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From the December, 2004
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What About Charles Williams? by Thomas Howard

What About Charles Williams?

The Secret of the Enigmatic Inkling Revealed

by Thomas Howard

Charles Williams’s name always seems to flit about the edges of the Tolkien/Lewis world. Everyone who knows anything about these gentlemen beyond Middle-earth and Narnia knows that they met regularly at The Bird and Baby to drink beer, smoke, talk, and read their “work in progress” to each other, and that Charles Williams was perhaps the most animated (or agitated) one of the group. Others were there—Hugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, Dr. Havard, and so on—but the Three were the core of the thing.

An Insider’s Name

Nevertheless, Williams’s name is strictly a name for insiders, so to speak. Lots of people vaguely know the name, and many have had a go at reading one or more of his novels. But the testimony here is frequently, “I couldn’t make head or tail of it all.” The testimony becomes a wail of despair when Williams’s poetry is attempted. Even W. H. Auden found himself stumped by it at first, although he came, like T. S. Eliot, to be a great admirer of Williams’s work.

Even Williams’s essays (I was going to say “straightforward essays,” but they aren’t) set one to tugging one’s beard. Here, by way of illustrating the point—and this is typical—are the first two sentences of Williams’s short church history, The Descent of the Dove: “The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two Heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete.”

Where are we with this sort of vocabulary and syntax? We are in Williams territory, that’s where we are. For everyone’s consolation, it may be said that it is not only beginning readers of Williams who find themselves stumped. I myself wrote a doctoral thesis on Williams 35 years ago, and to this day I cannot pick up a single one of his books without at some point muttering to myself, “Yo! Williams, old boy—how on earth do you expect anyone to have the faintest clue as to what you are on about here?”

The thing is, Williams unfailingly leads us all on what George Eliot called “a severe mental scamper.” His mind was so packed with images, and so curious about every cranny of the universe, and so regaled by ideas—especially dogma—and so overcharged with what one can only call high-voltage restlessness, that it is a wonder his prose is accessible at all. Ironically, we find that we must give him a palm for clarity. His prose—and, it must be said, his poetry—says precisely what he means.

He means nothing more, and nothing less, than what we find on the page. And, as endless critics, with Eliot in the van, have pointed out over and over, every poetic line must be just as we find it. The disjuncture between words—both the vocabulary and the word order—and meaning has been closed by the poet. And we may, with a certain justice, call Williams a poet, even though most of what he wrote appears on the page as “prose.” The thing is, everything that he writes has the density, economy, pace, and exactitude, of poetry.

Good or Great?

But what about Williams? Was he a good novelist (he wrote seven)? Poet (he wrote two slender volumes that make up an Arthurian cycle of lyrics)? Critic (endless articles)? Dramatist (several plays)? Theologian? Ah. It is this last category that interests us here. But let it be said about the other four categories that Williams’s work is problematical. It may be great. After 45 years of reading his stuff, I am still turning that question over in my mind.

Certainly he leads us all out into titanic vistas, and startles us over and over and over by pointing out features in that vista which to him are obvious, but which in a thousand years we might never have noticed. Like all good poets, he sees the fear in a handful of dust. Or shall we say, the glory in a handful of dust (Eliot meant that anyway). But what checks us, every time we approach the point of concluding that Williams is one of the greats, is his—what is the word? Quirkiness.

The difficulty here is that that word may be applied to any number of writers who are firmly lodged in the canon. John Skelton, for example. What a lark his work is—“The Tunning of Elinour Rumming,” for example, or “Philip Sparrow.” But you can’t talk about Elizabethan literature without reckoning with Skelton. Or Donne. Now there is a truly great poet. But he positively capers through his metaphors, leaving us gasping: gasping, but deeply, deeply moved (see his “Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward”). Pepys: what possible excuse can we offer for that stuff? And yet there it is, somehow immortal.

