A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn,” a lost Charles Williams play by Sørina Higgins

Brenton Bodleian MugshortLibraries are sacred spaces. I have had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to some of these storied cathedrals. I sat in contemplation at the Edwin W. Brown Collection at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, not even sure what I would find. I traveled the 20 hours to New York to work with the original handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters in the Berg Collection at the Public Library. At General Theological Seminary in New York I went through The Guardian, years 1941-45, reading C.S. Lewis’ publications of Screwtape and The Great Divorce, and watching for readers’ comments. New York is an amazing town.

I spent a couple of days at the Toronto Public Library where they host the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. It has all those old SciFi magazines and paperbacks, but also the research notes of Margaret Atwood, and a full collection of the Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. The Gladstone Library in North Wales is completely silent, save the squeak of its 19th century floorboards. Dr. Vidler was warden of Gladstone—then St. Deiniol’s—in the 1940s. He was also the editor of Theology, a journal that Lewis wrote for at that time. In 1946, Lewis donated 20£ to the library, and I’m glad. In my mind, there are few places more congenial to research than Gladstone’s.

I was one of the first timid researchers to make his way into the new Bodleian manuscript reading room in Oxford. They retrieved the C.S. Lewis letters and manuscripts I was looking for—they were being housed in a salt mine—and I spent the days bent over the desk, squinting at Lewis’ tight handwriting. I saw his teenage writing, determined and precocious. And I saw the hesitation marks in A Grief Observed, the story of Lewis’ experience after his wife’s death At one moment I wondered if there was a hint of pipe smoke in the pages of some old letters to his friends.

Marion Wade Center frontThere is perhaps no greater contrast to the immensity of the Bodleian or the Victorian antiquity of Gladstone’s than the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College, Illinois. Specifically not grand or old, the Wade is “homely”—in all the senses that the Inklings came to feel for that word. While its collection is more modest than Gladstone’s or the Bod’s, its focus on the Inklings makes it an irreplaceable resource for fans and researchers of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. Add a hospitable and knowledgeable staff to the hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of other resources, and you will discover that the Wade is the Lewisian camino on the American continent. As Inklings palmer’s often say: my life changed at the Wade.

So while I love making these pilgrimages, budget, time, and distance make the trek difficult. Most of us lack the resources or mobility to get to the archives we want to see the most. I am always thrilled, then, when researchers and editors can open up these archives for the world by publishing long lost manuscripts.

sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williamsI had the opportunity of seeing this work in progress with an important and neglected Charles Williams dramatic poem. 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.

The original text is housed at the Wade. By a chance encounter I was working beside Higgins as she began to open up this century old text toward publication. Head tilted forward as if in prayer, left hand hovering over a magnifying glass, Higgins worked with Williams’ neat handwriting—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. 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 writingThe 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 the power structures are 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 on the crucified Christ’s brow, or perhaps 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 environment for others.

old celtic cross mossThe 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 play of a far deeper power.

This unusual triangle fuels both the poetry and the plot. There are other storylines weaved 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 draw 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.

old stone churchThe 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.

Williams, Charles. The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem. Ed. Sørina Higgins. With Grevel Lindop and David Llewellyn Dodds. Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2014. 147 pages.


Note of disclosure: As is normal for reviewers, I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. While I was quite at liberty to give any review I wanted—and have given negative reviews—I was already a positive reader of The Chapel of the Thorn. I was privileged to see the original text, to read the transcript in revision form, and to check for edits on a holography form. I am also friends with editor Sørina Higgins, who is also editor of The Inklings and King Arthur, a forthcoming volume for which I am providing a chapter.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn,” a lost Charles Williams play by Sørina Higgins

  1. Reblogged this on Liturgical Credo and commented:
    I recently purchased my own copy of “The Chapel of the Thorn,” and I intended to read it and write a review this summer. Meanwhile, here’s an interesting review from A Pilgrim in Narnia:

    Like

  2. Wow, you’re so fortunate to have been able to see some of Lewis’ original manuscripts! **** jealous! 😉 ****

    Thanks for the heads up on Williams rediscovered play. I just placed it on my Amazon wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, this is right up your wooded path, I think. The poetry in Williams’ Arthuriad is better–and the backstory more complex–but I was at ease with “Thorn.” Not perfectly easy, of course, but it opened me up to his more difficult work.

      Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Yes – well said: “she extends the work of an archive, giving us all the chance that I have had: to sit with the manuscript before us” and ” to read a second time” and as often as we like, freed from the characteristic restraints of time-pressure which usually haunt such wonderful archive visits!

    Fine, too: “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?”

    It comes home to me, being able to read it so handily, how, in this, it resembles the next really big creative work he produced, 13 years later – his first novel, Shadows of Ecstasy (though it only got published after several others and after revision): “a book that re-begins a delayed conversation,” indeed!

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    • Good point about “time.” I’m always rushed at these archives–except at Gladstones, which was a familiarization visit and refreshingly relaxed. At the Berg I only had 4 hours! One day I had 2 hours at the Wade.
      I haven’t read Shadows of Ecstasy. I will find it.
      I’m glad that you and Lindop contributed, creating a small omnibus (tinybus?) of the Thorn conversation.

      Like

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  6. What an absolutely wonderful post, thank you so much for writing all this out. I’ll have to get myself a copy of this!

    Liked by 1 person

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