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

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