Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
by Grevel Lindop.
Oxford University Press, 2015.
Cloth, xx + 493 pp., $35.

Acclaimed in his day by the likes of W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams (1886–1945) suffered a precipitous descent into literary obscurity posthumously. However, in 2008 then-Archbishop Rowan Williams divined a “new summer” of interest in this High Anglican literatus. Grevel Lindop’s biography is the fullest flowering thus far of that renascence. His prodigious research and sympathetic yet fair-minded analysis present a thorough account of Williams’s life and his distinctive contributions to literature and religious thought. This volume is hence the indispensable foundation for more specialized studies of Williams’s work. It is also the basis for a reappraisal of Williams as a unique, piquant voice in British letters attempting to create modern mythologies, addressing the connection between eternity and time, and asserting the primacy of love in spiritual, personal, and social relationships.

Despite its subtitle, this study does not center on Williams’s participation in the Inklings, which occupied only a small fraction of his life. Although Lindop treats his friendships with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, his focus is on establishing Williams as a signal artist and thinker in his own right. To that end, Lindop concentrates on his poetry, which accords with Williams’s self-identification (his gravestone epitaph is simply: “Poet”). Lindop argues that Williams struggled to find his proper register, as the strong early influence of “sound traditional versifiers” like Alice Meynell delayed his engagement with the modernist techniques that produced his best poetry, Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). For Lindop, these symbolist recastings of the Matter of Britain redeemed Williams’s aesthetic struggle, as they are “poetry fit to stand beside the work of his great contemporaries,” such as Eliot. These judgments call needed attention to unjustly neglected verse, but they are overstated. Although it mines similar material, Williams’s poetic mythology lacks the allusive force of Eliot’s The Waste Land or David Jones’s The Anathemata; his vision remains too private, drawing readers into an individual legend instead of refreshing a shared heritage. In short, Williams’s Arthuriana fails his own test of “what poetry does” because it does not universalize the personal.

If Lindop exaggerates Williams’s poetic achievement, he tends to underrate his fictional accomplishments. Williams authored seven “spiritual shockers,” whose signature motif is irruptions of the transcendent into the temporal, revealing a sacramentalism central to his outlook as well as a tension between it and a competing dualistic bent. These themes are elaborated most fully in The Place of the Lion (1933), which sparked his friendship with Lewis. In this fantasy, the Platonic archetypes threaten to “uncreate” the world by subsuming their material manifestations, and are only subdued by the Adamic logos of the protagonist, whose stewardship of these primal forces tames them and “veiled the destroying energies from the weakness of men.” Such examinations of the correct relationship between the supernatural and the natural through popular fiction reflect Williams’s belief that so conveying “a shadow of the Mysteries” is “the seriousness of high fantasy.” Eliot rightly considered these efforts at communicating traditional religious concerns in modern literary forms crucial to Williams’s legacy, going so far as to declare that his novels displayed “one of your most important functions in life,” which is “to instill sound doctrine into people … without their knowing it.”

Yet Eliot also cautioned that Williams’s doctrine was “tinged sometimes with heresy.” Indeed, Williams’s religious thought was challenging, and his moral behavior at points strayed significantly from orthodoxy. The nucleus of Williams’s spiritual speculations was love. To him, the “kingdom of heaven” was “love and lucidity—the advent of God—in all relationships and all occupations … everywhere and at all times.” More specifically, he propounded “romantic theology,” a conviction that human eros is a path to divine agape. Shaped by his reading of Dante and the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, Williams held throughout his career that “falling in love” is a “Way of Sanctity” due to the “identification of love with Jesus Christ, and of marriage with His life.” Although this bold claim that “the relationship of romantic love is (not like, but is) the same thing as Christianity” struck some contemporaries as courting idolatry, or even paganism, Williams nonetheless insisted that it inspires a sacramental sense of “the profound and all but eternal union possible between human beings now; and of the awful capacities and graces that exist in Love.”

