A Reader’s Guide for Beginners

Perhaps you have never read the works of Charles Williams, but you want to give him a try. Where should you start? That depends upon your reading taste. Do you prefer novels, plays, theology, poetry, literary criticism, or biography? Let’s start with novels.

NOVELS

beat6I think the novels may be the best place for anyone to begin, simply because they are the easiest to read. That’s generally true of novels compared to other genres, wouldn’t you say? But that’s not to suggest that Williams’ novels are cheap page-turners: in the casual crowd of beach-novels, they stand alone in a corner, dressed in black, mysteriously murmuring big words, smoking artistic cigarettes.

But at least they have fairly straight-forward plots, which cannot be said of his other works. They are startling and original, which should be a recommendation to anyone following this blog. Here is my suggested reading order:

War in Heaven

War In Heaven

1. War in Heaven employs the most straightforward plot and intelligible writing style. It opens with this delightful sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” If you like murder mysteries, though, don’t be fooled: CW teases that genre almost out of recognition. I’ve written about that here (reprinted here).

2. Many Dimensions, a companion-piece to War in Heaven, in which the Stone of Solomon functions like Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

Place of the Lion

The Place of the Lion

3. The Place of the Lion is a fantastic romp with the Platonic archetypes let loose in rural England. It’s my favorite; you could start here if you are a veteran reader of fantasy and/or a student of philosophy.

4. The Greater Trumps explores magic and coinherence through the Tarot cards and a set of dancing figures.

5. Descent into Hell is CW’s prose tour de force. It integrates all his distinctive themes: substitution, simultaneity, silence, serenity, the unity of body and soul, and the power of poetry (Williams once employed the name of its playwright-hero, Peter Stanhope, as a pseudonym). The characters discuss timeless Christian doctrines in fresh diction, without platitudes. The pacing of events is admirable, with cycles of intensity alternating with passages of vague visionary stasis and tranquil revelation.

6. All Hallow’s Eve reveals the proximity of the noumenal to the phenomenal. Many critics acclaim it as his best novel. You could stop here if you like. But there is one more:

7. Shadows of Ecstasy was published third but written first. It is his weirdest novel and contains the most disturbing uses of magic without any narrative condemnation. The evil magus is a charismatic, attractive person. That’s why I suggest reading this novel last, after you have gotten to know his mature, spiritually edifying style. Or you could skip it.

ttl rssPOETRY

After mastering the sinuous, agile writing style in Williams’s prose narratives, an adventuresome reader should proceed to his remarkable Arthurian poetry:

Taliessin through Logres
and
The Region of the Summer Stars

They are his masterpiece. These dense, crystalline, lucid volumes of verse were published together with Arthurian Torso (which contains the prose Figure of Arthur and C.S. Lewis’s commentary); here is the edition I recommend. Lewis offers helpful glosses and a simplified reading order, because the poems are arranged according to thought-patterns rather than chronology.

Heroes and KingsOr you could start with his earlier poems, some of which are Arthurian, in what I think is his first volume of good verse: Heroes and Kings. It’s not too expensive on amazon in this reprint by Apocryphile, which also contains the original (often disturbing) woodcut illustrations by Norman Jones.

OTHER GENRES

Williams’s plays, theology, and literary criticism also offer surprising readings of life and literature. His plays are high drama of the spirit, with some reaching heights of spectacle. The Masque of the Manuscript is a hilarious occasional piece written for and performed by his office-mates. It is to the publishing house what Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is to an advertising firm. It’s an early work, written at the peak of his love for Phyllis Jones, during the Once and Shining Moment of coinherence at Amen House, the London office of the Oxford University Press where CW created, inspired, and enacted a workplace mythology.

The House by the Stable, The Devil and the Lady, and Grab and Grace are also readable, performable plays you might enjoy. His other great plays are Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and The House of the Octopus.

If you prefer reading theology, here are the works I recommend:

1. He Came Down From Heaven
2. The Forgiveness of Sins
3. The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church

4. The Figure of Beatrice. This is ostensibly literary criticism, but is really his last, great, integrative work of theology, literary theory, and poetic vision all together. In it, he presents a mature view of the Romantic Theology he had formulated as a young married man, right before Phyllis Jones tore his universe apart. It is a meditation on Dante, but brings in most of his distinctive themes for examination and inspiration.
Lang-Sims-mr-140x210If you are especially interested in his personal life, there are two collections of letters: To Michael from Serge (to his wife during the six years of separation) and Letters to Lalage, a revealing correspondence between himself and one of his female disciples, with commentary by the lady.

There are my recommendations. Please leave me a comment letting me know which books you read first and what you think of them.

He also wrote lots and lots of other poetry, plays, articles/essays, book reviews (especially of detective fiction), and biographies. At some point I will post a full bibliography by genre with publication information and so forth. Then I will begin going through his works in chronological order, writing a summary/commentary on each one. Finally, I will write reviews of the major scholarly studies of CW’s life and works. Stay tuned!

