As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel…In spite of his ‘angelic’ quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. —C. S. Lewis
He was the one running back and forth from the bar, keeping everyone supplied with ale and good cheer during the weekly meetings at the Eagle and Child (or “Bird and Baby”, to the seasoned Oxonian). He scarcely uttered a word, playful or serious, into which he did not thrust the intense vitality of his entire personality, for better or for worse. Largely self-taught, he couldn’t even boast of a degree (excepting the honorary MA Oxford eventually conferred upon him near the end of his life), though he sat at ease among some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. In terms of elegance and concision he was a terrible novelist and a largely unremembered poet.
C.S. Lewis esteemed him among the chiefest of his friends and lauded the deep spirituality of both his writings and his life. The wary Tolkien wasn’t so sure.
The readers of Charles Williams are as divided as the Inklings themselves were. To some, his books have been the catalyst to a mind-blowing experience of true Christ-like living. To others, equally devout, they reek of the cockamamie, if not the downright heretical. Dorothy Sayers has said of this phenomenon of polarity that “[Williams’ writing] is so individual as at a first encounter to disconcert, perplex, or even antagonize those on whom it did not, on the contrary, break as a sudden light to them that had sat in darkness.”
I heartily concur. I picked up his novel Descent into Hell a few years ago upon the trusted recommendation of one of my favorite authors, Sheldon Vanauken, anticipating, I imagine, the same soaring and lucid sublimities in the one as I had found in the other. If I was looking for the beauty of my faith all laid out in beautiful and logical array, what I found was an (apparently) chaotic jumble of events past and present that seemed to all be happening at the same time and a confusing array of symbols I was not yet friendly enough with my Dante to fully appreciate.
In short, I was right merrily kerflummoxed.
But it was the merriment, methinks, that took hold and insisted that there was something there worth the trouble of seeing. A merriment not related to content (heavens, no—Williams’ books are notoriously dark) but in the larger sense of commedia: the hell and purgatory one must slough through in quest of the bewildering glories of paradise and the often humorous, often tragic performance we all make of it every day of our lives. I couldn’t help being haunted by it and its suggestion of a larger life than even many Christians dare to dream of (not to mention its sobering conclusion to the rejection of that life). Not long after that I found, quite by accident, the key to many of the riddles of Descent amid the verses and notes of Sayer’s immortal translation of the Comedy (highly recommended!); many, but certainly not all by the least stretch of the imagination.
For Charles Williams did not merely reaffirm the tried and respected imagery of the Christian faith, much as he revered it. Dante was his father in many ways, but Williams had a natural predisposition to view his life—and the faith that defined it—as a high romance of pilgrimage, expressing the inexpressible along the royal road with a series of carefully-constructed symbols which he was to call “The Way of the Images”. Nothing was without potential, in Williams’ economy: anything and everything might illumine, in some flashing moment of insight, the character and attributes of the God whom he lovingly referred to as “the Omnipotence”. For Williams, an image was not a snare of idolatry such as the forbidden ‘graven image’ would be (in other words, an image crafted with the intention of reproducing or replicating God) but a sudden, striking, unlooked-for shaft of glory piercing the veil between time and timelessness. Such a likeness noted and looked beyond was an image; grasped after, clutched for, it became an idol. And thus it was that an image of peaceful jurisdiction might leap from the tattered history of the Byzantine empire as easily as one car yielding to another in traffic might provide a practical expression of love at its most basic and fundamental. And perhaps, most earth-shattering of all, the uniquely human experience of falling in love—what Williams called ‘the Beatrician moment’—had the most potential of any image, granting a peep, however flawed, not only into what our love for God can look like, but what His love for us does look like.
“This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” Thus runs the famous (at least among Williamsites) maxim that defined his theology. Any created thing can be a God-bearer to us, translated by an extraordinary grace into a language that our hearts know and understand, a speech transcending words wooing us back to the Lover of our souls. And any image, however incandescent with holy fire, will eventually burn itself out and return to the dust from whence it sprang. The reflection is not reality; the God-bearer is not God.
