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Aren Roukema

Esotericism and Narrative: The Occult Fiction of Charles Williams situates the life and fiction of the Inkling Charles Williams in the network of modern occultism, with special focus on his initiatory experiences in A.E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Aren Roukema evaluates fictional projections of magic, kabbalah, alchemy and ritual experience in Williams’s seven novels of supernatural fantasy. From this specific analysis, he develops more broadly applicable approaches to the serious expression of religious experience in fiction. Roukema shows that esoteric knowledge has frequently been blurred into fiction because of its inherent narrativity and adaptability, particularly by authors already attracted to the syncretism, multivalence and lived fantasy of the modern occult experience.
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Aren Roukema

Abstract

Chapter One highlights pertinent elements of biography for both Williams and A.E. Waite, a major influence discussed frequently in the chapters to come. This is followed by a comparison of the central tenets of their philosophies and an illustration of the manner in which both men integrated Christian and occult elements into their belief systems—Williams relatively unproblematically, Waite with a greater degree of complex identity politics. The chapter concludes with a general critique of the tendency to bracket occultism from Christianity and mysticism, on both emic and etic levels, with a focus on deconstructing artificial dichotomies such as “occult vs. Christian” and “occult vs. mystical.”

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Aren Roukema

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This chapter closely examines the blend of Rosicrucian, Freemasonic, kabbalistic, alchemical, and magical symbolism and philosophy that Williams encountered in his ten-year involvement with A.E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (F.R.C.). The history of the F.R.C. is reviewed, including its roots in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Williams’s initiatic journey is reconstructed in detail from materials accessed at the Bibliotheca Hermetica Philosophica in Amsterdam, offering new biographical insight into his time with the order. The question of the modern occult nature of these experiences is then addressed via a comparison of the order’s rituals and structure with those of the Golden Dawn, focusing in particular on both orders’ rituals for the grade of “Adeptus Minor.”

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Aren Roukema

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The first of two chapters on Charles Williams and magic discusses the author’s concept of magic as a “high-priestess” tradition of ancient wisdom pertaining to the successful achievement of mystical attainment. This “higher magic” is evaluated in the context of the ritual engagement with language, movement and image Williams encountered in the F.R.C., revealing a number of phenomenological similarities to the practices of other modern occult orders, which tended to share the F.R.C.’s goal of elevating consciousness through techniques such as visualization and meditation.

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Aren Roukema

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This chapter argues for the possibility of a relationship between Williams’s decision to write fantastic fiction and his responsibility as an F.R.C. initiate to communicate mystical experience through image and symbol. Moving from a close analysis of the relationship between Williams’s F.R.C. experiences and the construction of his fiction, the chapter develops a theory of interchange between narrative and the lived fantasy of esoteric practice. After reviewing the central themes and content of Williams’s novels, the interconnections between artistic process and personal experience in Williams’s work is evaluated via several passages that indicate a direct interplay between the novels and the F.R.C. ritual environment.

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Aren Roukema

Abstract

An evaluation of Williams’s interaction with kabbalistic symbolism in his life and fiction makes up the first of four chapters dealing with specific aspects of his modern interpretation of esoteric knowledge. I detail the symbolic and experiential engagement with kabbalah encountered in Waite’s F.R.C. and his books on the subject, focusing particularly on the concepts of the sephiroth of the Tree of Life, Shekinah, and the “middle pillar” or “middle path” on the Tree of Life, which Waite associated with both Shekinah and direct mystic knowledge of the divine. This chapter places these concepts in their modern occult context and analyzes passages from several novels which rely on the symbols of Shekinah and the middle pillar to express Williams’s experiences with the mystical elevation of consciousness, a central goal of modern occult practice.

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Aren Roukema

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This chapter introduces the complexities surrounding the question of Charles Williams’s involvement with modern occultism. Previous scholarly approaches to the question are analyzed, and three problematic trends in this scholarship identified. The historical and discursive contexts of esotericism and occultism are reviewed, leading into a discussion of the valuable role that literary criticism can play in analyzing esoteric traditions because of their inherent narrativity. The esoteric nature of Williams’s fiction is evaluated in light of several theories uniting esoteric epistemology and the fantastic, in order to establish the validity of exploring Williams’s occult life through his fiction.

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Aren Roukema

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This chapter discusses particularly modern aspects of Williams’s valuation of alchemy. A brief survey of alchemical history and theory is provided, along with a more detailed review of the occult context. As always, Waite’s views on the subject, along with the alchemical symbolism found throughout the F.R.C. rituals, are applied to Williams’s quite similar alchemical concepts. The emphasis of both on the alchemical purification and transmutation of the self is identified and then placed in the modern occult context, where spiritual or psychological approaches to alchemy eclipsed the more material focus of medieval and early modern approaches to the “Great work.” An analysis of alchemical symbolism in Williams’s novels, particularly Shadows of Ecstasy and Many Dimensions, leads into a presentation of the author as a “literary alchemist,” consciously rooted in a textual tradition of alchemical allegory and obscurantist semiotics.

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Chapter Six interprets Williams’s interest in various magics in the context of fictional portrayals of magical theory and practice. Several of Williams’s private experiments with elevating consciousness via the ritualistic excitation of libido are detailed, along with magical aspects of both his artistic process and his theory of “coinherence.” Building from this analysis, a consistent magical ethic is identified, based on a dichotomy between selfish and selfless intention—a contrast resonant with the approach to magic taken by many other occultists. Williams’s attraction to magic is then situated in the context of “reanimation”—a psychologically motivated turn to magic in order to experience a more enchanted view of the world and more elevated perception of the place of the self in society.

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The concluding chapter reviews the evidence regarding Williams’s active engagement with occultism and develops a profile of the author as an unproblematically self-formulated Christian occultist. This case is elaborated with reference to the complex esoteric beliefs exhibited by Nigel Considine and Roger Ingram of Shadows of Ecstasy. The conclusion developed, from this example and the many others given in the course of the book, is that the writing of fantastic fiction allowed Williams to express mystical teachings through image and symbol in the manner of an F.R.C. Fourth Order adept. By interpreting Williams’s novels from a perspective enriched by an understanding of his occult experiences and esoteric knowledge, we can uncover aspects of the author’s processes of interior and exterior exploration still reverberating between the lines of his fiction.