Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 1: The Nature of Time

Doctor Who is returning! Season 9 opens this Saturday, September 19th, with the Twelfth Doctor and Clara in their continuing wild adventures.

So what do the Doctor and the Third Inkling have in common? Not just that CW’s friend C.S. Lewis died the same day that Doctor Who premiered—and thus, clearly, the Doctor is Lewis reincarnated. And the series has a mythic quality much like what J.R.R. Tolkien praised in “On Fairy-stories,” as Katherine Sas has argued. Not just that there’s an episode called The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe that takes place in a snowy forest at Christmas. No, there’s more. There are at least four themes that I’ve found common to both the writings of Charles Williams and Doctor Who. I’m not claiming any direct influence. While it is obvious that Steven Moffat read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and even the BBC has listed five reasons Doctor Who owes C. S. Lewis a debt of gratitude, there is more.

Here are the themes, which I plan to post four days in a row to lead up to the release of Season 9:

  1. The fluid nature of time
  2. Cabbalistic beliefs about words
  3. coinherence, the way of exchange, self-sacrifice
  4. true myth

clocks-that-melt-by-salvador-dali-1346100645_bLet’s talk about the fluid nature of time.

Obviously, this is one of the biggest themes of Doctor Who. It’s arguably the main premise of the show, at least in the reboot. Especially in the River Song/Amy Pond storyline(s), questions abound about whether time can go backwards, whether time can be rewritten, whether the past can be changed, and what impacts time travel has. While various episodes answer these questions differently (resulting in the endearingly frustrating contradictions the show is [in]famous for), it is perfectly clear that time is not a fixed straight line in the Doctor Who multiverse.

You may be surprised to find that this is also the case in Charles Williams’s universe. But wait, you say, wasn’t Williams a Christian? Yes. And don’t Christians believe that time IS a fixed straight line, running from Creation through Fall and Redemption, ending with the Apocalypse and the New Heavens and the New Earth?
(I feel German there, with all those capitalized nouns).

Well, yes. We do. But it’s also not that simple. Throughout church history, theologians have debated the nature of Time and, especially, God’s relationship to it. Boethius, for example, argued that God is outside of time and sees it “all at once,” as it were. He wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy:

Providence views all things equally and at the same time, despite their diversity and seemingly infinite magnitude. Fate sets individual things in motion once their proper order and form has been established. In other words, Providence is the vision of the divine mind as it sees the unfolding in time of all things, and sees all these things all at once, whereas the unfolding of these events in time, seen as they unfold in time, is called Fate.

And: “The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.”

So if God is outside of time in some sense, and yet He doesn’t need time to keep everything from happening all at once, then it seems that the closer someone comes to living in God’s perfect will, the more someone’s individual will and perceptions become submersed in God, then the more that person will be able to have a supra-chronological view.

At least that’s how Williams depicted it in his fiction. One of the ways he shows timelessness is to depict historical and contemporary events simultaneously—and even to have the characters aware of one another across time. In Descent into Hell, a worker attempts suicide forty years ago, and an old lady about to die communicates with him. In a crucial passage, our young heroine Pauline wants to help her martyred ancestor John, who was burned at the stake 400 years before. An exchange takes place. Pauline says to her grandmother:

“But how could one give backwards? …. four hundred years,” she exclaimed.
“Child,” her grandmother said, “I can touch Adam with my hand; you aren’t as far off.”
“But how could he take it before I’d given it?” Pauline cried, and Margaret said: “Why do you talk of before? If you give, you give to It, and what does It care about before?”

“It,” in this case, is of course God. It is a remarkably Boethian passage: God does not care about before or after, so that Pauline, in God, is able to give joy to her ancestor across a 400-year gap. That’s a very Whovian move, too.

