Williams in the Inkliverse

Charles Williams never created a world-scale setting as Lewis and Tolkien did. This makes him easier to fit into a joint Inkliverse. Instead, he wrote seven modern fantasy novels, some plays, and a cycle of poems about King Arthur and the Matter of Britain. Much of this can be dropped into the Inkliverse unmodified, or slightly scaled down.

The main setting elements are astral geography and the nation of P'o-lu.

The astral geography is encountered by ghosts and people engaged in astral projection or supernatural encounters. These surroundings are past, future, infernal, or celestial variations on the mundane surroundings. They also have links to profounder realms: a subway entrance in astral London or a gardening shed door may lead to Hell; a hill in a suburb may be a foothill in a mountain range leading to Heaven. I take this as the Inkliverse description of the astral plane.

P'o-lu appears in the Arthurian poems, and in at least one play set in modern times (The House of the Octopus, 1945). It is a Pacific island nation and, in the play, is clearly an infernal version of Japan. It is ruled by the Headless Emperor, who has some kind of connection to gigantic, semi-amphibious "polyps."

In the Inkliverse, P'o-lu is small and presently insular and insignificant, at least mundanely. At times in the past, it has tyrannized its neighbors or, more often, has had a widespread evil influence. The Headless Emperor is a title, not an individual, though individual Emperors are often unnaturally long-lived. The abyssal and tentacular "polyps" are not members of the Coelenterata like jellyfish, sea anenomes, and corals; what they really are is a hazardous question to investigate, as is the sense in which the Emperor is "headless."

Beside these two features, Williams's novels leave a scattering of people, objects, and events in the setting. Most of these can be regarded as strictly local features, to be used if desired, or ignored otherwise. Having all seven novels in the Inkliverse at once might be a bit much, but one could pick and choose. Here are the Inkliverse features traceable to Williams novels:

War in Heaven (1930):
The Holy Grail exists and is presently in the keeping of Prester John, who is immortal and looks like a young man of Middle Eastern origin. Until 1930, the Grail was in the parish church of the small English village of Fardles.

Many Dimensions (1931):
Somewhere, there is a Sufi order that guards a small cubical stone. The Stone was once mounted in King Solomon's crown. It contains the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. It probably grants the holder miraculous powers, but also probably brings divine judgment down on them. Unlike the book, the Inkliverse had no massive multiplication of the Stone, with consequent international social upheaval.

The Place of the Lion (1931):
For a few days in the summer of 1931, a small English village near a university was plagued by mysterious destructive forces. A retired philosopher fell into a coma and, a few days later, his house was destroyed in a fire, killing him, a medical attendant, and his housekeeper. Three local people died mysteriously in various ways, and one vanished. Many animals disappeared. There were power failures and collapses of buildings and other structures. This was because the philosopher had (accidentally or deliberately) called the archetypes into the world, and they were starting to absorb their ectypes. Another philosopher managed to put it all right.

The Greater Trumps (1932)
There is a magic "chess set" that continually "plays" its own game, using 78 little golden figures on a great, round board. These figures are the originals of the tarot card images. The "chess set" is in the care of a family of gypsy extraction, now respectably bourgoise. They used to have cards attuned to the set, but they were destroyed in 1932, during a "freak" (magical) snowstorm centered on their country house.

Shadows of Ecstasy (1933)
Nigel Considine was an English adventurer in the British African colonies. He claimed to have discovered, and to teach, a way of turning all the emotional energy created by joy, love, and beauty into strength and life, a path to immortality. He teamed up with various African chiefs and occultists and started a political movement, the "African High Executive," dedicated to the end of colonialism and, more ultimately, of rationalist civilization. Considine was assassinated by a disgruntled follower before things got very far (unlike in the book, where an alternate world war looms) and the Executive movement died or went underground. Of course, he did claim to be able to rise from the dead...

Descent into Hell (1937)
In the summer of 1937, in the prosperous London suburb of Battle Hill, noted poet and playwrite Peter Stanhope helped a local theatre group put on a pretty little play. By the time it was put on, an old woman died and went to heaven, an old man died and went to hell, a suicide ghost went free, we learn tulpas are real and dangerous, we meet Lilith come way down in the world, and two young women are terrorized by dopplegangers.

All Hallows' Eve (1945)
Right after World War II, "Father Simon le Clerk" appeared on the international scene, preaching a new religion or revival movement (the details never made clear). No one realized this was his cover for a bid at messiahship, energized by Hermetic magic. His plot was foiled by a young widower, the ghost of his late wife, and their friends. We learn about astral projection and astral London, and how dangerous dopplegangers can be. In the book, Fr. Simon's movement becomes bigger and more famous than the Inkliverse might want to let it. In any case, it dies with Simon.

Williams's Arthurian poetry cycle, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, should not be neglected. Not only are they major works of an Inkling, they were also direct influences on Lewis's That Hideous Strength. They are the source for the whole idea of Logres as a secret and semi-arcane society dedicated to the spiritual protection of Britain, an idea central to Lewis's novel. Thus it is the root of the Inkliverse system of Orders and Cabals.

But accommodations must be made. Lewis's Merlin, who must take precedence, is fully human or only slightly eroded from an original humanity. Williams's Merlin is a personification of time. To reconcile these, I will say that the Inkliverse Merlin was Lewis's Merlin but personified time, not in his original nature, but in his office. We know he belonged to a mysterious "Atlantean Circle," and I posit that members of the Circle had permanent roles as metaphysical personifications. Following Williams, we have at least three members of the Circle and three roles:

Merlin's magic revolved around time as its main theme. In the Matter of Britain, he is at least as much prophet as magician. Time magic also fits in perfectly well with the events of That Hideous Strength, in which Merlin survives into the 20th century by a temporal enchantment and makes at least one prophecy.

P'o-lu also appears in the cycle, establishing it as a very long-lived society. It does not, however, have any direct contact with Arthurian Britain. The contact is limited to an abyssal struggle between the polyps of P'o-lu and Broceliande, the magical forest of Britain, which is also, in some places, a submarine forest.

Broceliande is best put in Williams's astral geography, with connections to be found, sometimes, in British forests. Other places important to the cycle are Camelot and Lyonesse, Sarras and Carbonek:

Williams makes Arthur contemporary with Islam, in keeping with the medieval anachronism that Sir Palomides was a Saracen knight converted to Christianity by Sir Percival. This is at least a century's worth of anachronism, since Mohammed started preaching in 592, while the most commonly accepted dates for a historical Arthur hover around 500. So we will make Palomides a convert from Manicheanism.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010