A poetic drama by Charles Williams lost for a century has just been published for the first time, edited by Sørina Higgins. I’m delighted, because The Chapel of the Thorn really is a neglected gem.
Written around 1914, the play, set in the early middle ages, portrays a three-cornered struggle amongst the Church, the Mystic and the Pagan – three forces which were powerful in the early psychology of Charles Williams himself.
Williams would go on to become a successful author of spiritual thrillers – All Hallows’ Eve and The Place of the Lion famous among them; a major poet of the Arthurian mythos; an influential Anglican theologian; and a central member of the Inklings, the group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom were his close friends in the late 1930s and during World War 2. But this play was written much earlier, when he was just setting out as a writer.
The Chapel of the Thorn concerns the struggle for possession of a thorn from Christ’s crown and the chapel where it is housed. The chapel, with its relic the thorn, is guarded by a solitary priest, Joachim, and his young acolyte, Michael. The play depicts a battle between mysticism, represented by Joachim; the Church, represented by the local Abbot, Innocent; and paganism, in the form of Amael, a bard and high priest of the old gods.
Untrustworthy Abbot Innocent wants to wall in the chapel, and take the thorn so it will draw pilgrims to his abbey. Idealistic Joachim, the mystic, believing only in the value of direct communion with God and lacking respect for the church hierarchy, wants to keep the thorn at his humble chapel, and has the local villagers’ promise that they will fight to keep the chapel independent. What Joachim does not know is that the villagers are concerned only because the chapel has been built over the tomb of Druhild, a pagan hero who, they believe, will one day rise from the dead. For their Christianity is only superficial. Their values are represented by Amael, the pagan priest and bard.
The Chapel of the Thorn contains some magnificent verse, and to me its crowning achievement is the vivid imaginative portrayal of the pagan Amael. Here’s a clip of the book launch which includes performance of some of the play’s fine poetry:
Amael represents a heroic and brutal world, and he speaks much of the play’s best poetry. He admits that he has performed human sacrifice:
Twice hath my hand lain over mortal eyes,
While, with the incantation of the Fire,
I struck forth human blood upon the stone!
But he can also be modest:
I am a little dust
Blown from the ruined temples of the gods
And troubled by the feet of the white Christ
When he goes through the land.
He wants to lure away Michael, young acolyte of the Christian mystic Joachim, to join him as a pagan wanderer. He asks:
Is it time in youth
To wait upon white altars? Hark, the gods
Sing at their feasting, not as hermits sing!
We servants of the gods have heard their song,
And some of us are mad with their delight,
And some are lords of ships and raids and fire,
And some have crept into the black bear’s den
With a torch and a spear and slain him: but we all
Are heroes, princes, champions!
The play’s poetry, and its rich, conflicted blend of Christianity and Paganism, shows many of the elements and dynamics which would eventually shape Charles Williams’s major Arthurian poems, written some twenty years later.
For anyone interested in Williams, or in the depiction of mysticism and paganism in the early twentieth century, The Chapel of the Thorn is essential reading. Sørina Higgins’s elegantly-produced edition includes an essay by David Llewellyn Dodds, and a Preface based on material from my forthcoming biography of Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, due later in 2015, which will give the full biographical context of the play and its composition, and suggest why it was abandoned.