Tuesday 10 July 2012

Tolkien and Lewis's annus divertium of 1936: a catalytic role for Charles Williams The Place of the Lion?


I have commented before on how 1936 seems to have been the annus divertium (watershed year) for both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien - although the effect on Tolkien was less obvious at the time.


That 1936 was a watershed seems valid - but the question is why?

What happened in 1936?


It now strikes me as plausible that a major factor in the importance of 1936 - for both Lewis and Tolkien - was Lewis's encounter with Charles Williams's novel The Place of the Lion which he had borrowed from Nevill Coghill.

Some time after reading PotL, Lewis wrote a 'fan letter' to Charles Williams on 11 March 1936.

He indicated that he had brought PotL to the attention of both Tolkien and his brother Warnie who admired it, and Lewis indicated two important ways in which the Williams novel had impressed him.


The first was as a warning against the typical scholar's hazard and sin (exemplified in PotL by Damaris Tighe) of researching and writing about spiritual and religious matters, while not really believing in them as realities.

From his letter, Lewis was clearly impressed by Damaris's come-uppance when she is attacked by a disgusting-smelling and gigantic 'pterodactyl' - symbolic of her enthralment to deadly spiritual pride; and before whose onslaught she is helpless, and from whom she is rescued only by the love of her boyfriend Anthony.

Lewis stated to Williams that PotL had come just-in-time to rescue him from some such fate.


The second aspect of PotL, and linked to this, was Lewis's excitement about the way Williams depicted the real but unseen realm of 'spiritual warfare' - above or behind mundane life - which in the story break-through to invade mundane life.

(At least, I assume from later comments that Lewis was impressed by this aspect of PotL from the beginning - since he mentions it much in later accounts - as of 11 March 1936 he refers to 'layers and layers' of enjoyment and meaning, including 'the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus' - and again to 'levels' in a letter of June 24 to Baker; however, at this time Lewis is more explicit about his delight in C.W's depiction of 'good' characters.)

In this contest of super-natural powers, humans are weak players - yet human free will is always operative: there is always a point (or more than one point) in which a human is given a choice; and only if they choose evil can they wholly be overwhelmed by it.

By contrast, a refusal to invite evil into one's heart is depicted (for example in Anthony) as having (by indirect routes, hardly understood) potentially decisive power against vastly superior forces of evil.


At any rate, Lewis immediately recognized a 'fellow spirit' in C.W - and took steps to invite Williams (who worked in London) 'down' to an Inklings evening in Oxford (the first of many).

(In England, the slang was always that one went 'up'-to or 'down'-from London - even when 'down' involved travelling north!...)


This plot of the 'super-natural' invading the natural was the mode of fiction immediately adopted by CS Lewis in writing his science fiction trilogy starting in 1936 with Out of the Silent Planet and ending with Lewis's most Williams-esque novel That Hideous Strength (1945) and written during Williams' wartime sojourn in Oxford.

It was also the mode of fiction adopted by JRR Tolkien in his only-begun novel The Lost Road which he started in 1936 - and brought further in 1945-6 with The Notion Club Papers.

Furthermore, I have suggested that The Notion Club Papers represent Tolkien's 'Charles Williams Novel in the same sense as That Hideous Strength was Lewis's C.W novel.



As I have previously argued


- I feel that the Lost Road and NCPs together constituted a major step in the development of Tolkien as a writer, and that the 'therapeutic' process of writing the NCPs was probably vital in making decisive the transformation of Lord of the Rings from being a (mere) sequel to The Hobbit into a book of a very different sort.

Therefore it seems plausible that it was Charles Williams's The Place of the Lion which provided both a moral seriousness (i.e. treating the unseen Platonic realm as real and important) to deepen Lewis and Tolkien's fiction and expand its ambition, and also a plot device by which both Lewis's and Tolkien could structure their attempts at fiction.


In sum, Charles Williams major influence on the work of Tolkien and Lewis may have come right at the very beginning of their association, before they had met, and before C.W had ever joined The Inklings - a literary influence, due to their reading of Place of the Lion.



