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In one sense, its a little misleading to speak about “successors” to the Inklings. The Inklings were not a self-conscious literary movement,  and as far as I know, l there are no little coteries of academics gathering in a tavern on Saturday nights to drink and read excerpts from their works-in-progress. Would that it were so. Also, I think it is hard for us to appreciate how counter-cultural Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were, writing and publishing tales of the fantastic when the literary world was dominated by modern realists, by the likes of Lawrence, Hemingway, and Joyce.

These days, though, writing fantastic literature appears to be a lucrative pursuit., and the bastard children of the Inklings  appear to have swept the field.  “Fantasy and Science Fiction” occupies a healthy percentage of my local Barnes and Nobel bookshop, even more if you add the two or three shelves of “graphic novels”/manga with which it is customarily bundled.

What hath Tolkien wrought? There is so much fantasy on the shelves that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Trilogies abound, of course, and a lot of them take place in a pre-Modern setting where the red iron of brutish trolls and tragic High Elves clash on darkening plains. There is so much of this that I haven’t read because I don’t know where to start. In the ‘seventies I read the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin and found them engaging. I yawned my way through the first Shanarra book by Terry Brooks and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and found both of them tedious and uninteresting.

Nor do I think that the self-consciously Christian fantasy works that have belatedly crawled out of the Evangelical presses in Wheaton or Grand Rapids to sulk on the shelves next to Janette Oke’s prairie romances or the horrid Left Behind series will beget much in the way of mythopoeia.   Sure, there are plenty of brutish Shadowghouls clashing with High Lightbearers on the Iron Plains of Bethania, but there is always a Lost Book of Hidden Wisdom that restores the Balance, or even worse, smites the agents of Darkness with the light that pours off its pages.

I think the problem with “Christian” fantasy is that Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien operated in the jagged edges of Christendom, whereas the modern Evangelical lacks that framework.  “Christendom” as a political and geographical substance is great mythopoeia in its own right, and the fantastic works of  Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien don’t make much sense apart from it.

There are three series I feel bad about not reading. The first is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I have heard much good about this series, but also I have heard that it rambles badly. If I read something that requires that much patience and effort,  I’d prefer to start with the Gormenghast series by Melvyn Peake.

The Harry Potter books I haven’t  gotten around to yet either, although I did read the first volume in His Dark Materials. From a philosophical point of view, Christians should be far more concerned about Pullman, who definitely has a bitter axe to grind, than they are about Rowland, who just wants to tell a good story.

Finally, I think Steven King as a mythopetic writer has been woefully underappreciated.  I haven’t yet read his Dark Tower series but I believe I shall have to.  I believe King,  along with such writers as William Vollman, Walker Percy, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy,  and even William Burroughs are participating in a project of which the Inklings would be proud; the mythopoesis of America.

Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, stumbled upon the main theme of this project; America is poor breeding ground for the supernatural.   We have no myths.  Our country is an abstraction, based not on blood or belief, but on a sort of least-common-denominator secular frame of exchange, and we don’t know our hills and our rivers from the inside yet like the Germans know the Rhine, the British the Thames, or the Central Europeans the Danube.  The strength of the hills is not yet in us.

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The tarot has always fascinated me.  I bought a Waite-Smith deck when I was 16 and entertained people by giving a number of accurate “readings” .  I  would not now recommend this, even to non-Christians. There is too much power and too little certain knowledge for Tarot readings to be safe.
However, even at that time, I was puzzled by the amount of Christian imagery in the Waite-Smith deck. So much so, that non-Christians, ex-Christians, or anti-Christians prefer to use other decks with less overt Christian symbolism.

Now, I am not a Tarot scholar, and the only other tarot deck I have ever held in my hand resembled  the Marseilles deck, which dates from the 17th Century.   The imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck is in the same tradition. This is important because, I believe, Charles Williams describes the Waite-Smith  Tarot deck  in his novel, The Greater Trumps.

“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”

“It is just that,” the other said.

