‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams

Back in the 1970s, in the flush of an upsurge of interest in C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, Eerdmans Publishers brought out American editions of Charles Williams’ novels. One that came later than the others and (if my perceptions were correct) did not stay in print long, was The Greater Trumps. Williams is not a writer for everyone, and this book in particular was especially unsuited for Eerdmans’ market. I borrowed it from a friend and read it at the time. I recalled it over the years with bemusement and some affection. Recently I acquired a complete Kindle edition of all Williams’ novels (which oddly seems to have now disappeared from Amazon), and read it again. My reaction is mixed.

Prof. Bruce Charlton, of the invaluable The Notion Club Papers blog, has been posting about Williams quite a lot recently, and has brought out some information that was not well known in the past – even, apparently, to Lewis himself. Charles Williams was not the saintly, highly spiritual character his friends thought he was. Without judging his salvation, he seems to have carelessly crossed a number of moral and theological lines. He was serially unfaithful to his wife, and he dabbled in the occult. And that’s where the first, obvious problem with The Greater Trumps makes itself apparent. The Greater Trumps is a Christian fantasy centered on the Tarot, the occult system of fortunetelling through cards.

Mr. Coningsby (his given name, to his lifelong distress, is Lothair) is a Commissioner in Lunacy – if I understand correctly, that is a civil service position delegated to evaluate the competence of people in the commitment process. He is a stuffy and unimaginative man, but not malicious. He has a sister, Sibyl, a middle-aged maiden lady who long ago renounced the flesh and devoted herself to loving everyone and everything around her, as expressions of the great Love (that is, of God). He also has a daughter, Nancy, who recently become engaged to a strange young man named Henry Lee. Henry is descended from Gypsies (spelled “Gipsies” here), and – although he genuinely loves Nancy – he has an ulterior motive in their relationship. Mr. Coningsby recently inherited, from a friend, a valuable collection of antique playing cards. Among these packs, unknown to him or to anyone except for certain Gypsies, is the very first, original Tarot pack. This pack was created by a great mystic ages ago, and partakes of the very nature of the universe itself, along with the mystical powers that control it. For that reason, the cards not only can tell the future, but can be used as magical talismans to manipulate nature.

The Coningsbys accept an invitation to spend Christmas with Henry and his father in their remote country house (it’s an interesting element that Mr. Coningsby, though he does not like Henry, never raises race as an objection to the marriage. He worries about the young man’s character, with some justification). On the way they encounter Henry’s great-aunt, a wandering Gypsy witch who thinks she’s the Egyptian goddess Isis, and who gets along surprisingly well with Sybil. Mr. Coningsby has brought the Tarot pack, at the Lees’ request, but flatly refuses their offer to buy it. This prompts them to take radical action, the results of which are very nearly disastrous – for the whole world.

I found some things to like in The Greater Trumps. Unlike Prof. Charlton, who reviewed the novel briefly here, I rather liked the character of Sybil – though I agree with him that she’s not as good a character as Williiams thinks. Her universal benevolence leads her to pretty much go along with anything anyone suggests, since it’s all part of Love’s Great Plan. This is not, in fact, how Christian morality works. Also, the writing is pretty discursive. Williams desperately wants us to grasp his vision of the coinherence of all things in the universe, and spends a lot of time trying to express it in poetic language. I mean, a lot of time. This book does not exactly move along.

And, of course, the whole business of the Tarot is dangerous on the face of it. Christians might be tempted to experiment with occult practices through the influence of this book. That could lead them as far astray as its author seems to have gone, or worse.

All in all, I can’t recommend The Greater Trumps. It’s a difficult novel to read, and carries a certain number of dangers. Unless you’re an Inklings enthusiast, interested to complete your reading, you might want to give it a pass.

7 thoughts on “‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams”

  1. Agreed. We might mitigate some criticism of CW on the basis of the assumption that -he- would have assumed readers would not get seriously interested in occult practices. But since the 1960s there has, of course, been a development of widespread interest in various forms of occultism. The concern here is not just with what some people are pleased to regard as “proof-texts” against forbidden practices. It’s that these things, for some people, have a fascination that makes authentic Christian spirituality as known by them (perhaps not known very well) seem a pale and insipid thing as compared to the flavor of magic, the esoteric, etc.

  2. I read through the Charles Williams books in college. I’m not sure that I could get through them now, but at the time I really liked the weirdness. 😀

    I remember noting that his first book and last had a lot of similarities, but that he had succeeded in not falling in love with his villain in the last book like he had in the first.

  3. I read several of Williams novels and liked them, although have not read this one.

    As for Tarot you might be interested in a series Tom MacDonald wrote where he goes into the fake history of the Tarot popularly known when actually it started in Italy in the 15th century and were developed with Catholic imagery. This was the first card game to introduce trumps (Triumphs).

    He provides a disclaimer:

    “I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2013/07/reclaiming-tarot/

  4. I do love some of Charles Williams’ books (namely, Descent Into Hell and All Hallows Eve). But the person who introduced me to them also turned out to be serially unfaithful in his marriage (especially emotional affairs with much younger woman) and in at least one instance, used Williams’ idea of substitutionary love to justify it.

    I haven’t been able to read Williams since.

  5. It would not be a spoiler to mention that Williams seems to have invented a table with moving figures, at the country house in the keeping of uncle Aaron Lee, and seems to put the case that the original Tarot pack and the table go together, and that any conventional attempts to ‘work’ with derivative Tarot packs (for ‘fortune telling’) are basically worthless.

    This would seem a basic (if imaginatively presented) discouragement and discrediting of Tarot cards as anything but the playing cards that they are historically. It is not obvious nudge, nudge, wink, wink occult propaganda of a kind which was and still is all too common.

    On the other hand, Gevel Lindop’s biography reports Williams had a pack of Tarot cards of his own and puts the case that he may have had (fairly) direct relations with the Order of the Golden Dawn as well as his well-documented membership in the in some senses emphatically ‘anti-magical’ Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.

    Williams certainly engaged in practices with several young women (single or married) which might be described as ‘magical’ and for which some of his works in a more roundabout way may be considered as propagandizing.

    This possibility – of occult propaganda which (if it is indeed present) seems to have eluded both Lewis and Tolkien – is something it is good for any reader to be aware of, and something deserving of more study and discussion. It is not, in itself, a reason for not reading Williams and attempting to sift the wheat from the chaff. Of course, no one has to read him. But I, for one, am still glad I have, and will continue to do so.

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