It is frequently asserted, by people who ought to know better, that according to Dante the natural perfection for which Virgil stands is sufficient in itself to guide the soul as far as the Earthly Paradise. On the contrary, Dante takes the utmost pains from the very start to make it plain to the reader that this is not so. Even in Hell, Virgil had to be commissioned by Beatrice; even there, he had to invoke powers greater than his own; even there, he could not force the gates of Dis without divine assistance; nevertheless, there he speaks with authority. Here, it is otherwise.
—Dorothy L. Sayers, Introduction to ‘Purgatory’
✠ ✠ ✠
Continuing from my earlier piece on this subject.
Logres, the realm of Arthur, does not achieve its goal; every version of the legend agrees on that, Williams’ own included. For instance, when the Holy Graal was introduced to the mythos,1 a favored few sometimes achieved it—Percival, Bors, Galahad—but most of the knights did not, in any telling, and at least one version even adds the terrible prophecy that When this rich thing goeth about, the Round Table shall be broken. There are literary reasons for this, of course; if all the knights, or even most of them, achieve the Graal, its value as a symbol is diminished. But for Williams there is a deeper significance to this failure, and one that he practically opens his own version of the cycle by suggesting.
In the season of midmost Sophia
the word of the Emperor established a kingdom in Britain …
Carbonek, Camelot, Caucasia,
were gates and containers, intermediations of light;
geography breathing geometry, the double-fledged Logos.
The blind rulers of Logres
nourished the land on a fallacy of rational virtue;
the seals of the saints were broken; the chairs of the Table reeled.
Galahad quickened in the Mercy;
but history began; the Moslem stormed Byzantium;
lost was the glory, lost the power and kingdom.
Call on the hills to hide us
lest, men said in the City, the lord of charity
ride in the starlight, sole flash of the Emperor’s glory.2
Rationality and virtue are of course naturally allied in a worldview like Williams’; and he makes a point of having Taliessin, the chief narrator, visit Byzantium, where the ancient line of imperial shapes / … the Throne of primal order, the zone / of visionary powers reside—the precise, if dazzling, exposition of the inner geometric exactitude of the glory—before he ever visits Broceliande, the great sea-wood of the southwest, which represents the unconscious reaches of man’s mind. What, then, can he mean by speaking of a fallacy of rational virtue?
Two interpretations are possible. One is that, fine Dantean scholar that he was, he was reproducing the doctrine Dante expresses in the persons3 of Beatrice and Virgil, and in the infernal circle of Limbo, in the Divine Comedy. No matter how good and exalted, reason is not the same thing as divine grace, and cannot earn it (that being part of what grace means: it is a gift; it can’t be claimed as a right by any creature). Rational virtue is a good thing, and grace urges us to practice rational virtue. But, because it’s a good thing, virtue is one of the most plausible idols in the world. C. S. Lewis touched on this theme in The Great Divorce when he had his guide say, ‘The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.’ And, we may add, lust and the other appetites are easier idols to smash, since (as a rule) they don’t claim the defense of the conscience, whereas the more dignified idols do.
And the Graal is not only a symbol of divine grace, but a peculiarly fitting symbol of that sacramental economy in which Williams so fervently believed. For a sacramentalist, the Incarnation is the central mystery, the beating heart, of Christianity; the Eucharist, accordingly, is the prime experience of the Incarnation, and the Graal is the supreme artistic symbol of the Eucharist.4 The Holy Graal and rational virtue are not opposed to each other, but the latter cannot achieve the former of its own powers; and apart from grace, rational virtue, maybe more than anything else, is apt to dismiss grace as an unnecessary addition to what it already possesses—not knowing its own tendency to be incurvatus, to decay and break apart into irrational virtue and rational vice,5 and finally into total incoherence. Nor is Williams unaware of the strength of idolatry; he goes almost out of his way to address it:
The Archbishop stayed, coming through the morning to the Mass,
Hast thou seen so soon, bright lass, the light of Christ’s glory?