The Greater Trumps is a the best example of William’s plundering of occult themes to make an overtly Christian point.   Some of his other plot devices are too obscure, like his use of Neo-Platonic Ideal Eminations in  The Place Of The Lion, or too downright weird, like whatever is the ascetic exercise used by Nigel Considine in Shadows Of Ecstasy. The Tarot, however mysterious it may have been in the 1930s when Williams wrote the novel, enjoys a high profile now.

I have to admit I stand in awe of Williams’ effortless use of occult themes in his novels.   He never dismisses  occult power out of hand,  nor does he associate it strictly with the diabolical.  You get the sense reading Williams that there is only One source of power, and all subsequent exercises of power through whatever mediation is either a discharge of rightful duty, or a theft.

The occultists  in The Greater Trumps, Henry and his uncle Aaron, enter as thieves, attempting to obtain and exercise power that doesn’t rightly belong to them.   Through the bequest of a distant relative,  Lothair Coningsby has come into possession of the original deck of Tarot cards.  These cards can be used not only to predict events, but to cause them;   not just to interpret reality, but to generate reality.  The occultists first try outright theft, but when this fails, as it must in Williams’ cosmos, they fall back on Henry’s legal and emotional relationship with Nancy, Lothair’s daughter, to effect a loan of the cards, and from this all the conflict in the novel ensues.

But it is not Lothair’s legal claim on the cards that ultimately foils the occultists, but the seemingly inconsequential claims of his sister, the aptly named Sybil, whose only claim on the cards or the characters is that she loves them indiscriminately and without condition.  This love supports her brother’s legal claim to the cards, strengthens Henry’s and Nancy’s love until it becomes something apart from the lever that Henry (and Nancy) wished to make of it, and undoes all the mischief released by the cards as a result of the manipulation of this love.

All of Williams’ novels portray the only story there is;  the struggle between the Empire and the City, between those who would illegitimately place themselves at the center and beggar the periphery in order to glut themselves upon the surplus and those who receive from the true Center, add their poor, derivative contribution, awaiting the day when the fissures are repaired, and the whole fabric is awash with light and power.


 

One of the real charms of the imaginative literature of the Inklings is that their works come in such well-numbered series: There are three volumes in The Lord Of The Rings, but if you add The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Hobbit, Smith Of Wooten Major, Farmer Giles Of Ham, and Leaf By Niggle, and if you reduce the trilogy to a single work, you get a seven-fold opera. There are three books in the Ransom series; Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, and seven Narnia books. Charles Williams’ metaphysical thrillers number, conveniently, seven, although I wish he hadn’t written Shadows Of Ecstasy. Until We Have Faces and the Taliessin poetry of Charles Williams don’t fit this tidy Trinitarian/Zacarian scheme, but they shouldn’t be overlooked because of that oversight.I have my favorite moments from these works, and in Letterman fashion, I’d like to count them backwards.

With commentary…

10) The Progress of the Suicide, from Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell.

There is a lot to complain about in Williams’ literary style, but when it comes to depicting supernatural, sub-natural, or post-natural modes of existence, he has no peer. In Descent Into Hell, an unloved workman commits suicide to escape from the torment of life. He awakens in a silent universe illuminated by a furious moon that will not allow him to escape into himself. He conceives the idea that he needs to go to London. The purgatorial landscape he crosses, and the unexpected help he encounters on the way remain the most vivid depiction of the spiritual geography of the Afterlife I have ever encountered in literature.

9) Bilbo Surrenders The Arkenstone from JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit.

This plot device took me entirely by surprise, and prepare me for the centrality and necessity of hobbits in The Lord Of The Rings. Now, The Lord Of The Rings is a very mannish book, by hobbit standards, but any race that could prize peace between those who should by rights be friends and allies over wealth and comfort would be the only race that could ever be entrusted to carry the One Ring to its destruction. Men could be ensnared by power, Elves by beauty, and Dwarves by Craft (that wonderful old Germanic word!), but how do you corrupt a race that values above all things, “peace and quiet, and good tilled earth”?

8 ) The Descent Of The Gods Upon St. Anne’s from CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength.

