Of Rowan and Charles Williams

Where Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky (excerpt)

Rowan Williams divides us, even those who are not church hobbyists with an obsession (pro or anti) with gay bishops.

Some, such as myself, rejoice that at the heart of public life, we at last have a person who reads books, who takes the life of the mind seriously, while being so patently a good egg. Others are less sure. Even his fans agree that his utterances can be impenetrably obscure. This must be a drawback in a public figure.

The anti-Rowanites include, paradoxically, both atheist intellectuals, who dislike so clever a man for appearing to side with the most conservative Christians, and those Christians themselves, who suspect that behind the complex rhetoric there lurks a crypto-unbeliever.

"He's someone who's chaotic, sometimes pretentious, sometimes waffly, sometimes unbearably clotted, and yet in the middle of it, there are so many gems."

Who is speaking? Why, it is Rowan Williams himself, speaking of his near-namesake, but no relation, Charles Williams - an obscure taste nowadays, but a strong one.

Charles Williams worked as a publisher all his life. When Auden, still an agnostic, met him, to discuss the Oxford Book of Light Verse, he felt himself in the presence of something like holiness, and began his journey back to faith. Charles Williams wrote long Arthurian poems, and a series of supernatural thrillers, including one which culminates in a Eucharist celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Ah! The great Mass in Lambeth Palace!" exclaims the Archbishop, clapping his hands in delight, and smiling beneath the huge bushy eyebrows. He does not on this occasion speak - though he has written about them - of Charles Williams's peculiar mingling of piety and concupiscence, and Dantean crushes - sometimes out of control - on office secretaries at the Oxford University Press.

Like the subject of the Archbishop's latest book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Williams was not an entirely savoury character. Were the Archbishop to present either Williams (chainsmoking lover of women and member of the Order of the Golden Dawn) or Dostoevsky (gambler, political prisoner, anti-Semite) to colleagues on the General Synod, there would probably be some prim intakes of breath.

I thought of these things, as I was led into the presence of the bardic Archbishop at Lambeth, and remembered the spluttered outburst of disapproval that I heard last year from a senior layman.

"He's supposed to be the Archbishop of Canterbury! The Church of England is collapsing around his ears! And where is he? In America for two months! Writing a book about Dostoevsky!" The speaker's tone suggested that it was bad enough for the Archbishop to be taking any time off, but to be writing about a novelist who did not even have the decency to be English - well, that really took the biscuit.

Yet the Church of England has not collapsed - not quite, anyway. And the result of the Archbishop's sabbatical in the United States is a splendid book on the wild, strange genius of Dostoevsky.

A N Wilson discovers why, amid turmoil in the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury has written a book about one of his literary passions: Dostoevsky

Daily Telegraph – 27th September 2008 (Introduction)

Evelyn Underhill

In the same way she was devoted to flowers and birds, as to all living creatures, and had a keen interest in archaeology. She and her husband often arranged their holidays with these concerns in view. Thus they went in one year to Monte Generoso for the sake of the Alpine flowers, and in other years to Drummond Castle and Malham Tarn for the sake of the English. She had a passion for mountains, though she saw a certain irrationality in her ardour - "they are only heaps of earth." But if the Omnipotence deigned so to create, why not adore the Omnipotence and (in another kind) the creation? So, and not otherwise, the single operation proceeded in her.

In 1921 she gave the Upton Lectures on Religion at Manchester College, Oxford; they were afterwards published as The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day. She was also a member of Copec and made a contribution to one of its published reports. She was now generally recognized not only as a "great Christian writer" but as a person capable of communicating spiritual initiative and power.

From the Introduction to:~
The Letters of Evelyn Underhill (1943) -
Edited with an Introduction by Charles Williams


Sybil Coningsby stepped out into the storm and tried to see before her. It was becoming very difficult, and the force of the wind for the moment staggered and even distressed her. She yielded to it a little both in body and mind; she knew well that to the oppositions of the world she could in herself offer no certain opposition. As her body swayed and let itself move aside under the blast, she surrendered herself to the only certain thing that her life had discovered: she adored in this movement also the extreme benevolence of Love. She sank before the wind, but not in impotence; rather as the devotee sinks before the outer manifestations of the God that he may be made more wholly one with that which manifests. Delaying as if both she and it might enjoy the exquisite promise of its arrival, it nevertheless promised, and, as always, came. She recovered her balance, swaying easily to each moment's need, and the serene content which it bestowed filled again and satisfied her.

