I hope that you all had a good Christmas, or Midwinter Holiday, but if you didn’t, if there were quarrels and mishaps and disappointments, console yourselves with the thought that it can’t have been as bad as the terrifying Christmas endured by the characters in this week’s recommended novel – `The Greater Trumps’ by Charles Williams. Williams was a poet, critic and novelist who became a valued member of the Inklings; the group of Oxford writers which included C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien. `The Greater Trumps’ was first published in 1932. Paperback editions brought out by Faber and Faber (UK) or Regent College (USA) are still in print but second-hand copies may be cheaper. The old Eerdmans paperback (1977)  has a particularly fine cover showing the `The Fool’ from a Tarot card pack. Sadly there doesn’t yet seem to be an ebook version of this novel.

This story involves two very different families, the Coningsbys and the Lees. Lothair Coningsby is a pompous and conventional legal officer – a Warden in Lunacy – who lives with his serene older sister, Sybil, and his grown up children, Nancy and Ralph. Two things are troubling Lothair, a valuable collection of antique playing-cards that he’s recently been left by a friend and the engagement of his daughter to barrister, Henry Lee. Tall, dark and handsome Henry makes no secret of his gypsy ancestry. Nancy finds this romantic but she has no idea that Henry’s family are the hereditary guardians of a secret treasure. When Lothair shows off his card collection, Henry recognizes that it contains the original set of Tarot cards which his family have been seeking for centuries. The `Greater Trumps’ in this set correspond exactly with the dancing gold figurines guarded by the Lees. Henry pursuades the Conninsbys to visit his grandfather Aaron’s country house over Christmas and to bring the Tarot cards with them. On their way, they encounter a mad old woman who believes that she is the goddess Isis, looking for her lost divine child. She turns out to be Henry’s great-aunt, Joanna, who has long been estranged from her brother Aaron.

On Christmas Eve, Aaron and Henry unlock the treasure-chamber and show their visitors a set of shining golden images which seem to be in perpetual motion. All except the figure representing The Fool who stands in the centre. Only Sybil can see that this figure is also moving, quicker than all the rest. Henry has already demonstrated to Nancy that the four Lesser Trumps in her father’s very special Tarot pack represent earth, water, fire and air, and that, `When the hands of man deal in a certain way with the cards, the living thing comes to exist.’  Now he urges Nancy to bring the cards and the images together in order to tell her fortune. Nancy has a strange vision of the cards as `the great leaves of some aboriginal tree’ and feels a sense of destiny. Henry interprets the cards she has chosen as meaning that Nancy will soon be facing danger – `you’ll come under a great influence of control and you’ll find your worst enemy in your own heart.’  Lothair is dismissive of everything he has seen and makes it clear that he won’t give the Tarot pack to Henry. Aaron longs to reunite the cards and the golden images so that the `great dance which is everything that exists’ can be better understood but Henry wants to enter the dance and use its power to influence events. He is prepared to go to almost any lengths to get the Tarot cards. On Christmas Day, Henry raises a great snow-storm of magic to achieve his ends. When Nancy intervenes, the wild power of the Trumps is unleashed and the whole world is in danger.

Don’t worry if you know little or nothing about the Tarot cards traditionally used to tell fortunes. Williams has Henry Lee explain their meaning and purposes very clearly and there are brilliant descriptions of the images on the cards, such as the Juggler, the Lovers, and the Hanged Man, as these come to life. At first, the Coningsbys and the Lees seem to belong in two different kinds of novel. Peevish Lothair Coningsby (who hates his romantic name) is a comic character worthy of  P.G.Wodehouse or Jane Austen. He is exasperated by his children, who fail to show him any respect, and irritated by his sister, Sybil,because she seems to enjoy everything while he enjoys nothing. There is a very funny scene in which Sybil rescues her brother from a supernatural snow-storm while letting him believe that he is rescuing her. Lothair misinterprets the behaviour of most of the other characters and resolutely refuses to recognize the magic happening all around him, but he does have a life-changing moment of heroism when he finally understands that his daughter is in danger.

The nineteen-twenties and thirties seem to have been the great age of formidable aunts in English literature and there are two scary specimens in `The Greater Trumps’. At first sight, Sybil is a dull and ordinary maiden aunt but as Henry says to her, “You’re everything that is nice, of course, but you’re terrifying as well.” Terrifying because she has dedicated her life to `adoring the Mystery of Love’ and accepts everything that happens to her with equanimity. Someone else remarks that Sybil could even be happy in a torture chamber, as long as she was the one being tortured. I’m not sure that Williams entirely succeeds with this saintly character. I sometimes find her as annoying as her brother does.  Yet Sybil’s inner peace doesn’t prevent her from knowing that the world is a place of suffering. When Great-Aunt Joanna rants about the murder of Osiris and the terrible loss of the divine child, Horus, Sybil is the only one who thinks that the old woman is talking sense. Like most gypsy-women in fiction, Joanna is much given to cursing people but she transcends the stereotype because of the depth of her mental anguish. The loss of her child has the full weight of the loss of all innocent lives behind it, just as in the original myth of Isis and baby Horus. When she is seen through Lothair’s eyes, Joanna seems a ridiculous `old hag’, wandering around clad only in a blanket, following a feral  kitten. So it is a shock when her delusions nearly turn Joanna into a murderess. In some of Williams’ novels, women play rather subservient roles. In this one, they dominate the story. Guided by Sybil,  Nancy takes up the challenge of continuing to love people even after they have done terrible things. Henry is in love with Nancy but had planned to use her to get what he wanted.  As everyone is drawn into the golden cloud that emanates from the images, Henry realizes that courageous Nancy must lead and he must follow. Williams’ novels are more about the way his characters change than the extraordinary events which are the catalyst for these inner changes.

`Imagine that everything which exists takes part in the movement of a great dance…all that seems alive and all that doesn’t seem alive…everything that changes, and there is nothing anywhere that doesn’t change.’ The central concept of this novel is a majestic one. Henry recounts how the cards and the figurines were created by a visionary who `talked of the dance not with words but with images,’ and made the principles of thought and the realities of existence visible. When these archetypes take shape in the human world they are both beautiful and terrifying. Williams writes very convincingly about magic, probably because he was fascinated by esoteric knowledge and may have dabbled in `White Magic’ himself while he was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. What he doesn’t do in this, or any of his other novels, is to use magic as part of a standard Good versus Evil plot. Williams was always unnervingly adept at playing `Devil’s Advocate’ , so in `The Greater Trumps’ ruthless Henry Lee is treated quite sympathetically while virtuous Nancy’s faults are cruelly emphasized. As Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his book `The Inklings’, `Williams’ ideas of right and wrong often seem extremely odd’.  Perhaps Williams’s novels should come with a spiritual health warning. I still can’t make up my mind about him. Sometimes I feel that Williams was a great moral teacher and sometimes that he must have been a very dangerous man to know. Could it be this sense of danger which makes `The Greater Trumps’ still worth reading? At the end of their `deliciously thrilling nightmare’ Christmas, many of the characters are inspired to live in  new ways. Let me wish all of you an inspiring New Year. Until two weeks time…