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The Knowledge of the Fool & the Everlasting Dance
on 9 December 2008
Over the years I have read and re-read this 1932 novel by Charles Williams many times - it continues to fascinate me, exerts a peculiar hold upon my mind and provides unfailing stimulus for thought and contemplation (it is undoubtedly the most readable and entertaining of his works of fiction). 'The Greater Trumps' is a very strange sort of novel, a mystical thriller if you like, featuring the prototypal deck of Tarot cards which has by odd chance fallen into the hands of the prosaic and unimaginative Mr.Coninsgby. His daughter Nancy is being wooed by a young lawyer of Gypsy descent, Henry Lee and when he sees the deck the spiritual drama begins and the Coningsby's are invited to spend Christmas at the lonely house of Henry Lee's grandfather Aaron Lee who guards the secret inheritance of the Romanies and has long sought the innermost mysteries of the Tarot. A conspiracy to ruthlessly obtain the Tarots at all costs is afoot and here we have a central theme of Charles Williams' novels - the intended profaning of a sacred Mystery by those who would abuse it for ego-aggrandizement and the quest for personal power. In 'The Greater Trumps' the classic tarot figure of 'The Falling Tower' is the symbol of the fate which invariably engulfs those who attempt to lay hold of the Holy Mysteries of Magic to satisfy the all-too-egoic thirst for power and ascendancy and this timeless message is as pertinent as ever in an age where debased occultism of questionable motivation is all too prevalent. Henry and Aaron Lee's dark quest to wrest the Tarots from Mr Coningsby and murder him unwittingly unleashes primal powers which are entirely beyond their ability to control - for the archetypal potencies of the Divine World cannot be controlled or manipulated by the unworthy for their own ends and the attempt to do so cannot be made with impunity: thus the novel builds up to a compelling denouement which is also a transfiguring and mystical meditation upon the all-prevailing power of pure love...
The characterization in this novel is quite superb, from the romantic high spirits of Nancy, the faustian ambition of Henry Lee and the sublime equanimity of Aunt Sybil who amongst all the characters has truly attained to a high degree of spiritual freedom and thus plays a pivotal role: Sybil's selfless and calm wisdom contrasts strikingly with the hubristic greed of the magical 'adepts'. The dialogue is period 1930's and thus possess a charm all of it's own and the plot is superbly realised.
But skilfully woven through this brilliant and cautionary tale of young love, unlawful lust for power, satires on conventional mindedness and supernatural high jinks is an extended esoteric meditation upon the emblems of the Tarot as timeless Mysteries of Power, Images, Divine Ideas, Virtues and eternal Platonic Forms which is uniquely insightful, penetrating and unparalleled in its profundity. The suggestive concepts concerning Tarot which Williams imparts throughout are truly extraordinary. This beautifully-written novel conveys an exciting narrative which is at the same time a penetrating moral exploration of man's spiritual motivations and inner relation to the sacred. I consider 'The Greater Trumps' to be Charles Williams' little-known fictional masterpiece, an occult novel of rare brilliance. Williams' allusive, dense and poetic prose, curious gift for expressing extremely subtle shifts of perception and consciousness and the profoundly mystical Anglo-Catholicism which pervades his work means that he remains something of a coterie obsession and not everybody is able to appreciate his work. But Williams' reputation as a truly significant novelist, poet and theologian of genius is increasing and this novel provides a great introduction to CW's unique fictional and poetic oeuvre.