What About Charles Williams?
The Secret of the Enigmatic Inkling Revealed
by Thomas Howard
from Touchstone archives:
Charles Williamss name always seems to flit about the edges of the
Tolkien/Lewis world. Everyone who knows anything about these gentlemen beyond
Middle-earth and Narnia knows that they met regularly at The Bird and Baby to
drink beer, smoke, talk, and read their work in progress to each other, and
that Charles Williams was perhaps the most animated (or agitated) one of the
group. Others were thereHugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, Dr. Havard, and so
onbut the Three were the core of the thing.
An Insiders Name
Nevertheless, Williamss name is strictly a name for insiders, so to speak.
Lots of people vaguely know the name, and many have had a go at reading one
or more of his novels. But the testimony here is frequently, I couldnt make
head or tail of it all. The testimony becomes a wail of despair when
Williamss poetry is attempted. Even W. H. Auden found himself stumped by it
at first, although he came, like T. S. Eliot, to be a great admirer of
Even Williamss essays (I was going to say straightforward essays, but they
arent) set one to tugging ones beard. Here, by way of illustrating the
pointand this is typicalare the first two sentences of Williamss short
church history, The Descent of the Dove: The beginning of Christendom is,
strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among
the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two Heavenward lines, one drawn from
Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the
Descent of the Paraclete.
Where are we with this sort of vocabulary and syntax? We are in Williams
territory, thats where we are. For everyones consolation, it may be said
that it is not only beginning readers of Williams who find themselves
stumped. I myself wrote a doctoral thesis on Williams 35 years ago, and to
this day I cannot pick up a single one of his books without at some point
muttering to myself, Yo! Williams, old boyhow on earth do you expect anyone
to have the faintest clue as to what you are on about here?
The thing is, Williams unfailingly leads us all on what George Eliot called
a severe mental scamper. His mind was so packed with images, and so curious
about every cranny of the universe, and so regaled by ideasespecially
dogmaand so overcharged with what one can only call high-voltage
restlessness, that it is a wonder his prose is accessible at all. Ironically,
we find that we must give him a palm for clarity. His proseand, it must be
said, his poetrysays precisely what he means.
He means nothing more, and nothing less, than what we find on the page. And,
as endless critics, with Eliot in the van, have pointed out over and over,
every poetic line must be just as we find it. The disjuncture between
wordsboth the vocabulary and the word orderand meaning has been closed by
the poet. And we may, with a certain justice, call Williams a poet, even
though most of what he wrote appears on the page as prose. The thing is,
everything that he writes has the density, economy, pace, and exactitude, of
Good or Great?
But what about Williams? Was he a good novelist (he wrote seven)? Poet (he
wrote two slender volumes that make up an Arthurian cycle of lyrics)? Critic
(endless articles)? Dramatist (several plays)? Theologian? Ah. It is this
last category that interests us here. But let it be said about the other four
categories that Williamss work is problematical. It may be great. After 45
years of reading his stuff, I am still turning that question over in my mind.
Certainly he leads us all out into titanic vistas, and startles us over and
over and over by pointing out features in that vista which to him are
obvious, but which in a thousand years we might never have noticed. Like all
good poets, he sees the fear in a handful of dust. Or shall we say, the glory
in a handful of dust (Eliot meant that anyway). But what checks us, every
time we approach the point of concluding that Williams is one of the greats,
is hiswhat is the word? Quirkiness.
The difficulty here is that that word may be applied to any number of writers
who are firmly lodged in the canon. John Skelton, for example. What a lark
his work isThe Tunning of Elinour Rumming, for example, or Philip
Sparrow. But you cant talk about Elizabethan literature without reckoning
with Skelton. Or Donne. Now there is a truly great poet. But he positively
capers through his metaphors, leaving us gasping: gasping, but deeply, deeply
moved (see his Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward). Pepys: what possible
excuse can we offer for that stuff? And yet there it is, somehow immortal.