Wurmbrand said...

In at least one way, The Place of the Lion is one of the least problematic of Williams's seven novels. It lacks the element of black magic present in War in Heaven, All Hallows' Eve, and perhaps Shadows of Ecstasy. The Platonic Forms in The Place of the Lion are less susceptible to Christian strictures against divination than the Tarot cards in The Greater Trumps. The Place of the Lion doesn't present Islam as perhaps an equally valid way to God, as Many Dimensions may suggest. The Place of the Lion, then, affronts an orthodox Christian less than most or all of the others may well do. The scenario that you suggest would not have come about if Lewis's first Williams novel had been War in Heaven, I suppose, a pervasively occultic novel. By 1936 Lewis was pretty much steering clear of such stuff. (It's interesting to note how, after his conversion, he seems to have avoided the writings of the occultic writer Algernon Blackwood, formerly quite a favorite.) But having started with Place of the Lion, which he liked so well, Lewis could then go on -- now in contact with the author -- to read the others, focusing on Christianity-friendly elements in them.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - Yes, I think you are correct. Also he came to PotL via borrowing Nevill Cohill's copy - and Coghill was a serious Christian (at that time, anyway). But Place of the Lion is the C.W novel I most enjoy and have re-read most.

However, the very first time I read it (in 1987 or 8) I could not work-out what was going on - and (some 15 years later) I found Thomas Howard's book on the CW novels very helpful in this respect.

I went to a reading group meeting in Durham at this time where a different CW novel was discussed, although few had actually been able to obtain copies (I can't remember which book it was - perhaps War in Heaven).

I remember walking away through the night at the end of the meeting stuck by the strangeness, a very C.W strangeness, of a group of Cathedral city academics, librarians and the like discussing such esoteric matters as stimulated by CW in a very ordinary middle class house...

Wurmbrand said...

"But Place of the Lion is the C.W novel I most enjoy and have re-read most. ....

"I went to a reading group meeting in Durham at this time where a different CW novel was discussed....

"I remember walking away through the night at the end of the meeting stuck by the strangeness, a very C.W strangeness, of a group of Cathedral city academics, librarians and the like discussing such esoteric matters as stimulated by CW in a very ordinary middle class house."

Yes, PotL is my favorite of the novels too, the only one I own.

It was an optional reading selection for an undergraduate class on Fantasy that I took at a small American state college, as was Descent into Hell for a successor course. Somewhere I have a small booklet of student papers on DintoH, reproduced by ditto, that was produced by class members. These experiences were in the mid-1970s.

I think that, at the time, readers tended to read CW through CSL-influenced and orthodox Christian eyes more than is the case now. Readings now often detect more of the strong occultic elements in the novels than was the case then and, so, are more accurate in that respect, but I suspect some of CW's present-day admirers may minimize the degree to which he, after all, was aligned with credal Christianity.

Deniz Bevan said...

I hadn't thought of all this before. I think it's time I reread The Place of the Lion...

Wurmbrand said...

See Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, pp. 285-6. His brief comment supports the hypothesis here.

Michael E. said...

In case you see this comment:

I'm a Catholic Christian who returned to the faith and the Church nearly seven years ago now. And since then I have felt my relationship with God growing stronger, though I know I still have far to go yet. But this year has been the best for me so far.

I wanted to thank you for your blog, which has helped me to rethink what J. R. R. Tolkien was about, beyond what I already knew or thought I knew--which is helping to inspire my own writing--and which has inspired me to read The Space Trilogy. I'm working on That Hideous Strength at the moment, but (so far) Perelandra is my favorite, what I think stories ought to be. I'm blessed to have experienced it, precisely because it was such an exhausting struggle of an experience leading to the eucatstrophic joy of the ending--and because it's inspiring me in my own life.

I was dimly aware of The Space Trilogy before, but it was your blog that prompted me to actually read it--and that's why I post here, because this is the blog entry I remember that got my attention about it. Thank you very much for that. God bless you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@POD - Thanks for your comment.