Maybe I should be making this argument the other way around: that Doctor Who is actually a Boethian parable for modern times. I mean, how about this quote from “Blink”: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint—it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”

OK. Boethius would have managed the prose more smoothly. But still. Here’s a better example: a conversation from “The Parting of the Ways”:

ROSE: Two hundred thousand years in the future, he’s dying, and there’s nothing I can do.
JACKIE: Well, like you said two hundred thousand years. It’s way off.
ROSE: But it’s not. It’s now. That fight is happening right now, and he’s fighting for us, for the whole planet, and I’m just sitting here eating chips.

Two thousand years in the future is happening now. It’s all happening at exactly this moment, and what we do now happens then, too. That is just what Williams does. Our now is an eternal now; our decisions resonate through all eternity, because that’s when they happen. (Compare this to the vision at the end of The Great Divorce, while you’re at it).

This is not the case only in CW’s fiction, either. He begins his theological work The Descent of the Dove: A History of the Holy Spirit in the Church with this paragraph:

The beginning of Christendom, is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of the Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

Doctor WHO?

Doctor WHO?

There it is again: a point out of time. He also says somewhere—I think it’s in The Forgiveness of Sins—and I paraphrase, that the Incarnation is so essential to the nature of reality that if it hadn’t happened yet, that would only mean it was yet to happen. It IS the turning point, the meaning, of human history, whether you are looking at it is if it is “before” or “after” your own time.

So if you watch the new season of Doctor Who starting this Saturday, read some CW alongside. You’ll be surprised how their ideas about time are so synchronous—if that’s the right word.

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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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17 Responses to Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 1: The Nature of Time

  1. I always think of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” with all of this timey-wimey talk:
    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.

    Like

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Sørina saith, “thus, clearly, the Doctor is Lewis reincarnated.” Poor Lewis – not the form he anticipated the purgatorial process to take. (I once had an eggplant with a protuberance somewhat reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s nose , but …) We know Warren Lewis watched television and Michael Williams was a film lover: were they Who watchers?

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A couple more ingredients to ponder:

    J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time, known to Williams and Tolkien ( a copy of 1929 ed. 2 is scanned in the Internet Archive);
    Masefield’s Box of Delights (1935), known to and loved by Lewis, if I am not mistaken, and with the bonus of the mysterious Cole Hawlings in the BBC version being played by Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor;
    Tolkien’s attempts at his time-travel novel to complement Lewis’s space one: The Lost Road, and The Notion Club Papers (which is fascinating in its treatments of time and space ‘travel’ and its play with the Inklings and their works);
    Williams’s poem “Mount Badon” which seems to involve Taliessin seeing Virgil write his treatment of the battle of Actium for the Aeneid while himself awaiting his involvement in the battle of Badon – with a further Apocalyptic element… (it came to mind today while I was getting acquainted with the excellent Nugus-Martin series, Battleplan (2006), which ranges thematically back and forth between historical campaigns and battles).

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  4. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 2: Cabbalistic beliefs about words | The Oddest Inkling

  5. pennkenobi says:

    Finally I am getting around to participating in one of the more worthwhile blogs in the . . . in the, oh hell, the blogosphere. (Some of the most impossibly buzzy words also happen to be the most useful.) I’m just going to thrust right in here. The problem I have with the notion of Eternal Now is that it can not be spoken of without using the language of time. As fun and perhaps fruitful as it is to contemplate ‘eternity’ in terms of an eternal now, it is not a concept that I have personally found all that illuminating. I advocate for a ‘supertime’. Not to mention supper time 🙂 A God-time. Indeed, it transcends spatial-temporal creation, but I do not by any means think that it has Jesus Christ still being crucified at the moment. In His supertime, God has a history and there are things that are no longer happening for him. He was and is and is to come.

    Let’s see what else? I’m the fellow who submitted the anti-question regarding the Lindop CW bio. I just read through Lindop’s 100 odd facts about CW. Electrifying! It is interesting to think that there is a kind of ‘gnostic’ pleasure to studying the least known of the inklings, who himself has a history of associations with secret knowledge. That is precisely what Williams has been for so many years. And if Grevel Lindop were to mysteriously disappear on the eve of his bio release would any of us be all that surprised?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome!

