Charles Williams Book Summary #30: James I (1934)
J.R.R. Tolkien defended fantasy literature in his important talk “On Fairy-stories” by arguing, among other significant points, that myths, legends, and fairy tales came from the “soup of stories”: there were many ingredients thrown in, from a variety of sources, but the resulting story was more than the sum of its part. Each story has its own flavor. He was warning against excessive source criticism that identifies a supposed influence on or source for every last little element in a story and then claims to understand the story fully. Just taste the soup, he advises. See if you like it.
T.S. Eliot, in his introduction to All Hallows’ Eve, wrote that some of Charles Williams’s “books—such as his Life of Henry VII—were frankly pot-boilers; but he always boiled an honest pot.” CW was constantly worried about money, so he took on all kinds of random projects if they would pay. His biographies are perhaps the clearest example of his soup-making process. Without spending time hunting down how he used each of his sources, I think I can see that he took a pile of books—previous biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, and collections of historical documents such as letters—and pretty much cut-and-pasted their contents into his book, changing the writing style as he went to suit his tone and purpose.
Here, for example, is his bibliography from the end of James I:
You can see that it contains about half primary sources and about half secondary. I’ve glanced into some of these books—several of them are readily available on the internet archive—and I am impressed by CW’s grasp of historical research (and envious of the resources he had available there in the OUP library—although I suppose he would be envious of the resources I have available to me online). Really, he did boil down a surprisingly large, varied, and rich number of ingredients into his sustaining soup. His biography is packed with quotes from letters by King James to others, from others to King James, and to each other; with transcriptions of speeches; and with other historical documents. He does not cite his sources, the way we need to do now: he has that bibliography at the back but gives no indication throughout the text which materials came from where. He leaves that to the avid source-hunter. He mixes anecdote with document in a quite promiscuous manner, but usually gives some hint which is which. He doesn’t modernize spelling—which some of these sources do—and even sometimes uses archaic diction in his own writing to try to match the style of his originals.
The result is surprisingly lively. It’s a hearty soup, full of meat and spice. It’s a comprehensive biography, from James’s birth to his death, with plenty of colorful characters and action scenes. Indeed, in the scenes of violence, peril, intrigue, and scandal, CW is at his best. He gets a little wandering in the long intervals of legislation and policy. But give him witchcraft, attempted assassination, games of musical beds, and scenes of the king petting his beautiful boyfriends, and off he soars.
If only he could use intelligible syntax! Oh, how I would love to take this book—or any of his nonfiction prose works—and rewrite the sentences. I wouldn’t touch the content. I would occasionally change the word choice. Usually it’s just a matter of extremely awkward word-order and private diction that alienates the reader. Usually the content is just fine.
Here are the anti-penultimate and penultimate pages of the book; I’ll let you judge the syntax for yourself. (It’s about John Donne giving James I’s funeral oration):
But I’ll tell you that this one isn’t as bad as the earlier ones. CW’s prose continued to improve throughout the ’30s, even as his poetry did. Hooray for the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins!
So, I’ll wrap up this short post by saying that I greatly enjoyed James I. I’ll admit I skimmed through parts of it, and I still feel that I need to read a “real” biography of the king, without CW’s allusive and privatized style, but I did enjoy it. He can tell a lively story when he puts his mind to it, and he can cook a yummy soup. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.