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The Greater Trumps [Paperback]

By Charles Williams (Author)
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Item description for The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams...

Charles Williams had a genius for choosing strange and exciting themes for his novels and making them believable and profoundly suggestive of spiritual truths. The Tarot pack, the ancestor of all playing cards, is first mentioned in history in 1393; the origin of the deck is not known. Tradition has it that the gypsies brought the Tarot from Egypt and that the cards were used for fortune telling. This deck was conceived of as having magical properties, and the most powerful of all the cards were the Magic Arcana or Greater Trumps, twenty-two symbolic pictures whose mysteries have been interpreted and reinterpreted not only by occultists, but also by religious thinkers, psychoanalysts and literary anthropologists. Perhaps the most exquisite of these interpretations is the one contained in this extraordinary novel. In the universe evoked by Charles Williams, sorcery can still kill, and the supernatural must be fought with the supernatural. But beneath the brilliant and imaginative surface is concealed a meticulously thought-out Christian message. Charles Williams-novelist, poet, critic, dramatist and biographer-died in his native England in May, 1945. He had a lively and devoted following there and achieved a considerable reputation as a lecturer on the faculty of Oxford University. T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis were among his distinguished friends and literary sponsors.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Regent College Publishing
Pages   288
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.12" Width: 6.18" Height: 0.69"
Weight:   0.7 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Apr 1, 2003
Publisher   Regent College Publishing
ISBN  1573831115  
ISBN13  9781573831116  

Availability  0 units.

More About Charles Williams

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886 -1945) was a British poet, novelist, playwright, theologian, literary critic, and member of the Inklings. Williams was born in London in 1886, the only son of (Richard) Walter Stansby Williams (1848-1929), a journalist and foreign business correspondent (for an importing firm, writing in French and German), who was a 'regular and valued' contributor of verse, stories and articles to many popular magazines, and his wife Mary, a former milliner, of Islington. He continued to work at the OUP in various positions of increasing responsibility until his death in 1945. One of his greatest editorial achievements was the publication of the first major English-language edition of the works of Soren Kierkegaard. Although chiefly remembered as a novelist, Williams also published poetry, works of literary criticism, theology, drama, history, biography, and a voluminous number of book reviews. Some of his best known novels are War in Heaven (1930), Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows' Eve (1945). T. S. Eliot, who wrote an introduction for the last of these, described Williams's novels as "supernatural thrillers" because they explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual while also examining the ways in which power, even spiritual power, can corrupt as well as sanctify. All of Williams's fantasies, unlike those of J. R. R. Tolkien and most of those of C. S. Lewis, are set in the contemporary world. Williams has been described byColin Manlove as one of the three main writers of "Christian fantasy" in the twentieth century (the other two being C. S. Lewis and T. F. Powys). More recent writers of fantasy novels with contemporary settings, notably Tim Powers, cite Williams as a model and inspiration. NOVELS: 1930: War in Heaven (London: Victor Gollancz) 1930: Many Dimensions (London: Victor Gollancz) 1931: The Place of the Lion (London: Mundanus) 1932: The Greater Trumps (London: Victor Gollancz) 1933: Shadows of Ecstasy (London: Victor Gollancz) 1937: Descent into Hell (London: Faber & Faber) 1945: All Hallows' Eve (London: Faber & Faber) 1970-72: The Noises That Weren't There. Unfinished. First three chapters published in Mythlore 6 (Autumn 1970), 7 (Winter 1971) and 8 (Winter 1972)."

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Reviews - What do customers think about The Greater Trumps?

