Shadows of Shadows of Ecstasy: An Irresponsible Suggestion about Charles Williams’ First Novel

With Relief…

I have rarely been as relieved to complete a novel as Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams. I knew very little about it going in, but wanted to read through his seven “supernatural potboilers” over the next year or so. All Hallows Eve and The Place of the Lion were weird, but brilliant, and War in Heaven was a fun Arthurian romp. Williams’ poetry is difficult and often obscure, but it is always beautiful and evocative. Shadows of Ecstasy was painful to read, occasionally confusing, and obviously filled with a kind of meaning that I found far from obvious.

Despite that, I think it is one of Williams’ most important works.

I have not yet read most of Grevel Lindop’s definitive biography of Williams, or Sørina Higgins’ work on Shadows of Ecstasy at the Oddest Inkling. So it is absolutely irresponsible of me to give the conjecture that I’m about to offer. Still, I wanted to offer it while it is fresh in my mind and I am absolutely naïve of what critics have said about this book.

The Summary (if you can summarize a CW novel)

Shadows of Ecstasy is about a modern-day immortal, Nigel Considine, who has made himself impervious to decay through a psychical and physiological regime of some kind. With this power in place, along with a kind of all-pervasive hypnotic hold and an uncanny sense of the future and an almost perfect reading of human nature, Considine decides to take over the world. He enthralls Africa—yes, the whole continent!—causing the overthrow of colonial European power and an imminent attack on Europe and Great Britain.

We meet this man through a group of London friends, including a famous knighted medical researcher who loves irony, his skeptical nephew, a priest whose heart and belief in ritual are better than his theology, a poet struggling to exist after the age of poets has ceased, the poet’s self-giving wife, and her sister whom I don’t understand. The group is drawn together when they rescue an African man on a London street when the continent is under threat by Black Africa. The rescued man, Inkamasi, turns out to be a Zulu king, partly under the spell of Considine, who helped to usurp Inkamasi’s throne.

Unlike good Scooby gangs, this one splintered upon the revelation of Considine’s power. The priest thinks he’s antichrist, the poet thinks he’s embodied poetry, the poet’s wife knows he will take her husband away, the doctor’s son thinks he’s a business threat, and Sir Bernard, the doctor, seems to get lost in the endless loops of ironies. In order to resist the temptation to become a Christian—in Screwtapian logic, if there’s a devil there must be a God—Sir Bernard spends the last half of the novel serving tea and bread to refugees and acting as a chauffeur when needed.

Weird, I know, but that’s not a radical plotline for Charles Williams. A bit mundane actually. However, riots, international intrigues, plots, murder, rituals, butchered martyrs en masse, submarines, a lecture, and a game of cards fill in the details with Williams’ borderline stream of consciousness prose that was popular in his circle in the 1920s-early 1930s, when he first wrote the novel.

Considine and the Death and Resurrection

I want to set aside the sheer offensiveness and racism within this novel; I might return to that again. This book really is about the nature of death and resurrection and its relationship to poetic-religious ecstasy. To achieve Considine’s state of immortality, one must die and fight one’s way back to life (I think). Here’s an example of a conversion in the novel:

“I will go down to death and come again living,” the [proselyte] said.

Considine’s eyes searched him long in silence: then he said slowly,

“You may not come again.”

“Then let me die in that moment,” the other cried out. “That’s nothing; it doesn’t matter; if I fail, I fail. But it’s not by dreaming of failure that the master of death shall come.” (83-4).

Considine is an imposing figure, speaking very truthfully in the book about the futility of much in this world and about the spiritual path beyond the things of this world. In many ways, this could look like the personification of Christ’s self-giving in to the cross—and I think that Williams does allow that tension to remain in play. But Considine is a parody of this death and resurrection. He calls himself the “Master of Death” (152), with the mission of abolishing death and mortality. The thralldom of Inkamasi shows that Considine is gathering slaves. Utlimately, the people of Africa are sent to war as a sacrifice to Considine, the Master of Death, the Undying One.

The crux of the matter is that Considine is only interested in victory (173). As the Undying one, then, he is only interested in himself. Though he has died and found his way back to life, offering a pathway to the second evolution of humanity, it is not death that leads to life. True resurrection comes from self-death, the leaving aside of the self, the giving in to defeat. Though Considine does not learn this lesson for himself, his end is structured on this same principle, so that the heroic centre of the novel switches from Considine to Inkamasi, the Zulu King denied his throne. In the end, one must drink a bitter cup of gall for the sake of the world and Considine will not do so voluntarily.

To Williams’ credit, his character of the poet gives us such a sympathetic view of Considine that his evil is slow to emerge in the narrative. Alternating between absurdity and boring prose, Williams shows in his first attempt of novel-writing that he has the skill to handle tension.