It satisfied, but for no more than the briefest second did she allow herself to remain aware of that. Time to be aware, and to be grateful for that awareness, she enjoyed; literally enjoyed, for both knowledge and thankfulness grew one, and joy was their union, but that union darted out towards a new subject and centre. Darted out and turned in; its occupation was Lothair Coningsby, and Lothair was already within it. It did not choose a new resting-place, but rather ordered its own content, by no greater a movement than the shifting of the accent from one syllable back to the other. So slight a variation as gives the word to any speaker a new meaning gave to this pure satisfaction a new concern. She was intensely aware of her brother; she drew up the knowledge of him from within her, and gave it back within her. In wave after wave the ocean of peace changed its "multitudinous laughter" from one myriad grouping to another. And all, being so, was so.

Charles Williams - The Greater Trumps (1932) - Ch.9 : Sybil

An Inklings Meeting

[Magdalen College, Oxford]

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all.

Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.
Inkling James Dundas-Grant recalls a typical scene: “we sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter . . . . back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point . . . . Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”
John Wain, a former pupil of Lewis’s and an occasional Inkling himself, wrote a hostile account of the group in 1962, stating that they were “politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion . . . in art, frankly hostile to any manifestation of the ‘modern’ spirit”. The surviving Inklings were outraged, but some of Wain’s criticisms seem difficult to repudiate. Here, for example, is Lewis lampooning T. S. Eliot:

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

(Jon Barnes)

An Historical Falsehood

In popular thought, however, the origin of the universe has counted (I think) for less than its character - its immense size and its apparent indifference, if not hostility, to human life. And very often this impresses people all the more because it is supposed to be a modern discovery - an excellent example of those things which our ancestors did not know and which, if they had known them, would have prevented the very beginnings of Christianity.
Here there is a simple historical falsehood. Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space. There is no question here of knowledge having grown until the frame of archaic thought is no longer able to contain it. The real question is why the spatial insignificance of the Earth, after being known for centuries, should suddenly in the last century have become an argument against Christianity. I do not know why this has happened; but I am sure it does not mark an increased clarity of thought, for the argument from size is in my opinion, very feeble.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, "Dogma and the Universe" (1970)
If the Moral Law was one of our instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call 'good,' always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses--say mother love or patriotism--are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother's love for her own children or a man's love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people's children or countries.
Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the 'right' notes and the 'wrong' ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 2 (1952)

Inside 'Songs for Philologists'

There were 30 songs in the collection, J.R.R.Tolkien contributed 13:

'From One to Five'. To be sung to the tune of ‘Three Wise Men of Gotham’.

'Syx Mynet'. In Old English, to be sung to the tune of 'I Love Sixpence'.

'Ruddoc Hana'. In Old English, to be sung to the tune of 'Who Killed Cock Robin'.

'Ides Ælfscýne'. In Old English, to be sung to the tune of ‘Daddy Neptune’. Reprinted, together with a Modern English translation ('Elf-fair Lady') in The Road to Middle-earth.

'Bagm? Blom?'. In Gothic, to be sung to the tune of ‘O Lazy Sheep!’ Reprinted, together with a Modern English translation ('Flower of the Trees') in The Road to Middle-earth.

'Éadig Béo þu!'. In Old English, to be sung to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Reprinted, together with a Modern English translation ('Good Luck to You') in The Road to Middle-earth.

'Ofer Wídne Gársecg'. In Old English, to be sung to the tune of ‘The Mermaid’. Reprinted, together with a Modern English translation ('Across the Broad Ocean') in The Road to Middle-earth.

'La Húru'. To be sung to the tune of ‘O’ Reilly’.

'I Sat upon a Bench'. To be sung to the tune of ‘The Carrion Crow’.

'Natura Apis: Morali Ricardi Eremite'.
Also to be sung to the tune of ‘O’Reilly’.

'The Root of the Boot'. To be sung to the tune of ‘The Fox Went Out’. Reprinted in Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit, and in a revised form in The Return of the Shadow.
Also reprinted in The Tolkien Papers: Mankato Studies in English. Later revised and printed in The Lord of the Rings and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil as 'The Stone Troll'.

'Frenchmen Froth'.
To be sung to the tune of ‘The Vicar of Bray’.

'Lit' and Lang''. To be sung to the tune of ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’.

The above information is a summary of that given in Hammond’s Descriptive Bibliography (Pages 293 & 294).

