Charles Williams joined the Inklings immediately after Oxford University Press moved its offices from London to Oxford because of the war with Germany. Though C.S. Lewis found Williams’ work compelling, even life-changing, the other members expressed doubts.

“I had a pleasant evening on Thursday with Williams, Tolkien, and Wrenn, during which Wrenn expressed ALMOST seriously a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people,” C.S. Lewis wrote in a private letter to his brother, Warnie, on November 5, 1939. C.L. Wrenn was not the only Inkling to express doubts about the newest member of the club, Charles Williams, who had joined the literary association immediately after Oxford University Press had moved its offices from London to Oxford because of the war with Germany. Tolkien, too, felt not just caution but near repulsion when it came to Williams. Tolkien “disliked his—dabbling in—the occult,” Humphrey Havard remembered in a 1984 interview.[1] Tolkien even referred to Williams as the “witch doctor.”[2] Additionally, Tolkien never appreciated Williams’s intrusion into Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship. In the interview just mentioned, Havard tried to explain just how much this hurt Tolkien. “I think that Tolkien may have sensed that it was more than just a literary thing, because his feeling against it was—was really quite intense,” Havard explained. “He—it was a strain—it strained their friendship, between Tolkien and Lewis. Lewis was fascinated by Williams, and rightly—he was—a very extraordinary charm. You couldn’t be in the same room with him without being attracted to him.”[3] Immensely taken with Williams, though, Lewis thought the man so good he could “paint virtue.”[4]

In early 1936, Lewis had read Williams’s novel, Place of the Lion, finding it not merely compelling but downright life-changing, equal in discovery to that of his previous initial encounters with George Macdonald, William Morris, and G.K. Chesterton. Nevill Coghill had lent him the book, and he was writing Williams just a mere twenty-four hours later. “I never know about writing to an author,” Lewis admitted in his tentative letter to Willliams. “If you are older than I, I don’t want to seem impertinent; if you are younger, I don’t want to seem patronizing,” he continued, “but I feel I must risk it.” After reading Place of the Lion, Lewis shared it with several members of the Inklings, “an informal club,” he explained, “the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity.”[5]

Astoundingly enough, Williams had just read the page proofs of Lewis’s academic book, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, and was in the process of writing to Lewis when Lewis’s letter reached him. Williams, somewhat humorously, credited the coincidence to the “staff work of the Omnipotence.” Williams especially appreciated Lewis’s views—as expressed in The Allegory of Love—on romanticism, comparing it to his unpublished book, Outlines of Romantic Theology from 1924-1925. The bishop of Oxford had disapproved of the book a decade earlier, and so Williams had left it as is.[6]

True to form, Lewis responded with some honest surprise, noting that his own romanticism had nothing to do with eroticism mixed with religion. “I think you will find that I nowhere commit myself to a definite approval of this blend of erotic and religious feeling. I treat it with respect: I display: I don’t venture very far,” he admitted. “And this is perhaps what one ought to expect from a man who is native in a quite distinct, though neighbouring, province of the Romantic country, and who willingly believes well of all her provinces, for love of the country herself, though he dare not affirm except about his own.” If Williams found romance in love and in ladies, Lewis continued, he found romance in myth and in gods. “While writing about Courtly Love I have been so long a student of your province that I think, in a humble way, I am nearly naturalised.”[7]

That spring, Williams and Lewis formally met one another, in person, and discovered an immediate kinship of ideas and personalities.[8] Despite the geographical distance between them, the two continued to read each others’ works and correspond about them. Indeed, Lewis liked Williams’s 1937 novel, Descent into Hell, as much as he had Place of the Lion, if not more. “I think this is the best book you have given us yet,” he assured Williams.[9] Again, a year later, in 1938, Lewis approved of Williams’s following book, He Came Down from Heaven, seeing in it timeless truths equal to those of “Plato, Augustine, or Pascal.”[10] Playfully, Lewis teased Williams for his many successes. “Damn you, you go on getting steadily better ever since you first crossed my path: how do you do it? I begin to suspect that we are living in the ‘age of Williams’ and our friendship with you will be our only passport to fame. I’ve a good mind to punch your head when we next meet.[11]

The two, however, would meet only occasionally before the beginning of the Second World War. “Until 1939 that friendship had to subsist on occasional meetings, though, even thus, he had already become as dear to all my Oxford friends as he was to me,” Lewis recorded after Williams had died. “There were many meetings both in my rooms at Magdalen and in Williams’s tiny office at Amen House. Neither Mr. Dyson nor my brother, Major W.H. Lewis, will forget a certain immortal lunch at Shirreff’s in 1938 (he gave me a copy of He Came Down from Heaven and we ate kidneys ‘enclosed’, like the wicked man, ‘in their own fat’) nor the almost Platonic discussion which followed for about two hours in St. Paul’s churchyard.”[12]

On September 7, 1939, Charles Williams moved to Oxford and remained there until his unexpected death at the age of 58 on May 15, 1945. “Along with these not very pleasant indirect results of the war,” Lewis recorded on September 10, 1939, “there is one pure gift—the London branch of the University Press has moved to Oxford so that Charles Williams is living here.”[13] Coghill, who had introduced the work of Williams to Lewis, remembered their friendship well. “He and Lewis quickly became fast friends: they seemed to live in the same spiritual world.”[14]

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Notes:

[1] Interview with Dr. Robert E. Havard, conducted by Lyle Dorsett, July 26, 1984, in Wade Center, Wheaton College.

[2] Quoted in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, 121.

[3] Interview with Dr. Robert E. Havard, conducted by Lyle Dorsett, July 26, 1984, in Wade Center, Wheaton College.

[4] CSL wrote this in a letter to Leo Baker, cited in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, 10.

[5] CSL to CW, March 11, 1936, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 183.

[6] CW to CSL, March 12, 1936, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 184.

[7] CSL to CW, March 23, 1936, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 185-86.

[8] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, 123.

[9] CSL to CW, September 23, 1937, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 218.

[10] CSL to CW, June 7, 1938, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 227.

[11] CSL to CW, June 7, 1938, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 228.

[12] Lewis, “Preface,” to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, viii.

[13] CSL to Warnie Lewis, September 10, 1939, in CSL Collected Letters 2: 272.

[14] Coghill, “The Approach to English,” in Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1965), 63.

The featured image is “Still Life With Book Papers and Inkwell” by Francois Bonvin (1817-1887), and is in the Public Domain.

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