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.


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.


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. Sørina serves as a Preceptor at Signum University's Mythgard Institute and teaches English at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus." Like everybody else, she's writing her first novel.
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50 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.


    • I think he is a must-read! I’d recommend starting with “The Place of the Lion.”


      • thanks for the recommendation


      • Just finished Williams’s “The Place of the Lion”(n☼t, by any means, my 1st eXperience of CW : ) & must c☼nfess to haVin’ been ‘g☼bsmacked’ — in fact, being of the ‘cl☼se readerly’ persuaSion, I took seVeral pp. of n☼tes, & am in the Wake there☼f immersing mesElf in the 12th-century ‘thInk-tAnk{h}y’ w☼rks of the auth☼rs ass☼ciated with the Abbey of St. Vict☼r, f☼unded by William of ChampeauX in 11☼8, namely Hugh of St. Vict☼r’s “The Didascalicon: A MedieVal Guide to the Arts” (as trans. fr☼M the Latin with n☼te{♫}s by Jer☼Me Tayl☼r; Columbia UniVersity Press, NYC, 1991); “Hugh of St. Vict☼r: Selected Spiritual Writings” (as trans. by a Religious of The Community of St. Mary the Virgin; Wantage, which c☼Mpendium features an Intro. by Aelred Squire, ☼.P.; Harper & Row, NYC, eVanst☼n, & the UK, 1962); “☼n LoVe: A Selecti☼n of Works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, & Godfrey of St. Vict☼r” (as ed. by Hugh{!} Feiss, ☼.S.B.; as a pArt of the Vict☼rne TeXts in Translation Series; Brep☼ls Publishers, Turn☼ut, Belgium, 2☼11), “Interpretati☼n of Scripture: The☼ry” (as ed. by Franklin T. HarKins & Frans van Liere; same Vict☼rine TeXts in Translation Series as ab☼ve; Brep☼ls, Turn☼ut, Belgium, 2☼12), etc. All fr☼M a seemingly ‘under-the-radar’ nudge by Williams in his “The Place of the Lion,” which I gather is the w☼rk that put CW epicentRA{☼}lly on CSL’s map. A fine instance of wHAt Borges is inVoking in the f☼lloWing{ed} pasSage :: “I saw a huge Wheel, which was n☼t in fr☼nt of my eYes, n☼r behind, n☼r beside, but in all places{!} at ☼nce. This Wheel was made of Water, but also of Fire, & was (alth☼ugh I saw its b☼rder) Infinite” (which serVes Marcel☼ Gleiser as an epigraph to his 9th chapter hight ‘InVenting UniVerses’ in his “The Dancing UniVerse: Fr☼M Creati☼n Myths to the Big ‘Ba’ng;” A Plume Bk., pub. under the auspices of Penguin, NYC, UK, etc., 1998). With Helen Waddell’s n☼vel “Peter Abelard” (The ViKing Press, NYC, 1971; orig. pub. by Holt, RineHart & Winst☼n in 1933{!}) as a ‘d☼ll☼p of s☼rts. As y☼u might SURmise, I’m a huge fan/oVer-the-t☼p enthusiast of the inimitable Charles Williams, & haVe ‘eVe’n read his “Taliessin thr☼ugh Logres/Regi☼n of the Summer Stars/Arthurian Torso” etc., which was posthum☼r☼usly pub. thr☼ugh the good graces of C. S. Lewis. For what it’s w☼rth, my ‘initiation’ into the singular plaisirs of Williams’s oeuvre was “War in HeaVen,” f☼lloWed by his studies of “The DeScent of the DoVe,” Beatrice, Dante, etc. et al.


  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 ( 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

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  17. James says:

    Very pleased to find such attention paid to Williams. Have read most though not all his works, with the Arthurian poetry somewhat difficult to find. I was quite surprised to find the Figure of Beatrice both highly readable and very compelling.

    I think your reading of Williams is spot on in lots of ways, but would take issue with one of your points. I don’t think he would view his Christianity as a combination of magic and Christianity, but believe rather that he would maintain that there is an important distinction. I have always understood his vision to have contained early and extensive explorations into magic, ( order of the golden dawn etc) but find the point of many of his novels to ultimately show a complete rejection of it and an embracing of Christianity. The magic invariably tends to be about personal ambition and power. There is no doubt that the Christianity contains power (what is generally viewed as the miraculous), but it is power at the service of good, never power for its own sake or about personal gain. There is power in a lot of things, but I believe he would classify magic per se as totally different from Christianity.

    Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading your novel.



    • Coerulescent says:

      I agree about the distinction between Christianity and magic, and I think that, perhaps, Williams wanted to “see the other side” first, and that this participation led to his ultimate rejection of it in favor of Anglican Christianity. This is not far fetched. In my early years, I became a Freemason, 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite and a Royal Arch Mason of the York Rite. I participated in the conferring of the 3rd, or Master Mason, degree in my lodge, and, at the what became the end of my masonry, I was on my way through the chairs on the fast track. Freemasonry taught me a lot about what Christianity is NOT. But it also taught me a lot about comportment, which 20th-21st century Christianity seems to ignore. The Apostle Saint Paul was a good Pharisee before he was a good Christian (and the two positions are mutually exclusive). One cannot help but think that, as human nature goes, an earlier phase of a life may influence a later phase. I do not in any way compare myself to Saint Paul, or to Williams; but we share a common humanity and the common processes of human life passing through time on its way to spiritual maturity.


