Walking down a green path, whether in a city park or wilderness, it is hard not to be reminded of Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit or of Frodo and Company in The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion has had the same effect on some of us. Tolkien evoked our biophilia, our connection with green and wild things. Now we have vivid images of movie characters and orchestrated movie melodies going through our minds. But some of the best parts of The Lord of the Rings were left out of the movies; early scenes when the hobbits set out to visit the elves. The hobbits came from an agrarian culture linked to the Earth. The green world of Middle Earth was home to all sorts of magical creatures, many of which found their way into the Dungeons & Dragons Monsters Guide. One can imagine that our heroes are setting out to protect the wild when they venture through lush, green forests.
Before Peter Jackson's movies, one could imagine all the beautiful and frightful creatures the characters find along their way, but much of the charm of Middle Earth is missing from a film almost entirely about war. There were walking, talking trees with their historical sorrows, the impervious Bombadills, and monsters like the barrow wights and ringwraiths. However, there were also many things that we have come to appreciate, including the countryside. Many Tolkien fans return repeatedly to that exciting and wondrous place that is Middle Earth, but they may be doing themselves a disservice. It's not that Tolkien is not worth re-reading—
Walking in the countryside was an English pastime that fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis also enjoyed. Like Tolkien, Lewis was a veteran who was concerned with technological developments. Some considered them Luddites, but the term is not derogatory to those who appreciate their experiences in the green world and worry about the dark rise of technology and what it might mean to those beloved spaces. Few would argue that technological development has been solely a blessing. The Inklings, a literary group of Christian apologists and writers, were able to reach something in us—
Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, who started out in academia, Charles Williams got his start as a proofreader at Oxford University Press. Williams, an Anglican, was an urban writer with less interest in the natural outdoors. One would not call him—
Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945) is considered a difficult writer, but many readers come to his writing without the available tools necessary to understand him. Perhaps, like many other writers, he benefits from a second reading. Also, his book covers tend to lack descriptive text, which can be helpful in keeping track of key characters in a complex fantasy book.
Of interest are his seven complicated novels and some of his Arthurian Poetry that can be better evaluated by others. Eerdmans Publishing, who republished William works in the 1980s, printed this introduction:
Charles Williams, who died in the summer of 1945 at the age of fifty-nine, was a man of unusual genius in several kinds of writing. His work included poetry, drama, literary criticism, and several important volumes in the field of theology. In addition he wrote a series of seven remarkable novels.
There is nothing in fiction quite like these novels. They may be described as supernatural thrillers, "popular" novels in the best sense, by a man who had something important and quite individual to say. Their plots are adventurous and breathless, their scenes sometimes entrancing and sometimes horrifying. There are pages which describe, with frightful clarity, the deterioration and damnation of a human soul, and pages which describe the triumphant struggle toward salvation.
Williams believed intensely in the impingement of the supernatural world, and he excelled in descriptions of experiences such as many people have had only once or twice in their lives.
The supernatural was part of the world Williams lived in and wrote about. T.S. Eliot, in the introduction to All Hallows' Eve, wrote of him:
For him there was no frontier between the material and spiritual world. Had I ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, I should have felt secure with Williams in my company: he was somehow protected from evil, and was himself a protectionů. He does not merely persuade us to believe in something, he communicates this experience that he has had. (The Greater Trumps, page xiii-xv)
Williams is a definite change of pace from heroic and epic medieval fantasy. Original for his day, he is also a window into the past. So here with the help of Inklings Scholar Thomas T. Howard (1983) are the descriptions of William's seven novels, to facilitate a reading of his works by Inkling fans who would like a better understanding of the debt Tolkien and Lewis owe him. Hopefully there are no spoilers here. With back cover blurbs like these, one may not need to read him twice or thrice to fully gather what is taking place in his complicated narratives. Would we rather read like we are studying or read for fun?
War in Heaven (1930)
Nothing less than The Holy Grail is found and at stake in this exciting tale of theological adventure set in England. Archdeacon Julian Davenant must hold off a cast of characters including murderers, sadists, and pursuers of the occult, some of whom seek to destroy the Grail, others merely to possess it for personal gain. At odds are the forces of evil and those of heaven. Davenant serves as a moral anchor in a world that has gone awry and in need of divine help, but is help on the way? And what shape will it take?
Many Dimensions (1931)
Hajji Ibrahim, representative of The Keepers from Persia, has arrived in England to recover The Stone which has been taken from the crown of the King of Jerusalem. It has fallen into the hands of Sir Giles Tumulty and others who seek to profit from it. The Stone, which can be divided into identical parts, has written on it the four letters of the Tetragrammaton—
The Place of the Lion (1931)
As the Platonic archetypal animal kingdom, in the forms of the lion, eagle, butterfly, and phoenix, enters the world of the mundane English countryside, a love triangle ensues. Anthony Durrant will take on the challenge that the new animal visitors represent. Quentin Sabot, frightened by a lion he saw on a walk through the countryside, will choose a different path, which will lead him to Ms. Damaris Tighe. Ultimately it is the intellectual Damaris Tighe who must face the challenge of salvation.
