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?
There 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.
There 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.
Williams 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.
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.”
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.
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?