Forms and Shadows: A Cognitive-Poetic Reading of Charles Williams’s Fiction

by Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk (Volume editor)
Monographs 334 Pages

Table Of Content

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First and foremost, I am greatly indebted to Professors Anna Kędra-Kardela and Henryk Kardela (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University [UMCS], Lublin, Poland), thanks to whom, some time ago, I was bitten with a cognitive bug and decided to enter a new path in my studies of literary fiction. As my teachers and friends, Anna and Henryk have offered me their time, constant support and encouragement, as well as innumerable cups of excellent coffee. Were it not for their eloquence, experience, and critical attention, I would not have been able to avoid certain mistakes in this book. The same can be said about Professors Ludmiła Gruszewska Blaim and Artur Blaim (University of Gdańsk, Poland): my inspiring teachers, patient readers of my manuscripts, and tireless advisors. It is to them that I owe my academic interest in literature and literary theory. Their critical faculties and sense of irony have shaped my understanding of literary concepts and taught me how to ask (myself) questions I would never have thought of asking. I feel proud to have become a part of the Lublin-Gdańsk research group they have formed—the friendliest and most stimulating intellectual environment one can dream of.

Particular gratitude goes to Professor Grzegorz Maziarczyk (John Paul II Catholic University, Lublin, Poland), the reviewer of this book. His insightful remarks and suggestions have helped me to improve many parts of this study. Also, I wish to thank Professor Christopher Garbowski (UMCS) for his linguistic assistance.

My colleagues and friends from the English Department (UMCS) have been empathetically sharing my emotional ups and downs during the long gestation period and the writing of this book. I would like to express my warmest thanks to Daria Bębeniec, Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik, Justyna Galant, Marta Komsta, Patrycja Podgajna, and Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga (I dare to omit their academic titles/degrees in this context, as well as list them in alphabetical order by their first names). Katarzyna Pisarska, my close friend, colleague, and fellow-researcher has been invaluable in so many situations that I can only say I feel privileged to have met her and worked with her. ← 9 | 10 →

Last but not least, this book would never have been finished without the constant love of my wife, Agnieszka, who has kept repeating she believes in me. She has supported me spiritually and emotionally throughout this project, and so have my parents, family, and friends. They have reminded me to keep things in perspective. I truly hope that my sons will forgive me for not giving them as much time as they deserved.

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At that moment a shout not very far away broke the silence, and at once the garden was disturbed by violent movement. The lioness as if startled made one leap over the gate, and her flying form seemed to collide with the man just as he also began to take another rhythmical step. Forms and shadows twisted and mingled for two or three seconds in the middle of the garden, a tearing human cry began and ceased as if choked into silence, a snarl broke out and died swiftly into similar stillness, and as if in answer to both sounds there came the roar of a lion—not very loud, but as if subdued by distance rather than by mildness. With that roar the shadows settled, the garden became clear.

(Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion)

The text quoted in the epigraph, a passage from the beginning of perhaps the most recognized of Charles Williams’s novels, The Place of the Lion (1931), illustrates the major characters’ confusion as to what kind of experience they are participating in. This uncertainty is shared by the reader, whose knowledge of facts proves insufficient to elucidate the events. Apparently, two young friends and intellectuals, Anthony Durrant and Quentin Sabot, stroll through the British countryside, discussing rather sophisticated topics, when they learn from an armed party of hunters that a lioness has broken loose and the region has been sealed off. On receiving directions, the two men find themselves next to a private garden and notice the predator jumping towards a man, moving in a bizarre, trans-like manner. Next, there is a forceful sequence of shapes and sounds intermingling, followed by the roar of a lion, finally deadened in the dusk of the evening. The scene is likely to provoke several questions: Did the man in the garden die? What happened to the lioness? What was a lion doing there? Did one or two animals escape? Where did it/they vanish? After such an outset, though, ← 11 | 12 → little does the reader expect a story about Platonic ideas materializing in the otherwise “mimetic”1 fictional world.

This episode from The Place of the Lion seems to me to be in parallel with a sensation encountered by the reader who approaches Charles Williams’s fiction for the first time in her/his life, knowing (virtually) nothing about the author. In retrospect, my early impression of Williams’s novels was precisely one of “forms and shadows”; only gradually did I learn to recognize the intricacies and paradoxes of these texts, as well as discover far more about the man whom I now deem one of the most original, if “technically” imperfect, British writers of the twentieth century.

However, the title of the present book, Forms and Shadows, is meant to entail a different set of ideas: the coexistence (“and”) of the definite (“Forms”) and the intangible (“Shadows”), which is typical of Williams’s fiction. The book results from my fascination with two literature-related, though disparate, subjects: Charles Williams’s novels, often referred to as “supernatural thrillers,”2 and cognitive literary studies, for which I use the ← 12 | 13 → term “cognitive poetics”3 (see below). Accordingly, the title indicates both a concise characteristic of Williams’s novels, which invoke the more insubstantial sphere of human spirituality, and the methodology, whose essence lies, in Stockwell’s (2009) phrasing, in “the description of readings […] [which] consist of the interaction of texts and humans” (1, emph. added). Although such interaction is hardly “measurable,” in light of recent findings within various disciplines which deal with human cognition, its role in a literary text analysis and interpretation should be duly acknowledged.4

The aim of this study, therefore, is twofold: (i) to analyse Williams’s fiction from a fresh perspective, which should help to explain how different, ← 13 | 14 → and often disparate, readings are created,5 as well as how the construction of the text optimizes the reader’s engagement;6 and (ii) to put to the test the methodological tools employed in the cognitive paradigm by applying them to long and complex literary texts.7 Importantly, the point is not to utilize Williams’s texts so as to illuminate and explore some intricacies of the methodology8 but, quite to the contrary, to arrive at the works’ better appreciation. To quote from Stockwell (2009) again, “[o]ne of the beauties of detailed and principled cognitive poetic exploration is the extent to which it enables you to appreciate the writerly skill or the readerly sensitivity, or simply the brilliance of the literary work itself as an object of art in the world” (3). Such an objective also appears to meet, if only to a degree, the wishes of Thomas Howard (1983), the author of a book-length study devoted exclusively to Williams’s fictional works, voiced over three decades ago:

Criticism’s job is description and explanation. It is also appreciation […] in the sense of pointing out how the various elements in a thing work together to form a whole that has integrity, harmony, and significance. It is possible to do this with Williams’s prose. And no doubt it needs to be done one day. (viii, emph. added)

While Howard’s (1983) perspective is overtly religious (cf. “Williams was writing about Grace, really, and this eludes most art and all criticism” [viii]), revolving around Williams ideas construed in reference to the ← 14 | 15 → Christian dogma,9 the novels themselves, as I hope to prove in the present study, more often than not reveal a multifaceted, polyphonic nature (sensu Mikhail Bakhtin10). What follows, cognitive poetics seems an apt paradigm within which to operate, for it lays emphasis on the reader’s subjectivity and appreciates individual aspects of interpretation.11

As far as my second general point is concerned, it originates from the observation made by Gerard Steen and Joanna Gavins (2003), who argue that “one of the most interesting things about cognitive poetics today is that it is in […] a state of excitement and unscripted development in a multitude of directions” (3, emph. added). The present book, therefore, aims to be a modest contribution to the discipline’s further development. In view of the fact that the majority of cognitive-poetic scholars are linguists,12 this study will focus on the literary quality of the works.13 As a matter of fact, and ← 15 | 16 → somewhat paradoxically, although Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics (2002) does underline the importance of what he elsewhere calls “the primary focus […] in the literary field” (2009: 26), his proposition may at times be criticised for not being useful enough in analytical-interpretative practice, and with good reason (cf. Jackson 2005; Danaher 2007; Marecki 2013).14 Nevertheless, the fact that some of the readings offered by Stockwell leave much to be desired does not necessarily undermine the methodology per se. One must also remember that Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics is a (relatively) systematic overview of various concepts within cognitive studies as applied to literary criticism. Last but not least, it is heterogeneity which lies at the very core of this approach.15

In the next sub-section, I shall address some particular aspects of the methodology, including an explanation of the related critical terms/concepts. Finally, I will discuss the composition of the book and present an outline of its chapters.


As indicated above, this book’s major objective is to apply cognitive-poetic tools to shed some new light on intriguing literary texts, with a view to demonstrating how interpretations are created. My approach aims to integrate Jonathan Culler’s (2009) understanding of poetics, which “starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved” (61), ← 16 | 17 → with what he regards as hermeneutics, which “starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations” (61). Accordingly, I comprehend the concept of “reading”16 used in the subtitle of this book (“A Cognitive-Poetic Reading of Charles Williams’s Fiction”) as one meant to unify within the cognitive paradigm the “traditional” literary practices of textual analysis and interpretation.17 Furthermore, the word “reading” underscores the role of the actual reader (and not only of the implied/virtual/model reader), which is a characteristic feature of cognitive literary studies, and of cognitive narratology in particular.18

It seems that by now cognitive literary studies have reached the status of a relatively familiar discipline, so there is little point in presenting it in greater detail here.19 Nonetheless, a few words would be in order. Although the term “cognitive poetics” is attributed to Reuven Tsur (1992), his understanding of the concept drew upon the relationship between certain literary phenomena (analysed chiefly in poetry) and neuroscience,20 which made it hardly practicable for a literary scholar lacking competent scientific support.21 Of greater value in terms of “everyday” application are Tsur’s (1992) attempts to theorize the poetic process—with due emphasis laid on sound—as rooted in human cognitive phenomena, as well as his detailed readings of particular poems. Somewhat independent of Tsur’s research ← 17 | 18 → is Stockwell’s (2002, 2009) proposition, developed by a growing number of authors (cf. Gavins and Steen 2003; Vandaele and Brône 2009; Kędra-Kardela 2010). As Stockwell (2002) explains, cognitive poetics “is not the study of texts alone, nor even specifically the study of literary texts; it is the study of literary reading” (165). The latter can succinctly be described as “the interaction of texts and humans” (Stockwell 2009: 1) or, in a more popular manner, as follows: “We can read literature any time we want to, but when we want to think about what we are doing when we read, when we want to reflect on it and understand it, then we are not simply reading; we are engaged in a science of reading” (Stockwell 2002: 1–2, italics orig.). And although Stockwell’s (2009) diagnosis of current critical trends in literary studies may seem too unfavourable (cf. “Rational thought, discipline, systematicity, clarity of expression, transparency of argument, evidentiality and analytical knowledge have become the preserve of the few” [1, emph. added]), it is often difficult not to agree that, indeed, “discussions of literature become ever more abstruse, further distant from the works themselves” (1, emph. added). That is why cognitive poetics closely examines the text and its effects on the reader (cf. Stockwell 2009: 3),22 which will also be the case in the proposed readings of Williams’s novels.

The roots of Stockwell’s approach are to be found in stylistics, rhetoric, and cognitive linguistics (e.g. Langacker 1987, 1991, 2008; Emmott 1997; Semino 1997; Werth 1999; Semino and Culpeper 2002), as well as in the related studies deriving from cognitive psychology and, more generally, from cognitive science23 (e.g. Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Fauconnier 1994; ← 18 | 19 → Turner 1996; Turner and Fauconnier 2002); As Stockwell (2007) himself elucidates in one of his articles,

It is certainly good to bear in mind this underpinning of his version of cognitive poetics, but what appears to be even more salient here is the relation of cognitive poetics to traditional literary studies. The relationship, it might be added, which is not devoid of a number of problems.

First and foremost, there is a danger of cognitive poetics becoming unproductive in terms of literary analysis, instead offering what Danaher (2007) aptly calls “just ‘cognitiviz[ing]’ the discussion” (184). His rhetorical question whether cognitive poetics intends “to foreground the cognitive or the poetic” (184) is absolutely relevant. To put it differently, a literary scholar cannot accept the opinion—voiced by none other than Stockwell (2007)—that “cognitive poetics […] is […] simply the latest development within stylistics” (2, emph. added). Such a limited understanding of cognitive poetics makes it merely a sub-discipline of linguistics, which, in turn, calls its defining multidisciplinary perspective into question. Also, it is responsible for the fact that numerous cognitive-poetic readings of literary texts proposed by linguists appear utterly unsatisfactory to literary scholars (cf. Vandaele and Brône 2009: 3). What the readings often lack is precisely the hermeneutic (sensu Culler 2000; see above) component, or an overall interpretative and aesthetic perspective. Danaher (2007) fittingly evokes here the dichotomy between explaining vs. understanding, as defined by the Czech writer, philosopher, and politician Václav Havel (1936–2011). Accordingly,

I completely agree with Danaher’s (2007) resulting call for cognitive poetics to contribute to help readers understand literary texts in Havel’s sense of the word. That is also the reason why I prefer the term “cognitive poetics” to “cognitive stylistics.”

Second, many cognitive-poetic studies of literary fiction proposed by linguists frequently illustrate how cognitive phenomena work in selected passages/sentences only, leaving the (literary) problem of the work’s artistic unity aside. Arguably, a literary scholar would rather be interested in what may be called a “macro-level,” e.g. in predominant techniques, recurrent tendencies, cognitively-grounded major images, general principles organizing the reading, etc. In my view, the cognitive-poetic examination of a given “cognitive component” in a given text must involve the question of its function against the background of the work’s overall meaning24 and, ultimately, lead to a better appreciation of this text as a whole. Such appreciation is also likely to include (the reader’s representation of) the author—the critical category proclaimed “dead” a long time ago (Barthes 1977 [1967]) and practically excluded from text-centred literary considerations ever since, only to be revived more recently within the cognitive paradigm (Claassen 2012).25

The third objection is put forward by those who read critically Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics as a textbook,26 pointing out both its terminological-conceptual inconsistencies and problematic status as a book to be used in one’s academic practice. As Piotr Sobolczyk (2010) rightly observes, learning cognitive poetics from Stockwell’s (2002) textbook entails not only the knowledge of traditional “‘descriptive poetics,’ from Aristotle to ← 20 | 21 → Structuralism” but also of cognitive linguistics (91).27 As a result, one indeed may have the impression that at times “Stockwellian” cognitive poetics offers nothing more but different labels for all-too-well-known literary phenomena28 (cf. Danaher 2007: 184). That being said, a more advanced student of literature can treat Cognitive Poetics as a source of (theoretical) inspiration and a springboard for her/his own practice of literary reading, rather than a bible to be followed uncritically.

Fourth, Stockwell’s (2002) treatment of the category of “the reader” leaves much to be desired. On the one hand he declares: “Cognitive poetics can encompass matters of readerly difference, but these are set into a general context of the various and varying cultural, experiential and textual constraints around real readers reading literature in the real world (8, emph. added). Furthermore, he hopes “to make the discipline and the institution of literature more accessible and more connected with the world outside university and college life” (11, emph. added). Such a view, he argues, entails the emergence of a discipline which can be regarded as “the democratisation of literary study, and a new science of literature and reading” (11). On the other hand, as stated above, wide interdisciplinary knowledge is expected from the practitioner of cognitive poetics (6), making it impracticable in “the world outside the university.” Another inconsistency, also noted by Sobolczyk (2010), concerns Stockwell’s (2002) approach to the “traditional” literary category of the implied reader, terminologically replaced with the prototypical reader, but, in fact, even more ambiguous (89–90).

In light of these criticisms, it seems instructive to comment, if briefly, on what my using of the word “reader” within the present study involves. I am fully aware of the complexity of the issue, discussed—from different critical angles—by such scholars as Louise M. Rosenblatt (1995) [1938], Walker Gibson (1950), Wane C. Booth (1983) [1961], Michał Głowiński (1967), Wolfgang Iser (1974) [1972], Umberto Eco (1984) [1979], Stanley ← 21 | 22 → Fish (1980), Gerald Prince (2011), and many others. Since, within the limits of this chapter, it is not possible to present their views in detail, I will follow the Polish scholar Emanuel Prower (1988), who usefully summarizes major twentieth-century approaches to the role of the reader, grouping them into three categories.29

The first group, Prower (1988) contends, encompasses those propositions which clearly distinguish between intra- and extra-textual perspectives (e.g. Umberto Eco’s, Gerald Prince’s) (11–20).30 The second are those which represent a middle-of-the-road attitude [stanowisko pośrednie] to the above differentiation (e.g. Wolfgang Iser’s, Hans Robert Jauss’s, Michel Riffaterre’s, Stanley Fish’s) (20–31). The third are those which question the intra- vs. extra-textual distinction (e.g. Georges Poulet’s, Norman N. Holland’s) (32–35). Importantly, Prower (1988) also discusses major theoretical approaches of Polish critics dealing with the issue of the addressee (e.g. Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska’s, Michał Głowiński’s, Stanisław Barańczak’s).

