The “Eminently Combustible” Mister Williams

Because C. S. Lewis is too mainstream . . . . Charles Williams

Most book geeks are well-acquainted with the name of The Inklings, the Oxford-based writers’ club founded by C. S. Lewis and attended by J. R. R. Tolkien which served as a crucible for some of the twentieth century’s greatest works of fantasy literature. Throughout its long history, The Inklings had dozens of members, however, the majority of them have been forgotten by most readers. Recently, I began reading my first novel by one of these more obscure members and today, I intend to introduce him to you.

His name was Charles Walter Stansby Williams and he was born in London, England on September 20, 1886. Growing up in a lower-middle class family, Williams was not brought up in prestigious schools and universities like many of his contemporaries: he attended London University for two years on a scholarship, however when the scholarship money ran out, he was forced to quit school, as his parents could no longer afford his tuition. Instead of finishing his degree, Williams went to work, first in a Methodist book room, then as an all-purpose office boy at the Oxford University Press.

What Williams lacked in formal education he more than made up for on his own: under the encouragement of his father, he read widely and voraciously. He was also incredibly intelligent, a fact of which the OUP’s editors soon took notice. Gradually, Williams worked his way up from errand boy to proofreader to editor. He spent the rest of his life working for the OUP in one fashion or another, while also maintaining a prolific literary career.

Williams’s first published book, a poetry collection titled The Silver Stair, appeared in 1912. Several more poetry collections followed, including the two books of Arthurian poetry that, together, are considered his masterpiece: Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. In addition, Williams also wrote plays, biographies, histories, theology, literary criticism, and a host of articles and reviews. Today, however, he is best known for his novels, seven innovative works which his editor T. S. Eliot described as “supernatural thrillers.”

Though Williams was a brilliant author, his works found only moderate success during his lifetime. This has mostly to do with the nature of the works themselves: not only is Williams’s language wordy and often challenging, but also the contents of his works are so bizarre and arcane that Williams essentially sent himself into literary exile the moment he picked up his pen. Nevertheless, Williams did have some admirers in his own time, a few of whom were very influential authors themselves. The great English poet W. H. Auden, for example, credited Williams with helping him return to the Anglican faith of his boyhood.* He also claimed to read Williams’s The Descent of the Dove, a nonfiction book focusing on the history of the church, at least once every year. T. S. Eliot was also a fan of Williams’s work, having edited much of it for the publishing house Faber and Faber.**

Perhaps Williams’s biggest fan, though, was The Inklings’ own C. S. Lewis, who loved Williams’s novel The Place of the Lion so much that, immediately after finishing it, he wrote a letter to Williams congratulating him on having written such a brilliant book. It just so happened that Lewis was reading The Place of the Lion at the very same time that Williams was proofreading Lewis’s The Allegory of Love for the OUP. Williams was just as impressed with Lewis as Lewis was with him, and he too sent a fan letter, touching off what would be a fast, though unfortunately short, friendship. (More on that in a minute.) When England entered World War II in 1939, the office of the OUP, based in London, was moved to Oxford to avoid the Blitz. This allowed Williams, now a regular correspondent of Lewis’s, to attend meetings of The Inklings. Despite being a decidedly odd individual, firmly fixed in his ways, Williams quickly became one of the cornerstones of the tight-knit group.

The Eagle and Child, one of the two Oxford pubs where several of The Inklings' meetings were held.
The Eagle and Child, one of the two Oxford pubs where several of The Inklings’ meetings were held.

The move to Oxford also opened opportunities for Williams to teach. As a professor at Oxford University, Lewis used his influence to arrange for Williams to give lectures on English literature. By all accounts, Williams was well-liked by the students and his lecture halls were always filled. The staff and students at Oxford quickly found out what Lewis had known all along: Williams had a way of making most everyone he met fall in love with him.

Not everyone, though, was as taken with Williams as Lewis was. J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance—though he enjoyed Williams’s company—strongly disliked his work.*** Other Inklings found Williams’s ideas about God and Christianity to be too unorthodox. One member of the group, Charles Wrenn, even said that after speaking with Williams, he better understood why the Spanish Inquisitors felt the need to burn heretics. “Williams is eminently combustible,” C. S. Lewis wrote when he recalled Wrenn’s comments in a letter to his brother Warren.

To be fair, many of Williams’s views were outlandish, and he often broke with mainstream Christianity. For instance, one of the stranger aspects of Williams’s life was his seeming obsession with the occult. He was good friends with A. E. Waite, the founder of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. This ostensibly “Christian” secret society taught its members, among other things, astrology, fortune telling, and “transfer of energies.” Williams was an active member of the society for about ten years, until he left unexpectedly around 1927. To this day, scholars are unsure of why Williams left the group. Regardless, the influence of Waite and the FRC stayed with Williams for the rest of his life and is apparent in many of his works.