Actually, That Hideous Strength is my least favorite among Lewis’ imaginative works. Lewis is a good preacher, and a great storyteller, but he doesn’t mix the two voices as well as Bunyan or Langland. In That Hideous Strength, he is covering the same ground as he does in Abolition Of Man, and there are places in the narrative where Lewis is trying so hard to be Williams, and places where is trying so hard to be Tolkien, and there are even traces of Barfield in the mix. I prefer Lewis when he is being truer to his own Muse, as in The Horse And His Boy, or Till We Have Faces. Nevertheless, I had the extreme felicity of having put a copy of Gustav Holst’s The Planets on the stereo before settling into my easy chair to the chapter where Ransom is inviting the Oyéresu, the planetary geniuses of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, into the body of Merlin. The music blended so powerfully with Lewis’ language that I slowed practically to a crawl for the full effect. It was, as may well be expected, a peak experience.

7) Anthony’s Vision Of The Griffin/Eagle in Charles Williams, The Place of The Lion.

I had a hard time deciding between this and the vision of the butterflies earlier in this same novel. The butterfly scene is more charming, and more accessible. But Anthony’s vision of the Eagle, the platonic Form of Perception and Discernment, is central to understanding Anthony’s character and the whole dynamic of the novel. Only by means of the Eagle is Anthony able to assimilate the other Archtypes and sew up the rupture between the world of the Ideals and their playground of the quotidian world, where all the other characters wander about in their deadly delusions.It is a scene that I needed to read several times before the grandeur of what Williams was trying to say began to emerge from his difficult language. Williams is not a visual writer as is Lewis or Tolkien. When it did, it was as breathtaking as Plato’s original parable of the Cave; I saw gods arising out of the Earth, and, like the sibyl of Endor, I cried aloud.

Mention should be made of the Eucharistic unicorn of the twelfth chapter. Nowhere else in all his writings does Williams show any sectarianism I have been able to discern, save here alone, yet the effect is graciously ecumenical and heartwarming.

6) Random’s Landing Upon The Floating Islands and His Encounter With The Lady Of Venus from CS Lewis, Perelandra.

For such a sensuous book, Perelandra has inspired surprisingly little visual art. Most of what has been produced concentrates on the image of the Green Lady, although nobody in sad Thulcandra will ever depict her unfallen eros. There is a privately commissioned icon of St. Brigid of Kildare in my church that comes close. It partakes of the same spirit of Lewis’ description of the Lady of Venus. Perelandra was a crucial book for me because it convinced me of the basic materiality of Christianity and of the basic goodness of matter. Lewis’ descriptions of the sights, sounds, and tastes of that unfallen world worked on me like a tonic. I may not have realized it in high school, when I first picked up this book, but the material world can be nothing other than sacrament if we can but cleanse our perceptions aright.Som,e years ago, when I still attended a church in the Reformed tradition, there occured a discussion about how to reach the “unchurched”. I don’t remember now what action the board of elders decided to take, but a wise friend of mine offered this advice to me privately:

They should throw a party, a harvest party. Let the maidens weave vines in their hair and serve steaming cider on the first real cold moonlit night of the year. Let the young men compete in contests of strength and fleetness. Let the good dames of the church load the tables until they groan. At the end, invite all and sundry to a Divine service giving proper thanks to God who so liberally supplies all things for our enjoyment.

God, I miss Christendom.

5) Beren Happens Upon Luthien Tinuviel Dancing In The Starlight from JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion

I don’t think there can be any doubt that we are closest here to the heart of Tolkien’s Legendarium. If any man ever poured out love onto paper and page, Tolkien does so at just this point in his narrative. Tolkien prized three earthly things above all else; starlight, trees, and his wife Edith. All three are masterfully commingled in the Lay of Luthien, and all three – starlight, trees, and married love, are under siege today.

Light pollution keeps most of us from seeing the heavens that declare the glory of God. Having spent most of my adult life in Florida, I can say that I have never seen the stars the way Ptolemy, Johannes Kepler, or even Fred Hoyle must have seen them. As a boy, I was led out into a field on a midnight hike with the Boy Scouts. There, we were shown the principal stars with their fascinating names; Betelgeuse, Antares, Spica, Vega, and how to find them using the Pole Star, Polaris, as our center of reference. I can still find Polaris, with difficulty, but my night sky is illumined now by billboards and neon, and I am much the poorer for it.

