubbed “possessors” and “non-possessors” respectively.
    Joachim seems to represent the non-possessors, and Innocent the

    But there are other things that interest me even more as a missiologist,
    which don’t seem to be mentioned in the introduction or appendix.

    This is the half Christian, half-pagan state of the village, and of the
    chapel itself.

    It may well be that what Joachim feared was that, with the thorn gone, the
    chapel would become more pagan than Christian. And his fear is realised at
    the end when as the monks take the thorn further from the chapel, their
    singing grows fainter, while the pagan song grows louder.

    And then there is the role of women. At the beginning it is the woman
    whose son is sick who is impressed by the fact that Christ had a mother,
    and therefore as a mother she might be sympathetic to her plight and
    intercede for her. It is not the boastful king or the argumentative abbot
    who will establish and spread the Christian faith, but the nameless women,
    and it is they who will be liberated by the death of the
    concubine-chambermaid system.

    • iambicadmonit permalink
      15 May 2017 7:00 pm

      Thank you for this thoughtful review and these insightful comments! I am delighted to read your interpretations, and I think you’re quite right. In fact, I don’t see us as disagreeing, but as offering usefully complementary views. If you don’t think so, I’m glad to discuss any particulars.

      I’ll link to this post over on The Oddest Inkling.

      And I do hope you do a reading of the play! If you do, let me know how it goes. It has never been performed, but my artists/writers/actors group did a semi-staged reading several years ago (as I mention in the intro) and it went very well.


      ~ Sørina Higgins

      • 15 May 2017 7:59 pm

        Thanks for the comments and the link. I don’t think we really disagree much, as Williams seems to leave it open to many interpretations. But I was particularly struck by the role of women, which is very true to missiological experience. They don’t say much, they just do, and quietly, and almost unnotices, while the males are yakking, they get things done.

        My wife often says this about rural African society, where she went to women’s conferences, and it is customary for the males to sit talking over their beer while the women get things done. She say we need more women in government for that reason. The male politicians have excellent plans and policies, it’s just the implementation that falls flat. And I thought the play brought that out, and you can find quite a lot of it in Christian mission through the ages.

  2. 15 May 2017 1:16 pm

    Thanks for your review and your thoughts. I looked at the book again the other day, longing to read it (the poem) again. I just can’t take the time right now, but I quite loved the poem. I hope to do some critical work on it in the future. If you have these thoughts and want to move them into an academic paper, there needs to be some work done on this text.

    • 15 May 2017 2:39 pm

      Thanks very much for the comments.

      I don’t think I could manage an academic paper — as I said in my review, Sørina Higgins must me very much more familiar with it, from editing it and preparing it for publication, and my thoughts were inspired by a single reading.

      But again, as I said, if I were still reaching Missiology, say, to second-year students, I would love them to have a live reading of it, and to then to discuss it afterwards. It’s not so much ideas about the poem (which is what an academic paper would need to be) as ideas sparked off and inspired by the poem. I think that is it’s genius, that it leaves so many possibilities of interpretation open to the reader. Williams isn’t saying “This must mean to you what it means to me” and by leaving time and place vague, he almost invites those possibilities.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds permalink
    18 May 2017 11:31 pm

    Indeed, thanks for this! And very interesting to hear from not only a thoughtful reader, but a thoughtful (ex-Anglican) Orthodox missiologist reader!

    The cross roads never struck me: need to reread with an eye to that!

    While a woman is one of the two major figures in Williams’s first major work, the sonnet sequence, The Silver Stair, your attention to the women here in this second major work, where, as you note, different people with different perspectives really interact.

    It would be interesting to read your thoughts on Williams first and last dramatic (and, as out point out, mission-related) works! Also, as to the women in The House of the Octopus.

    And, have you ever read Williams’s first novel (though only published, rewritten, after others), Shadows of Ecstasy? It seems to me to be similar to The Chapel in leaving lots of room for different people to present different perspectives and interact.

    • 19 May 2017 3:44 am

      Thanks very much for the comments. It’s nearly 60 years since I read “House of the Octopus” (in the church youth group), so barely remember it, and I don’t know where I’d find a copy today.

      I have indeed read Shadows of Ecstasy, and I’ve read it more than once, but I find it the least interesting of the novels. It starts off well, but towards the end it rather loses its way, with long rambling monologues by Considine. I suspect that that may be why it was published later, not on its own merits, but because people who had already enjoyed his later novels might buy it. But his portrayal of the African priest is very good, which I rather wonder about, because as far as I know Williams had never been in Africa. Perhaps he met some who were studying at Oxford.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds permalink
    18 May 2017 11:34 pm

    Got lsot in one of my sentences: your attention to the women here in this second major work, where, as you note, different people with different perspectives really interact, is very interesting.


  1. New Review of “Chapel of the Thorn” | The Oddest Inkling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: