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Charles Williams: The third inkling

By Grevel Lindop
May 2016 | Review by Nick Needham
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • ISBN: 978-0199284153
  • Pages: 544
  • Price: 25.00
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Why is this book so important? Because it is the definitive biography of a man who made a uniquely powerful impact on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose own influence on the modern world and modern Christianity is itself so significant.

Charles Williams (1886-1945), as the book’s title says, was ‘the third Inkling’. The Inklings was, of course, the name of the religious-literary group that met in Oxford in the 1930s and 40s, whose most famous members were Lewis and Tolkien.

At the time, however, both men considered themselves the inferior of Charles Williams, as thinkers and writers. He was undoubtedly a brilliant man, intellectually, artistically, as a speaker, and in his personal charisma. Lewis was in awe of him.

The best and simplest way of becoming acquainted with Williams’ life is to read this biography. It sets the gold standard for its depth of scholarly research, its feel for the subject and readability.

Williams, as they say, comes to life in Lindop’s book. So does a whole lost era, when Christianity had so much higher a public profile in Britain than it does now. Who can imagine a Christian lecturer today commanding such large and enthusiastic audiences in Oxford University as Williams did? As for students weeping in the streets at the news of Williams’ death in 1945 aged 59 … well, you will just have to read the book!

Perhaps I should interject a personal note at this point. I first stumbled across Williams as a first-year theology student (many moons ago!) at Edinburgh University, when our church history tutors were wise enough to recommend Williams’ one-volume history of the church, The descent of the dove.

We were warned that it had a slightly odd ‘take’ on the subject, but that did not deter me. The impression it made was lasting, and to this day I can still remember some of its ideas and treatments.

Later on, I took the plunge into Williams’ novels (there are seven). They have been described as ‘supernatural thrillers’. It’s a fair enough description. I don’t quite know of any other fiction that has the ‘Williams flavour’ — ordinary life being invaded by extraordinary realities, often terrifying.

It is perhaps no surprise that one of his unperformed plays, The devil and the lady, is seen by Lindop as a forerunner of Rosemary’s baby and The omen. Williams was not shy of depicting diabolical evil.

But enough of my personal ramblings. Lindop makes the case that Williams deserves to be remembered and rehabilitated as a novelist, literary critic and poet. His poetic masterpiece was Taliessin through Logres, a series of poems around the theme of King Arthur and his times. Some have ranked it as the best Arthurian poetry in the English language.

Whether Williams should be rehabilitated as a spiritual guide, however, is a much more disquieting question. His own Christian faith was High Anglican or Anglo-Catholic, but he highlighted the orthodox view of the incarnation so strongly that an Evangelical will find much to sympathise with, and little to object to, over that aspect.

And yet Williams clearly had a troubled personality, resulting in a less than wholesome series of relationships with young women. Not that there was any hint of physical immorality, but there were rather too many young ladies who found Williams’ presence overwhelming and intoxicating, and were eager to submit to him as their guru.

Unfortunately, he was willing to take them on, and indulge his mildly sadistic tendencies in his teaching methods. He once pinched one of his disciples so harshly, it left a very visible bruise for a couple of days. When she next saw him, she complained, only to be told, ‘Well, it gave you something to think about, didn’t it?’ Some of his other methods one can hardly call anything other than sheer perversity, if not perversion.

In particular, Williams’ emotionally intense relationship with Phyllis Jones, whom he idealised and idolised, put terrible strains on his marriage. His wife Florence referred to Phyllis as ‘the virgin tart’.

Another unsettling aspect to Williams was his readiness to become involved in the weirder side of mysticism. This reached its culmination in his being initiated into the ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’ in 1917 (a branch of the Rosicrucian movement).

Although a professedly Christian body, this secret society blurred the distinction between Christianity and magic. A sceptic by temperament, Williams, perhaps, had such a craving for the supernatural that he sometimes did not seem to care about its source.

It is just as well that ‘paradox’ was one of Williams’ most basic theological concepts (he was an early British admirer and promoter of Kierkegaard, the theologian of paradox). We can apply the concept to Williams himself.

On the one side, we have his deep and pervasive faith in the incarnation, his eloquent advocacy of Christianity, his dazzling literary talents, his often stimulating discussions of theology and church history. On the other, we have his troubled personality, unwholesome relationships with female disciples, and dabbling in ‘Christianised’ magical rituals. A paradox indeed.

This was the man who drew C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien under the mysterious enchantment of his mind and personality. I doubt that they knew anything of the way he chastised his female acolytes, or of his Rosicrucian rituals. I suspect they experienced only Williams’ healthier side.

Grevel Lindop, however, has now enabled us to see the whole Williams. I lament Williams’ defects, yet I still cannot help reaping genuine benefit from some of his writings. I would not presume to pronounce on Williams’ soul, but I do take the liberty of pronouncing on this biography — a brilliant introduction to a brilliant, yet very troubled and troubling, man.

Nick Needham

Highland Theological College

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