What’s Wrong with CW?

Please go vote for your favorite Charles Williams work in this week’s poll! Then come back and read my speculations about what’s wrong with CW.

Why Isn’t CW as Popular as CSL & JRRT?

inklingsThere was a little conversation recently on Twitter about why Charles Williams is not as popular as his friends C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I would be interested to hear your ideas. If you love his works and have ever wondered why other people don’t, maybe you can share some of your theories here. I have a list of half-a-dozen possibilities.

1. No film adaptations.

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-official-posterThere have been financially successful, colorful, splashy (if artistically problematic) film adaptations of works by Lewis and Tolkien; specifically, several of the Narnia chronicles, the Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. I’m not here to debate about value of these films (I’ve done that many times elsewhere; you can link to several of them here); I’m simply pointing out that non-readers and new readers have been able to access Lewis and Tolkien’s works via movies. That hasn’t happened yet for CW. I hope it does soon. Wouldn’t War in Heaven and The Place of the Lion make awesome movies?!

2. Management of their writings after their deaths.

Thanks to the tireless and brilliant efforts of Walter Hooper, Douglas Gresham, and Christopher Tolkien, the works of CSL and JRRT have stayed in the market since their deaths. New editions, updated covers, fresh box series, posthumous releases… these are published frequently, so book-buyers nearly always have something “new” by these dead authors. Charles Williams’s works, on the other hand, were kept a bit more hidden away, with new works coming out more slowly, and not many adaptations or popular versions of his works.

3. The lack of any children’s books.

farmer_giles_hamWilliams didn’t write anything for kids. Some of CSL’s and JRRT’s most well-known and best-loved works are their children’s books. Can you imagine CW writing a book for little ones?! Whew. I mean, the man couldn’t write a straight-forward sentence. The poor tykes would have no idea what it was about. And the nightmares his stories could cause!!!

(Maybe I should hold a CW-children’s-book-writing contest!! What an idea!)

4. His labyrinthine syntax.

As I just said, the guy couldn’t write a straight-forward sentence. Well, it’s not that bad, but honestly, his prose writing style is pretty poor. It’s not unlike that of many of his contemporaries (the style of Gerry Hopkins’s Nor Fish Nor Flesh, for instance, is very similar); it’s full of common Edwardian flourishes. Whew, how I wish I could edit his works for clarity. Picking a sentence at random; how about this one from Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind:

Every age, like every poet and every man, has the skeleton that it deserves; the life of the skeleton is its own double life, and marriage with the skeleton is perhaps after all the wisest intercourse with it—meaning by that all that marriage involves of intimacy and of strangeness, of friendship and hostility, of freedom and captivity, and something like a new life.

I mean, what does that mean? Compare any sentence of CW’s with any sentence of CSL’s, and the difference is immediately clear. CSL was a champion of clear, straight-forward communication. He wrote that if you couldn’t put a complex thought into simple language, you didn’t understand it yourself.

As a perfect comparison of their styles, consider the first few letters CSL and CW exchanged. You can read them here and here. See what I mean?

Let’s be brutally frank: CW just wasn’t a very good prose writer. Whether this was due to his somewhat irregular education, the enormous amount of time he spent editing older literature, his relative isolation as a writer (he didn’t have anybody to critique him until he joined the Inklings at age 52), or what is a matter of speculation, but the fact is there. His thoughts are brilliant, his content astonishing, but he just doesn’t write good sentences—except in his poetry. Which is well-night impossible to understand. Which leads me to…

5. His “damned obscurity.”

Image21

The Sephirotic tree

That’s C. S. Lewis’s phrase. All of his works are difficult to understand, but the Arthurian poetry is the most complex. This is primarily attributable to the layers of unexplained symbolism. He piles up the Kabbalistic Sephirotic Tree, the signs of the Zodiac, the parts of the human body, the virtues associated with each part in Rosicrucian tradition, biblical references, church history, and the whole tradition of English poetry. Then at any given moment, he might refer to any one by means of any of the others, without providing any key for decoding the references. Here is just one example from the Arthurian poetry. It’s in the poem “The Ascent of the Spear.” A slave girl is tied in the stocks for fighting with another slave girl. The poet Taliessin, having arranged for her freedom, tells her:

Though the Caucasian theme throb with its dull ache
make, lady, the Roman motion…

The word “theme” in this poetry means “province”: specifically, a province of CW’s imagined, historically-conflated Byzantine empire. So he’s saying that the province of Caucasia is in pain? Well, but remember his map, where the figure of a woman is drawn over Europe? What’s Caucasia? It’s the backside. So he is saying that the girl’s butt is sore from sitting so long!