Elsewhere, Wojciech Kalaga and Emanuel Prower (1990) put forward their own idea of the addressee, arguing that “every text presupposes an anthropomorphic ‘self’ behind the interpretative task it determines through its lexical and syntactic organization” (38). Accordingly, they propose, “the virtual reader is a character beyond the possible world of the work” (38). This reader, as Kalaga (1990) outlines in another article, is “capable of synthesising both dimensions of the text: its simultaneity and its successivity […] and, in fact, grows out of the tension between them” (144). The implied reader, then, “may be seen as a competence that encompasses the rules of primary and secondary semiotic systems, the rules of discourse and its repertory” (144). Significantly, Kalaga (1990) maintains that the concept of the “self” is not an autonomous entity; what follows, “the implied reader emerges not really from the text but from the interaction between the text and system, and is defined by both” (148). ← 22 | 23 →

A different stance in the discussion of the (implied) reader’s status is adopted by Artur Blaim and Ludmiła Gruszewska (1994) in their article “Implied Authors, Implied Readers, Implied Texts: A Modest Proposal.” It is an illuminating scholarly study whose surplus value is its ironic, quasi-literary mode, which makes it an exceptionally good read—a rare feature in the world of literary-theoretical criticism.31 The authors first meticulously deconstruct major critical assumptions concerning the overwhelming “implied-ness,” pointing out that “[t]he members of the unholy implied trinity of the author, the reader and the text are constructions of academic critics” (148, emph. added). Next, they argue that “[t]he category of the implied reader is redundant both as a cognitive and persuasive device” (148). Examining the predominant paradigm of literary studies, Blaim and Gruszewska (1994) reveal its social-game character (154). Having said that, these scholars, somewhat surprisingly—in parallel with Jonathan Swift—offer a “modest proposal” and postulate studying “texts in a rational manner” (155). What they mean by this is an exploration of “the possibilities of meaning-assignation as defined by semiotic systems functioning in a given culture” (155).

A question arises, which of these attitudes to the concept of the reader (if any) are shared by cognitive poetics? As evident in Stockwell (2002), cognitively-inspired students of literary texts fail to resolve the problem decidedly. On the one hand, cognitive poetics as a discipline emphasizes individual readings, and, analogically, individual readers. On the other hand, in particular text analyses the assumption of “the text’s saying” one thing or another is still present; equally conspicuous is Stockwell’s (2002) attachment to some principles voiced long ago by (Russian) formalists, just to mention Viktor Shklovsky and his concept of defamiliarization (cf. Stockwell 2002: 14).32 ← 23 | 24 →

My (working) idea of the reader in this book is inspired by a lecture delivered by Anna Kędra-Kardela to members of the cognitive-literary research group at the English Studies Department of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin, Poland (28.09.2015, unpublished).33 She put forward the concept of the reader as “a continuum” which involves both the implied reader and the real one. This being said, following Blaim and Gruszewska (1994), I will not attempt to hide my readings of Williams’s novels under the safer (and better-sounding) “implied” categories. This is highlighted via the indefinite article used in the present book’s subtitle: “a cognitive-poetic reading.”

To recapitulate, although in the subsequent chapters of this book I often take Stockwell’s (2002) Cognitive Poetics as a point of departure, I do it for purely pragmatic reasons, regarding it as a systematic, and thus functional, overview of various cognitivist “tools,” applied to literary studies. Nevertheless, as a literary scholar in principio, I intend to keep some critical distance towards Stockwell’s methodological propositions, which generally speaking, are still too deeply rooted in linguistics. If need be, I shall enhance his suggestions with the findings of other scholars of cognitive provenance. It can be argued that such an approach goes along the lines of what Stockwell (2002) himself expects the practitioners of cognitive poetics to do. He overtly states that “cognitive poetics is essentially a way of thinking about literature rather than a framework in itself” (6, emph. added). Let me finish this theoretical section with a citation from Cognitive Poetics, which speaks for itself:

My aim throughout is to encourage you to ask questions, engage with the ideas, and rediscover in your own thinking the excitement of connecting scientific principles with a love of literature. (11)

This Book’s Organization

The assumptions presented above result in two major issues concerning this book’s composition. The first one relates to the arrangement of the ← 24 | 25 → material under scrutiny. For one thing, a comprehensive poetics of a given writer’s works would ideally entail a non-modular and non-chronological approach; in other words, such a study would be focused on the author’s artistic choices characteristic of her/his oeuvre (e.g. narration, setting, imagery, etc.), rather than on particular texts. On the other hand, however, Williams’s works of fiction are niche products, as it were, on the contemporary cultural-literary market. This book’s potential reader—empirical, not implied—cannot be expected to be familiar with Williams’s novels to such an extent that an “across-the-board” approach would work. In addition, had I decided to cross the boundaries of individual novels, I would have lost the chance to concentrate on the reading of a particular text—a prerequisite of cognitive poetics.

The other compositional issue involves the specific character of cognitive poetics. Whereas more “traditional” approaches revolve around such components of the literary text as narration, plot, characterization, point of view, and the like, the cognitive approach assumes a different perspective. It is instructive here to consider a parallel observation made by cognitive linguists:

The cognitive methodology may further be conceptualized by virtue of the layer cake model. Let us refer to Evans, Bergen, and Zinken (2007) one more time:

It goes without saying that the “vertical” approach permeates all the layers, being more complex but offering a viewpoint unavailable from the “horizontal” one. Analogously, within the domain of literary studies, the “horizontal” (or “traditional,” i.e. text-oriented) method would encompass such elements of the poetics of narrative as narration, events, character and characterization, space and time, focalization, speech representation, and so on (cf. Culler 2002, esp. Chap. 9; Rimmon-Kenan 2005). In contrast, cognitive poetics focuses on such phenomena/cognitive “tools” as figure-ground relationship, deixis, conceptual metaphor, scripts and scenarios, image schemata, mental spaces, conceptual integration, cognitive empathy, etc. (cf. Stockwell 2002; Gavins and Steen 2003). They go through the “traditional” layers—to return to the cake metaphor—in the sense that they may be discerned on different levels of the text’s organization (e.g. the same conceptual metaphor may structure the reader’s perception of space, events, conflict between characters, the narrator’s language, and the paratext).

The shape of this book, therefore, is a compromise between (i) my primary intention to familiarize the reader with Williams’s works of fiction, with a view to discussing their aesthetic effects within cognitive poetics, and (ii) the focus on particular cognitive mechanisms/“tools” to be verified in analytical-interpretative practice. Williams’s seven novels will be discussed chronologically, as is the case with major critical studies devoted to this part of his literary output (Sibley 1982; Cavaliero 1983; Howard 1983; Spencer 1986; Knight 2010), each in an individual chapter. In each chapter emphasis will be laid on one cognitive mechanism/“tool,” which, based on figure-ground organization,34 has come to the fore in my reading of the text. Concurrently, there is a sense of “progression” as far as these mechanisms/“tools” are concerned: the consecutive chapters often utilize the more complex cases or further developments of cognitivist-literary theory (e.g. Chapter 6, which deals with narrative spaces, follows the discussion of mental spaces and conceptual integration in Chapter 3; ← 26 | 27 → Chapter 8, devoted to cognitive empathy, encapsulates deixis, discussed in Chapter 7, etc.).

Each of the analytical chapters in the book begins with an outline, followed by a brief discussion of the cognitive mechanism/“tool” to be utilized in the reading of a given novel. The subsequent section, entitled “Reading,” is intended both to introduce the reader to each of Williams’s seven narratives and to look at them from the cognitive-poetic perspective. All the chapters end with brief conclusions.

Based on the findings of individual chapters, the final argumentative part of this novel, “General Conclusions,” seeks to synthesise these into a discussion of the key issues delineated in this introduction. I shall return to the pivotal question of what the adopted cognitivist-literary approach may offer to our appreciation of Williams’s fiction in particular and to narrative fiction in general. I will also attempt to outline further research directions.

Overview of Chapters

Chapter 1, entitled, “C.W.: The Man and His Works,” aims to introduce the reader to the life and works of Charles Williams, as well as propose an overview of major criticism on his novels. A much-neglected author, Williams has been pigeonholed, together with his better-known companions, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, as a member of the literary-religious enclave of the Oxford “Inklings.” To broaden the reader’s contextual knowledge, in the opening section, “The Man,” I underscore especially those facts from Williams’s life whose understanding may prove relevant to the subsequent readings of the seven novels. Next, I offer a brief summary of Williams’s literary and non-literary works to present his oeuvre in its variety and abundance. This is followed by a discussion of the most significant critical studies devoted to Williams’s works of fiction.

Chapter 2 examines Williams’s earliest novel, Shadows of Ecstasy,35 with reference to the cognitive figure-ground relationship. My reading is intended to show how both characterization and the novel’s reception have been dependent on the choices of the actual/empirical reader. I take a closer look ← 27 | 28 → at the novel’s (hero/)villain, Nigel Considine, as well as at one of the “secondary” characters, Father Ian Caithness. My choice of these characters, apparent opponents, helps to demonstrate how the novel’s thematic conflict of ideologies, hermeticism and Christianity, hinges on one’s perception of the respective characters. Contrary to “objectivist” (i.e. text-oriented) theoreticians, I will argue that it is the empirical reader who plays a pivotal role in the process of constructing the literary character, which, in turn, entails her/his overall interpretative conclusions.

A reading of War in Heaven is proposed in Chapter 3. While previous analyses of the novel concentrate on its structure, genre, and on Williams’s religious/philosophical beliefs as reflected in the text (e.g. Sibley 1982, Howard 1983, Beach 2013), here emphasis is laid on the how. I intend to investigate the cognitive background of literary techniques Williams applies to convey his idiosyncratic spiritual message, focusing on conceptual metaphors and the phenomenon of conceptual integration. I show how the conceptual “megametaphor” (SPIRITUAL) LIFE IS WAR and its entailments help the reader to structure Williams’s story world,36 which is of particular importance as far as Williams’s persuasive depiction of the supernatural is concerned. In turn, my analysis of the novel’s key scenes with regard to conceptual integration demonstrates how the reader may “immerse” her/himself in Williams’s story world, thereby becoming actively involved in the construction of meaning.

In Chapter 4, I examine Many Dimensions, the novel which, just like War in Heaven, depicts a supernatural object (here, the mythical Stone of Suleiman) placed in the fictional universe. Williams’s key point is to show how this object affects different characters’ ethical/moral choices. I demonstrate how the theory of image schemata may explain the reader’s active role in the structuring of the story world. More precisely, I explore the novel’s pivotal conflict between the “abusers” and “keepers” of the Stone by virtue of the schema of force dynamics as theorized by Leonard ← 28 | 29 → Talmy (1988) and discussed by Zoltán Kövecses (2011). I also argue that the schema of containment may account for what I believe is the reader’s major cognitive “shock” in the novel: a metaphysical reversal of its primary spatiotemporal foundations.

Chapter 5 applies the cognitive-poetic methodology to a reading of Place of the Lion, the novel which, owing to C. S. Lewis’s recommendation, put Williams on the map. My assumption is that Williams’s text may be perceived as a sui generis “what-if” thought experiment, intended to elicit the reader’s stronger cognitive and emotional response. The reader’s engagement in the story world will be examined with reference to the so-called cognitive scripts, schemata, and cognitive narrative frames (CNFs), or memory structures activated while encountering new situations in both real life and fiction. In particular, I will demonstrate how the familiar script of “hunt” and the schema of “love story” are modified—also with reference to the reader’s gender-role frames of knowledge—in order to serve Williams’s philosophical/religious purposes.

The next part of the book, Chapter 6, discusses The Greater Trumps, rightly categorized by Lindop (2015) as “a work of immense complexity” (195). It is precisely this complexity, understood in a conceptual sense, that I intend to explore by virtue of cognitive-literary “tools.” Here, I utilize Barbara Dancygier’s (2012) concept of narrative spaces, which is an application of the theories of mental spaces and conceptual blending/conceptual integration (Fauconnier 1994; Fauconnier and Turner 2003) to the study of fiction. I propose to expand Dancygier’s concept, adding to it another space, which I choose to call the Author Space (AU-space). Overall, I will argue that a better awareness of the novel’s conceptual structure allows the reader to recognize the manner in which Williams’s philosophical/religious ideas are conveyed. This, in turn, entails a better appreciation of the novel’s aesthetic and moral effects.

In Chapter 7, I take a closer look at Williams’s penultimate novel, Descent into Hell, with regard to the so-called Deictic Shift Theory (DST). Whereas in the preceding chapters I refer to some deixis-related terms (i.e. the Origo), here the concepts of cognitive deixis and deictic shift are treated in greater detail. It is my contention that the intrinsically deictic title of the novel may prompt its cognitively-oriented student to pay attention to how deixis works. This, again, is related to the pivotal questions asked in the present ← 29 | 30 → study: How are Williams’s fictional worlds co-constructed by the reader and what mechanisms underlie her/his cognitive and emotional engagement in these worlds? I believe that the reader’s awareness of such mechanisms may lead to her/his understanding of the text in Havel’s sense of the word (see Danaher 2007: 185, discussed above), simultaneously opening up new vistas of meaning.

The final analytical chapter, Chapter 8, studies All Hallows’ Eve, Williams’s last and probably most mature novel. Of particular interest here is the manner in which Williams involves the reader with his powerful vision of life after death. My cognitive-poetic reading of the novel will centre on the problem of communicating feelings; in particular, I shall investigate the phenomenon of empathy as theorized by such cognitively-oriented scholars as Jarosław Płuciennik (2004) and Suzanne Keen (2006; 2007). I seek to explore literary techniques as well as underlying mechanisms owing to which the reader may conceptualize and simulate, cognitively and emotionally, Williams’s characters’ emotional states, foregrounded by placing these characters in a supernatural universe. The reading will also demonstrate how Williams’s general theological message is rooted in the reader’s empathetic reactions and attitudes. Last but not least, empathy, as well as its dearth, will be presented as one of the major themes in All Hallows’ Eve.

1 I use the word “mimetic” in inverted commas to stress the complexity of the corresponding idea, which exceeds its (simplified) rendering as “imitative” (cf. Potolsky 2006: 1–2), as well as to indicate how far the (post)modern meanings of the concept have departed from its historical sense(s) (cf. Melberg 2003: 1–4). Although the multifaceted nature of representation per se cannot be discussed here, it is interesting to notice that the problem of representation in art has been addressed also from a cognitivist perspective. For instance, in his Art and Knowledge, Young (2004) distinguishes between two basic “classes of representations,” which he chooses to call semantic representations and illustrative representations, or illustrations (26). While the former “represent by being true,” the latter “represent because an experience of the illustration has something in common with experience of the object represented” (26). According to Young (2004), art, including literature, is intrinsically illustrative in this sense (52).

2 Although scholars and critics have pointed out that the generic category of “novel” fails to encapsulate the nature of Williams’s works of fiction (cf. Cavaliero 1983: 54; Howard 1983: viii; Spencer 1987: 62; Robinson 1993: 35), they nonetheless use the term for the sake of convenience, which I follow in this book. As for the “thriller,” it is not imposible to regard it as a sub-genre of the novel, but, after Żabski (2006) and Cuddon (2013), I prefer to treat it as a higher-level category which also encapsulates film and drama. It is instructive to consider other labels attached to Williams’s novels. Lewis (1947), for example, mentions his being introduced to Williams’s “spiritual shockers” (viii); Heath-Stubbs (1998) suggests the term “metaphysical thriller” (139); McMichael (1968) associates Williams’s fiction with “supernatural ‘mystery’ novels” and “the mystery novel form” (59). Apparently, Willard (1995) prefers the label of “occult thriller” (276), and the same adjective is used by Knight (2010). In turn, Meyer Spacks (1979) writes about Williams’s failed attempt “to create a new twentieth-century form, an equivalent for [sic] the great medieval allegories” (150). Brady (1951) discusses Williams’s “seven romances” (180), and so does Spencer (1986); Shippey (1983) calls them “metaphysical romances.” Yet another term for Williams’s works of fiction is “the liturgical novels” (Manlove 1979). Furthermore, many a critic observes that the novels represent the category of “fantasy” (e.g. Elgin 1995; Browning 2012, esp. 71–72; Fiddes 2015: 65).

