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.



Arakawa said...

Warning: the below comment contains, in the author's opinion, potentially spiritually dangerous ideas that should be thought about with great caution, or not at all.

All of the arguments about whether Charles Williams was a more fascinating poet or a more fascinating theologian seem to me to miss the main point, which is that he was first and foremost a fascinating person, and that is why his work is worth suffering through in spite of the flaws and objections to it that continually crop up.

The fact that Williams' ideas and example are at once fascinating, nourishing, but with a dangerous feel to them, seems to me the mark of a particularly fallen age in this fallen world. Namely, the most spiritually nourishing and important ideas, stated plainly, can also be the most dangerous in terms of being able to inspire unwarranted pride and error.

Understandable, because it is the spiritually nourishing ideas that are the most dangerous to our enemy, and so it's not unlikely all the forces of Hell specifically bend the largest portion of their will to turning aside the seekers of these ideas. And they have had two thousand years now in which to do so.

So the true essence of Christianity is not some explicit legal creed or philosophy that one might put under a microscope and argue back and forth in its entirety. It would never have survived in any meaningful sense if it was that kind of narrow 'truth', and this is perhaps why CS Lewis' attempt to actually _describe_ Mere Christianity was so limited and runs into problems when we try to reconcile it with any specific denomination.

This is why the Truth must be a reality that one must actively live, or a dance that one participates in, or a being that one relates to. In the thousands of years of history, one man only was great enough that He could be said to live the entire Truth; we are each called to live some small aspect of it, however, and if our world is not to be an impoverished world, we are not being called to all live the same small aspect...

(continued in the next comment due to excessive length)

Arakawa said...

(continued from prior comment, still dangerous)

In terms of how we live our lives, we are neither created equal, nor equally destined; surely that is one of the foremost insights of any reactionary, secular or religious. In a religious context only, however, this becomes more than a mere regrettable statement of fact that the Left is trying to deny. It suggests that each person has a definite station in the scheme of creation; and these stations may differ greatly. Thus a peril that one person has the duty to overcome, is a needless danger to someone else, detracting from their true duty in life, and hence best avoided... certain dissents are essential from one person, even if the same dissents might be unacceptable in the mouth of another... certain eccentrics on the periphery of society are actually crucial, even if their thought might bring great destruction if it became the mainstream....

And these realizations themselves contain a very dangerous idea! Spoken so baldly, it invites all kinds of schisms and dissents on the one hand; and all kinds of pride and self-elevation on the other hand. It is perhaps easier for those who hold their stations to speak of themselves as holding the One True Doctrine; better for them to focus on attracting the people of like station, since the people of unlike station will in any case be turned away from their vehemence.

Given that, I very much feel that, if Charles Williams is peculiar, he may very well have been called to a peculiar station, with peculiar perils; and perhaps he could not afford as much self-doubt and caution as the typical seeker, even if the dangers he was facing were no smaller. We might learn much from him without feeling the need to join ourselves utterly to his vision of the Truth, and facing the same perils on the same path, likely with much less success.

If Williams' attainment of the Truth feels flawed and imperfect, he may have been called to that station in spite of the difficulties; he may not have been perfectly suitable for the job, but he might possibly have been the best man available for the job, the best man available in an age where time was running out, an age which year by year was growing more and more spiritually impoverished.

But again, these sorts of speculations have a peculiarly dangerous feel. I feel like I've glimpsed something particularly crucial with this post, but it is over there, hidden in the middle of a minefield strewn with traps and pitfalls -- something the enemy especially does not want anyone to find -- and I am standing over here trying to discern if it is really the thing that I am called to seek.

I will have to put this idea aside for some time to give it more sober consideration

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arakawa - superb comments: thank you very much.

CW does demonstrate the difficulties of salvation for intellectuals ('the rich man') - his adulterous love for Phyllis Jones was a clear-cut sin that should have been repented - instead he elaborated a vast re-framing of Christianity to try and demonstrate that it was not a sin.

Maybe this was where he went off the rails? By the end of his life he had lost many aspects of faith (or, at least, took it for granted as an implicit background - yet that background may have been dissolving or holed), and seemed not have have Christ in any central place, and had reduced Christianity to a generic spirituality in the workings of the Companions of the Co-Inherence (for which AM Hadfield criticized him strongly).

I wonder how much C.W prayed? He seems to have been so *busy* all the time doing things.

This redefining of sin thing is a perpetual snare for Christian intellectuals - for example almost the whole Church of England has been for some years engaged in a similar procedure in relation to inconvenient/ 'unacceptable' points of doctrine.

"This is why the Truth must be a reality that one must actively live, or a dance that one participates in, or a being that one relates to."

Profoundly true - but easily lost sight of. I think it not a coincidence that Mormonism has been so much the strongest of the Christian denominations through the great Apostasy - since it is built around these principles.

When a Mormon does not personally, viscerally, with-the-heart understand some key point of doctrine (as Williams did not understand resurrection, immortality and Heaven) - he will fast and pray for a 'testimony', to be enlightened by the Holy Ghost - he will not take his personal incomprehension as an insight into reality, as C.W tended to do.

And yet, C.W does have great clarifying insights, if they can be discerned; which are perhaps ever more important as the decades pass? Or, maybe, alternatively, his work is done - and its good gone into Lewis and Tolkien who are great Christian influences of our day?