Another barrier that exists between the average Christian and the works of Charles Williams is the indisputible influence that occult thinking had upon him. Both Christians and occultists seem to want to lay claim to him. The occultists discount his thoroughgoing Nicean Anglicanism, and place undue importance on occult ideas that make their way into his writings. A lot of Christians, on the other hand, wander onto Williams’ turf having heard that CS Lewis thought a great deal of him, and are baffled by the theological landscape they find defined in Williams’ works. They downplay his association with the Order Of The Golden Dawn, saying that his interest was desultory or superficial, a youthful enthusiasm that he later outgrew.
His membership in the Order Of The Golden Dawn lasted from 1917 to around 1938, and Williams never had a dilettantish interest in anything in his life. His interest in the occult was real and lively. Because of Williams’ interest in the occult and his use of occult themes in his work, many Conservative Christians consider him off-limits. Even JRR Tolkien lamented Williams’ influence over Lewis, and referred to him as “that witch-doctor”, although he admitted that Williams appeared to operate under an unusual degree of [Divine] protection, given the intellectual precincts he frequented.
But Williams had other, more salutatory, influences as well. He was a friend of Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican spiritual writer who had a Roman Catholic mystic as a spiritual guide. I don’t know whether to call Mrs. Underhill a mystic or more of a travel-writer of the mystical experience. Through Underwood, Williams gained a familiarity with the Western mystical tradition and the Christian Neo-Platonism of Pico Della Mirandola. Also, through his lifelong association with emigres Nicolas and Militza Zernov, he had more than a nodding acquiantance with the Eastern tradition.
I think the most important idea that Williams garnered from his occult involvement was the very ancient idea of man-as-microcosm, although this idea is found in Maximos the Confessor as much as in Hermes Trimegistus or the astrological tract Almagest of Ptolemy. The ancient idea of the Zodiac signs ruling over certain parts of the body fascinated him from a poetic point of view, and worked its way into the poem Taliessin’s Vision Of The Empire. All of this would be just counter-pieces in an academic game of chess if Williams’ thought on The Index Of The Body hadn’t preceded and foreshadowed Pope John Paul II’s Theology Of The Body:
Secondly, there is the human body, and the movements of the human body. Even know, when as a general rule, the human body is not supposed to mean anything, there are moments when it seems, even in spite of ourselves, packed with significance.
Magic is transmogrified by the Eucharist, because a cosmos in which bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ is a cosmos in which anything, literally, can happen. Thus, the dark transformations of occultism (and all of Williams’ villians are in some way occultists) make way for, and bend before, the miraculous emergence of the New Man in the center of the Web of Exchange.
NB: JRR Tolkien doesn’t seem to have resented Charles Williams’ influence over CS Lewis as much as I infer. That Tolkien called Williams a “witch doctor” I gleaned from Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent book on the Inklings, somewhere around pages 121-127. Tolkien’s view of the extraordinary level of divine protection Charles Williams enjoyed I believe came from Dick Plotz’ interview of Tolkien in 1967[?] that I vaguely remember hearing on the radio when I was in the first flush of Tolkien fanboy-dom. It may be apocryphal.