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 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.