3 In some critical propositions (e.g. Semino and Culpeper 2002), the term “cognitive stylistics” is preferred. Nevertheless, “cognitive poetics” and “cognitive stylistics” as understood by numerous contemporary scholars have a lot in common (Semino and Culpeper 2002: x); in fact, they are often reported as being interchangeable (Wales 2014: 325). Yet another term, “cognitive criticism,” is favoured by Nikolajeva (2014), for whom it is (virtually) identical with “cognitive literary theory, cognitive poetics, cognitive narratology and literary cognitivism” (3). I explain the rationale behind my choice (i.e. “cognitive poetics”) in the subsequent part of this introduction.

4 Moreover, I absolutely agree with Hogan (2003), who argues: “The important point is that humanists should not think of themselves as simply applying cognitive science to literature, taking up what scientists have taught us in order to glean a few interpretive insights […]. It is crucial for humanists and scientists to recognize that the arts should not be some marginal area to which cognitive discoveries are imported after they are made elsewhere. Arts are central to our lives” (2, emph. added).

5 It should be stressed, after Semino and Culpeper (2002), that the overall goal of a cognitive approach to literary texts is “that of explaining how interpretations are arrived at, rather than proposing new interpretations of texts” (x, emph. added).

6 I adapt this idea from Nikolajeva (2014), who postulates, and rightly so, that cognitively-inspired criticism should take into account not only readers’ response but also “authors’ strategies in text construction as well as […] literary representation, including referentiality” (4).

7 Apparently, there is a far greater number of cognitive-poetic studies of relatively brief literary texts, such as poems or short stories. A similar observation has been made by one Polish critic, who talks about the “substantial weakness” [istotna słabość] of cognitively-inspired literary studies (Marecki 2013: 169).

8 In a similar vein, Nikolajeva (2014) observes: “It is important to note that cognitive criticism does not encourage literary scholars to ‘apply’ cognitive science to literary works; it only suggests that they should be aware of the relevance of cognitive theory for their field, and the other way round” (5, emph. added).

9 This is a matter-of-fact statement; by no means do I intend to deprecate such an approach.

10 In his renowned Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984), Bakhtin regards Dostoyevsky as “the creator of the polyphonic novel” (7). He argues that the novels feature “[a] plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” (6). As Klages (2012) observes, “[t]he concept of the dialogic challenges the idea of a singular truth insisting that all social interaction consists of many voices interacting without the necessity for one voice to be ‘true’ or ‘correct’” (93).

11 Stockwell (2002) contends that “[p]articular readings are important for us; they are not simply the means to an abstract end” (2).

12 What might be termed a linguistic strand in cognitive studies of literary texts is evident in such works as, for instance: Cognitive Linguistics and Poetics of Translation (Tabakowska 1993), Cognitive Poetics in Practice (Gavins and Steen 2003), Texts and Minds: Papers in Cognitive Poetics and Rhetoric (Kwiatkowska 2012), and The Language of Stories: A Cognitive Approach (Dancygier 2012). Cognitively-oriented studies of literary texts with emphasis laid on literariness have been conducted, among others, by Danaher (2003), Płuciennik (2004), Korwin-Piotrowska (2006), Pandit (2006), Freeman (2010), Kędra-Kardela (2010), and Rembowska-Płuciennik (2012). For philosophically-oriented studies which adopt the cognitive approach to literary texts see Stalmaszczyk (2016).

13 I am aware of the difficulties implicit in the defining of literariness, especially in the contexts of the notion’s historical development on the one hand, and the non-normative character of contemporary multimodal culture, on the other (cf. Culler 2000, esp. Chap. 2; Wysłouch 2009; Korwin-Piotrowska 2011, esp. Chaps. 2 and 3). To put it differently, to a great extent, literary texts are those which are regarded as such owing to a socially-agreed practice. However, for purely practical reasons (cf. Blaim and Gruszewska 1994), I stick to such “old-fashioned” indicators of literariness as the poetic/aesthetic function, defamiliarization, fictionality, and imagery (cf. Jakobson 1960; Ingarden 1960; Shklovsky 2004; Culler 2000; Wysłouch 2009).

14 In a similar vein, Vandaele and Brône (2009) observe: “In fact, many sceptical scholars may have perfectly good reasons to temper the enthusiasm of those who do advocate a cognitive poetics” (3).

15 Cf. Nikolajeva’s (2014) description of what she calls “cognitive criticism”: “[it] is not a homogeneous theory, but a broader theoretical framework connecting various directions of literary scholarship to human cognition” (4, emph. added). Noteworthy, as Evans, Bergen, and Zinken (2007) contend, also cognitive linguistics has been viewed “as a ‘movement’ or an ‘enterprise,’ precisely because it does not constitute a single closely-articulated theory” (3).

16 Stockwell’s (2002) understanding of the terms “reading” and “interpretation” is disparate (7–8). I shall not discuss it here to avoid further terminological confusion.

17 Interpretation is another troublesome concept, impossible to define objectively, i.e. independently of a critic’s philosophical, social, and cultural background (cf. Korwin-Piotrowska 2011: 341–344). A particularly useful overview of various critical perspectives on textual interpretation can be found in Januszkiewicz (2013).

18 For an informed summary of major cognitive-narratological propositions see Rembowska-Płuciennik (2012), esp. 79–92.

19 More systematic descriptions can be found, for instance, in Steen and Gavins (2003) and Vandaele and Brône (2009).

20 To underline the specific character of Tsur’s proposition, it is often marked in capital letters as “Cognitive Poetics.” See Stockwell (2008: 588).

21 Furthermore, as Danaher (2007) observes, Tsur’s (1992) major work has been regarded as one “outside of the C[ognitive] P[oetics] mainstream” even by “CP theoreticians” (183).

22 Elsewhere, Stockwell (2007) refers to the rhetorical tradition, which “focuses on the text as the primary source location for further exploration” (1). In their description of cognitive stylistics, equated with cognitive poetics, Semino and Culpeper (2002) also lay emphasis on “explicit, rigorous and detailed […] analysis of literary texts” (ix).

23 Customarily, cognitive science is regarded as an interdisciplinary study of human mind and its processes which consolidates such areas as linguistics, neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. A cognitive turn in the development of these disciplines is frequently referred to as “the cognitive revolution” (cf. Miller 2003). In the words of Hogan (2003), “[t]he expression is not mere rhetoric. Cognitivist methods, topics, and principles have come to dominate what are arguably the most intellectually exciting academic fields today” (1).

24 Obviously, I do not imply that the meaning of a work exists.

25 In his book-length study of Lewis’s Narnia—a cycle whose spiritual significance can be juxtaposed with that of Williams’s fiction—Oziewicz (2005) recognizes the more universal problem of “deleting” the author from the reading of her/his works. Furthermore, although he has intended to exclude what he calls “extra-textual elements” [elementy pozatekstowe] from forming his interpretative conclusions, Oziewicz nevertheless admits to “feeling compelled” [zmuszony] to renounce his anti-biographical approach in several cases (365). Significantly enough, his most recent study of children’s literature, Justice in Young Adult Speculative Fiction (2015), is subtitled A Cognitive Reading.

26 Stockwell (2002) introduces the book as follows: “This textbook necessarily takes the broad view of the discipline” (8).

27 As Stockwell (2002) admits, “we have to know about critical theory and literary philosophy as well as the science of cognition. It means we have to start by aiming to answer the big questions and issues that have concerned literary study for generations (6).

28 It should be remembered, though, that according to what cognitive linguistics maintains, “new labels force us to conceptualise things differently” (Stockwell 2002: 6, emph. added).

29 It is equally instructive to look at the development of the concept of “reader” from a historical perspective, as presented by Prince (2011).

30 Prower’s (1988) study presents several different critical propositions with regard to the status and role of the intra-textual recipient, which cannot be presented here for reasons of space.

31 Just to quote a sentence: “Faced with a difficult passage a real reader is more likely to turn to her/his mummy, daddy, or Beavis and Butthead rather than construct a fictitious being to provide the badly needed assistance” (147).

32 In terms of academic practice, it is also difficult not to talk about the text’s suggesting certain meanings, to save class discussions from the anything-goes approach.

33 In her major study, Reading as Interpretation, Kędra-Kardela (2010) fails to explain her understanding of the term “reader.” However, the literary analyses she provides in the book seem to confirm the “continuum” hypothesis.

34 I will discuss the concept of figure-ground organization in greater detail in Chapter 2 below.

35 Although it is the earliest written of Williams’s novels, it was published as the fifth one.

36 My understanding of the concept of the story world is based on Herman’s (2009) definition. Accordingly, “[s]toryworlds are global mental representations enabling interpreters to frame inferences about the situations, characters, and occurrences either explicitly mentioned in or implied by a narrative text or discourse” (106, emph. added).

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Chapter One
C.W.: The Man and His Works


This chapter—the shortest one in the book—is meant to serve as a starting point for the subsequent readings of Williams’s, or, C.W.’s,1 seven novels, also classified as “supernatural thrillers” (cf. Introduction, n.2). It offers an overview of Williams’s life and works, little known to the general reader, as well as discussing major critical accounts of Williams’s fiction. This is intended not only to provide the reader with the possibility of acquiring some frame knowledge about the topic but also to stress the novelty of the cognitive-poetic approach against the background of previous studies of the novels.

The Man

Although in recent years there can be observed a growth of scholarly interest in the literary and non-literary works of Charles Williams, evident not only in the number of individual studies but also in successive re-editions of primary texts,2 he still remains a generally unknown author. Officially labelled as a “minor British novelist” (Hoyt 1967), Williams may be said to have vanished from the focus of critics and scholars in the second half of the twentieth century, with the exception of a group of his former students, friends, and other admirers. He is missing not only from the Encyclopaedia Britannica—which pertains to both the last printed, fifteenth, edition (1991) and the online version (2016)3—but also from Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature (2006), where his name appears only marginally, in such ← 31 | 32 → entries as, for instance, “Arthurian Literature,” “Auden, W. H.,” “The Inklings,” “Lewis, C. S.,” and “Tolkien, J. R. R.” Likewise, despite his once being a recognized playwright, Williams is mentioned neither in the 20th Century Drama volume (1983) of Macmillan’s Great Writers Library series, popular in an academic context, nor in Christopher Innes’s Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century (2002). Grevel Lindop, whose long-awaited biography of Williams, The Third Inkling (2015), had reached the status of a definitive one long before it came out, accounts for the status quo in the following manner:

Another reason mentioned by Lindop (2015) is the reluctance of Williams’s wife, Florence Conway, to endorse “a biography, or […] a volume of his letters—both of which would have done a great deal to keep his name and work current” (vii). This was mainly due to certain controversies in Williams’s private life (see below). It is not a coincidence, after all, that except for a single biography authored by Williams’s former student and friend, Alice Mary Hadfield, entitled Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work (1983), all other biographical accounts place him first and foremost in the context of the Oxford Inklings—Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and others.4 Among such books, the most influential one is undoubtedly Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (1979). Two others were published only recently, perhaps corroborating a new wave of interest in the Inklings, Williams inclusive: The Fellowship. The Literary Lives of the ← 32 | 33 → Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (2015) and The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writings, Ideas, and Influence by Colin Duriez (2015). The same “collective” spirit permeates Diana Pavlac Glyer’s (2007) critical study, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.

Charles Walter Stansby Williams was born in London on 20 September 1866. He spent his earliest days in the flat rented by his parents in the district of Holloway and, later on, in Islington. His father, Walter, spoke French and German, which helped him in his work as a foreign correspondence clerk, and showed a considerable talent in literature, writing poems and stories to magazines (Lindop 2015: 7, 8). Charles’s mother, Mary Williams, nee Wall, was a milliner. As Lindop (2015) surmises, Walter Williams may have become a Christian to please his bride and let her have a church wedding,5 while, in fact, he “showed no interest in religious ideas,” even though the family regularly practiced Anglican rituals (7).6 Charles was reported to have liked church going since he was three and a half (7), his biographers underscoring his fascination with the different world the sacred space offered (Hadfield 1983: 5; Lindop 2015: 7).

By 1891 Walter Williams’s eyesight deteriorated to such an extent that he was threatened by blindness and had to stop writing. (Charles seems to have inherited poor eyesight from his father, which, on the other hand, may have saved him from a death in the line of duty during the two world wars.) Three years later his company went out of business, and the family, including Charles and his younger sister, Edith, was haunted by the spectre of poverty. As a result, following doctors’ advice to look for clean air in the country, the Williams’ moved to the city of St. Albans, some thirty kilometres from London, where they opened a little shop selling stationary and materials for artists—a business only providing the family with a living. Charles finished the Abbey National School (a charity-funded school ← 33 | 34 → for the poor) and, due to a scholarship, St Albans Grammar School. It was in the course of his St Albans years that Williams, not unlike the Brontë sisters or C. S. Lewis, created his mythical imaginary kingdom of Silvania, “inventing [its] laws, constitution, and history, and concocting rituals for its orders of knighthood” (Lindop 2015: 15). Also, in St Albans he joined a debating society of students, “The Theological Smokers,” pondering on such issues as, in Hadfield’s (1983) words, “the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline, or theological and social problems of the day” (13).

In 1901 Charles won a scholarship to University College, London, but due to the family’s financial problems he did not manage to complete his education. Having failed, in 1903, his Civil Service exam—“through lack of caring or lack of preparation [and] certainly not [through] lack of intelligence,” as Zaleski and Zaleski (2015) assert in their chapter on Williams (“Romantic Theology”)—he found a job in the Methodist Bookroom in London. This allowed him to attend the Working Men’s College, where his formative friendships were made (Hadfield 1983: 12). As a matter of fact, owing to one of his London friends, Fred Page, later on, in 1908, Williams joined the London branch of the Oxford University Press,7 housed in Amen Corner and then in Amen House, Warwick Square, which was soon to become his home.8 First a proof-reader and then editor, Charles Williams bound his life, both professional and private (see below), with the OUP.

One of the most controversial chapters in Williams’s life is his relation to the occult, whose impact used to be marginalized by a number of his students, friends, and admirers (e.g. Hadfield 1983: 29, 30; Cavaliero 1983: 4; Ridler 2007: xxiii). It is habitually reported to have begun in 1917,9 when Williams was working on a collection of poems with “metaphysical” elements in them, to be published as The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). Among its authors were W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Evelyn ← 34 | 35 → Underhill, Aleister Crowley, and A. E. Waite. It was the latter who, apparently, exerted the greatest influence on Williams’s spiritual quest. A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, scholar of the occult and author of such studies as The Mysteries of Magic (1886), The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909), The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911), The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry (1911), The Book of Ceremonial Magic (1911), The Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913), and The Holy Kabbalah (1929), A. E. Waite was the founder of the Golden Dawn’s splinter organization, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.

Williams was initiated to the Fellowship in September 1917, under the Latin name of Frater Qui Sitit Veniat (Gilbert 1983: 76)—a biblical quotation which Lindop (2015) translates as “Let him that is athirst come” (59). According to Gilbert (1983), Williams remained in the Order for eleven years (Gilbert 1983: 77), twice or almost three times longer than Hadfield (1983) puts it.10 During this time he not only climbed the successive steps in his occult quest, from the Neophyte, Adeptus Minor, Adeptus Major, to Adeptus Exemptus, an ordained priest and teacher, but also served as a guide and celebrant for other people in the Order (Lindop 2015: 91–93). Furthermore, recent studies conducted by Lindop (2015) led him to the conclusion that Williams “for two decades […] met regularly with a group consisting largely, if not entirely, of former Golden Dawn members”; he also may have been initiated into one of the branches of the Golden Dawn (66). Edward Gauntlett (2003) contends that Williams “combined a devout Christian faith with—in terms of the Esoteric world—an enviably high degree of initiation conferred directly by one of the leading inheritors of the Secret Tradition as filtered through the Golden Dawn” (27).