And William Blake: impossible to categorize. Wildly heretical, if we are attempting his “theology,” and quirky in the extreme, no matter what we are attempting. But again, we can’t canvass English Lit without keeping Blake on the list. And has any of us heard of James Joyce? Try Finnegan’s Wake. Or Faulkner? As I recall, the first sentence of one of his novels is forty pages long. So when it comes to the quirkiness sweepstakes, we can scarcely fault Williams.

Nevertheless. The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him. Williams was self-educated. His mind had never had that experience of sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.

In the light of this, Williams’s sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was self- educated. The great tribute to this is the fact that Lewis and Tolkien managed to secure a lectureship at Oxford for Williams, in some semi-official way.

Williams’s Vision

But we must turn to his work. What is the vision that flares over everything he wrote? It cannot be boiled down. In his preface to All Hallows’ Eve, T. S. Eliot remarked that what Williams had to say was beyond his grasp, and perhaps beyond the grasp of any known genre of literature. Williams had to dart at it like a hummingbird. But what is this It?

For a start, we may say that Williams thought of himself as a wholly orthodox Anglican. He exulted in the dogmas and creeds of the ancient Church (although the fact that he never made his peace with either Rome or Constantinople, with both of which he was enamored, is quite typical of Williams’s elusiveness). Readers may notice that I said he “thought of himself” as wholly orthodox. I think we may say that he was: but the following paragraph may throw light on this seeming quibble.

He was asked in 1943 to contribute to a symposium on “What the Cross Means to Me.” Here are his opening lines:

Any personal statement on such a subject as the present is bound to be inaccurate. It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes, because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time, especially when that belief refers not to the objective fact but to subjective interpretation. A rhetorical adjective will create a false stress; a misplaced adverb confuse an emotion. All that can be hoped is that a not too incorrect approximation may eventually appear. And anything that does appear is, of course, to be read subject to the judgement of the Christian Church, by whom all individual statements must be corrected.”

Now all of that is inexpugnable. But besides the entirely legitimate matter of Williams’s pointing out that he has been asked to address the question of what the Cross means to him, the attentive reader may descry in Williams’s syntax and phraseology a very agile sort of what I can only call demurral. He stays on the orthodox shore: but he seems to dance on it. For more light on this delicate business, we may go on to what he undertakes to say in the essay itself.

He is speaking of God’s having created the world, and of the credibility of that notion. He then mentions human freedom, with its corollary that we may choose not to obey God. “But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress. . . .” Here we have the problem of eternal punishment for human (finite) sin. Flat orthodoxy would, of course, have to hold that both Sacred Scripture and the Church have always taught the doctrine of Hell. And, to be fair to Williams, he never actually calls this into question.

The Theologian

In fact, he goes on to treat of the Cross, not only in an orthodox way, but with an agility that most readers would find quite astonishing. Speaking of Caiaphas and Pilate, he says that they were “each of them doing his best in the duty presented to them. The high priest was condemning a blasphemer. The Roman governor was attempting to maintain the peace. . . . They chose the least imperfect good that they could see. And their choice crucified the Good.”

Williams’s ruminations on the Cross take the form of his stressing that God subjected himself to his own law. To crucify him—“This was the best law, the clearest justice, man could find, and He did well to accept it. If they had known it was He, they could have done no less and no better. They crucified Him; let it be said, they did well. But then let it be said also, that the Sublimity itself had done well: adorable He might be by awful definition of His Nature, but at least He had shown Himself honourable in His choice.”

And one more sentence: “Our justice condemned the innocent, but the innocent it condemned was the one who was fundamentally responsible for the existence of all injustice—its existence in the mere, but necessary, sense of time, which His will created and prolonged.”

We cannot reach a fair conclusion on Charles Williams’s theological orthodoxy on the basis of a few fragments of a single essay. He wrote many essays, and two whole books (He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins) on “theology.” I put the word in quotes since no theologian I know of, except Hans Urs von Balthasar, has ever registered much interest in Williams as a theologian.

