Reading Charles Williams: A Prolegomena

The work of Charles Walter Stanley Williams (1888-1945) is not likely to spawn a blockbuster motion picture, although I would like to see one of the better directors such as Wim Wenders or Guillermo Del Toro take a crack at All Hallow’s Eve. He is a cinematic practioner of what is called Magical Realism, and could come close to the eerie sense of Supernaturalism interpenetrating and existing “under, with, and in” the elements of ordinary waking life that is the food and drink of Williams’ work.

Charles Williams doesn’t enjoy the celebrity of his better known colleagues among the Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis for several reasons. First of all, I don’t believe that he is nearly as good a writer of prose as either Lewis or Tolkien. There is a lot of churn in his narrative, it is hard to tell sometimes what is going on, and he has the bad habit of obscuring his thought with what appears to be a private language.

This is especially true when he treats religious or theological material. At times he can be deciphered when he refers to a well-defined dogma of the Church in a new or novel way, but what keeps me coming back to Williams is the suspicion that, buried in the idiosyncracies of his language are orthodox truths that have been neglected or under-scrutinized and that Williams alone of all his contemporaries has been mining these neglected nodes and wrenching some fresh jewels from them.

A second complaint that I have about Williams is that his characters are not very well developed. Now that I think about it, vivid characterization is not a hallmark of either Lewis or Tolkien either. Puddleglum is Lewis’ best fictional creation, as Éowyn is Tolkien’s. Puddleglum doesn’t attain to much more than a burlesque, and Éowyn is a very minor character. If you want vivid characters, you’re better off reading Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene.

But Williams’ characters are even more iconic than anything in Lewis or Tolkien. Quite often, they exist to illustrate or incarnate one or another of the theological virtues or one or another of the Seven Deadly Sins. Justice or Temperance is who leaps off the pages at you, not a just or temperate person. And those are the good characters. Whereas in Tolkien, the evil characters have an industrial proletarian cast to them, and Lewis’ evil characters are usually consumed by some evil ideology, Williams’ villains are stultifyingly bland.

Then, finally, for Evangelical readers, Williams is obscure because he is the least Evangelical of the Inklings, as Lewis is the most. In Williams’ novels, the evil machinations of the villains are almost always undone not by heroic virtue or right belief, but often by simple courtesy, kindness, or pardon; the sort that would be sought by a middle-class housewife of her neighbor after her dog had dug up her neighbor’s gladiolas. Natural virtue gets short shrift, referred to as “works-righteousness’ or “filthy rags”, but it takes a Williams to get us to notice that natural virtue was God’s original plan, and that the small, insignificant acts of goodness we perform every day can be transformed by grace to become the building blocks of an unshakeable castle.

(from ‘A Mule In The Chapter House’ – Another (and far more literate) Inklings Blog) 7th June 2007

Jack and Joy

Joy (then) Gresham at her second meeting (September 1952) with Jack and Warnie, on being given a single glass of sherry before their meal, “I call this civilized. In the States, they give you so much hard stuff that you start the meal drunk and end with a hangover.” She attacked modern American literature... “Mind you, I wrote that sort of bunk myself when I was young. Small farm life was the only good life", she said. Jack spoke up then. Saying that, on his father’s side, he came from farming stock, “I felt that,” she said.“Where else could you get the vitality?”

George Sayer, ‘Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times’

Assessing Lewis as a broadcaster

Lewis made the connection with the audience as strongly as he could in this first broadcast. He insists that he is not preaching, and in common failings such as broken promises and excuses for bad behaviour he is no different to anyone else. He ends by saying that we can't shake off the idea that we know how to behave but in practice don't do so. We break the Law of Nature. Realising this is in fact the basis for all clear thinking.

The first talk set the tone for the remainder of the series. Lewis had found a style that suited him and the listener. It was direct, colloquial and intellectually challenging. Only one recording survives of a single talk from Lewis's eventual four series for the BBC. There is a simple explanation for this. Live broadcasts offered a number of critical advantages over pre-recorded talks. First, a live talk has an immediacy and direct conversational approach that a pre-recorded broadcast can seldom match.

Second, once cleared by the censor, a talk could be broadcast without delay. A pre-recorded talk might need to be re-recorded if circumstances had changed between the recording and broadcast.

Third, recording was an expensive process. All recordings were made on"twelve-inch metal discs with a coating of cellulose acetate. A steel needle cut the sound track into the disc, producing four minutes of airtime. With metal a costly and scarce resource, recordings were not made of studio broadcasts unless there was a special justification such as historic interest. Reporters in the field had to rely on discs entirely however to record the sounds of war.

C.S. Lewis at the BBC
P 121.

C.S. Lewis' first broadcast

Every one has heard people quarrelling. . . . 'That's my seat, I was there first' - 'Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm' - 'Why should you shove me in first?' - 'Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine' - 'How'd you like it if anyone did the same to your' — 'Come on, you promised.'

The point Lewis makes is that each of us appeals to or falls back upon a standard of behaviour to which we hold others to account. We may call it lots of things, decency or fair-play, or even morality, The point of a quarrel is to prove someone else is wrong and you are right, This makes no sense unless both sides have some agree¬ment of what is right and what is wrong, just as a foul in football, for instance, means nothing unless both sides are playing to the same rules.

The rest of the talk follows in the same vein, probing and cla¬rifying, using plenty of illustrations that would ring true. He under¬lines the assumption we make that the human idea of decent behaviour is universal. If not, then all that is said about the war is nonsense: 'What is the sense in saying the enemy are in the wrong unless right is a real thing which the Germans at bottom know as well as we do and ought to practise?' This sentence, written at the height of the war, is simply put into the past tense when published in Mere Christianity. The ideas that Lewis explores on natural law do not date with the passage of time. One of the keys to Lewis's appeal was his willingness to identify wholly with the listener and to reject any sense of preaching or speaking down to people. He says that none of us succeeds in keeping the law of nature. 'If there are any exceptions among you', he tells the listener, 'I apologise to them. They'd better switch on to another station, for nothing I'm going to say concerns them.' It takes a brave broadcaster to invite listeners to switch off. Lewis could take the risk because he knew that no listeners would consider themselves to be morally perfect, certainly not in August 1941.

Justin Phillips
C.S. Lewis at the BBC
(p. 120)