As scholars explicate (Carpenter 1979: 82; Gauntlett 2003; Ashenden 2008: 33; Duriez 2015: 37), Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross differed from the Golden Dawn as far as the attitude towards magic was concerned, ← 35 | 36 → for, unlike certain leaders of the Golden Dawn—most infamous of whom was Aleister Crowley, dubbed by British press “The Wickedest Man in the World” (Jones 2014)—Waite’s Rosicrucians rejected magical practices for the study of what may be called mysticism, in a broader sense of the word (cf. Sudbrack 2002). On the other hand, however, Gareth Knight (2010) acknowledges that

Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that Williams’s novels reflect his genuine interest in the occult, (somewhat paradoxically) amalgamated with elements of Christian spirituality.11 Consequently, any critical attempt to diminish one of these traditions deprives the texts of a significant layer of meaning.

Another controversy worth mentioning in this section, for it does seem to have affected Williams’s literary works, is his private life. In 1907 Williams met Florence Conway, his future wife, to whom he dedicated his first collection of sonnets, The Silver Stair (1912).12 They got married as late as in 1917, and their marriage was a stormy one, for a number of reasons. Hadfield (1983) subtly touches upon the pair’s sexual incongruity (26), while Ridler (2007) dimly remarks that “[Williams’s] temperament led him to predict a more universal difficulty in the married state that can be proved true” (xviii). Carpenter (1979) talks about both spouses having strong characters but differing in ideas and interests (88). Lindop (2015), in turn, elucidates that The Silver Stair indicates Williams’s “enthusiasm for celibacy in sexual love,” which may have been grounded in his belief that celibacy leads lovers to “a special spiritual state, perhaps even replacing marriage” ← 36 | 37 → (33).13 When his only son, Michael, was born in 1922, Williams, as Lindop (2015) puts it, “had difficulty in adjusting emotionally to the situation” (85), seeing the son as an obstacle to his customary life (86). Williams’s lecturing for evening schools (and all the preparations) did not help to keep the family hearth burning, either. Yet the greatest disruptive factor with regard to Williams’s married life was his inclination to form peculiar relationships with other, usually younger, women. He may never have proved sexually unfaithful to Florence, whom he preferred to call Michal, after King Saul’s daughter,14 but in an emotional sense, his deep attachment to other females can be construed as adulterous.15

Williams’s first (and deepest) extramarital love and muse was Phyllis Jones, a.k.a Phillida or Celia in his private mythology. A new librarian in the OUP, she not only inspired Williams’s numerous poems but also exerted impact on the development of his unique theological conception, usually referred to as “Romantic Theology” (Zaleski and Zaleski 2015). In this professional-private liaison, William may have found “a kind of peace” as well as incentive to develop his artistic creativity (Carpenter 1979: 89). Yet again, Lindop’s (2015) research discloses far darker sides of the relationship, in which, as he puts it, “spiritual teaching and erotic desire” were mixed (137), sometimes containing elements of sadomasochistic fancy, still ← 37 | 38 → detectable in their correspondence (139–141). Phyllis’s choosing another man and moving for Java left Williams shattered; Carpenter (1979) argues that Williams “never came to terms with it” (89).

Perhaps less engaging on his side but still ambiguous were Williams relationships with Anne Bradby, Olive Speake, and Lois Lang-Sims (Lindop 2015: n.226; n.238; n.383). Apparently, Williams needed these young women, as well as other female disciples, to sustain his creative energy—in a ritualistic if not magical manner, at times verging on psychic vampirism (Gauntlett 2003: 20; Newman 2009: 15–16; Lindop 2015: 384). For them, as well as for others, he must have been, in Newman’s (2009) wording, “a spiritual master and founder of something like a religious order, albeit an informal one—‘the Companions of the Coinherence’” (1). “Coinherence” is one of Williams’s key theological concepts (cf. McAfee Brown 1953: 224–225); in short, as Barbara Newman (2009) explains, it is a principle of “the reciprocity of being [and] abiding not in itself but in another,” inspired by the sharing of the Holy Trinity (6). Williams developed this doctrine in both his theological studies and fiction, as well as practising it in his life and teaching his disciples to practice it.

To sum up this thread, it needs to be stressed, after Lindop (2015), that Williams “was far from being a cynical man,” and his ignorance of the potential damage he may have caused in his followers only “indicates the depth of [his] confusion” (384).16 Only in the final stage of Williams’s life did his relationship with the wife begin to improve,17 as may be discerned in his letters, edited and published over fifty five years after his death (Williams 2002).

As far as Williams’s literary and academic career is concerned, one breakthrough moment was his moving, in 1940—together with the London branch of the OUP, evacuated because of the hazards of the Blitz—from London to Oxford.18 There, as Glyer (2007) puts it, C. S. Lewis “promoted Williams with characteristic enthusiasm, opening all sorts of doors for ← 38 | 39 → meeting people, giving talks, and getting published” (69). In terms of recognition, prior to this point, Williams was relatively unknown, regardless of the fact that, as Glyer (2007) highlights, more than thirty books he authored had been published (69). Somewhat paradoxically, they may have received “significant critical acclaim but found a very modest audience” (69).

In Oxford, Williams joined the informal gatherings of C. S. Lewis’s friends, known as the Inklings, and regularly attended their meetings; the participants read their works-in-progress to one another and discussed various religious, literary, philosophical, and political topics (Lindop 2015: 307–308). The Thursday meetings at Lewis’s place at Magdalene College, as well as debates over a mug of beer at the Eagle and Child19 (St. Giles), became legendary. And although Williams’s actual role among the Oxford Inklings has been open to interpretation, there are more and more scholars who underline his being a major, influential figure among the group (Glyer 2007; Knight 2010).

Williams’s scholarly career also flourished. Beginning with two-hour evening lectures for the London County Council (Ridler 2007: xix), he—owing to both the War’s toll of death among Oxford university professors and Lewis’s patronage—made his way to the lecture halls of Oxford and other cities.20 Finally, he became a don, his lack of formal education notwithstanding21 (Ridler: xxix; Zaleski and Zaleski 2015: “Williams Unbound”). In February 1943, in recognition of his scholarly and literary ← 39 | 40 → merit,22 he was granted an Honorary MA degree, being the first Oxford University Press London editor so distinguished (Zaleski and Zaleski 2015: “Williams Unbound”).

Charles Williams died on 15 May 1945, aged fifty nine, after a stomach operation in Oxford’s public hospital (Lindop 2015: 419). He is buried in Holywell Cemetery (next to St. Cross Church) in Oxford.

The Works

Taking into account how prolific Williams was as an author, it is not possible to present his literary, critical, and theological oeuvre within the confines of a chapter section. Since my area of research encompasses Williams’s fiction, each of his seven “supernatural thrillers” to be discussed in the subsequent chapters, I will omit them here. It seems important to note that Williams thought of himself first of all as a poet. (And so says the inscription on his gravestone: “Charles Williams Stansby Williams. Poet. Under the Mercy.”23) Following his first collection of sonnets, The Silver Stair (1912), six more volumes were published within his lifetime. While in the next book, Poems of Conformity (1917), Williams depicts his vision of romantic theology and marriage, Divorce (1920) is primarily concerned with the problem of death, as well as with “separation, division, [and] schism” (Cavaliero 1983: 16). Windows of Night (1924) is more varied and experimental, revealing Williams’s “innate and unrelenting pessimism” (Cavaliero 1983: 19). Heroes and Kings (1930) contains poems devoted to Phyllis Jones, his “Dantean” love (see above). Worth mentioning is also Williams’s Arthurian cycle, Taliessin through Logres (1938),24 and its sequel, a pamphlet entitled The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). Highly ← 40 | 41 → idiosyncratic and full of hermetic allusions, Williams’s version of the medieval myth proved “so esoteric that even close friends bewailed its obscurity” (Newman 2009: 3).

Williams’s verse plays may generally be interpreted as a twentieth-century re-modelling of the traditions of medieval drama, though they often prove far more ambiguous (or polyphonic, to evoke Bakhtin’s concept again) with regard to their religious/philosophical foundations (cf. Kowalczyk 2008, 2009). Apart from early occasional plays, most of which were known only to a limited public of colleagues and/or students (e.g. the two-act The Chapel of the Thorn, published as late as in 2014; A Myth of Shakespeare; The Masque of the Manuscript), the best-known of Williams’s dramatic works include, in chronological order, The Rite of the Passion (1929), The Chaste Wanton (1930), Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936),25 Seed of Adam (1937), Judgement at Chelmsford (1939), Terror of Light (1940), The Three Temptations (1942), and House of the Octopus (1945). In generic terms, Williams’s drama explores the conventions of the masque, the morality play, the Christmas play, the interlude, the historical play, and the like. Sadly, the potential of the plays has not been recognized by historians of modern British drama (cf. Trussler 1983; Innes 2002); perhaps due to the label of a “religious playwright” attached to Williams’s name,26 his works for the stage are still waiting to be popularized.27

As far as religious/theological books are concerned, Williams is remembered primarily as the author of The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (1939) and Outlines of Romantic Theology (c.1924, published in 1990), which, in Lindop’s (2015) words, was “a daring work” (110) and “a challenge to the Church’s traditional reticence on the subject of sexuality” (111). Williams also published his personal biblical exegesis (He Came down from Heaven [1938]), an essay on the ← 41 | 42 → theme of forgiveness—valid in the context of the War—(The Forgiveness of Sins [1941]), an account of magic in history (Witchcraft [1941]), and several others.

Out of Williams’s literary essays, perhaps the most important is The Figure of Beatrice (1943), not only a study in Dante, widely recognized during his lifetime (Sayer 1995: 193; Lindop 2015: 374), but also a mature presentation of the idea of union between the spiritual and romantic love. In turn, The English Poetic Mind (1932), following Poetry at Present (1930), is a noteworthy collection of Williams’s readings of poems. Last but not least, he wrote numerous reviews,28 including those of crime fiction, critical introductions, articles, as well as several biographies.29 “Some of his books,” T. S. Eliot (2003) observes, “were frankly pot-boilers;” however, he concludes, Williams “always boiled an honest pot” (xii).

Williams’s Fiction: Overview of Criticism

As Cavaliero (1983) rightly observes, Williams “was not primarily a novelist and such fiction as he wrote was eccentric to traditional forms” (54).30 Among Williams predecessors, the critic mentions those authors who, as he puts it, took the “experience of the supernatural seriously” (55). His list of literary inspirations includes the novels of Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951), Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), Arthur Machen (1863–1947), Robert Hugh Benson (1871–1914), Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) and G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) (Cavaliero 1983: 55–59). John Heath-Stubbs ← 42 | 43 → (1996) notices the apparent similarity between Williams’s works of fiction and those representing the Gothic tradition; yet, he underlines that Williams’s novels feature “an inner consistency and a seriousness,” not usually expected in the Gothic genre (7).31 On the other hand, there are those who, like Newman (2009), regard Williams’s novels as a “strange blend of pulp fiction and metaphysics” (3). Likewise, Elgin (1985) thinks them “problematic” mainly because they violate “the necessity for compelling belief in a world which is internally and externally consistent” (99).

Each of the book-length studies devoted to Williams’s life and literary output includes at least a section in which his (selected) novels are introduced (e.g. Hadfield 1959; Sibley 1982).32 Before the 1970s, however, scholarly commentaries on Williams’s fiction33 appeared mainly as articles in journals and/or as book chapters rather than as monographs (e.g. Stewart 1950; Moorman 1957/58). In this section, I present a subjective overview of major critical resources in which Williams’s novels are discussed. Rather than following chronological order here, I will arrange them according to the degree they relate to my approach.

Howard’s (1983) The Novels of Charles Williams remains unique in the sense that it is the only monograph focused entirely on Williams’s fictional works as texts. Though intended, as Howard (1983) humbly claims, to “[help] readers to know what is going on in these novels” (ix), the study does offer their overall interpretations within the confines of his overtly Christian outlook. Interestingly enough, he believes that the novels may need explaining for two reasons: (i) not every reader, as he puts it, is “already familiar with the dazzling firmament of images that stretches like ← 43 | 44 → a canopy over [Williams’s] imagination;” and (ii) Williams “writes with a kind of shorthand,” which requires being taught how to approach it (vii). It can be observed, however, that Howard (1983) tends to elucidate certain ambiguities in the texts through Williams’s (later) theological ideas, as well as through his own religious experience.34 That is why he ignores the impact of the occult on Williams’s fiction, arguing that “his imagination was aroused by certain ideas that crop up in occult lore, but he remained a plain Anglican churchman all his life” (Howard 1983: 9).

Published in the preceding decade, but still influential is a chapter in Gunnar Urang’s Shadows of Heaven (1971), where Williams’s novels are construed as revolving around the central theme of Love. The scholar underscores other striking features of these texts, like their treatment of power, sacramental ontology, incarnational logic, or the manner they deal with Williams’s essential principle of Coinherence—“the ‘natural fact,’ inherent in creation and manifested in incarnation and continually reaffirmed in sacrament” (59). In his chapter, Urang (1971) discusses and interprets particular novels, indicating both their similarities and differences (especially in the case of the two final ones). Significantly enough, he also notices that fantasy is “part of the ‘rhetoric’ of [Williams’s] fiction” (75) and presents some characteristics of Williams’s style, narration, and literary techniques, due to which his vision is communicated. And yet, in the end, he becomes critical, arguing that while Williams’s works of fiction “raise in us higher hopes than do those of C. S. Lewis, […] they disappoint us more” (92).

Another noteworthy study is Kathleen Spencer’s Charles Williams (1986). In its part devoted to Williams’s novels, she identifies them as romances, which unite what she calls “the archetype romance plot” with “Williams’ second purpose, pedagogy” (31). Spencer (1986) further points out the texts’ Christian character and the corresponding “formal” features (e.g. introducing the figure of a saint). Especially useful is the section devoted to the style of the novels, which, as she observes, combine “magic and Christianity, intellect and vision, realism and romance, adventure and sermon” (37). Offering an illuminating discussion of the individual novels, Spencer (1986) comes to the conclusion that Williams is “undeniably a minor writer […] ← 44 | 45 → whose audience is likely to be even more limited than most minor writers” (88). This, she argues, may be associated with the fact that “theological novels […] simply do not seem relevant to such a thoroughly secular age as our own” (87). Nevertheless, she admits that they “offer an experience unlike anything else in Anglo-American literature” (88).

Perhaps the most inspiring collection of essays which deal with Williams’s fiction (besides his other literary and non-literary works) is The Rhetoric of Vision, edited by Charles A. Huttar and Peter J. Schakel (1996). Not only does the book prove how intellectually and emotionally stimulating Williams’s output has been but also it indicates the linguistic and stylistic characteristics of his writings. To quote from the editor’s Introduction (Huttar 1996), the essays assert that “the paradox, tension, irony, scepticism, and heightened imagination […] all characterize Williams’s prose rhetoric” (18). Along the lines of Urang (1971), Huttar (1996) accentuates the fact that Williams’s rhetoric strives “not only to present but at the same time to embody” his vision (19, emph. added). A good starting point for any literary-oriented scholar interested in Williams’s works, the collection will frequently be evoked in the analytical part of this study.

Equally important is Spencer’s (1987) article in the speculative-fiction journal Extrapolation, devoted to the intricacies of Williams’s narrative technique. Apart from providing a convincing analysis of Williams’s style, it shows some directions in which a student of this aspect of his works can further go. It is complemented, in a manner, by Robert W. Peckham’s (1993) “Rhetoric and the Supernatural in the Novels of Charles Williams.” The article discusses the process of metaphorical identification as constitutive for Williams’s use of the supernatural, offering an insight into the Inklings vision.

