The Beatrician experience may be defined as the recovery (in respect to one human being) of that vision of reality which would have been common to all men in respect to all things if Man had never fallen. The lover sees the Lady as the Adam saw all things before they foolishly chose to experience good as evil … The great danger is lest he should mistake the vision which is really a starting point for a goal; lest he should mistake the vision of Paradise for arrival there. He must follow this road till it leads him to the Byzantine precision. … The Beatrician experience does not usually last … The glory is temporary; in that sense Beatrice nearly always dies. But a transitory vision is not necessarily a vision of the transitory. … The phenomenal Beatrice—Beatrice as she is in this fallen world—has for an instant been identical with the real Beatrice—Beatrice as she (and all things) will be seen to be, and always to have been, when we reach the throne-room at Byzantium. The precise moment at which the phenomenal Beatrice loses her identity with the real one is a repetition of the Fall …
—C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” pp. 116-117
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I’ve written a little already about Williams’ Arthurian cycle, contained in the two volumes Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. I’d like to continue my analysis, turning now to his doctrine of romantic love as expressed there.
Doctrine is not too strong a word. Williams was a thoroughgoing Neoplatonist, and considered every earthly good a ‘preparatory form’ of the universal Good, i.e. God. The two ways of communion with God—renouncing earthly goods, like the hermit, or embracing them, like the husband—must both acknowledge their reality and objective good-ness. The hermit may renounce them in his preference for the final reality, but he must not condemn or despise them; the husband may embrace them in legitimate delight, but must not content himself with them as though they could finally deserve his whole worship or satisfaction. And, as many works have been written on ascetic theology, so Williams wrote on romantic theology: the way of the affirmation of images, as asceticism is the way of the renunciation of images.
The Romantic Way experiences its object in a certain mode. This can be a person (like Beatrice for Dante, or in a quite different way, Frodo Baggins for Samwise Gamgee), or a thing (like nature of Wordsworth, a favorite reference point of Williams); its key quality is that all goodness is understood through it and in relation to it. It is a kind of temporary theophany.
Tristan and Isolde [or Iseult], Herbert Draper, 1900
Williams describes Sir Palomides, a Saracen knight who joined the Round Table, meeting Queen Iseult of Cornwall between her husband, King Mark, and her lover, Sir Tristram, and falling in love himself:
I saw the hand of the queen Iseult;
down her arm a ruddy bolt
fired the tinder of my brain
to measure the shape of man again;
I heard the king say: ‘Little we know
of verses here; let the stranger show
a trick of the Persian music-craft.’
Iseult smiled and Tristram laughed.
Her arm exposed on the board, between
Mark and Tristram sat the queen,
but neither Mark nor Tristram sought
the passion of substantial thought,
neither Mark nor Tristram heard
the accent of the antique word.
… Blessed (I sang) the Cornish queen;
for till to-day no eyes have seen
how curves of golden life define
the straightness of a perfect line,
till the queen’s blessed arm became
a rigid bar of golden flame
where well might Archimedes prove
the doctrine of Euclidean love,
and draw his demonstrations right
against the unmathematic night …1
In Iseult’s body, Palomides sees the logic of the universe. Her arm exhibits the Logos to him, the Word of the Father, and to that extent he is momentarily converted: God-made-flesh is a beheld and believed reality.
But neither vision nor belief lasts. The former passes, and the latter is forsaken with it. We experience the fall, the loss of the glory, with a renewal of terror:
In the summer house of the Cornish king
suddenly I ceased to sing.
Down the arm of the queen Iseult
quivered and darkened an angry bolt;
and, as it passed, away and through
and above her hand the sign withdrew.
Fiery, small, and far aloof,
a tangled star in the cedar roof,
it hung; division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.
It’s too familiar. How many couples have we known who’ve broken up, even by the violent, organic schism of divorce, because one or the other is no longer in love? How many times have we ourselves met someone who used to be enchanting, and found them suddenly vacant of that radiance? The contrast is a shock, sometimes to the point of being actively disgusting.2 And Palomides, lacking either habitual grace or the theology of romantic love to guide him through the occlusion of the glory, pursues what little he still perceives:
Relation vanished, though beauty stayed;
too long my dangerous eyes delayed
at the shape on the board, but the voice was mute;
the queen’s arm lay there destitute,
empty of glory …
Cœlius Vibenna over the dead
cast the foul Chthonian spells,
on ghost and bone and what lingers else;
… the Pope in white, like the ghost of man,
stood in the porch of Lateran;
and aloof in the roof, beyond the feast,
I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
where it scratched itself in the blank between
the queen’s substance and the queen.3
None of the knights of the Round Table have been able to capture the Questing Beast. Palomides, who being still unbaptized is not yet eligible for the Table, decides to do so—he becomes obsessed with it.
