2017 Mythopoeic Awards Finalists and A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn” by Charles Williams

The Mythopoeic Award shortlist is out (see here). I’m not often at the same table as the cool kids on the newest and hottest fantasy lit–I’m just now reading Patrick Rothfuss, and wondering what I have done with my life up ’til now. But I do watch the Inklings scholarship award pretty closely. While I’m not certain that every year they pick the absolutely top book of the year, a number of the award-winners have become definitive, including authors that we have mentioned here like Clyde Kilby, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Humphrey Carpenter, Paul Ford, Tom Shippey, Peter Schakel, Joe Christopher, Christopher Tolkien, Doug Anderson, Goerge Sayer, Charles Huttar, David Downing, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Drout, John Garth, Janet Brennan Croft, Diana Glyer, Dimitra Fimi, Michael Ward, and Grevel Lindop, with his recent biography of Charles Williams.

Here are the finalist for this year’s Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies:

  • Lisa Coutras, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle Earth (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016)
  • Sørina Higgins, ed. The Chapel of the Thorn by Charles Williams (Apocryphile Press, 2015)
  • Leslie Donovan, ed. Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works (Modern Language Association, 2015)
  • Christopher Tolkien, ed. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 2014)
  • Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

I am pleased that I have read three of these books. I’ll give you a quick highlight of two of them, and reprint in revised form a review I did of a third. This third book, Sørina Higgins’ publication of a lost book by Charles Williams, confirms the Mythopoeic Awards’ commitment to Inklings studies (and not just Tolkien and friends), as well as their intention to support emerging scholars and archival work.

Tolkien and Beowulf

As part of a recovery of old books happening in culture, there is a desire to read what used to be canonical works. One of these is the text of Beowulf, the manuscript of which I had the chance to show my son last year. In the recovery of Beowulf among the authors that shaped the minds that shaped ours, a lot of people have been curious about Tolkien’s work on the Old English epic. In 1983, Christopher Tolkien published The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, with Tolkien’s famous Beowulf essay and some other pieces. Michael Drout’s publication of the 2002 edited volume, Beowulf and the Critics, fills out this critical work.

It wasn’t until 2014 that most of us finally got to see Tolkien’s full translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s son and editor, Christopher, provided that full text, as well as a lengthy series of notes and three other connected poems. Frequent readers of Beowulf will love to see a new version, and will be curious to see how Tolkien turned theory into translation. Readers who are relatively new to the poem won’t find it quite as readable as some more contemporary translations, but Tolkien’s prose translation retains both the central meaning as well as a textures of culture in the text.

As usual, Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work is superb. The notes include comment after comment that show the struggles J.R.R. Tolkien went through in order to set an appropriate text for translation, and then capture it in modern story form. We also get to see that C.S. Lewis played a role in the draft stages of the translation, once again shattering the false flag myth that Tolkien was impervious to influence (with thanks to Diana Glyer for helping us to think that through). The use of endnotes plus commentary makes for awkward reading in print form and in the ebook. I would have loved to see tri-panelled ebook, page-facing text and notes, or at least a footnote plus commentary approach. But that is about readability: as an artifact and Beowulf resource, this is a big, beefy, important book.

It also has a gorgeous cover design with a Tolkien dragon that will be my second tattoo … if I can ever decide on the first one.

The Zaleskis on the Inklings

This book came out of nowhere for me. Doubtless others knew that a couple of scholars in Britain were working on a significant response to Humphrey Carpenter’s Inklings that would become the gold standard for the next generation of readers. I, however, was clueless. So this book came as a gift.

Eminently readable and carefully researched, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams is a nice balance between strong biography and a resource for Inklings fans to read the works of their favourite author and his closest friends. It is also one of the closest reads of Owen Barfield’s life that I know of. In the way that John Garth filled in Tolkien’s wartime imaginative development, the Zaleskis gave me a better scope of Tolkien’s childhood, Barfield’s middle-aged development, and a core Williams framework for trying to re-imagine his life.

It is true that I did not gain a lot of new information from the C.S. Lewis sections–and I suspect that deep-dive scholars of individual Inklings might feel the same about their particular focus of study. But putting Lewis in conversation with the other three allowed me to flip some of my settled ideas and test them in a new context. I have not yet attempted a side-by-side reading of the Zaleski’s work with Lindop on Charles Williams, but I look forward to the attempt.

We owe Humphrey Carpenter a debt of gratitude for his work as a public intellectual and as a Tolkien and Inklings biographer. But he was very much a Tolkien-first man, and the other Inklings settle in around Tolkien in ways that don’t always strike me as accurate. This book at least offers an alternative view to augment Carpenter’s work and fill out our understanding of this timely group of literary icons.

sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williams

An Unpublished Poem by Charles Williams 

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. I had the opportunity of seeing this mportant and neglected Charles Williams dramatic poem move from archival space to finished book.

