I’ve been intrigued by the figure of Charles Williams for a long time now. He was enthusiastically introduced and welcomed into CS Lewis’s literary group, the Inklings, by Lewis himself but was radically different from the rest of the group. Working class, with a strong cockney accent which he neither disguised nor denied, Williams became one of the most popular lecturers at Oxford during the war. This was not only unusual on account of his working class background, it was also unusual because Williams himself was without a degree. But Lewis, and then Tolkien, urged the University to allow him special lecturer-tutor status (and Oxford did ultimately confer an honorary degree on him).
When I ordered the book from Amazon I didn’t realise I was committing myself to nearly 500 pages of concentrated reading (although I decided early not refer to any of the 1526 footnotes). The Prologue neatly captures the impact he made upon Oxford students and faculty:
As time for Williams’ lecture on Milton approaches ‘three men sweep into the hall and up the central aisle…At left and right, black gowns billowing behind them, are two well-known characters, leading members of the English Faculty: on one side, the domed forehead and burly physique of CS Lewis, Fellow in English at Magdalen College; on the other – slighter, smaller, with downturned mouth and piercing eyes – JRR Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Between them strides an unlikely figure. Tall and angular, with a deeply lined face, gownless, in a blueish-grey business suit and round spectacles, darting quick glances around the room he seems as full of anticipation as the students. When he mounts the platform, leaving his companions to find their seats in the front row, there is a glint of something like mischief in his eyes…This is Charles Williams, the new Lecturer in English Literature. He clutches a rolled-up sheaf of papers in one hand but having set them on the lectern he never looks at them again…His hearers are spellbound. They sense that they are listening to someone who knows, and means, what he says; someone who has lived poetry, who has it in his blood and bones, and can speak to them about vital issues in their lives…Then, far too quickly, time is up…In a few minutes [Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams] reconvene at a nearby pub to drink and discuss the lecture. Lewis has already made up his mind … ‘That beautiful carved room had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great mediaeval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching wisdom.’’‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
To CS Lewis the discovery of Charles Williams was almost on a par with his discovery of George Macdonald. Williams was poet, playwright, novelist, literary critic, reviewer, an editor at the Oxford University Press, and a writer who identified without embarrassment as a Christian. Williams’ supernatural thriller The Place of the Lion was the novel that grabbed Lewis’s attention. And if you read it, and you know Lewis, then it’s easy to see why. We may be tempted to think that the image of a Lion drew Lewis (maybe he recalled it much, much later) but apart from Williams’ skill as a supernaturalist, there are phrases that must have caused Lewis to jump clean out of his chair! One of the characters, Mr Tighe, has just seen thousands and thousands of beautiful butterflies streaming their way towards one Great Butterfly. It produces in him a kind of awe- struck acknowledgement of a greater spiritual reality and he returns with renewed devotion to his extensive butterfly collection:
‘And to what was Mr. Tighe praying then?’ Anthony said, his eyes intently fixed on the other.‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
‘To the gods he knew,’ Mr. Foster said, ‘or to such images of them as he had collected to give himself joy.’
One can imagine Lewis’s stunned surprise; his collection wasn’t butterflies but, as he describes in Surprised by Joy, books, myths, stories and dreams.
And so Lewis decided to write to its author. At the very same time Williams was proof-reading Lewis’s Allegory of Love for the OUP, and also decided to write to its author and a powerful and loyal friendship was born (‘our friendship,’ wrote Lewis, ‘grew rapidly inward to the bone.’). Williams displaced Tolkien in Lewis’s affections, and Tolkien felt awkwardly sidelined by this rough but articulate Londoner.
Williams was a complex character. His spirituality was both traditional and eccentric. His forays into a highly disciplined mysticism had a quirky downside: although he diligently avoided sexual transgression, as a married man he struggled to deflect the determined infatuation of several young female admirers. A few of them sought closer association with him, requesting spiritual guidance, apparently eager for both its rewards and its mildly erotic punishments.
Nevertheless, here are some interesting quotes:
‘Charles would always remember the poverty of his childhood. ‘The terrible insecurity of all life smiled through the windows of our schoolrooms.’ he wrote, and, in a poem,(p6) Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop
‘My childhood knew too well the fate
that hangs o’er servants and the strait
wherethrough the large unneeded go.’
On CS Lewis’ humility and encouragement on reading William’s He Came Down from Heaven
‘And it’s so clear, which at one time I would never have expected a book of yours to be. Damn you, you go on getting steadily better ever since you first crossed my path: how do you do it? I begin to suspect that we are living in the ‘age of Williams’ and our friendship with you will be our only passport to fame. I’ve a good mind to punch your head when we next meet.’ (p282)‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
On the necessity of war (written during WW2):
‘And as to war? I cannot go so far as to say that the use of physical force against another is always wrong; nor can I say that to take life is always wrong…I think that, in the last resort, a set of people has the right (and I fear the duty) to say something like this: the conditions under which you insist that we and others shall live are, quite simply, intolerable. You are breaking all possible laws under which men have found it possible to live together. We do not hate you; but we propose to stop you. It is quite possible for you to stop first. If you do, very well. But if you do not, if you insist on death and destruction, then we shall accept your decision…We propose to do our best to remain in a state of love towards you. But we do not conceive that this means that we must do whatever you tell us to do at any moment…if you try and kill us, we shall reluctantly accept your decision, and try and kill you until you stop.’‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
On students’ reading literature for themselves, not merely regurgitating:
‘Go back to the text always and test it out, don’t rely on quoting from someone’ – and a student’s response: ‘The whole message of the way he taught was, that what was important was your response to the piece of literature that you were reading. Nothing else mattered, not having read the accepted critics wouldn’t matter, it wasn’t the point. The point was, what is your response to it? And that has stayed with one all one’s life and been a guiding principle.’ (p390)‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
‘Oxford is beautiful so long as one lives in London…Oxford, however nice, is still a kind of parody of London.’ (p307)
‘This flatulence is all round one here; and it maddens me.’ (p398)‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop
Interestingly, TS Eliot was also repulsed by Oxford although, near the end, Williams softened. Also of interest is the fact that WH Auden credited Williams with drawing him back towards the Christian faith. But Williams himself was in many ways a conflicted Christian, living a kind of double life, and who resisted confessing his sins in the fear that he would have to actually restrict aspects of his lifestyle which he felt were energising (see, encouraging infatuated female fans).
‘Charles Williams, The Third Inkling’ by Grevel Lindop is out now, Oxford University Press (paperback, 2017)