My Irresponsible Proposal

My proposal—irresponsible as it is—is actually a relatively simple one. One of the creepy things about reading Williams is that he seems so very close to an understanding of power: there is almost a delight in the ritualization of evil in his novels, an understanding that comes from experience, I think. In Shadows of Ecstasy, the hallowed space of tension is actually the man, Considine, rather than a particular object. That man is where the power is, and he is also the base of evil. In Shadows of Ecstasy, Williams seems to have a fascination for Considine like he has for objects of power in other books.

My proposal, then, is that Charles Williams knew Nigel Considine in his real life.

Perhaps, as a guess, Considine was A.E. Waite, founder of the occult group, Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Williams was a member of the FRC and a proselyte of Waite’s until the late 1920s. Williams knew Waite well; that characterization placed in the framework of a world dominating monomaniac is not a large stretch. Considine might be Waite, or another occult figure Williams knew of. Or—and this is a frightening suggestion—Considine might be Williams himself:  provided the engine of power was as real in his own life as it is in Shadows of Ecstasy, Considine might be the vision of what Williams knew his heart was capable of.

If that’s the case, it may be that his move away from the FRC in the late 1920s was intentional—that he tried to escape that world of power and myth. Or it could be that Shadows of Ecstasy is a villainizing of some parts of that past. Or—and I think this is the critical point—it could be that Considine’s power is a fictionalized version of psycho-spiritual power that Williams possessed through ritualized relationships (either in his occult groups or in the fellowships that he created). After all, Williams’ real life ritualistic power play continued in his relationships with women in his circle into the 1930s. He may have rejected the victory-centric parody of the cross in Considine on principle, but he had his own thralls and required self-giving love of others in a way that Considine does.

Perhaps it was the power that he could never escape, a temptation that he sought to overcome.

Or, perhaps Charles Williams is like Considine, “who was an entire mythology about himself” (222). I have always suspected that, unlike Dante and his Beatrician vision that Williams respected so much, the modern poet and lover of the hallows Charles Williams got lost in his own mythology.

This is, of course, a terribly egregious application of the Personal Heresy (using the poetry to psychologize the poet). But I have always felt like I was getting to know Charles Williams from his books. And each book I read made that acquaintance more intimate, more fascinating, and more troubling.

If I am right, it is like some other critic–a responsible one–has made the link. There are other options, though. I may be misunderstanding the book. I may be making a link between life and art that is unwarranted. Williams might have been quite okay and I’ve misunderstood the scraps of biography that are in my mind. I will read Grevel and Sørina’s work and perhaps retract my thoughts.

But I suspect, unfortunately, I am not far from wrong, and that Shadows of Ecstasy is a self-revelation of the power that Charles Williams held within in his chest and its difficult relationship with his Christian faith. I cannot help but thinking that, like Considine, Williams was a powerful man lost within his own mythology.

This may have been a painful book to read, but it was an important one.

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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60 Responses to Shadows of Shadows of Ecstasy: An Irresponsible Suggestion about Charles Williams’ First Novel

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    Brenton, Thank you for your bold venture into “Shadows of Ecstasy.” It is indeed a disturbing but very important novel. When I met Michal Williams in 1967 she told me that my article (just published that year) had helped her understand it. (But I realized at the time that that might have been blarney born of her kindness.) Anyway, your plot summary was nicely done, given your necessary commitment to brevity, though I am curious what you see as deficient in the priest’s theology. And I think it’s possible to fling around the charge of “racism” too glibly. I like very much what you say about Inkamasi’s heroism. And you put your finger nicely on Considine as a parody of Christ. I never put it that way, but I think you are right. The key to the parody is that he lacks love: “only interested in himself.” Your “irresponsible suggestion” bothered me at first — my thought was that biographical speculation is just a too-tempting byway, often a trail that leads nowhere; what we have is the TEXT — but then when you admitted it smacks of the Personal Heresy and nevertheless went on, my criticism was defanged. I felt it did lead somewhere.
    By all means read Lindop and Higgins. And I wonder if you have run across my 1986 article. (David Dodds, you may recall my presenting that paper at the Inklings Gesellschaft meeting in Duisburg that year.) A good part of what I had in mind there was CW’s “skill in handling tension.” Your phrasing, Brenton, gives that idea a nice twist. —- Charles

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Like Charles Huttar, above, I too published an essay on _Shadows of Ecstasy_; mine, in one of the last issues of the Charles Williams Society’s journal. (I also read a second paper on the book, but I’ve never gotten around to polishing it for publication. One of these years…) If you want to avoid the personal heresy as a way into the book, consider Williams’ comment after reading one of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu books: I could do better than that. Consider Considine as a Fu Manchu figure, African rather than Chinese. In the first version of Williams’ novel, I conjecture in one of my essays, that Considine was meant to be the mulatto son of the English doctor and an African woman (Williams refers to in a letter to his publisher about dropping Mrs. Considine, if I remember correctly). Sorry to be inexact in my references, but I don’t have time just now to recheck things.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      We old members ought to see if we can encourage whoever – the webmaster? – to add the rest of the issues of the Charles Williams Society Quarterly to the very handy and extensive archive on the Society website!

