Tuesday 8 November 2011

What did Charles Williams bring to The Inklings?


Charles Williams very clearly had an important role in the Inklings.

Someone of his stature and personality cannot fail to have influenced the other members of this group in frequent meetings, and indeed the work of Tolkien and Lewis underwent changes from around the time of Williams participation.

How can the nature of these changes be characterized?


The change relates to Unseen Warfare - the insight that Life is a battle between Good and Evil, a struggle: a matter of choices and temptations; one path leads up towards Heaven, the other down towards damnation.

Tolkien and Lewis were naturally aware of Unseen Warfare as a human reality - but Charles Williams very explicitly lived Unseen Warfare, analyzed it, spoke and wrote of it continually.


Unseen Warfare (the title comes from a classic of Christian mysticism) was C.W's big subject, especially in his novels, especially in his best novels: Place of the Lion, Descent into Hell and All Hallows Eve.

Tolkien and Lewis began to write fiction more seriously from 1936, shortly afterwards Lewis and Williams began to correspond and meet, and from late 1939 Williams was present in Oxford and regularly participating in social events and meetings.

I suggest that C.W. likely brought Unseen Warfare into focus for Lewis and Tolkien as the main thing in Life and potentially the main thing in story - and thereby provided a deep narrative purpose for the fictions of Lewis and Tolkien.


The topic of Unseen Warfare is so dominant in Lewis (yet so unusual a topic) that it is somehow easy to miss: Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are novels of UW and so are the Chronicles of Narnia: the Screwtape Letters is perhaps the most successful work about UW ever published.

In Tolkien, Unseen Warfare was present in The Hobbit, especially moments like the struggle of courage when Bilbo first approaches Smaug through the tunnel in the Lonely Mountain: there is on the one hand the right thing to do, and there is also the temptation of cowardice and dishonesty.

But UW expands to take a focal place in the story of The Lord of the Rings, with the major characters of the quest wrestling with their inner demons throughout.

LotR is essentially about Unseen Warfare, the sanctification and ennoblement of the heroes - especially the Hobbit protagonists but also Aragorn, Gandalf, Galadriel; and the failure and damnation of the villains (Saruman, Boromir+, Gollum, Denethor).

UW is not an incidental component of Lord of the Rings but the main thing.


Unseen Warfare - which Williams perhaps, arguably saw more clearly and lived more intensely than anyone of his era in England, therefore provided a major underlying narrative dynamic for Lewis and Tolkien's narratives.


The Inklings, by which I mean essentially Tolkien and Lewis with the others role being that of support and stimulus, had a great underlying purpose - which was to restore myth to modern man.

They wanted to restore modern man by re-connecting with myth - modern man who who was languishing in a literalistic and lifeless world of 'history'.

But which myth specifically? Because this was not a post-modern, eclectic, Jungian concern with myth as therapy and a tool for self-development: the Inklings concern with myth was salvific and Christian.


In a general sense, Lewis and Tolkien saw the world in terms of the 'Platonic' schema of Life versus Reality - that behind the growth decay and change of Life was an eternal, timeless, unchanging world of Reality.

Williams shared this, but was more explicit about it - The Place of the Lion is explicitly about a breakthrough of Platonic archetypes into the modern world.

But analytic elements such as the contrast between Life and Reality, or Platonic  forms, are static and are not conducive to the telling of a story - for philosophy to generate stories there must be an individual who negotiates a path through Life; a path with Reality - truth, beauty and virtue - on one side; and on the other side the various temptations of the World such as vice, power, pride, despair...

This is a vision of life as Unseen Warfare - with the proper business of life being about these choices.


In sum, the Inklings already saw myth in broadly Platonic terms before the C.W. connection, their aim was to connect with myth, but the perspective of Unseen Warfare - coming into sharp focus in the person and works of Williams - joined up this general project with specific stories.

Unseen Warfare was a way in which philosophy could be brought alive in narrative; and which also implicitly Christianized that narrative in a manner that was pervasive and yet unobtrusive.


As such, Unseen Warfare need not be Christian, but for Williams it was - yet implicitly in the stories.

Williams novels are all about Christian Unseen Warfare, yet don't focus on explicit Christian theology and indeed contain surprisingly little reference to Christianity.

The same applies to Lewis and even more to Tolkien.

