Sunday, 19 May 2013

Was Charles Williams the grey eminence behind the Inklings - an hypothesis sketched


I think it is possible to construct a scenario by which Charles Williams is seen as the moving force behind the Inklings.

I am not at all sure whether this is true - but it is perhaps possible, and there is some evidence in its support.


If it is agreed that 1936 was the key year in which Lewis and Tolkien became serious and ambitious about their writings, and began to work together on some kind of 'project' (to reconnect modern man with mythology)

then it is possible that this increase in seriousness and ambition was triggered by Williams' novel The Place of the Lion


Indeed, another route for Williams influence may have existed via Fr Gervase Matthew - who met Charles Williams in London in early 1936 (according to AM Hadfield's biography of 1959), and may by this time have been attending Thursday evening Inklings meetings - as he certainly did later - although precise chronological evidence seems to be lacking.


Having, as I think likely, provided a crucial stimulus to Lewis and Tolkien's writing by the example of Place of the Lion - Williams then reinforced this during the wartime period of late 1939 to early 1945 (when CW died) as a lynch-pin of the Inklings meetings - and also meeting with Lewis and Tolkien as a trio and individually.

What must be remembered is that, although Williams was socially of lower status than Lewis and Tolkien; he was older, and as an author was of much greater status and experience and volume of production; also, both professionally and by personal friendship, Williams was a part of the mainstream prestigious Metropolitan literary world of England.


Add to this Williams' extraordinary charisma and fascination, and it seems probable that (as implied by Diana Pavlac Glyer, in The company they kept) Williams was the dominant figure in those Inklings meeting he attended; not in terms of organizing and controlling the meetings and dictating the subject matter of the conversation (that was surely Jack Lewis), but as the person who was most deferred-to, whose words carried greatest authority.


The fact that Lewis and Tolkien were preparing a Festschrift for Williams, even before he died, seems evidence of this kind of role. Inklings activities in the period after Williams death were at least partly focused on preparing this posthumous volume of Essays presented to Charles Williams.

After 1945, when the young scholar and author John Wain attended Inklings meetings, he said (in the memoir Sprightly Running) that the group had been permanently wounded by the death of Williams - which is indirect evidence for Williams' key role.


Although the Thursday evening Inklings meetings continued another four years (until late 1949) this period was marked by a larger and more variable number of personnel at the meetings, and what seems a less close and intense atmosphere than the war years when the inklings was built around the solid core of the Lewis brothers, Tolkien and Havard - with Williams perhaps providing a crucial binding and inspiring focus.


As I said, I am not sure about this. Certainly, (according to comments in his letters, and the understanding of those who knew him from London) the Inklings seems to have been less important to Williams than it was to Lewis and Tolkien - which could be interpreted as evidence against him having any kind of 'leadership' role.

But on the other hand, Williams need not have been consciously adopting any leadership role, nor need he have subscribed to the Lewis-Tolkien 'project', in order for him to have been a kind of father figure and originator of the Inklings most serious and ambitious aspect.



Bruce Charlton said...


What you write may be part of the truth. However, before the appearance of CW, Lewis and Tolkien were devoted readers of fantasy and science fiction. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet refers explicitly to H. G. Wells, while in a letter lewis says he got the idea for using the science fiction form for spiritual ideas from David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus. I see little reason to suppose any CW influence on the space trilogy except for the final book. Lewis's Great Divorce and CW's All Hallows' Eve have some similarities, but the CSL book came first. If there's any CW influence on Tolkien, it wd be in The Notion Club Papers, which Tolkien didn't finish and which, in terms of his total fictional output, is an anomaly. Verlyn Flieger doesn't seem to think CW influenced it particularly, does she?

Reply from Bruce Charlton said...

@W - What you say is true enough - but I am quite impressed by the fact that Lewis and Tolkien 'took off' a writers just when they read Place of the Lion and began contact with Williams. But it could easily be a coincidence.

"Verlyn Flieger doesn't seem to think CW influenced it particularly, does she? "

I happen to have been re-reading Flieger's wonderful 'Question of Time' this week - so I can refute you with a quote!

[p151] - "It is just here that [The Notion Club Papers] takes on its gothic tinge. It becomes in this respect strongly reminiscent of the spiritual thrillers of Tolkien's fellow Inkling Charles Williams, who had no hesitation in moving his characters in and out of alternative realities."

But I don't think Flieger knows all that much about Charles Williams - or at least I haven't seen much from her on the topic. It took me about 25 years to get anywhere with CW, so perhaps it isn't easy unless you are genuinely interested...

Wurmbrand said...

I wonder what Williams would have thought of this:

It sounds a little like a Christian variation on something from the Kabbalah, which might have appealed to CW.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - Goodness knows! My mind went blank about 2/3 - 3/4 way through with the relentless piling-on of paradoxes...

I suppose this whole business depends on metaphysical assumptions. For example: "Heidegger claimed that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was *the* metaphysical question."

... well so what if Heidegger did claim this? since Heidegger was so very wrong about so many things, and was not a Christian!

(Heidegger was a lifelong and idealistic National Socialist - he saw himself as THE spiritual heart of the movement, and stated this in public and in private - that was his religion.)

But more to the point, that is not my own metaphysical intuition - going way back into childhood, I have (nearly) always felt that this was a fake question, and have had no trouble in assuming that the world starts-with stuff already existing.

"Given the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, Christians would seem to have good prima facie grounds for agreeing."

- Yet, of course, many Christians now do not believe this, many Christians throughout history have not believed this - not least because it is not the kind of thing which most people can make any sense from, let alone 'live by'.

If creation ex nihilo is so important to Christianity why was it neither stated explicitly nor unambiguously implied in scripture nor in tradition until a couple of centuries down the line?...

No, creation from nothing is a post hoc philosophical construct introduced to deal with some difficult philosophical implications - it is certainly compatible with Christianity, but nothing like a core belief.

But what would Williams think about the quoted posting?

I don't think he would have liked it much. I think he was mostly driven in his unorthodox theologizing to try and reconcile concepts which were vital to his own creative life, with mainstream Christianity - I think he was trying or hoping to make a somewhat new emphasis within Christianity which would sustain the kind of creative life to which he was dedicated.

It was a delicate balancing act, and in so far as the creative life of CW got the upper hand over Christianity, he went astray.