      Yours was a very interesting essay, not least as to considering Williams’s first three novels written taken together as analogous to the Dr. Fu Manchu series with respect to a possible evil world-wide network and megalomaniacal conspiracy (if I may so put it). I’d like to have your essay (and, for that matter, my response to some of its points in the next issue, i think it was) out there, widely available.

      (Any chance of your still polishing up the second paper for publication? – I’d like to read it, too!)


      • I would love access to the CW quarterly papers without the 3000km trip to Wheaton.
        And, as I mention above, I appreciate more experienced scholars popping in. A great discussion!
        I have been working on my Fu Manchu moustache, but it isn’t working. And I’m not sure that Considine is exactly that kind of genius–the occult is all over him. Antichrist is a better antetype than Fu Manchu.
        Joe, the background you mention sounds reasonable.


        • Yewtree says:

          Brenton, with respect, I think that’s a very Christian take on the occult.

          The occult simply means “the hidden causes of things” — the underlying psychological, spiritual, and yes magical, dynamics of the inner world. (Deep magic from before the dawn of time, and all that.)

          I don’t think AE Waite was the model for Considine, For one thing, the reason Waite split from the Golden Dawn and formed his own occult order, was that he wanted something more explicitly Christian. My impression of him from reading a biographical account was that he was actually a rather boring and pedantic individual – very far from being a Svengali type.

          If there was a real-life model for Considine, I should think it was Aleister Crowley. Lots of people sacrificed themselves (not to death, but in other ways) for Crowley, and he was an exact contemporary of Williams. Of course Crowley was a fascinating and complex character who cannot be so easily dismissed; but he’s much more likely to have been the model for Considine.


          • Howdy, I saw this notification and your blog on May-books. You may well be right. I don’t have enough of the history and am too far away from the text to really respond adequately. I don’t know if Williams really knew Crowley well enough, and you could be right about Waite. What I am interested in is the power dynamic: There was an interest, for Waite, in power. I just don’t know enough of the inside of that to say more than my (irresponsible) suggestion!
            I am moving on to Many Dimensions soon, though.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Charles A Huttar says:

              In his *Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration” (2008), p. 129, Gavin Ashenden writes of *Shadows of Ecstasy*: “. . . highly colored in alchemical imagery and driuven by a rathwr primitive admiration for an adeptship . . . .” More to the present point, perhaps, earlier in the book he devotes a whole chapter to the influence of A. E. Waite. I wonder if that would shed any light on the question that b Yewtree raised.


            • Yewtree says:

              Certainly Williams was fascinated by power. I am not sure about Waite in that regard. I just think Crowley was sufficiently notorious and contemporary with Williams to be a potential model for Considine.

              I shall be interested to read your review of Many Dimensions. It’s very intense. I read it and Shadows of Ecstasy on the flight over to Ireland so that was pretty full on immersion in Williams!

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Charles Huttar says:

    Joe, I’m sorry I missed your article in the CWS Newsletter. Interesting speculations! But like you, I am too much engrossed in other things (in my case, Lewis studies) to have time to pursue these quarries, except as a sometime commenter. Which brings me to another idea I’ve thought of. I’d be glad to see someone on this list take up a comparison between Considine and Williams’s other Faustian figure, Simon the Clerk. Does the contrast tell us anything about CW’s journey from 1925 to 1945? Of course, as you say, we don’t know what was in the 1925 version. All we have is what was published several years later, after probably extensive revision.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It is very tantalizing and frustrating that we don’t know more about the changes to this, Williams’s first novel written (in 1925), when he finally prepared it for publication as his fifth to appear. Mrs. Hadfield seems to have gotten onto some details about all this, for her second book about Williams, from its publisher, Victor Gollancz’s, daughter. But I have never had any success trying to get in touch with Gollancz with respect to what may still be in their archives. It sounded at one point like Grevel Lindop might be headed for more success, so there may be something he knows, but had to choose to leave out, in bringing his biography to shape and length for publication – or perhaps the trail went cold on him, too. I don’t know what may be lurking in Mrs. Hadfield’s papers (note the “Catalog Papers List” at the Williams Society website), but it might be worthwhile combing through them with this in mind, for someone with time and opportunity.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. salooper57 says:


    I appreciated this post and the way you approached it – the admission that you were engaging in “The Personal Heresy” and that your conclusions were speculative by nature. You let us know you were thinking aloud, and invited other friends (students) of Lewis and the Inklings to think along with you.

