Guest Post on “Stories of Great Names”

KindlyToday’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.


Alexander the Great

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.


Joan of Arc by Ingres

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.

–Richard Sturch.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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7 Responses to Guest Post on “Stories of Great Names”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for a vivid review – it makes me wish I had it to hand to read at once!

    For whatever reason, I have lively memories of the treatment of Wesley (perhaps of mythic stature or character to some, while rewarding better acquaintance by – is ‘all’ too bold?).

    And I’d like to read the Charlemagne next to the vision in The Greater Trumps and the history of the Stone in Many Dimensions, both of which concern his mythic stature.

    And the Alexander next to the treatment in Masefield’s Box of Delights (if I’m not getting muddled here).

    And the St. Joan by the treatment of Gilles in Witchcraft.

    And the Voltaire for its own sake, and next to the glimpse in The Descent of the Dove.

    But do you happen to have a further word for us about the variant edition, with – was it two extras? Or was substitution (in the mundane sense) involved? I can’t remember what I’ve read where about it. Asoka comes to mind… (but what eludes me?!)


  2. Sarah Thomson says:

    David, I don’t think there is a variant edition–I have the edition printed in India (mine is the fifth impression, 1946–with printing history: first published 1937, second impression, 1939, third, 1942, and fourth, 1944) and it corresponds exactly to the Apocryphile Press ed. I have from the Preface, p. v-p. 216.
    Thank you, Richard, for this excellent review. I enjoyed Stories of Great Names and intended to write about it, but felt inadequate to the task so I’m pleased to see that you’ve done it.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Well, I tackled the bookshelves – with some result (also about Williams as writer of brief lives)!

      First, In her 1959 book, A. M. Hadfield notes (pp. 92-93), “In 1932 he wrote a short life of Macaulay in a book called Six Short Biographies, published by the Indian Branch, then under R.C. Goffin, of the Oxford University Press. Twenty years later R.C. Goffin wrote: ‘Only the other day I had a note from an English don in India praising the Macaulay essay.’ An essay on Queen Victoria followed in 1938 in More Short Biographies” – preceded by the work reviewed here. Anne Ridler had included the Macaulay in The Image of the City (1958), pages 6-14, giving editors and date as “R.C. and N. Goffin, 1933”. In the Bibliography, she notes, “Stories of Great Names, Oxford, 1937. (Short biographical studies. Two editions issued, with slightly different contents.)”

      Professor Sir Fernando de Mello Moser, in his published dissertation, Charles Williams: Demanda Visão e Mito (Lisbon, 1969), in his annotated bibliography, notes (‘Google translate’, as I hope, helping), the place of publication as ‘London and Madras’, summarizes ‘biographical sketches, for teenagers’, lists the subjects as here, then adds, parenthetically, ‘in the Madras edition, chapters on Asoka and Akbar replaced those on Voltaire and John Wesley respectively’. (I can’t remember having seen that Madras edition, but I feel sure I read about it somewhere else – another dissertation, perhaps? – though not in detail.)

      Searching briefly online, I find all sorts of reprints of Six Short Biographies, listing the subjects – the other five were Milton, Swift, Hume, Cobden, and R.L. Stevenson – but not the authors!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Ah, searching online further, I just found, via Google Books, end-note 27 on page 182 of Glen Cavaliero’s Poet of Theology with the details of the substitution


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’d sure like to read C.W. on Akbar the Great!


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            They being probably now out of copyright around the world, if someone somewhere had a copy of the Asoka and Akbar “stories”, they could post them online for all of us to read (after checking with the Estate to be quite sure that was in keeping with the international copyright situation)… always assuming their content was not such as to be met by cyber attack from one or another umbrageous faithful hacker.


  3. Sarah Thomson says:

    David, I found another reference to the Asoka and Akbar essays: “Stories of Great Names appeared in a second edition, directed at the Indian school market, for which Williams substituted essays on Asoka and Akbar for those on Voltaire and Wesley.” Stephen D. Matthews. Book review of Lois Glenn, C.W.S. Williams: a checklist. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 71, no. 3 (Third Quarter, 1977), p. 399. (The whole review is p. 398-401.)
    I wish I’d seen this review in 1977.


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