Great but Confusing Read  Oct 4, 2008
I really enjoyed reading "The Greater Trumps." Not having any knowledge about the Tarot cards left me a little behind, but I belive that the morale to the story is to love, completely, without reserve, from a position of great personal self knowledge.
Notes On "The Greater Trumps"  Feb 6, 2007
This excerpt is taken from:
"Charles WIlliams - Poet Of Theology" pp. 76-78
by Glen Cavaliero

Just as heat is the pervading element in "The Place of the Lion", so the pervading element of "The Greater Trumps is cold". Much of the action takes place in an isolated country house during a raging snowstorm on Christmas Day, a microscopic drama dominated almost to breaking-point by its central symbol, the Tarot pack, most ancient and mysterious of playing cards. Williams draws on his knowledge of the Kaballa for his account of them, and, as with the Grail and the Stone, uses them as a symbol of the creative power of God. He relates them to a group of magical golden figures, similar to those portrayed on the greater trumps, figures whose perpetual motion corresponds to the ever-lasting dance which is the rhythm and pattern of the universe. When the original cards and the images are brought together, the fortunes of the world can be read, for the relation between them constitutes the true knowledge of reality.

The fortuitous reassembling of cards and images provides the mainspring of the plot. The figures are hidden in the house of Aaron Lee, latest of a long line of gipsy guardians, now 'civilized'. His grandson, Henry, finds the cards in the possession of Mr Lothair Coningsby (a Warden in lunacy - both his name and occupation are pleasing but superfluous jokes), whose daughter Nancy he is engaged to marry. Through her, by using the spiritual energy of their mutual love, he plans to possess and rule the cards - the blasphemy against love degrading him to the level of the false magicians of the earlier books. The cards have magical properties controlling the four elements. Following their owner's refusal to part with them, Henry unleashes on him the forces of rain and wind, only to lose the cards in the storm, which as a result breaks out of his control. But Nancy, who loves without calculation, restores the remaining cards to the images and thus re-establishes the balance of nature.

The novel is a drama of vain desire and the nature of the re-conciliation between such desire and its only possible fulfillment. The separation of the cards from the images symbolizes the separation between reason and knowledge, and provides yet another myth of that condition (also imaged in the stricken state of Israel, of the Fisher King, of Balder and of Osiris) described here as 'the mystical severance [which] had manifested in action the exile of the will from its end'. ("The Greater Trumps", p.154) It is an image of the Fall.

The union between the human will and its destined and unavoidable end is indicated through the figures of Nancy and her aunt Sybil. The latter is Williams's most elaborate portrait of achieved sanctity: she lives in a condition of joyous calm, ironic, affectionate, secure, beholding 'the primal Nature' (the nature of co-inherent triune Godhead) 'revealed as a law to the creature'." Williams was always chary of using the name of God in his work, for so all embracing a synonym blunts imaginative response; and his account of Sybil's spiritual journey is the more convincing for the omission.

Sybil's anti-type is Joanna, the embodiment of emotional frustration. An old gipsy, convinced that she is the divine Isis (though in Williams's world such identifications usually have some justification), she vainly searches for her dead child, craving the Tarot cards as a means of satisfying her own warped will to love, warped since it is an example of the inevitably thwarted human urge to love on one's own terms rather than to accommodate one's self will to its predestined end.

Nancy, on the other hand, is awakened in time to make that accommodation: her vision of romantic love as being the start of a vocation recalls the similar awakening of the Duchess of Mantua, Williams's 'Chaste Wanton'.

'But I can't', [Nancy] exclaimed, 'turn all this' - she laid her hand on her heart - 'towards everybody. It can't be done; it only lives for - him.'

'Nor even that', Sybil said. 'It lives for and in itself. You can only give it back to itself.'

- "The Greater Trumps", p.69

This sense of vocation is brought to life by Nancy's horror on finding that the beloved Henry is trying to kill her father - the Impossibility again. Sybil sends her to Henry in order to reaffirm their love, and to unite its mystery with the mystery of the Dance, by giving the cards back to the images and thus quelling the storm. But they must do this together; only in so far as they are lovers have they power rooted in exchange. Henry himself is lost in the mist which surrounds the images and comes to a knowledge of his real self through a vision of the perpetually falling tower of Babel, itself one of the greater trumps. Assenting to his defeat, he is purged to share again the mystery of love.