    I also appreciated your use of the word “disturbing” to describe “Shadows of Ecstasy.” I have read the novel two or three times over the last three decades and, each time, have felt disturbed. I’ve felt like a boy who knows he shouldn’t look at pornography but can’t help himself. The novel feels like a temptation to engage in something morally compromising.
    The most disturbing thing about “Shadows of Ecstasy,” which you have hit upon perfectly, is Williams himself. Where does he stand in all this? Does he approve of Considine? Does he, like his characters, idolize him? He certainly does not clearly disapprove of him. With other things we know about Williams (his fascination and even participation in the occult, for example), I am left feeling uneasy.

    If you are right, and Considine is in some sense a projection of Williams, I would suggest that the same thing could be said of the Archdeacon in (my favorite Williams’ novel), “War in Heaven.” Considine seems to me to be the anti-Archdeacon. Considine steals the world and pulls it into himself; the Archdeacon revels in the world and gives himself for it. Considine lusts for power; the Archdeacon strives for submission. Considine controls his followers; the Archdeacon brings out the best in his friends. Considine has no sense of humor; the Archdeacon positively bubbles with mirth.

    The contrasts could go on and on. Could it be that Williams – knowing the unusual power he seemed to possess – could see both Considine and the Archdeacon in himself? That the Anglican Williams longed to gain the kind of power over himself and submission to his Lord that the Archdeacon had, while the occultist Williams felt the temptation to gain power over others and experience an exaltation in himself?

    I’m just thinking out loud here. I appreciate your post and Charles’s response.


    • I very much enjoyed salooper57’s comment on your excellent piece. My own Charles Williams reading this summer has been The Greater Trumps and I know what you mean when you speak of feeling relieved when you get to the end. Actually in the case of TGT I felt frustrated too. Some sort of coda that would have resolved the stories of the main characters (at least to some degree) would have helped me a lot.
      What reading Williams always does to me is to undermine my sense of reality as being ordinary. I think that you are right when you say that he knew power and the temptation of power which is to enthrall, enslave others. I also agree with salooper57 in his delightful reflection on the character of the archdeacon in War in Heaven. When I read that I found myself clinging onto him as an island of sanity in a world of shifting sand. I wish that I had met more archdeacons like him.
      I too would like you to say more about the priest’s theological lackings. I have not yet read the book so cannot comment. I am not sure that I can read too much Williams at one time but I will read it eventually.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Hey, anthropogenic climate change resulting in the heat-death of the planet averted at the end of The Greater Trumps, what more do you want? 😉 But you are right to want more, and I think he has provided it, but leaves us to tease it out for ourselves, a bit. Tantalizingly (I hope) summarizing while avoiding spoilers, one could say – all to varying but substantial degrees – three murderously power-mad characters delivered from their distinctive forms of madness; an old father delivered from his fears; his children brought further in the proper actualization of their (Christian) potential – and, incidentally, a very big question mark seeming set on the use of Tarot cards for ‘fortune telling’. (The aunt seems to me very like a female equivalent of Archdeacon Davenant in many respects – and, it suddenly occurs to me, perhaps in being that, a playful counterblast to all sorts of devastating strong-willed aunts in Wodehouse’s fiction and elsewhere.)

        Liked by 2 people

        • Charles Williams as a response to PG Wodehouse. I love the thought. And will enjoy pondering a meeting between Aunts Dahlia, Agatha and the wonderful aunt in The Greater Trumps.
          Thank you too for your other suggestions for reflection.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            “And will enjoy pondering a meeting between Aunts Dahlia, Agatha and the wonderful aunt in The Greater Trumps.”

            Maybe there should be a writing competition, somewhere…

            Liked by 1 person

      • “What reading Williams always does to me is to undermine my sense of reality as being ordinary.” Right on. That is a gift.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Shayne, yes, you got what I was doing: using the genre of the blog to think out loud in a way we can’t do in academic spaces. And I the responses have been pretty strong. Excellent linkages with the Archdeacon. It’s a link I hadn’t made.


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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow, what a great post – and a lot of great comments by the rest of you, working things out, further!

    I agree with Charles Huttar that it is interesting to compare this novel (as we have it) with the last novel Williams finished, All Hallows’s Eve, and, in particular, the villains and Williams’s handling of them, and it would be good to see people doing that in print.

    I would also suggest it is interesting to compare with Williams’s last great completed ‘story’ which preceded it, “The Chapel of the Thorn” (1912) – which, after some dozen years, he had been taking up again with an eye to revising for publication not so very long before embarking on this novel.