      • Thank you for sharing this! It is enlightening to hear about someone else’s similar experience. It sounds like you have an insider’s understanding of some elements of CW’s life.


  18. Keith Buhler says:

    The Taliesson Through Logres was, and is, superlatively difficult. There are snatches I find beautiful.

    More so I enjoyed reading C. S. Lewis’ interpretive essay (bound together in this volume It was enjoyable in its own right and helped me get more out of Taliesson.

    Of novels, Descent into Hell is the best and wisest.
    All Hallow’s Eve is the best as novel.

    My third favorite is Greater Trumps.


  19. Pingback: The “Eminently Combustible” Mr. Williams | Book Geeks Anonymous

  20. bibek sen says:

    let me confess first, my route to charles williams is not through his novels, an avid read of t s eliot for the last thirty years, i naturally read dante ( in translation ) after every couple of years, when i read dorothy sayers’ translation, one thing lead to another and i found the inklings and williams, his theology and his contradictions.
    because of some personal reason, i’m forced to read lots of psychology books, personality disorders and i must confess that beside the marxist school of thought, i’m most influenced by modern psychology and psychiatry.
    certainly charles williams was a person of high morality, far from being a ‘babe magnet’ he had strong sexual values, acquired from his time and his religious background. had he been born in our time, or among the french/russian poets of his time, he might have either divorced his wife and married several times or had several sexual liaison with his countless female followers, which is very common among poets, even scientists. for some years i read closely whatever i could find on the life and activities of great mathematician alexandre grothendieck. he was such a person. winfried scharlau’s biography describes his life wonderfully. but cw didn’t take that route. anyone won’t. even our sexual morality is shaped by our time as well as our personality types. all individuals don’t suffer from the same emotions and agonies, our reactions to external stimulation are different.
    so, there is one possible conjecture that cw was extremely emotional and had a bent to fall in strange love, transfigure his objects of adoration into something divine, kind of boyish love. it’s a milder variety of what grothendieck termed la quête de la femme or la pulsion du sexe.
    there is another possibility, his animated letters to his wife, his urge to have a great love outside marriage, at least symbolic love, points to that direction. his relation with his wife was sore from the beginning. it was simply dysfunctional. the short memoir we read in the pages of cw quarterly doesn’t mention it, it mentions nothing, the language of his wife is too stiff. was she culturally, intellectually a mismatch for cw? why the name michal was given to her? does it signify a difficult marriage as king david had with his first wife? was she a borderline personality? suffering from what the french call bouffée délirante? folie hystérique? a man of utmost secrecy and sense of honour, cw would certainly hide this fact from his friends and associates. neither they would understand it from outside, such patients have their high and low, a form of hyde and jekyll. 9 years courtship with a person of lower social standing, no university degree to flaunt, yet of superior intellectual propensities, certainly ms conway was a common, normal woman to hold her wits together.
    the extraordinary in this affair is the integrity of cw. though london was much more conservative at that time, but we should remember the continental influence. the anarchism of france and spain, of which another serge, victor serge had written extensively, the breakdown of family in bolshevik russia (the famous glass of water theory of kollontai), homosexuality of the cambridge apostles, bertie russell’s escapades, ezra pound’s famous affairs, london was certainly not a buddist kingdom too.
    yet cw didn’t indulge in the way of arnaldo faría utrillo (protagonist in the novel triumphal voyage by eduardo garcia aguilar). he loved women, he must have lacked love from his marriage, but he chose the way of coinherence, loving them like a dutiful lover-beloved, not like a mythological erotic faun (a la mallarme), this love is mystic too, as we find in jalalluddin rumi, it’s the love of god, the lover and the god mingled in one body. doesn’t the gospel of mary tells us something akin to that?
    p.s. in a facebook chat i suggested to ms higgins that phyllis jones must have been a difficult lady. in support of my conjecture i just point out one thing, i find she was in love with or at least enjoyed being loved by cw, then she moved towards one hopkins, then went to java with another person, somervaille, back from java with a daughter celia she went into another marriage with one dougall. does it seem normal? isn’t it a sign of some difficult and gnawing personality disorder?


    • Thank you for this comment. You certainly have some good insights here.

      I do agree that the questions you raise are valid ones. Perhaps some of them will be answered by Grevel Lindop’s forthcoming biography. Do take a look at my post about Gerry Hopkins’ novel “Nor Fish Nor Flesh,” as it is all about the Williams-Jones-Hopkins triangle.

      You ask why Florence was nicknamed “Michal.” This is because CW used to quote poetry loudly in public, embarrassing her, so she would rebuke him. The name stuck so hard that she published under it and it is on her grave.


  21. Pingback: Poets’ Corner: The Oddest Inkling | EerdWord

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