I never learned any of the names of trees growing up. Our family was four generations off the farm, and we now paid people to know about trees for us. I do remember that in my early boyhood (even before the Boy Scout hike), the majestic elms that were the trademark of the local college were dying of a fungus infestation. By the next summer, they were dead and needed to be uprooted. Tolkien’s love of trees and his unsuccessful defense of them against various development projects is well documented.

I never knew that Edith Tolkien was three years and change older than “Ronald”, nor that she converted to Catholicism at his insistence and against the wishes of her family. That helps to explain some of the “unapproachableness” of Thingol Greycloak’s daughter in the narrative. Tolkien was intimidated by the older and more accomplished Edith, and was instructed by his clerical guardian not to pay court to her until his 21st birthday. On the midnight of that day, he proposed to her and was rebuffed. He persisted though and was finally victorious. The union was a happy one, and a fertile, producing four children.

The four words “sex”, “marriage”, “babies” and “without” create a perfectly infernal matrix in which web we are as trapped as any hapless fly. Try it: Sex without Marriage, Marriage without Sex, Sex without Babies, Babies without Sex, Marriage Without Babies, Babies without Marriage.

Anyone care to call me out on this?

4) Digory And Polly In Charn from CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew – The passage of Digory and Polly through the royal chamber of Charn displays for me what is Lewis’ principal charm; his ability to put into simple, everyday language the effects of sin and virtue on the human person:

Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to face that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt as if you would have to mind your Ps and Qs, if you ever met living people like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel, but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and had suffered dreadful things.

And there you have all the story of our glorious and tragic Humankind –

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion

And the response
Falls the Shadow -


Nothing we ever do turns out right. There is always the Law of Unintended Consequences, whose iron rigor penetrates all our endeavors, be they the democratization of the Middle East, the redefinition of marriage (homosexual marriage is the caboose on this train, not the engine), or the establishment by legislation of “family values”. The primordial image of this is the Tower of Babel. It reaches for Heaven, but ends in rubble and division. Logres devolves into Britain, the Dawn of the Proletariat into the Gulag Archipelago, Woodstock Nation into the horrors of Altamont and the Tate-Manson murders.

Still – You have to wonder whether or not Lewis didn’t have a problematic attraction to the “bad girl”. Joy Davidson definitely appealed to this part of him. This happens to a lot of good men, especially spiritual men. Lewis himself commented on the Celestial and the Infernal Venus, and Queen Jadis of Charn is easily the sexiest in the whole Inklings canon, including the lusty Redival from Till We Have Faces.


3)The Repentance Of Lester Furnival from Charles Williams, All Hallow’s Eve. All of Williams’ best characters are either mad or dead. Lester Furnival (what a splendid amalgam of “carnival” and “funeral”) is dead and only gradually does she awaken to that fact. But Williams’ Afterlife is not, thank God, Tim Burton’s snarky Afterlife. It seems not much changes, but events no longer are connected by temporality, but by another principle altogether, a principle that can be called, loosely, sympathy.

The path of Lester’s salvation looms before her in the person of a schoolchum that she had previously treated shabbily, and in the person of her husband, Richard, whose love she had taken for granted. In the realm in which she find herself now, these sins of omission loom enormous, and worse, are being used by an evil sorcerer as a breach by which he can enter the atemporal realm, affect the future, and precipitate the Apocalypse. Lester needs to ask forgiveness of her schoolmate, and just as importantly, receive it. Then she needs to assure her grieving husband that she did appreciate his love. In doing just these simple things, she thwarts cosmic evil and knits the Earthly City to the Heavenly
The first few times reading Williams’ fiction, I was surprised at the great weight he placed upon what would to anyone else appear to be very small courtesies and the exchange of social conventions. Three decades of contemplation, I believe, had led me to believe that the answer lies in Williams’ peculiar doctrine of coinherence. I want to discuss coinherence more rigorously in later posts, but right it will suffice to say that coinherence is an extension to human life of the con-substantiality of the Holy Trinity, how the Blessed Three can simultaneously exist, and be adored, as One and as Many.

