Tell Me What You Read: Christopher Williams

Choreographer and dancer Christopher Williams answers some reading questions about his art and life.

WilliamsTell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

My childhood reading of mythology and folklore sparked a personal mythopoetic quest that remains the hallmark of my choreographic career to this day. Apart from C S Lewis, Tolkien and Lewis Carroll, read to me by my parents, the first thing I remember reading on my own with great voracity and fascination was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Just as compelling to me were the fantastical folktales in Andrew Lang‘s Fairy Books of Many Colors: a series of twelve collections of fairytales published between 1889 and 1910.  A craving for the ritual activity associated with myth and folklore led me to perform in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school, and while honing my passion for the ritual practice of theatre and dance in college, I dived into Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as well as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God.

GreekIntrigued by the concept of comparative mythology and the uncanny correlations between the Odyssey and early Irish Echtrae and Immrama as well between the Iliad  and The Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster Cycle, I got hooked on researching fragments of ancient Indo-European mythology and folklore in medieval literature.  I soon discovered the Welsh Mabinogi, The Lais of Marie de France and the Barzaz Breiz from Brittany, Popular Tales of the West HighlandsThe Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man and The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries, all of which have profoundly inspired my creative work.

KalevalaWhat or who do you read to forget about the world, to escape?

Much of what I read for work is already based on journeys to the otherworld and escapes therefrom. I recently read the Kalevala while escaping from the grind of urban life during a creative residency up at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. I tend to gravitate towards books on medieval history and earlier if given the choice.  I grabbed L’Ours. Histoire d’un roi déchu by Michel Pastoureau and Les chamanes de la préhistoire by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams off the shelf for pleasure while I was working in Bordeaux recently, but both turned out to relate to my research on early mythology as well.  The last books of fiction that I remember reading purely for pleasure were Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography.

SilmalWhat reading do you choose for a long journey?

Reading for long journeys often falls into two categories: to evoke the cultural flavour of the place I’m headed (either geographically or creatively speaking) and reading that others have recommended. I fondly remember Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn that I read on my way to Japan, the 13th-century Legenda Aurea Sanctorum by the blessed Jacobus de Voragine in preparation for The Golden Legend, a dance I made in 2009 which consisted of ‘dance portraits’ of 17 medieval male saints, and To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization by Matthew G. Looper and The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar, read in preparation for choreographing a production of Henry Purcell’s final unfinished opera The Indian Queen.  Among the works in my personal queue for upcoming long journeys are the Physiologus (an anonymous 2nd-century predecessor to the medieval bestiary), Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness, On BeautyThe Silmarillion, and Carl Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus, all of which I can’t believe I haven’t yet read.

KiplingYour choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

Returning to books that I read early on in life and in my teenage years tend to occupy this category.  The Story of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting,  The Jungle Books and The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, One and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, The Dot and the Line: a Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale & Fantasy edited by Jonathan Cott, Grimm’s Fairytales, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Rumi, and Hafiz are all reading I never seem to tire of.

What was your last huge reading disappointment?

My greatest disappointment in reading is when untainted ancient folklore and mythology is smothered in a Christian gloss or censored by ethnocentric, xenophobic, racist and/or prudish opinions. That said, we would not have a clue about some mythic tropes if not for Celtic Christian scribes who painstakingly recorded them. Although some scholars clearly viewed their subjects as ‘savages’ (Frazer of The Golden Bough and Thomas Bullfinch of Bullfinch’s Mythology), they did advance our anthropological knowledge about the stories of those who came before us.

CarloAnd finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

True moments of happy surprise for me are characterized by rapid-fire synaptic activity resulting from the sudden coupling of my own knowledge with the radiance of supporting perspectives. To my great delight, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath by Carlo Ginzburg did just that for me by presenting pretty compelling evidence of a hidden shamanistic culture that had flourished across Europe and the British Isles for thousands of years. Wendy Doniger of The New York Times Book Review said: “Ecstasies manages, with extraordinary candor, clarity, grace, and erudition, to steer between lurid sensationalism and dry-as-dust academic drivel, and between localized historiography and universalism.”  I couldn’t agree more.




Vita Sackville-West’s No Signposts in the Sea

Vita 1This is Vita Sackville’s West’s last novel, and it is exquisite. For once I agree with the blurb on the back of the Virago edition: ‘this haunting, elegiac tale, published the year before her death, is her last and finest novel’. I do NOT agree with Victoria Glendinning, who wrote an introduction, who says that No Signposts in the Sea ‘is not a great novel’.

