London is Heaven: The City of God in CW’s works

As you know by know, Charles Williams’ imaginative theology and creative writings revolve around (at least) these eight interrelated themes:
2. Romantic theology
3. The Two Ways
4. Ritual Objects
5. The Crisis of Schism
6. Mystical Tranquility
7. The City
8. Arthuriana and the Holy Grail
Today we are talking about “The City.”

London in 1939

Charles Williams was born in London, then lived there most of his life. He was only out of the city for two periods: for 10 years from 1894-1904 when he lived in St. Alban’s, and for six years from 1939-1945 when he lived in Oxford. London was his heart’s home. He did not care too much for nature; unlike his fellow Inklings, who reveled in the countryside and were heartbroken by industrialization, CW thought of the outdoors primarily as a place to walk in with a friend for the purposes of conversation. This was probably partly due to his short-sightedness: he couldn’t see the distant landscapes his friends could.

Far more importantly, there was a theological reason he preferred the City rather than the Country. Nearly everything he ever wrote is, in one way or another, in praise of community. He believed that faith can only be worked out fully in a network of close-knit relationships. Love, co-inherence, substitution, and exchange: these are all the ways that Christianity is practiced in daily life, and those are all possible only in community. It follows, then, that a City is the perfect place to practice co-inherence with friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers.

There is more to his theology of the City, however; much more. Williams saw in the City an image of how God works. A City is a complex organism of interrelated systems, functioning on many levels at once. When any little part of it goes wrong—if the garbage collectors don’t show up, or the railway workers go on strike, or city government fails to pass a budget, or there aren’t enough firefighters, or the schools are rotten, or city officials are corrupt, or even if a traffic light breaks down—the entire multifaceted system suffers. This, CW believed, is a symbol of the Body of Christ. More than that: it is an example of the Body of Christ, of the way God works on the micro-scale (in individuals) and the macro-scale (in the Church as a whole, and human history) simultaneously, and each through the other. The large scale is influenced by every little part, how each works and how they work together, and the parts are influenced by the shape, health, and direction of the whole.

CW took this to an extreme when he created his imaginary Romano-Byzantine Empire as the setting for his Arthurian legends. Each person is only happy and able to pursue good work when the Empire is functioning well; when the Empire falls to Muslim armies and pagan hordes, people in Britain suffer from the Empire dysfunction. The Empire is only able to function when its constituent individuals are rightly oriented: the personal sins of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred, and Balin destroy the entire continent-wide Empire.

And there is one final layer. The City of God also represents the Kingdom of God—Heaven. Yet this representation is more than just a symbol. Remember how sacramental CW was? So the City of God is not really a symbol for Heaven in his writings: it is an embodiment of Heaven, an enacting of Heaven, almost an Incarnation of Heaven.

Then it should not be surprising that London features significantly throughout his works, to be supplanted by the Empire in his Arthurian poetry. For the City shows forth God’s power and personality in its complex system of orderly, hierarchical behavior. When we get to Heaven, then, and I’m running through the daisies in an endless field, CW will be walking the City streets. I hope we get to meet at some crossroads, or maybe upon London Bridge.

Lynton Lamb’s illustration of CW’s Arthurian Empire

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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8 Responses to London is Heaven: The City of God in CW’s works

  1. brucecharlton says:

    This City concept of CW was one of the things I found most fascinating and difficult to understand in his work.

    Recently, I think I got closer with gaining and understanding of the Eastern Orthodox/ Eastern Roman Empire idea of the City of God


    The City of God: The Church, or Constantinople?

    In the lives of most Christians past and present, The Church is grossly deficient, and we must make do with the best that can be managed: which may not be very much.

    Some denominations are much better than others at insisting-upon – sometimes eliciting – specific approved behaviours from adherents.

