Today’s book summary is another guest post kindly written by the great CW scholar Richard Sturch. Richard was born in 1936 and holds a BA (Oxon) 1958, MA 1961, and D Phil 1970. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1962 and retired in 2001. He is the Secretary of the Charles Williams Society. He has taught at various times at Ripon Hall, Oxford; the University of Nigeria; and the London Bible College. Dr. Sturch is married and has two daughters and four grandchildren. I recommend that you check out his book Four Christian Fantasists. A Study of the Fantastic Writings of George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien and his edited collection Charles Williams and His Contemporaries.
STORIES OF GREAT NAMES. By Charles Williams. Berkeley, Apocryphile Press, 2000. First published by the Oxford University Press in 1937.
This short book (less than 200 pages if you exclude the Notes at the end, which are not by Williams) was intended chiefly for the University Press’s Indian branch. Its purpose was to give short biographies of seven people ‘whose names have for long been prevalent in English literature’: Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, and John Wesley. One may wonder whether Wesley’s name is prevalent in literature; but he and the others share a quality which Williams sums up as being ‘myths, one might almost say, of the English mind.’ They carry with them a host of associations which many worthy and important historical figures do not. It is no criticism of (say) Innocent III, or John Dryden, or the third Marquess of Salisbury, to say that the imagination has not woven magic around their names; but the fact is that it has not.
The chapters are not mere catalogues of facts – one would hardly expect that of Williams. The facts are there, or many of them; they swirl around the central figures, who pursue their way through them. The reader is caught up in those pursuits, and left almost breathless. Especially perhaps this is true of Alexander, whose career would leave anyone breathless, seeing that his geography extended to both East and West, and his history affected India as well as Europe; in, moreover, so brief a span – “he had eight more years to live”, we are reminded as he begins his decisive campaign against Darius. Least, perhaps, of Shakespeare: ‘[his] was not a very long life’ (though longer than those of Alexander or Joan); ‘it was not even a very remarkable life’. Here the swirl of facts is more obvious, because many of them are, almost of necessity, facts about other things than Shakespeare: about his father or the town of Stratford, about Greene or Marlowe or the Earl of Essex. The chapter on Voltaire has perhaps less of a swirl or a pursuit about it, for many English readers (let alone Indian ones) know or imagine less about him than about most of the others, and facts are more needed. Less swirl or pursuit, perhaps; but it is the chapters on Shakespeare and Voltaire which give the strongest sense of sheer admiration on Williams’s part.
There are typical touches here and there for the admirer of Williams to savour and appreciate. Having described Joan’s martyrdom of 1430, he goes on simply ‘In 1436 the English lost Paris; in 1439 they lost Normandy; by 1453 they held nothing in France but Calais’. Or, with Voltaire, ‘For the first few weeks’ [of his friendship with Frederick II] ‘Frederick spent money and Voltaire forbore gibes – both unusual events’, and his summary of the ‘Infamy’ which Voltaire fought so vigorously, ‘a great mass of habitual stupidity combined with habitual cruelty’, a mass which, we are reminded, ‘exists at all times, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other’.
It is an enjoyable book to read. It will not add to the knowledge of the historian, but it will, I think, arouse in most readers a sense of why these people have acquired around them a certain sense of the legendary.