BORN: 1886, Holloway, North London, England
DIED: 1945, Oxford, England
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama
Outlines of Romantic Theology (1908)
Descent into Hell (1937)
Taliessin through Logres (1938)
The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)
All Hallows' Eve (1945)
British author Charles Williams was in many ways a paradox. He was a working-class man who lectured at Oxford University. He was a devoted Christian whose novels explore black magic. He was an eloquent philosopher of human and divine love whose own romantic life was often deeply troubled. Williams's talents were evident in many genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, biography, poetic theory, theology, literary essays, and book reviews.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Family Finances Affect Life Williams was born in London on September 20, 1886, to a middle-class family in financial straits. Raised in the Anglican faith, Williams loved the city of London and the Church of England throughout his life, and both are central elements in much of his fiction.
Forced in 1908 by his family's lack of money to curtail his education at the University of London after only two years, Williams secured an editorial position at the London office of the Oxford University Press—where he worked for the rest of his life. During the same year, he met Florence Conway, whom he later married and to whom he wrote many love poems.
Professional Poet, Eternal Mystic Throughout his professional writing life, Williams considered himself to be primarily a poet, and during the early years of his career, published only poetry. In his late twenties, he became interested in magic and Rosicrucianism—a view based on Western traditions of mystery that is concerned with inner worlds, mysticism, and spirituality. At this time, he also joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the acquisition of occult knowledge. Although he did not remain with the group, Williams later drew upon his acquired knowledge of Magia (white magic) and Goetia (black magic) for subject matter in his novels.
By 1930, when the first of these novels, War in Heaven, was published, Williams had established himself as a minor poet and critic, as well as an outstanding lecturer on the major English poets at evening literature classes in London. His “supernatural thrillers,” as his novels were called, attracted a wide audience at the time and introduced the author to two notable admirers: T. S. Eliot, who as a director of Faber and Faber published several of Williams's novels; and C. S. Lewis, whose own Allegory of Love (1936) delighted Williams and initiated the two writers' friendship.
Oxford With the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi bombing of Great Britain, the staff of the Oxford University Press's London office was evacuated to Oxford. World War II began when Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after the latter country invaded Poland in 1939. While Britain, as well as the rest of Europe, had tried to appease the territorial and military ambitions of Adolf Hitler by allowing him to take over certain territories in the late 1930s, the Nazi leader's actions in Poland were deemed unacceptable. France and other countries joined Britain as allies against the Germans and their allies, including Italy and, initially, the Soviet Union. Germany was soon in control of much of continental Europe and launched massive air attacks, known as the Blitz, against Great Britain in September 1940 that lasted till May 1941. Bombing attacks continued off and on until the end of the war.
At Oxford, Williams was soon introduced by Lewis into the Inklings—a group that gathered for discussions that ranged across politics, art, religion, and above all, fellowship. During one period of several months, members listened as the group's three principals read aloud from works in progress: C.S. Lewis from Perelandra (1943), J.R.R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), and Williams from All Hallows' Eve (1945)—novels that are recognized today to be among their authors' most accomplished works.
Through the offices of Lewis and Tolkien, Williams was able to serve at Oxford as a lecturer on English poetry, attracting enthusiastic audiences at each appearance and receiving an honorary MA from the university in 1943. When he died suddenly after a seemingly minor operation in 1945, fellow Inkling Warren Lewis noted in his journal that “the black-out has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again.”
Works in Literary Context
Many and Varied Influences When Williams took on theology and literary analysis, his work reflected his study of and interest in other famous writers like Dante and noted mystic/writer Evelyn Underhill. During the early years of his career when he published only poetry, much of it showed influences of Dante and, in its style, of G. K. Chesterton. The Figure of Beatrice (1943), for instance, was highly influenced by Williams's growing interest in Dante and the stories of the Grail, seminal influences on his thought that increased in power as the years passed. Some other works, such as Divorce (1920), were inspired by models ranging from Robert Herrickand other seventeenth-century poets to the pre-Raphaelites and William Butler Yeats.
