Williams was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and his working life was in London and Oxford (during W.W.II), at the Oxford University Press. He was well known in literary and academic circles at the time, but his works are relatively little known now.
The Charles Williams Society was founded in England in 1975, thirty years after his sudden death at the end of the Second World War. It exists to celebrate Charles Williams and to provide a forum for the exchange of views and information about his life and work.
- President: The Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Chairman: Dr Brian Horne
- Secretary: Revd Dr Richard Sturch.
A GAPS-based group has been set up with the object of enjoying Williams’s works and introducing more people in New Zealand to this author. Some may like to join the CW Society.
‘Mysteries of the created order’
People who may be aware of ‘The Inklings’ group of literary people of the mid-twentieth century, will know that C.S. Lewis was one of the number, as also J. R. R. Tolkien, and perhaps that Dorothy L. Sayers was on the fringe. Not so well known names are Charles Williams; and Owen Barfield. My own awareness of Williams came some 40 years ago through reading C. S. Lewis, who was his personal friend, and I joined the Charles Williams Society when I was in England in 1996. Study of his literary works has been enriching and enjoyable.
Charles Williams was from an unprivileged middle-class background, and his working life was spent at the Oxford University Press. His extraordinary power as a thinker and communicator brought him invitations to lecture at Oxford University. His writings range over various genres and fields, but all are full of his deep insights on humanity and deity, time and eternity, matter and spirit, personal exchange and love.
As a poet his main body of work is regarded as the great twentieth-century retelling of the Arthurian romance. He produced a lot of literary reviews and criticism; and a most inspiring and stimulating commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy, called The Figure of Beatrice. He could articulate thoughts about love as few writers can, because his understanding of the world, of ideas, and experience, of all things, was so coherent and integrated, and informed by theology—an early work is a theology of Romantic Love. His short books on theological themes focus on vital truths from his special perspective. He wrote plays, and seven novels which are a source of endless pleasure and provoke erudite discussion.
A Cambridge academic and poet, Glen Cavaliero, comments:
Intellect, intelligence, lucidity, precision—these are qualities that arouse his enthusiasm and which he aimed for in his own writings. And with those gifts comes the capacity to pay attention, to contemplate and scrutinize the mysteries of the created order.
And, again, prefacing the essay collection, The Image of the City:
For those readers who discover his work at the commencement of a century beset by the collapse of traditional and political and social dichotomies, by the ever increasing capabilities of genetic engineering and the untrammeled knowledge available through computerised technology, it can provide a vision of the all-inclusive origin of human consciousness and its physical environment that encompasses the processes of change, however emancipating or threatening they may appear to be. (The Charles Williams Quarterly, 124, 2007. pp.14, 17.)
It is rather hard to find second-hand copies of his books; but some have been, or are being, republished. It is a pity he is not more widely known—fuller recognition is perhaps still to come. I first found one of his novels in a second-hand book exchange in Onehunga. I was excited by it, and by all the others; and my admiration has increased as I have seen how they are the imaginative outworking of his profound ideas which inform his poetry and are explicit in his non-fiction writings.
The Charles Williams Quarterly publication has excellent articles, and I have a set from 1995 to the present. The Society’s website is www.charleswilliamssociety.org.uk
Charles Williams is one of seven authors to whom another journal is dedicated, SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review, published by the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois. This often has articles on his works.
GAPS ARTS have offered studies in the works of Charles Williams since the beginning of 2011, and these will continue on an occasional basis.
Prof. Emeritus Stephanie Hollis recalls that in the 1960s there was an enthusiastic group of Auckland University students who met to study Williams's works. She and Michael Wright, also of the English Department, have been generously giving their support and expertise.
Copies of his works are available on loan—the Auckland University Library, and Auckland City Libraries, as well as some other libraries, also have his works.
All are welcome to attend and participate in the GAPS meetings. Come and enjoy this outstanding, and largely overlooked writer.
SELECTED PUBLISHED WORKS OF CHARLES WILLIAMS
- War in Heaven (London, Gollancz, 1930)
- Many Dimensions (London: Gollancz, 1931)
- The Place of the Lion (London: Gollancz, 1931)
- The Greater Trumps (London: Gollancz, 1932)
- Shadows of Ecstasy (London: Gollancz, 1933)
- Descent to Hell (London: Faber and Faber, 1937)
- All Hallows’ Eve (London: Faber and Faber, 1945)
- The House of the Octopus (London: Edinburgh House, 1945)
- ‘Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury’, in Four Modern Verse Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957 (1936))
Poetry and Poetry Criticism:
- The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (London: Faber and Faber, 1943)
- Arthurian Poets: Charles Williams (Collected Poems) (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1991)
- Arthurian Torso, Containing the Posthumous Fragment of ‘The Figure of Arthur,’ by Charles Williams, and a Commentary on the Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams, by C. S. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948)
- The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (London: Faber and Faber, 1939)
- He Came Down from Heaven, and The Forgiveness of Sins (London: Faber and Faber, 1950)
- Outlines of Romantic Theology, and Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990)
- The Image of the City, and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
- Brian Horne, ed., Charles Williams: A Celebration (Leominster: Gracewing, 1995). 18 biographical and critical essays.