The Greater Trumps (1932)—
Preface by William Lindsay Gresham
The blurb on the Regent College Publishing edition is below. The preface by William Lindsay Gresham (a child of Joy Davidman Gresham, who married C.S. Lewis) makes the reading less confusing, but we are still in need of character names:
The Tarot pack, the ancestor of all playing cards, is first mentioned in history in 1393; the origin of the deck is not known. Tradition has it that the gypsies brought the Tarot from Egypt and that the cards were used for fortune telling. This deck was conceived of as having magical properties, and the most powerful of all the cards were the Magic Arcana or Greater Trumps, twenty-two symbolic pictures whose mysteries have been interpreted and reinterpreted not only by occultists, but also by religious thinkers, psychoanalysts and literary anthropologists. Perhaps the most exquisite of these interpretations is the one contained in this extraordinary novel. (Regent College Publishing)
Here with characters names:
Fortune teller Henry Lee invites his fiancé, Nancy Coningsby, and members of her family to his Grandfather Aaron's house for his second reading of the Tarot cards. What follows springs from the reading of the magical Tarot which directs their actions and also judges the players assembled. Nancy's father Lothair must avoid damnation. Nancy, who has new visions, seeks love and salvation. Fools, Lovers, Hermits and others have assembled. Most must choose to participate in The Dance of Love even though it may be deadly for some this time.
Shadows of Ecstasy (1933)
In Williams' first novel, explorer Nigel Considine has returned from Africa to assail England. With him he brings a powerful witchcraft which has kept him from aging these twenty years. To assist him in Britain he draws on the help of Zulu King Inkamasa and others. Considine wishes to take a short cut to ecstasy, and offers his followers conquest over death. Considine, with dark witchcraft, challenges English rationalism and the age of intellect. Those who follow him into temptation may also suffer damnation, but they may not be seeking redemption anyway. At stake is the future of England.
Descent Into Hell (1937)
At Battle Hill, England, which is haunted by its past and a recent suicide, a pastoral masque play is performed which sets the audience, who would have preferred a comedy instead, further adrift into their melancholy. Pauline Anstruther, whose ancestor was burned at the stake as a martyr, is haunted by a fearful doppelganger. Historian Lawrence Wentworth dreams of a descending rope which leads to hell, and when thwarted in love, attracts a succubus. At Battle Hill the fear of sheer goodness has become rampant for some. Though some will find salvation, others may find cast before them the very damnation of their choosing.
All Hallows' Eve (1945)—
Introduction by T.S. Eliot
After the bombings of World War II, purgatory ghosts Lester Furnival and Evelyn Mercer, now an odd pair of girl friends, explore the now silent city of London. A dark force has arrived in the form of Father Simon who will experiment upon his own daughter, Betty Wallingford (who went to school with Lester and Evelyn), in an attempt to gain power over death. Judgement still awaits the two ghosts who have a chance at redemption, and materialistic Lester finds she must learn to appreciate people, even her living husband Richard, more than things. Evelyn is tempted by the dark secrets Father Simon seeks. On Halloween night, the Eve of all Saint's Day, a glorious force has gathered, but will love and salvation prevail?
William's depictions of Jews in his works may be considered anti-Semitic, though Thomas Howard does not make this argument. His depictions also can be used to illustrate the prejudicial views that European society harbored toward the Jews. They are proof that anti-Semitism was common. These are Anglophone texts. Thomas Howard's use of the word "Mumbo Jumbo" to describe magic shows a lack of belief in the occult and supernatural, despite the fact that he clearly does not seek to criticize Christian beliefs.
Howard's accounts of the books are fascinating, and help provide the background necessary to understand the supernatural elements that play such a large part in Williams' narratives. Howard's accounts can also help summarize what has transpired in Williams' novels. In reading Williams, one learns an answer to the mystery of why publishers leave empty pages at the end of a book for "notes."
Williams wrote about the things we were trying to escape from rather than trips out into the fantastic. Most of the action in Williams novels is between people and remains indoors. His poetic language keeps readers involved in the texts, even if some of the details of the story are lost.
T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and C.S. Lewis were among his distinguished friends and literary sponsors, but Tolkien had his problems with Williams and eventually C.S. Lewis as well.
For epic adventure, Tolkien; for theological explorations, Lewis; but to probe the dark places of the soul and the magical and haunted world around us, you may be better off with their predecessor, Charles Williams. War with clearly drawn battle lines is easier to follow, but for other settings, whether they be churches or old castles, one may prefer Williams' chilling tales about redemption and damnation. Williams' poetic language may redeem his novels, but in the words of Thomas T. Howard: "Williams' fiction does not make for a quiet evening by the fire."