Cavaliero’s (1983) Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, from which I quoted at the outset of this section, not only places Williams’s novels against the background of British literary tradition but also underscores his idiosyncrasies, setting him apart from “the general run of occult novelists” (59). Cavaliero’s chapter on Williams’s fiction offers both a broad-spectrum perspective from which to perceive these texts (e.g. his being different from de la Mare, Machen, and Underhill; his Neo-Platonism; the sui generis fusion of good and evil he achieves; his inquiry into the nature of the supernatural, etc.) and illuminating readings of particular novels. ← 45 | 46 →

In turn, Williams’s inner struggle between the hermetic and Christian outlook as reflected in some of his novels is discussed in one chapter of Stephen M. Dunning’s The Crisis and the Quest (2000). Dunning, in general, proposes a Kierkegaardian reading of Williams’s works, including poetry, fiction, criticism, and drama. He asserts that Williams was both aware of and sympathetic with “existential suffering” (80); accordingly, his novels feature different stages, as it were, in his search of the “religious authority of aesthetic experience” (80). Particularly illuminating is Dunning’s (2000) treatment of the works and ideas of A. E. Waite, who, as will be remembered, had a considerable impact on Williams’s spiritual and artistic development.

A more recent monograph and a must-read for any student of Williams’s writings, Gavin Ashenden’s Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration (2008) thoroughly explores the esoteric qualities of the works. With all the necessary background and crucial distinctions being made as far as Williams’s occultism is concerned, the book sheds light on how it affected his ideological and aesthetic choices. And although the literary characteristics of the novels are not Ashenden’s (2008) chief preoccupation, he nonetheless examines them with due understanding of “Alchemy as Metanarrative,” as one of the chapters indicates. Furthermore, the study convincingly demonstrates how Williams’s style—so problematic to numerous readers—may have been affected by “the abstruseness of his hermetic language and culture” (232). Contrary to Spencer (1986), Ashenden (2008) claims that Williams’s “theological, philosophical, and artistic language […] could be appreciated and adopted by the postmodern” (234).

Revolving around the theme of magic as developed in the Inklings’ writings, the second, revised edition of Gareth Knight’s (2010) The Magical World of the Inklings contains some insightful remarks on Williams’s novels. Importantly, this interpretation foregrounds Williams’s use of certain esoteric concepts, frequently overshadowed by more “standard” Christian readings.

The last decade of the twenty-first century brought other collection of essays, Charles Williams and his Contemporaries (Bray and Sturch 2009), only two of which are strictly literary. The overall importance of the volume lies in its broadening the context in which Williams’s works may be perceived. The same can be said about Charles Williams: A Celebration ← 46 | 47 → (Horne 1995). The literary scholar interested in Williams’s fiction must also refer to such journals as Mythlore, Seven (VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review), The Journal of Inklings Studies, the German Inklings: Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik Inklings, as well as The Charles Williams Society Newsletter/Quarterly.35 Of great informative value is also the academic blog of Sørina Higgins,36 an Inklings scholar and editor, devoted to various aspects of Williams’s life and works.

To the best of my knowledge, no attempt has been made thus far to investigate Williams’s works from the standpoint of cognitive poetics. In the seven subsequent chapters, I propose to examine his novels, utilizing the “tools” this methodology offers to any student interested in conceptual mechanisms underlying the processes of reading—in the sense presented above (cf. Introduction)—and meaning construction.

1 This is how Williams was called by his colleagues from the London offshoot of the Oxford University Press, Amen House (Carpenter 1979: 86–87).

2 Most recently, for instance, a collector’s hardback edition of Williams’s novels is due to be published. See <http://cwlibrary.com> (10 Sept 2016). Also, electronic versions of the novels have been made available via Amazon.com, which itself gives evidence to a new wave of interest in Williams’s literary output.

3 Williams’s name is mentioned only in Schakel’s (2016) entry on the Inklings.

4 Likewise, Lindop (2015) asserts that if Williams “is remembered today, it is chiefly as a member of the Inklings” (vii).

5 As Hadfield (1983) notices, Walter Williams was baptised and received the sacrament of confirmation at the time of his wedding (4).

6 In contrast, Hadfield (1983) states that “Walter and Mary were deeply religious” (5); she also believes that Charles’s parents “took religion as simply and seriously as Charles did” (5).

7 Following Williams’s biographers, I will use the definite article (“the OUP”), as was conventional in the period.

8 Likewise, Higgins (2014) contends that Willimas “made [Amen House] the center of his life: it was probably more important to him than his family, church, the F.R.C. [the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross], or his lecturing” (“An Introduction to Amen House”).

9 Gilbert (1983) maintains that Williams first visited Waite in September 1915 (76).

10 Hadfield (1983) maintains that “[Williams’s] active membership was probably no more than four or five years”; accordingly, he quitted because “after his son was born in 1922 he had difficulty in finding a free evening […] [or] he may simply have had enough” (29). In a similar vein, Ridler (2007) argues that the Order was “satisfying to [Williams] for a time” (xxv) and that he “outgrew the sect” (xxiii).

11 It must be underlined here that although some, chiefly Protestant, commentators do not regard Williams’s views as unorthodox (e.g. McAfee Brown 1953; Sturch 2012), within other Christian traditions, like Roman Catholicism, the very idea of “esoteric Christianity” is a contradiction in terms. From the latter standpoint, Williams’s spirituality could be classified as evocative of New Age, to say the least.

12 Nonetheless, as Cavaliero (1983) puts it, “the poems are fervent but impersonal, full of ideas but devoid of intimacy or particularity of reference” (2).

13 Less sharply, Higgins (2013a) observes that Williams “spent his youth creating an imaginary world that was half-Dante, half-Malory: a strange combination of religious and chivalric love in which the Beloved was viewed as her unfallen self and also as a ladder to climb towards God.” Accordingly, Williams tried to “fit Florence into this complex literary-romantic system.”

14 In the Second Book of Samuel, Michal is shown as one who “saw king David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart,” for she regarded this as an act of the king’s humiliation: “How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!” (2 Sam 6: 14–23, KJV). Cavaliero (1983) associates the biblical story with Florence’s reluctance to Williams’s habit of reciting poetry aloud while walking in the street (2).

15 And it was regarded as such by Williams’s wife, who admitted: “However much Charles[’s] seven year itch with the virgin tart masqueraded as love in excelsis, it was as sordid and unhealthy as are all such affairs. It lost him my love for ever” (qtd. in Lindop 2015: 174). See also Newman (2009: 17–18).

16 Carpenter (1979) cites Williams, who admits: “At bottom a darkness has always haunted me” (80).

17 Newman (2009) talks about “a few years of fragile reconciliation before his [Williams’s] untimely death” (19).

18 Horne (1995) calls this period in Williams’s life “a new phase,” adding that “[f]ew realised how important—and how brief—this phase was to be” (x).

19 Carpenter (1979) explains that the Inklings preferred to call the pub “The Bird and Baby” (122).

20 As Zaleski and Zaleski (2015) observe, Williams “lectured at St. Mary the Virgin, the Taylor Institute, Pusey House, St. Margaret Hall, Reading University, Birmingham University, on Shakespeare, King Arthur, love, hell, religion and drama, whatever ignited his tinderbox mind. Everywhere, he triumphed” (“Williams Unbound”).

21 Some critics thought it so important as to accentuate it in their accounts of Williams’s works, published after his death. Stewart (1950), for instance, while introducing Williams’s fiction to the readers of Sewanee Review, remarks: “Williams was not properly a scholar. His knowledge was too erratically acquired and applied” (159). Nonetheless, Stewart admits that Williams “was certainly one of the most learned of contemporary novelists” (159).

22 The degree of this merit is reflected, among others, in Lewis’s testimony. Glyer (2007) cites Lewis telling Williams: “You go on getting steadily better ever since you first crossed my path: how do you do it? I begin to suspect that we are living in the ‘age of Williams’ and our friendship with you will be our only passport for fame” (77).

23 Horne (1995) regards the inscription as poignantly ironic in light of the fact that Williams’s poetry “remains the least accessible part of his work” (vii).

24 Lindop (2015) regards the collection as one “in an absolutely distinctive voice.” He argues that its style “combines the best features of modernism […] with powerful elements of thyme and rhythm” (289).

25 The play was staged during the prestigious Canterbury Festival in 1936, a year after Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, commissioned for the event.

26 For instance, Weales (1961) calls Williams “the most fascinating product of the English religious drama revival” (142).

27 Published in 2016, Morra’s Verse Drama in England, 1900–2015 may indeed be regarded as a prelude to a revival; as she notices, and rightly so, verse drama in England was marginalized in the 1950s as a result of its being “irredeemably associated with an outdated, exclusionary emphasis on religion” (12).

28 A checklist made by Dawson (1961) enumerates as many as 280 reviews in seventeen periodicals.

29 It is worth noticing, after Horne (1995), that as far as Williams’s writing is concerned, “nothing is quite what it seems: each piece evokes something other than itself” (viii). “A review of the detective novel,” Horne continues, “[…] will contain a sentence that opens on to a huge theological vista; an essay on literary criticism will lead one into a complex piece of psychological analysis; a footnote in biography will encapsulate an entire historical era; a piece of theological speculation will reveal itself to be intimately concerned with the hidden pains of everyday loss and disappointment” (viii).

30 And yet, interestingly, in his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Lewis (1947) introduces Williams in the following order: “a novelist, a poet, a dramatist, a biographer, a critic, and a theologian” (vi, emph. added).

31 Elsewhere, Heath-Stubbs (1998) talks about the Gothic romance as a root of British popular genres, which “cannot form the material of serious literature” (139); nevertheless, he regards Williams’s works as different from other authors of the popular kind precisely owing to his serious treatment of the supernatural (139–140).

32 A chapter on Williams in Carpenter’s (1979) study devoted to the Inklings begins with a longer quotation from War in Heaven, as a matter of fact introducing the man via his novel (73). Sadly, the novel’s Polish translation, Wojna w niebie (2016), is so far the only one available to the Polish reader.

33 I do not take into account book reviews, which, especially in the United States, often included a biographical introduction (e.g. Kristol 1947).

34 This, by no means, is an accusation. On the contrary, such an approach is valid and can be explained within the cognitive-poetic framework.

35 Available at <www.charleswilliamssociety.org.uk/the-charles-williams-quarterly/> (10 Sept 2016).

36 <https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com> (10 Sept 2016).

| 49 →

Chapter Two
Shadows of Ecstasy: Figure and Ground


This chapter examines Williams’s earliest written novel, Shadows of Ecstasy,1 not published until his other literary fictions appeared on the literary market and were relatively well-received. My reading of the novel intends to show how both characterization and the novel’s reception have been dependent on the reader’s choices, here theorized via figure-ground relationship—one of the most fundamental principles of cognitive studies. The reading will focus not only on the key (hero/)villain, Nigel Considine, regularly discussed by the novel’s scholarly commentators, but also on a/n (apparently) “secondary” character, Father Ian Caithness. My choice of these two spiritual opponents, who may stand for hermeticism and Christianity, respectively, aims to demonstrate how the interpretation of the novel’s central ideological conflict hinges on the actual/empirical reader’s perception of the characters. On a more general level, I will argue that, contrary to text-oriented, “objectivist” theoreticians (see below), it is the empirical reader who plays a pivotal role in the process of constructing and interpreting the literary character.

Theoretical Overview

The figure-ground relationship was first described more than one hundred years ago. As Jörgen L. Pind (2014) observes in his monograph on the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin (1886–1951),2 “[t]here are not many doctoral theses that have attained the status of classics in psychology” (vii). Rubin’s thesis, entitled Synsoplevede Figurer [Visually Experienced Figures], defended in 1915 (at the University of Kopenhagen), has proved ← 49 | 50 → salient not only for the development of Gestalt psychology and perception psychology in general but also for other spheres of human life, transcending the boundaries of scientific research (Pind 2014: vii). Apparently, one of Rubin’s illustrations from the dissertation, nowadays usually referred to as “Rubin’s Vase” (Fig. 2.1), has become familiar to psychologists, (cognitive) scientists, neurologists, artists, designers, photographers, students, and many others. Rubin’s vase constitutes an instance of optical illusion: it can be perceived either as two black faces looking at each other, placed against a white background, or as a white vase on a black background. Due to a different focus of her/his attention (or to some bias), the viewer may perceive the shape in either manner.3


Figure 2.1. Rubin’s Vase (1915) ← 50 | 51 →

Indeed, cognitive psychology has provided ample evidence that human perception works in terms of figure-ground organization (Evans 2009: 169–171). As Stockwell observes in his Cognitive Poetics (2002), “[w]e see, hear and move in stereo three dimensions, and so the cognitive capacity for making figure and ground is clearly and literally an embodiment of this human condition” (15). Likewise, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) accentuate that “[f]igure and ground are aspects of human cognition […] [and] not features of objective, mind-independent reality” (198). The latter, they argue, is the major reason why “figure-ground orientation tends to be absent from studies of concepts done in the objectivist tradition, in which meaning is based on allegedly ‘objective’ truth rather than human cognition” (198). I will return to this remark, contrasting more traditional (or “objectivist”) views of literary critics with those of Stockwell and other researchers who represent a cognitivist approach to literary studies.

It will be remembered that cognitive poetics (and especially its “Stockwellian” version) attempts to integrate the most recent knowledge of human cognition with what has so far been achieved in literary studies inspired by cognitive linguistics, rhetoric, and stylistic (see Introduction), thus offering a(n) unified, universal perspective from which to perceive the well-known phenomena. Accordingly, Stockwell (2002) asserts that “the most obvious correspondence of the phenomenon of figure and ground is [the] critical notion of foregrounding” (14). The concept may have become widespread among literary scholars, but a brief revision seems in place here. Katie Wales (2014) elucidates that the term “foregrounding” was used by the Prague-school formalists, after the Russian formalists, to pertain to the phenomenon of “‘throwing into relief’ of the linguistic sign against the background of the norms of ordinary language” (166). Thus, she exemplifies, “the regularized patterns of metre […] are foregrounded against the natural rhythms of speech” (166).

It is also possible to relate foregrounding to certain features within the literary text (Wales 2014: 166). Some of its elements may be foregrounded “or ‘highlighted’, ‘made prominent’, for specific effects, against the (subordinated) background of the rest of the text, the new ‘norm’ in competition with the non-literary norm” (167). Stylistically, then, foregrounding seems to be first of all an author-dependent phenomenon. And yet, it is crucial to remember that it is also, if to a degree, subjective (Wales 2014: 167; Stockwell 2002: 14). ← 51 | 52 → In this vein, Ellen van Wolde (2003) argues that “[m]eaning does not reside solely in the inherent properties of the entity or situation it describes, but crucially involves the way we choose to think about this entity or situation and mentally portray it” (23, emph. added).4

There is no reason why literary character could not be perceived in terms of figure-ground organization. Consider, for instance, Stockwell’s (2002) remarks below:

In most narrative fiction […] characters are figures against the ground of their settings. They have boundaries summarised by their proper names (‘Beowulf’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’), and they carry along or evolve specific psychological and personal traits. Stylistically they are likely to be the focus of the narrative, moving through different settings, and are likely to be associated with certain verbs of wilful action by contrast with the attributive or existential sorts of verbs used descriptively for the background. […] Characters are also figures because they move across the ground, either spatially or temporally as the novel progresses, or qualitatively as they evolve and collect traits from their apparent psychological development. (15–16)

Furthermore, following Steven Cohan (1983), literary character within the cognitivist paradigm could be regarded as

a coherently perceived figure existing, during the reading act, in the imaginative space produced in the reader’s mind by the transmission of that figure (the text’s coded instructions for perceiving it as a figure) and its reception (the reader’s acting upon those instructions to imagine it as a figure). (5, emph. added)

In other words, the figure, distinguished from its narrative background, is transported, as it were, from the text “to that ‘irrealized’ space in [the reader’s] mind, which exists beyond the realm of discourse [i.e. the text]” (Cohan 1983: 11). Importantly, “the more the discourse presents the figure as an object by not presenting its inner space as a subject through narration, the more it draws the figure into our space where we construct its identity as a subject” (20, emph. added). Cohan (1983) stresses that such a figure should not be identified with a psychological representation, though a degree of referentiality cannot (and should not) be avoided (7–8). Nevertheless, it must also be remembered that, as Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik ← 52 | 53 → (2012) contends, literary character is not exclusively a function of the elements of narration and plot, or a construct “devoid of psychological content” (116). As she further observes, and rightly so, the reader builds literary characters upon the basis of her/his knowledge of “living among real people” (119).