And William Blake: impossible to categorize. Wildly heretical, if we are
attempting his theology, and quirky in the extreme, no matter what we are
attempting. But again, we cant canvass English Lit without keeping Blake on
the list. And has any of us heard of James Joyce? Try Finnegans Wake. Or
Faulkner? As I recall, the first sentence of one of his novels is forty pages
long. So when it comes to the quirkiness sweepstakes, we can scarcely fault
Nevertheless. The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the
Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him.
Williams was self-educated. His mind had never had that experience of
sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He
had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able
quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.
In the light of this, Williamss sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his
imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was
self- educated. The great tribute to this is the fact that Lewis and Tolkien
managed to secure a lectureship at Oxford for Williams, in some semi-official
But we must turn to his work. What is the vision that flares over everything
he wrote? It cannot be boiled down. In his preface to All Hallows Eve, T. S.
Eliot remarked that what Williams had to say was beyond his grasp, and
perhaps beyond the grasp of any known genre of literature. Williams had to
dart at it like a hummingbird. But what is this It?
For a start, we may say that Williams thought of himself as a wholly orthodox
Anglican. He exulted in the dogmas and creeds of the ancient Church (although
the fact that he never made his peace with either Rome or Constantinople,
with both of which he was enamored, is quite typical of Williamss
elusiveness). Readers may notice that I said he thought of himself as
wholly orthodox. I think we may say that he was: but the following paragraph
may throw light on this seeming quibble.
He was asked in 1943 to contribute to a symposium on What the Cross Means to
Me. Here are his opening lines:
Any personal statement on such a subject as the present is bound to be
inaccurate. It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes,
because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same
time, especially when that belief refers not to the objective fact but to
subjective interpretation. A rhetorical adjective will create a false stress;
a misplaced adverb confuse an emotion. All that can be hoped is that a not
too incorrect approximation may eventually appear. And anything that does
appear is, of course, to be read subject to the judgement of the Christian
Church, by whom all individual statements must be corrected.
Now all of that is inexpugnable. But besides the entirely legitimate matter
of Williamss pointing out that he has been asked to address the question of
what the Cross means to him, the attentive reader may descry in Williamss
syntax and phraseology a very agile sort of what I can only call demurral. He
stays on the orthodox shore: but he seems to dance on it. For more light on
this delicate business, we may go on to what he undertakes to say in the
He is speaking of Gods having created the world, and of the credibility of
that notion. He then mentions human freedom, with its corollary that we may
choose not to obey God. But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to
result in an infinite distress. . . . Here we have the problem of eternal
punishment for human (finite) sin. Flat orthodoxy would, of course, have to
hold that both Sacred Scripture and the Church have always taught the
doctrine of Hell. And, to be fair to Williams, he never actually calls this
In fact, he goes on to treat of the Cross, not only in an orthodox way, but
with an agility that most readers would find quite astonishing. Speaking of
Caiaphas and Pilate, he says that they were each of them doing his best in
the duty presented to them. The high priest was condemning a blasphemer. The
Roman governor was attempting to maintain the peace. . . . They chose the
least imperfect good that they could see. And their choice crucified the
Williamss ruminations on the Cross take the form of his stressing that God
subjected himself to his own law. To crucify himThis was the best law, the
clearest justice, man could find, and He did well to accept it. If they had
known it was He, they could have done no less and no better. They crucified
Him; let it be said, they did well. But then let it be said also, that the
Sublimity itself had done well: adorable He might be by awful definition of
His Nature, but at least He had shown Himself honourable in His choice.
And one more sentence: Our justice condemned the innocent, but the innocent
it condemned was the one who was fundamentally responsible for the existence
of all injusticeits existence in the mere, but necessary, sense of time,
which His will created and prolonged.
We cannot reach a fair conclusion on Charles Williamss theological orthodoxy
on the basis of a few fragments of a single essay. He wrote many essays, and
two whole books (He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins) on
theology. I put the word in quotes since no theologian I know of, except
Hans Urs von Balthasar, has ever registered much interest in Williams as a
And I mention von Balthasar only because he sought me out, not because of any
eminence of mine, but because he heard that I had studied Williams, and he
wanted to talk about him. (Hevon B., that isin the course of the evening
gave me a snapshot of himself with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He said it was
his favorite photo of himself, if that throws any light on anything.)
