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

by Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk (Volume editor)
©2017 Monographs 334 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 14


This book is a cognitive-poetic study of the seven novels of Charles Williams (1886–1945), a British author of spiritual fiction and non-fiction, a poet, playwright and a literary critic. It approaches his multidimensional narratives with reference to cognitive phenomena and mechanisms such as the figure-ground organization, conceptual metaphors, conceptual blending, image schemata, scripts, cognitive narrative frames, narrative spaces, cognitive deixis, and empathy. The methodology not only stresses the role of the reader’s conceptual and emotional involvement in the building of the story-worlds, but also reveals the novels’ polyphonic character.
"This book is a convincing and thought-provoking study of Charles Williams’s fiction, which uncovers the unique, ambiguous senses of his works."
Prof. Grzegorz Maziarczyk,
The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One C.W.: The Man and His Works
  • Chapter Two Shadows of Ecstasy: Figure and Ground
  • Chapter Three War in Heaven: Conceptual Metaphors and Conceptual Integration
  • Chapter Four Many Dimensions: Image Schemata
  • Chapter Five The Place of the Lion: Scripts and Cognitive Narrative Frames
  • Chapter Six The Greater Trumps: Narrative Spaces
  • Chapter Seven Descent into Hell: Cognitive Deixis
  • Chapter Eight All Hallows’ Eve: (Cognitive) Empathy
  • General Conclusions
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

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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


ISBN (Hardcover)
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
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