In more general terms, the cognitivist approach opposes the objectivist understanding of reality; as Mark Johnson (1992) puts it, the latter outlook, which manifests itself as “a set of shared commonplaces in our culture,” entails the conviction that “the world consists of objects that have properties and stand in various relationships independent of human understanding” (x, emph. added). Analogously, I use the word “objectivist” not in relation to a specific philosophical proposition5 (hence the inverted commas) but rather as an umbrella term which encapsulates the views of those literary critics for whom meaning exists in the text alone and is determined only by textual factors.6 For instance, in his theoretical credo, Andrzej Zgorzelski (1999) claims that information conveyed by the communicate/text “is not dependent on the actual recipient” in the process of literary communication, and makes it clear that the text “cannot lose its ‘identity’ as a meaningful structure” (21, n.18). Interpretation is accordingly defined as an activity which aims to explain the “text’s nature,” or, as Zgorzelski (1999) puts it, to elucidate the practices responsible for “the additional organization of signal material” so as to discover and comprehend its “superimposed meaning(s)” (22). If there are mutually exclusive interpretations, at least one of them must be false, this interpretative fallacy being more often than not caused by a given critic’s “blindness to the text” (22–23).

In contrast, reader-oriented literary theories can be associated with a phenomenological perspective, just to evoke the concept of literature as a “heteronomous” object,7 put forward by the Polish philosopher Roman ← 53 | 54 → Ingarden (1893–1970). According to Ingarden (2000) [1931], the literary work (an object) necessitates “concretization” by the reader (a subject) in the process of reading (70). The more readers and the more individual readings, the more “actualizations/concretizations” of the work, which are also called “intentional objects” [twory intencjonalne] (71).

What is stressed within the cognitivist paradigm is the idea of the text “as having a virtual dimension which calls for the reader’s construction of the unwritten text,” as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (2005: 121) puts it, based on Wolfgang Iser’s (1974) phenomenological considerations. In yet another manner, it could be said, after Jean Viviès (1994), that “the participation of consciousness” in the process of reading is a sine qua non for the “full existence” of the literary work (251). According to Ralf Schneider (2001), text understanding always involves a combination of two mechanisms: (i) the so called top-down processing, “in which the [actual] reader’s pre-stored knowledge structures are directly activated to incorporate new items of information” and (ii) bottom-up processing, “in which bits of textual information are kept in working memory separately and integrated into an overall representation at a later point in time” (611). This, in turn, involves the reader’s comparison of textual information with her/his knowledge of the world, organized by virtue of the so-called cognitive frames (cf. Kędra-Kardela 2010: 125). While reading a narrative text, the reader, as Kędra-Kardela (2010) puts it, determines “to what degree the picture created in the literary work coincides with the familiar model” (125). The reader’s cognitive frames encompass both her/his experience and knowledge of the world and the knowledge of “broadly understood traditions including literary tradition” (126). Such understanding, then, is essentially different from what text-oriented literary criticism posits.

In the subsequent section, I propose a cognitive-poetic discussion of Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy with regard to the aspects of character-building and character-interpretation presented above.


Rather untypically for this book, but with the objective to highlight the figure-ground relationship, I would like to commence with several instances of critical remarks Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy has received. First, however, it is ← 54 | 55 → important to realize that the early version of the novel, apparently influenced by a thriller by Sax Rohmer,8 originated in 1925, within seven weeks (Lindop 2015: 116–117). Its title was to be The Black Bastard or, alternatively, Adepts of Africa, and Williams once regarded it as “a wonderful book” and “the joke of [his] life” (117). Unfortunately, little is known of this early draft, for the version which survived was thoroughly revised. Rejected by several publishers, including Victor Gollancz, who printed Williams’s fictional debut, War in Heaven (1930), and practically re-written, the novel—now a far different text—was published only in 1933, as Shadows of Ecstasy (Hadfield 1983: 81; 92–93; Lindop 2015: 166).

A number of critics and scholars observe that Shadows of Ecstasy is an unsuccessful novel, frequently underlining that it stands apart from the remainder of Williams’s fictional works. None other than Graham Greene (1933), for instance, regards the book as “slack and unconvincing” (194). A later reviewer writes: “The actual story is as odd and inconclusive as all those that thread their way through Professor Williams’ novels” (Manning 1948: 412). Likewise, Charles Brady (1951) argues that when “[c]onsidered sheerly as a story, it [Shadows…] must be adjudged […] a comparative failure” (181–182). More recently, Spencer (1986) calls the book “the most puzzling and least satisfactory of the seven” (39). In a similar vein, Dunning (2000) deems Shadows of Ecstasy “Williams’s least successful work of fiction” (19); also according to Lindop (2015), it is “Williams’s weakest novel” (200).

Significantly enough, characterization is often mentioned as one of the novel’s principal shortcomings. To quote from Greene (1933) again, “Mr. Williams’ characters all talk alike; they are all infuriatingly facetious” (195–196). As the reviewer rather maliciously concludes, alluding to Williams’s convoluted manner of writing, “[i]t remains for Mr. Williams to give us his interpretation of the Great Pyramid” (196). With less vitriol, Carpenter (1979) notices Williams’s “lack of interest in ordinary character portrayal”9 (93). Sibley (1982) does not think the novel’s characterization ← 55 | 56 → “very remarkable” (46). Howard (1983) suggests that “[if] you want the subtleties of a Henry James novel then you cannot have your characters lined up holding placards the way they do in Shadows of Ecstasy” (36). Don D. Elgin (1985) writes about Williams’s “unclear attitude toward his characters” and their being “ultimately contradictory” (122), while Dunning (2000) associates “[t]he greatest difficulty in coming to grips with what goes on in the novel” precisely with the characters, “who appear and disappear without any apparent pattern” (19).

It is far more difficult to find positive comments regarding characterization in Shadows of Ecstasy. Rather exceptionally, V. S. Pritchett (1933) contrasts “the ordinary thriller,” in which, as he sees it, “[i]t is a matter of what people do, not of what they are” with Williams’s “metaphysical” version of the genre, where “we are interested with beings rather than deeds” (194). The critic further asserts that the novel’s characters “are not born with the fires of abstraction” (194). In her discussion of the book, Spencer (1986) mentions “a number of quite attractive characters” (39). More recently, Ashenden (2008) remarks on “a range of voices and personalities” in Shadows of Ecstasy; they are to “display and reflect the width of Williams’s own ideas and the complexity of his personality” (85).

Notwithstanding the general distance towards the novel, it is its principal characters, and among them especially Nigel Considine, the key (hero-)villain, which have been placed in the centre of critical attention. For instance, Howard (1983) asserts: “In this story the thing is Nigel Considine and his idea” (25, emph. added). A more radical statement is made by Dunning (2000), who positions Considine as “the only viable centre to the text” (19, emph. added). Knight (2010) also renders the book as being “centre[d] upon a half-withdrawn but charismatic leader known as Nigel Considine” (178).

There is no denying that Shadows of Ecstasy is constructed around Considine, a gifted European who spent several years in Africa, where he managed to discover the secret of the so-called “transmutation of energy.” This occult practice, whose essence lies in transforming one’s sexual energy into its purer, universal form, or “a greater ecstasy” (83),10 allowed him ← 56 | 57 → to prolong his lifespan beyond known human limits: he was born two hundred years before the novel’s current events (83). This, however, is just a step on the path of Considine’s inner development. The man believes it will be possible for him to conquer death forever, as well as to raise others from the grave.

Another thread of the novel is a “political” one. The reader learns that Considine, as the shadowy “High Executive of the African Allies” (43), has become the leader of an African revolution. The movement aims to liberate the Dark Continent from the white race and to return to the native spiritual principles, for, as one of the allies’ declarations stipulates, “the great age of intellect is done […] [and] mankind must advance in the future by paths which the white peoples have neglected” (43).11 When European governments disregard the proclamation signed by the High Executive and send troops to pacify the rebellious colonies, the African forces are “compelled to open war upon Europe” (58). In the end the conflict spills over, and even London is threatened by air raids and by the invasion of Considine’s African armies.12

However far-fetched they may seem to the contemporary reader, these political events form an important background against which a clash of ideas is portrayed. Arguably, it is the ideological “battle” between Christianity and hermeticism (Dunning 2000: 37), or what Ashenden (2008) calls “a particular form of alchemical experiment” (85), that Williams is interested in the most. But first things first. The “shadows” mentioned in the novel’s title: art/poetry, love/sex, religion, material goods, or kingship (each related to a given character) are, as Considine believes, only deterrents to “the realm of pure and undying ecstasy” (Howard 1983: 24). Accordingly, if energy devoted by people to their pursuit of such “earthly” objectives as those listed ← 57 | 58 → above is absorbed into the power of “imagination of himself as living” (82) (by virtue of what might be called active visualization), death will be vanquished. So far, Considine argues, the human species has been deluding itself:

Nevertheless, it will be possible to take “the ghost of man” out of the place s/he wanders at death, “stripped of all powers,” by coming to this place “armed with passion and high delight” and finally to return from the other side (178–179). Such is the aim of the experiments Considine, the “master of adepts” (Ashenden 2008: 85), has conducted, serving as a proof positive himself.

On the level of ideas, as Howard (1983) puts it, Considine’s standpoint “is to insist that this world here is an illusion and that it can be overcome by one’s own […] imagination” (24), which visibly confronts with the Christian perspective, both intra- and extra-textual.13 To spread his gospel, the self-proclaimed messiah does not refrain from sacrificing people’s lives, himself becoming a master of puppets:

I have let the English feel panic, panic such as they have not felt since the Vikings raided their coasts and burned their towns a thousand years ago. […] As for my Africans, they ask for death and they shall have death. Most of them will kill themselves or one another to-night; those who survive till to-morrow will die before your soldiers. I do not pity them; they are not the adepts; all that they are capable of I have given them. They die for the Undying. How many martyrs would the Churches offer me of such a strain? (176–177)

The power of controlling crowds notwithstanding, Considine’s influence upon particular characters is depicted in far greater detail. Williams juxtaposes the characters’ personal “shadows” with the new tidings and invites the reader, as it were, to trace the effects of such a clash. ← 58 | 59 →

Namely, there is Roger Ingram, a “Professor of Applied Literature” (4), and not improbably Williams’s alter ego, for whom poetry constitutes the core of life.14 From the outset of the novel, Roger is shown as a person who genuinely believes in the authority of the poetic word; its universe seems to him more “real” than the mundane world around him. Participating in one of Considine’s peculiar rituals, Roger becomes fascinated with his new gospel15 to the extent of being ready to leave his exemplary wife, Isabel, and join the guru in his trip back to Africa. Isabel herself is by many critics believed to be the most positive character: the essence of “all the mystery of womanhood” (Howard 1983: 28), and one “who loves with selflessness and a regard for well-being of her husband […] [with] almost a paradisal […] quality about it” (Knight 2010: 180). Another figure is Philip Travers, a son of a retired surgeon, and the novel’s centre of commonsensical scepticism, Sir Bernard Travers.16 Philip lives by his idealized love of Rosamund Murchison, characterized as “stuckup and not quite intelligent” (13)—apparently a polar opposite of Isabel. (Rosamund is Isabel’s sister, and thus all these characters are interrelated.) Considine provides Philip with the vision of transmuting his sexual desire into immortality—a trail he once blazed himself.17 One other character is Inkamasi, the hereditary Zulu king living in London, who worships the idea of genuine royalty and chooses an honourable suicide rather than mere existence “without his majesty” (212). Considine’s aide, Colonel Mottreux, should also be mentioned, since his “shadow,” or the desire for precious jewels, manifests itself towards the end ← 59 | 60 → of the book, pushing the story to its climax. Mottreux shoots his master dead, only to find death from the hand of another adept (255). Apart from the abovementioned personae, there is Rev. Ian Caithness, who will be of particular interest in my considerations and whom I wish to discuss after Considine.

Why cannot Considine simply be classified as a typical villain, psychic vampire, or misguided liar who temporarily wins control over the characters’ minds/souls? In his case, I will argue, textual evidence is so ambiguous or polyvalent that much depends on the reader’s figure-ground choices.18 On the one hand, Considine is clearly portrayed as an Antichrist type, regardless of his claiming otherwise (cf. “Neither Christ nor Antichrist” [242]). On the other hand, there is certain esteem involved in the manner Williams depicts Considine; in Ashenden’s (2008) words, the magician “is a heroic figure who demands a degree of admiration and even awe” (85). Furthermore, the novel lacks a clear counterpoint, or “genuine” hero, who would represent the Christian perspective as one for the reader to identify with. Let us pursue the problem in some greater detail.

As Kazimierz Romaniuk (1985) explains, in the Bible the term Antichrist pertains to both Christ’s mighty opponent at the end of times and to various false teachers (708). In biblical texts Antichrist is associated with such negative concepts/expressions as e.g. “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition” (2 Thes 2: 3), “the beast” (Rev 13), “the great whore” (Rev 17), and “the false prophet” (Rev 16: 13) (Romaniuk 1985: 708). Romaniuk further observes that also the so-called (Qumran) Dead Sea Scrolls mention “the son of untruth,” “the godless priest,” and “the man of violence” (708). A number of these titles can be applied to Considine.

To the Christian reader, Considine’s teaching sounds like that of a pseudo-Christ, recurrently verging on blasphemy. In the novel, Jesus’s words are (mis)quoted and/or alluded to directly by Considine in only seemingly parallel situations. For instance, during a ritual conducted in his London house, he first vaunts his extraordinary life span and then oozes his gospel ← 60 | 61 → into his listeners’ ears: “Feed; feed and live” (87). The phrase echoes Christ’s famous Bread-of-Life discourse (cf. John 6: 22–66), as well as his establishing the Holy Eucharist (cf. Matthew 26: 26; Mark 14: 22; Luke 22: 19). In the chapter entitled “Passing through the Midst of Them” (Chapter 8), an obvious allusion to Luke 4:16–31,19 the High Executive is denounced to the police and a patrol is sent to arrest him. Like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (cf. John 18: 1–9), Considine asks the policemen about whom they seek (153) and answers them somewhat derisively, “I am Nigel Considine,” the very sound of his name making them physically incapacitated (153).20 Nonetheless, unlike Christ, he plays cat and mouse with them, indulging in his supernatural abilities. “I am Nigel Considine, […] Who takes me?” he says provocatively (154).

Considine’s hypnotic power is not only described but also demonstrated to the reader. This is achieved, among others, by virtue of the narrator’s assuming a given character’s viewpoint, and thereby “filtering” the information through a human-like self, making the whole experience more approachable and more convincing. Consider, for instance, the following passage, which reflects Roger’s impression of Considine-the priest of ecstasy:

Roger saw him, against the immense and universal sapphire of the draperies behind him, a figure in hieratic dress, motionless, expectant, attentive, having power to give or to withhold, as if an Emperor of Byzantium awaited between the East and the West the approach of petitions he only could fulfil. […] Modern, contemporary—antique, mythical—neither of these were the truth. He stood as something more than either, being both and more than both. It was Man that stood there, man conscious of himself and of his powers, man—powerful and victorious, bold and serene, a culmination and a prophecy. Time and space hung behind him, his background and his possession, themselves no more separate but woven in a single vision, the colour of the living background to that living domination. (91–92) ← 61 | 62 →

The effect achieved by the narrator’s appeal to the reader’s senses of sight (“sapphire”; “colour”; “background”) and touch (“draperies”; “woven”), coupled with the comparison to a Byzantine Emperor,21 is much augmented by means of the passage’s unusual rhythm (cf. the long sequences of adjectives [“motionless, expectant, attentive, having power”; “Modern, contemporary—antique, mythical”; “powerful and victorious, bold and serene”], appositive expressions pertaining to the same subject [throughout the passage], and word repetition [“being both and more than both”; “Man… man… man…”; “the colour of the living background to that living domination”]). Equally significant is the narrator’s apparent inability to find the right words to express a sense of supremacy involved: “He stood as something more than either, being both and more than both.” The capitalized “Man” (“It was Man”), in turn, might evoke biblical associations with Christ’s title of the Son of Man or even with Pontius Pilate’s famous Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man!”—the expression linked with the depicting of tortured Jesus to the Jews (J 19: 5). Last but not least, the metaphor “time and space hung behind him” relativizes the entire experience, creating the impression of its being universal and, perhaps, supernatural.

