Saturday 22 December 2012

Was Tolkien jealous of Charles Williams friendship with Lewis? Certainly NOT


It is an error, although very commonly repeated, that Tolkien was jealous of Williams' friendship with Lewis.


There is not a scrap of contemporary evidence to support the idea, indeed everything written during Williams' life supports the idea that Tolkien was very fond of Williams (and of his participation in the Inklings), and that this fondness extended until after Williams death with the preparation of Essays Presented to Charles Williams (in which On Fairy Stories first appeared).

I have argued elsewhere that Tolkien's Notion Club Papers, the attempted-novel of 1945-6 (after Williams death), was heavily influenced by Williams

Yet later on, from around 1960, there were several retrospective comments from Tolkien (e.g. in letters now published) about him not having much liked Williams, and that Williams was Lewis's friend.


The most plausible explanation for this sequence is that Tolkien read one or both of two books which contained biographical material on Williams and which were published at the end of the 1950s: Anne Ridler's Image of the City and other Essays (1958), or Alice Mary Hadfield's An Introduction to Charles Williams (1959) - both of which revealed aspects of Williams biography of which Tolkien had probably been unaware, and of which Tolkien strongly disapproved.

Thus, Tolkien retrospectively changed his opinion of Charles Williams, and 're-wrote' the history of their relationship in correspondence etc. published post-1960.


What aspects of Williams' life, revealed by Ridler and Hadfield, might have provoked this change?

A couple of candidates are

1. Williams involvement with occult magic societies (related to the Golden Dawn); and/ or

2. Tolkien may have picked-up on the hints about Williams' adulterous 'Platonic' or 'Tantric' philanderings with various young women.

For example, if Tolkien asked around William's close friends in Oxford, he may have heard about the Lois Lang-Sims episode (documented in Letters to Lalage) which actually happened in Oxford during the era of Inklings meetings - yet was surely concealed from Tolkien (and Lewis).


In sum, Tolkien was friendly with Williams for all of Williams life, and cherished his memory for more than a decade after Williams death; but Tolkien reacted to posthumous revelations concerning Williams biography (understandably - albeit somewhat dishonestly) by convincing himself that he had never much liked Williams, and suggesting that Williams had been forced into the Inklings by Lewis.


The retrospective comments on Williams make Tolkien sound as if he was jealous of Williams friendship with Lewis, and this has led to the myth of jealously being an early factor in the breakdown of Lewis and Tolkien's friendship.

But going from contemporary evidence written during William's life, Tolkien was exceptionally friendly with Williams - meeting him frequently in Inklings, regularly with Lewis on Monday mornings to read the emerging Lord of the Rings in draft, lending Williams the precious manuscript of Lord of the Rings, and sometimes going out for a drink with Williams - just the two of them.

And also there is abundant evidence that Tolkien remained great friends with Lewis until around the time that the Narnia books were written.


So, the evidence suggests that Tolkien was not jealous of Williams' friendship with Lewis, and Williams had nothing to do with the cooling of relationship between Tolkien and Lewis.


Wurmbrand said...

It's good to bring this topic up for discussion, because you're probably right about the "jealousy" idea having become widespread.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - It's not that the jealousy idea is absurd - if 1. Tolkien's later comments are taken at face value and 2. One assumes that jealousy was Tolkien's motivation.

However, I gradually realized when reading through contemporary accounts that Tolkien never said or did anything to suggest that he was anything but very friendly with Williams.

David Bratman later pointed out to me that the refutation of the jealousy idea was first published by John D. Rateliff in a 1985 paper in Mythlore - which I have since read.

Troels said...

Also, Tolkien's later negative comments apply not to Williams himself, but rather to his literary work -- what little is known of the Inklings seems, at least to me, to suggest that they could very well disagree strongly about literature without this having any influence on personal friendships (this seems also to be the idea underlying the letter Tolkien wrote to Lewis in which he apologises for the manner of his criticism — even if Tolkien finally did choose to apologise in a private letter).

On the other hand, I do not think that there is anything in the earlier letters that is inconsistent with Tolkien's later statements that he never liked Williams' writings (and as Shippey pointed out in a panel at the Return of the Ring, a negative influence can be at least as strong as a positive, so there might be elements of Tolkien wishing to show how it could be done properly).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - the comments in Tolkien's 1960s letters do include reference to Tolkien and Lewis being 'separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams' (Letter 22) which is a negative comment; and the later Tolkien did retrospectively refer to Williams as "that witch doctor" (I can't offhand remember exactly where, but this is oft cited) which certainly seems unfriendly. (Tolkien almost certainly did not know Williams had personal experience of the occult until about 1958/9 - as I describe above)

We also have evidence from Lewis that he lent Tolkien Williams' Place of the Lion and Tolkien liked it. Indeed, I have argued that PotL is indeed a specific and positive influence on Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers.

My assumption is that Tolkien liked, or at least found valuable, PotL - but probably not any of Williams' other work.

I can empathize with this - I find Place of the Lion to be my favourite of all Williams books, and while I read many more of them, it is one of few which I enjoy almost without reservation (although I perceive it is technically flawed).

Sørina Higgins said...

Very well said indeed! I think the correct, balanced position is simply that JRRT was not as crazy about CW as CSL was. There could have been some jealousy, but that wouldn't prevent intelligent, like-minded adult men from cultivating a good friendship and literary relationship.