Essay / Literature

Intimations of Eternity: George MacDonald, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers on the Medieval Imagination

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?—T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

In T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem, The Love Letters of J. Alfred Prufrock, there is a haunting quality to the way he concludes it: in a disenchanted world of tea cups, marmalade and toast, with the occasional interruption of women “talking of Michaelangelo,” the image of a bygone age of enchantment-the mermaids-makes her appearance. These mythical sea creatures sing to each other, and yet “I do not think they will sing to me.” This dreamlike world, in the end, is just that-a dream, where mermaids sing, and where “sea girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown” interrupt our prosaic existence. But in the end, “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

This, I think, captures a very key idea and intuition in modernism, one which Eliot certainly draws upon-the near-total alienation of modern man who, unable to be fulfilled by the promises of “science,” is left alienated, no longer able to draw on a world of enchantment. The Nietzcshean search for autonomy has ended in alienation, and no longer do the mermaids sing to us.

But into this lonely world step three individuals who saw things quite differently, for whom the medieval cosmos still held sway: George MacDonald, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers. The first two wrote about other worlds that erupted and entered into our own, and Dame Dorothy Sayers, famous especially for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels, ended her life, inspired by Charles Williams, to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy, that poetic bard of medieval cosmology.

George MacDonald perhaps captured a fundamental impulse latent in the Romantic movement: the Faustian strife and struggle, the importance of feeling and emotion as at least a balance against rationalism. In Lilith, perhaps one of his most famous works, (along with Phantastes) Mr. Vane, the main character, is a very unlikely hero. He, like Wagner, Faust’s assistant, is primarily a reader, and he does not venture much outside the library he has inherited. His sense of reality is shaken by a book he finds in his library that he cannot read, and, guided by a raven/librarian, he enters into a world quite outside of his ordinary experiences, where he will be challenged to rethink who he is and what his place is in the world. It is a fantasy encompassing a wide range of adventures where, like a knight-errant, he experiences triumphs and tragedies that bring him closer to his true self. His attempts to save Lilith, Adam’s mythical “first wife”, leads to the death of his true love, Lona. Throughout, Raven, his guide (who turns out to be redeemed Adam), gives him instructions, which Mr. Vane follows, but not completely, thus bringing a number of disasters upon himself. In the end though devastated by the loss of Lona, he learns a fundamental truth, both about himself, and about the world: “Now I knew that life and truth were one, that life mere and pure is in itself bliss”. He comes to “know himself”, but this self-knowledge comes in light of another world, perhaps even more real than himself, where his beloved lives. That world reveals itself more and more to Vane, until he erupts in praise: “See every little flower straighten its stalk, lift up its neck, and with outstretched hand stand expectant: something more than the sun, greater than the light, is coming-none the less surely coming that it is long upon the road! What matters to-day, or to-morrow, or ten thousand years to Life himself, to Love himself! He is coming, is coming, and the necks of all humanity are stretched out to see him come!… It was a glorious resurrection-morning. The night had been spent in preparing it!” (Phantastes and Lilith. Eerdman’s, 1964 p. 420) Here MacDonald turns, like many other Romantic poets and novelists, to the medieval world, drawing on the knightly tradition. But for MacDonald’s character Vane, these adventures lead to defeat, but only in defeat can he be raised to victory, much like the Spencer’s Redcrosse Knight. He rises again, not for the purpose of continual strife, like Faust, but for submission to a higher truth, where he finds his rest.

This same sense of the numinous characterizes the novels of Charles Williams, who, in answer to the modernist crisis, creates stories where, rather than the hero coming into a world of enchantment, like Lewis, that world increasingly intrudes into his world. This comes across most strongly in War in Heaven (1930), which begins as a regular detective story, but then ends up as a fantastic tale where the clue to the murder ends up being the discovery of the Holy Grail. Both the heavenly and the demonic continually enter into this world, the Arch-Bishop calling upon God through prayer, and the antagonist, Gregory Persimmons, calling upon the powers of hell. Williams begins in an almost prosaic way, calling to mind images of contemporary England (at least contemporary to the time he is writing), and then brings the reader into an eternal reality that manifests itself incessantly to the point that it cannot be ignored, like the mermaids in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. Even Prester John, that legendary bishop-king in the east who provided the medieval mind with a great amount of fodder for tales of exploits to find him and enlist his help against the Saracens, makes his appearance, providing valuable help in solving the murder. But one book in particular, his work of literary criticism titled The Image of Beatrice: A study in Dante, reveals his indebtedness to the medieval world view, one that sees the unseen world as a reality, and one that can be known through the only faculty that will give us access to it-faith. After Virgil comes Beatrice as a guide, and this, for Williams, is fundamental to Dante’s growth in knowledge and wisdom: the transition from rational knowledge to a knowledge that can only be attained through union with the beloved. Beatrice, then, represents a higher, mystical way of knowing.

The influence The Figure of Beatrice had on Dorothy Sayers was significant enough to encourage her to undertake perhaps the greatest crowning achievement of her literary career: the translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with her own commentary and explanation of the images. She herself had studied Medieval Literature at Oxford, but wrote detective novels to keep body and soul together, centered around the hero Lord Peter Wimsey, that aristocrat/detective with an air of foppishness about him. These novels established her as a novelist, but it was in her translation of the Divine Comedy that her literary powers shine forth most brilliantly, in that she will use the full powers of the literary possibilities of the English language to match the Italian text. This project drew upon her three strengths-her knowledge of medieval literature, her interest in theology, and her literary powers. Most importantly, this project captured her attention precisely because underneath the these shocking and at times unnerving images that Dante employs is the most fundamental truth of the epic poem: the soul’s search for God. (See Introduction, Inferno, p. 49) This is a reality that the modernist 20th century had forgotten, and was in desperate need to see again.

What binds these authors together, then, is their keen sense of the eternal, and how the soul, in its sojourn on earth, really yearns for Paradise, and will not be satisfied with anything less. The images they employed to capture this need were ancient and medieval images, making them interact with their contemporary world. Macdonald, writing for the Romantics, and Williams, writing in a Modernist age, nonetheless had their characters interact with a world outside themselves. Sayers translates a medieval classic in such a way as to bring us face-to-face with that eternal quest we are all set upon. With these three authors, Prufrock finally has what he had been eluding him—the song of the mermaids.

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