Book Reviews
The Greater Trumps: Charles Williams
16th Mar 2010Posted in: Book Reviews, Featured Comments Off on The Greater Trumps: Charles Williams
The Greater Trumps: Charles Williams

This is a strange book. I began reading in hopes that the author’s intention was to use fiction to teach the meanings of the major arcana or greater trumps of the tarot, but having finished the novel I have serious doubts on that score. The story seems as mysterious and open to interpretation as the tarot itself, even to one with a fair amount of knowledge of literature, history and the esoteric.

Lothair Coningsby, a Warden of Lunacy no less (although sadly, his duties/experiences in this position are not enlarged upon), inherits a collection of playing cards, among which is a set of tarot painted on papyrus. Henry Lee, a lawyer of gypsy origin newly engaged to Coningsby’s daughter Nancy, recognises these as the original tarot paintings and part of a set of gold tarot figures in the possession of his grandfather, Aaron Lee, and determines to reunite the cards with the figures in order to solve their mystery and gain power for himself. An experiment with Nancy proves to Henry that she has a natural sensitivity to the occult, and she promises to help him. The Coningsbys are invited for Christmas to the house of Aaron Lee to achieve this end and, on the table in the inner sanctum behind the black curtain, witness the eternal dance of the golden figures of the tarot as they weave through a mist of their own creation. To the amazement of Aaron and Henry, Sybil, Nancy’s aunt, becomes the first person in living memory to see the stationary figure of the Fool taking part in the dance. This, as well as her name, her serenity, her insistence on Love and her seeming ability to understand and placate Joanna, an incoherent and aged relative of the Lees (who believes she is Isis looking for the lost Osiris) that they met on the road, seems to mark Sybil as having somehow reached a higher level of humanity, and this is borne out during the supernatural chaos that follows. Henry attempts to obtain permanent possession of the cards by killing Nancy’s father, using those same cards to raise elemental forces, but in her attempt to save her lover from the blizzard he’s called up Nancy knocks the cards from his hands and they scatter to the winds, so losing Henry the ability to halt the mayhem and stop the destruction of the whole world.

First published in 1932, the initial pages feel very dated in both language and the characters that move through them, and the mingling of the contemporary mundane material world and the metaphysical world that make up the plot. Some seem little more than stereotypes (archetypes?): the bluff but good-hearted patriarch, the down-to-earth brother, the mad crone, the girl who’ll do (almost) anything for her lover. And like Nancy, there’s a feeling here of finding one’s way through some lost branch of the Mysteries, a sense that if only one could grasp the shifting and hidden meanings and relationships between the tarot archetypes and their human counterparts and access the messages that seem to be concealed in the book some enlightenment will follow. There’s the sense too that Charles Williams was supremely confident in his own view of the occult as portrayed in the book, in Christianity (Christmas and the missing god/child must be significant), and above all, the redeeming power of Love, yet I couldn’t help wondering exactly how deep was his knowledge of the tarot itself, and whether he used the archetypes of the major arcana or the greater trumps merely as a fictional device to put across a quite different message.

Some knowledge of the tarot archetypes and images will provide not only food for thought but temporary anchors or moments of clarity, especially during the blizzard in the latter third of the book, although it could be that having read The Greater Trumps some readers may be driven to delve more deeply and research the fascinating tarot itself. Henry Lee and Nancy are clearly The Lovers of the major arcana, the roles of the others seemed less constant, and working them out and trying to tie it all together a task whose worth each reader will have to decide for him or herself. Charles Williams was an enigmatic character, ” a member of The Inklings and a creative Christian theologian with connections to both C.S Lewis and Tolkein, and had (arguably), knowledge of the magickal theory and practice of societies like The Golden Dawn. The book leaves one with the feeling that to reread will be to discover insights missed the first time, so I’ll be hanging on to this one.

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