    Something not unlike what you say in observing, “To Williams’ credit, his character of the poet gives us such a sympathetic view of Considine that his evil is slow to emerge in the narrative”, might be said of “The Chapel of the Thorn”, where there is equally not a character of the clarity of Archdeacon Julian Davenant, and we are left to ‘wrestle’ more and tease out just what’s going on, spiritually and morally.

    I think you are right that “in Shadows of Ecstasy, Considine might be the vision of what Williams knew his heart was capable of.” We might here compare Chesterton revealing through self-reflective observations by his Father Brown his own awareness of his – and one’s – sinfulness, in some sense the scope of what one is (somehow, variously) tempted to, and in some sense capable of (without muddleheaded false equivalences or paralysis or despair). I think, the character most like Williams in this novel is Roger, the poet and academic lecturer – and this brings out the sharpness of Willams’s own temptations,especially in the ending. But Williams also presents Isabel, Roger’s wife, and Inkamasi, as seeing more clearly (though there are, to me, astonishing and infuriating things about each of them, in how they decide to behave in certain particulars: but this may be quite ‘legitimate’ as well as deliberate on Williams’s part).

    If I read the sentence correctly, I think you are mistaken in one detail. You write, ” Though he has died and found his way back to life, offering a pathway to the second evolution of humanity, it is not death that leads to life.” This seems to suggest that he has succeeded in not only prolonging his life for centuries, but has also “died and found his way back to life”. But that is not so – that is something he aspires to, egocentrically and anthropocentrically, for himself and humanity, but (as in the dialogue you quote) encourages and lets others try it, first and instead. There are fascinating glimpses here and in All Hallows’ Eve that both he and Simon Leclerc reinterpret Gospel history as a failed experiment worth improving on – Joseph and/or Jesus seen as ‘operators’ aspiring to a certain ‘work’, and failing, where Considine and Leclerc mean to succeed.

    It is interesting to think what would happen if the chap you quote in the dialogue or another or Considine himself did succeed. What would the result be like? One of the raisings from the dead by Elijah, Elisha, Our Lord Jesus, Sts. Peter, Paul – a renewed extended earthly life, as of, e.g., Lazarus? Or would they be impervious to dying again, to destruction – or nearly so? Would they, indeed, be much more like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (minus needing to drink blood, etc.)? Whatever they achieved by whatever ‘transformations of energy’, it would not be like the transformation of the cosmos achieved by the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.

    But, there is something perhaps relevant which I have not paused to reread, Williams’s treatment in Witchcraft (1941) of self-consciously Christian alchemists historically not only trying to achieve longevity, like the real Nicholas Flamel (of whom J.K. Rowling makes such interesting fictional use), but to achieve ‘the Body of the Resurrection’ (if I remember aright).

    So, there are historical realms of self-consciously Christian (might we say) ‘alchemical creepiness’. And this is where I have my Willamsy worries. As you well say, “He may have rejected the victory-centric parody of the cross in Considine on principle, but he had his own thralls and required self-giving love of others in a way that Considine does.” He may have considered there to be a ‘proper’ sort ‘transformation of (sexual) energy’ in contrast to that imagined of Considine, involving freely consenting self-giving ‘slaves’. As far as I can see, anything practical in this direction began after the first draft of this novel.

    I don’t know what the Canadian interlibrary loan possibilities are, but you might be interested in reading the sort of semi-roman-à-clef, The Marriage-Craft (1924), by one of his best friends, Daniel Howard Sinclair Nicholson, which is very much concerned with transformations of sexual energy, with characters corresponding to Williams and his wife, Nicholson and his (I think mistress rather then wife) and their mutual best (bachelor) friend, the Rev. Arthur Hugh Evelyn Lee, who (however this came about) in the novel has the name by which he was nicknamed in real life, ‘Henry’. (Tangentially, I suspect more play with this is The Greater Trumps where one character is named Henry Lee and his uncle is named Aaron Lee – i.e., ‘Aaron’ as naming a priest: cf. George Herbert’s poem.) Grevel Lindop writes well of the importance of this. Since Nicholson has been out of copyright for nearly a decade it would be handy if somebody with access to a copy of this would scan it and put it in the Internet Archive!

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    • Charles Huttar says:

      This is indeed one of the richest packages of post-and-responses I have seen. I will respond to only a few points (and briefly at that, I hope) in David’s latest two posts.

      “Transformations of sexual energy” – What about the “great experiment” discussed in chapter 1 of “The Descent of the Dove,” that got the church authorities so jittery?

      Thank you for the thoughtful extended exposition of Williams’s “‘philosemitic’ and ‘anti-racist’” stance in this novel.

      I agree that Considine did not “die and f[i]nd his way back to life.” Even Jesus didn’t to that. “Into thy hand I commit my spirit [and body too].” “He that raised Jesus from the dead shall also . . . .” Granted that the doctrine of the Trinity complicates the argument, but there is only One of those: it is unique. Simon Leclerc could make only a pitiful parody.
      “I think you [Brenton] are right that ‘in Shadows of Ecstasy, Considine might be the vision of what Williams knew his heart was capable of.’” As the nine circles downward to the center were a necessary beginning of Dante’s journey to self-knowledge and, ultimately, to the vision of bliss–and then back to Italy to live out the lessons he learned. The comparison to Chesterton’s Father Brown is very pertinent, and we might add that the priest’s self-knowledge in this respect is more than once instrumental in his solving of a mystery.

      “I think the character most like Williams in this novel is Roger, the poet and academic lecturer.” I don’t know as we have to vote for one who is “most” (why not each in a different way, forming a composite Williams?), but I agree that Roger’s love of poetry reflects CW’s own, and not just in a general way but in their way of feeling and applying to themselves the power inherent in certain ‘great lines.’ “On a bat’s back I do fly,” for example.

      And “especially in the ending,” what does happen to Roger (and what will happen)? We, along with Isabel, are left to wonder—and at the same time feel it will be OK (Julian of Norwich, the line T. S. Eliot made famous?). That is why I called Williams’s move in this novel a “rhetoric of risk” (and a very Christian move I think it was). That phrase which I cooked up in the mid-’80s got me started, by the way, thinking about another of his achievements, a “rhetoric of vision.”

      Does anyone else see the Faust myth as underlying not only “All Hallows’ Eve” but this novel as well? And behind Faust, of course, Simon (who is mentioned a page or two earlier in CW’s “Dove”). I sometimes think it would be nice to have a good talk with Simon in Heaven and learn more about things so mysterious to us. He was after all a baptized Christian, we are told in Acts 8:13—but obviously, as the story unfolds, a “baby Christian” (to use a phrase that’s been bandied about lately in a different context). But Peter tells him to repent and pray and holds out the possibility of forgiveness. Simon, right away: “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of what you’ve said will happen to me.” End of story. But I can’t imagine Peter not praying. What then? … who knows? Simon’s immediate response seems born of fear more than true metanoia, but could it be regarded as a good first step?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Faust (dear to me before I knew I knew any Williams – Gounod’s, Belioz’s, Boito’s, Liszt’s, Marlowe’s) here invites more pondering than I have given it or him, so far – perhaps rereading what I remember as a good discussion of Marlowe by Williams in chapter VI of The English Poetic Mind, first, would be sensible, too. Faust imagined as resisting any attention to any possibility of an implicit bargain being made? (Suddenly, I want to bring Lawrence Wentworth in Descent into Hell into thinking about Faustian characters…) Interesting just how Simon Magus in the play Terror of Light comes into the larger time frame of working on the novel that finally became All Hallows’ Eve – together with Judas!


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Something deserving a separate comment is, the combination of your referring to “her sister whom I don’t understand” and to “the sheer offensiveness and racism within this novel”.

    I think Grevel Lindop is good about the latter (and I can’t remember, and have not checked, how much he says about the former).

    An interesting and relevant general topic is, how much that was (so far as one can tell) deliberately ‘anti-racist’ (and/or ‘anti-sexist’, or, again, ‘philosemitic’, and so on) when it was written has later come to be seen as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘anti-semitic’ and so on, and how justly – or unjustly – so (in varying degrees of justice or injustice).

    It seems to me that this novel is ‘philosemitic’ and ‘anti-racist’. The brother’s who upset the world finances are impressive in their sincerity, trying to do what they do as best they see to do it, in service of the Messiah. One may think them wrongheaded, and yet be positively impressed – which I take to be Williams’s intention.

    Similarly and more so, the Christian Inkamasi is, as you say, “the heroic centre of the novel”. (There is also a fascinating depiction of the working of the – Anglican! – celebration of the Eucharist in part of this ‘story strand’: inviting comparison with Masses in Williams’s Arthurian poetry.) How many English(-language) (sensational) novels written in the 1920s-1930s in the west had an African as ‘hero’? (A real question: it would be interesting to know what we might compare!)

    And it is very much a novel about anti-black/African racism: the monstrous racism of Considine, who learns vitally from tribal Africans to turn around and deceive them, dominate them, lead them to murder, and cheerfully let them be slaughtered and even slaughter them himself. (I don’t think that, after the rise of Mussolini when the first version was written – and the rise of Hitler by the time of the second – and the success of the Bolshevik revolution before both, Williams can be charged with racism in imagining great numbers of black Africans capable of so being mislead and seduced, any more than he would be guilty of ‘ethnicism’ if he considered or depicted his Russian, Italian, and German contemporaries somehow similarly.)