Mystical, Supernatural Style Williams's first Grail poetry, Taliessin through Logres (1938), demonstrates his mystical interests. He may have been drawn to the tragedy of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, but more central was the story of the Grail and the quest to establish God's kingdom, orderly and just, in England. The poems in the book are complex. Williams uses diagrammed associations to develop the narrative. For example, he connects characters to animals, and associates cities and their roles with parts of the human body and their functions.
But the religious, the magical, and the mythical make the most impact in his works as they reflect his devout Anglicanism and lifelong interest in all aspects of the supernatural. Williams's novels, such as War in Heaven (1930), All Hallows' Eve, and The Place of the Lion (1931) depict the earth as a battleground in a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. These novels present the author's notion of the natural and supernatural realms as spheres separated by a penetrable boundary.
In War in Heaven, for example, Williams establishes one hallmark of his fiction: realistic depictions of common people encountering supernatural forces in and through everyday English life. In one set of critical terms, this type of fantasy is “low fantasy,” supernatural but taking place in this world, as opposed to the otherworldly “high fantasy” of Tolkien's The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In this way Williams is an ancestor to, though rarely a direct influence on, the supernatural-horror genre of the later twentieth century.
Influence Though Williams rarely influenced later horror, he was instrumental for fellow writers in another way. During the tenure of his friend C. S. Lewis as a fellow at Oxford's Magdalen College, Williams became a guiding force of the Oxford Christians or “Inklings,” a group of like-minded writers who met weekly in Lewis's rooms to discuss literature and to read works in progress to each other for critical advice and mutual enjoyment. Although his works are not today as well known as those of his fellow Inklings Lewis and Tolkien, Williams was an important source of encouragement and influence among the group, and his death brought about its demise.
Williams's influence is most markedly evident, for example, in the work of Lewis, whose controversial Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942) and apocalyptic novel That Hideous Strength (1946) advance ideas held by Williams. Such theological books as He Came Down from Heaven (1938) and The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (1939) are important for their explicit statements of the author's spiritual beliefs. The Descent of the Dove was a key influence in poet W. H. Auden's conversion to Christianity, which affected that author's output.
Works in Critical Context
Concerning Williams's fiction, William Lindsay Gresham has remarked that “reading him we feel like the blind man who was given his sight and saw people like trees walking,” referring to the Gospel of Mark 8:24. But despite their interesting plots and elements of the supernatural, the novels have never attracted a wide audience. Because of Williams's difficult style, they require closer attention than most readers are willing to devote to them. Critics have praised Williams's novels for their ability to portray spiritual truths. They have condemned them for their sensationalism. They have analyzed the precision and delicacy with which Williams writes. They have also complained of the author's obscurity. However, most critics agree that Williams's strength as a fiction writer grew throughout his career: this is demonstrated by the success he achieved with his last works, including Descent into Hell.
Descent into Hell Generally seeing it as one of Williams's two or three best novels, critics regard Descent into Hell as his most structurally satisfying novel, mapping the crossed ascent and descent of two characters. The ascending character is Pauline Anstruther, a young woman terrified by appearances of her doppelgänger—an eerie exact double. She is taught the truths of doubling and substitution by Peter Stanhope, a playwright who is her mentor. Since doubling is limited by neither space nor time, Pauline is eventually able to substitute herself for a martyred ancestor during his burning, thus ending her own haunting. Conversely, the title refers to the path of Lawrence Wentworth, a man of small vices and smaller virtues, who falls willing victim to a succubus because true love—or even true companionship—is too irritatingly demanding for him. With Descent into Hell, as Charles Moorman points out, Williams was shifting away from “adventure” and increasingly “toward an attempt to picture salvation and damnation as they exist among the people of Williams's own time.”