Then what’s the Roman motion? Well, what’s Rome on the gynocomorphical map? It’s the hands. So the Roman motion is something to do with the hands. He’s telling her to lift up her hands, grab onto the shaft of a spear, and use it to lift her sore self up off of the bench of the stocks where she’s been confined.

That’s a pretty obscure way to say: “Even though your bum is sore, lift up your hands and pull yourself up.” On the one hand, that’s how great poetry works, right? It says simple things in beautiful, layered, vivid, precise language. On the other hand, there’s no way you could decipher the meaning without knowing about the lady-map, his provinces, and his anatomical symbolism. So that’s not to say the poetry isn’t good; it’s just to say it isn’t popular.

And finally:

6. Too worldly for the church, too Christian for the world.

Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic readers who have embraced and adored the works of Lewis and Tolkien as their patron literary saints aren’t quite comfortable with Charles Williams. After all, he was a magician in an occult secret society! It’s hard to dissociate that from the idea of the black arts; it’s very easy to picture him, robed and hooded, sacrificing something—or someone!—in a dark dungeon, muttering mystical words and drinking unspeakable potions. And indeed, barring the sacrifice, he probably participated in rituals that would look very much like that to the uninitiated. He would have been involved in astrology, Kabbalah, tarot cards, and some kind of spiritual alchemy, at the least. Not your usual Southern Baptist fare, eh? Not exactly Mere Christianity.

And yet, he is so very, very Christian. All of his writings are, ultimately, about the centrality and inevitability of Jesus. It’s all about submission to our co-inherence with one another and with God. No matter what strange phrases he may use to describe God the Father (“The Mercy,” “The Omnipotence”) or God the Son (“The Holy Thing,” “the Identity of dying Man”), he is totally dedicated to the truth that God is Love and our purpose is to conform ourselves to and submit ourselves to that Love. It’s not secular humanism, that’s for sure. It’s not a feel-good Disney gospel, either; it’s rigorous and difficult, requiring “days of pain and nights of prayer.”

So who is his audience? And if his works are so difficult, obscure, and mystical-magical, why should you bother to read them?

I guess I’ll have to write another post about that.

Meanwhile… what other ideas do you have about why he’s not popular, even though he’s good?

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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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22 Responses to What’s Wrong with CW?

  1. Was thinking about this – my suspicion is that it has in part to do with the fact that, since the Early Modern period, there has not been much a cultural space for the appreciation of writing that is at once both rigorous and mystical. For instance, I have often wondered why Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Occasions seems to be the last of its kind in English (except in secluded pockets – for instance the similarly Ignation poetry of Hopkins), and can only conclude that it is because a certain synthesis that allows for a certain kind of mystical holism breaks up and we are left with only saccharine piety or rationalism. To be sure there is Eliot, but in certain ways, his popularity is by chance coincidental with a certain kind of avant garde secular mysticism that Williams is too complicated to mesh well with (yes, I did just say that Williams is too complicated for Modernist poets). The places Williams goes remind me perhaps most of medieval mysticism, which in many cases is not all that generically categorizable – which contributes similarly to its obscurity. I think the problem is that all of his works are pulling toward a particular centre, so that where we as readers like poetry simpliciter or prose simpliciter or drama simpliciter, they are all pulling toward that still Dantean centrepoint that is God and so their genres are always gravitationally inflected by His pull and never quite the thing we want that stays put. So it is beautiful as a whole corpus but difficult to appreciate in individual parts, and it’s hard to get people to pay attention to the whole when the author doesn’t quite have “greatest hits” in the ways others do.

    I also can kind of understand why he writes with complexity, because if one doesn’t, there is always the chance that someone will run off and misquote/appropriate what you are saying and excise from it the complexity of the reality it is getting at. At best, it is the refusal to compromise on complexity, but at worst a kind of patronizing attitude of cleverness – Joyce I believe exhibited the latter, but I think Williams at least in spirit if not always in execution at least tries more at the former.

    I think a Williams’ film would be great – given that we have seen medieval mystical forms making a comeback in movies (dream vision in Inception; psychomachia in Inside Out), the time is probably ripe.

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  2. As you know, I have a CW screenplay in the works. ETA, 2024 in the Spring.
    I’ve always thought, besides my work, the only CW film could be European. French even.
    I am pretty tempted to write a childrens book by Charles Williams.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There’s all sorts of spin-off out there, re. Pooh, Paddington, Puddleglum (for three alliterating examples), but C.W. spin-off might be more ticklish… “There once was a Satanist named Persimmons…” (does anyone say, sort of retro-like or whatever, ‘There once was…’, any more, except in limericks?).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hanna says:

        War in Heaven, rewritten from the perspective of Adrian Rackstraw. That could work. 🙂