The original text is housed at the Wade Centre in Wheaton, IL. By a chance encounter I was working beside Higgins as she began to open up this century-old text with the hope of publishing it Head tilted forward as if in prayer, left hand hovering over a magnifying glass, Higgins worked with Williams’ neat handwriting. It was 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 at times. 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 there is a power struggle 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 that attended the crucified Christ’s brow (or perhaps it is 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 encounter 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 power play at a far deeper level.

This unusual triangle fuels both the poetry and the plot. There are other storylines woven 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 pull us into their own storylines.

old stone church

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.

The 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.

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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16 Responses to 2017 Mythopoeic Awards Finalists and A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn” by Charles Williams

  1. Joe R. Christopher says:

    The Zaleski book has new material on Owen Barfield and it has a powerful description of Charles Williams’ (split?) personality at the end of his description in the center of the book. (I can’t give page citations at the moment because my copy is at home and I’m writing in my office.) I think I caught about three minor slips in facts when I was reading. The proper comparison is to Carpenter’s _The Inklings_. The Zeleskis, however, argue that the Inklings are an important literary group at the level, in a very different way, of the Bloomsbury group (Virginia Woolf et al.), although they say at the end of their book that Bloomsbury’s writings had more polish. (If one wanted to compare _The Lord of the Rings_ and _Mrs. Dalloway_ [perhaps as a point in discussing their literary reactions to World War I or some such topic], I would agree that Woolf’s is more polished of the two in general; but that does not mean Tolkien’s very different style, in a medieval and William Morris tradition, is invalid.)


    • Thanks for filling in some spaces Joe. The Barfield bits were the most helpful to me. I’m still working out Williams as a person, but I’ll get there.
      Is “polished” a strong metric for the production of a group of writings? I love Woolf, but her work is just something quite different. (I know her best of that group)


      • jchristopher2017 says:

        OK, “polished” is a metaphor. In this case, one of the things it means is that _The Lord of the Rings_ begins with a party, an obvious sort of humor, and gradually shifts tone to suspense (the Dark Riders), etc., etc. Woolf begins following the thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway, planning a party (a more sedate sort of party) and retains the same sort of flow of ideas throughout in the episodes involving Mrs Dalloway; Woolf is setting up a contrast of two social worlds after World War I–the war-damaged soldier who commits suicide on the same day, and Mrs Dalloway who is, in her way, creating a period of stability in that world. Throughout Woolf uses the same transition between scenes–the hours struck by Big Ben (“the golden circles dissolved in the air,” if I remember the phrasing). I haven’t read _Mrs Dalloway_ as a whole for probably thirty years, but I picked it off my shelf and re-read the opening pages the other day. Perhaps an interesting comparison would be the Shire after the hobbits return and London after the war (Frodo leaving on the ship = the suicide, etc.). In this case, “=” means “should be compared to.”) I would suggest that Woolf manages smaller but more artistically unified work while Tolkien’s is a sprawling work that attempts to contain a huge world (a whole world war, if you will).


        • jchristopher2017 says:

          Hmm. I rather like the comparison I dashed off. Maybe next spring I can write it more fully as a paper and read it at a meeting somewhere.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Well done! If it may make comparing to choose more difficult (a bit of apples and pears?), it is also delightful that there are both studies and scholarly editions on the list – and pleasing to compare these Inklings scholars in that with the Inklings as scholars – Lewis producer par excellence of studies, and Barfield like him in this, Williams more producer of studies than editions, though there are Evelyn Underhill’s letters as well as (perhaps most notably) The Figure of Beatrice, and Tolkien, perhaps more textual editor (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Ancrene Wisse) than maker of studies – and yet, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, to name but the most famous and influential one!


    • Yeah, I don’t know what the metrics are. If “Thorn” won this year, it would be 2 CW projects in a year, and each radically different.
      I’m reading Figure of Beatrice now (with Dante and Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Dante & CSL book). His first chapter is, I hope, the basic argument. If so, I’m doing okay.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That query did cross my mind – back-to-back CW? – though, indeed, “each radically different.”

        I remember Figure of Beatrice as one flowing excellent thing, probably, indeed, like the Divine Comedy itself as starting so well and then getting better and better as it goes along – so, you’re probably doing okay! I first met CW in all Dorothy Sayers’ quotations from it in her Inferno translation – before I’d ever heard of Lewis, and was not enthusiastic about trying a book that seemed to be about emus and improbable trees (The Hobbit, thanks to the Ballantine 1960s cover illustrator) – but didn’t remember his name or make a connection for a good while after I met him again later as Arthurian poet and amazing novelist.


        • Great story! Emus are definitely a turn-off when you want to read only about trees. Meeting CW through Sayers is really a treat.
          For me, Dante dips in the middle. The Inferno is genius, but I struggle with the Purgatorio.


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