2) The Dawn Treader‘s Approach, and Reepicheep’s Departure, To Aslan’s Country from CS Lewis, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader

I think there are a lot of people for whom Reepicheep, the courtly Lord of the Talking Mice of Narnia, is a favorite character in the series. Certainly, he is a throughback to an earlier time, when Honor and Chevalrie mattered. Despite his obvious authority, Reepicheep is no tyrant. He understands that there is greater glory of to a king by being the free Lord of a free people than by being the master of slaves.

The approach of the Dawn Treader to Aslan’s Country, in increasing power and light, reminds me of two things; the first is the passage of Bunyan’s Pilgrims through Beulah Land on the very outskirts of the Celestial City:

Now I saw in my dream, that by this time the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering into the country of Beulah, whose air was very sweet and pleasant, the way lying directly through it, they solaced themselves there for a season.
Yea, here they heard continually the singing of birds, and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth, and heard the voice of the turtle in the land. In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle. Here they were within sight of the city they were going to; also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in
this land the shining ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven.

The second is the Seraphic hymn sung in every Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the termination of the Liturgy of the Word and the commencement of the Liturgy of the Mysteries.

Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες, καὶ τῇ ζωοποιῷ Τριάδι τὸν τρισάγιον ὕμνον προσᾴδοντες, πᾶσαν τὴν βιοτικὴν ἀποθώμεθα μέριμναν, ὡς τὸν Βασιλέα τῶν ὅλων ὑποδεξόμενοι, ταῖς ἀγγελικαῖς ἀοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν. Ἀλληλούϊα.

“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the thrice holy hymn to the life giving Trinity. Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.”

There are those among us who seem always to dwell in Beulah Land, in the suburbs of heaven. I seldom meet these people these days. The last was an old-school Pentecostal preacher-woman in her 90s. But the language of the Liturgy reminds us that there is passage into Aslan’s country every week. Most of us, like the other sailors on the Dawn Treader have to return to the difficulties and cares of the “biotikan merimnan”.

But, like Reepicheep, we don’t have to.

1) Frodo And Sam At The Cracks Of Doom from JRR Tolkien, The Return Of The King

 

Her is the recapitulation of all things Inkling; the triumph of the lowly and merciful over the arrogant pitilessness of power, the fatal inability of egotism to discern the motivations of sacrificial love, and the intervention of Providence when all the best intentioned plans of Men, Wizards, Elves, and Hobbits fail.

True good wins a substantial victory over true evil, and although the Shadow, though submerged, always takes new form and reemerges, the Days of the King may soon be upon us.

May they last while the thrones of the Powers endure.


122303_sandmanendlessnights02.jpg

What a sheltered world I live in. One writer who is a guilty pleasure of mine; Neil Gaiman, is, unbeknownst to me, also a fan of the Inklings. Neil is best known for his graphic novels, especially Sandman, and his work on the current Beowulf film. I have been meaning to get around to Mr. Gaiman’s work for some time, along with that of Tim Powers, whose Declare was nominated for best work of Adult Fantasy by the Mythopetic Society the same year that Mr. Gaiman’s American Gods won.

This is from Mr. Gaiman’s online journal:

I was thrilled — partly I think because I was really surprised — to learn that American Gods has been nominated for a Mythopoeic Award by the Mythopoeic Society.

(The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature is given to the fantasy novel, multi-volume, or single-author story collection for adults published during the previous year that best exemplifies “the spirit of the Inklings.”)

Several years ago Charles Vess and I won the Best Novel award for the illustrated version of Stardust.. The award is a statue of a Lion — Aslan, I assume.

The candidates this year are:
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, Adult Literature
Lois McMaster Bujold,
The Curse of Chalion (Morrow/Avon)
Neil Gaiman,
American Gods (William Morrow)
Sarah A. Hoyt,
Ill Met by Moonlight (Ace)
Ursula K. Le Guin,
The Other Wind (Harcourt Brace)
Tim Powers,
Declare (William Morrow)

(My favourite for the award — of the books I’ve read so far — would be The Other Wind. At least, I think it’s the one that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien would have liked best. Although, on reflection, I like to think that Charles Williams might have preferred Declare or American Gods.)