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          An intriguing idea – which could go in a couple very different directions! The first paragraph-and-a-half (or whatever) of chapter 2, are astonishing, and (I think) very cinematic. But then, something like A Beautiful Mind (2001). A ‘Beautiful-Mindish’ retelling (and/or filming) of War in Heaven from Adrian’s point of view, would be fascinating, but probably not very accessible for children. (It’s been a long time since I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, published in the same year as War in Heaven, and I don’t have that clear a memory of the Vardaman Bundren part(s), and I’ve never gotten round to The Sound and the Fury (1929), and so have only heard of the part from “Benjy” Compson’s perspective – and I’ve never seen the recent James Franco film versions of either – but (for what, if anything, it’ s worth) those characters and novels sprang to mind with the mention of an Adrian-Rackstraw point of view and the memory of the beginning of chapter two.) A more straightforward (E. Nesbit-like?) Adrian point of view retelling could be accessible and fascinating: a book in its own right, and at the same time in something like an analogous situation (as children’s book) to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) in relation to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) – perhaps?

          Liked by 1 person

      • Nicely done. I do think that any picture would be a caricature–and a total guess.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I should probably go off and think about this carefully for a long time, but I will more probably fire off various comments of various lengths, instead!

    ‘Popularity’ can be taken as known to and liked by a wide public. But it would be interesting to try to consider ‘sub-readerships’ in one way or another.

    And to consider who seems to have become how either ‘famous’ (in some sense) or popular or both, and when.

    And how, especially, does formal education (legally compulsory and otherwise) come into this, in what parts of the (especially English-speaking) world? Who gets ‘assigned’ to teenager and undergraduates, and maybe only to post-graduates? Who gets anthologized, especially in that context of assigned textbooks? (How popular or familiar is C.W. via Dorothy L. Sayers Comedy translation, here?)

    For instance, among difficult (let us say) self-described Christian poets, how famous is Blake, and when and how did that happen, and which bits of his work? And ditto re. Hopkins? And, of course, Eliot? And David Jones? And Auden? And how might Dylan Thomas come into this category, or not? (Several of these are, of course, prose writers as well.) And, for that matter, Chesterton and MacDonald?

    And then what of a spectrum of (let us say) occult-interested poets (who wrote prose as well), like Yeats, A.E., perhaps Masefield, and let us not forget Aleister Crowley (I was astonished to see what-all of his was reprinted among inexpensive paperback ‘classics’ on my autumn visit to Oxford)? And what of Algernon Blackwood – more or less popular than C.W.?

    What is the realm – or are the realms – of trying C.W. because someone more ‘famous’ whom you like, likes him – not only C.S. Lewis (though toweringly), but, for example, Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, Auden, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Rowan Williams?

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    And then,how does his popularity compare with that of, say, W.W. Jacobs, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, R.H. and E.F. Benson, Sax Rohmer, Gustav Meyrink, Dennis Wheatley, and Walter de la Mare? And what of Lovecraft? He has taken off astonishingly, in some sense, in some circles, at least (having survived very disappointing movies connected with his name in 1967 and 1970): perhaps sooner than films, someone should design some reasonable C.W.- related computer games…

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your 2 and 6 come interestingly together, where the ‘dark sides’ of C.W. are involved.

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Under 2, you skipped over some quarter-century of the (might we say, ‘pretty tireless’?) work of Walter Hooper (with Owen Barfield in the background to whatever extent).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your three is quite an interesting one. How early do how many young people try C.W.’s novels (or get them read aloud to them)?

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Re 5, maybe its not all bad he didn’t/doesn’t get anthologized, much! Read in Taliessin through Logres context, as you partly suggest, helps this example of obscurity. (Of course Nortonesque intros and oodles of footnotes could be brought to bear.)

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I happened to be reread a 1986 letter by the Canadian (political) philosopher (and sometime Oxford Socratic Club member), George Grant, earlier today. He was a great fan of Tolkien and Lewis but said that Williams “is, I think, a better novelist than C.S.L. and the books are a constant source of pleasure & refreshment” (he had just then “reread them [all] recently” when laid up recovering from surgery).

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  10. dancingcrane says:

    I enjoyed the comments here, esp David’s mention of Mets. Anthony Bloom and Kallistos Ware.

    I read and loved CSL & CW in college, back when I was still an atheist. You could say they were a baptism of the imagination. I had no idea then that God would pull me into the Catholic Church, then all the way into the Eastern churches, where CW’s complexities are better understood and received.

    I still love CW, but I, too, despair of making him “popular”. His many layers of allusion are completely lost to post-modern education. It would take a university course (or more than one!) to begin to see all the connections. The post-modern mind in general doesn’t have the resources to do so, nor the desire to obtain them.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Metropolitan Kallistos is a brilliant Greek scholar (it’s lovely to hear him proclaim the Gospel during the Divine Liturgy and then, for the benefit of the rest of us, translate it himself on the spot) – and he must have been one from quite an early age – he told me that at school he sometimes had a Charles Williams novel tucked inside his Greek-play text book, reading it during class – I presume, with no problem, having mastered that day’s lesson so well in advance.

