A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn,” a lost Charles Williams play by Sørina Higgins

Brenton Bodleian MugshortLibraries are sacred spaces. I have had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to some of these storied cathedrals. I sat in contemplation at the Edwin W. Brown Collection at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, not even sure what I would find. I traveled the 20 hours to New York to work with the original handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters in the Berg Collection at the Public Library. At General Theological Seminary in New York I went through The Guardian, years 1941-45, reading C.S. Lewis’ publications of Screwtape and The Great Divorce, and watching for readers’ comments. New York is an amazing town.

I spent a couple of days at the Toronto Public Library where they host the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. It has all those old SciFi magazines and paperbacks, but also the research notes of Margaret Atwood, and a full collection of the Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. The Gladstone Library in North Wales is completely silent, save the squeak of its 19th century floorboards. Dr. Vidler was warden of Gladstone—then St. Deiniol’s—in the 1940s. He was also the editor of Theology, a journal that Lewis wrote for at that time. In 1946, Lewis donated 20£ to the library, and I’m glad. In my mind, there are few places more congenial to research than Gladstone’s.

I was one of the first timid researchers to make his way into the new Bodleian manuscript reading room in Oxford. They retrieved the C.S. Lewis letters and manuscripts I was looking for—they were being housed in a salt mine—and I spent the days bent over the desk, squinting at Lewis’ tight handwriting. I saw his teenage writing, determined and precocious. And I saw the hesitation marks in A Grief Observed, the story of Lewis’ experience after his wife’s death At one moment I wondered if there was a hint of pipe smoke in the pages of some old letters to his friends.

Marion Wade Center frontThere is perhaps no greater contrast to the immensity of the Bodleian or the Victorian antiquity of Gladstone’s than the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College, Illinois. Specifically not grand or old, the Wade is “homely”—in all the senses that the Inklings came to feel for that word. While its collection is more modest than Gladstone’s or the Bod’s, its focus on the Inklings makes it an irreplaceable resource for fans and researchers of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. Add a hospitable and knowledgeable staff to the hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of other resources, and you will discover that the Wade is the Lewisian camino on the American continent. As Inklings palmer’s often say: my life changed at the Wade.

So while I love making these pilgrimages, budget, time, and distance make the trek difficult. Most of us lack the resources or mobility to get to the archives we want to see the most. I am always thrilled, then, when researchers and editors can open up these archives for the world by publishing long lost manuscripts.

sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williamsI had the opportunity of seeing this work in progress with an important and neglected Charles Williams dramatic poem. Charles Williams wrote The Chapel of the Thorn in 1912, though it was never published. Once thought lost, this Williams’ play has finally been brought to print by Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins.

The original text is housed at the Wade. By a chance encounter I was working beside Higgins as she began to open up this century old text toward publication. Head tilted forward as if in prayer, left hand hovering over a magnifying glass, Higgins worked with Williams’ neat handwriting—a manuscript complicated with age, his own edits, and the comments of his beta reader, Fred Page. Thus began the two-year process of transcribing, formatting, checking, editing, introducing, and producing The Chapel of the Thorn.

Anyone who has attempted Williams’ later poetry knows that there are challenges ahead. Even his supernatural pot-boilers—relatively popular in the day—can be a little obscure. It is true that in both the novels and the poetry Williams’ characters are clear and the narrative arc is discernable. He can paint scenes with vividness and heighten expectation even for the tentative reader. Still, the gap between reader and writer often remains.

Charles Williams writingThe Chapel of the Thorn has none of that distance. For any reader who enjoys Shakespeare or Arthurian literature, Thorn is completely accessible. Written in formal iambic pentameter with even-handed archaisms, I was immediately drawn into the story of The Thorn.

The setting is a coastal village in late Roman Britain. The village sits on the historical crossroads between paganism and Christianity. The land is officially Christian, but the power structures are still at play between king and Church. The villagers attend the local Christian church, and the women are typically devout. The men, however, only pretend to Christian piety while they maintain their devotion to paganism, their love of the old druidic stories, and their practice of keeping sex slaves—mistresses who satisfy the male and are an economic trade unit in the village.

As the title suggests, the tension focusses around the little village chapel. It is the home of a sacred object, a thorn from the make-shift crown on the crucified Christ’s brow, or perhaps the entire crown itself. The village priest, Joachim, is the protector of the relic and seeks enjoyment of Christ in its contemplation. The villagers see it as a thing of power, but their main interest in the chapel is that it is the resting place of their ancient hero, who will one day rise again. Attendance to religious service, then, is a façade for some and mystical environment for others.

old celtic cross mossThe tender balance of past and present, paganism and Christianity—held together by a silent truce of hypocrisy and doublespeak—is threatened when a nearby Abbot, a monk of tremendous secular and personal influence, comes to the village to remove the relic to a more accessible place of pilgrimage. While Abbot Innocent pretends to public interest alone, it is a play of a far deeper power.

This unusual triangle fuels both the poetry and the plot. There are other storylines weaved into this short play, and yet I never found that the stage was too crowded. The most slippery aspect of the play is the very thing that gives it enough interest to read a second time: what is the motivation of the characters? The Chapel of the Thorn begs at questions of authenticity and hypocrisy with well-drawn characters that draw us into their own storylines.

Sørina Higgins has done a great service in bringing this text from the hallowed halls of the archives to our nearest bookstore. But she has done more than this. Added to her own critical introduction are essays by Grevol Lindop and David Llewellyn Dodds—really the two other scholars to have produced work on The Chapel of the Thorn. These three engaging thinkers tell us the history of the text, but also assess the poetry itself and link Thorn to Williams’ other works. We see in Thorn, for example, the beginning of Williams’ interests in the hallows and Arthurian legend—interests that will be central themes in Williams’ popular novels and narrative poetry.

old stone churchThe result of Higgins’ work as editor and producer is a book that re-begins a delayed conversation, continuing a journey that was aborted long ago. In this way she extends the work of an archive, giving us all the chance that I have had: to sit with the manuscript before us, head tilted forward as if in prayer, our pencil hand hovering over a notepad as we try to discern the many layers of this almost lost Charles Williams treasure.

Williams, Charles. The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem. Ed. Sørina Higgins. With Grevel Lindop and David Llewellyn Dodds. Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2014. 147 pages.


Note of disclosure: As is normal for reviewers, I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. While I was quite at liberty to give any review I wanted—and have given negative reviews—I was already a positive reader of The Chapel of the Thorn. I was privileged to see the original text, to read the transcript in revision form, and to check for edits on a holography form. I am also friends with editor Sørina Higgins, who is also editor of The Inklings and King Arthur, a forthcoming volume for which I am providing a chapter.

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The Place of the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ Fiction

The Place of the Lion by Charles WilliamsA couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest blogger for The Oddest Inkling in a series on Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. This was the first Williams book that C.S. Lewis had ever encountered, and it was transformational for him. My question in this blog is what role it played in Lewis’ own fiction writing.

The Place of the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ Fiction

I came to Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion because of my work in C.S. Lewis. I know that Williams had a great influence upon Lewis, and I am determined to find out how deep that influence really is. Moreover, Lewis discovers the Lion at a key point in his life: his academic career is building with the release of The Allegory of Love (1936) and his continual work on The Personal Heresy (1939) . It is at this point, though, that Lewis takes an abrupt shift in direction. He writes a SciFi thriller, Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and begins working on his first books defending Christianity to the general public. Instead of a career as a public academic and literary controversialist, Lewis becomes a storyteller and faith-sharer.

You have to ask: What caused that great shift?

Plus… well, it is kind of obvious: the image of the Lion ends up being pretty important to Lewis later in life. Most readers of Lewis meet Aslan first. So is Aslan conceived (or pre-conceived) during Lewis’ first reading of The Place of the Lion?

This is why I have picked up this Charles Williams thriller. Plus, I’m always game for a good book, and I’ve heard this is one of Williams’ best.

The Place Of The Lion Charles Williams 1stTo the book.

Wow. Well, frankly, The Place of the Lion is one of the most disorienting things I have ever read. I would put it in league with studying Jean Baudrillard, negotiating the price of a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok, or visiting the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. I finished reading late last night, and I was still reeling the next day.

Now, it isn’t the story that is difficult. C.S. Lewis summarizes it succinctly in a Feb 26th, 1936 letter to his good friend, Arthur Greeves:

I have just read what I think a really great book, ‘The Place of the Lion’ by Charles Williams. It is based on the Platonic theory of the other world in which the archtypes of all earthly qualities exist: and in the novel, owing to a bit of machinery which doesn’t matter, these archtypes start sucking our world back. The lion of strength appears in the world & the strength starts going out of houses and things into him. The archtypal butterfly (enormous) appears and all the butterflies of the world fly back into him. But man contains and ought to be able to rule all these forces: and there is one man in the book who does, and the story ends with him as a second Adam ‘naming the beasts’ and establishing dominion over them.

place of the lion charles williamsNot only is the storyline fairly simple, but the characters are strong and knowable. Two friends—Anthony and Quentin—are deeply invested in a relationship of intellectual engagement and loving debate. When those ideas appear in real life not as ideas (ideal, Platonic forms and Jungian archetypes), each man responds differently. Quentin is fearful, desperate to hide from evil; if faced with the last great breath of humanity, Anthony is determined to stand against the ideal forms of strength, subtlety, beauty and the like. Their approach to crisis defines their roles in the story: Quentin flees from the forms; Anthony is drawn into them, and the form of the Eagle works through him as yeast through dough.

And there is Damaris, Anthony’s “girl.” Damaris is fiercely independent, working on her PhD dissertation. She shares the secret of the novel with the reader, discovering that the Greek idea of eidolon is brought into medieval concepts of angels. Although she knows the key to the localized Platonic apocalypse that has caused chaos in her little town, she has never integrated her academic knowledge with her own worldview. She thinks she (like Anthony and Quentin at the beginning of the book) can play with ideas without any consequence. When C.S. Lewis writes a fated fan letter to Williams, he captures Damaris in an intriguing way:

I know Damaris very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris (but you have pulled me up). That pterodactyl…I know all about him: and wanting not Peace, but (faugh!) ‘peace for my work’.

I know Damaris well too.

Charles WilliamsSo, if I can understand the story and the characters, what then was disorienting about The Place of the Lion?

The structure of the book is secure, resting on a simple plotline and character development. But the writing is a torrent, a whirlwind of dreams and images. Williams is thoroughly invested in the classical and medieval world, so his writing is laced with deeper images, layered with symbolic significance that I know I am missing as the sentences fly by. It isn’t that I read quickly—I read very slowly, often rereading a page before moving on. But it is like the imagistic elements in the book tumble over each other to come into my view. Then, the column of archetypes collapses and rebuilds again, showing the shadow of past ideas, or the echo of significant shifts in narrative, or even a mirror image of itself.

The Place of the Lion is startling to read.

I think Williams could have done more to orient the reader. In his minimalistic show-not-tell approach to the literal geography of the tale his detail is scant, and I don’t have a sense of the context before the context begins to shift. So economic is Williams’ introduction that, although I immediately understood Damaris, I don’t really even know the two friends until the second last chapter. I also had to create a mental character map to keep track of the supporting characters and to remember what they represented—for they each represent something. There is no wasted word in the Lion.

Charles Williams NovelsTruly, though, I think I still would have been unsettled by the book. It is a supernatural thriller, but I don’t know the operating rules of the supernatural world it is based upon—the “bit of machinery” as Lewis calls it. But neither does our hero: Anthony never knows if he has chosen well until he has chosen his path. In this matter, the Lion is less like fantasy and more like everyday life.

Charles Williams writingDid the reading help me in my original goal, to understand Lewis? Certainly the book was important to him. He began a friendship with Williams, and passed the book around among his friends, writing: “Coghill of Exeter put me on to the book: I have put on Tolkien (the Professor of Anglo Saxon and a papist) and my brother. So there are three dons and one soldier all buzzing with excited admiration.”

When Lewis’ friend, Cecil Harwood, takes the book and does not return it, Lewis is forced to ask for its return through a limerick:

There was a young person of Streatham
Who said to his friends when he met ’em
Old Lewis is dyin’
For The Place of the Lion
But I keep people’s books once I get ’em.

Moreover, Lewis recommends it to others in his letter, hoping they too will be drawn into the story. For him, it was more than a story. He wrote to Williams:

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris. There are layers and layers–first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

Elsewhere he refers to it as Lenten preparation. The Place of the Lion had a profound effect on his spiritual life.

The Lion Witch Wardrobe (1stEd) LewisBut, is the Lion our pre-Narnian Aslan?

No, I don’t think so. In Williams’ thriller, the Lion and the Lamb are opposites that come together in the recreation of Eden. In that sense, Aslan is both Lion and Lamb, strength and laughter, power and weakness. I suspect, though, that Aslan does not come directly or indirectly from Williams, but emerges out of the depth of Lewis’ worldview when he finally sits down to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a dozen years later.

Certainly I can see the influence of The Place of the Lion in the last book of the Ransom Cycle, That Hideous Strength (1945). And I suspect Williams’ Descent into Hell (1937), can help us understand Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1941-42) and The Great Divorce (1944-45) a little better.

But I think the biggest impact of The Place of the Lion upon Lewis, beyond the personal edification, is that it opens up the possibilities for Lewis of what a story can do. Lewis credits David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturis for creating new genre possibilities for him: “it was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the ‘scientifiction’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal” (Oct 29, 1944 letter to Charles A. Brady).

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 1960sI have been reading Lewis chronologically and I rested in 1936-37 for some time, trying to see what gave birth to Out of the Silent Planet. I am prepared to suggest that as much as Charles Williams had an influence on Lewis’ theology, and though we will see lines of continuity between some of Lewis’ and Williams’ books, The Place of the Lion opened up for Lewis the power of a supernatural thriller that can draw out the problems of life and address them as well. As he says to Williams of the Lion in 1936: “Not only is your diagnosis good: but the very way in which you force one to look at the matter is itself the beginning of a cure. Honestly, I didn’t think there was anyone now alive in England who could do it.”

It is Williams, I think, who suggests to Lewis that his creativity could be the “beginning of a cure” for some.

It is a bold claim, I know. We cannot know all of Lewis’ inner machinery, but I would argue that, in this sense, The Place of the Lion is the beginning of Lewis’ career as a novelist.

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That Time C.S. Lewis Made Fun of Benedict Cumberbatch

benedict cumberbatch endearing look peopleWell, not quite. Benedict Cumberbatch had the audacity to be born 15 years after C.S. Lewis died. But Lewis would have mocked him, and mocked him hard, had he the chance.

After the death of Charles Williams, Lewis was gathering a few essays together in honour of his work. Lewis was not great with business details, but he managed to get a publishing contract for the book with Oxford University Press–the place where Charles Williams worked most of his adult life. Lewis’ correspondence in late 1945 is filled with humorous and personal letters about the project.

In one of these letters, Lewis wrote the following to mystery writer and Dante translator Dorothy L. Sayers:

You notice of course that Sir Humphrey [the previous publisher of OUP] has retired and been succeeded at the press by some very new-broomish person with a name like Blunderbore or Cumberback.

Or Cumberbatch, I suspect.

Lewis was really wrapping two mockeries into a single, efficient beat down. First, Lewis was mocking young upstarts in general, and I don’t know anyone who is more of an upstart than Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock, The Hobbit, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, The Imitation Game, Star Trek–Master Cumberbatch is even taking the very best audiobook parts. Is there any role that Cumberbatch won’t steal? I mean, let other kids play for a while!

Second, Lewis was poking fun at a grand pretentious name. In this case it was Geoffrey Fenwick Jocelyn Cumberlege. Really? Yes, that was the new publisher’s full name. Sort of rhymes with Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, doesn’t it? If it is possible, Cumberbatch’s name is even more pretentious.

benedict cumberbatch smouldering lookIf you look at the letters that passed between Lewis and Sayers, you can see the fun they were having. After Lewis wrote his demonic letters between Screwtape and Wormwood–with Slubgob and Slumtrimpet in supporting roles–Sayers wrote her own Screwtapian fan letter, mentioning the demons Guttlehog and Grobberscritch. Demonic naming was great fun for the literary pair.

Cumberlege-Cumberback-Cumberbatch, though, sounds even closer to the Narnian dwarfs, like Bricklethumb, Thornbut, and, of course, Trumpkin. Lewis also had bulgy dwarf names like Rogin, Poggin, and Griffle, so it is a toss up whether he was going for aristocratic dwarf or high class demon.

Let’s go with Benedict Cumberbatch as demon-dwarf. True, an incredibly handsome, fashionable demon-dwarf, but a demon-dwarf nonetheless.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on Benedict Cumberbatch. It is probably true that Lewis would have hated most of his work, but he thought pretty much all TV and film was lame. C.S. Lewis did, however, like the Sherlock Holmes books, and might have understood the genius that is the new series.

Moreover–and I’m stepping into deep water here–I think Cumberbatch could solve a riddle for us. Charles Williams expert Sørina Higgins once asked on social media who could play Williams in a film of his life. Williams, according to Lewis, was a particularly ugly man with enigmatic charisma–a draw that women could little explain and hardly resist. He wove a spell for the few short years he lived. If we could age him and give him terrible hair, poorly chosen glasses, and nicotine stains on his fingers, I think Cumberbatch’s spastic energy and firelit eyes would make him a perfect Charles Williams–at least in the screenplay I have in mind.

So, it’s probably best not to tell Master Cumberbatch that Lewis was mocking him. We might need him later.

benedict cumberbatch smouldering look sherlock

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On the Deaths of Charles Williams and Harold Ladoo

Charles WilliamsOn this day, 70 years ago, Charles Williams passed away in hospital. His death came as a shock to his family, his closest friends, and his many followers. This enigmatic figure had a galvanizing effect, attracting so many to his difficult writings, his evasive personality, and his unusual point of view.

One of his closest late-in-life friends, C.S. Lewis, was among those overwhelmed by his death. Two weeks later Lewis wrote to pen friend and spiritual confidant, Sr. Penelope, describing his experience of Williams’ death:

“You will have heard of the death of my dearest friend, Charles Williams and, no doubt, prayed for him. For me too, it has been, and is, a great loss. But not at all a dejecting one. It has greatly increased my faith. Death has done nothing to my idea of him, but he has done – oh, I can’t say what – to my idea of death. It has made the next world much more real and palpable. We all feel the same. How one lives and learns” (May 28th, 1945).

Poems by C. S. LewisLewis wrote a lot of letters like this in the wake of Williams’ passing, some of them filled with feeling, others lobbying for support for Williams literary legacy. In this time, Lewis also turned to poetry, exploring a number of ideas in verse.

Although the post-war period was not a significant publishing time for Lewis, and though he never did complete a narrative poem or cycle as he admired in Charles Williams, he did write a number of short poems. One of them, published in August 1945, had the title, “On the Death of Charles Williams”:

Your death sounds a strange bugle call, friend, and all becomes hard
To see plainly describe truly. This new light imposes change,
Re-adjusts all a life-landscape as it thrusts down its probe from the sky
To re-arrange shadows, to change meadows, to erect hills and deepen vales;
I can’t see the old contours. The slant alters. It’s a bolder world
Than I once thought. I wince, caught in the thrill winds that dance on the ridge.
Is it the first sting of the world-waning, the great Winter? Or the cold of Spring?

I have lost now the one only friend wise enough to advise
To explore deftly this one problem. I am left asking. Concerning your death
Of whom now would it half much to ask counsel, except of you?

Alligator_pie by Dennis LeeThe line, “all becomes hard,” reminds me of Dennis Lee’s “Death of Harold Ladoo.” Besides the title, there are some personal life parallels between the authors. Like C.S. Lewis, we would know Dennis Lee most for his children’s work. Lee’s urban nursery rhymes, like “Alligator Pie,” are still popular. And I’ll never forget that he was the writer of the Muppet TV theme song, “Fraggle Rock.”

Yet, like Lewis, Lee’s best work was not his children’s work. Dennis Lee was a social thinker and cultural critic, as well as an effective Canadian editor and important poet. And like Lewis, Lee championed the cause of an obscure, difficult writer who is still under-valued today. There was no greater champion of Charles Williams than Lewis, and Lee really raised Harold Ladoo’s profile. Ladoo’s No Pain Like the Body was absolutely stunning, bringing the reader to within an inch of the sights and sounds and smells of his Indian community in Trinidad. Seldom does one read something that evokes such awe, intrigue, attraction and disgust.

In this way, Harold Ladoo was also like Charles Williams, though Williams produced a portfolio of work before his untimely death and Ladoo’s trilogy went unfinished. Williams was similarly evocative in print, and was similarly ladoo no pain like this bodychampioned by a larger figure. C.S. Lewis never ceased recommending Williams’ work, going so far as to edit a volume of essays in his name, as well as publish and comment upon Williams’ complex Arthuriad.

Lewis’ little poem has dramatic effect. In the final published version in Collected Poems, the conversation he has with Williams–who can no longer converse–is even more poignant. Dennis Lee’s elegy is not short like Lewis’, but a 15 page dialogue that moves from despair, to cynicism, to rage, and back to self-critical reflection–often within a single page.  It is an absolute treasure of contemporary poetry, with Lee seated in a Toronto cafe, eulogizing Ladoo while thinking about the writing, the street, the world of art and literature, and how it all fits together.

Like Lewis, Lee finds the loss hard: “what is hard is when good men die in their power,” Lee writes (214). But Ladoo was hard too–hard to figure, hard to befriend, and hard to let go as he moved with his own “hard, intuitive grace” (215). But it is also the sheer loss itself:

And yet to
die, Harold,
that’s hard. To die –
simply to die, and
not to be:
no more to
saunter by on the sidewalk, the
way a human does,
sensing the prick of
renewal each spring
in small green leaves and also the used-up bodies of
winos, for these come
mildly rife once more.
To be finished (221-2).

Charles Williams writingEach of the poems have their own honesty, each lamenting that the Lost One who can no longer offer advice. For Lee, it is Harold Ladoo’s empty seat at the cafe. For Lewis, it is Charles Williams’ voice no longer filling late nights of talk around pipes and beer. The published version of Lewis’ elegy to Charles Williams perhaps says best the moment that unites to two poets:

A hard question and worth talking a whole night on.
But with whom? Of whom now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless—oh unless it were you?


harold ladoo photo“The Death of Harold Ladoo” was written after Ladoo’s shocking death in 1973 and is published in Boundary 2.5,1 (Autumn, 1976): 213-228.

‘On the Death of Charles Williams’ appeared in Britain To-day 112 (August 1945): 14. A slightly revised version entitled ‘To Charles Williams’ was published in Poems and Collected Poems, each edited by Walter Hooper. Lewis wrote this note to a Fr. Denis: 

It was an experiment in a metre invented by my friend Barfield an 8-stressed line with the first six stanzas coming in pairs (roughly xXXxXXxXXxXxX) and underlined (to taste) by internal rhymes (call, all, truly new light) consonances (once, wince) or both…

Lewis wrote to Barfield for permission to use the metre on July 12th, 1945.

This 10th Anniversary note is interesting as it is an example of that championing of Williams, and it is co-signed by both C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers. It is written to the Editor of the Times:

Sir, –
Sunday, May 15, will be the tenth anniversary of the death of Charles Williams. In his lifetime he became an outstanding figure in the world of English letters. Since his death, his reputation and influence have grown so much that there must be thousands who to-day acknowledge him as a formative influence in their thinking, whether literary or religious. There can be little doubt that they will desire to honour his memory by some observance of this tenth anniversary of his death. Public meetings are being arranged in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. We venture to suggest that his disciples and students of his works elsewhere should take steps to pay tribute in some fashion wherever they may be.
Yours faithfully,
C.S. Lewis
Dorothy L. Sayers
Saint Anne’s House, 57, Dean Street, W. 1

See Walter Hooper’s edited volume 2 of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis for these personal and honest letters, a literary tribute to an important friend. 

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There Will Be No More Pints with Charles: An Astonishing Eulogy by Warren Lewis

Charles Williams writingOn Friday, the 70th anniversary of Charles Williams’ death, I will explore C.S. Lewis’ tribute in poetry. Williams was powerfully influential to C.S. Lewis, but he was also an important member of the Inklings.

This ad hoc literary club—really a chance for bright, bookish friends to gather around pipes and beer with manuscripts in lap—met twice a week for about two decades. The Inklings included literary greats like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but it was also filled with less well known public intellectuals, like Prof. Hugo Dyson, literary historian Owen Barfield, children’s author Roger Lancelyn Green, historian Lord David Cecil, Chaucer translator Nevill Coghill, and the editor of the Middle Earth legendarium, Christopher Tolkien. It was an unusual collection of great minds who achieved great things.

One of the most faithful members of the Inklings was Major Warren Lewis. Brother of the Narnian himself, we can imagine he was a member of the Inklings because of his connections rather than his own skill. While Warren may have been invited to the Inklings by his brother, he was a critical reader and added to the discussion. And when the Inklings began, they were just a gaggle of obscure Oxford dons. It was their mutual encouragement, the careful criticism and support of true friends over many years, that made these men notable.

inklingsOver those years, Warren found his own literary voice as a historian. He wrote seven books about 17th century France, works that are noted for their careful research, their rich understanding of the military context, and their sheer readability. Warren also edited the Lewis Papers and the first collection of C.S. Lewis’ letters, which includes a unique memoir.

Throughout his adult life, Warren Lewis was also a prolific diarist. Rather than the mundane and, honestly, boring diaries of C.S. Lewis, Warren’s diary writing is quick, easy, and full of life. Although most of it is unpublished, Clyde Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead collected some of the more notable entries in Brothers & Friends. It gives us a look at Warren’s life, but is also one of the more important sources for Inklings activities.

On the day of Charles Williams‘ death, we have a rather remarkable entry. Still fresh from the news, and having just completed the last bits of his first book, Warren pours out his heart. The journal note shows the reader a bit of his literary relationship with Tolkien (Tollers) and C.S. Lewis (J). But it especially shows how intimately connected Warren Lewis was with Charles Williams—a person who to us today can seem so hard to get.


warren and cs lewisTuesday 15th May.

At 12.50 this morning I had just stopped work on the details of the Boisleve family, when the telephone rang, and a woman’s voice asked if I would take a message for J—“Mr. Charles Williams died in the Acland this morning”. One often reads of people being “stunned” by bad news, and reflects idly on the absurdity of the expression; but there is more than a little truth in it. I felt just as if I had slipped and came down on my head on the pavement. J had told me when I came into College that Charles was ill, and it would mean a serious operation: and then went off to see him: I haven’t seen him since. I felt dazed and restless, and went out to get a drink: choosing unfortunately the King’s Arms, where during the winter Charles and I more than once drank a pint after leaving Tollers at the Mitre, with much glee at “clearing one throats of varnish with good honest beer”: as Charles used to say. There will be no more pints with Charles: no more “Bird and Baby”: the blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again. I knew him better than any of the others, by virtue of his being the most constant attendant. I hear his voice as I write, and can see his thin form in his blue suit, opening his cigarette box with trembling hands. These rooms will always hold his ghost for me. There is something horrible, something unfair about death, which no religious conviction can overcome. “Well, goodbye, see you on Tuesday Charles” one says—and you have in fact though you don’t know it, said goodbye for ever. He passes up the lamplit street, and passes out of your life for ever. There is a good deal of stuff talked about the horrors of a lonely old age; I’m not sure that the wise man—the wise materialist at any rate—isn’t the man who has no friends. And so vanishes one of the best and nicest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet. May God receive him into His everlasting happiness.

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The Loss of Atmosphere: A Literary Conspiracy by Larry Niven & C.S. Lewis?

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellPerhaps the essay that C.S. Lewis took the longest to write is “On Stories.” It began as an Oxford talk in 1940 called, “The Kappa Element in Romance.” After Charles Williamsdeath 70 years ago this week in 1945, Lewis went back to the material and wrote a longish essay called “On Stories,” published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947) with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” “On Stories” didn’t get much traction at first, and Lewis went on to work some of the same ideas into his late-in-life book, An Experiment in Criticism (1961).

“On Stories” is now recognized to be some of the earliest critical thinking about fantasy writing, and a precursor to the study of “story” and “atmosphere” as important to literature. The atmosphere idea is pretty intriguing. The most important part of a Story is not its plot, or in a romance (i.e., adventure story), its ability to create “excitement.” Lewis explains:

If to love Story is to love excitement then I ought to be the greatest lover of excitement alive. But the fact is that what is said to be the most ‘exciting’ novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me. There is no country in the book – save as a storehouse of inns and ambushes. There is no weather. When they cross to London there is no feeling that London differs from Paris.

If we think of Lewis’ own work, they are truly “atmospheric.” The Malacandrian aliens in their vertigo-inducing landscapes, the floating islands of Perelandra, the melting snows in the Narnian hills, the dreamy fog of the Wood Between the Worlds—Lewis is a sensual painter of the story’s imaginative environment.

Ringworld  book coverI have just picked up Larry Niven’s SciFi classic, Ringworld (1970). The first character we meet, Louis Wu, is a bored interplanetary playboy of the future. He has been to every party, conquered every elite circle on every world, and even started most of the social trends back on earth. Look at the way Niven describes this earth of the future as Wu teleports from city to city:

For a few moments, he watched Beirut stream past him: the people flickering into the booths from unknown places; the crowds flowing past him on foot, now that the slidewalks had been turned off for the night. Then the clocks began to strike twenty-three. Louis Wu straightened his shoulders and stepped out to join the world.

In Resht, where his party was still going full blast, it was already the morning after his birthday. Here in Beirut it was an hour earlier. In a balmy outdoor restaurant Louis bought rounds of raki and encouraged the singing of songs in Arabic and Interworld. He left before midnight for Budapest….

In Budapest were wine and athletic dances, natives who tolerated him as a tourist with money, tourists who thought he was a wealthy native. He danced the dances and he drank the wines, and he left before midnight

In Munich he walked.

The air was warm and clean; it cleared some of the fumes from his head. He walked the brightly lighted slidewalks, adding his own pace to their ten-miles-per-hour speed. It occurred to him then that every city in the world had slidewalks, and that they all moved at ten miles per hour.

The thought was intolerable. Not new; just intolerable. Louis Wu saw how thoroughly Munich resembled Cairo and Resht … and San Francisco and Topeka and London and Amsterdam. The stores along the slidewalks sold the same products in all the cities of the world. These citizens who passed him tonight looked all alike, dressed all alike. Not Americans or Germans or Egyptians, but mere flatlanders.

In three-and-a-half centuries the transfer booths had done this to the infinite variety of Earth. They covered the world in a net of instantaneous travel. The difference between Moskva and Sidney was a moment of time and a tenth-star coin. Inevitably the cities had blended over the centuries, until place names were only relics of the past. San Francisco and San Diego were the northern and southern ends of one sprawling coastal city. But how many people knew which end was which? Too few, these days.

Pessimistic thinking, for a man’s two hundredth birthday.

But the blending of the cities was real. Louis had watched it happen. All the irrationalities of place and time and custom, blending into one big rationality of City, worldwide, like a dull gray paste. Did anyone today speak Deutsche, English, Francais, Espanol? Everyone spoke Interworld. Style in body paints changed all at once, all over the world, in one monstrous surge.

narnia wardrobeWhat a tremendous fictional illustration of C.S. Lewis’ concern about atmosphere. Wu exists as a listless figure in front of a green screen of all the cities of the world, each shifting one by one in the background behind him. All the cities look the same: “there is no feeling that London differs from Paris,” as C.S. Lewis said.

Is it a coincidence that Niven so poignantly fictionalizes Lewis’ critique, and does so in such a close way, using cities in exactly the way that Lewis did?

And… the protagonist’s name is Louis (=Lewis). Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

We know that Larry Niven has read Lewis. I blogged last week about how The Great Divorce inspired one of his projects, and he used Lewis’ characters in some stories (see Niven’s Rainbow Mars).

My vote is that this is a literary conspiracy, and no accident on Larry Niven’s part. What do you think?

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May Artifact of the Month: Charles Williams’s Honorary Master’s Degree

Brenton Dickieson:

Diploma_watermarkedToday is the 70th anniversary of VE Day. People throughout the allied territories were celebrating Victory in Europe, including huge crowds in London and Oxford. While England was celebrating, Charles Williams was taken to hospital on May 10th. He died there 5 days later.
Over the next week or so we are celebrating Charles Williams’ legacy–both his literary impact and his friendship with the Inklings. I thought it would be nice to begin with this great article by the Marion E. Wade Center. It shows a picture of the honourary degree Williams received from Oxford, as well as some of the story. If you don’t subscribe to the Wade Artifact of the Month, make sure you sign up now.

Originally posted on Off the Shelf:

Museum display at the Wade Center featuring Charles Williams's honorary Masters of Arts degree from Oxford University, and the mortar board he wore during the ceremony. Museum display at the Wade Center featuring Charles Williams’s honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University, and the mortar board he wore during the ceremony.

With graduation season beginning, we thought it appropriate to highlight the honorary Master of Arts degree Charles Williams received from Oxford University on February 27, 1943 as our May “Artifact of the Month.” This post also celebrates a full year of “Artifact of the Month” blogs on “Off the Shelf!” After this point we will continue to highlight materials from the Wade Center as “Featured Artifacts,” but not on a monthly basis. Keep reading “Off the Shelf” for more artifacts to come!

Charles Williams began his college career by being awarded a scholarship to University College, London where he studied mathematics, literature, history, and languages  (Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration Of His Life And Work. New York : Oxford UP, 1983…

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