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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33 Responses to A Reader’s Guide for Beginners

  1. Sørina Higgins says:

    I found out from fellow CW scholar Michael Paulus that CW did indeed smoke: twitter.com/mjpaulusjr/status/352601413605548032/photo/1 and forkeepingtime.blogspot.com/2008/03/from-manuscript-et-cetera-to-book.html.

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  2. Fionnuala says:

    Williams is on my fantasy reading list and War in Heaven is the first book of his that I purchased, knowing little at the time about him and his works. Glad to see it at the top of your recommended list. I haven’t read much of it yet. I’m finding the beginning a bit dull. Still, nothing good comes easy!

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’m sorry you’re finding that book dull. You could put it aside and try another; that might just not be the book for you. What are your top favorite books of all time? Maybe I can help you figure out which one may fit your taste.

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  3. Richard P. Wilds says:

    I have a number of CWs books, but I have only found the theology works:
    1. He Came Down From Heaven
    2. The Forgiveness of Sins
    3. The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church
    4. The Figure of Beatrice
    to be easily inspiring to me. I can certainly recommend the theology works.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thanks, Richard! Do you tend to be a reader of others’ theology, too? If so, how does CW compare for inspiration, orthodoxy, clarity, etc. in your opinion?

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      • Richard P. Wilds says:

        Greetings Sorina: I have enjoyed CW’s clear review of the history of the topic. I have enjoyed my own review of the Church Fathers on the topic of Theology. I am not sure just how close I follow orthodoxy in that my most treasured source is found in the “Unspoken Sermons” of George MacDonald – of course a source of interest concerning CW and the other Inklings!

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        • Sørina Higgins says:

          That makes sense! “Orthodoxy” is a slippery term, and redefined by people in power at any given moment. I have not yet read “Unspoken Sermons” but have heard there are some tricky bits — do they state or imply Universalism?

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          • Richard P. Wilds says:

            Universalism is not discussed as a topic, though I have to admit I was not looking for the subject. The author has been accused of such, but I see the work as much deeper than anything such a label can suggest. You can get “Unspoken Sermons” as a free e-book to read and search. You can also obtain “Unspoken Sermons” as a free audio book in MP3 Format from Librivox!

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  4. Thank you for bringing these to my attention. I plan to check some of them out this summer.

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  5. Hi Sørina, thank you so much for this. I think I was drawn to your Blog mainly because I do not know Charles Williams’ work very well & thanks to Malcolm Guite’s wonderful talks on the Inklings I have returned to them with renewed interest.
    I have read “Descent into Hell” and found it deeply disturbing. I don’t mean this in some facile sense of being spooked. It was that as I read it I felt that the journey of the central character into Hell was actually one that I was capable of making. I did not need to suspend disbelief and sign up to some metaphysical system in order to read it. His Hell belongs in the same world that I live in.
    Can I ask one question here? In what way do you think that CW was an Inkling in the sense that Tolkien or Lewis were? Is there a shared project that marks them out as a coherent group?

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  6. Sørina Higgins says:

    Stephen: Yes, indeed, “Descent into Hell” is very, very disturbing that way. It is supposed to be. C.S. Lewis had the same response to “The Place of the Lion,” in which a scholar is quickly going down the road to hell by considering her subject as only that — a subject — rather than a living philosophy, truth, and way of life. So, in a way I’m glad that book terrified you in that manner: a very healthy fear.

    Excellent question: How was CW an Inkling? A few items come to mind (and maybe I should post on this in future):
    1. Holism. Thinking of history, time, literature, Scripture, fantasy, myth, science, etc. as all one Thing.
    2. Using imagination to communicate truth.
    3. Using ideas, images, systems of thought from the past (esp. Middle Ages) to relate to contemporary times.
    4. Having a strong sense of the Numinous in life and work.
    That’s what comes to mind. Other ideas?

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    • If you do post on the question of how CW was an inkling I think it would be great. And not just for the sake of your work on CW (which I really appreciate,by the way) but because what you have listed briefly here is a manifesto that would change the world (or perhaps one of the richest expressions of the story that saves the world, as you tweeted elsewhere). I guess what allowed scholars of literature of their day & ours to declare them to be irrelevant was your point 3, was their commitment to drawing upon pre-modern systems of thought. That is of course what makes them so important. They challenge the idolatrous orthodoxy of our times. It is also what infuriates the “high priests” of that orthodoxy. For all the scorn that is poured on the work of the Inklings they continue to be best sellers.
      This isn’t an anti-modern rant. There is much in the contemporary arts that I love. It is just that I think that all fundamentalisms are inherently wrong (the very worst expression of modernism, in fact). All of them break the holism that you refer to and for which I longed long before I knew what it was.
      I do hope that your work gets people reading CW again and that the work of the inklings will gain a greater respect in our benighted times. It is so very important! As for me I think my next read will be “The Place of the Lion”. I was intrigued by your description of the Platonic archetypes let loose.