The Greater Trumps is a closely knit book, in which the symbol of the dance recurs repeatedly. The magical golden images mark the different capacities of man and the facts which those capacities exist to encounter: again the unity of inward and out-ward is stressed. But the symbolism is not fully worked out, for the speed with which these novels were written tells badly on The Greater Trumps. Nowhere does Williams have such a rich and suggestive complex of imagery, and nowhere does he throw it away so carelessly. He displays an impatient imagination, and there is a disproportion between the profundity of the theme and the frequent frivolity of its expression. 'This also is Thou: neither is this Thou' is not an easy maxim to sustain in literary performance, and in this novel Williams appears to have been overwhelmed by his material.

Huh?????  May 29, 2006
Before getting into the novel I think it worth saying that if you aren't already familiar with the Tarot and the "meaning" of the various "picture cards" then you are likely to find this very hard going indeed.
The Preface, by Charles Lindsey Gresham (who?), offers descriptions of the 22 (or 21?) "Greater Trumps", but these are not particularly helpful, firstly because they are so brief, secondly because they don't match many of the illustrations provided at the front and back of the book!

Anyway, on with the story - such as it is.
In fact I won't go over the story again because the previous reviewers have, between them, successfully summarised the entire plot. All you'll get in addition, in the book, is a highly convoluted, prolix version of the same set of basic elements.

Having much enjoyed almost all of Williams' novels I was prepared to give this one every chance. But by half way through I was already reading just to reach the punchline. And when it finally came I felt, as previous reviewers have said, thoroughly unsatisfied and wondering why I had bothered.

Those who are well-versed in the mysteries of the Tarot, and those who like their literature as obscure as possible may find this a worthwhile read. For the rest of us, even the Charles Williamds fans, my personal response is "forget it"!
The Knowledge of the Fool & The Everlasting Dance  Aug 30, 2004
Over the years I have read and re-read this 1932 novel by Charles Williams many times - it continues to fascinate me, exerts a peculiar hold upon my mind and provides unfailing stimulus for thought and contemplation (it is undoubtedly the most readable and entertaining of his works of fiction). 'The Greater Trumps' is a very strange sort of novel, a mystical thriller if you like, featuring the prototypal deck of Tarot cards which has by odd chance fallen into the hands of the prosaic and unimaginative Mr.Coninsgby. His daughter Nancy is being wooed by a young lawyer of Gypsy descent, Henry Lee and when he sees the deck the spiritual drama begins and the Coningsby's are invited to spend Christmas at the lonely house of Henry Lee's grandfather Aaron Lee who guards the secret inheritance of the Romanies and has long sought the innermost mysteries of the Tarot. A conspiracy to ruthlessly obtain the Tarots at all costs is afoot and here we have a central theme of Charles Williams' novels - the intended profaning of a sacred Mystery by those who would abuse it for ego-aggrandizement and the quest for personal power. In 'The Greater Trumps' the classic tarot figure of 'The Falling Tower' is the symbol of the fate which invariably engulfs those who attempt to lay hold of the Holy Mysteries of Magic to satisfy the all-too-egoic thirst for power and ascendancy and this timeless message is as pertinent as ever in an age where debased occultism of questionable motivation is all too prevalent. Henry and Aaron Lee's dark quest to wrest the Tarots from Mr Coningsby and murder him unwittingly unleashes primal powers which are entirely beyond their ability to control - for the archetypal potencies of the Divine World cannot be controlled or manipulated by the unworthy for their own ends and the attempt to do so cannot be made with impunity: thus the novel builds up to a compelling denouement which is also a transfiguring and mystical meditation upon the all-prevailing power of pure love...
The characterization in this novel is quite superb, from the romantic high spirits of Nancy, the faustian ambition of Henry Lee and the sublime equanimity of Aunt Sybil who amongst all the characters has truly attained to a high degree of spiritual freedom and thus plays a pivotal role: Sybil's selfless and calm wisdom contrasts strikingly with the hubristic greed of the magical 'adepts'. The dialogue is period 1930's and thus possess a charm all of it's own and the plot is superbly realised.
But skilfully woven through this brilliant and cautionary tale of young love, unlawful lust for power, satires on conventional mindedness and supernatural high jinks is an extended esoteric meditation upon the emblems of the Tarot as timeless Mysteries of Power, Images, Divine Ideas, Virtues and eternal Platonic Forms which is uniquely insightful, penetrating and unparalleled in its profundity. The suggestive concepts concerning Tarot which Williams imparts throughout are truly extraordinary. This beautifully-written novel conveys an exciting narrative which is at the same time a penetrating moral exploration of man's spiritual motivations and inner relation to the sacred. I consider 'The Greater Trumps' to be Charles Williams' little-known fictional masterpiece, an occult novel of rare brilliance.
Doesn't quite add up  Sep 10, 2003
Basically a "spiritual thriller" about supernatural powers breaking in on everyday life when they are summoned for selfish purposes, this story is very interesting in places but fails to convince the reader that what is happening is really very important.