- Alice Mary Hadfield, Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
This quite short novel was first published in 1931, the third of Williams’s seven novels. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that the novels, ‘take place upon the borderline between two worlds, the gateway by which the eternal irrupts into the temporal.’ There are consequences of ‘the loosing into the natural world of … supernatural powers.’ In each case, some kind of ‘unlawful attempt’ is made ‘to seize and possess the metaphysical powers and make use of them’.
Sayers placed Williams ‘in the great tradition whose activity runs down through Dante and Donne from St Paul, exploring and expounding the Affirmative Way.’
This evening is designed to give you a good appreciation of an unduly neglected author. If you have not yet read the novel, come, and this will be a great introduction to it.
- Stephanie Hollis, B.A, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland. Before retirement she was Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
- Rebecca Hayward, M.A, M.Phil, PhD, is a tutor in the English Department at Massey University. Her interests include medieval literature and medievalism.
- Loan copies of the novel are in the Auckland City Library, Auckland University Library, and St John’s Theological College Library, and from John Lewis, subject to availability.
Imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark set in twentieth-century London, and written by a man steeped not in Hollywood movies but in Dante and the things of the spirit, and you might begin to get a picture of Charles Williams’s 1931 novel Many Dimensions.
There is a trinity of noted twentieth-century British authors who wrote fantasy on Christian themes. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis need no introduction, but this is not true of Charles Williams (1886-1945). Like his colleagues, he was associated with Oxford (at the University Press) and was a member of the Inklings literary circle. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, he is known less for his own works than for the reputation of his admirers. T.S. Eliot was a friend: he wrote an admiring Introduction to Williams’s novel, All Hallows’ Eve. C.S. Lewis got many of the more occult ideas for his fiction from Williams. —Ruth Peterson
This evening is designed to bring you into a close encounter with Many Dimensions, even if you have not yet read it. If you would like to have a copy of the text please email John Lewis.
- Ruth Peterson, M.Ed.(Hons.) (Massey), is Regional Manager for the Northern Hub of Ako Aotearoa, improving quality in teaching for educational providers and outcomes for learners.
Indispensable to the study of any works of literature, painting or architecture, is the reading of and encounter with the works themselves. This evening is designed to encourage this through the reading of one of Williams’s seven novels, War in Heaven. We hope you will have a chance to read it beforehand, but otherwise subsequently. Discussion of it will be led by Glenys Yeoman.
Like all his highly imaginative novels it provokes our awareness of good and evil, and also of the interactions between physical and spiritual realities. The plot, set in 20th century England involves the Holy Grail.
Reading copies of this quite short novel are available on loan (subject to demand!). Please contact John Lewis (ph. 828 5579). Auckland University Library, Auckland Public Library, and Laidlaw College Library also have copies.
This meeting is an attempt to discover and connect people in Auckland, and New Zealand, who may already have an interest in Williams, or are curious about him. It is hoped this will be the beginning of at least occasional gatherings, and a network which could include those out of Auckland.
There is a plethora of new books published, yet I derive greatest satisfaction from authors of half a century ago (and more), whose works stand the test of time. Williams is one whose mind and imagination have the clarity and richness that make returning to his writings (see list above) full of possibilities of new connections and deeper understanding. Above all he has something worth saying. He draws one into sharper awareness of humanity, of love and participation, connectedness, and the social city; of good and evil. I will give an introduction to the man and his works - in particular:
Medieval references & modern relevance
Emertius Professor Stephanie Hollis (English Dept, Auckland) will give a reading from one of Williams's poems:
"The Founding of the Company"
We can gain a useful perspective on Williams's thought and art by considering the major focus on medieval imagination and literature of his outstanding works of literary criticism (on Dante) and poetry (Arthurian cycle). Although he was writing some three-quarters of a century ago, his insights are timeless and vitally relevant; they merit attention, and provide much enjoyment.
Handouts of two short published articles which provide a background are available.