Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Place of the Lion

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

Mr Berringer has fallen into an unconscious state leaving a space to be filled - a speaker must be found for his study group in the small, and fictional, English town of Smetham in Hertfordshire. Two of the ladies in the group approach a young local woman, working on her doctorate, Damaris Tighe. There is an apparent symmetry between Mr Berringer's work and her own - both are interested in the archetypal patterns that give shape to the world but whereas Mr Berringer is a practising adept of the magical, Ms Tighe is strictly a scholar presently tracing Plato's influence on Abelard and not in any form 'a believer'!

Mr Berringer's trance state, however, is about to upset Damaris' unbelief because he has opened a rift in the fabric of the world, the archetypes, having taken animal form, are afoot in the world, drawing their multiple types towards them for good and ill, mostly ill, for their power is abroad but not their virtue, nor the balance between them that Charles Williams suggests is provided by the reality of the creation.

For we are in a Charles Williams' novel where the normal patterns of everyday life are intruded upon by the magical, the otherworldly and the sacred in a way that happily suspends disbelief and as the drama unfolds, with liberal dashes of horror and beauty, asks of the reader big and interesting questions.

It was Plato himself that tells us that the 'Ideas' or 'Forms' - the ideal pattern after which every particular is modelled - are alive (and, therefore, subject to change in time) and here they appear as animals - the lion, the butterfly, the serpent, the horse, the eagle and the lamb - and are described with real conviction by Williams - the lion appears the epitome of lion-ness - but whereas in the created order of things - each idea is balanced against every other - here the 'idea' appears in its own naked realness and draws to itself that which most represents it - lions, of course, and an escaped lioness from a zoo is quickly transformed but also human beings who identify with the 'lion' or, in the case of Mr Tighe, Damaris' father, a butterfly collector, the beauty of the butterfly. As the story unfolds, you realise you are being asked to contemplate both the light and the dark of identification with any one quality. Is not the best truth of a human being a blend? You are also being asked to contemplate power - identification (or fundamentalism) gives one a certain power - the actions of certainty - but also stripped of anything of redeeming context, balance or empathy with difference. You become less human - as Mr Foster (subsumed by the lion) pursues his perceived enemies and Mrs Wilmot (subsumed by the serpent) writes poisoned pen letters setting to rights the village.

Likewise in Damaris you have the image of a woman wrapped up in an activity that has become its own justification. It has separated from any question of whether the ideas with which she deals are true (or good or beautiful) and her single minded quest for a position in an artificial, imbalanced world, in this case the academy, has made her self-centred, haughty and remote. In this she is contrasted with her suitor, her cousin, Anthony, who is introduced walking in the countryside with his friend, Quentin, and friendship becomes more than a metaphor for one of the ways, we maintain a balanced, whole presence in the world. It is Damaris' refusal to help Quentin that trips her into a dark encounter with one of the loosed powers and rescued by Anthony and by her own choices triggers her conversion to a new vision of herself and into a renewed relationship with Anthony. 

Meanwhile, it is Anthony supported by Damaris (and the bookshop assistant, Mr Richardson) who close the rift by recalling humanity's function in Adam (and Eve) of naming the animals that Williams' implies not only confers on them their unique, particular identity but does so with a pattern that recognises our and their complete interdependency. Nothing exists on its own, only in co-inherence, and the seed of all fault is to forget this. 

The book ends on this act of renaming and restoring to harmony - one is tempted to describe this as an ecological parable. Many will demur. They will argue that it is human beings' assumption that they are the centrepiece of the creation that is the source of our problems. But Williams is of a different party. He would argue that it is only since we displaced ourselves as cosmic guardians and saw ourselves, in an increasingly fractured way, as simply 'part of nature', an animal amongst other animals, that our serious despoiling of that very 'nature' or 'environment' began in earnest, without self-correcting limit. It is precisely because we do not exercise the responsibility we have been given in a cosmos completed by us, a co-creation with God, that we have settled for being 'only human' amongst the other animals, which has often meant, that we become less than other animals, wrapped in seeking an identity, satisfaction and consumption, restless activity rather than a composed crafting, a repairing of cosmos. This activity requires one to take the 'forms' seriously - the archetypal patterns that unfold into the world - in their co-inherence  - not to identify with any particular characteristic or manipulate them - but in naming them, honouring them to see the world aright and allow it to act with the full dignity and harmony in which it is made - in truth and goodness bearing forth beauty.


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