… The household kneeled; the Lord Balin the Savage moved
restless, through-thrust with a causeless vigil of anger;
the king in the elevation beheld and loved himself crowned;
Lancelot’s gaze at the Host found only a ghost of the Queen.6
That’s one interpretation. But another, which I find more convincing, runs a little differently, and digs deeper into Williams’ attachment to Dante.
Cryptically, as ever, Williams writes of the meeting of Arthur and Guinevere at his crowning as King of the Britons:
So, in Lancelot’s hand, she came through the glow,
into the king’s mind, who stood to look on his city:
the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king?
Thwart drove his current against the current of Merlin:
in beleaguered Sophia they sang of the dolorous blow.
… At the door of the gloom sparks die and revive;
the spark of Logres fades, glows, fades.
It is the first watch; the Pope says Matins in Lateran;
the hollow call is beaten on the board in Sophia;
the ledge of souls shudders, whether they die or live.7
The link to Dante lies in the line, the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king? For Dante answered this question very clearly in his treatise On Monarchy, where he says that the proper operation does not exist for the sake of the essence [the individual being], but vice versa—i.e., a person’s vocation doesn’t exist to give them something to do, but rather they exist to fulfill their vocation.8 And here, at Arthur’s coronation and his betrothal to Guinevere, we already see him thinking of his operation in terms of his own glory, instead of directing himself to the glory of his operation.
This is why there are, in the midst of the heraldic banners, the bright torches, and all the majesty of Camelot, two sudden signs of the final darkness that swallows up Logres in the end. One is referred to the household of the Emperor: In beleaguered Sophia they sang of the dolorous blow; in Byzantium, they are already mourning the decline and fall of Logres that the barbaric honor-code, pride, and intemperance of the knights will bring about. And those things are all rooted in the dreamy, secret egotism of the King—or rather, the King was the one who should have rooted those vices out by both precept and example, and his dreamy egotism is what will keep him from doing so.
The other is briefer and subtler. Mordred was Arthur’s son, but not the son of Guinevere. Before his marriage, Arthur fornicated with Queen Morgause of Orkney—a common enough vice in any age, a harmless one in some ways, but Morgause (unbeknownst to Arthur9) was his half-sister. The incestuous child, Mordred, became as twisted as his parentage; Morgause herself was eventually killed by her eldest son, for adultery with Sir Lamorack. In The Crowning of Arthur, as the procession leads Guinevere to Arthur and one heraldic banner replaces the next, Williams pans up to a window for a moment:
Driving back that azure a sea rose black;
on a fess of argent rode a red moon.
The Queen Morgause leaned from a casement;
her forehead’s moon swallowed the fires,
it was crimson on the bright-banded sable of Lamorack.10
As the King of Logres is crowned and betrothed, Mordred is forming in his mother’s womb. And that mother, the terrible Queen whom he later calls the schism and first strife / of primeval rock with itself, Morgause Lot’s wife (doubtless mindful of the wife of a more ancient Lot), sums up in herself all the vices that will destroy Logres: the pride of the knightly code of honor, the lust that courtly love is rarely quite free of even at its best, and the implacable wrath that drives many even of the heroes toward murder, betrayal, and sacrilege.
And all this because Arthur was considering the kingdom for the king, and not the king for the kingdom. Had he done the latter, he might still have fornicated with Morgause, in ignorance, out of ordinary human weakness; but his repentance might have had the quality of perfect contrition,11 rather than of the baptized yet egotistical soul seeking to avoid hell. But he did not master ‘the golden Ambiguity,’ the paradox that is the principle of the Incarnation—that to give up one’s life is to save it, that obedience is liberty, and that whoever would be great must be the servant of all. Which is understandable. It’s not an obvious lesson; though secretly logical, it isn’t common sense, and though secretly magnificent, it isn’t common decency.
