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Charles Williams

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Anyone else here a fan of Charles Williams? For those of you don't know, Williams was one of the Inklings--a group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He wrote what he called "Spiritual Thrillers"--very thought-provoking and creepy stuff, if you can get into his style of writing, which would be considered quite old-fashioned these days.

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I have read (and enjoyed) Many Dimensions, but that's all I've read of his.

I really liked the Solomonic ties, and the feeling of immense antiquity that Williams was able to evoke.

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War in Heaven is the only book of his I've read (and I read it something like ten years ago), but I remember thinking, "Wow! THIS is the book Peretti WISHES he was writing!"

I also think it has perhaps the best opening sentence of any book I've ever read. From memory: "The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, for there was no one in the room but the corpse."

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Here are some others you should check out:

Descent into Hell

All Hallow's Eve

The Greater Trumps

Shadows of Ecstacy

My favorite is _Descent into Hell_.

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BethR   

I think I've read most of Williams' novels. Definitely agree that he's one of the greats & should be better known. He probably scares most evangelicals. And he had some kind of weird ideas about love...but the "spiritual thrillers" are fantastic. The Greater Trumps may be my favorite, but it's hard to pick just one.

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Caleb Crain shares some thoughts regarding Charles Williams' WAR IN HEAVEN.

Prompted by Crain's comments, Alan Jacobs shares an excerpt from his own book, THE NARNIAN: THE LIFE AND IMAGINATION OF C. S. LEWIS, that deals with Charles Williams.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I've enjoyed all of his novels, but the one that always stood out to me was All Hallow's Eve.

I still don't understand how he managed, in one modern/religious/fantasy novel to tell a story that attacks dualism and blurs all boundaries between the physical and the spiritual, asks a couple of interesting philosophical questions about free will, meditates upon the power of art (a painting becomes very important to the plot) to point us to God and how beauty is linked very closely with goodness, and explores the spirituality of marriage in way that questions whether death really must be the end of a marriage relationship. All this in a thriller which is tense and, occasionally, quite disturbing.

It's nice to see that writers like Crain and Jacobs read Williams.

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The only Charles Williams novel I ever read was ALL HALLOW'S EVE (and I read it for a class taught by Alan Jacobs, in fact). I loathed it so much that it put me off of Williams entirely. The reason the comments made by Crain and Jacobs stuck out to me is that they are both highly mistrustful and critical of Williams and his work.

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The only Charles Williams novel I ever read was ALL HALLOW'S EVE (and I read it for a class taught by Alan Jacobs, in fact). I loathed it so much that it put me off of Williams entirely. The reason the comments made by Crain and Jacobs stuck out to me is that they are both highly mistrustful and critical of Williams and his work.

Funny. I suppose I wouldn't say that I "trust" Williams either and part of that is because his stories are so unpredictable. When you open one of his novels, you know it's going to interact with substantive ideas and probably some Medieval poetry, but that's about it. There is no telling where he's going to take it. One moment a poet is trying to practice substitutionary atonement, another moment some guy is using tarot cards to breach space and time, another moment Plato's forms are incarnated and start walking around. There is certainly plenty to criticize too, but I still think his novels are rich with a sort of melding of older literary and Christian ideas with modern day problems - which is ... a poor description. One of the most difficult problems does seem to be trying to figure out how to describe what his writing is like.

Did you Reformed theology have anything to do with your disliking the book, or was it merely his writing style?

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Did you Reformed theology have anything to do with your disliking the book, or was it merely his writing style?

As best I can recall, the Reformed theology that I adhered to at the time had nothing to do with my dislike of the book (I assume you're thinking I may have objected to the ways in which Williams engaged questions of "free will," but I don't think that ever played into my reaction). What I remember loathing was Williams' writing style.

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Rushmore   

I haven't yet read War in Heaven, but Crain's distaste for the "instrumentalism" of the Grail is reminiscent of other Williams novels, too, particularly Many Dimensions, the first one I read several years ago. There, the holy object in question is the Stone of Solomon, which can be used, among other things, to travel at will through time and space. (I often wish for it when Jeffrey keeps sharing art events in Seattle on Facebook.) An instrument of grace, it can be easily perverted into a means of seeking power for evil people. This is true even though it's far more than a sacramental--sometimes it sounds like the stone is a divine being in its own right.

I certainly feel the force of this objection. I feel a similar weirdness about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that's a lot less theologically serious than Williams' novels are meant to be. For what it's worth, though, it's always an illusion that divine things can really be used for evil: they always end up destroying the people who try to exploit them. C.S. Lewis said that Williams' novel are all about a violation of frontier between earth and heaven. When this happens, there's a common pattern: some people react with humility and love and are saved, and some react with pride and power- or pleasure-seeking and are damned.