Readers may just barely taste, in the quotations above, the flavor, if we
will, of all of Williamss writings. By his agile syntax, and his carefully
chosen vocabulary, and his (mostly subtly implied) demurrals, he hops along
just in front of the Inquisition. In Williamss case, it would be the
Genevan, not the Dominican, inquisition that would find itself apoplectic.
Williams always sails very near the Catholic wind. Buttypicallyhe never
would submit to Rome.
So far, we have spoken cautiously about Williamss work. It is only fair that
we go on to speak of his splendid vision. Vision is a better word here than
ideas, since, as Eliot pointed out, what Williams had to say eluded any
conceivable literary formessay, novel, poetry, or whatever we might wish to
It is not quite possible to organize any very logical sequence when we are
speaking of Williamss ideas (permit the word once, I beg). But anyone
familiar with his work will not get very far in speaking of it all before he
brings up Substitution and Exchange. Any Christian, of course, is on home
turf here. In the mystery of the Atonement, the Son of God in some sense
stood in for the rest of us, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree
(cf. Isaiah 53, and Sts. Peter, Paul, and John).
This mystery is itself an epiphany of the blissful exchanges that obtain
amongst the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The Son gives himself
to the Father, and vice-versa, and the Holy Ghost is, in a mystery, the
agent of those exchanges. My life for yours: Somehow that maxim, raised to
the nth degree, may be said to touch, remotely, to be sure, on at least one
aspect of the Godhead. Calvary is the epiphany in our world of that same
principle. The Son gave himself for us.
And here we come into Williams country. Every one of his seven novels has
this mystery for its animating energy.
In every novel, we start out with ordinary life in the England of the 1930s
and 1940s. The characters are going about their business. And then some thing
crops upthe Holy Grail, the Tarot pack, a cube of the primordial matter with
the Tetragrammaton inscribed on it, the Platonic archetypes, deathand we are
off and running.
The characters divide themselves, unbeknownst to themselves, into those who
wish to make a grab for the thing in the interest of knowledge, power, or
ecstasy, and those who, like Simeon and Anna, or, supremely, the Blessed
Virgin in our own story, place themselves obediently and humbly at the
disposal of whatever The Mercy (Williams never says God) might wish to ask
of them in the situation. And in each case, one or more of the characters is
asked by The Mercy to stand in for someone under attack, and, by some self-
offering, to fend off the evil afoot and thereby protect (save) that
Williamss stories reach bizarre lengths. We find archetypal lions and
butterflies and snakes appearing in English gardens and lanes. Or an ancient
pack of Tarot cards conjuring up a blizzard. Or the Holy Grail in the
sacristy of a country parish church, with the potentiality of being used
either by wicked men or by good men. In Williamss next-best novel, All
Hallows Eve, the thing is death. Two women are dawdling on Westminster
Bridge, and after about three pages, we say to ourselves, But these women
are dead! They are.
Their experience through the course of the story is Purgatorial, the one
opting for her own ego (Hell), and the other for substitution and exchange.
She has been something of a vixen in her life with her husband, but has the
chance to learn the Divine Charity, first by acknowledging her need for her
husbandshe needs a Kleenexand finally by throwing herself into the breach
between a girl whom she had persecuted at school years before and a magician
who is trying to gain power over that girls life and death. Very bizarre.
Which is what stumps most readers.
Williamss best novel is entitled Descent into Hell. Here we watch a
perfectly unnoticeable and respectable historian damn himself to Hell by an
unremitting sequence of very small petulant choices. Nothing big. But again
and again and again he will not have the Way of ExchangeMy Life for Yours.
