Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams (1932)

The Greater Trumps is seen by some as being a companion piece to The Place of the Lion. Williams’ first three novels all dealt with aspects of the supernatural invading the natural world—a magic realism of sorts. In “Lion” and “Trumps,” this continues, but the supernatural is highly symbolic. Whereas “Lion” used the Platonic archetypes, “The Greater Trumps” uses a fictitious deck of Tarot cards.

The plot, as lean as it is, concerns a family of Gypsies who seek to obtain the original deck of Tarot. It is possessed by a man who has inherited it from a friend, with the instruction that he in turn must bequeath it to the London Museum. The man’s daughter is engaged to the son of the gypsy family, and since the man will not willingly give the deck away, the plan is to use the deck to kill the man by producing a storm. It seems the deck can be used to control the elements, because the deck represents the supernatural powers that control reality. These powers are manifest also in a set of figurines that perform and endless dance on a table in the house where the gypsies live. As if all that is not dense enough, there is an attempt by Williams to assign meaning to the various figures of the Tarot, with the Fool holding the most important role of all.

This is the least directly Christian of Williams’ novels. He does bring hints of it in through discussions of the Christ figure, and references to the Athanasian Creed. (Williams brings this creed up in other novels as well.)

The biggest hurdle keeping the reader from fully engaging in the many interesting ideas Williams raises in this novel is the fact that the characters and plot are almost non-existent. When compared to Lewis, Williams falls short in that he wants to present ideas in a story that is pure afterthought. Lewis used to tell rich stories that happened to give the reader a lot to think about.

Of course, the other problem here is that Williams presents a lot of compelling ideas without having decided what he really thinks about any of them. He leaves any connections to the truth to be made by the reader, if there are any to even be made.

1 comment:

  1. Although admittedly the plot is contrived to showcase Williams' ideas about the archetypes symbolized in the Tarot, I disagree about the characters. I first read this about 40 years ago, and it has come to mind again and again. Sybil is the most interesting, with her almost Buddhist-like external passivity which nonetheless accomplishes only and exactly what needs to be done. But the Lees are memorable to.

    I think the fact that Williams "leaves any connections to the truth to be made by the reader" is a feature, not a bug. That is exactly the point of the Tarot--it suggests, it hints, it points, but it does not define. It is a very right-brain thing, drawing the observer into the Gestalt of the card, but never limiting or explaining it. Williams tries to do the same with the ideas, letting the reader play with them and shuffle them, now in this pattern, now in that.

    Perhaps "Trumps" is one of Williams' lesser works, but it is still an enjoyable one and maybe more accessible to a beginning Williams reader than the really abstruse ones like "Many Dimensions."


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