But Williams conceded that his formula was vulnerable to the “perfectly hellish capacities of our own ‘unredeemed’ nature.” Williams’s own experiences of romantic love are vivid testimony to his warning. The metaphysical temper of his mind evident in his poetry, novels, and theology led him to mythologize himself and people he was close to, especially his wife and several spiritual mistresses. This habit of abstraction beclouded the authentic identity of himself and of his loved ones, and threatened at times to precipitate a solipsistic, even nihilistic, madness. He confessed at one point to being “a little tired” of “my world-famous deific act—‘C. W. featuring God’,” and disclosed that “all the darker side of my own work is an image of … the tumultuous and insane agony of the nothing.” Williams feared that this darkness might dehumanize him, imploring a paramour to explain how one could have a love relationship “if his humanity were not human?” And it was not only Williams’s humanity that was endangered by his detachment, but also the dignity of others, as he indulged in occultish, sadomasochistic rituals with his inamoratas. For instance, he instructed one lover that to remind her that she was “the Path of the Light” he had invented a “sacrament” for her based on “occult tradition” that involved “binding the wrists together, first in front, and then behind” with the hope of eventually “binding the hands to the thighs, & of the ankles together.”

Although Williams found these rites spiritually (and aesthetically) stimulating, Lindop is unsparingly clear-eyed in labeling them an “addiction,” and in concluding flatly “from any point of view this was wrong.” In fact, Williams himself exhibited qualms about these attitudes and conduct. Lindop intimates that he sought to purge these tendencies imaginatively through his characters Lawrence Wentworth and Simon the Clerk, each of whom is damned for deciding to “turn away from engagement with others and retreat into a self-pleasing fantasy.” Moreover, Williams uttered anguished, if reluctant, renunciations of at least some extramarital attachments because they contradicted his commitment to Christ: “Morals & marriage & Downe notwithstanding, I can’t repent—I can’t, I don’t, I won’t.… And yet it’s all wrong … ‘This also—damn & blast!—is He.’” Williams implied ultimately that sacramental grace is the best antidote to selfish fancies and their devastating ramifications, for “grace … means attention to things as they are.” If his besetting lack of this mature realism is an object lesson of romantic theology’s potential practical pitfalls, its principles remain a richly innovative exploration of the transcendent continuum of love. Indeed, while aware of Charles Williams’s personal shortcomings, Rowan Williams nevertheless prizes his “theological evaluation of the erotic” as an “original contribution to twentieth-century Christian thought.”

Charles Williams also saw love at the core of broader relationships, and linked these to theology as well. He professed “coinherence,” regarding people not as atomic individuals but as members of a cosmic ecology that is realized most completely in their communion with their fellow men and with God, who is himself a triune community. This interconnectedness in turn makes possible “substitution,” voluntarily taking on the suffering of another in imitation of Christ’s atonement; such self-sacrifice also assumes the more routine form of “exchange,” regular acts of self-donation for the good of others. He encapsulated these interrelated ideas in typically dense verse, envisioning a space

where the full salvation of all souls
is seen, and their co-inhering, as when the Trinity
first made man in Their image, and now restored
by the one adored substitution; there men
were known, each alone and none alone,
bearing and borne.…

As with his assessment of erotic ties, Williams discerned daring and ambitious implications of these principles. For example, he applied substitution to the issue of capital punishment, making the startling suggestion that “there may yet be a lay order of men and women willing to offer themselves to be executed in the convicted criminal’s place.” He further proposed a new religious order grounded in these notions, the Companions of the Coinherence, that he even hoped King George VI might join. Although these aspirations were disappointed, Williams’s Augustinian assertion of love as the integrating element of social interaction did influence profoundly one of the century’s principal Christian poets, as Auden’s credo, New Year Letter, is animated by the asseveration that “every day in sleep and labor/Our life and death are with our neighbor.”

Consoling Williams after an early publishing setback, his superior at the Oxford University Press offered him “a reputation in the twenty-first century.” Such renown is deserved; it will rest less on Williams’s poems and more on his novels and theology, and will be despite his disturbing personal failings. Its bedrock will be his vision of a web of charity at the heart of reality that redeems even grave sins and crimes, and an ensuing Chestertonian appreciation for the primal goodness of Being. Toward the end of his life, Williams commented wryly to Christopher Fry, “even if we’ve been murdered, what a pleasure to have been capable of it!” But he expressed this nearly unbearable weight of glory in existence most hauntingly and poignantly in Shadows of Ecstasy: “Come and let’s do something before it breaks my heart to be alive.”  

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.