Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we remember Charles Williams, the “oddest inkling.”

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 20th of September 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

We have discussed the inklings before on this program- this was the informal group of writers that met in Oxford in the middle of the last century to discuss each other's works, notably at the Eagle and Child Pub. The primary figures were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien- and while they got most of the attention, there were others- and one specifically who has been called the “oddest inkling”: Charles Williams. His life and work are both like and quite unlike that of the two most famous inklings- let’s take a look at his life and see what we can see.

Charles Williams was born on this the 20th of September in 1886 to Mary and Richard Williams in London. He would move to St. Albans, where he would go to the famed school there of the same name. He was accepted to University College London but was unable to pay his fees and left the school without taking a degree. He would go on to work in publishing as a proofreader, eventually making his way to Oxford University Press in London.

In 1924 he participated in the Olympics as an author. Because the Olympics used to have artistic categories, seriously, from the beginning of the modern Games until 1952, there were categories in painting, architecture, sculpture, and music. Williams would enter with fellow British author and poet Robert Graves. He would not medal.

With the outbreak of World War 2, Oxford University Press would move to Oxford, and this is where the proofreader would meet the Oxford professors to whom he would become forever linked. He would receive an honorary MA from the school and lecture. Like Lewis, he was an Anglo-Catholic, and like the other inklings, he had a love of the esoteric. He would become friends with Evelyn Underhill, the author of one of the definitive works on this history of mysticism.

He would also join the Order of the Rosy Cross. This was a curious group that supposedly tied itself to older Rosicrucian movements- these were quasi-alchemists who fused their esoteric beliefs with Christianity. I’ll make a note right now for this group to get its own weekend edition- it’s either really cool or kind of lame, or most likely a bit of both.

Williams would write 40 books and hundreds of essays. His interests ranged from mystery novels to works of ‘romantic theology,’ that is, the way in which theology informs our understanding of romantic love. He was something of a ladies' man, inspired Dorothy Sayers with his work on Dante’s muse Beatrice, and was lauded by poet T.S. Eliot.

His most famous work is likely his “Descent into Hell”- a work that I have started and been unable to finish (my fault, not his). Hear the publisher's description of the novel:

“In this provocative, classic metaphysical thriller, a group of suburban amateur actors plagued by personal demons and terrors explores the pathways to heaven and hell. Certain inhabitants of Battle Hill, a small community on the outskirts of London, are preparing to mount a new play by the neighborhood's most illustrious resident, the writer Peter Stanhope.”

He would also write “the Descent of the Dove”: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Lewis acknowledged his influence on his work “That Hideous Strength”- the third of the space trilogy (but the one that takes place on earth- this would be a standard theme in Williams- the invasion of the supernatural not in Narnia or Middle Earth but in the here-and-now).

He might be best known for the collection of essays that his friends wrote for him on the occasion of his death. “Essays Presented to Charles Williams” contains Tolkien's famous essay “On Fairy Tales”- a must-read for any Tolkien fan.

Williams died suddenly in 1945. His gravestone reads “poet” and “Under the Mercy.” Born on this day in 1886, he was 58 years old.

The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from 1 Cor 9:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of September 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Olympic sport? 1992s solo synchronized swimming. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man sorry for his take on guacamole- use all the onions you want, you freaks… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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