We could argue over ‘great’, but I contend that No Signposts in the Sea is a novel to hold the reader spell-bound. It’s short, narrated through the quiet diary entries of Edmund Carr, who is under a sentence of death that he is keeping private from anyone on the cruise ship on which he is taking his last voyage. He knows he will die within three or four months, without much pain, and so he takes extended leave from his post as a political columnist on a famous British newspaper to travel on the same ship as Laura, a friend with whom he is slipping deeper in love, but whom he will not tell about his illness or feelings. The voyage is peaceful and uneventful, and Edmund and Laura spend their time among a small group of first-class passengers (this is the late 1950s). English reticence and cool good manners predominate, but Edmund rages silently in his diary when he grows jealous of the Colonel, who also spends time with Laura.

Vita 2The novel’s charm comes from the impression of time passing as well as islands slipping by. Edmund’s realisation of his feelings, and his determination to not bind Laura to a dying man, are very gently handled. He is an attractive figure: he is not from the middle classes but a self-made man and a well-respected journalist living by his intellect and understanding of politics. There is a delightful episode where Laura is expounding on the perfect ‘laws’ for marriage, in which both parties obviously must have separate bedrooms and separate sitting rooms, to preserve their independence and freedom. Edmund gently tells her that he was born in a cottage with two bedrooms, his being a walk-in cupboard, and that the only other room was the kitchen. Laura’s embarrassment at realising that she has demonstrated some very class-based assumptions is made worse by her crashing snobbery in saying ‘I think perhaps different laws may apply for … for people living as you describe. I think perhaps their acceptance is greater than ours. The man is the wage-earner, the woman stays at home to cook and mind the children’. There speaks a character (not the author) who knows absolutely nothing about life outside her own circle and class, yet she is also a Résistance heroine, and nursed during the war. Her characterisation may feel a little inconsistent, but it rings deafeningly true.

Vita 4They are elegant, refined, beautifully mannered pleasant people. Edmund’s torments of jealousy are brief, since he can force them away, his over-riding concern being that Laura must never find out about his feelings for her. They go away for a night on an island together, they stand on her private balcony at 2am, watching an electrical storm, they behave to all intents and purposes like terribly well-bred Noel Cowardian people for whom reticence is good manners, and gush is vulgar. Laura’s discussion of lesbian love as a thing she does not share but can sympathise with is written not so much as a grand statement of freedom, but as a fact of life that everyone of course must share. In that the novel is of its time, but in all other respects, for a novel written in the late 1950s, Sackville-West was really writing her memories of the 1930s, and all its social codes.



Merlin versus the vivisectionists, in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Th copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.
The cover of the copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts recap is L, and I’ve gone straight to Clive Staples Lewis. Along with much of the western world, as a child I was deeply into his Narnia stories. As I got older I found them less satisfying, because too many questions kept being thrown at me by the plots, the characters, and transparency of Lewis’s intentions. I don’t like being preached at, and his preachings were rather obvious. Then I found that he’d also written three science fiction novels, so I was straight into them. The first in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, is very H G Wells, but that was fine, I liked it. The second one, Perelandra, was much more mystical, philosophical, with less action, and an awful lot of talking: I didn’t like that so much. The third one, That Hideous Strength, was totally unlike the others, and strangely like a grown-up and far more complex version of the best of the Narnia books. And I loved it, and still do.

A fine early cover
A fine early cover

Decades later, I can now see that That Hideous Strength has quite a lot that I might not like. It is grossly patriarchal, very Christian, and uses a homosexual character in an annoyingly stereotyped way. On the plus side, it is very very angry about wanton vivisection. It mixes its literary influences shamelessly. It is also a terrific ‘university’ novel, an accurate portrait of academic obfuscation and petty interdepartmental plotting. Lewis worked in university departments all his life, and we can tell that he doesn’t like moral cowardice, intellectual dishonesty or unthinking modernisation for the sake of change. In That Hideous Strength he equates the advanced sociology of the NICE (more on that in a moment) with Nazi eugenics, which seems a bit steep until we remember that this novel was published in 1945, and that the existence of the extermination camps were first revealed to the world from 1944.

A rather less fine cover: good art, bonkers captions
A rather less fine cover: good art, annoying captions

There is a lot of anger in this book, aimed mainly at those who deny their true selves, and who act selfishly. The plot begins with scenes in the house of a young married couple, Jane and Mark Studdock. He is a lecturer in sociology at Bracton College (not a real place), and wants to get on. He is ingratiating, only too keen to be taken up by the ‘right’ people. He begins to be drawn into the progressive movement called NICE which will ultimately destroy the college for its own ends. Jane, who would prefer to be a college lecturer as well, is stuck at home playing housewife and trying to work on her PhD thesis. She has begun to have disturbing dreams, where she is effectively seeing the future, or the present, while she sleeps, and she goes for help to a doctor she’s been recommended to visit, near Bracton. There she meets Ransom, the man who, in the earlier novels of the trilogy, has travelled to Mars and Venus and has met the guardian spirits of the planets, and who is effectively God’s emissary for earth.