And I mention von Balthasar only because he sought me out, not because of any eminence of mine, but because he heard that I had studied Williams, and he wanted to talk about him. (He—von B., that is—in the course of the evening gave me a snapshot of himself with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He said it was his favorite photo of himself, if that throws any light on anything.)

Readers may just barely taste, in the quotations above, the “flavor,” if we will, of all of Williams’s writings. By his agile syntax, and his carefully chosen vocabulary, and his (mostly subtly implied) demurrals, he hops along just in front of the Inquisition. In Williams’s case, it would be the Genevan, not the Dominican, inquisition that would find itself apoplectic. Williams always sails very near the Catholic wind. But—typically—he never would submit to Rome.

Elusive Williams

So far, we have spoken cautiously about Williams’s work. It is only fair that we go on to speak of his splendid vision. “Vision” is a better word here than “ideas,” since, as Eliot pointed out, what Williams had to say eluded any conceivable literary form—essay, novel, poetry, or whatever we might wish to adduce.

It is not quite possible to organize any very logical sequence when we are speaking of Williams’s ideas (permit the word once, I beg). But anyone familiar with his work will not get very far in speaking of it all before he brings up “Substitution and Exchange.” Any Christian, of course, is on home turf here. In the mystery of the Atonement, the Son of God in some sense “stood in” for the rest of us, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree (cf. Isaiah 53, and Sts. Peter, Paul, and John).

This mystery is itself an epiphany of the blissful exchanges that obtain amongst the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Son “gives” himself to the Father, and vice-versa, and the Holy Ghost is, in a mystery, the “agent” of those exchanges. My life for yours: Somehow that maxim, raised to the nth degree, may be said to touch, remotely, to be sure, on at least one aspect of the Godhead. Calvary is the epiphany in our world of that same principle. The Son gave himself for us.

And here we come into Williams country. Every one of his seven novels has this mystery for its animating energy.

Standing In

In every novel, we start out with ordinary life in the England of the 1930s and 1940s. The characters are going about their business. And then some thing crops up—the Holy Grail, the Tarot pack, a cube of the primordial matter with the Tetragrammaton inscribed on it, the Platonic archetypes, death—and we are off and running.

The characters divide themselves, unbeknownst to themselves, into those who wish to make a grab for the thing in the interest of knowledge, power, or ecstasy, and those who, like Simeon and Anna, or, supremely, the Blessed Virgin in our own story, place themselves obediently and humbly at the disposal of whatever The Mercy (Williams never says “God”) might wish to ask of them in the situation. And in each case, one or more of the characters is asked by The Mercy to “stand in” for someone under attack, and, by some self-offering, to fend off the evil afoot and thereby protect (“save”) that victim.

Williams’s stories reach bizarre lengths. We find archetypal lions and butterflies and snakes appearing in English gardens and lanes. Or an ancient pack of Tarot cards conjuring up a blizzard. Or the Holy Grail in the sacristy of a country parish church, with the potentiality of being used either by wicked men or by good men. In Williams’s next-best novel, All Hallows’ Eve, the thing is death. Two women are dawdling on Westminster Bridge, and after about three pages, we say to ourselves, “But these women are dead!” They are.

Their experience through the course of the story is Purgatorial, the one opting for her own ego (Hell), and the other for substitution and exchange. She has been something of a vixen in her life with her husband, but has the chance to learn the Divine Charity, first by acknowledging her need for her husband—she needs a Kleenex—and finally by throwing herself into the breach between a girl whom she had persecuted at school years before and a magician who is trying to gain power over that girl’s life and death. Very bizarre. Which is what stumps most readers.

Williams’s best novel is entitled Descent into Hell. Here we watch a perfectly unnoticeable and respectable historian damn himself to Hell by an unremitting sequence of very small petulant choices. Nothing big. But again and again and again he will not have the Way of Exchange—My Life for Yours. At one point, it comes down to his merely having to say yes or no to some folks who are putting on a play, and who need his historical acumen to tell them whether they’ve got the costumes right. But he refuses out of sheer testiness.

