Opening Passages: From Shadows of Ecstasy:
Roger Ingram's peroration broke over the silent dining hall: "He and such as he are one with the great conquerors, the great scientists, the great poets; they have all of them cried of the unknown: 'I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms.'" (p. 465)
From The Greater Trumps:
"...perfect Babel," Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and too up the evening paper."
"But Babel never was perfect, was it?" Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. (p. 605)
Summary: In Shadows, Nigel Considine has discovered the ability to concentrate his energy so thoroughly that he can impose his will on others and influence their minds. With this power, and as representative of the 'schools' of African witchcraft, he has united African tribes against the colonial powers of Europe, threatens to start a new world order, and perhaps has overcome the power of death. Standing against him are mostly just a completely unexceptional Anglican priest, a good-natured skeptic and free thinker, and a Zulu king who has been rendered powerless by Considine's manipulations -- a weak and makeshift and somewhat unconvincing alliance of priest, prophet, and king against Considine. And who is Considine, really?
The best character in the novel is the Zulu king, Inkamasi, who gets remarkably little time given his overall importance. A true king, he is a convincing depiction of the charisma of kingship, even though he does not have the self-possession required to resist Considine's juggernaut energy. He has several of the best lines, and the reaction of other characters to him tells us more about them than about anything else. Of particular note is Rosamond, who is overwhelmed by Inkamasi's charisma, and in some sense falls in love, but reacts very poorly to him due to her prejudices about his black skin, which are shown to be quite common among the English throughout the story.
The novel is essentially a Fu Manchu story, but with Africa -- indeed, I've heard a story, which may be apocryphal (in the association with this novel in particular; the story itself comes from Williams), that Williams read one of Rohmer's novels, said, "I could do better than that," and wrote Shadows. There is a notable difference between the two, though. Fu Manchu, while in part Western-educated, is Chinese; Considine, while African-educated, is English. In the novel the colonized nations of Africa rise up against the colonizers with an apparently unstoppable force; but this uprising is itself the result of Considine, with the help of the 'schools', overthrowing, subverting, or dominating the legitimate rulers of Africa. What the colonial powers of Europe see only as the Black Peril turns out to be -- an Englishman's conquest of Africa.
It is but one of many ambiguities in this strangely ambiguous novel, which has no hard lines, only opposing perspectives. And perhaps that is part of the point. The story is about the nature of power, which, as it is found among us, is inevitably ambiguous. If you only see power, you will never get more than ambiguity.
With The Greater Trumps, Williams seems to hit his stride as a novelist; in some ways it is the most cleanly structure of his books, and we start getting more realistic characters given more realistic characterization, without any sacrifice of the more Williams-ish aspects. Technically, it works very well and I think the description of the snowstorm is some of Williams's most impressive descriptive work. I think it ends up being somewhere in the middle of Williams's novels in terms of quality, however; novelistic techniques are employed better in the later novels, and The Place of the Lion's portmanteau Neoplatonism is a far richer source of theme and imagery of the Williams-ish side than the Tarot are or could be. I had noted that the latter's Neoplatonism also helps to give an appropriate context for Williams's tendency to describe things in terms of abstractions, one in which that abstracting makes perfect sense; that's missing here, and the lack is sometimes felt. Nonetheless, there is much that is engaging about the work.
Nancy Coningsby is likely to marry Henry Lee, not entirely to the approval of her father, Lothair Coningsby, because Henry is gypsy and Mr. Coningsby has a prejudice against gypsies. Mr. Coningsby has recently inherited a friend's collection of card decks (a very disappointing inheritance), but Henry discovers that one of these decks of cards is the deck of cards, the Tarot pack that tracks and manipulates the underlying order of the world. This Tarot pack does this because it is linked to a collection of moving images that were created by someone attempting to capture an image of that underlying order; this collection Henry's family has been protecting. The lesser suits of the Tarot pack track, and give power, over the material elements of the world; the higher suits give these elements forms, and the Greater Trumps are the ultimate principles of the whole world-order. Misusing them will inevitably lead to grave consequences, and setting things right requires uncovering something about the card that both is and is not a Greater Trump, the zero card, The Fool, which is linked to the central image that does not move and yet is everywhere in the dance of images.
The story takes place at Christmas, and this is quite important, although some parts of this thread are the weakest parts of the novel. There is a recurring phrase, "adore the mystery of love", from John Byrom's Christmas hymn, "Christians, Awake":
Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Savior of the world was born.
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above;
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God Incarnate and the Virgin's Son.
And Joanna, the crazy relative of the Lees who thinks that she is the goddess Isis, finds the 'child' she has been looking for in Nancy, who is sort of the 'Messias' for the events of the story. But the Christmas side of it is not as well developed as it could be, I think. I think we run into the problem that Williams, again, likes to talk about important things in abstractions, and Christmas is, of all holy days, the one that is least amenable to this sort of abstracting; it is not about abstractions but about Mother and Child (the Mother and the Child). The Egyptian mythology aspect to it, which links the Tarot, traditionally said to capture Egyptian wisdom, with the gypsies, who get their name according to folk etymology from Egypt, works much, much better; the myth of Isis even fits better with Christmas than anything the novel does with Christmas itself. This is the second time I've read the novel, and I'm still not entirely sure where Williams was going with the Christmas angle.
I confess I didn't like some of the characters so much in this novel, either, although Mr. Coningsby really grew on me; I suppose I also find it amusing that Mr. Coningsby, the representation of rational intellect in this work, is a peevish, obstinate, and unimaginative person who has difficulty understanding anything that is going on and who keeps wanting to deliver witty retorts but suffers from perpetual esprit d'escalier. I also like that nobody hates him for any of this; it's just who he is as a member of the family. Nancy and Henry aren't bad, but I didn't really get them as The Lovers, and Sybil is sometimes excellent and sometimes just dull. But the story itself is probably the most 'exciting' of Williams's stories -- it's a story where a lot of interesting things happen, and it has some of Williams's best descriptive work.
Favorite Passages: From Shadows of Ecstasy:
"If you can seize Considine," the king said, -- "I say, if you can -- it will not be easy. For the greatest energy is in him, he and he alone is the centre of all the schools; it is he who holds power, either by the initiation or by the sleep, over the royalties of Africa; he is the union of their armies; without him the energies of the adepts will be divided, the generals will quarrel, the armies will fight. I tell you this, because you have saved me twice, and because I do not think mankind can be saved without intellect and without God." (p. 532)
From The Greater Trumps:
The cry shook the golden light; it vanished. Amabel, gazing, saw Miss Coningsby in the hall and the old woman lying in a heap at the foot of the stairs, and before she had time to move she saw the other visitors coming flying down them. They cam very swiftly but as if they also came in order; the lovers first, still hand in hand, and after them Mr. Coningsby, still anxiously watching Nancy, and thinking as fast as he could that he must keep in touch with her, whatever happened. And after him again came Ralph and Stephen, distracted from their mutual hostility, but with all their strength ready and vigilant. The three great orders of grace and intellect and corporeal strength, in those immature servants of their separate degrees, gathered round the place where Sybil kneeled by Joanna, and the search within and the search without were joined. (p. 748)
Recommendation: Recommended, although neither is Williams at his strongest.
Charles Williams, Charles Williams Omnibus, Oxford City Press (Oxford: 2012).