Some of the novels are better written than others. The writing is always very English, sometimes infuriatingly so. My favorite so far is Descent into Hell, a meditation on the meaning of art and the extraordinary ways humans are allowed to cooperate, even collaborate, with grace. It contains some of the best prose writing on poetry I've ever seen.

Side note: I was pleased recently to discover that Apocryphile Press, a very small non-profit publishing house, has reprinted many of Williams' lesser known works. I'm looking forward to ordering The Figure of Beatrice and He Came Down From Heaven.

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The more I read Williams, the more I am convinced he was one of the most profoundly original minds of the 20th century. It's really too bad he wasn't a more graceful prose writer. His novels waiver between entertainment, mysticism, and honest-to-God religious art, creating a kind of good-bad effect. You're cringing in embarrassment one moment, weeping with joy at the next. His poetry, especially his two Arthurian motions, is arguably better, but is routinely overlooked by the old guard. I continually return to Williams because his theological concepts, which are routinely mind blowing. I think it was Thomas Howard who once mused that no literary form could adequately contain what Williams had to say.

But he is almost certainly not to be trusted.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Do you recommend Thomas Howard's THE NOVELS OF CHARLES WILLIAMS?

Unreservedly. It may not change your mind about Williams, but it will certainly help you understand where he's coming from.

Edited by Nathaniel

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I feel a similar weirdness about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that's a lot less theologically serious than Williams' novels are meant to be. For what it's worth, though, it's always an illusion that divine things can really be used for evil: they always end up destroying the people who try to exploit them. C.S. Lewis said that Williams' novel are all about a violation of frontier between earth and heaven. When this happens, there's a common pattern: some people react with humility and love and are saved, and some react with pride and power- or pleasure-seeking and are damned.

This is quite a good summary, I think. Williams' early involvement with Rosicrucianism (the subject of a well researched book by Gavin Ashenden) seemed to cement a thematic obsession with the manipulation of power in its various forms. The good guys are the ones who submit to the "organic law" that governs the universe, while the bad ones are those that try to bend it to their advantage. Personally, I love the way Williams attempts to charge the most ordinary human interactions with cosmic significance. For him, every human gesture is an image of something Greater. (This allies him with other Christian mystics like Arthur Machen.)

The climactic scene in Raiders, with the Ark being used as a conduit in an occult ritual, is probably the most Charles Williams-y scene in popular cinema. I doubt we'll see a straight Williams adaptation anytime soon, though. If anyone were to attempt it, I think War in Heaven, with its Grail imagery, would be the most logical choice. The concept of using a cup for the purposes of divination isn't actually that strange (see Genesis 44:5).

BTW, it was T.S. Eliot who originally asserted that what Williams had to say was "probably beyond the resources of language."

Edited by Nathaniel

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Personally, I love the way Williams attempts to charge the most ordinary human interactions with cosmic significance. For him, every human gesture is an image of something Greater.

This no more profound than this quote: "Our justice condemned the innocent, but the innocent it condemned was the one who was fundamentally responsible for the existence of all injustice—its existence in the mere, but necessary, sense of time, which His will created and prolonged."

I'm somewhat desperate to track down his two "theological" books. Agree with that statement or not, it's a beautiful sentence. If theologians and pastors wrote and spoke like that, I'd not be such an itinerant.

Edited by Darryl A. Armstrong

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His poetry, especially his two Arthurian motions, is arguably better, but is routinely overlooked by the old guard.

I actually own and have read half of this book (containing both Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, along with C.S. Lewis's essays explaining the poems).

It's hard to describe except that it's sort of a cross between Tennyson's Idylls of the King with a more modern T.S. Eliot sort of verse, mixed with hints of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ... except much more Celtic or Gaelic in tone ... if that makes any sense at all.

Thus, you end up coming across stuff like this:

... Away on the southern seas

was the creaking of the mast;

beyond the Roman road

was the creaking of the trees.

Beyond the farms and the fallows

the sickle of a golden arm

that gathered fate in the forest

in a stretched palm caught the hallows

At the falling of the first

chaos behind me checked;

at the falling of the second the wood showed the worst;

at the falling of the third

I had come to the king’s camp;

the harp on my back

syllabled the signal word.

I saw a Druid light

burn through the Druid hills,

as the hooves of King Arthur’s horse

rounded me in the night.

I heard the running of flame

faster than fast through Logres

into the camp by the hazels I Taliessin came ...

Or language like this:

... Elburz rose in the Golden Horn.

