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Strangely mesmerising

15 April 2016

This key member of the Inklings had some very odd ideas, says Richard Harries

Personal sanctity: Charles Williams, writer, poet and Oxford lecturer

Personal sanctity: Charles Williams, writer, poet and Oxford lecturer

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
Grevel Lindop
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


CHARLES WILLIAMS was a fascinating, original figure, who in some ways was the key person at the heart of the Inkling trilogy of Tolkein, C. S. Lewis and himself. The impression he made on others was extraordinary. Auden wrote: “For the first time in my life I felt in the presence of personal sanctity. . . I later discovered he had had a similar effect on many people.” Lewis and T. S. Eliot were among those other people, and also greatly admired his writing. As Williams himself said: “I must be the only living person whom both CSL and TSE urge on to more and more.”

Williams was brought up in genteel dire poverty. There was no money to send him to university; so he started work in a bookshop before getting a job with OUP. The press never really paid him enough to live on so he had to write furiously to survive. Being a workaholic made this just possible. Self-taught, widely read, and with an extraordinary memory, he had independence and originality. .

Lewis recognised this quality and got him lecturing in Oxford. With his slightly rasping cockney voice, declamatory style, and ability to quote at length, he was a mesmerising speaker, and was loved by his students. His writings fall into three main categories, novels, poetry and criticism. Ann Ridler the poet, who knew him well, said that like Coleridge the sum of him was probably more than the parts. Geoffrey Hill still recommends some of his criticism to students and finds the poetry “powerful and weird in essential ways”.

The distinctive theological ideas of Williams, which permeated all his work, are arresting. Best known is his idea of co-inherence with its corollary of substitution. Co-inherence is an attribute of the Trinity in which each person of the Godhead dwells fully in the other. Williams thought it was equally applicable to human beings. He believed that we could literally bear the burdens of others, as well as take on their qualities, and he founded an informal religious order to do just that.

So, at one extreme he even suggested that members of the order could put themselves forward to hang in place of a convicted murderer. At the other, a teacher worried about a school inspection would have that worry taken away by a friend bearing it for them.

But Williams was strange, very strange. Another of his key ideas, romantic love, allowed him in his own mind, whilst being married, to love deeply another women but without expressing this sexually. These relationships had a mild sado-masochistic element involving punishing the woman with little slaps on the hand. Williams regarded this ritual as essential for the writing of his poetry. The sexual energy thus released was in this way transmuted into writing, or so he believed. Another oddness was his belief in the occult and for years he spent serious time on Rosicrucian rituals.

Grevel Lindop, has written a ground breaking life, at once scholarly and readable, which reveals Williams in all his fascination as a person and as an author of real freshness, originality, and theological depth. I would have liked more discussion of how Williams could have integrated his belief in the occult with his Christian faith, and also a little more about what that faith might have meant in daily life. But Lindop has done a real service in showing not only why his writing had such an appeal for Tolkein, Lewis and Eliot but how it can still jolt us into deeper reflection today.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His book The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world is due to be published by SPCK in September.

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