      Your speaking of Williams’s many layers made me wonder, in light of points 4 and 5 of the post, whether he would be more popular is he had managed to make the top-most, that is, ‘surface’, layer more approachable – and whether that was something he was ‘working on’, and with success? I haven’t thought about the last part of that question before with such clarity as to really try to put to the test, but one could – are The Figure of Beatrice and The Figure of Arthur ‘torso’ more readable than The English Poetic Mind and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind? Is All Hallows’ Eve more readable than the earlier novels? Would it be fair to generalize that Sørina has been finding (various of) the later plays more successfully intelligible? (It does not, of course, go for the non-dramatic poetry, where some earlier things are a lot more immediately readable – interestingly, Dame Helen Gardner told me she preferred the earlier poetry, and found things in it more memorable.)

      As far as the novels go – I don’t know how popular Malcolm Lowry is – he has (or had?) certainly been taken up, academically – and Under the Volcano is not exactly simply easy, but I have a feeling its ‘surface layer’ is more approachable than some of Williams’s, though there are all sorts of further allusive (including Dantean and Kaballistic) layers, as well. (I found a lot to enjoy in John Huston’s 1984 film version, but don’t know how well it did, commercially, or how much of a boost it gave to the reading of Lowry outside ‘the academy’.)

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  11. Dale Nelson says:

    Off the cuff, I’d say– not checking any of my copies of his books — that in his writing Williams too often seems to be speaking urgently, passionately…. to himself. It’s as if the imaginary listener or reader to whom he is addressing himself is too much like himself. He seems to have had trouble really knowing other people; either they are enrolled, in his mind, in some fantastic play, or (my impression of CW at Inklings meetings) he is “performing” for them and feels they are performing for him. Thus on the one hand he wants to be a writer dealing in an enlightening and profound way with the great realities, and yet his writing often seems rather unreal.

    Also, a factor in Williams’s lack of popularity could be that the things he is good at are things most people are not prepared fully to “get.” For example, his Place of the Lion is really quite a fine work of fantasy, but you have to know something about (Neo)Platonism or be willing to pick up clues to it, at least; and one can be quite devout and pretty smart and yet not be all that versed in or perhaps even interested in Neoplatonism.

    He seemed more important to me, personally, 30-odd years ago than he does now; now he really is not one of my indispensables, though I reread one or other of the novels with enjoyment from time to time.

    Just some quick comments away from papers to grade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I agree! He is writing to himself. He assumes we have already read all the same books he has read and had the same thoughts about them.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There are many interesting points in this first paragraph, and I hope to come back to it! To start with Sørina’s reply as a sort of guide or focus, there are the considerations of ‘matter’ and ‘manner’. As to ‘matter’, Sørina handily distinguishes (a) “all the same books he has read” and (b) “the same thoughts about them”. As to (a), I think that a lot of the time, in critical discussion and in allusion in poetry and prose fiction, he does begin with books people can be assumed to have read – or to have some sense they ought to have read. Yet my impression is he does this invitingly – whether we think of his Aeneid and Browning retellings, or his treatments of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Marlowe, and Dante (for six major examples) – or the Bible (in He Came Down from Heaven) – and with enough to be getting on with, before following the invitation or encouragement to go off and read, or reread, and see for yourself if he’s onto something or not. As to (b), I think some of the time he is doing much as Lewis says about the importance of ‘not being original’, but then also with a Lewisian (or Tolkienian) sense of how much of that ‘unoriginality’ has been lost sight of, over time. Where he’s trying to ‘think things that have “always” been thought’, he’s aware that they may very well not being so thought by many a reader at the moment. So, he can be effectively ‘novelly’ provoking to ‘the traditional’. He can also go further in this: perhaps his striking (and, i have the impression) influential reading of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is an example of this – yet it also seems an aspiration to ‘get back to Shakespeare’ even if what Shakespeare is up to has never certainly been widely perceived before. He can, also, go further along this way, to some pretty implausible, esoteric (Waitean ‘secret doctrine’?) reading, as of St. Paul in The Descent of the Dove. His stylistic ‘manner’ in doing any of these things, is (surely consciously) not what people are used to, and how they customarily put it. This has it’s plus and minus points, but even here, it does not seem to me simply a matter of talking to himself – more (compare, say, Robert Burton? Lancelot Andrewes? ‘the Metaphysicial poets’? G.M. Hopkins? ), of talking like himself – and hoping that will be effective.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Oops: read “he’s aware that they may very well not be being so thought by many a reader at the moment.”

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