    But there is also the racism of Isabel’s sister. I don’t know there is any character quite like her anywhere else in Williams’s work (though it would be fascinating to hear suggestions for comparison). For she is attracted to Inkamasi – probably sexually attracted, but probably also not exclusively so – Inkamasi could be (I take it), mutatis mutandis, to her what Beatrice was to Dante. But her racism – her racial preconceptions – make the idea almost inconceivably repulsive to her, and she denies it, flees from it, rather than attempting to deal honestly with it. (I don’t think Williams is ‘sexist’ in imagining that there could be – and probably in fact were – such women.) She could for good reasons resist that attraction, or (virtuous) possibilities it opened, honestly, with due consideration. She could confront her irrational racial preconceptions, and learn to try to resist and do away with them. But she does neither. She avoids acknowledging and considering the experience.

    I think Williams implies the propriety of the opposite of her reaction. The acknowledgement of attraction. The avoidance of concupiscence. The possibility of proper affirmation (which can well include various sorts of rejections, of licit courses of action, and so on).

    I also think that, in relation to such an attention to proper acknowledgement, there can be dangers of ‘using’ such experience, of seeking it to use, to ‘transform the energy’ it produces.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m sorry I got to this late. Yes, Brenton, I think you are really on to something here. A. E. Waite is an excellent candidate for a Considine model (or at least partial inspiration). I was thinking Yeats might be another, but they didn’t met until 1931. Aleister Crowley fits the picture even better, and CW would have heard some stories about *him* in the FRC! Waite had been close to the fracas between Yeats and Crowley in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
    But I agree that Considine, if he is anybody, is mostly CW — both his fears of/for himself and his aggrandizing ideas of self. He was addicted to power.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Something interesting in this context is a book I’ve never yet gotten up the nerve to try, but which Colman O’Hare in his dissertation interestingly treats as a possible source for various elements in Williams’s fiction, Aleister Crowley’s satirical roman-à-clef, Moonchild (though I think it only became available in 1929). Waite is made fun of as an inept villain, Arthwaite, there – but I can’t imagine Williams basing the villainous Considine on him in any simple way, not least given how active he still was in Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross when he first wrote the novel. Perhaps, as an abuser of some of Waite’s interests and objects, however… Considine does not blatantly revel in evil appearance as Crowley did, though his callousness of others’ lives is breathtakingly evil in its own way – but perhaps more like Robespierre (and his Twentieth-century ‘imitators’), even then. It would be interesting to compare him to the magician based on Yeats in Lewis’s Dymer, though Williams presumably hadn’t read that, yet (if he ever did!), and might (from later references) be expected to be gentler with him, too.

      Interesting, too, to think of what literary characters he most resembles and may be indebted to – and/or show Williams playing with. Brenton notes difference in detail from Fu Manchu, which I’d apply to Professor Moriarity as well, and even to Dracula as far as he gets (if differently ambitious – more like Considine in this – yet secretive in working as those supercriminals – no declarations, at least, not yet). What of one or another of Buchan’s villains? Or Verne’s? If we include historical fiction, I don’t know Baroness Orczy’s treatments of Robespierre well enough (Trollope’s is brief, but hair-raising.)


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Conrad’s Heart of Darkness occurs to me as offering another predecessor for comparison with Considine, whether consciously or not on Williams’s part, in Kurtz. Considine becomes analogously monstrous, but much more cooling and spectacularly so. I see that the Wade Center lists, as CW / MS-196, “‘Joseph Conrad.’ (ca. 1926) 38 pp. in 37 lvs.: 22 pp. AMs., 8 pp. TMs., 8 pp. cc. TMs. with revisions.” I don’t remember seeing it, among the fascinating lecture notes I did look at there, but I’m keen to know more about it. (They also list two folders with poems including one with the title “Conrad”.)


  9. Reblogged this on The Oddest Inkling and commented:
    Here is a tantalizing post from Brenton Dickieson about “Shadows of Ecstasy.” Do have a read!


  10. Actually, here’s another idea. I wonder if D. H. S. Nicholson or A. H. E. Lee might be more likely candidates. These were CW’s very close friends with whom he met every other Sunday evening for 20 years (!) to study Golden Dawn magic. Lindop writes about them. They were charismatic figures who blended friendship, Christian theology (Lee was an Anglican priest), and occultism. They had a profound influence on CW. He named Henry Lee in “The Greater Trumps” after A. H. E. “Henry” Lee (thanks, David!). So, there are two more possibilities for you to consider.


    • Charles Huttar says:

      Another possibility, of course (given the mystery of literary creativity) is “none of the above.”