At one point, it comes down to his merely having to say yes or no to some
folks who are putting on a play, and who need his historical acumen to tell
them whether theyve got the costumes right. But he refuses out of sheer
Well, says Williams, if I will have it that way, then I will have it that
wayforever. Naturally we all say in chorus, George Macdonald! The Great
Divorce! And we are right, of course: There are only two kinds of people in
the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God
says, in the end, Thy will be done. Williams likes to call Hell Gomorrah:
the place beyond the city where I seek the mirror image of myself (Sodom),
where I may be altogether alone with no one to get in my hair.
Gods City or Sodom
The images that Williams invokes in this connection are several. One of his
favorites is The City (Augustines City of God), where the rule is My Life
for Yours. In any earthly city we must acknowledge that rule anyway: Red
lights say, You must give way so that those people can go. I may fume, but
I must obey. In the City of God, it is a form of bliss.
Filthy lucre itself is an image, whether we will or no: The coin says, Here
is the fruit of my labor in exchange for the fruit of your labor, which I
need (for groceries, or whatever). It is all adulterated with cupidity down
here: but in the City of God these exchanges are modes of joy. I can give you
a hand with your luggage (Heaven) or refuse to do so (Hell). It is on every
Another favorite image for Williams is Romantic Love. He wrote a whole book
on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. The point is, Dante saw the young girl
Beatrice Portinari in Florence when he was a boy, fell in love with her (he
never really knew her), and, for the rest of his life, the image of Beatrice
furnished him with an imagea dim, earthly case-in-pointof the Divine
The rest of us are mercifully blinded to this radiance, since we would all go
mad if we saw the effulgence crowning every mortal God ever made.
Furthermore, for the lover, giving himself for his beloved, far from being
drudgery, is a mode of joy. He cannot do enough for her. Romantic love,
apparently, transubstantiates work and service, and makes them into joy.
Of course, all forms of love do thismaternal, paternal, fraternal, filial,
patriotic. For Williams, it is all so obvious that he never winces over plou
ghing it all into every line of his prose and poetry. The eyes of the lover,
says Williams, far from having had star-dust blown into them, are the only
eyes that see The Other truly, since the lover sees all the glory of Heaven
radiating from his beloved.
Life & Legacy
What about Williamss own life? He was a very odd man, from all that one can
gather. Tolkien claimed he never knew what Williams was talking about. Eliot
said that when Williams lectured, he hopped all over the place, crossing and
uncrossing his legs as he perched on the desk, jingling coins in his pocket,
and so forth. Eliot also said that Williams looked like a monkey.
But by far the most perplexing thing about Williams to people who did not
know him personally (and maybe to them too) was his excessively odd
relationships with women. They seemed to fall all over themselves over him,
although there was nothing of glamour about his person. And, if we read
Letters to Lalage, we might conclude that Williams had all sorts of
behaviors, as they say now, that Freud would have loved to get at.
Butand I say this after many decades of studying everything I can about
WilliamsI firmly believe that he went to his grave absolutely faithful to
his wife Florence, even though they lived apart for the whole of World War
II, when the Oxford University Press, for which Williams worked, moved its
offices from London, where the Williamses lived, to Oxford.
There are some ironies about Williamss legacy. His followersthey might
almost be called worshipers, both men and women, and I have met some of
themfell into the most vicious fighting over his manuscripts after his
death. But these were the people who were supposed to have been tutored in
the Way of Substitution and Exchange, in the Law of The City. What went
wrong? I do not know.
I found myself caught in the middle of some of the fighting and had to make
my escape (literally) on an airplane back to the United States, holding a
huge canvas zipper-bag full of manuscripts that one Raymond Hunt had received
from Williams, and that he (Hunt) wanted to give to Wheaton College. For all
I know, I might have had my throat cut by some of Williamss other votaries
who detested Hunt, and who felt that he had made off with the material. But
all of the personae in that drama are dead now, and de mortuis nil nisi
Williamss What the Cross Means to Me can be found in Charles Williams:
Selected Writings, edited by Anne Ridler.
Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman
Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the
books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On
Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series
of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).
What About Charles Williams? first appeared in the December 2004 issue of
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