In the 1920s or '30s, in England, a young woman, Nancy Coningsby, the daughter of a minor civil servant, is engaged to a young man from the Roma (Gypsy) people. Nancy's father, a rather dim, pompous sort, owns a very rare, old set of Tarot cards bequeathed to him by a deceased friend, and it is his intention to turn the cards over to a museum upon his own death. Nancy's fiance, Henry, realizes that this particular Tarot deck is the only "true" deck in existence--that is, a deck that is so accurately rendered that it can truly summon and command occult powers, as opposed to other sets that lack any real power.

Henry's grandfather, Aaron, occupies a 17th century house where there is a table in a secret room, and on the table, there is a collection of miniature figures in a perpetual dance that is supposed to represent the "Great Dance," which is said to be the foundation of the universe. If the deck of cards can come into the possession of the owner of the table and the miniature figures, then the owner will achieve consummate power and be able to command the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire.

Henry contrives to lure Nancy, her father, Mr. Coningsby, and Nancy's unmarried aunt, Sybil, who lives with them, to Aaron's house for Christmas, in the hope of getting the cards away from Coningsby. Since he cannot use direct violence, he uses the occult power of the cards to create a blinding snowstorm when Coningsby goes out for a walk on Christmas afternoon, in the hopes that the man will die in the storm.

Two elements disrupt this plan: one is Sybil, Nancy's aunt, who is so spiritually advanced that she lives in a perpetual atmosphere of deep, loving calm, and can apparently perceive things that others cannot and remain unhurt in circumstances that would injure others; the other disruptive element is Henry's own great-aunt, Aaron's sister, Joanna, a half-demented old woman who believes her own deceased child was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Horus and has spent years wandering the back roads looking for a way to bring him back to life; Joanna inconveniently shows up Christmas afternoon, after being estranged from her brother for years.

The premise is very interesting, and there is even some comedy at the expense of the pompous Coningsby, and Nancy's aunt Sibyl is at times a fascinating figure--rather like a female Christ or Buddha figure come to life. However, the author finally fails to make one believe that what is happening is important enough to care deeply about.

Something goes awry with the snow storm, which spirals out of control, and we are assured by Henry and Aaron that the elements will now destroy the world. If that, or something like it, truly happened, as in the climax of Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," it might be compelling tragedy, but it seems we are only being teased, since a different outcome occurs. At various times on Christmas afternoon, Nancy both discovers her fiance's treachery toward her father (intending to use the storm to murder him and obtain the cards) and is nearly made a human sacrifice by the half-demented old aunt Joanna who is searching for Horus, but by the end of the afternoon, everyone is cozily reconciled, and the young pair are even persisting in their plans to be married! Nobility and compassion are one thing, but fatuity is another. None of this seems very realistic.

I started out reading all this with some eagerness, but in the end, was left feeling that I had read a story that was at times quite silly and trivial, and weighted down with a great deal of overblown language about mystical themes that the events of the story simply wouldn't bear. This was the fifth Williams novel I had read, over a period of some years, and I would recommend "Many Dimensions" or "All Hallows Eve" instead of this book.


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