Considine may not appear to be explicitly hostile to the Christian message but his actions are essentially anti-Christian. As the High Executive, he becomes responsible for the death of white missionaries in Africa. Although in one of the proclamations he congratulates the Christian Churches “on the courage and devotion of those their servants who have sustained death by martyrdom,” simultaneously he deems the Churches to be “misled by an erring principle” and, somewhat maliciously, observes that they (the Churches) “could bestow on Christian missionaries no more perfect gift” (45, emph. added). Elsewhere, talking about Jesus in terms of a “super yogi” (Knight 2010: 181), Considine points out that he “almost conquered death in his own way, but he was slain like Caesar before he quite achieved” (82, emph. added).22 As a result, Christianity has incorrectly concentrated upon the afterlife, whereas in the novel faith offers victory over death ← 62 | 63 → “here” (82). On another occasion, he refers to Jesus in terms of “Him that you ignorantly worship” (177, emph. added). It will be remembered that Considine treats his own people purely instrumentally: “As for my Africans, they ask for death and they shall have death. […] I do not pity them; they are not the adepts; all that they are capable of I have given them. They die for the Undying” (177).

All this looks like a madman’s dream, or a case of megalomania, but Considine does possess concrete occult abilities. In other words, he is not only ideologically but also spiritually, that is intrinsically, opposed to Christianity. This manifests itself in the episode of Considine’s controlling Inkamasi, the descendant of Zulu kings, educated in England and staying there. The major protagonists meet Inkamasi by chance, offering to him shelter against the mindless attack of a violent crowd of racists in a street of London. Later on, Sir Bernard, together with his son, Philip, and Roger, are invited to dinner by Considine, after which his peculiar “musical” ritual is conducted. (Considine’s African leadership has not been exposed yet.) The three guests find Inkamasi there, but what strikes them is the African’s stupor and bizarre dependence upon Considine. Back at home, Sir Bernard relates the events to a friend of his, Ian Caithness, whose being an Anglican minister is instrumental in moving the action forward. The vicar is deeply concerned with Inkamasi, for the Zulu is officially a Christian. As such, Caithness declares, he cannot be left unaided in the hands of the spiritual enemy:

It is, apparently, for the first time in the novel that Considine’s connection with Satan is clearly indicated. Not surprisingly, Caithness calls for action, his religious fervour toned down by the narrator’s observation, reflecting Sir Bernard’s ironic outlook: “Sir Bernard couldn’t remember that God had ever been known to disagree with Ian, anyhow in ecclesiastical affairs” ← 63 | 64 → (102). In the end, Caithness, taking reluctant Sir Bernard with him, manages to sneak into Considine’s house to see to the Zulu in person.

The narrator’s account of the encounter is filtered through Sir Bernard’s detached vantage point, with whom the reader is likely to identify,23 and therefore what happens cannot be dismissed as totally improbable. Caithness keeps asking Inkamasi questions which are answered with a voice “more like Considine’s own than the Zulu’s” (105). The African king further reveals: “I watch by the will of him that rules me. […] Inkamasi is hidden within me. It’s I yet not I that sleep” (105). To the vicar such words provide blatant evidence of some demonic sway over the fellow Christian. Accordingly, Caithness attempts to cast the evil spirit out: “In the name of the Maker of Inkamasi […], in the Name of the Eternal and Everlasting, in the Name of Immanuel, I bid you awake” (105), he says. The spiritual confrontation, though, is not a hocus-pocus case, and the enslaved one resists several times: “I do not know them, and I keep their sound from Inkamasi lest he hear” (106). The struggle intensifies and culminates in a kind of draw, to use a sports term:

He [Caithness] had silenced the speaker in Inkamasi, but the very effort held him also silent. He strove to impose his determination upon the Zulu, but he could not pass beyond the gate which he had succeeded in reaching; he could not call the other back through it. He knelt praying by the chair and the minutes went by. (106)

Sir Bernard, who, fortunately enough, has been a witness of this silent struggle of the wills, succeeds in taking both men out of the house, while Caithness is reported as “still caught in spiritual combat” (107), which underlines its seriousness.

The decisive battle, in the form of exorcism, take place at the Archbishop’s chapel at Lambeth, southern London. (If the meaning of the location’s original name, Lamhytha [c. 1088], or “harbour landing for lambs,”24 ← 64 | 65 → is taken into account, it may provide the reader with additional Christian connotation: a place for lambs, here—the lambs of the Church.) Theologically, Williams’s intention may be read in terms of his demonstrating the power of the Sacraments (“the Mysteries”) as well as with confirming the role of the Archbishop. This time, Philip Travers is the focalizer, which helps Williams to retain a sense of cautious distance: Philip associates prayers only with “a confused memory of uninteresting moments in boyhood and youth” (115). Nor does he understand the reading from Scripture, though the narrator observes that “a phrase here and there struck him” (115–116). To the Christian reader, however, the biblical citations are all but coincidental, for they indicate Christ’s being Lord of life and death, e.g. “I am the resurrection and the life” (116).25

As the service progresses, even Philip, at best a nominal Christian, understands that he is witnessing an event which goes beyond the natural plane:

Philip felt himself looking into a different world; […] now there had shown glimpse of a certainty beyond all pledges and promises, a fixity which any after-hesitation was powerless to deny. He became conscious of an immense stillness around him; the Archbishop was on his knees before the altar, and the others motionless in their places. (117)

In the novel such descriptions are interspersed with longer quotations from the Archbishop’s prayers, the most dramatic of which is the actual exorcism:

By the power of Immanuel who only is perfect Man, by his power committed unto us, we recall all powers in thee to their natural obedience, making whole all things that are sick, and destroying all things that are contrary to his will. Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee life. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. (118)

Both Philip and the reader learn that the prayer takes its effect: Inkamasi begins to move and breathe as a free man and is finally communicated with “the Sacred Gifts” (118). Thus, Christianity proves triumphant, yet it does so in a manner which creates and maintains a mysterious, metaphysical air, at the same time leaving the reader with a sense of sober detachment.

On the other hand, the reader’s sympathy for Considine consists in his role of opposing, in Ashenden’s (2008) words, “the decaying English secular ← 65 | 66 → post-Christian culture” (87). To this culture, it seems, “official” Christianity has little to offer, which is evident in Williams’s portrait of Father Ian Caithness, to whom we turn now. The manner in which he is introduced already reveals much about his status as a literary character. His entrance interrupts the conversation between Sir Bernard and his son, Philip. Welcomed with a simple “Hello, Ian,” Caithness is immediately asked the question of “how’s the Archbishop?” (15), which creates the impression of his being a priest whose position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy is somehow significant. After that, the third person narrator takes over:

The passage provides the reader with information concerning several aspects of Caithness’s fictional “existence;” noteworthy, it is the most detailed one in the entire book. First of all, a personal link between the priest and the other characters is established (“Philip’s godfather,” “a lifelong friendship with Sir Bernard”). Next, the reader learns that the priest lives “in a Yorkshire parish,” which, to a degree, dispels the former expectations of Caithness’s belonging to upper circles clergy, as he is but a modest “vicar.” There are also a few seemingly dispassionate facts about the priest’s appearance (height, age, general impression), but, overall, irony can be traced in the narrator’s comments, which apparently reflects Sir Bernard’s vantage point.26 The priest’s austere image is thus attributed to “good luck” rather than “merit,” and his serious attitude to life is underscored, with the accompanying generalization on the relationship between one’s temperament and religion (“as often happens”). As the story develops, Caithness becomes ← 66 | 67 → characterized through utterances and actions rather than via direct definition (sensu Rimmon-Kenan 2005: 61–62), but these key moments will be discussed in a while.

It is enlightening to look at a few representative points critics and scholars make with regard to this character. The least “academic” commentary presents him in clear opposition to Considine. The reader learns that “[i]n the chaos that ensues [from Considine’s actions] two people alone stand firm—Ian Caithness, the quiet vicar who knows the true meaning of death and resurrection, and Isabelle [sic] Ingram, whose love and faith leave her nothing to fear” (Williams 2003c: blurb, emph. added). Howard (1983), too, claims that “Isabel and Caithness […] are patently in the right,” although the reader’s feelings are not “quite squarely” on their side (36, emph. added). He explains this failure in terms of “the drama being too pageant-like for any very complex subtleties” (36). Focusing upon Caithness, Howard (1983) argues that he “is obvious enough” since—taking into account the masque- or pageant-like nature of Shadows of Ecstasy—“[h]e is a priest” (36). His role, therefore, amounts to reminding others of the metaphysical dimension of this world (36), as well as to “supplying a certain plausibility to what might otherwise seem to be merely primitive sorcery” (37). In addition, according to the critic, Caithness is a static character—one who “does not develop” except for becoming “a sadder and wiser man” at the end of the novel (37).

A similar note is present in the considerations of Meyer Spacks (1979). Though not concerned with Shadows of Ecstasy exclusively, she nonetheless notices affinity between Williams’s novels and science-fiction in that both utilize the principle which Amis names “idea as hero” (153). She further argues that it is Williams’s “apparent interest in psychology” that conceals his real theological involvement (154). By analogy, Caithness would be a representative of the Church of England, or, more accurately, its voice. According to Meyer Spacks (1979), it goes without saying that Williams fails: although his novels are “fundamentally allegorical, […] he cannot commit himself to the limitations of allegory” (158, emph. added). One final example comes from a study by Knight (2010); there, Caithness “represents the attitude of the Church to the powers promised and enacted by Considine” (183, emph. added).

This allegorical/figural role of characterization in Shadows of Ecstasy is called into question by Dunning (2000), who plainly states that scholars are ← 67 | 68 → “wrong to conclude […] that the characters correspond to the types found in traditional morality plays” (28). “Neither is Caithness ‘simply Priest,’” he argues, “nor is Roger Ingram ‘Poet’” (28). More significantly, Dunning explicates Williams’s approach to characterization from an utterly different standpoint: “Williams’s evident psychological interest in his characters […] leads readers to expect a commitment to realistic and methodological documentation of character development, but Williams frustrates these expectations” (28, emph. added). Dunning fails to agree with those who describe the characters in Shadows of Ecstasy as “static,” but, contrary to numerous critics, he reasons in favour of the “fine psychological interest displayed in [Williams’s] characterization” (37). This interest is construed within the “Kierkegaardian” frame of existential stages (aesthetic vs. ethical), the characters being treated collectively (29), which, in turn, engages the reader in the central conflict of the novel: one between Christianity and hermeticism (Dunning 2000: 38).

It is also worth considering a more recent remark upon the novel in question, for it is strikingly dissimilar from what has been written so far. Namely, Scott McLaren (2004) argues that rather than being a Satan-like character, Nigel Considine “lives and functions as a Christian saint in everything but name” (110). McLaren (2004) further claims that Williams’s new messiah is both a “catalyst for sacramental epiphanies in others” and “a sacramental […] image in his own right” (117). If so, the novel’s antagonist must be identified with an agent leading to the sacramental image’s destruction (118). Ian Caithness, therefore, though not the most fundamental opponent,27 would not only “resist Considine’s agenda” but also be read as “a functional atheist” (119).

In a nutshell, if one were to believe commentators (i.e. “professional” readers), Caithness would be (i) an allegorical entity/figure and a psychologically involving character; (ii) an individual and a part of a collective of characters; (iii) a “patently right” representative of Christianity and an atheist; (iv) a (generally) positive character and a “bad guy” (i.e. Considine’s antagonist). The observation provokes numerous questions of a theoretical nature. How is it possible that the “flat”/“static”/“secondary” (i.e. apparently ← 68 | 69 → uncomplicated) character is read in such diverse and even mutually exclusive manners? Does a non-subjective and at least roughly unequivocal method of character analysis exist? Is it possible to draw a clear borderline between text-bound character analysis and reader-bound interpretation? And finally, to what extent is the empirical reader, rather than the text-projected/implied reader, “responsible” for creating literary characters?

According to the “objectivist” critical paradigm, meaning is a fixed, unchangeable, and objective entity, which “rests” within the text (cf. Zgorzelski 1999: 18–21). This prerequisite leads to a particular understanding of the nature of literary interpretation, whose role amounts to explaining the greatest number of elements of the text as a structure. If, as Zgorzelski (1999) maintains, two totally opposite interpretations happen to appear, at least one of them must be false, while the very fact is ascribed to a particular critic’s “blindness to the text” (22–23). Whereas in some cases the true-or-false principle allows the reader to reject certain interpretations as “text-blind” or text-contradictory, with regard to literary character, I will argue, the issue is more complex. For instance, McLaren’s (2004) claim that Considine, Williams’s (hero/)villain, “lives and functions as a Christian saint” (110) is inaccurate in light of the character’s statements concerning Christ and Christianity.28 And yet, the remark of Caithness’s being a “functional atheist” should not be dismissed without thorough examination (to be done later).

To begin with, consider Caithness’s allegorical vs. non-allegorical and “representative” vs. individual status. From the novel’s outset, the reader learns about the priest’s relatively lowly position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (he lives “in a Yorkshire parish” [15]). On the other hand, his close relation with the Archbishop of the Church of England is mentioned in a number of places in the novel (e.g. 15, 25, 109), creating the impression of a unison of views. There is not much information pertaining to the priest’s appearance or idiosyncrasies, which implies his being a type ← 69 | 70 → rather than individual. It appears, therefore, that Caithness is to be read as a “thematic or ideational element” rather than “an image of a possible person” (Margolin 1990). Likewise, Caithness’s pseudo-individual reactions are in fact identical with the voice of the Church he belongs to. When, for instance, asked about the reasons behind the Archbishop’s averseness to the government’s policy of taking military action to avenge the death of Christian missionaries in Africa, the priest explains:

Furthermore, it is instructive to return to the episode of Caithness’s fighting over the soul of Inkamasi. Here, the vicar’s reaction is unsurprising and, in a manner, appropriate for a Christian minister. While Caithness acts like a typical Christian exorcist, a representative of the Church, Inkamasi’s reaction is rather surprising in the context of what the New Testament reveals about the expelling of evil spirits (e.g. Mt 10: 1;29 Mk 16: 15–18;30 and above all Phil 2: 9-1031). Recall, again, the African’s (or, rather, Considine’s) response to being commanded, in the holy names of God, to wake up: “I do not know them [the names] […] and I keep their sound from Inkamasi” (106). ← 70 | 71 →

It is precisely during this episode that the first rift in the so-far monolithic figure of the priest can be noticed. Both Caithness’s supplications to “the union of Man with God” and his plea for the intercession of “the Mother of God” turn out to be ineffective (106). Even the name of the holy Trinity and the sign of the cross fail to yield a definite spiritual victory, the battle remaining practically unresolved (106). The question arises, why this seemingly emblematic (or “allegorical”) priest cannot set Inkamasi free? Does it mean that Christianity, whose voice Caithness is to be identified with, is not powerful enough against Considine’s magic? Is Sir Bernard right in explaining the event in terms of “one magic against another” (108)? Or, perhaps, is Caithness only formally a vicar but in fact one whose faith is intellectual rather than spiritual? Should the reader take for granted Sir Bernard’s observation that “Caithness […] had always been a little inclined to call up his own spiritual reserves under such a quite honest pretence of invoking direction, though he was always rather careful to keep the command in his own hands” (102, emph. added)? Is the main narrator authoritative when he observes that the author of the claim, an ironist and sceptic, “couldn’t remember that God had ever been known to disagree with Ian, anyhow in ecclesiastical affairs” (102)?

Elsewhere, Caithness acts in a manner which might be classified as anti-Semitic, expressing his scorn towards a Jew millionaire, Rosenberg, who committed suicide after the death of his exceptionally beautiful wife, the apple of his eye, for whom he used to collect “the most wonderful […] jewels in the world” (26). In an exchange of opinions between Sir Bernard and Caithness, it is actually the former who tends to be understanding and empathetic, the brunt of his irony being directed towards Caithness.32 The vicar’s attitude, reflected both in his discourse (e.g. “Couldn’t he [Rosenberg] have still gone on collecting jewels?” [26]) and reactions (e.g. “he gave a short laugh” [26]), is hardly Christian (26–27). The reader, then, is more likely to share Sir Bernard’s perspective, classifying the priest as insensitive and prejudiced. It is not impossible, however, to think of a reader for whom such anti-Semitic sentiment would be justified, especially if we ← 71 | 72 → take into account the socio-political situation in Britain in the thirties.33 To put it differently, overall interpretation of such episodes/scenes hinges on the reader’s figure-ground choices: the controversial elements may either be highlighted or disregarded.