But all this accepting and rejecting of images is only one facet of the gorgeously-textured pattern of splendor that comprises Williams’ theology. At the very heart of it all lies a glorious experiment in holy living that calculates on nothing less sublime than the revelation of Christ in the life of any believer, however sin-scarred and inept. “Christ in you, the hope of glory”—and in Williams’ mind, that glory was not only a promised destiny but an immediate and imminent possibility, sleeping just beneath the surface of the everyday, awaiting only the electric touch of love to set every nerve and fiber thrilling with the life that is truly Life. It’s under such a conviction that he is able to make a heroine in one of his novels literally enter into the sufferings of Christ for another, a friend scarcely regarded before. And to set a fearful young woman before the face of terrifying evil with a fearless smile on her lips—a smile that is the evil’s undoing as much as anything. All of this comes under what Williams would call the doctrines of “exchange” and “substituted love”, and the lesser images of it are cropping up all over the place, from the substitution of a grain of wheat falling into the ground to provide our bread, to the exchange of our hard-earned money to pay for it. (It’s a truly fascinating world of thought and awareness and should you care to read more, Mary McDermott Shideler has written a thorough study of Williams’ writings that will give you palpitations if you go in for that kind of thing. And I trust I’m in good company there.)
Last fall, my husband and I read All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams’ last novel and the only one that the Inklings actually weighed in on, with a group of close friends. Friends close enough to disagree with—vehemently—and I was as excited at the prospect of mirthsome debate as I was in finishing the book.
“There’s such a hilarity of joy here, such a glorious acknowledgement of interdependence among believers in this book,” I wrote in my journal. “And there is a great and bracing sense of chastening. You get what you ask for—you get what you really want. That is righteously terrifying. Evil is real and at work. But no matter how dark this book got—no matter what places Williams took us—there was always a saint ready to laugh.”
What I had found in the pages of Williams seemed strangely—wildly, madly—familiar. I can only describe it as a recognition. Hints of a glory I’d dreamed of. Resounding yeses to things I’d always hoped were true—things I didn’t even know I’d hoped for till the light shone on them and I realized, suddenly, matter-of-factly, that I’d hoped for them all along. Williams through his fantasy showed me that everything matters in the real world—from the slightest inclination to the most valiant deeds—and, oh! isn’t that what we both long and fear to hear? Everything matters and everything is redeemable. The choice between a practical heaven and hell lies open for all of us at every second. Not in terms of a shaky plan of salvation, of course, but in the sense of a moment to moment preference of our souls.
To dwell in love is to soar towards heaven with the springing joy of a homing dove. To choose love’s antitheses is to make my bed in hell.
Sitting by the fire that night over sherry and coffee, Williams in one hand and the venerable Thomas Howard in the other, we lit in with unmixed civility. And it soon became evident that not a one among us was on the fence.
One sat by in a mostly bemused silence, breaking it only with a wry and well-timed remark on some of the characters’ resemblances to the apparently undead models in the latest Anthropologie catalogue. Another was on the edge of his seat, figuratively if not literally, a finger poised between the leaves and senses tuned to the perfect moment for sharing a loved passage or two.
“That was the darkest book I have ever read,” said yet another, with a shudder and a wrinkling of the nose.
I said I’d never been so accosted by a story. I felt like Williams was dragging me along by the collar, unwilling to let me rest or flag till I had some inkling of this stupendous Love that he was breaking every literary rule to show me.
I said much more than that, little that’s worth repeating, and in my zeal received the occasional raised eyebrow from my husband across the room, roughly translated as “let someone else have a go, sweetheart”.
But the conversation hasn’t really ended, even to this day. A few weeks ago a dear, wise, well-read friend parenthetically remarked that All Hallows Eve was certainly not a favorite.
“It seemed cumbersome to wade through all that weirdness to get any nuggets worth bending the page for.”
I imagine Tolkien would lift his glass to that. “I was and remain wholly unsympathetic to Williams’ mind,” he wrote. “We had nothing to say to one another.”
To each his own. But in the proper Inklings spirit, allow me to suggest making his acquaintance if you haven’t already. You may not be on speaking terms with Williams at the end of it all, but I can assure you it’ll be one heck of a ride.