The Once and Future Charles Williams
Bruce G Charlton
Journal of Inklings Studies
. 2016; 6 (1): 151-6
Like most people, I came to Charles Williams via my interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; specifically, via Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings (1979).
The problem is that none of Williams's works is a real masterpiece, or at least not generally regarded as such; and all of the best work is difficult. The big question, then, is: what is the argument for a continuing engagement with Williams?
Grevel Lindop’s main reason is that he regards Williams’s last two collections, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, as remarkable works, and Williams as a great poet. I myself think Taliessin over-edited and artificially-contrived (betraying its origins as a line-by-line collaboration with the poet Anne Ridler); and while I find Summer Stars to be more fluent and effective, I don't very much like it.
My own reason for a continued interest in Williams, rather, has been his status as a Christian. He was, indeed, one of the four main literary Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival, which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England. The others were C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy L. Sayers, who were all friends and strong admirers of Williams – to whom might be added W.H. Auden as a less direct and more ‘last minute’ Christian figure (he converted late in 1940 and never took a public apologetic and evangelical role).
Reading this biography, it becomes clear that whether one is interested in Williams primarily as a poet or primarily as a Christian turns out to make a very big difference, because Lindop reveals clearly and unambiguously, for the first time, the extent to which Christianity and poetry were at war in Williams's life - and in particular, the extent to which Christianity was sacrificed to poetry.
Before Lindop, it was generally known that Williams was adulterously in love with Phyllis Jones in his last two decades; that he also had warped sexualized interactions with Lois Lang-Sims during his wartime years in Oxford; and that there were other, rather imprecise, accounts of ritual magical-sadism with young female ‘disciples’. But the sheer extent and intensity of Williams's activities along these lines was never before explicit.
Before this new biography, I did not realize, for example, that CW had had intense love relationships with both his main early biographers, Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield.
Furthermore, Lindop quotes extensively from the correspondence between CW and Phyllis Jones, and I never before realized how sexualized the relationship was.
Indeed, in my interpretation, it was primarily sexual, even though the sex was not consummated in the biological sense. The relationship strikes me as deeply maladaptive, in that it was apparently a case of mutual dependency. Both Williams and Jones were mostly unhappy, and frequently wretched, in the relationship; but neither could find the strength to break away. It was apparently addictive: Williams was addicted to the sexual frisson and seductive teasings of the young woman - she gave him energy; Phyllis was addicted to the attention and worship of the older, clever, creative man - he made her feel special.
To summarize the problem for those of us who primarily value Charles Williams the Christian, Lindop’s revelations make clear that Williams strategically used the role of confidante and spiritual adviser for young women to 'groom' them into gratifying his desire for ritualistic, petty sadism. He did this in order to become sexually excited, and then he channelled this excitement to write poetry. This was done, or attempted, time and again with multiple women.
In general, it seems the sadism was, as I said, petty – involving stuff like pinching and slapping palms, back, or buttocks with pencils and rulers. There was quite a bit of master-slave-type play-acting, including by letter and telephone; and an authoritarian / bullying element in his advising and teaching. In general, the record indicates that the young women did not much object to this, and most remained on good terms with him, often very good terms.
Of course there may well be others we don't know of - indeed I would expect that there would have been many young women who must have been appalled, frightened or disgusted at the turn of conversation from this previously kind and charming and spiritual man; women who immediately fled, and left no trace on the records. Nonetheless, whatever the young women felt personally about being sexually used as poetry-stimulants; there is no doubt that this kind of behaviour was dishonest, manipulative and categorically un-Christian.
The evidence presented by Lindop is consistent with Williams's assertion that he engaged in this ritual sadism with attractive young women mainly in order to write poetry. And for whatever reason, it apparently worked: it achieved its goal. Williams thought of it as a magical process, to do with the generation and transformation of sexual into creative energies.
So this was the Poetry versus Christianity trade-off to which I referred. In order to write poetry, or write better poetry, Williams deliberately, strategically, repeatedly behaved in an un-Christian manner. And this is, inevitably, potentially very significant for an evaluation of Charles Williams as both a public Christian teacher and a theologian.
At the same time, Williams had remarkable qualities as a man. Many regarded him as something like a saint - or if not, then someone of exceptional spiritual experiences and insights, and therefore capable of providing great help to many people, of whom Lewis, Eliot and Sayers are merely the best known. All this was what I first heard about Williams, and it remains true.
What of William’s role in the Inklings? Probably the mainstream understanding is of Williams as very much the third Inkling, far behind Lewis and Tolkien; or maybe the fourth, coming behind that oldest important collaborator of Lewis’s, but infrequent Inklings attender, Owen Barfield.
