Charles Williams: ‘The Greater Trumps’

It is the week of Nativity for traditional Orthodox Christians and it promises to be a white Christmas here in upper New York State where my family and I are living. More than eighty inches of snow since 1 December… In the slow-down to the lead-up to the big day Friday (services begin tomorrow night and will go through the weekend), I’ve put aside my writing and publishing projects for some reading between shoveling shifts. I’m on something of a Charles Williams binge of late after reading David Downing’s Looking for the King in which historical novel Williams is featured. I just finished his The Greater Trumps (1932) and I thought I’d share some very brief notes here for serious Potter readers of the echoes of Williams’ supernatural thriller that we find in the Hogwarts Saga.

In no particular order:

1. The Greater Trumps’ most interesting character is Sybil, the Aunt of the lead character, Nancy. She is not an occult figure or Prophetess as you might expect in a book featuring  Tarot Cards but a woman who is remarkably at peace at all times and a vehicle of love. I offer for your consideration the possibility that Professor Trelawney has the same name with a slightly different spelling and swears by the revelations of her Tarot deck as a hat tip to Williams’ hermetic Christian saint in Trumps.

2. The phrase “All is well” is spoken at three times at critical moments in the plot. We’ve discussed here at some length the possible source’s of the Epilogue’s last words, “All was well,” namely, Julian of Norwich, Henry Scott Holland, and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I don’t think what are almost certainly Julian references in The Greater Trumps displaces any of those possibilities, but I think the Williams book has to be added to the list.

3. The alchemical trappings of the book are not obvious but I do think Williams is deliberately using Henry Lee and Nancy Coningsby as his novel’s Quarreling Couple. We see black-white-red, too, in the beginning of the book being dark to melancholic, the storm of wind and water that Henry conjures at nightfall has the effects one expects in the white stage, and that storm is met in the story’s crisis by a golden mist reminiscent of God’s Glory, “the cloud of the beginning of things.” Nancy’s apotheosis by story’s end — Sybil declares she is the “Messias” — and the brilliance of the Light at the end of Christmas Day, well into the night, reflect her transformation consequent to her decision in church Christmas morning to “adore the mystery of love” (‘Christians, Awake!’ John Byrom). We still don’t have a clue as to what kind of alchemical books Ms. Rowling read before beginning to write Harry’s adventures; if she meant a host of alchemical novels rather than discursive texts on metallurgy or psychology, then Greater Trumps may be in the pile.

4. Love is the power that Aunt Sybil has and which her Nancy niece gains via her adoration (see #3).Sybil is able to heal injuries and mental disturbance with her prayers, which are extendings of her love rather than invocational requests. She also has power over the elements or natural forces others are incapable of enduring or acting on. Her counsel to Nancy in church to “Try it, darling,” that is, to give herself to love, the only reality, reminded this Potter-phile of the Headmaster’s comments about love to Harry. Nancy is a much quicker study…

5. It is love that gives Sybil the equanimity which is both supernatural in origin and in its effect on others. Williams writes: “Equanimity in her was not a compromise but a union, and the elements of that union, which existed separately in others, in her recognized themselves and something other than themselves which satisfied them.” Logos epistemology? I think so, especially given her ability to see The Fool, the naught card of the Tarot Greater Trumps, which Williams uses as a cipher for the Word or Christ. This sight, her transformed vision, reflects her ability to know more because of her identification with the Love that is the cause of existence and all knowledge. Y’know, like Harry Potter. [See Chapter 5 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures if that went right by you.]

6. Williams quite clearly spells out the soul triptych of the story whose powers he calls “grace and intellect and corporeal strength” in the finale by labeling the characters with these name tags as they come down the stairs: “the lovers” Nancy and Henry are Grace as the Couple is at last joined, Mr. Coningsby is “the Intellect” by which Williams means “rational mind” rather than anything spiritual (trust me!), and Ralph and Stephen are “corporeal strength” or body. Ms. Rowling, of course, pins much of the Hogwarts Saga drama on the body-mind-spirit triptych of Ron-Hermione-Harry.

7. One of the few important Tarot references in Harry Potter is the comi-tragic scene in Half-Blood Prince in which Harry sees the distracted Sybill Trelawney walking the halls the night Dumbledore is blasted from the Astronomy Tower. Hours before the Headmaster’s demise, the Divination Professor is flipping Tarot Cards and says:

The Headmaster has intimated that he would prefer fewer visits from me. I am not one to press my company upon those who do not value it. If Dumbledore chooses to ignore the warnings the cards show –” Her bony hand closed suddenly around Harry’s wrist. “Again and again, no matter how I lay them out – ” And she pulled a card dramatically from underneath her shawls. ” — the lightning-struck tower,” she whispered. “Calamity. Disaster. Coming nearer all the time …” (Prince, chapter 25, p. 543)

All the Greater Trumps in the Tarot deck are present in one scene or more in Williams’ thriller but only one of the cards other than The Fool is featured in a character’s transformation as the subject of a chapter with its name: The Falling Tower. As Williams describes it, it is the card more commonly known as The Lightning-Struck Tower.

