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Esoteric road to salvation

08 July 2008

For this writer, it was alchemy that led to a deeper understanding, says Richard Chartres

Charles Williams: Alchemy and integration
Gavin Ashenden

W. H. AUDEN on the lecture circuit in 1960s America, under contract to Columbia-Giesen-Management, found his ennui relieved by:

A blessed encounter full of joy,
Unscheduled on the Geisen plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There a Charles Williams fan.

A blessed encounter full of joy,
Unscheduled on the Geisen plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There a Charles Williams fan.

But while Tolkien’s fame is now universal, random sampling among literate Londoners suggests that the memory of Charles Williams is fading.

Tolkien's imagination was fed by the sagas and myths of the North-lands. Charles Williams was drawn to Rosicrucian traditions, and at the autumn equinox in 1917 he was admitted to the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, in a ceremony at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square.

For some people the reading of grimoires, and navigation through esoteric byways, can awaken the understanding to knowledge otherwise only dimly apprehended. The focus of Gavin Ashenden’s sympathetic book is on the influence of alchemy on Williams’s thought and writings.

Unhelpful errors are corrected, including the frequently repeated slur that Williams had been a member of the notorious Order of the Golden Dawn; and attention is given particularly to the way in which Williams’s thought developed in a dialogue with the doctrines of A. E. Waite, the hermetic philosopher and historian of Rosicrucianism.

One of the central themes of Williams’s work is subverting what he saw as false alternatives, and opening the frontier posts between the spiritual and the material worlds. In particular, he sought to undermine a spurious asceticism that denigrates the body.

Williams found in alchemy the language of integration, and a treasury of symbolism that pointed beyond the sterile oppositions of modern thought. As his work developed, and his studies of orthodox Christianity, especially Dante, deepened, the obvious Rosicrucian apparatus of his earlier novels is superseded by an integrated re-presentation of the profound and simple mystery of the Christian faith: that we are saved in our neighbour; that we find ourselves to the extent to which we go beyond ourselves and lose ourselves.

In Descent into Hell, Williams sums up his essential position in the statement, “Salvation lay everywhere in interchange.”

Ashenden is a good guide to the development of Williams’s thought, and also to his search for integration in his personal life. There is new material in the book about his relationship with Phyllis Jones, the “Celia” of his poems.

The description that Williams applied to Taliesin, the sixth-century Welsh poet, “Druid born and Byzantium trained”, could well apply to the author himself. Some will find his work unrewardingly dense; but the only way to trans-formation is to subvert our skewed perspective, and, by going through a process of de-familiarisation (not unlike the decompression that a diver must endure), open up to a fresh way of seeing and knowing.

For people such as Auden, Charles Williams is a guide to this new landscape. Gavin Ashenden, in this timely book, helps us to understand why.

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is Bishop of London.

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