Likewise, Caithness might be construed as a racist, who expects nothing good “out of Africa,” as Philip observes (53). Does it mean, though, that the Church Caithness (apparently) embodies is not only helpless in confrontation with magic/the occult but also discriminatory and xenophobic? Quite to the contrary, Caithness himself declares that “[t]he Archbishop’s very anxious that the [British] government shan’t use [the missionaries’ massacre in Africa] as a reason for military operations” (16). The Archbishop, supported by other bishops, is further reported to make an official statement against using violence to avenge the murdered evangelists, “the ecclesiastical authorities [being] entirely opposed to the dispatch of punitive expeditions, and begging that none should be sent” (24). While speaking in Parliament, the Archbishop regards the use of military power under the circumstances as “a breach of Christian principles” (24). Last but not least, the Archbishop’s spiritual ministry to Inkamasi (116–119) shows that the Church’s attitude is far from inherently racist. If so, does Caithness appear to be a kind of anti-priest, or a corrupted representative of the Church? And can one go as far as calling him “a functional atheist” (McLaren 2004: 119)?

As a matter of fact, Caithness does pray and does take active part in Christian service (102, 111, 116, 175), regardless of how Sir Bernard interprets his intentions. It should also be remembered that the latter represents the most sceptical vantage point in Shadows of Ecstasy (Carpenter 1979: 96; Howard 1983: 30; Dunning 2000: 30–31). It is Caithness himself who arranges and participates in a mass in the Archbishop’s chapel during which Inkamasi is finally liberated (109). Furthermore, in this scene the vicar is depicted as smiling (119), perhaps for the first time in the story. Earlier, ← 72 | 73 → in Considine’s house, Caithness is described as a zealous spiritual warrior. The narrator mentions his “voice of energy” (105), his “superb and deep confidence” (105), and the concentration of his “will and intention” (106), while Sir Bernard himself talks about “Ian’s passion” (108). Later on, when Roger, as Considine’s neophyte, attacks Caithness for his lack of understanding of the novel African gospel of ecstasy, he refers to the priest’s beliefs in pejorative terms (“your own damned dogmas,” 133), which may suggest the latter’s religious consistency. Elsewhere, Roger alludes to what the narrator calls “Caithness’ own integrity” (220). It can also be said that the vicar turns out to be a prophet (in the Christian sense of being inspired by the all-knowing Spirit of God, that is), for he—not quite realizing it—foresees Considine’s death: “Your friends may fire at you one day” (180). The reader may also notice that Caithness spiritually accompanies Inkamasi at the end of the Zulu’s earthly journey, kneeling next to his bed, a crucifix in his hand (243–244).

The textual examples I have provided prove that Caithness is anything but a mere allegory of the Church, nor is he a figure of an anti-priest in the sense of embodying a corrupted agent of institutional Christianity. His middle-of-the-road position arouses even more confusion when the scenes of his direct conflict with Considine are taken into account. In most of the cases the reader is led by the narrator to sympathize with the magician, for the vicar comes across as being arrogant and ill-mannered (172),34 intolerant (180), spiritually misguided35 (207) and “supernaturally insolent” (241). Aware of the irony involved in the act, Caithness copies, as it were, Caiaphas’s behaviour: he promises the Prime Minister’s legal protection to Colonel Mottreux, who is to sell his master-teacher, Considine, as Judas once did (228–230). Caithness may even be accused of instigating Considine’s actual death. This is his response to Mottreux’s half-spoken suggestion (“If anything should happen—” [230]): “It would be a fortunate thing for ← 73 | 74 → the world […] [b]ut […] that’s in the hands of God” (230, emph. added). Furthermore, the reader may recall the following spiritual characteristic of Caithness, worth quoting in full:

And further on:

Is the passage indeed decisive in the reader’s (co-)creating of Caithness as a literary character? Are the vicar’s problems with the origin of evil consequential? Does he indeed understand less of his own dogma than Considine, his (apparent) opponent? It is my contention that the questions like these are answered by the reader with regard to her/his figure-ground choices. True, it is possible to argue that Williams (or, more precisely, his narrator) foregrounds certain facts—be it via the very length of the passage, be it through its introspective perspective. The narrator, however, also speaks with a number of voices, sometimes assuming another character’s position.36 Rather than looking for the answer, in the “objectivist” manner, it is more appropriate to demonstrate how such answers depend on a particular reader. ← 74 | 75 →

A Christian, for instance, might find enough redeeming features in Caithness to justify the vicar’s behaviour, especially in the context of Considine’s Antichrist-like qualities. Perhaps even Mottreux, for all his greed and cunningness, is right in drawing the following portrait of his guru: “He’s not human; he’s monstrous. He robs us of everything—of our souls!” (229). Can Caithness be blamed for his aversion to the magician? When interrogated by Roger, Caithness admits: “I don’t hate him [Considine] […] except that he’s set himself against God, like Antichrist which is to come” (220). However “attractive” Considine may seem to the narrator (and to the reader, who follows the latter’s textual and implied suggestions), from the Christian perspective, the High Executive is an Antichrist. Perhaps, as a literary character, Considine is to be appealing so as to “demonstrate” his insidious lure on the reader, whereas the vicar is to look unimpressive.

On the other hand, the reader may as well be prompted to “choose” the magician in his fight against ossified Christianity, a song of the past, and its typical/a-typical (?) minister, Caithness. The final interpretation of the axiological conflict in the novel does not seem possible upon the grounds of the “predominant features” principle postulated by the autotelic-text oriented literary theory (Zgorzelski 1999: 24), unless one assumes that the text’s structure is based upon two equally salient ideological skeletons, as it were. Another element to be taken into account is Williams’s fascination with Rosicrucianism and related intellectual-spiritual propositions. As several critical accounts of Shadows of Ecstasy point out, this extra-textual knowledge often proves decisive in explaining the novel’s ambiguities. Yet even here much depends on a given scholar’s outlook: those of Christian provenance, like Howard (1983) and Cavaliero (1993), tend to accentuate—or, in cognitive terms, foreground—Christian elements; others, like Knight (2010), would draw attention to those textual elements which indicated Williams’s attempts to achieve “the elevation of magic […] to a form of mystical and transformative interchange” (175).

As far as Considine is concerned, Shadows of Ecstasy ends with the fundamental questions unanswered: is the guru permanently dead? Will he return? Was he a genuine messiah, “the Master of Love” and “the Deathless One” (174)? Or rather, did he fall victim to the false, infectious vision he had shaped himself? The final paragraph leaves both Roger Ingram, Considine’s disenchanted neophyte and the reader in limbo: ← 75 | 76 →

And although the book’s inconclusiveness, compared by one critic to a “foreplay leading only to an […] act of coitus interruptus” (Dunning 2000: 23), is sometimes treated as another weakness of Shadows of Ecstasy, it is, in fact, one of the factors owing to which the novel remains within the domain of literature rather than applied theology.37


Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy has been regarded as his worst-constructed and most confusing novel, which reflects the author’s “juvenile” conflict between Christianity and hermeticism. As I have proved, the book’s ideological ambiguity can be linked, to a great degree, with characterization, which entails the reader’s figure-ground choices, based on her/his frames of knowledge. At first sight, Nigel Considine and Ian Caithness stand for two contrasting ideologies, occultism and Christianity, respectively. However, they do not function merely emblematically, as the (allegorical) representatives of these spiritual ways; instead, they reveal more polyphonic natures, continually prompting the reader, as it were, to interpret and re-interpreted them. The cognitive-poetic perspective I have assumed aims not so much to support one interpretation or the other but to offer a better understanding of how the empirical reader becomes a co-creator of the literary character.

1 This is a much revised and extended version of Kowalczyk (2015a). Some aspects of the spiritual conflict in Shadows of Ecstasy have been discussed in Kowalczyk (2013a), yet from a different methodological vantage point.

2 It is not without interest for the Polish reader to note that Rubin’s family derived from Polish Jews (Pind 2014: 1).

3 The neurological mechanisms behind the illusion are explained e.g. in Zarate (2014). The article also gives references to the related scientific literature.

4 In her cognitive-linguistic study of the Book of Job, van Wolde (2003) convincingly demonstrates how the figure-ground alignment depends on a particular reading of the text (23–26).

5 Cf. Badhwar and Long (2016), an entry on Ayn Rand’s (1905–1982) philosophy of “Objectivism” (esp. 1.13) in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

6 This stance is characteristic of the Russian formalists, Anglo-American New Critics, several French structuralists, as well as their successors. See also Bortolussi and Dixon (2003), esp. 14–15.

7 Unlike autonomous objects, which have only immanent (i.e. human mind-independent) features, heteronomous objects owe their existence also to human consciousness, by which they are co-constituted. Cf. Thomasson (2016).

8 This was the pen name of Arthur Henry Ward (1883–1959), best known for his series of novels with the sinister Chinese criminal Fu Manchu.

9 In her biography of Williams, Hadfield (1983) observes that “Charles himself was not fascinated by personalities as such, in life or fiction” (95).

10 All references are to the Regent College Publishing edition of Shadows of Ecstasy (Williams 2003c), based on the 1933 Gollancz version. The corresponding page numbers are given in parentheses.

11 For a more detailed interpretation of this aspect of the novel with regard to the apocalyptic and the dystopia as a genre, see Kowalczyk (2015b).

12 Howard (1983) categorically claims that these events “never convinc[e] us in the smallest degree” (48). Lindop (2015), in turn, renders the motif of the invasion in terms of “a satirical stroke” (117). On the other hand, in his review of the novel, Brady (1951) praises Wiliams’s “com[ing] to grips with the political dilemmas which have rent our century,” speaking also about the author’s concern “with Fascism’s blood-dimmed tide rather than with the cynical cerebrations of Communism” (182).

13 For numerous scholars, Williams’s status of a Christian “lay theologian” is indisputable. Importantly, though, Dunning (2000) observes that the “a priori conviction that Williams was simply an orthodox member of the Church of England and that all his writings comprise a unified testimony to that orthodoxy […] is quite simply false” (25–26). See also Chapter 1 above.

14 Ironically, the narrator draws attention to Roger’s “definite and continuous despair that words which meant so much to him meant so little to others” (11).

15 Cf. “Milton was but a name for a particular form of this immortal energy […]. […] This energy was to be possessed, to possess him [Roger], and then—then he would have time to find yet greater powers even than that” (89, emph. added).

16 If Cavaliero (1983) is right, Sir Bernard “voices an absolute relativity, the point of view that informs all Williams’s subsequent writing” (64–65).

17 Much later, Considine himself admits: “I myself carried out the great experiment, and I laid my imagination upon all the powers and influences of sex and love and desire. In the adolescence of my life I did this, and I have thriven upon that strength ever since. […] I have gathered from many women all that imagination desired, and I have changed it to strength and cunning and length of days” (178–179). It makes sense here to recall Williams’s views on sexual chastity (see Chapter 1 above).

18 Interestingly, in her analysis of Eliot’s figure of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gruszewska (1996) comes to a similar conclusion, even though voiced within a different methodological proposition (25–27). This would perhaps make Considine another “Modernist” character.

19 Cf. esp. “And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things [said by Christ], were filled with wrath,/ And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong./ But he passing through the midst of them went his way” (Lk 4: 28–30, KJV).

20 Cf. “Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, ‘Whom seek ye?’/ They answered him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus saith unto them, ‘I am he.’ […] As soon then as he had said unto them, ‘I am he,’ they went backward, and fell to the ground.” (J 18: 4–6, KJV).

21 It may be argued that the noun “Byzantium” itself conjures up an air of power and abundance.

22 As Knight (2010) observes, this misconception parallels the viewpoint of the most infamous occultist of Williams’s era, Aleister Crowley (181).

23 It would require further research to describe this mechanism in detail. For the sake of the present argument, suffice it to note Sir Bernard’s being an experienced, well-educated and cultured man with an acute sense of humour—psychologically, a down-to-earth, likeable character, quite unlike the others around him.

24 The reader familiar with London is likely to associate Lambeth with Lambeth Palace, the residence of Archbishop of Canterbury, the primate of all England. See “Lambeth” (2013).

25 There is also an allusion to the raising of Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth” (116). Cf. John 11: 1–45.

26 Sir Bernard’s ironic disposition is mentioned twice in the passage where the narrator introduces him to the reader, speaking about the surgeon’s “ironic humour” (6) as well as about his “accepting a knighthood with an equally serious irony” (7).

27 According to McLaren (2004), it is Rosamond, Philip’s fiancée, who is the character “most visibly set against [Considine’s] goals and person” (118).

28 Again, suffice it to recall that Considine refers to Christianity in terms of “an erring principle” (45), to Christian martyrs as “misguided instances of that imagination […] the Christian religion dimly proclaims” (45), and to Christ as one being “ignorantly worshipp[ed]” (177). Opposing Christian teachers, Considine declares: “I tell [men] that they are themselves gods, if they will” (208). Does it all make him, as McLaren (2004) would like, “a Christian saint in all but a name”?

29 “And when he [Jesus] had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease” (KJV, emph. added).

30 “And he [Jesus] said unto them, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover’” (KJV, emph. added).

31 “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him [Jesus], and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (KJV, emph. added).

32 Cf. “[Y]ou do collect souls for the Church just as Rosenberg collected jewels for his wife, don’t you?” (27).

33 In his study of anti-Semitism in pre-Holocaust Europe, Brustein (2003) comments upon the religious, racial, economic and political roots of the sentiment in European countries, including Britain. He argues that “[u]ntil very recently, regular Christian events and practices […] have kept alive Christian hostility toward Jews” (57). He attributes Christian anti-Semitism among other things to “the beliefs that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and that Jews failed to accept Christ as the Messiah” (52).

34 Cf. “If you take the king [Inkamasi], you shall take me, Caithness cried out. “I demand that you—” / “Why demand?” Considine’s laugh answered him. “I invite you, I entreat you, to come” (172, emph. added).

35 Consider Considine’s words addressed to the vicar: “You should have kept to your pupils, Mr. Caithness, to the morals you understand and the dogmas that you don’t” (207).

36 Likewise, Cavaliero (1983) notices that “Sir Bernard’s scepticism gets into the very fabric of the narrative” (66).

37 For this reason I cannot agree with those scholars who, like Irwin (1979), mantain that “[t]here is no need to prove that Charles Williams’ seven works of prose fiction are romances dedicated to the propagation of the faith” (139).

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Chapter Three
War in Heaven: Conceptual Metaphors and Conceptual Integration


This chapter proposes a cognitive-poetic reading of War in Heaven, Williams’s first printed novel,1 with reference to the so-called conceptual metaphors, as well as to the process of conceptual integration. Whereas the previous analyses of the novel focus on its structure, genre, and on Williams’s religious/philosophical beliefs as reflected in the text (Sibley 1982, Dunning 2000, Beach 2013, Higgins 2013b), here emphasis will be laid on the how. My point is to investigate the cognitive background of literary techniques Williams applies to convey his idiosyncratic spiritual message. I will show how conceptual metaphors, which organize human language, thinking, and action (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), help the reader to structure Williams’s story world. This is especially important as far as Williams’s persuasive depiction of the supernatural in the novel is concerned. In turn, my study of conceptual integration will demonstrate how the reader may “immerse” her/himself in Williams’s story world, thereby actively participating in the co-construction of meaning.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Charles Williams Supernatural thriller Cognitive poetics Christianity in literature Occultism in literature 20th century fiction
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 334 pp., 9 ill.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk (Volume editor)

Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin, Poland. His current research areas include the supernatural in British fiction, the Gothic novel, utopia/dystopia in literature and film, as well as cognitive poetics. He published several works on these topics.


Title: Forms and Shadows: A Cognitive-Poetic Reading of Charles Williams’s Fiction