Reading Time: 4 mins

Unsung Inklings: Charles Williams

Reading Time: 4 mins

Of all the Inklings, Williams was certainly the most enigmatic. His mind and body were always moving.

I've found standing in front of my mailbox doesn't fill me with the dread of bills or the disturbance of junk mail, but instead a flash of excitement and anticipation, a hope for something unexpected - perhaps a letter from an old friend or a card from someone who remembered my birthday or wrote because they thought of me. Once in a while, a mailbox can be the bearer of good news.

This was certainly the case for Charles Williams, the focus of this week's Unsung Inklings. In March 1936, Williams received a letter from an admirer of his recent novel, The Place of the Lion. That admiring fan was C.S. Lewis, who had been given The Lion to read by his friend and fellow Inkling, Nevill Coghill. 

Lewis wrote to Williams, "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion, and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life." [1]

The admiration was mutual. Williams had recently (and hastily, in his own words) been looking at proofs of Lewis's scholarly work The Allegory of Love in his editorial position at Oxford University Press when he received Lewis's letter. Williams replied the next day. "My dear Mr. Lewis, if you had delayed in writing another 24 hours, our letters would have crossed…My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day." [2]

Eventually, these mutual fans became close friends, sharing a love of adventure, imagination, and the work of Dante and Milton. In his letter, Lewis had invited Williams, who lived in London at the time, to join him in Oxford for food and fellowship. "We have a sort of informal club called the Inklings: the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write and Christianity." [3]

Charles Williams (1886-1945) certainly met Lewis's qualifications for the Inklings. By the time Williams met Lewis, he had already written five novels and several poems; among those were his notable stories, War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps. Like Lewis, he was an Anglican, though Williams found a home in the ritual and symbolism of high-church Anglicanism. 

Williams differed from his fellow Inklings in other ways as well. He was a London city boy at heart. He was born, educated, married, raised his family, and worked all in London, where he worked his way up through the ranks of proofs and editing at Oxford University Press. Even when OUP moved their offices and employees to Oxford at the outset of World War II, Williams returned home to London to visit his wife Florence (aka Michal) and his son Michael. From 1939 until his sudden death on May 15th, 1945, Williams was a regular at Inklings gatherings on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child, Thursday evenings in Lewis's rooms, and many other occasions. Though not all the Inklings appreciated his uniquely imaginative writings, they valued his friendship, loyalty, and contributions to their gatherings. Mourning the death of his friend Charles, Warren Lewis wrote in his diary that "blackout has fallen and the Inklings can never be the same again." [4] 

Of all the Inklings, Williams was certainly the most enigmatic. His mind and body were always moving. He smoked like a steam locomotive. He was known for his charismatic personality and exciting lectures, and yet many found his poetry and prose obscure. Williams was a man of paradox. He was quiet yet talkative. A devout Anglican, yet from 1917-1928, he had been a member of the Rosy Cross, Arthur Waite's strange brew of Christian mysticism, Masonic and magical ritual, with a bit of occult flavor mixed in. Lewis was able to overlook this in Williams, but Tolkien, while friendly and friends with Williams, was always wary of this part of his life. No wonder his fellow friends and Inklings struggled to describe him. "No one could pigeonhole him," said Lewis. 

And yet, Lewis was able to describe a great deal about his friend Charles Williams. "He was a novelist, a poet, a dramatist, a biographer, a critic, a theologian: a romantic theologian in the technical sense which he himself invented for those words. A romantic theologian does not mean one who is romantic about theology but one who is theological about romance, and one who considered the theological implications of those experiences which are called romantic." [5]

Williams' intellectual, imaginative, and theological interests rested on a three-legged stool of romantic theology, what he called substituted love, exchange, and co-inherence. 

In his romantic theology, Williams applied literary romanticism to human relationships. In the created things of this world, particularly in the romantic love of husband and wife, Williams thought that one could see a reflection of God's love. Williams is certainly right that God sanctifies and blesses the holy estate of marriage and gives man and woman the gift of love to be enjoyed within marriage. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5, marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. Where Williams goes beyond Lewis's mere Christianity and Reformation theology, however, is in his idea that romantic love within marriage can be a ladder or path to God's love, something of a mystical experience.

Love is also a central theme found in Williams' theological idea of substituted love. Substituted love begins, for Williams, in the love of Christ on the cross and then, to a lesser degree, between fellow Christians who bear one another's burdens. This daily action of love for one another was what Willaims called exchange or the daily physical and spiritual love Christians offered one another. It is not hard to hear St. Paul's words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 in the background of Williams' theology of substituted love.

For all his eccentricities, Charles Williams took Christ's words in John 15 seriously, "This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you." 

The third leg of the stool was what Willaims called co-inherence, which sounds odd at first but is his way of referring to the mutual dependence we have upon one another, especially in the body of Christ, the church. Williams saw co-inherence first and foremost in the Trinity, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit co-inhere in one Godhead. Similarly, to a lesser degree, we are part of one another, co-inhering in our shared human nature and in the church as the body of Christ. As brothers and sisters in Christ, there is an interdependence or interrelatedness to one another. 

Inklings scholar David Porter summarizes Williams' theological themes this way: "All life depends on the mutual giving and receiving, ultimately derived from the Trinity and most powerfully displayed on the cross of Christ." [6]

For all his eccentricities, Charles Williams took Christ's words in John 15 seriously, "This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you." 

For Williams, love was a divine gift given to us in Christ; it was a gift to be shared with others in our friendships and family. He was a faithful friend to many and a core member of the Inklings whose love of literature, imagination, and adventure enlightened their conversations, gatherings, and writings. 

When faced with the unexpected death of their friend Williams in 1945, the Inklings gathered together at the Eagle and Child, as they so often had done, this time to bear the burden of their grief and to console one another in faith and hope in Jesus, the suffering servant who has truly born our griefs and carried our sorrows.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters. San Francisco: Harper Collins 2004, vol. 2, p. 183.
[2] Quoted in C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters. San Francisco: Harper Collins 2004, vol. 2, p. 184.
[3] C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters. San Francisco: Harper Collins 2004, vol. 2, p. 183
[4] Warren Lewis, Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, San Francisco: Harper Row, 1982, p. 182.
[5] C.S. Lewis, Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, p. Vi.
[6] Quoted in The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez, p. 39.