‘The Chapel of the Thorn’ by Charles Williams {BookTalk}

BookTalk is a new series of blog posts, where I discuss non-Tolkien books in concise and honest reviews. Read on dear reader …


The Chapel of the Thorn (cover).png

Having focused my reading habits on the works of Tolkien and Lewis for years now, not to mention acquiring a book or two about the Inklings, I thought it was the right time to dip into some of the works by other members of that literary group.

And what better way to do this than by exploring the somewhat obscure figure of Charles Williams himself?

I was encouraged to tackle The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem, following several visits to the blog (The Oddest Inkling) — created and maintained by the book’s editor and Inklings scholar, Sørina Higgins.

This work is a two-act verse drama that centres around the conflict of a number of characters (whose beliefs are primarily Christian and pagan), as they contend for control over the Crown of Thorns, stowed away in a chapel on the southern coast of England.

The play was composed by Williams around 1910/12 and has now been published for the first time in a simple, yet beautifully presented paperback book.

I was not sure whether I had opted for the most appropriate work as a beginner, it being my first time tackling Charles Williams. Thankfully, Sørina Higgins’s introduction is insightful, staggeringly-detailed and eye-opening. I was instantly drawn into the world of Williams, gaining an understanding of his motivations and the development of the poem itself. It also serves as a great essay to accompany the work itself — offering details on the structure of the poem, its characters and storyline.

I knew from having done some generic reading about Williams that he was not the easiest of authors to read, compared to others whose works are more clear and straightforward. Yet, the introduction gave me enough information and confidence to tackle The Chapel of the Thorn.

Having said that, the content is rather dense. The play itself is not too long, being split up into two acts and the dialogue shifts around to different characters at a fairly rhythmic pace. However, the tone and overall style, together with certain archaic terms and modes of discourse, might be daunting to some.

Still, it is a remarkable piece of work that explores themes of faith and human motivations. As I was reading, I was struck by the complexity and thoughtfulness that must have went into its composition. Considering the author would have been only 24 years old at the time of writing, the verses that make up the entire poem are astonishing.

There are some lines that really pack a punch. In certain verses, constructed with a simple arrangement of words, Williams manages to delver a highly-thoughtful and philosophical message which resonates throughout the reading.

The book also contains some extensive notes following the presentation of the two acts. It is both a remarkable feat by the editor, as well as an informative look into the author’s revisions, as he attempted to perfect the verses and shift words to fit better the overall scope of the poem. Truly, although the notes are exhaustive, they offer a tantalising glimpse into the human aspect of the finished work, and provide for an excellent opportunity to gleam at  the poem’s development.

The Chapel of the Thorin also includes a fascinating essay by biographer David Llewellyn Dodds, who further complements Higgins’s stellar editing and adds further insight into this rather sidelined Inkling, overshadowed by the more popular figures of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

I share the same interest for Arthurian literature as Williams did, and so I ended up purchasing a copy of Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, which I have heard is a magnificent piece of work by Williams but also contains some of his most complex verses.

I approach its reading with excitement and a dose of trepidation. Expect a review for this book sometime soon …

9 thoughts on “‘The Chapel of the Thorn’ by Charles Williams {BookTalk}

  1. Williams deserves to be much better known. I first heard of him through the references to his work on Dante by Dorothy Sayers in her translation of the Inferno.

    Will you be posting about his other books ? I hope so 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    As someone who got to see the manuscript of The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem but not to read it, I was thrilled with Sørina Higgins’ transcription and introduction of this early Charles Williams poems. I wasn’t surprised when it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award. James at the Tolkienist blog has a review that is worth reading.

  3. Thank you for this!

    As an Arthurian literature lover, you might want to add the novel War in Heaven to one of the next things by Williams you read. I think it was the first full work of his I ever read, after running into a discussion of his poetry with some samples in one or another enjoyable overview book on Arthurian literature. (I ordered the good old Eerdmans paperback with Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars and Lewis’s Arthurian Torso in one thick volume at around the same time – years later, we were originally hoping to include Arthurian Torso in my edition of his Arthurian poetry, too, but the good folks at Boydell & Brewer finally decided that would make it too thick.) I did not realize at once I had in fact already enjoyed all of Dorothy Sayers’ references to and quotations from him in her Inferno translation to which James refers – that that was the same person!

    Good wishes for the Taliessin poetry – I’d say, resist discouragement and just see what you find to enjoy! (One of Williams’s friends told us in a reading group that when she first got it, she just read it right through a couple times, even propping it up in front of her when doing the dishes or hand washing, baffled but fascinated!)

    1. Dear David, thank you so much for taking the time to post this and sharing your experience with us. I will certainly take up your suggestion with regards to War in Heaven and am really looking forward to tackling the Taliessin poetry next 🙂

  4. Thanks for this enthusiastic review, James! I really appreciate it, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the play. If you found my intro helpful, you might like my intro to this edition of the Arthurian poems: https://www.amazon.com/Taliessin-through-Logres-Region-Summer/dp/1944769315/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1532964325&sr=1-3.

    And of course, I have to put in a plug for “The Inklings and King Arthur”!! https://www.amazon.com/Inklings-King-Arthur-Williams-Barfield/dp/1944769897/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1532964325&sr=1-2

    Do let me know what you think of the poems, please. 🙂

    1. Let’s add a plug for the guest commentary series on the poems in Taliessin through Logres at The Oddest Inkling, too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s