      I am also a fan of supper time.

      Well, but…. In “Outlines of Romantic Theology,” CW says that Christ’s earthly life goes on again in the progress of each couple’s romantic relationship!

      I agree about the bio, but I hope Grevel doesn’t disappear!

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      • pennkenobi says:

        He also said “I am you.” Love depends as much on that being symbolically true as it would be rendered impossible if it were literally true. I purposely didn’t say “mystically true” because I suspect Williams might have responded, “What’s the difference.” And now I have a project. In William’s thinking, what is the relationship between the mystical and the merely symbolical? Much blood has been spilled over that question. Which reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Descent Into Hell which perhaps has little relevance to the inquiry at hand, “The roses had twined there, their roots living on the blood shed by there thorns.” But anyway, the mystical, the symbolic, what’s the difference?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          If you can find a library with a copy, have a look at Christian Symbolism published in the name of Michal Williams but having a style reminicsent of her husband – whom various people assume ghost-wrote it with her.

          I would love to see it online, say at the Williams Soc. or Internet Archive, but, as I understand it, the copyright reposes with Michael’s godchildren and I have yet to try to contact them to ask…

          Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’ve finally read Tolkiien’s Notion Club Papers which may have an interesting bearing on this generally, and conceivably on the last works of C.W. if NCP were read out and discussed or passed around – or if their matter was independently of interest conversationally among the Inklings.

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          • pennkenobi says:

            You are a wonderfully helpful soul! And reading over my posts I realize that if I am going to be splashing about in this grammatically deeper end, I had better stop confusing there with their and referring to Williams as William’s. Again, thank you sir!

            Like

  6. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 3: Coinherence and Exchange | The Oddest Inkling

  7. Tom Hillman says:

    A very nice article, Sørina. Tolkien’s engagement with Dunne is well and thoroughly explored in Verlyn Flieger’s “A Question of Time,” an enlightening work. There is also an interesting discussion of divine (fore)knowledge vs predestination in Bernard Knox’s “Oedipus at Thebes,” an excellent book on Oedipus the King in its Athenian context. The chronology of the writing of “The Notion Club Papers” is not entirely clear, but seems too late to have influenced Williams, but that doesn’t mean that such questions were never discussed. So, does all this mean that the name of the Doctor is Clive?

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Warren Lewis strikes a good warning note about “assertions which seem to me very shaky” in a discussion of influence among the Inklings, such as that his brother ” ‘borrowed’ the framework of his Great Divorce from Charles’s All Hallow’s Eve and so on” (5 Jan. 1967), and any suggestions not explicitly documented by one or another of them are going to be more or less highly speculative – with which consciousness they may be indulged in, it seems to me. Thus, GD and AHE were written around the same time, and so were the Notion Club Papers – and all three happen to have out-of-the-body time travel of one sort or another among their features (assuming that GD includes a time-travel element in Lewis-the-narrator’s dream-vision travelling recorded in it). In any event, the recent “Great War” edition has given us a lot to think about respecting known and possible matters discussed between Inklings, and I am confident that Grevel’s biography will soon give us a lot more, as I expect, Norbert Feinendegen’s study will, when his English version appears (now it can only do that for good readers of German who can obtain a copy of the original).

      Like

    • Thanks, Tom!
      Yikes! you guessed his true name!

      Like

  8. Pingback: Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 4: True Myth | The Oddest Inkling

  9. Hannah says:

    Your interesting blog on “The fluid nature of time” with e.g. the Boethius sentence “The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.” reminded me of a quote by CS Lewis from Christian Reflections: “Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met” – as a way to tap into that whirlwind of time as e.g. described in the Eliot’s Four Quartets poem, as mentioned by Katherine Sas.

    Liked by 1 person

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