An Introduction to Charles Williams

Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945) is the unjustly neglected third member of the Inklings, after C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a British poet, novelist, literary critic, editor, lecturer, biographer, Anglican Christian, and occult master. This strange mix makes him The Oddest Inkling, and this blog exists to discuss CW’s life, works, ideas, oddities, and excellencies.

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There is no other literature quite like that by Charles Williams: his writings are startling, convoluted, beautiful, unpredictable, and obscure. Their obscurity is partly due to his love of esoteric allusions, partly to his creation of a layered mythology, and partly to his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls his sentence structure “agile”; I call it “labyrinthine.” Every sentence is thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, and demanding.

By all accounts, Williams himself was like his writing: charismatic, saintly, loquacious, and inspiring—but complex and confusing. He was a passionate teacher, explicating texts clearly with enthusiasm and reciting massive passages of poetry from memory. According to C.S. Lewis, everyone who met Williams fell in love with him—including many young women who became his disciples and with whom he practiced semi-sexual, semi-magical rituals of transference to heighten his creativity. Yet he also motivated many people to practice their Christianity more seriously and founded the Companions of the Co-inherence in order to carry one another’s burdens.

300px-Rose_Cross_Lamen.svgThe strange combination of Christian and Magician in Williams’ personal life is hard to reconcile. He was a member of A.E. Waite’s occult secret society, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, for ten formative years. He rose high in the ranks, leading initiates in practicing alchemy, astrology, Cabalism, conjuration, divination with tarot cards, and meditation on the Sephirotic Tree. Yet he remained a committed Anglican all his life, writing works of lay theology. For the last six years of his life, he was a member of the Inklings, whose qualifications, according to C.S. Lewis, were “a tendency to write, and Christianity” (CSL letter to CW 11 March 1936).

This unusual combination of Christianity and the occult finds expression in a bizarre, exciting mix of the everyday and the supernatural in his writing. He pushes his fantasies further than either of the other famous Inklings by setting his metaphysical stories in ordinary, 20th-century England rather than in Narnia, Perelandra, or Middle-Earth. This makes his spiritual thriller plots feel more uncanny because they are closer to home.

His signature doctrine, co-inherence, is also an odd blend of the natural and the supernatural. Co-inherence is the idea that Christ’s risen life inhabits believers so that they share the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. This is based in the Trinitarian theology of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling and love of the three members of the Godhead, from which all human love and co-operation are made possible. Williams’ own order, the Companions of the Co-inherence, voluntarily carried spiritual, emotional, or medical burdens for each other and anyone else—living, dead, or unborn—by Substitution or Exchange. He was fascinated by the mystical body of Christ: he believed that sex is an act of co-inherence and that every romance corresponds to Jesus’ earthly life. In his Arthurian poetry, he carried the simple doctrine of Christian unity into a multi-layered symbolism infused with occult significance.

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Furthermore, Williams held a kind of skepticism about his own faith that also made him the odd man out in the Inklings, compared to the staunch “Mere Christian” Lewis and the solid Roman Catholic Tolkien. He may have had more common theological ground with the Anthroposophist Owen Barfield, the fourth important writer in the group. But Williams’ brand of mysticism made for some hot debates among the group: a minor Inkling, Charles Wrenn, at one Inklings meeting “almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people…. Williams is eminently combustible” (letter of C.S. Lewis to his brother, 5 Nov. 1939). If even his best friends occasionally wanted to burn him at the stake, it is no stretch to say that his ideas were the oddest among them.

All these factors, then, make Williams “The Oddest Inkling.”

lionAnd they make his works absolutely riveting: even before you read any further in this blog, you should start reading his writings! You can start with his most popular works: the seven “metaphysical thrillers”: War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, The Place of the Lion, The Greater Trumps, Shadows of Ecstasy, Descent into Hell, and All Hallow’s Eve. They are available online. In each novel, sacramental objects or occult adepts unleash spiritual forces that threaten destruction. Preservation is achieved by the imperial mastery of a person surrendered to divine will. Williams’ progressive narrative technique resembles stream-of-consciousness, and anticipates (but far surpasses) contemporary Christian thrillers. Then, if you are an intrepid reader, you can move on to the Arthurian poetry, then the theology or literary criticism, as your taste guides you.

TTLIn my opinion, his two greatest contributions are his Arthurian poetry—of which much, much more as we proceed in this blog—and his interpretation of Dante in The Figure of Beatrice, which brought Dante to many people for the first time and inspired Dorothy Sayers to learn Italian and translate Dante afresh. A recent resurgence of interest in Williams has led to imitative fiction, analysis of his life and work, and a wider readership. His virtuosic poetry and brilliant insights should earn him a place among the greatest literary masterpieces of the early 20th century.

It is high time to dig more deeply into the works of Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling. Please tune in each Wednesday (and sometimes more often) for a discussion of each of the points mentioned in this post, and many more.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. She is not Danish, nor related to Kierkegaard, but added the slashed “ø” to her name to look artsy. Sørina teaches English at Lehigh Carbon Community College and sometimes at Penn State (Lehigh Valley). She has published two books of poetry, The Significance of Swans and Caduceus. Like everybody else, she's writing her first novel. She is the author of the blog “The Oddest Inkling,” devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams' works, and co-author of “Islands of Joy,” an exploration of the arts and faith. In other news, Sørina and her husband designed and built their own house, without experience or expertise, and it hasn't fallen down around them yet.
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40 Responses to An Introduction to Charles Williams

  1. Welcome to the web! There are a lot of tensions there to consider–if not to reconcile. I look forward to reading him this summer.