Poetry Williams's verse is often difficult for readers. Anne Ridler wrote, “It is not a poetry for all moods; it is one, also, to which you must wholly submit in order to enjoy it. But I am sure that his cycle has its place in the tradition of English visionary poetry.” Agnes Sibley, agreeing with Ridler's appraisal, added that “to all of Williams's writings ‘you must wholly submit’.” Though not as well known as his novels, Williams's Arthurian Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) are determined by some critics to be among the most original works in twentieth-century English poetry. This Arthurian—or, more accurately, Grail—poetry is, as Roma A. King Jr. writes, “the poetical creation of a coherent mythical vision of man and his place in the larger creation of which he is a part.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Williams's famous contemporaries include:
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970): Agnon was a Nobel Prize–winning writer who contributed much to Hebrew literature, particularly fiction. His novels include The Bridal Canopy (1931).
J. R. R. Tolkien (1921–1968): Though known as a British writer, poet, and philologist, he is still widely appreciated for such fantasy works as the three novels that form the trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) and The Hobbit (1937).
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941): American author Woolf is known as one of the forerunners of modern literature, specifically for her stream-of-consciousness style and for novels like Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
Responses to Literature
- In Williams's novels and dramas, common, unsuspecting characters from the natural world encounter beings from the supernatural realm. The reader is likewise intended to be startled by these strange and unexpected confrontations, and thereby awakened to their symbolic value. Consider one of the most important objects in your life. Write a personal essay in which you explain why you chose this object. What did it make you think of? What feelings come from the object/image for you? What does your choice say about who you are? How does your choice represent your personality?
- Think about how natural and supernatural characters in Williams's works are caught up together in the struggle between good and evil. In War in Heaven, for example, the opposing forces converge on a humble church, each seeking to possess the Holy Grail, which has long stood unnoticed among the church's ornaments. Using either the Grail, the church, or another item from a Williams novel, consider all of the possible associations. Write a paragraph in which you discuss how the item is a symbol and explore what it might represent.
- In his poetry, Williams celebrates a vision he shared with Dante, one which reflects his major belief: that love is a sacrament enabling fellowship with God. With a group of your classmates, survey a few of Williams's poems and find evidence of love and of one's connection with God through love. Use examples from the texts to further your understanding of Williams's philosophy.
- Williams did not fail to perceive suffering and ugliness in the world, but he believed that God's purposes are accomplished in spite of and with the seeming agency of evil. This concept derived from one of his major influences, the Scottish fantasist George MacDonald. Consider the instances of evil in a Williams work. With another classmate, discuss how good prevails, or how God's purposes are accomplished.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
As ancestor to the supernatural-horror genre, Williams can be said to have pioneered it to some degree. Here are a few works that later established the genre as best-seller material and developed it further.
The Exorcist (1971), a novel by William Peter Blatty. Evil takes possession of a little girl's body and soul and leaves several dead in its wake.
Flowers in the Attic (1977), a novel by V. C. Andrews. In the first of a series of novels, the children lose their parents and are taken in by a malicious, abusive grandmother.
Rosemary's Baby (1967), a novel by Ira Levin. The biggest problem Rosemary has in the new apartment building, the Bramford, is the devil-worshipping elderly couple next door.
The Shining (1977), a novel by Stephen King. A winter caretaker and his family have other worldly experiences in the Overlook Hotel.
Lost Boy, Lost Girl (2003), a novel by Peter Straub. In this novel, a house is haunted, there is a serial killer on the prowl, and people are missing.
King, Roma A., Jr. The Pattern in the Web: The Mythical Poetry of Charles Williams. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.
Lewis, C. S. “The Novels of Charles Williams.” In On Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Moorman, Charles. Arthurian Triptych: Mythic Materials in Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
Sibley, Agnes. Charles Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Williams, Charles. The Image of the City, and Other Essays. Ed. Anne Ridler. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Auden, W. H. “Charles Williams: A Review Article.”Christian Century, January–June 1956, 552–54.
Eliot, T. S. “The Significance of Charles Williams.” Listener, December 19, 1946, 894–95.
The George MacDonald Informational Web. “Charles Williams.” Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://georgemacdonald.info/williams.html.
The Lost Club Journal. “The Novels of Charles Williams.” Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://homepages.pavilion.co.uk/users/tartarus/williams.html.
Project Gutenberg Australia. “Charles Williams (1886–1945).” Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-n-z.html#letterW.
Sturch, Dr. R. L. “The Charles Williams Society.” Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.geocities.com/charles_wms_soc.