Unseen Warfare is built-in; specific Christian themes of Love and Humility are there, and also a great deal of Natural Law virtue - including heroic pagan virtues such as courage and loyalty, and the transcendental unity of virtue with beauty and truth - of wickedness with lies and the destruction of beauty.


Christian Unseen Warfare is thus built-into the post-C.W. novels of Lewis and Tolkien as the deepest structuring narrative element - and I suggest that this may have been a consequence of Williams intense participation in the Inklings.


+My mistake - Bronomir is not 'damned'. He repents just before his death.



Anonymous said...

Interesting take on Platonic realism from Charles Upton. This is from his
criticism of Bly's *Iron John*, the only book he has in the SA library.

*"Platonic Ideas are not abstractions. The usual portrayal of such Ideas or universals goes like this:
somewhere in some abstract metaphysical spce, there is the Platonic Idea of, say, the horse, from which all material horses are derived. The idea of "horseness" is necessarily abstract because, in order to be universal, it must leave out all the particular characteristics which distinguish one horse from another, like size, age, sex, color, the presence or lack of sex organs, or a cropped or uncropped tail. But if so many of the particular realities which characterize actual horses are left out, who would be able to recognize this shapeless blob of "horseness" as a horse? The truth is, the Platonic Idea of a horse is a superconcrete reality which contains all the real particulars of all actual or possible horses. The reason we can't see it is not because it is too abstract or ethereal, but because it is too overwhelming; our senses, and our brain in its usual mode of operation, are not made to register such intensity. And what this superconcrete horse is to all horses, God-the Creator is to the material and psychic universe."

Reminds me of Charles Williams strange novel *The Place of the Lion*, where the quest of the hero is to prevent the Platonic Ideas from swallowing up the whole materrial universe; when the Platonic butterly appears, for example, all ordinary butterflies vanish into it.

I also learned from Upton that *acideia*, the deadly sin which we render in modern English as "sloth", referred originally to the spiritual torpor of monks who read and meditated too much and did too little physical labor.

Reminds me. my lawn needs edging and mowing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jtx - Typo - it is acedia. Very common nowadays. Not always a matter of insufficient physical labour - but perhaps usually a product of despair which is a product of nihilism.

Troels said...

Time to learn — thank you!

I'll admit up front that I am out of my depth here. I am not much of a student of Plato (the hard sciences seem to focus on Aristotle), and I am completely unfamiliar with the work of Charles Williams.

However, given Tolkien's comments in some of his letters about being unaffected by Williams and his complaints that Lewis got too influenced by Williams, I think the topic is very interesting.

Given Tolkien's comments, I think it needs some solid evidence / argumentation to claim that Tolkien was positively influenced (i.e. influenced to some degree of agreement) — it would be easier, I think, (in terms of lifting the burden of argumentation) to claim that Tolkien's was a counter-reaction.

Can you give some examples of where see Tolkien as being influenced by particularly Williams' ideas about Unseen Warfare (Unseen Warfare being fairly standard in Christian churches)?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - "However, given Tolkien's comments in some of his letters about being unaffected by Williams and his complaints that Lewis got too influenced by Williams, I think the topic is very interesting."

Actually that is a commonly repeated error! All Tolkien's negative references concerning CW come from more than a decade after C.W's death, from the 1960s - all the contemporary refs from JRRT about CW while CW was alive and in the decade after his death are positive.

It seems that JRRT revised his opinion of CW sometime after CW's death - one guess is that this happened as a result of reading Alice Mary Hadfield's early biography "An introduction to Charles Williams" published 1959.

The biography contains several things which Tolkien could have found shocking and distasteful - some information about the early interest in magic and the occult and involvement; and some hints of the scope of CW's adulterous involvements with young women.

Either from reading this biog, or from hearing about these matters on the grapevine, JRRT changed his opinion of CW around 1960, and retrospectively modified his views, and made the comments you have read.

Manwe said...

Great essay! But I disagree with your calling Boromir a villian. At least not in the sense of the others you put him in with. I always thought of him as a flawed hero who made a tragic mistake and then tried to make up for it by defending Merry and Pippin to his death.

I could be a bit biased here, Boromir was one of my favorite characters from the books (helped made so even more by Sean Bean's performance in the films!)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Manwe - I agree with your comments on Boromir - but I just wanted to emphasize that his inner struggle is a good example of Unseen Warfare.