The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.
The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.

The religious element in That Hideous Strength is hard for non-believers to accept, because it requires an appreciation of a voluntary or involuntary religious surrender of will to a higher power. If you’ve experienced this, you probably have a better insight as to how Lewis handles this aspect of the novel. The rest of us can just accept it as part of the story. A further, Gothic or medievalised element in this novel is that, because of her dreams, Jane is now able to find out where Merlin (yes, that Merlin), has been sleeping all these centuries. She must lead her new friends to him before the NICE reach him first. Lewis writes a particularly good imagining of what such a man of magic and power from the Dark Ages might be like if he awoke in our effete and mechanised times: he is mistaken for a tramp, but he behaves like a warlord and a savage.

Mark, meanwhile, is frustrated and miserable by not having anything meaningful to do. He finds that a friend has been murdered after trying to leave the NICE, and by this terrifying threat he is persuaded, rather too easily, to write dishonest newspaper articles about a riot in the town that has yet to happen. He is blackmailed into staying at the NICE headquarters, where his bills are increasing weekly. In effect, he is a prisoner in an enchanted castle, while Jane is out leading a heroic quest. Mark is surrounded by very peculiar members of the NICE who all seem to be obsessed with a head. This is some kind of symbol, until he sees the head, which is indeed a human head, of an executed murderer, now reanimated and speaking, and giving orders.

Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?
Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?

At this point in the novel I am always reminded of the Lindsay Anderson film from the 1960s, O Lucky Man, which starred Malcolm MacDowall, because it too featured a horrible prison-house that practiced vivisection on animated heads, and had a similarly druggy, dream-like atmosphere. But Lewis’s novel is seriously Christian: Mark is only able to release himself from the spell of academic intimidation and fear because he refuses to stamp on a crucifix. He may be a sociologist with no proper education (Lewis clearly did not think sociology was a proper subject), but he has respect for a religious symbol of suffering. And so he escapes, trying to find his way to Jane. She is safe in Ransom’s house, being visited by planetary influences.

Cover art chosen by someone who hasn't read the book. Craters?
Cover art chosen by someone who hasn’t read the book.

This is the part of the novel I always liked best, where Lewis draws on his training as a medieval scholar, and uses the poetry of Spenser to evoke fantastical mystical happenings. When the spirit of Mercury descends upon earth, the magic of tongues and wit comes with it, and the people in the house find themselves indulging gloriously in eloquence and sparkling wordplay. When Venus approaches, the married couples are whispering together, the women waiting for their husbands are thinking fond thoughts, and even the animals are pairing off and going out into the garden. When Mars arrives, the kitchen is filled with bravery and courage, and the people are resolute in their commitment to the cause. And so it goes on. Merlin receives his orders from God, via the planetary spirits (this really is a confusion of spirituality), and the NICE are about to receive their doom, in a particularly bloody and violent way.

Fab 1950s cover.
Fab 1950s cover.

In between these episodes at the NICE and in Ransom’s manor, which are respectively the locations of evil and good, the town of Bracton is being infiltrated by thugs. There is an outbreak of petty crime, inexplicable fights in the streets, windows are broken, a woman is screaming, and before the town knows it a riot has broken out, being fought by people they don’t recognise. Jane is caught up in this and is taken prisoner by the NICE chief of police, a masculine woman called Fairy Hardcastle, who is a crude portrait of sadistic lesbianism. She tortures Jane for information about the manor, and Jane only escapes because the riot gets out of hand. This episode, and Fairy Hardcastle’s later anticipation of an evening’s entertainment in the cells with a new and fluffy female recruit to her forces, is chilling in its automatic assumption that ‘unnatural’ women are automatically bad.

Intrusive lettering, good background
Intrusive lettering, good background

All the women in this novel are to marry and breed, and their rightful place is with their husband. This part of the story has always been the hardest for me to understand, because I am a child of the sixties and was a feminist from my teenage years. I simply cannot comprehend how Lewis could assign authority and intellectual activity to one sex and child-rearing domesticity to another. I just have to assume that, since he attended an all-boys’ school, and lived in all-male colleges for all his adult years, even if he had an alleged long-term affair with the mother of a friend, Lewis knew nothing about women when he wrote this novel. He writes some female characters with respect, but always with the assumption of male authority over women as a God-given norm. Fairy Hardcastle is part of this belief, and it dates the novel badly.

However, despite that, That Hideous Strength is still a great novel. It is written with imagination and wit, with impressive scholarship worn lightly, and in the voice of an Oxford don who can talk to anyone at their own level.  Lewis’s anger at the wrong things in life is a challenge as well as endearing. He feels passionately about so many things in this novel. Reading the story is as invigorating as being in a gust of wind, even if we don’t agree with everything he says.