South from the sea-bone, Thule, the skull-stone,

herbage of lone rock,

the scheme of Logres, the theme of the design of the Empire,

rose in balance and weight, freight of government with glory.

Merlin, time’s metre, climbs through prisms and lines;

over near Camelot and far Carbonek,

over the Perilous Sell, the See of union,

the phosphor of Percivale’s philosophical star shines.

Lancelot’s lion, bewildered by the smell of adoration,

roars round Guinevere’s lordly body.

Merlin defines, in blazons of the brain,

shield upon shield, station upon station;

and the roads resound with the galloping lords.

The swords flash; the pirates fly;

the Table stands rigid in the king’s hall,

and over their seats the plotted arms of the soul,

which are their feats and the whole history of Logres.

Down the imperial highroad the white nuntius rides

to heighten the hearts of Lateran, Gaul, and Logres ...

After a while I can get lost in it. At the same time, I could read and revel in this language all day. Sometimes I wish Williams had written more poetry than fiction.

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I'm somewhat desperate to track down his two "theological" books.

Then I have good news for you.

I double posted inadvertently this same quote ... It hit me hard. I removed the duplicate, but thanks for this link!

Has anyone here read this? Is it on the whole the sledgehammer the above quote is? Or even just otherwise worth reading?

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phlox   

I’ve only read bits and pieces-- there’s a lot of Williams’ writings on Google books—but to me it seems he was a lyrical poet above all and his ‘romantic theology’ emanated from this – someone suggested he wrote uneasily on the borderline between orthodox Christianity and the religion of courtly love. I liked the excerpt from The Figure of Beatrice, his guide to the Affirmative Way -- and was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ study The Allegory of Love. Williams’ focus on Beatrice and other literary heroines resonates with the medieval worship of Mary (which strikes me as compensating for the patriarchy of the church). There’s a nice essay on Williams by Stephen Barber, here

http://www.charleswi...ty.org.uk/?p=89

Edited by phlox

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Rushmore   

I'm somewhat desperate to track down his two "theological" books.

Then I have good news for you.

I double posted inadvertently this same quote ... It hit me hard. I removed the duplicate, but thanks for this link!

Has anyone here read this? Is it on the whole the sledgehammer the above quote is? Or even just otherwise worth reading?

I just got the book. I'm three chapters in and it already looks like the above quote isn't even close to the best thing in it. Get a load of these:

Unless devotion is given to a thing which must prove false in the end, the thing that is true in the end cannot enter. But the distinction between necessary belief and unnecessary credulity is as necessary as belief; it is the heightening and purifying of belief. There is nothing that matters of which it is not sometimes desirable to feel: 'this does not matter'. 'This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.' But it may be admitted also that this is part of the technique of belief in our present state; not even Isaiah or Aquinas have pursued to its revelation the mystery of self-skepticism in the divine. The nearest, perhaps, we can get to that is in the incredulous joy of great romantic moments—in love or poetry or what else: 'this cannot possibly be, and it is'. Usually the way must be made ready for heaven, and then it will come by some other; the sacrifice must be made ready, and the fire will strike on another altar.

Prayer, like everything else, was meant for a means of joy; but, in our knowledge of the good as evil, we have to recover it so, and it is not an easy thing. Prayer is thought of as a means to an end, but the end itself is sometimes only the means to the means, as with all love. The fantastic intercession of Abraham dances and retreats and salaams and dances again; and the thunder that threatens on the left the Cities of the Plain murmurs gently on the right above the tents.

The word glory, to English ears, usually means no more than a kind of mazy bright blur. But the maze should be, though it generally is not, exact, and the brightness should be that of a geometrical pattern.

The prophets are sent out from the visible mathematics of the glory to proclaim the moral mathematics of the glory. Morality is either the mathematics of power or it is nothing.

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Ooh boy. That's going to be tempting reading for me. Williams is one of the most fascinating Christian artists of the twentieth century, but I'm almost afraid to delve too deeply into his personal life for fear of what I'll find there. 

 

There is a scholarly study of his relationship with the occult by Gavin Ashenden, as well as two volumes of letters which explore the darker side of his romantic life. I've avoided both so far. Maybe this biography will be a good general introduction.

Edited by Nathaniel

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I stopped by the Vancouver library sale and scooped up Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy. Going solely off of my initial impressions of his stories and biography (fascinated by high Anglicanism, psychology, the mysterious, and the occult, a one-time Anglican himself who strayed away from Christianity, etc...) anyone familiar with the works of both Davies and Williams (I've read Outlines of Romantic Theology, The Greater Trumps and Descent into Hell) think they are comparable?

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