The fallacy of rational virtue is the attempt, not only to cultivate virtue apart from grace, but to cultivate one’s own vocation as if it were one’s own property. Which, logically, makes a nonsense of vocation: Let us rise to the height of God and the Emperor, / let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention. As a gift, vocation cannot be demanded; as a command, vocation cannot be controlled; our joy and peace consists in accepting and pursuing it—better to say, our vocation is our individual joy and peace.
✠ ✠ ✠
1The earlier versions of the Arthurian cycle feature no Graal, only of Arthur fighting the Saxons for the preservation of a Romano-British, Christian kingdom, and Mordred’s subsequent attempt at usurping the throne. The Graal is first known to feature in the matter of Britain in the late twelfth century, in the work of Chrétien de Troyes; its role was expanded in the thirteenth century, which provided the source material for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, arguably the definitive version of the mythos. (The spelling graal instead of grail is an archaism I’m fond of. Williams usually prefers this spelling but is not quite consistent.)
2Prelude I.4-5, 7-9, II.1-9, from Taliessin Through Logres. The name Carbonek refers to that castle from which the journey to the secret resting-place of the Graal departs; Sir Lancelot made it as far as Carbonek, but he was detained there (spiritually, because he put Guinevere before God; literally, because, under a spell, he mistook another woman for Guinevere and slept with her, thus fathering Galahad, and was driven mad when he discovered what he had done), and hence never achieved the Graal.
3I almost wrote characters here, but that isn’t quite right. Dante’s masterpiece was precisely to find actual people who served as ideal symbols for psychological and spiritual facts, without ceasing to be fully themselves. This is part of what makes his poetry so convincing. It may be from St Paul that he drew this, since the Apostle’s allegorization of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 does exactly the same thing.
4As far as I know, anyway. My knowledge of Christian literature has been confined almost entirely to the West.
5Gawaine and Mordred, in general and especially in Williams, serve as good icons of irrational virtue and rational vice respectively. Gawaine is driven entirely by the honor code, to the point of killing his mother Morgause to preserve his family’s reputation, and of revealing the love of Lancelot and Guinevere to Arthur despite the catastrophic consequences for the Round Table and all of Logres; he is prompted to do the latter by Mordred, who is driven only by revenge and ambition, and is willing to manipulate everyone and violate every principle (even marrying his stepmother Guinevere) to get what he wants. This serves as a very neat depiction of the power that rational vice has to control, and eventually destroy, irrational virtue.
6The Star of Percivale ll. 19-20, 33-36, in Taliessin Through Logres. Balin the Savage was the knight who, in a rage, struck the infamous Dolorous Blow, which wounded the Fisher King who served as a guardian of the Graal; because of the mystical connection between the Fisher King and the land, the realm became a wasteland because of the Dolorous Blow, and only the achievement of the Graal could revive it. C. S. Lewis uses the Fisher King as an important motif in That Hideous Strength, though his version of the Dolorous Blow in that context is quite different.
7The Crowning of Arthur, ll. 61-65, 71-75, in Taliessin Through Logres.
8In fact, Williams set the original Latin of this very line as the epigraph to his first Arthurian volume: Unde est, quod non operatio propria propter essentiam, sed hæc propter illam habet ut sit.
9In some tellings, Morgause did know it. Malory has them both ignorant; I don’t know what Williams’ take on the matter was.
10Argent, azure, fess, and sable are technical terms in heraldry: argent is white (which is treated as equivalent to silver), azure is blue, and sable is black, while a fess is a horizontal band across the center of a coat of arms.
11Perfect contrition is contrasted in Catholic theology with imperfect contrition. Perfect contrition mourns sins because they deprive us of communion with God; imperfect contrition repents because of the ugliness of sin, or even out of the bare fear of damnation. Of course, perfect and imperfect contrition mix in our hearts all the time, though most of us probably experience imperfect contrition more often and to a greater degree.