I determined, after I saw Iseult’s arm,
to be someone, to trap the questing beast
that slid into Logres out of Broceliande
through the blank between the queen’s meaning and the queen.
Having that honour I would consent to be christened,
I would come then to the Table on my own terms …
But things went wrong; Tristram knocked me sprawling
under the tender smile of Iseult; my manhood,
chivalry, and scimitar-play learned from the Prophet,
could not gain me the accurate flash of her eyes.
Once I overthrew Lancelot by cheating at a tourney,
whence, enraged, fleeing, I was taken by pirates;
Lancelot freed me—he rode on to Carbonek;
did I smile when I heard that he my saviour was mad?
For bees buzzed down Iseult’s arm in my brain;
black gnats, whirring mosquitoes …
and I thought if I caught the beast they would cease certainly.
… There would be nothing but to admire the man
who had done what neither Tristram nor Lancelot did.4
Smarting under the loss of Iseult before he has even gained her, and unable to conceive the Dantean road of love as intellectual adoration without carnal consummation, Palomides has attempted the egoïst’s compensation of proving his worth before conceding that worth to others; and, though baptism is oriented to God, in Christendom it is inevitably a concession to one’s fellow Christians as well.
So the Questing Beast is met in the blank between / the queen’s substance and the queen—i.e., in the moment when the meaning of the beloved and her person are perceived as horribly separate—because it is a symbol of ‘the conversion of the Godhead into flesh,’ the theory of the Incarnation which the Athanasian Creed specifically disclaims. It is an attempt to reclaim the Beatrician vision by force: an attempt to make love operate entirely in terms of appetite.
He tries to defeat Tristram and so win Iseult’s love, but is beaten himself; he tries to triumph over Sir Lancelot, the finest of Arthur’s knights, so salvaging his ego, yet he can do so only by cheating, and is then rescued by him—the secret and the public humiliations coïnhere. Neither erotic consummation nor knightly glory is available to him any more. And in pursuing the Questing Beast at all, Palomides rejected the possibility of erotic love as a way of the soul: renouncing carnal enjoyment of the beloved, but remembering the vision of her identity and simply rejoicing in that beauty, maintaining faith in the queen’s substance even when it is obscured by the queen.
This may sound like a fantasy, but minds like Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers all accepted it. The idea that sex is, for a lover, kind of beside the point (however licit and fun it might be) goes right back to the troubadours. They didn’t all agree, but there were those among them for whom the simple contemplation of glory in the beloved was the essential end of courtly love, and everything else was icing. A culture like ours, in which egalitarianism and sexual satisfaction are the basic standards of happiness, is almost unable to believe that somebody could feel that way.5 But the poets and their commentators tell us that it was a real phenomenon—the Divine Comedy is about that very thing—and facts don’t have to be likely or even comprehensible.
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1The Coming of Palomides ll. 35-48, 55-64.
2The disgust may be reasonable: romantic love is no respecter of persons, and can be felt for someone who is, in their phenomenal identity (i.e. the person we meet), ghastly. The next poem in Taliessin, ‘Lamorack and the Queen Morgause of Orkney,’ deals with just such a love—even in the throes of his devotion, Sir Lamorak doesn’t consider Morgause beautiful or good, but he is overpowered by the experience of her nonetheless. But this disgust may also be a mundane result of suddenly seeing the flaws we had formerly missed or deliberately ignored in the excitement of eros; or, it may be an expression of the horror of suddenly lacking the vision of glory that had inhered in the beloved, perhaps mere moments ago.
3The Coming of Palomides ll. 65-69, 76-78, 81-86. Cœlius Vibenna was an Etruscan noble and a friend of Romulus; the Etruscans were notorious sorcerers, and introduced divination by entrails to Rome. Chthonian is a reference to Vibenna’s magic (from the Greek χθών chthōn, ‘deep earth, under-soil’)—gods such as Hades, Persephone, Hecate, and the Furies were chthonic.
The Questing Beast, also called the Blatant Beast or Beast Glatisant in some Arthurian sources, is an interesting, difficult symbol. It is usually depicted similarly to the ancient Egyptian serpopard. The names blatant and glatisant come from archaic words meaning ‘yelping’ or ‘barking’ (glapissant in Old French, while blatant is related to the word bleat). I think the interpretation I’ve provided here is accurate, but I’m sure others are possible.
4Palomides Before his Christening ll. 9-14, 17-26, 28, 31-32.
5‘How are these gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. … Just as, if we stripped the armor off of a mediæval knight or the lace off of a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical to our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honor, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. … But how if these [“lowest common multiples”] are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it …
‘Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honor, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. … To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. … For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being.’ From C. S. Lewis’ Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ pp. 62-64.