Review: The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932).

Summary: An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards.

Charles Williams is known as one of the members of the Inklings who wrote supernatural fantasy thrillers. Lesser known was his interest in the occult arts, particularly through the influence of A. E. Waite and his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. This work reflects some of those interests, centered around the Tarot.

Lothair Coningsby, an English civil servant of undistinguished refinement, inherits a small legacy from a friend including various packs of cards. Among them is a most unusual early set of Tarot cards representing the Greater Trumps, a suit of twenty-two cards. As it happens, his daughter Nancy is deeply in love with Henry Lee, a descendant of Gypsies, whose grandfather, Aaron is a master who has devoted his life to the studies of occult mysteries. In his home is an inner sanctum with a gold table on which the figures of the Greater Trumps are arranged in the dance. When Henry sees the cards he realizes that they are the exact visual counterparts of the statues on his grandfather’s table. To bring the cards together with the statues would be to unleash great power, and great insights into the mysteries of the universe.

Henry explains their powers to Nancy:

“It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance.”

There is only one problem. Coningsby will not part with the cards. So Henry and his grandfather invite the Coningsbys to spend the Christmas holidays. This includes not only Lothair and Nancy, but also Sybil, the most spiritually centered, who seems to have a mystical communion with the world about her, and brother Ralph, a young man who lives in a common-sense, practical world. Coningsby reluctantly brings the cards and permits them to be tested in the presence of the figures, which come to life in a glorious dance. When Coningsby continues to withhold the cards, Henry determines to “borrow” the cards, and use them to whip up a super cyclonic snow storm to strand Lothair, out for his Christmas walk, and bring about his death.

He succeeds in whipping up the storm, but Nancy catches him in the act, disrupting his efforts, but also the power to end the storm. Lothair is saved when Sybil braves the storm, and with the help of Henry’s half-crazed Aunt Joanna, brings him back to the house. But this is only a temporary respite as the unleashed powers behind the snow storm threaten the destruction of the house, and all those in it.

Is there a power greater than that unleashed by the cards? When arcane knowledge cannot save, is there anything else that can? Nancy, Sybil, and even Lothair and Henry choose in different ways to lay down their lives. Will they succeed, and what will happen to them in the process? What will happen to crazed Joanna, and will she find the lost child?

Like William’s other works, seemingly unremarkable people in an ordinary English village and manor house become caught up supernatural events reflecting unleashed spiritual powers in a sequence of fantastic and sometimes bizarre events (like the gold cloud). Christians who have reservations reading about the “occult” may decide this work is not for them. Yet what Williams portrays is both the perils of the pursuit of spiritual power and hidden knowledge, and the greater power of love.

Review: The Fellowship

The FellowshipThe FellowshipPhilip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015.

Summary: This traces the literary lives of the four principle Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams) the literary club they formed and its impact on literature, faith, and culture.

This is a magnificent book for any Inklings lover! It serves at one and the same time as a quadruple biography of the four principle Inklings and traces the formation, life and impact of this literary gathering of scholars (all men) and their wider impact on many others, including women like Dorothy L. Sayers.

As biography, it brings to life these four figures as well as biographies I’ve read on any individual Inkling. Lewis has been written on the most, and yet I thought the Zaleskis teased out more about his relationship with Warnie (who submerged his own career to a certain degree for that of his brother, and who in turn was cared for by Lewis as he struggled with alcoholism), as well as Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. We see Tolkien as a deeply devout Catholic often concerned over the spiritual lives of his sons, and his lifelong struggle to bring forth the tale of Middle Earth. We learn of Owen Barfield’s obsession with anthroposophy, and the often affectionate, sometimes not relationship with Lewis as his most significant sparring partner (he later, for a time, had an influence on the American writer, Saul Bellow). And last, we learn of the mystical romantic Charles Williams, the Oxford University Press editor who wrote “supernatural shockers” and had “interesting” though chaste relationships with a number of women attracted to his romantic vision, and whose early death in 1945 was deeply grieved by Lewis.

We also learn of the formation and inner life of this all-male discussion group. Serious discussions occurred on Thursday evenings, usually in Lewis’s rooms in Oxford. Often these consisted of the reading and critique of works in progress. It was here that Barfield’s works on language, Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Tolkien’s Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring first made the light of day. If it weren’t for the encouragement of this group, as well as Tolkien’s publisher, this latter work may never have been published during Tolkien’s lifetime. More informal conversations took place on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and Baby” as it was known) and was marked by rollicking male laughter and repartee. It was also fascinating to see the critical role Williams, one of the later to join, had on the vitality of this group. When he died, something died among them as well and the gatherings began to dwindle.

We also have briefer portraits of other Inkling members: theatrical producer and Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill, biographer Lord David Cecil, poet and scholar Adam Fox, the classicist Colin Hardie, and the scholar, who along with Tolkien labored for Lewis’s return to Christian faith, Hugo Dyson. There are others as well, like novelist John Wain, and those not in the circle, but who contributed and were inspired as well, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Sister Penelope Lawson.

The Zaleskis also explore key episodes in the lives of these different figures. Perhaps most striking was Lewis’s debate with Elizabeth Anscombe. The Zaleskis are more nuanced than some, seeing this both as a serious challenge to Lewis’s ideas on Miracles (he later re-wrote portions in response) and yet not as the utterly devastating setback to his apologetics that turned him to writing children’s stories. They observe that he continued to publish numerous articles on apologetic themes and that the greater concern for Lewis was the effect of apologetic argument on the soul of the apologist.

What was most significant to me was the tale of how this informal gathering sparked literary scholarship, literature in a variety of genre, and for Lewis to a greater extent, and others to a lesser, a Christian intellectual presence at Oxford. This did not so much seem by design, but rather the recognition of these men in each other a vision for such things that they fueled and refined through their weekly discussions. I think of other such groups, like the “Clapham Sect” who gathered around William Wilberforce and brought about both religious renewal and social reforms including the abolition of slavery in early nineteenth century England. What particularly marked the Inklings, it seems to me, was a combination of intellectual rigor and personal affection (sometimes tried and tested) that contributed both significant scholarly work (such as Lewis’s preface to Paradise Lost, or Barfield’s work on language and poetic diction) and works of great popular impact.

This is a book to be savored both by Inklings lovers and a newer generation that may wonder about the world that gave us the likes of Lewis and Tolkien. It is sympathetic without indulging in hagiography. It is real about the shortcomings of the principle Inklings without descending into a hatchet job on their lives. In it we see mere humans (and some mere Christians) whose fellowship birthed an ethos and enduring works that have touched the lives of many.