Of course, anybody who knows anything about any of these works is invited to comment:


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.


The work of Charles Walter Stanley Williams (1888-1945) is not likely to spawn a blockbuster motion picture, although I would like to see one of the better directors such as Wim Wenders or Guillermo Del Toro take a crack at All Hallow’s Eve.   He is a cinematic practioner of what is called Magical Realism, and could come close to the eerie sense of Supernaturalism interpenetrating and existing “under, with, and in” the elements of ordinary waking life that is the food and drink of Williams’ work.

Charles Williams doesn’t enjoy the celebrity of his better known colleagues among the Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis for several reasons. First of all, I don’t believe that he is nearly as good a writer of prose as either Lewis or Tolkien. There is a lot of churn in his narrative, it is hard to tell sometimes what is going on, and he has the bad habit of obscuring his thought with what appears to be a private language.

This is especially true when he treats religious or theological material. At times he can be deciphered when he refers to a well-defined dogma of the Church in a new or novel way, but what keeps me coming back to Williams isthe suspicion that, buried in the idiosyncracies of his language are orthodox truths that have been neglected or under-scrutinized and that Williams alone of all his contemporaries has been mining these neglected nodes and wrenching some fresh jewels from them.

A second complaint that I have about Williams is that his characters are not very well developed. Now that I think about it, vivid characterization is not a hallmark of either Lewis or Tolkien either. Puddleglum is Lewis’ best fictional creation, as Éowyn is Tolkien’s. Puddleglum doesn’t attain to much more than a burlesque, and Éowyn is a very minor character. If you want vivid characters, you’re better off reading Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene.

But Williams’ characters are even more iconic than anything in Lewis or Tolkien. Quite often, they exist to illustrate or incarnate one or another of the theological virtues or one or another of the Seven Deadly Sins. Justice or Temperance is who leaps off the pages at you, not a just or temperate person. And those are the good characters. Whereas in Tolkien, the evil characters have an industrial proletarian cast to them, and Lewis’ evil characters are usually consumed by some evil ideology, Williams’ villains are stultifyingly bland.

Then, finally, for Evangelical readers, Williams is obscure because he is the least Evangelical of the Inklings, as Lewis is the most. In Williams’ novels, the evil machinations of the villains are almost always undone not by heroic virtue or right belief, but often by simple courtesy, kindness, or pardon; the sort that would be sought by a middle-class housewife of her neighbor after her dog had dug up her neighbor’s gladiolas. Natural virtue gets short shrift, referred to as “works-righteousness’ or “filthy rags”, but it takes a Williams to get us to notice that natural virtue was God’s original plan, and that the small, insignificant acts of goodness we perform every day can be transformed by grace to become the building blocks of an unshakeable castle.


Stolen from another Website, not the author’s own, alas. It is an excellent incantation to accompany the beginning of a journey into The Matter Of Britain, a place where legend emerges into archtype, the murmuring of Druids mingles with the proclamation of the Cross, and the bright geometry of Byzantium intersects the organic tangle of Brociliande

Taliesin to Brother Prayer

Speak, good brother, in your own rhythms,
in your internal music tuned to external cadences,
your stories of the princeling Arthur

weaning himself for battle with the dark
keening sorrow at youthful fault;
Speak, good Taleteller, in words

the commons use. You have no need to
share my iambs, borrow from my heritage of
metaphor–your voice is clear and sound and strong.

[Stronger now, in this flat world without poetic soul,
than mine–far-reaching, telling truth
as Story that reveals its larger Truth.]

Speak, good Friar, let your crafted words
echo across the continent and declare
another Arthur, another Avalon

in crystalline dreams. Let your modulating voice
Blend strains of red and white, green and brown,
white and black…create anew my Arthur

as your own, your Arthur to become
my own, our own to share with all the worlds.
Speak, good brother, who once mastered

song and now–through choice–elevates
pure speech to incorporate the living cadences
and rhythms of the deeper Song subsuming all.

© Michael R. Collings, 1996

CURRENTLY READING

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

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