Why Was Charles Williams the Odd Inkling?

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Updated Sep 05, 2023
Why Was Charles Williams the Odd Inkling?

The Inklings, the 1930s-1940s writers’ group associated with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, had many interesting members. One member has been especially under-discussed. Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945) joined the Inklings during WWII and became one of Lewis’ best friends. Tolkien also considered Williams a good friend – in one letter, Tolkien stated it wasn’t easy remembering his conversations with Lewis and Williams “because we all agree so.”

Williams’ early death and struggles to market his work hampered his reputation. His writings were often complex, much like his own life. He was a Christian who considered Doubting Thomas his patron saint. He was a practicing Anglo-Catholic who studied hermeticism. He was married but had an emotional affair with a coworker and crossed some boundaries with women who sought his advice. As his biographer Grevel Lindop observes, Williams was “the most complex and the most mysterious of the three [major Inklings].” Or, as Dr. Sørina Higgins puts it, he was “the oddest Inkling,” an oddness that made him fascinating.

Despite Williams’ dark side, many friends and acquaintances valued his spiritual advice. Since his death, his books have been praised for their spiritual content—including mentions from theologians like J.I. Packer and Eugene Peterson.

Here is what you need to know about this surprising man.

Photo Credit: Graphic by G. Connor Salter. Photo by Elliott & Fry.

10 Important Events in the Life of Charles Williams

1. In 1894, London-born Charles Williams moved to St. Albans, Hertfordshire, because of his father’s health issues. While Williams had a lifelong affection for London, the move exposed him to a new community (and eventually to meeting his wife).

2. In 1908, Williams became a proofreader at the London offices of Oxford University Press (OUP). He kept working for OUP for the rest of his life, climbing the ranks to become the senior editor.

3. In 1912, Williams published his first poetry collection, The Silver Stair.

4. In 1917, Williams married Florence Conway (better known by his nickname for her, Michal). They had one child, Michael Williams (born 1922).

5. In 1917, Williams was inducted into A.E. Waite’s secret organization, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a mystical organization that purported to be Christian.

6. In 1924, OUP’s London staff moved to a new building, Amen House, in Warwick Square. OUP hired Phyllis Jones as the Amen House librarian. In 1926, Williams began an emotional affair with Jones; his feelings lasted decades after the relationship ended.

7. In 1930, Williams’s first published novel, War in Heaven, was released. He went on to publish six more “metaphysical thrillers” and drafted an unfinished one, The Noises That Weren’t There.

8. In 1936, Williams was assigned a new book, The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis. While he was preparing the book for publication, Lewis sent Willams a fan letter for his novel The Place of the Lion.

9. In September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, and OUP moved Amen House employees to Oxford. Williams shared a house with other OUP employees, using a bathroom as an office. While in Oxford, he attended Inklings meetings, tutored students, gave lectures, and received an honorary MA (awarded in 1943).

10. On May 15, 1945, a week after Germany’s surrender, Williams died from intussusception. A gift from Lewis and other friends, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, became a posthumous tribute.

fountain pen writing on paper, charles williams quotes

10 Great Quotes by Charles Williams

The following quotes include amusing comments, advice, and spiritual reflections from Williams’ nonfiction works.

1. “If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.” — 1936 letter to C.S. Lewis

2. “All great art creates, as it were, its own stillness about it, but by the nature of its subject the Bible does more. It opens with a single rift of lightning striking along the darkness which existed before words were: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’” — He Came Down From Heaven

3. “But good poetry does something more than allude to its subject; it is related to it, and it relates us to it… We are told of a thing; we are made to feel as if that thing were possible to us; and we are so made to feel it—whatever the thing may be, joy or despair or what not—that our knowledge is an intense satisfaction to us….” — The English Poetic Mind

4. “I am the least of God’s creatures, but I have done something in my time, and I only did it through having suffered… Two or three times in my life I have felt I should really go off my head; did I? No; and (beyond all my beliefs) the result is greater than anything. Adored always be the Omnipotence.” — 1941 letter to his son

5. “Unfortunately to be as gods meant, for the Adam, to die, for to know evil, for them, was to know it not by pure intelligence but by experience. It was, precisely, to experience the opposite of good, that is the deprivation of good, the slow destruction of good, and of themselves with the good.” — He Came Down From Heaven

