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A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn” by Charles Williams | A Pilgrim in Narnia

5 July 2017

A review of The Chapel of the Thorn by Brenton Dickieson

An Unpublished Poem by Charles Williams. Charles Williams wrote The Chapel of the Thorn in 1912, though it was never published. Once thought lost, this Williams’ play has finally been brought to print by Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins.

I had the opportunity of seeing this mportant and neglected Charles Williams dramatic poem move from archival space to finished book.The original text is housed at the Wade Centre in Wheaton, IL.

By a chance encounter I was working beside Higgins as she began to open up this century-old text with the hope of publishing it Head tilted forward as if in prayer, left hand hovering over a magnifying glass, Higgins worked with Williams’ neat handwriting. It was a manuscript complicated with age, his own edits, and the comments of his beta reader, Fred Page. Thus began the two-year process of transcribing, formatting, checking, editing, introducing, and producing The Chapel of the Thorn.

Anyone who has attempted Williams’ later poetry knows that there are challenges ahead. Even his supernatural pot-boilers—relatively popular in the day—can be a little obscure at times. It is true that in both the novels and the poetry, Williams’ characters are clear and the narrative arc is discernable. He can paint scenes with vividness and heighten expectation even for the tentative reader. Still, the gap between reader and writer often remains.Charles Williams writing

The Chapel of the Thorn has none of that distance. For any reader who enjoys Shakespeare or Arthurian literature, Thorn is completely accessible. Written in formal iambic pentameter with even-handed archaisms, I was immediately drawn into the story of The Thorn. The setting is a coastal village in late Roman Britain. The village sits on the historical crossroads between paganism and Christianity. The land is officially Christian, but there is a power struggle still at play between king and Church.

The villagers attend the local Christian church, and the women are typically devout. The men, however, only pretend to Christian piety while they maintain their devotion to paganism, their love of the old druidic stories, and their practice of keeping sex slaves—mistresses who satisfy the male and are an economic trade unit in the village.As the title suggests, the tension focusses around the little village chapel. It is the home of a sacred object, a thorn from the make-shift crown that attended the crucified Christ’s brow (or perhaps it is the entire crown itself).

The village priest, Joachim, is the protector of the relic and seeks enjoyment of Christ in its contemplation. The villagers see it as a thing of power, but their main interest in the chapel is that it is the resting place of their ancient hero, who will one day rise again. Attendance to religious service, then, is a façade for some and mystical encounter for others. The tender balance of past and present, paganism and Christianity—held together by a silent truce of hypocrisy and doublespeak—is threatened when a nearby Abbot, a monk of tremendous secular and personal influence, comes to the village to remove the relic to a more accessible place of pilgrimage. While Abbot Innocent pretends to public interest alone, it is a power play at a far deeper level. This unusual triangle fuels both the poetry and the plot.

There are other storylines woven into this short play, and yet I never found that the stage was too crowded. The most slippery aspect of the play is the very thing that gives it enough interest to read a second time: what is the motivation of the characters? The Chapel of the Thorn begs at questions of authenticity and hypocrisy with well-drawn characters that pull us into their own storylines.

Sørina Higgins has done a great service in bringing this text from the hallowed halls of the archives to our nearest bookstore. But she has done more than this. Added to her own critical introduction are essays by Grevol Lindop and David Llewellyn Dodds—really the two other scholars to have produced work on The Chapel of the Thorn. These three engaging thinkers tell us the history of the text, but also assess the poetry itself and link Thorn to Williams’ other works. We see in Thorn, for example, the beginning of Williams’ interests in the hallows and Arthurian legend—interests that will be central themes in Williams’ popular novels and narrative poetry.The result of Higgins’ work as editor and producer is a book that re-begins a delayed conversation, continuing a journey that was aborted long ago. In this way she extends the work of an archive, giving us all the chance that I have had: to sit with the manuscript before us, head tilted forward as if in prayer, our pencil hand hovering over a notepad as we try to discern the many layers of this almost lost Charles Williams treasure.

Source: 2017 Mythopoeic Awards Finalists and A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn” by Charles Williams | A Pilgrim in Narnia

There’s more to the original post than just the review of The Chapel of the Thorn, so I urge you to follow the link and read the rest of it as well.

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