Charles Williams, 1886-1945

Portrait

Biographical note

British poet, novelist, theologian, literary critic, and member of the Inklings.

Although chiefly remembered as a novelist, Williams also published poetry, works of literary criticism, theology, drama, history, biography, and a voluminous number of book reviews.

Some of his best known novels are War in Heaven [1930], Descent into Hell [1937], and All Hallows' Eve [1945]. T. S. Eliot, who wrote an introduction for the last of these, described Williams’s novels as "supernatural thrillers" because they explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual while also examining the ways in which power, even spiritual power, can corrupt as well as sanctify. All of Williams’ fantasies, unlike those of J. R. R. Tolkien and most of those of C. S. Lewis, are set in the contemporary world. More recent writers of fantasy novels with contemporary settings, notably Tim Powers, cite Williams as a model and inspiration.

W. H. Auden, one of Williams’ greatest admirers, reportedly re-read Williams’s extraordinary and highly unconventional history of the church, Descent of the Dove [1939], every year. Williams’s study of Dante entitled The Figure of Beatrice [1944] was very highly regarded at its time of publication and continues to be consulted by Dante scholars today. Williams, however, regarded his most important work to be his extremely dense and complex Arthurian poetry, of which two books were published, Taliessin through Logres [1938] and The Region of the Summer Stars [1944], and more remained unfinished at his death. Some of Williams’ best essays were collected and published in Anne Ridler's Image of the City and Other Essays in 1958.

Works

Novels

  • War in Heaven [1930]
    The Holy Grail surfaces in an obscure country parish and becomes variously a sacramental object to protect or a vessel of power to exploit.
  • Many Dimensions [1931]
    An evil antiquarian illegally purchases the fabled Stone of Suleiman (Williams uses this Muslim form rather than the more familiar King Solomon) from its Islamic guardian in Baghdad and returns to England to discover not only that the Stone can multiply itself infinitely without diminishing the original, but that it also allows its possessor to transcend the barriers of space and time.
  • The Place of the Lion [1931]
    Platonic archetypes begin to appear around an English country town, wreaking havoc and drawing to the surface the spiritual strengths and flaws of individual characters.
  • Shadows of Ecstasy [1931]
    A humanistic adept has discovered that by focusing his energies inward he can extend his life almost indefinitely. He undertakes an experiment using African lore to die and resurrect his own body thereby assuring his immortality. His followers begin a revolutionary movement to destroy European civilization.
  • The Greater Trumps [1932]
    The original Tarot is used to unlock enormous metaphysical powers by allowing the possessors to see across space and time, create matter, and raise powerful natural storms.
  • Descent into Hell [1937]
    Generally thought to be Williams’s best novel, Descent deals with various forms of selfishness, and how the cycle of sin brings about the necessity for redemptive acts. In it, an academic becomes so far removed from the world that he fetishizes a woman to the extent that his perversion takes the form of a succubus. Characters include a doppelgänger and the ghost of a suicidal Victorian labourer. It is illustrative of Williams’s belief in the replacement of sin and substitutional love.
  • All Hallows' Eve [1945]
    Opens with a discussion between the ghosts of two dead women wandering about London. Ultimately explores the meaning of human suffering and empathy by dissolving the barrier between the living and the dead through both black magic and divine love.

Short stories

Poetry

Biography

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