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. Continue reading ‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams