Sørina Higgins is an Inklings scholar specializing in works of Charles Williams. Included in her writings are her most recent book of poetry, Caduceus; her literature blog, Iambic Admonit; and a number of articles on C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the Inklings. Although he is influential to C.S. Lewis–and he plays an important role in David Downing’s Inklings novel, Looking for the King—Williams is such an elusive figure to me that I asked Sørina to introduce us to his life, work, and thought.
The Inklings—that pipe-smoking, beer-drinking, fantasy-writing club of Christians—was a lively group of eccentric Oxford gentlemen with harmless habits of ordinary oddity. Yet one member stands out for such extreme peculiarities that he makes Tolkien’s obsession with dead languages and curmudgeonly attitude towards visitors, Barfield’s belief in reincarnation, C.S. Lewis’s cohabitation with a woman old enough to be his mother, and Warren Lewis’s struggle with alcoholism all look like anybody’s daily washing. Which, I suppose, they were. Not so with Charles Williams.
Williams was a latecomer to the Inklings. He brought with him a fully-developed system of theological imagination strange enough to match his strange life, which included membership in a secret society, the practice of magic, engagement in sexual rituals with young female disciples, and the transference of sexual energy into creative power. In this post, I want to explore a little bit of his oddity, but I also want to expound upon the true greatness of his writing, and to do all that in the context of his fruitful friendship with C. S. Lewis.
First, a bit of biography. Charles Williams was born in north London on 20 September 1886. He spent most of his life in London and loved the city, using it as a symbol of order and authority. He worked for the Oxford University Press in London from 1908 until his death, and loved that too. He met Florence Conway in 1908, and courted her for 9 years. During that time, he developed a “Theology of Romantic Love,” which was an application of the theology of the “Affirmative Way” to sexual relationships. In 1917, he and Florence (whom he nicknamed “Michal” after King David’s unappreciative wife) finally married. You can read a post here about The Silver Stair, his first book of poetry, in which I discuss the Affirmative Way, the Negative Way, Williams’s wife Florence, and his Romantic Theology.
Also in 1917, that momentous year, he joined the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (FRC). This was A. E. Waite’s Christian offshoot of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Williams remained a member of this occult society for ten years, climbing rapidly up the grades and serving as Master of the Temple for two six-month periods. I have written a series of blog posts about Williams and the Rosicrucians that you may find interesting.
During the 1920s and 30s, Williams worked for Oxford University Press, wrote incessantly—including five of his seven “metaphysical thriller” novels—taught evening courses through the City Literary Institute, and carried on an intense but unconsummated affair with the Press librarian, Phyllis Jones. In 1939, the London offices of the Press were evacuated to Oxford due to the Blitz. There, Williams joined “The Inklings.” Williams died in Oxford on 15 May 1945, just one week after victory had been declared in Europe.
His most important work is from this last phase of his life, including the great Arthurian poetry, a final novel, and his synthesis of theology and literary criticism in The Figure of Beatrice. Here is another series of blog posts in which I discuss his works, style, and themes.
In each of his last and greatest works, Williams expressed his signature concept: the idea of Coinherence, Substitution, or Exchange. This is the unusual belief that people can carry one another’s emotional or spiritual burdens as surely and simply as carrying a box or bag. If you have cancer, for instance, and are terrified of pain and death, Williams believed that you could go to a friend and make a “contract” with that friend so that he or she would “carry” that fear instead of you. You would then find that you were unable to be afraid, even if you tried, no matter how ravaging the disease and how close death came. He even implies that the friend could exchange his life for yours: take on the cancer and die in your place.
Williams believed in this Way of Exchange so firmly that he founded his own Order or Society: the Companions of the Co-Inherence, in 1939. He wrote a “Promulgation” for this Order, in which he enjoined members to carry one another’s burdens. As leader of the Order—whom some members called “Master”—he literally ordered them about, telling them who would carry whose burdens. I have found no evidence that he ever carried any himself.
Anyway, I could go on and on about his oddities—his relationships with young women, his ongoing interest in occult matters even after leaving the FRC, his possibly heretical ideas about the problem of evil, his close identification of Christians with Christ to the point that he seems to have thought people could be the means of one another’s salvation, his avoidance of the use of words like “God” and “Jesus” and preference for “The Mercy” or “The Omnipotence”—but I won’t. I want to spend some time on the best, most obviously edifying aspects of his thought, and on the literary strengths of his work. And I promised to talk about his relationship with C. S. Lewis.