    • Thank you for the welcome! There are some motions towards reconciliation that I can suggest, but I hope not to over-sanitize CW, as some writers have done. The oddness is part of the appeal, I think. I hope you enjoy reading.

    • robstroud says:

      We definitely can’t have him becoming “American,” can we Brenton?

      Sorina, a very balanced and well written introduction to Williams. Thank you.

  2. Alas, preparing for my thesis work takes up much of my reading time these days. But my sister is currently reading “Many Dimensions” and says she’s enjoying it. I’m definitely interested in reading his work and that of anyone associated with the Inklings. Nevill Coghill (another one of those “minor” Inklings) did an excellent translation of the Canterbury Tales, which I recently had the pleasure of reading for my M.A. studies. I’d like to read “The Figure of Beatrice,” as that whole aspect of Dante is one of the most fascinating of his work, I think.

    • Thank you for this comment, John! What is the topic of your dissertation? I’m impresses that you have encountered Coghill. Indeed, he did a lot of great work, but is also overlooked. Maybe you should start a blog on him!

      • My primary sources are the Restoration poetry of John Dryden (“Astraea Redux” and “Annus Mirabilis” in particular), R.D. Blackmore’s Victorian-era novel “Lorna Doone,” and Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley.” In short, I’ll be comparing and contrasting the way each writer treats the lower classes in his work. Dryden had some major hang-ups about democracy, but Lorna Doone is narrated from the perspective of a farmer’s son and is much more sympathetic of what “the rest of us” go through. Scott was actually an addition suggested by my thesis chair, so I’m still investigating Scott’s views and how they fit in with Dryden and Blackmore. I’ve got a lot of reading and writing to do over the next few months…

        I believe the first time I ever heard of Coghill was from reading Glyer’s “The Company They Keep.” Excellent book. Her book was also the first place I ever came across Tolkien’s original ending to LOTR. I actually like the original ending better!

        • Good stuff, John. That is an interesting concatenation of writers. Are there any ways your thesis advisers are letting you take your work outside of a theoretical lens into the rest of the world: talking about how these social viewpoints connect to current events, or doing any writing that non-academics might read? (These are, in my opinion, things academia needs to do or die).

  3. Reblogged this on C.S. Lewis Minute and commented:
    Here’s a great new blog about Charles Williams. As noted in this first posting, Williams was a close friend of C.S. Lewis.

  4. Thanks for the heads-up on this author. Looks like a must read.

  5. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    Last year Sørina Higgins wrote a guest blog for A Pilgrim in Narnia on Charles Williams (http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2012/08/10/the-oddest-inkling-a-guest-blog-by-sorina-higgins/). She has now launched “The Oddest Inkling,” a blog dedicated to this enigmatic, entrancing individual. Here’s her first post, with best wishes.

  6. I recently read “War in Heaven” and “Descent into Hell” and thoroughly enjoyed them. Not necessarily an “easy” read, but very rewarding. I have “Many Dimensions” and plan to read it next. I’m looking forward to reading your blog also, so good luck!

    • Thanks, Marc! Those were good ones to start with. “Many Dimensions” is probably the easiest read in terms of straight-forward narrative, but just as rewarding as far as ideas. Perhaps “The Place of the Lion” after that?

  7. Well, I guess it is time to pick up Marc’s copy of “War in Heaven” again and and see what all the fuss is about. How can I resist an “eminently combustible” Anglican occult master who inspired Dorothy Sayers to translate Dante?

  8. Must have read the 7 novels around a dozen times each, and STILL find something I’ve missed. Love too the Arthurian poems, even with my lack of a real education I find them irresistible.

  9. Your introduction has captured me. I have read some CW and find myself drawn to his thinking, but clearly I need fellow travelers on this path. I look forward to the walk with you.

  10. CFB says:

    Reblogged this on Liturgical Credo and commented:
    WordPress popped up this blog, “The Oddest Inkling,” as a suggested “follow.” Higgins is a scholar and a clear communicator — I’m very excited to find someone doing academic work on a less-known Inkling! Now I need someone like her who focuses on Owen Barfield!

  11. Oh yes..and Outlines of Romantic Theology ; D

  12. theviking says:

    I’ve neglected this blog for far too long. Williams certainly seems an interesting and odd fellow based on this description. Of course, based on the description, I can see why he may not have been as studiesd as Lewis and Tolkien. Not that that will keep me from taking a look!

  13. Pingback: The Oddest Inkling (Sørina Higgins) | Essential C.S. Lewis

  14. Pingback: A brief thought on Charles Williams and spiritual warfare | Hiraeth for heaven

  15. Pingback: Heroines and Humility part 2 | The Oddest Inkling

  16. Pingback: Meditations on the Tarot | Life Streams – Narrative and Grace…

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