Songs for the philologists is privately printed in the Department of English at University College, London, in 1936. It is the first and only edition, 8vo (214mm.), pp. iv, 30, [2]; orig. printed pale blue wrappers, saddle-stitched; with staples. The text is in both English and Anglo-Saxon and is printed in both Roman and Anglo-Saxon types. On the verso of the title: "Printed by G. Tillotson, A.H. Smith, B. Pattison and other members of the English Department,

Songs for Philologists

When asking a Tolkien collector which book is the most precious book in his collection, it will probably be a perfect first edition of the Lord of the Rings, a signed book, like a Silmarillion signed by Christopher Tolkien, or a nice reading copy of an old the Hobbit (like I treasure one, just because it was the one all started with). Yet when asked what would be the most rare Tolkien book out there, the answer would probably be "The Songs for the Philologists".

In Leeds J.R.R.Tolkien and E.V.Gordon founded a a "Viking Club" for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer. It was for this club that Tolkien and Gordon originally wrote their Songs for the Philologists, a set of duplicated typescripts, containing a mixture of traditional songs and original verses translated into Old English, Old Norse and Gothic to fit traditional English tunes.

In 1935 or 1936 Dr A.H. Smith of University College London, former student at Leeds, gave a copy of one of the typescripts to a group of students to print at their private press as a printing exercise. There for we can assume there were not many copies printed originally. He later realized that he had not asked for permission from Tolkien or Gordon, so the completed booklets were not distributed. Most of the copies were destroyed in a fire at the college where the press and copies of the book were stored, but evidently some copies survived, perhaps retained by the students who printed them. The number that survive is not known, but is very small, perhaps as few as 14.

The Doctrine of Substituted Love

It spoke of sights and sounds, touches and thrills, and of entire oblivion of harm; nothing was to be that she did not will, and everything that she willed, to the utmost fullness of her heart, should be. She would be enough for herself. She could dream for ever, and her dream should for ever be made real. "Come soon," it said, "come now. I'll wait for you here. In a few minutes you'll be free, and then you'll come; you shall be back soon. Give me your hand and I'll give you a foretaste now." A hand came into hers, a pulse against her wrist beat with significance of breathless abandonment to delirious joy. She delayed in a tremulous and pleasurable longing.

"But how?" she murmured, "how can all this happen? how do I know what I want? I've never thought ... I don't know anyone . . . and to be alone. . . ."

"Give me your hand," the other said, "then come and dream, till you discover, so soon, the ripeness of your dream." She paused, and added, "You'll never have to do anything for others any more."

It was the last touch, and false, false because of the habit of her past and because of Stanhope's promise. The fountain of beauty had sprung upward in a last thrust; it broke against the arched roof of his world, and the shock stung her into coldness. Never have to do anything--and she had been promising herself that she would carry someone's parcel as hers had been carried, that she would be what he said she could. Like it or not, it had been an oath; rash or wise it stood.

Charles Williams “Descent into Hell”
Ch. 6 - The Doctrine of Substituted Love

Lewis on Continual Assessment by Examination

[Examination Schools in Oxford - 'Schools' as they are known to generation of students]

Lewis writes to Dr. Warfield Firor about grading Scholarship Examinations at the end of the term:
...But there is something about this endless examining, quite apart from the labour, which bothers me. It sets me wondering about the whole system under which you, as well as we, now live. Behind all these closely written sheets which I have to read every year, even behind the worst of them, lie hours of hard, long work. Even the bad candidates are doing their best and have been trained up to this ever since they went to school. And naturally enough: for in the Democracies now, as formerly in China under the mandarin system, success in competitive examinations is the only moyen de parvenir*, the road from elementary school to the better schools, and thence to college, and thence to the professions. (You still have a flourishing alternative route to desirable jobs through business which is largely disappearing with us: but it is at least equally competitive).
This of course is what Democratic education means -- give them all an equal start and let the winners show their form. Hence Equality of Opportunity in practice means ruthless competition during those very years which, I can't help feeling, nature meant to be free and frolicsome. Can it be good, from the age of 10 to the age of 23, to be always preparing for an exam, and always knowing that your whole worldly future depends on it: and not only knowing it, but perpetually reminded of it by your parents and masters? Is this the way to breed a nation of people in psychological, moral, and spiritual health? (N.B. boys are now taught to regard Ambition as a virtue. I think we shall find that up to the XVIIIth Century, and back into Pagan times, all moralists regarded it as a vice and dealt with it accordingly).
* moyen de parvenir = "way to arrive"
C.S. Lewis, Letter to Warfield M. Firor Dec 3 1950, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III (2007)