The poems that make up these two cycles are some of the most beautiful and definitely the most complex I have ever read.Williams' mastery of the subject matter is unquestioned.It is clear that he lived and breathed Arthurian legend; not just Malory, but Chretien, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Eschenbach and more.But Williams does not merely reproduce the story for the umpteen-hundredth time. He turns the magnifying lens of his poetic genius on the individuals who populate the legends, exploring their characters in minute detail, and giving loving attention to specific moments in their lives.The moments are not the famous ones we have all heard of and seen in movies.Instead, they are moments which capture the essence of the characters, in which we see all that was best and worst in them almost simultaneously.In doing so, he is able to follow the arc of the story of Logres and Camelot, even though the poems do not create a linear storyline or include famous, well remembered scenes.
Now for the bad news.Earlier, I stated that these poems are the most complex I have ever read.That is no overstatement.Williams seems to assume that the reader of these poems shares his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter.His focus on obscure characters and moments in their lives and the lack of a linear storyline add to the complexity of the poetry.Further, most of his symbolism is nearly opaque.Thank God for C. S. Lewis.Without his extensive commentary that accompanies the poem, trying to fathom Williams' meaning would be like trying to watch a play through alabaster lenses.They are beautiful and translucent, but it is impossible to truly see what is on the other side.At times even Lewis himself must claim that Williams' meaning is beyond him.If it was not clear to him, what hope do we have!Yet Lewis is able to lead the reader through the complexity of most, if not all the poems, and make sense of what would otherwise have remained incomprehensible.Even with his help, it took me several attempts to get through all of them.
All in all, reading "Taliessin through Logres", "The Region of the Summer Stars", and "Arthurian Torso" was a rewarding experience.It increased my understanding of the Arthurian legend and what it means to the life of Britain.I am sure I will return to it someday.Perhaps after I have read a bit more Chretien myself.;-)
Now for a more personal note:It's kind of strange, but there is so much that is noble and good about Arthur, Logres, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the other knights and ladies that when I read any of the tellings of their stories I cannot help but hope that it will end differently, that the promise that was Logres will finally be realized, that Arthur will win the final victory over Modred and his traitorous army, and that he and Guinevere will bring forth an heir to continue the glory that was theirs at their best.This hope is so strong that it is sometimes hard to read the story yet again, knowing that they will fail.I love them, and it hurts me when they are hurt and when they die.Yet I keep coming back.It is better that they tried and failed, and will forever do so, than to live life without exploring with them the heights they reached before the fall.It is, of course, an imperfect reflection of the original promise in Eden, and the subsequent fall of our first parents, that is seen in the legends of Arthur and his round table.It is good to remember what we lost in that fall.It sharpens the hope that Arthur will one day return, which is really the hope that Christ will return and set all things to rights.And that is one hope that is certain to find its consummation.