Well, Lewis and Williams met in a marvelous way. The tale of their meeting is a story worth repeating many times. Lewis read The Place of the Lion and decided to send Williams a fan letter. Williams received the letter just as he was overseeing one of Lewis’s books through publication. It was The Allegory of Love, and it was just in proofs at the time. Williams was a careful editor, and read the whole book in proof. He liked it so much he was just planning to send Lewis a fan letter, too, and writes to Lewis that if he had delayed 24-hours, their letters would have crossed in the mail. Here Williams uses a characteristic phrase. He writes, “My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.” They continued to exchange letters, met up when they could in London or Oxford, and developed a strong friendship.
More on their friendship in a moment, but I want to pause over something that is often overlooked in discussions of those first three letters. The topic of those letters, sent between 11 and 23 March 1936, was the so-called “Religion of Love” or “Romantic Theology.” They sharply disagreed: Lewis denigrated “the Religion of Love” as idolatrous; Williams praised it as a way to God. If you get a chance to read those three letters, I want you to notice how different they are in tone. Williams uses a round-about, florid, formal style. Lewis cuts right to the point, and pretty much stabs straight into the heart of what Williams had to say, accusing Williams in no uncertain terms of a mistaken use of human love in relation to God. Williams replies, using his same labyrinthine, polite, ambiguous manner, and almost seems to be pretending he didn’t notice that they disagreed. Fascinating.
Anyway, Williams moved to Oxford in 1939, and immediately joined the Inklings. He wrote to his wife that friendship with Lewis was the best thing about being in Oxford, and pretty much the only thing that made life there bearable. He felt that Lewis was one of the few people who really understood him (T. S. Eliot was another). In fact, I think that Lewis, like nearly everyone who met him, pretty much fell in love with Williams. Williams had that power. He was ugly and odd, but he had an overwhelming charisma that affected most people like magic. Lewis was spell-bound.
Not so Tolkien. Tolkien, I think, saw through Williams a little bit more, and was possibly jealous of the intensity of friendship between Williams and Lewis—as if Williams took Tolkien’s place in Lewis’s life. However, I also think that this has been overstated, and that the jealousy was mild and the dislike minimal. I do agree with Barbara Newman, who claims that “Williams integrated esotericism with Christian spiritual practice in a way that his Oxford friends were not aware of and would hardly have approved.” They did know that not all was quite well, however. There’s a hilarious passage in one of Lewis’s letters to his brother, in which one of the other Inklings, Wrenn, “expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people.” Funny, but maybe not funny.
Yet in spite of—and, of course, maybe because of—all that, Williams had a profound effect on Lewis. This influence is most obvious in the third volume of Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Indeed, it has been called a Charles Williams novel by C. S. Lewis. If you are interested in investigating the ways in which this book resembles Williams’s, I recommend C. S. Lewis on the Final Frontier by Sanford Schwartz. There’s a great chapter about That Hideous Strength in which Schwartz talks about how Williams adapted the Gothic genre to his theological purposes, and then Lewis picked up on this for That Hideous Strength. If you are interested in many more detailed discussions of all the many ways in which Williams and Lewis influenced one another’s work, I recommend to you what I believe is currently THE BEST study available on the Inklings, bar none: The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer. It’s a marvelous study all of the times the Inklings exchanged manuscripts, conversations, and other interactions that influenced their writing, thinking, and careers.
How did Lewis influence Williams? Briefly, in three main ways. I do not believe that Lewis really changed Williams’s mind on anything. He was too set for that. But, first, he did encourage Williams to scrap a novel-in-progress that wasn’t working (called The Noises that Weren’t There) and thus put Williams on the path to writing All Hallow’s Eve, Williams’s last (and some say best) novel. This work, the last Arthurian poems, and many of Williams’s other late/great works were read out loud to the Inklings, so although we have no written record of their comments, you can be sure that they made many suggestions. Lewis tells us that he criticized Williams’s “obscurity” many times.
Secondly, Lewis set Williams on the path to a new, exciting career—although Williams died suddenly and was thus prevented from pursuing it. Although Williams had no college degree, Lewis pulled strings and got him to lecture on the English faculty of Oxford University! In 1943, Oxford gave Williams an honorary M.A., implying that they would hire him full-time when he retired from the Press. In this work, Williams felt that his talents were finally being recognized.
Finally, Lewis labored long and hard to promote Williams’s posthumous reputation. He lectured on his poetry at Oxford. He edited a volume of essays in Williams’s honor. He wrote a commentary on the Arthurian poetry that is still the only helpful work we have to guide us through those obscure and difficult poems.
And now I find that it is time to stop, and I haven’t yet waxed lyrical about the virtues and virtuousities of Williams’s work. For that, I guess I’ll have to point you to some outside reading. Here’s a silly post that includes a serious list of the best ideas in Williams’s writing. And here is a short rave about his Arthurian poetry, his masterpiece.
So, what are you waiting for? Go read some Williams!