Williams’s earlier biographers and memorialists have downplayed the significance of the Inklings for Williams himself, pointing out that he had completed most of his main work before 1939; and this is reinforced by Williams’ lack of attention to the meetings in his surviving wartime letters to his wife, and memories emanating from his older friends and disciples.
But on the other side of the coin there is considerable albeit indirect evidence that during the period between 1939 and William’s death in 1945, he was the spiritual and intellectual leader of the Inklings: the de facto ‘President’ of these informal meetings (with Jack Lewis as ‘Chairman’ and Warnie as ‘Secretary’).
In all regular groups of friends there is a dominant figure - one who is the main authority, the final court of appeal, who controls the discourse. And I think this is the role that Williams took over from Jack Lewis.
In support of this idea, Warnie Lewis’s diary records Williams as the most regular attender at Inklings meetings (presumably after himself and Jack); Warnie says he knew Williams better than any other of the Inklings, and he was clearly central to the group.
After 1945, when the young John Wain attended Inklings meetings as an undergraduate, he said that the group had been permanently wounded by the death of Williams - which is further indirect evidence for Williams' key role.
But the first reason to believe this is that Williams was a dominant man: someone who (in his own distinctive way) dominated almost every human situation in which he found himself.
On top of this, Williams was (1) the oldest of the regular Inklings; (2) by far the most published - the senior author among those present; (3) the best connected of the Inklings, with friends and colleagues among major and famous literary figures of the era; (4) a ‘metropolitan’ figure, prestigious in London intellectual circles - in this sense a wordly man, compared with the 'ivory towered' dons; (5) in effect, a ‘professional’ theologian, whose books were read, pondered, discussed, by academic theologians and eminent priests – Williams had for some time been invited to contribute essays, books, reviews and plays on theological matters.
And Williams was a successful poet, regarded at the time as one of the most important of that era. Tolkien and Lewis had both intended to be poets (first and foremost) in their early adulthood. Neither had succeeded; but Williams had.
Finally, when Jack Lewis and Tolkien first read William’s The Place of the Lion in 1936, it may have been the single most important catalyst for their later success as writers of ambitious, intellectually serious, adult fantasy; leading immediately to their embarking on what became Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Tolkien’s (unfinished and in his life unpublished) Lost Tales / Notion Club Papers (which was eventually absorbed into the Numenor aspects of The Lord of the Rings) – all of which works have clear Williams-esque influences.
Thus Williams’s membership of, and position in, the Inklings was something that had been pre-prepared for at least three years.
So, if that was the past; then what is a probable and desirable future for Charles Williams’s reputation?
He could, of course, continue more or less as he has for the past half century – being invisible to the mainstream except as a minor Inkling; with a tiny, albeit prestigious and devoted, following as a poet and/or a Christian theologian. Indeed, if Williams continues to be remembered for his published books, I think this almost must be the case; since none of these have passed the test of posterity to become regarded as first rate of their kind.
But I can imagine a different and much more exciting future, which involves Charles Williams as a personality, a character; the lynch-pin around whom revolved the most significant intellectual figures of what was the last (and may be the final) significant Christian revival in Britain – a nation that was still ruler of the largest empire the world has yet seen.
This would regard Charles Williams as a phenomenon far bigger than his books; and in that respect of a similar nature as, although lesser stature than, Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, or Ezra Pound, all of whom (though their published work does not perhaps equal that of their greatest contemporaries) psychologically dominated their intellectual and literary circles.
Among people such as Eliot, Sayers and the Inklings, Williams was, I think, acknowledged as The Master: the final authority on the deepest matters: a living, breathing, inspiring, creative exponent of spiritual and mystical Christianity as it affected the modern world. And he achieved this, as I said, not mainly through his writing, but firstly by his teaching and secondly by his conversation: by personal interactions.
In other words, Charles Williams exerted his most important role by charisma: this is where the essence of Charles Williams’s influence resided. Consequently, the most hopeful future for Charles Williams – the future I would most like to see - is, I believe, in works of creative imagination.
I can imagine Williams as the semi-fictional protagonist of novels, ‘biopic’ movies, television series or some other narrative art. Done well, such media offer the best and only possibility of re-capturing the charisma, the full impact and fascination, of Charles Williams; and perhaps even restoring him to a central position in the intellectual and spiritual life of those wartime years of Christian revival.
It is this future which Lindop’s biography has made possible.
The core written legacy of those vital Inklings years certainly belongs to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; but we now have enough facts, hints, and clues to recreate a dynamic picture of the essential facilitator: Charles Walter Stansby Williams.