8. And is it a Ring Composition? I’d have to give it a much more careful reading than I have to give a definite answer but there are enough signs of this to make the question worth exploring. Note, for instance, that the chapter which is the story center, Chapter 8 – Christmas Day in the Country, is the one in which Nancy decides to “adore the Mystery of Love,” which choice joins the problem set in the beginning and resolved in the end. Williams, too, discusses ‘Wheels within Wheels’ in chapter 15 which, with the near constant references to the Great Dance of the Cosmos reflected in the circular motion of the archetypal figures, the Images, means he understands and is using the circle as a story theme; it’s not much of a jump from that to story scaffolding. Especially as the story is in two neat halves: the last eight chapters are the events of Christmas Day. [For more on the Dance of the Cosmos, see Chapter 8 of E. M. W. Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture, an invaluable little guide.]

That’s all I noted on the first run through but I really wish this were a Charles Williams site, at least for a night, and that y’all had read the book so we could discuss what the man C. S. Lewis called the “esemplastic” element of the Inklings is saying in Trumps about the occult and its relationship to esoteric Christianity, not to mention his use of eye, hands, and light symbolism. Gavin Aschenden writes in his Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration about the “integration of natural and supernatural” in his novels and it’s not much of a struggle to see why they excited — and inspired — Lewis to try the same (as he did, of course, in Space Trilogy and the Narniad).

Lewis is the more obvious and much more discussed influence on Ms. Rowling, who, to my knowledge, has never mentioned Charles Williams in an interview (I await your correction). I suggest, though, that what Ms. Rowling almost certainly picked up from the one she has second hand from Lewis’ inspiration, Charles Williams.

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted.


  1. All seven (!) of the Charles Williams novels can be found and read online at Gutenberg-Australia (scroll down to ‘Charles Williams’).

  2. I found it very difficult to understand The Greater Trumps – the twice I read it; I found it hard to understand what was happening, who was speaking etc.

    Thos. Howard’s book on Charles Williams novels was a big help – I guess you already know it.

    Aside, Robertson Davies was a Jungian, and via this influence wrote a strongly Tarot-influenced trilogy (including alchemical ideas too, and Arthurian references – all in common with Charles Williams) the best of which is the first: Rebel Angels.

  3. Prompted by your Charles Williams binge, I have re-read for the fourth time (over a period of 24 years) Place of the Lion and enjoyed it enormously. I also found it profound in its spirituality.

    Chalres Williams is an author who *demands* re-reading. I often find my first reading makes little impact. I believe he was a technically flawed writer – i.e. not very competent – who made things worse by a mixture of self-indulgence and almost deliberate obscurity.

    However, these difficulties are diminished with each re-reading, and the strengths which emerge are tremendous and unique.

    Although by no means a Saint, and indeed very flawed in some respects, Williams was in some respects a person of extraordinary spiritual insight based (it seems) on direct experience.

    It is intoxicating and somewhat overwhelming to read someone who speaks with such *authority* on some of the deepest matters of human spiritual experience and aspiration. This much was evident to those who knew the man – among whom were CS Lewis and his brother Warnie, TS Eliot, Dorothy L Sayers and others of similar calibre.

  4. I’ve been on a bit “William’s binge” myself lately. I have novels left and then will hopefully be turning to his Arthurian Poetry.

    John, I just recently read your article, Potter is Here to Stay, in Christianity Today. Thank you. The article has inspired me, as a reader and inspiring writer, to continue plunging into William’s stories with even more vigor than before knowing, as you said so well, that writing essentially grows out of the “compost heap” of prior reading.

  5. Woops, I meant to say “I have two novels left…”

  6. Bruce Charlton says

    John – I have just realized that the Harry Potter novels are perhaps the best illustration of Charles Williams most distinctive ideas on co-inherence, substitution and exchange.

    (If you don’t already know these concepts, their origin can be found in CW’s He came down from heaven, or essays in The Image of the City, or in one of the biographies by Hadfield, Ridler (intro to the Image of the City) or Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings (for a simple version).

    I would expect that these ideas in HP were not drawn by JKR direct from CW, but rather represent a common perspective – they are, after all, imiplicit in mainstream Christian thought (they are not heretical!) – but the emphasis is distinctive in both cases.

    Nonethless the depiction of the operations of love across the Potter chronicles are the clearest example I have ever seen of what CW meant – much clearer than CW was ever able to achieve!

    Put the two together and there is an even deeper understanding of this central Christian mystery.

  7. Resource for the esemplastic citation above:

    In fact, it is C.S. Lewis who first affirmed the central role that Williams played in the meetings of the Inklings. In particular, Lewis emphasizes Williams’s energy and his unique ability to draw out and blend together the diverse threads of the group:

    [T]he importance of [Williams’s] presence was, indeed, chiefly made clear by the gap which was left on the rare occasions when he did not turn up. It then became clear that some principle of liveliness and cohesion had been withdrawn from the whole party: lacking him, we did not completely possess one another. He was (in the Coleridgian language) an ‘esemplastic’ force. (Lewis, C. S. Preface. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. 1947. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966. xi. (3)

    (3) The term “esemplastic” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and it means that something has the ability to shape many diverse ideas or things into unity. Coleridge uses the term in Volume I, Chapter 13 of his Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Coleridge influenced many of the Inklings; Owen Barfield wrote a book about his ideas entitled What Coleridge Thought.

  8. I just finished Descent of the Dove (1939) a few days back, which was well worth the effort. Lewis’s introduction to the Essays Presented to Charles Williams is also a gem worth reading and re-reading. I especially like what he said of death in the closing sentences.

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