Charles Williams, The Masques of Amen House
together with Amen House
Poems, Edited and Annotated by David Bratman. (The Mythopoeic Press, 2000)
This book is first and foremost a labor of love on the part of the Mythopoeic Society, a non-profit organization that promotes "the study, discussion, and enjoyment of the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and other writers of myth and fantasy literature.
Charles Williams is the one of the least known of the 'Inklings,' the group of writers and scholars that coalesced around C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Though Williams was an accomplished poet, playwright, and nonfiction writer, he is known mainly for his novels. These novels combine elements of the mystery novel with mythology, the supernatural and religion to create mystery stories that burst out of the genre box one critic termed them "murder mysteries set in eternity."
Amen House is the London office of Oxford University Press. It was Charles Williams' workplace from 1908 to 1945. Williams wrote the The Masques of Amen House to entertain his colleagues at the Press. Unlike the pallid parodies of popular songs and movies that many of us endure as part of the Christmas office party ritual, Williams' Masques are highly original allegorizations of people and events at the Press.
The basic plots of the three masques are as follows:
The Masque of the Manuscript
The manuscript, "A Short Treatise on Syrian Nouns As Used in the Northern and Sub-Northern Towns In Five Hundred B.C., With Two Maps and Three Charts; By Walter Lackpenny, poor Master of Arts," arrives at the Press. It suffers the agony of editing, dies and is reborn as The Book.
The Masque of Perusal
A year has passed and The Book has not had a single sale and only received one review, which was unfavorable. The Book and the allegorical characters at the Press muse on the futility of publishing. Then a buyer comes. The Book experiences the bliss of Redemption and Joy is restored to Amen House.
The Masque of the Termination of Copyright
The Book enters its afterlife in the public domain.
In truly masterful introduction, Bernadette Lynn Bosky places The Masques of Amen House in the context of Williams' emotional and professional life, as well as explaining the place of the Masque in English Literature.
Ive always thought that the essential characteristics of a masque could be defined in three words: "light, slight and trite." In her introduction, Bosky makes a compelling case for the Masque as a serious and worthwhile genre. She writes that in the Masque, "Williams found a most congenial vehicle: personal and universal, mythic and individual, hierarchical yet celebrating the common shepherd, employing the lightness of dance and music yet conveying important facts about the unity and order of creationeven the necessity of what most people now would call a spiritual, and Williams would call a religious life."
These Masques were meant to be "throw-away" pieces that would only be performed once, by and for Williams' colleagues. Nonetheless, Williams' playful poetry is far superior to most of his contemporaries' attempts to express the Sublime. His tongue-in-cheek homage to his boss, for example, is a marvel of concise and playful sarcasm: " what are years or centuries to him/whose reputation makes the future dim?"
As the "Carol of Amen House" attests, Williams can also write in high sublime style to beat the band:
Over this house a star
Shines in the heavens high,
Beauty remote and afar,
Beauty that shall not die;
Beauty desired and dreamed,
Followed in storm and sun,
Beauty the gods have schemed
And mortals at last have won.
In the cover blurb, Charles Williams' Masques are described as "an intellectual frolic." Unfortunately, the introduction is probably the most accessible part of the work for most readers. Williams's Masques are chock full of learned allusions, inside jokes, multi-leveled and multi-lingual puns and jokes, not to mention a whole lot of allegorical characters flitting about with names like Phillida, Perigot and Thyrsis. A general reader can easily get lost.
In addition to the Masques, the book contains an introduction by Bernadette Lynn Bosky; "Amen House Poems," "Selections from the Music for Masques," Notes, Bibliography and an evocative black and white photograph of the Amen House library, where two of the Masques were performed.