Well, says Williams, if I will have it that way, then I will have it that way—forever. Naturally we all say in chorus, “George Macdonald! The Great Divorce!” And we are right, of course: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Williams likes to call Hell Gomorrah: the place beyond the city where I seek the mirror image of myself (Sodom), where I may be altogether alone with no one to get in my hair.

God’s City or Sodom

The images that Williams invokes in this connection are several. One of his favorites is “The City” (Augustine’s City of God), where the rule is My Life for Yours. In any earthly city we must acknowledge that rule anyway: Red lights say, “You must give way so that those people can go.” I may fume, but I must obey. In the City of God, it is a form of bliss.

Filthy lucre itself is an image, whether we will or no: The coin says, “Here is the fruit of my labor in exchange for the fruit of your labor, which I need” (for groceries, or whatever). It is all adulterated with cupidity down here: but in the City of God these exchanges are modes of joy. I can give you a hand with your luggage (Heaven) or refuse to do so (Hell). It is on every corner.

Another favorite image for Williams is Romantic Love. He wrote a whole book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. The point is, Dante saw the young girl Beatrice Portinari in Florence when he was a boy, fell in love with her (he never really knew her), and, for the rest of his life, the image of Beatrice furnished him with an image—a dim, earthly case-in-point—of the Divine Beauty.

The rest of us are mercifully blinded to this radiance, since we would all go mad if we saw the effulgence crowning every mortal God ever made. Furthermore, for the lover, giving himself for his beloved, far from being drudgery, is a mode of joy. He cannot do enough for her. Romantic love, apparently, transubstantiates work and service, and makes them into joy.

Of course, all forms of love do this—maternal, paternal, fraternal, filial, patriotic. For Williams, it is all so obvious that he never winces over plou ghing it all into every line of his prose and poetry. The eyes of the lover, says Williams, far from having had star-dust blown into them, are the only eyes that see The Other truly, since the lover sees all the glory of Heaven radiating from his beloved.

Life & Legacy

What about Williams’s own life? He was a very odd man, from all that one can gather. Tolkien claimed he never knew what Williams was talking about. Eliot said that when Williams lectured, he hopped all over the place, crossing and uncrossing his legs as he perched on the desk, jingling coins in his pocket, and so forth. Eliot also said that Williams looked like a monkey.

But by far the most perplexing thing about Williams to people who did not know him personally (and maybe to them too) was his excessively odd relationships with women. They seemed to fall all over themselves over him, although there was nothing of glamour about his person. And, if we read Letters to Lalage, we might conclude that Williams had all sorts of “behaviors,” as they say now, that Freud would have loved to get at.

But—and I say this after many decades of studying everything I can about Williams—I firmly believe that he went to his grave absolutely faithful to his wife Florence, even though they lived apart for the whole of World War II, when the Oxford University Press, for which Williams worked, moved its offices from London, where the Williamses lived, to Oxford.

There are some ironies about Williams’s legacy. His followers—they might almost be called worshipers, both men and women, and I have met some of them—fell into the most vicious fighting over his manuscripts after his death. But these were the people who were supposed to have been tutored in the Way of Substitution and Exchange, in the Law of The City. What went wrong? I do not know.

I found myself caught in the middle of some of the fighting and had to make my escape (literally) on an airplane back to the United States, holding a huge canvas zipper-bag full of manuscripts that one Raymond Hunt had received from Williams, and that he (Hunt) wanted to give to Wheaton College. For all I know, I might have had my throat cut by some of Williams’s other votaries who detested Hunt, and who felt that he had made off with the material. But all of the personae in that drama are dead now, and de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

—Thomas Howard

Williams’s “What the Cross Means to Me” can be found in Charles Williams: Selected Writings, edited by Anne Ridler.


Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).

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