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      • Sørina Higgins says:

        Thanks, Stephen! Please do read “The Place of the Lion” and let me know what you think.

        Here’s a sad question. If that “manifesto” could change the world, why didn’t it? (Or did it?)

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        • What a question! Sat in my car thinking about it in the Close at Worcester cathedral yesterday evening listening to a wonderful piano recital while my daughter, who sings in the cathedral’s girl’s choir was inside recording a CD. Sorry for the background but was suddenly struck by how easy it is to take such beauty for granted. And I’m proud of my daughter!
          By way of an attempted response I would say this: I think it is easy to trace a history of violence, look at any conflict in the world today & you can trace the deeds of hurt that have led to the present situation. In my own islands the conflict between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland is one such (my mother comes from Irish Protestant stock) & one could name many, many more. Histories of Grace are far harder to trace. They rarely find their way into our news media. In what way does an act of kindness or generosity change the world? Or in what way does a good story? I remember CS Lewis somewhere speaks about the pictures God gives to a culture, for example devotion to the feminine through the cult of the Virgin Mary (and its secular equivalent, the poetry of courtly love) in the warrior culture of medieval Europe. I think also of way the Resurrection story is told. The death of Jesus is known to all as a matter of public record. Only the witnesses know of the Resurrection. In that respect I think your work on CW is an act of witness in the sense of Acts 1.8 just as the writing, reading and discussion of the Inklings was too, even in the days when their only audience was each other. Only the last day will reveal its significance and then in a way that will be unlike anything we could possibly anticipate.

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          • Sørina Higgins says:

            Wow, that’s a very thoughtful and kind answer! Many thanks for pondering it. Yes, I think you are right. Just as it is easier to right about bad times than about good times, so it is easier to see patterns of wickedness than patterns of grace.

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  7. Sørina Higgins says:

    Richard: Thank you for that! I think I do have “Unspoken Sermons” from Librivox and just haven’t gotten to it yet. Cheers.

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  8. David says:

    At the risk of sounding a plodding pedant (while just trying to be useful), Williams is in the most basic (and comprehensive) sense an ‘Inkling’ because he was one of that circle about whom Humphrey Carpenter has written so vividly and usefully. Dorothy L. Sayers was not, in that sense, an Inkling, though a friendly correspondent, etc., of Lewis and Williams.

    In the wake of the previous comments, would add three reading recommendations:

    First, Anne Rider’s selection of short prose works – including theological ones – by Williams, The Image of the City, which also has a book(let) length introduction which even after 55 years is probably the single best over-all introduction to Williams (and even has a great anecdote about him smoking, if I am not mistaken): it is available in reprint, too.

    Second, The Theology of Romantic Love, an work a bit earlier than his easliest novels, edited by Alice Mary Hadfield, and including the later ‘Religion and Love in Dante’ which Malcolm Guite mistakenly suggests was never reprinted in his interesting talk posted on YouTube: it is also available in reprint.

    Third, the Charles Williams volume in Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets Series, which lacks Lewis’s helpful and interesting Arthurian Torso book reprinted in the Eerdmans volume, but does have all the Arthurian poems from Heroes & Kings plus others from the same early Advent of Galahad cycle, as well as a number of other previously uncollected or unpublished poems besides.

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  9. David says:

    Yes! That’s what I get for not checking something I think I know (or remembering your attention to it here)!

    I have now quickly re-checked Anne Ridler’s introduction and not found the smoking anecdote – I wonder where I encountered it? As I remember it, it had to do with Williams lighting up as soon as he got outside after Holy Communion at the St. Cross parish church in Oxford, thoughtfully struck anew by the awe of it.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Hm, I don’t know where that anecdote occurs either…. I’ll let you know if I come across it in my chronological read-through!

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  10. I started out with The Place of the Lion and Many Dimensions, in an Inkling focused class in college. I absolutely loved The Place of the Lion and Many Dimensions as well. I was the only one in the class who enjoyed either book. I later went out and read all of his novels, including his unfinished novel.

    I agree that All Hallow’s Eve is the best, though I do not enjoy it the most. This is the book where all the ideas from his previous books congregate and become an astounding solid whole. Unfortunately there’s nothing new here if you have read the other books, which made me feel as if something was missing.

    Personally I think War In Heaven is one of his most boring novels and would not suggest anyone start there.

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  17. Tovah says:

    Readers like me are limited by availability: not all of Williams’ books are available either in the public library or in the university library in my town. While some are in one and not the other, I can’t get a hold of The Silver Stair or Many Dimensions.

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