Saturday, 12 January 2013

"The essence of a religious mind..." The importance of Charles Williams


Charles Williams (1886-1945) was one of the Inklings, and typically the third name to be mentioned after JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and at the time Williams was much more successful and famous than the other members of the group.

Yet Williams' work is now hardly known - and with good reason, since much of it is defective and none of it is clearly of the first rank.

On the other hand, I find myself returning and returning to this fascinating character, struggling with his difficulties and obscurities - and examining the memoirs of his friends and colleagues.


My latest idea is to reconsider Williams in a way that focuses on what I believe is his best book - and it was certainly the one that was first noticed by an Inkling (Nevill Coghill) and, being loaned around the group, first sparked the interest of Lewis and Tolkien - the novel The Place of the Lion published in 1931 and (I infer) written in the preceding year.

All accounts of Charles Williams that I have seen glide-over the 'fact' that PotL is his best work - for the simple reason that they disagree with this evaluation!

Many Williams scholars would argue that C.W's last novel - All Hallows Eve was his best, and this was written shortly before he died and while a regular Inklings attender. I beg to differ...

Also, most of the earliest accounts of Williams come from those who saw him primarily as a great-but-neglected poet; while modern accounts are from those who regard his as a great-but-neglected theologian - so the idea that PotL might be the apex of Williams achievement is not even considered.


Nonetheless, let us assume that Place of the Lion is actually, in some way or sense yet to be determined, Williams most important work.

My first piece of 'evidence' for this contention is merely that it is the work I personally have returned to most over a period of 25 years, and most enjoyed, and which I continue to find better and better each time I read it; and the second piece of evidence is the historical fact that Place of the Lion was that work of Williams which first attracted Lewis and Tolkien.


When William's life is re-centred on PotL then a very different perspective is created, because it places his great achievement at the culmination of that happiest period of his life when he was working at the Oxford University Press, Amen House in London - and was at the centre of an extraordinary and semi-mythological world in which his colleagues were seen as simultaneously themselves engaged in their modern work, and mythic characters engaged in archetypal activities.

And this is also the world of PotL - it is a world which begins in the mundane and becomes increasingly interwoven with the archetypal, mythic and - eventually - Christian.


For me, the best book about Williams is the wonderful early biography An introduction to Charles Williams (1959) by Alice Mary Hadfield - and what makes it so good is that AMH knew Williams as a very close friend and 'disciple', and (from the internal evidence of this book, written in her prime) was also a person of quite exceptional intelligence and insight.

(According to a label inside the cover, my secondhand copy of the AMH biography comes, appropriately, from the library of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, Oxfordshire - one of the earliest women's (Anglo-Catholic) religious orders of the Church of England.)


 The novels are full of action with an element of violence. Their action moves beyond the material world, and develops from relations to, and beliefs in, a world of spirit and ideas. 

They all pass, sooner or later, through the material bounds of normal life, while maintaining normal life in the plot...

C.W's ideas were no sooner framed in mortal people and material surroundings than they bounded-off into the eternal non-material world which he saw pressing through our lives, and were held by his genius and his style in a tension between the two which is 'existential', thrilling, sometimes unbearable, not always succeeding...

Read the novels and see what exaltation there was in this man, what grappling with unresting opposites until he wrung strength and order from them, what joy and glory he found in daily life in an office; and, finding, was able to expose and make available for others. 

He had extraordinary intellectual powers and he could draw naturally on extraordinary subjects; but all was forced into the service of the common day, our concern with money, love, marriage, illness, unemployment, examinations, or bad temper.

He also insisted with equal force that our common day should relate itself to extraordinary subjects and ends; to glory, to joy, to purity and power...

The style of C.W's prose makes action out of thought. It comprehends action in thought far better than action in limb and muscle.   


Hadfield's chapter on this era on C.W's life - The Approach of Power - is superb: full of pregnant aphorisms and sharp evaluations. Here are some extracts from pages 86-7:

It is easy to pick holes in the novels. They were written hastily, and they take enormous themes for their own purpose with little knowledge and hardly any research, but the use made of them is never superficial...

His ability to seize on a mystery and express it in his own experience and emotions has produced a handful of the most exciting novels one can read. 

They are not fantasies. Through considerable psychological complexities, their attitude to life is wholly positive and affirmative.

The characters move in mysteries of which their daily lives and jobs, meals and buses, are the veins along which the mystery glows. 

This is the essence of the religious mind, and the revival of it is the most important of all CW's work for religion. 


This sentence expresses, I believe: the importance of Charles Williams.

The characters move in mysteries of which their daily lives and jobs, meals and buses, are the veins along which the mystery glows. 

His main 'work' was in his life; and his most lasting legacy was That Hideous Strength (most obviously), and The Lord of the Rings (as it emerged after the attempt to write the William's-esque novel The Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers) - which achieve written expression of this essence of Williams 'religious mind' at a higher level than Williams himself ever attained.

Of course Tolkien and Lewis (individually and together) were already at work on this 'project' of restoring myth to history, of linking modern life to the legendary past, before they read Place of the Lion - but I think Williams concrete, successful, enjoyable and already-published example may have been crucial.


And, influence aside, this aspect of Williams is crucial to modern Christians.

We must recover 'the essence of the religious mind' - which is faith as a lived experience; not doctrine merely, nor theology, nor obedience merely, but all this appropriated, assimilated to our mundane lives - understood in 'action'.


Too many Christians have become fixated upon belief as 'assent-to', or as 'obedience-to' - yet a gulf lies between assent and obedience and the deepest, the proper, sense of belief as 'living-by'.

No real Christian disagree with this goal, but in practice it seldom happens. Serious churches focus on 'correctness; of the abstract theoretical aspects of belief; while the lapsing apostate pseudo-Christian churches focus on 'nice behaviour' in disregard of assent and obedience.


This is theosis, sanctification, the process of becoming ever-more Christian; that all Christianity must, a piece at a time, cumulatively, personally be appropriated and assimilated and find its expression in action.

Christ as our personal saviour and Lord must make a palpable difference to the Christian's life in action; in exactly the kind of sense achieved by the effect of Williams on the Amen House Office.

Action includes, then, not only doing different things; but a transformation of perspective in which everything is changed.

To the greatest extent possible, myth should become life should become myth.

As we may read in The Place of the Lion.