Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Grevel Lindop, Oxford University Press.
This new biography of writer Charles Williams is titled The Third Inkling, but when Williams joined the Oxford literary gatherings headed by C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien there was every indication that Williams would be remembered as the First Inkling, in the sense of importance rather than chronology. As well as providing much of the spark that ignited the Inklings’ meetings (Lewis described him as a ‘conduit of quotations’), he was a successful publisher, had a reputation as a mesmerising lecturer (Dylan Thomas was one struck by Williams’ oratory), and his books, though often lofty, were highly regarded. He is today perhaps best known as a fantasy writer, but there is critical consensus that his book The Figure of Beatrice is a masterpiece of Dante studies, inspiring Dorothy Sayers to undertake her well-regarded translation of The Divine Comedy. He also wrote imaginative works of popular apologetics. There has been, of late, an attempt to revive his reputation, to which this book’s author Grevel Lindop contributes. But a darker side of Williams, on which this book lingers, makes that a sometimes difficult task.
Like C S and Warnie Lewis, as a child Williams constructed elaborate imaginary worlds, and later was, like Tolkien and other Inklings, enraptured by Nordic and Celtic mythology. His education fell far short of the other Inklings and at the time of the Inklings gatherings he could only lecture at Oxford because so many of the university’s staff were occupied by WWII. But he read and wrote at a furious pace. He was inspired by his father, who wrote for popular magazines, though his father was critical of religion, in contrast to his son’s longing for the spiritual, a desire that in adulthood would manifest itself in sometimes strange ways. Because of his father’s reservations, Williams was not a naïve believer; he understood the arguments against Christianity, which later would only help his theological writings. His priest described the otherwise pious adolescent Williams as having ‘too many brains’.
Williams was a Londoner by birth and at heart. He worked for the London office of Oxford University Press where the more commercially focussed staff famously derided their ivory tower Oxford colleagues. Williams described Oxford as a ‘parody’ of London. Lindop describes Williams as a ‘worldly wise publisher’. He published Gerard Manley Hopkins and the first English editions of Kierkegaard, and edited OUP’s world classics series. He was also a friend of T S Eliot and W H Auden, whose modern poetry was influential in moderating Williams’ archaic style.
Williams thought of himself as a poet, but not everyone was enthusiastic. Philip and Carol Zaleski, recent writers of a lively joint biography of the Inklings, describe everyone except C S Lewis being dumbfounded by the obscurity of Williams’ poetry. And his theology could be described as odd at the least, stemming from the fact that Williams also sustained a long fascination with the occult. He participated in quasi-Christian but ridiculously fantastical secret orders that were influenced by Gnosticism and pagan superstition, and he seemed to believe in the power of magic, even writing a study of such. Most disturbing of all were his platonic affairs with young women that degenerated into manipulative and sadistic games that Lindop labels an addiction. And Williams had some rather funny ideas about the way sexuality expresses spirituality.
The Zaleskis note that fierce literary critic F R Leavis, of all people (he had no time for the religious beliefs of the Inklings), insightfully described Williams as an immature Christian who was stuck in the adolescent phase of finding evil fascinating. Williams’ theology was perhaps a form of escapism akin to fantasy and science fiction writing. And there is a sense that Williams’ theology was of an intellectual sort that was little expressed in everyday practice. This biography gives little indication of the progression of the practical side of Williams’ faith. Or emotions, for that matter. His letters at age fifty read like those of a romantically thwarted sixteen year old.
There were two sides to Williams’ personality, even to the extent of simultaneously appearing honest and open to some friends and reserved and mysterious to others. Tolkien, while counting Williams as a friend, became increasingly distanced from Williams because of this awareness of William’s darker side. Williams could be a megalomaniac, at one time exclaiming, ‘I begin to believe I am a genius’, and he lamented that OUP didn’t recognise his gifts. But he could also be generous and enthusiastic, which partly explains his appeal to young women. Williams’ dark side is not necessarily a reason to dismiss his writings. As far as the Inklings are concerned, Lewis also participated in a dubious – at least according to his friends – relationship. We are all somewhat two-sided, capable of good and bad. As the Lutheran theological tradition suggests, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Never-the-less, this thorough and excellent biography, in its attempt to make us warm to Williams’ genius, is hampered in this endeavour by its portrait of a creepy figure whose Christianity was entwined with its seeming opposite.