    This might happen for many reasons: one common way of getting adherents to behave well is by being selective (excluding non-virtuous people, or only attracting the well-behaved to join), another is by having strict and explicit laws backed up by punishments (sometimes draconian) for transgression. Strictly, therefore, the behavior of adherents may have nothing to do with the specifically religious aspects.


    However, the ideal of The Church varies between denominations, and I think these ideals can be compared and evaluated.

    It is instructive to imagine how the world would ideally be organized (ideally according to specific aspiration) if a denomination or religion had its way.


    In the Catholic Christian denominations, the ideal is sometimes termed The City of God – a situation actualized in Heaven – but seen only incompletely and in corrupted form here on earth.

    There are two main concepts of the City of God – Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.


    The RC concept of the City of God comes from Augustine of Hippo (St Augustine to the RC Church), and it refers to the ideal Church.

    It is the Church – ruled by the Pope (Vicar of Christ) – which is seen as the earthly representation of the Heavenly order.

    The secular world of ‘politics’, ruled by the monarch or by some other form of government such as democracy – is excluded from the City of God.

    The Western Catholic tradition is therefore dualistic: Church and State, spiritual and secular – Pope and Monarch


    The Orthodox concept of the City of God comes from Eusebius (early church historian and biographer of Constantine), and refers to the city of Constantinople.

    It is the City – ruled by the Emperor (Christ’s Vicegerent on earth) – which is seen as the earthly representative of the Heavenly order.

    The Eastern Catholic tradition is therefore monistic: a single hierarchy with the divinely ordained monarch at its head and incorporating the Church and State, spiritual and secular interwoven within it.


    In this, as in other respects, I think CW was closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than anything else – although he didn’t know much about the subject in a technical sense (apparently, according to the Inkling’s Byzantine expert Gervase Matthew) beyond an excellent travel book by Robert Byron called The Byzantine Achievement (1929); and he accurately intuited the rest!

    (I also suspect he may have intuited the way in which the Monarchy and Church of England were an embryonic – but failed – example of The City of God – )


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Bruce: I think you’re exactly right. Stephen Barber once pointed out to me that CW tried to write the East/West (or Roman/Byzantine) split out of Church history. In his Arthurian poetry, he imagines a Roman/Byzantine empire, with England as a province, as the earthly expression of Heaven AND as the perfect unity of the various sides of church tradition.


      • David says:

        I do not know how conscious it was – how much detailed specific anachronism or re-dating or whatever were involved – but the specific Islamic presence and details in his Arthurian retelling would put the time to not so long after that of St. Maximus the Confessor and Pope St. Martin I, when their united witness to orthodoxy in West and East was reaffirmed Imperially and Ecumenically, very much a ‘City’ of Pope and Byzantine Emperor together!


        • Sørina Higgins says:

          It was all VERY conscious. I’m now reading CW’s “Arthurian Commonplace Book,” a notebook of ideas he kept throughout the 19-teens and early 1920s. In it, he toys with the historical setting, trying to decide when exactly to set it, what eras to conflate, which historical figures to use, whether to make the time period clear or ambiguous to the reader, etc. It’s fascinating reading!


  2. Jared Lobdell says:

    There’s an instructive essay by Chuck Huttar suggesting some points of disagreement [and contact] between JRRT and CWSW, “Hell and the City” in A TOLKKIEN COMPASS. If, for CWSW, it was preeminently true that “Hell is inaccurate,” then it was correspondingly [pre-eminently] true that the City embodies order and thus accuracy. Not that there is not more than one city of London [indeed there seem to be at least three] in ALL HALLOW’S EVE — for all I know there are as many demonic copies of London as there are of Simon. Well, more later.


  3. David says:

    It is fascinating to see how two somewhat isolated images of Arthur’s hall in Camelot and the body, and Blanchfleur’s body and “the Chivalry of the Table”, and the more developed attention to the inter-relations of Logres and Byzantium, in the Advent of Galahad poetry, ‘give way’ to the “Vision of th Empire” as “organic body” in the later poetry.


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