On May 15, 1945, Williams died suddenly of intussusception at the age of fifty-eight. The loss bore heavily on the Lewis brothers, prompting Warren to write this in his diary on the day of Williams’s death: “[T]he blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again.” Outside of Williams’s friends, his family, and a small but dedicated group of readers, his death went largely unnoticed. He continues to go unnoticed by most today, despite the fact that he was an amazing author, as well as a huge influence in the literary world.

I’ve recently taken quite an interest in Mr. Williams, both because he’s simply a fascinating man and because of his novel War in Heaven, which I am currently reading. I hope to post a review of that before long, but for right now, all I will tell you is that Williams is a genius and this book is one of the most original things I’ve ever read.

‘Til next time.


* “A Thanksgiving” by W. H. Auden. From Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, pages 316-317.

** Despite being enamored of Williams, Eliot confessed that he understood very little of his poetry. I’ll repeat: T. S. Eliot found some poems he couldn’t understand.

*** “Was the Oddest Inkling the Key Inkling?” by Thomas Howard. From Christian History, issue 113.

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10 thoughts on “The “Eminently Combustible” Mister Williams

  1. What a very good summary! I can’t imagine anyone who is captured by the almost irresistible title being disappointed by what follows.

    By way of a footnote, the latest Journal of Inklings Studies (Vol 5, No 1, April 2015) has an article by Aren Roukema with more detailed information about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross than has ever been published before, after which you are still perfectly accurate in saying, “To this day, scholars are unsure of why Williams left the group”!

    I look forward to your War in Heaven review. (I think it was The Mystery of King Arthur (1975) by Elizabeth Jenkins that got me consciously aware of Williams, and War in Heaven was the first novel of his I read, and I still think it a very good place to start.)

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    1. Thank you for your very kind words.

      Wow. I know Williams is a very obscure author, but it amazes me how much is still unknown about him!

      I hope to finish War in Heaven by the end of this coming week and the review should be ready some time shortly after that. I actually wouldn’t know about Williams at all if I hadn’t stumbled across Sørina Higgins’s blog The Oddest Inkling. There, she recommended War in Heaven for the first-time Williams reader. I also had a friend who is a pretty big Williams fan egging me on. She says War in Heaven is one of her favorite Williams novels.

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      1. We are about to learn a lot more when Grevel Lindop’s new biography, Charles Williams; The Third Inkling, for the Oxford University Press, appears – probably this autumn.

        I think a big reason that so little has been known is that different people who knew him were ‘working on him’ themselves, and for one reason and another, not managing to get what they were working on published, and not sharing their ‘work in progress’ or its sources with each other, or just not making those sources available in libraries, yet. So, in that sense, things couldn’t really even ‘start to happen’ until the 1970s. And even when libraries like the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, and the Bodleian in Oxford, or the Williams Society, had received papers, they still had to fit cataloguing them – and so making them more accessible – into their over-all workload. Another reason is the ‘sensitive nature’ of some of those sources, so that some have had ‘not available before such-and-such a date’ put on them as a condition of their going to a library. I think something similar is the case with the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross material, where part of the ‘sensitivity’ is respecting the secrecy of a ‘secret society’.

        Sørina Higgins’s blog is a great resource – the single greatest on the internet where Williams is concerned – and will surely go on being that in new ways, as more becomes known about him and his work!

        I agree with your friend – I think War in Heaven is still my favorite of his novels. I’d egg you on to consider trying Many Dimensions, next, as it is in some ways a sort of sequel to War in Heaven, though very different in lots of other ways.

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        1. Thanks for reminding me about Grevel Lindop’s biography. I had heard about it one time ages ago, but I hadn’t found any more information about it since. I was beginning to wonder if Lindop was still going to publish it or not.

          I think I might try Many Dimensions some time after I finish War in Heaven, though I’ve also been curious about Williams’s verse drama The Chapel of the Thorn. I’ve heard a little about the story (again, from Sørina Higgins) and it sounds fascinating.

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        2. It is fascinating: it’s a joy that Sørina Higgins has made it available! And I think it might also be a very good choice to read next after War in Heaven, not least with an eye to comparing and contrasting some of the characters (for instance, Amael with both Gregory Persimmons and Dmitri Lavrodopoulos) and the uses of the theme of attitudes to a sacred relic of Christ’s Passion.

          Another interesting thing is that it was written before Williams had direct personal contact with Waite and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (though he may have known Waite’s The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909) by then).

          And Williams was busy with The Chapel again not so very long before he started to try his hand at writing novels, so it does not seem too far-fetched to think it may have been percolating around in his mind and helping stimulate his new undertaking.

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  2. Thank you for this excellent summary! It’s very clear and well written.

    I hate to say this, as I edited “The Chapel of the Thorn,” but I’m not sure it’s the best piece to read next. It’s certainly not as compelling — for me — as the novels. But whatever you read next, do let me know what you think about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading it!

      I’ll keep that in mind. I know Williams’s verse especially has a reputation for being very inaccessible, so maybe I’ll read a few more novels first and work my way up to the poetry.

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