    • Charles Huttar says:

      But on the other hand… Lee and Nicholson also, like Considine, had a strong interest in poetry – coedited The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks to both of you for these latest thought-provoking comments! I blush to say I have still never got round to reading Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), after encountering Williams’s sort of recommendation of it, but just reading a spoiler-rich plot summary of it, online – and, thinking out loud, here – I wonder if Considine (and, later, mutatis mutandis, Leclerc) are sorts of ‘anti-Zanonis’, failing – through deliberate refusal – to make the right sorts of choices. There may a complicated implicit open-endedness, here, involving both Considine and Roger at the end of the novel – a sort of ‘defeated ironic’ ‘dum spirant, sperant’ hope of their still coming to make that choice, which Isabel would probably understand better than Considine or Roger when we last see them.

        Which in turn suggests an interesting comparison/contrast with the three Satanists in Williams’s second novel written, and first published (with I’m not sure how much revision), and especially between Considine and the more immediately obviously nasty Gregory Persimmons (who yet has less – not even one full life-span’s worth of – ‘successful’ experience than Considine, and undergoes a noticeable process of change throughout the book).

        Might Williams regard Waite, Lee, Nicholson, and himself as sorts of ‘anti-Considines’ (as far as we see Considine by the end of the novel), for whom ‘becoming/being like Considine’ is yet a real temptation?

        (I also wonder whether Richardson in The Place of the Lion represents a sort of selective play with Nicholson, as sympathetic non-Christian mystic, who is yet not free from (implicit) criticism?)


  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Starting with a spoiler: if Considine has lived 200 years, then he has lived through the time of all Rousseau’s major publications and of the French Revolution as well – might one even call this part of his ‘formative period’? His redefinition of the Era – proclaiming “the First Year of the Second Evolution of Man” – sounds considerably like the “era of Liberty” and the French Republican calendar of the late 1780s and early 1790s. It is interesting to compare Lewis’s discussion of Rousseau in 1946 in his preface to B.G. Sandhurst’s How Heathen is Britain? and his discussion of changes in thinking about sovereignty in the Introduction to his 1954 OHEL volume. For example, Considine proclaims the end of “the age of intellect” and the opening of paths to be followed not “by the old habits of reason”, while Lewis writes of the transfer of the seat of power in the new theory “from the reason which humbly and patiently discerns what is right to the will which decrees what shall be right.” While Considine’s ostensible goal is for the peoples of Africa to free their “continent from the government and occupation of the white race”, the murderous attacks seem to be directed not only against western, “white” Christian missionaries, but against any and all African Christians and Christianity and the Church as such – another echo of the French Revolutionary period.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I don’t know if it is significant or not, but Many Dimensions with its contemporary Persian elements was half-done in June 1930 – when the Anglo-Iraq Treaty was signed, and appeared in January 1931, long before the withdrawal of British of all its forces and the official independence of the Kingdom of Iraq in October 1932. By then, Williams had delivered the revised version of Shadows of Ecstasy to Victor Gollancz – at the end of July 1932. The novel appeared at the beginning of 1933. In August 1933, Christians were massacred on a large scale in Iraq. In consequence, 7 August has come to be observed as Assyrian Martyrs’ Day. But, of course, the whole period from Williams first drafting the novel through its publication was characterized by Soviet ideologized mass killing, often specifically of Christians as Christians. Williams’s imagined mass persecution had contemporary precedents and parallels in real life.

      Liked by 1 person

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  16. Conrad says:

    Thank you for this review and its insights on the text and author. As a rather busy man I have to be selective in my reading and I feel you have saved me a literary detour. As an African American I suspect you have spared me an insult. As a Christian (though a poor example of the species) I feel as enlightened through your essay as I would be through the book. Again, Thanks.


    • Thanks for the note, Conrad. There is unique “African energy” in this book (as perhaps Williams might have put it). The tensions of empire are interesting, but it might be a literary detour. If you love his greater works–Place of the Lion, the poetry–you can always come back to this one.


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  27. Charles A Huttar says:

    Brenton Dickieson’s post on *Shadows of Ecstasy* July 24, 2017 brought a very rich series of comments across two weeks — which I have just now reread with amazement at how many ideas got bounced around. This blog and its follow-up is a real treasure of (at least incipient) scholarship. Comments picked up again in 2018, and now, getting on for three years later, another thought comes to me. I’ve pretty much said (in 1967 and 1986 articles) what I want to say about SOE as well as publishing more about Williams in recent years, but I’ll content myself with asking one question and seeing if anyone thinks the point worth pursuing. Without doubt the mysterious, fascinating, and reprehensible Nigel Considine is the focal figure in the novel — it’s no wonder that the blog itself and most of the replies were about him. But the novel’s protagonist, in my opinion, is Roger Ingram. The first two words in the book are his name, and the last two pages are occupied with his endless ruminations about Considine, endless as marked by that rhetorically unusual punctuation (not just one period but four of them, spaced out), endless because he knows he’ll never know. . . . And it’s Roger who will live out the meaning of that root word “-agon-” — What do you think?


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