6. “It is clear to me that marriage is a substance, a thing of solid existence, like very few things; I should myself add religion and great art, but I do not press that. Anyhow the world in which we move is a world of reality and substance, and marriage is a way into it and an example of it.” — 1939 letter to his wife

7. “I believe that ‘Bear one another’s burdens’ is a truth to which we have only dimly seen the way.” — 1931 letter to Anne Bradby

8. “No knowledge of Dogmatic Theology is a substitute for a saving faith; nor of Moral Theology for the formation of the habit of moral obedience; nor of Mystical Theology for the practice of communion with God. Nor is any theoretical doctrine in Romantic Theology the satisfactory equivalent for its practice. But theory may be a help to practice, and even sometimes an incentive to it.” — Outlines in Romantic Theology

9. “I cannot go as far as to say that the use of physical force against one another is always wrong… I think that, in the last resort, a set of people has the right (and I fear the duty) to say something like this: the conditions under which you insist that we and others live are, quite simply, intolerable. You are breaking all possible laws under which men have found it possible to live together. We do not hate you; but we propose to stop you.” — 1940 letter to Thelma Shuttleworth

10. “That’s where the Church is wise; it never suggests that the priest in confession is ‘better’ than the penitent.” — 1932 letter to Thelma Mills

Note: All letter quotes are either from Greven Lindop's The Third Inkling or from the collected letters from Williams to his wife.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden

10 Things You Should Know about Charles Williams

1. He was (sort of) an Olympian. Up through the 1948 London Olympics, the games included art competitions. Williams submitted a poem for the 1924 Paris Olympics’ poetry competition. His friend John Pellow reported that Williams received “a Diploma & Bronze Medal by the Olympic Games, but is uneasy as to what it means, how many others have received awards, so is not boasting at present.” History website Olympedia states that Ireland’s Oliver St. John Gogarty shared the Bronze Medal with France’s Charles Anthoine Gonnet, while Williams’ medal was “probably the participant’s medal.”

2. He was often ahead of his time. Even outside of Williams’ Inklings membership, Williams had many moments of forward-thinking that make Williams worth studying. Williams edited the first major English translations of Søren Kierkegaard’s work and may have been the first person in England to lecture on Kierkegaard. He was an early advocate of Dylan Thomas’ poetry. His poetry informed poets like Sydney Keyes and Philip Larkin. Furthermore, Lindop observes that Williams’ novels and plays (particularly The Devil and the Lady) explore ideas that become famous in supernatural horror decades later, such as Rosemary’s Baby.

3. He was a great poet. Most people remember Williams for his novels or Dante scholarship, but he was an accomplished poet. Throughout his life, Williams worked on a series of Arthurian poems that many scholars call the 20th-century’s most important Arthurian poetry.

4. He managed to know everybody. The Inklings were influenced by, knew, or reacted against several famous thinkers. Williams managed to know many of them. He contributed to G.K. Chesterton’s newspapers The Daily Witness and G.K.’s Weekly. He corresponded with Y.B. Yeats for the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935. He met Dorothy L. Sayers sometime in 1943-1944, inspiring her to study Dante, which led to her translating The Divine Comedy. He also knew T.S. Eliot, who published two of Williams’ books as the editor for Faber & Faber.

5. He got along with Tolkien. Various biographies have suggested Tolkien disliked Williams. Lindop observes this impression comes from 1960s letters when Tolkien distanced himself from Williams’ legacy. Tolkien’s 1930s-1940s letters indicate he got along fine with Williams. They got along so well that Tolkien invited Williams to see his in-progress draft of Lord of the Rings, making Williams the first person to read the in-progress work in one piece.

6. He had a surprising personality. Like many highly imaginative writers, Williams had highs and lows. He struggled with depression—in a 1918 letter, he admitted “wishing, as the King said in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, that God, having made the world in six days, had knocked it to bits in the next six.” Multiple friends and students describe him as awkward but with surprising warmth. W.H. Auden said after meeting Williams in 1937 that “for the time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.”

7. He may have belonged to more than one secret society. Early books about Williams claim he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1917. However, records show he joined its offshoot, The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (FRC). Lindop suggests the answer is in the middle: two years after joining the FRC, Williams began visiting Anglican vicar A.H.E. Lee to discuss “the mystical schools of all kinds.” Lee was a member of the Golden Dawn and may have inducted Williams into it.

8. He developed his own theology. Like Lewis, Williams wrote lay theology. However, Lewis aimed to restate widely held Christian beliefs in clear language. Williams made his own variations on theology, most famously an idea he called co-inherence: Christ lives in Christians, tying them to the Trinity and each other. Thus, Williams believed Christians could voluntarily carry each other’s burdens (he called this Exchange or Substitution).

9. He started a spiritual community. In 1939, Williams started the Order of the Co-Inherence, where members (or “Companions”) tried to carry each other’s burdens. For example, when Alice Mary Hadfield was traveling across the sea during WWII, Williams assigned Lois Lang-Sims to carry Hadfield’s fear of German mines in the ocean.

10. He had a dark side. Along with mystical ideas like co-inherence, Williams also believed in various spiritual exercises. Some women who sought Williams’ spiritual advice remembered him writing words on their hands or hitting their hands with a pencil. Sometimes these actions were disciplinary actions for not following spiritual exercises. Other times, they were rituals that Williams believed helped his creativity. In hindsight, these actions look like a sadistic streak that Williams didn’t face, rationalizing it with his mystic beliefs. To the extent we can understand these actions decades after Williams’ death, it provides a warning: even gifted spiritual mentors can fall prey to dark temptations.

Typewriter with T.S. Eliot quote about Charles Williams

10 Important Books by Charles Williams

Williams was a prolific writer in many genres. Here are some of his best books to start with:

1. War in Heaven. This thriller opens with a murder in a publishing house. A priest checking on his manuscript’s progress learns about the murder and finds something bizarre: an upcoming history book that claims his parish holds the Holy Grail.

2. Many Dimensions. Not precisely a sequel to War in Heaven but featuring one of its characters… and the stone of Solomon that lets the owner travel through time and space.

3. Heroes and Kings. A collection of Williams’ early Arthurian poems; a good introduction before moving on to his more complex collections.

4. He Came Down from Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins. Two of Williams’ most accessible lay theology books, which are available separately or in a combined edition.

5. Taliessin through Logres and Region of the Summer Stars. Williams’ later and most polished Arthurian poetry.

6To Michal from Serge. Williams’ letters to his wife from 1939 until his death.

7. The Masques of Amen House. Humorous plays where Williams gently caricatures himself, his OUP colleagues, and publishing work.

8. The Chapel of the Thorn: a dramatic poem about conflicts in a British village during the late Roman Empire. The village chapel holds a thorn from Christ’s crown… but the villagers worry more about a pagan hero’s tomb beneath the chapel. The chapel priest fights an abbot who wants to increase the relic’s publicity… but the abbot’s motives may not be holy.

9. The Figure of Beatrice. A study of Dante Alighieri’s poetry and how a woman named Beatrice represents something higher than romantic love.

10. The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams, 1930-1935. Williams’ reviews of Golden Age detective novels, including classics like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

For more help, read The Oddest Inkling’s Readers Guide for Beginners.

Photo Credit: Graphic by G. Connor Salter. Background photo by Unsplash/Florian Klauer

Important Books on Charles Williams

These are some of the best current books on Williams’ life, work, and connection to the Inklings:

1. Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop

2. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology by Glen Cavaliero

3. The Novels of Charles Williams by Thomas Howard

4. The Company They Keep (or the companion Bandersnatch) by Diana Glyer

5. The Inklings and King Arthur edited by Sørina Higgins

6. Esotericism and Narrative by Aren Roukema

Further Reading:

10 Things You Need to Know about the Inklings

10 Things You Need to Know about J.R.R. Tolkien

What You Need to Know about Dorothy L. Sayers

What You Should Know about G.K. Chesterton

10 Things to Know about Ronald Knox

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. In 2024, he was cited as the editor for Leigh Ann Thomas' article "Is Prayer Really That Important?" which won Third Place (Articles Online) at the Selah Awards hosted by the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference.


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