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The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings

December 5, 2018 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy Series: The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien And The Inklings

Topic: Christian Education




Charles Williams is utterly distinctive. Some scholars think that Williams has something to say that both resonates with and challenges postmodernity. His work deals sympathetically with man’s suffering, contradictions, and impossibilities, in addition to the accompanying skepticism. Many postmoderns can find some common ground with his sensitivity to suffering and skepticism, but he also challenges the inherent relativism of our day with a fresh perspective of orthodoxy, through his fictional narratives as well as his theological works. This perspective aids one to think from a new standpoint and gain a different frame of reference, centering in Christ’s identification with man through His Incarnation and especially His Passion. Robert McAfee Brown writes,

What Williams does … is to give us Christian theology in a new key, transposed to a fresh register, so that it appears as a new and exciting thing. He is aware of the dangers of encrusted doctrinalism…. He has recovered different modes for the expression of Christian faith just as they are most needed. [1]

Aidan Nichols, and many other theologians and writers, not only believe that Williams’s work is important but also that it is well disposed to aid the reader in the twenty-first century.[2] Glen Cavaliero says that the Arthurian poems call for an imaginative use of intelligence because they are ahead of rather than behind their time.[3] Charles Moorman thinks that Williams’s works ‘speak more awesomely to one’s condition’ now than they seemed to decades ago because they ‘were not rooted in the issues and ideas of their age or, in fact, of any age, but rather in images of life which, as Chaucer demonstrates, do not change in the way that our perceptions of the meaning of life do’.[4] John Heath-Stubbs says, ‘Williams looked beyond the preoccupations of the 1930s and 1940s, anticipating what may be called a postmodernist vision’.[5]

These scholars suggest an enduring quality about his work due to its identification with man’s condition and an inkling that his response is an orthodox challenge to postmodernism.[6] Dorothy Sayers says that his work is freed from being bound by a sense of period because of his theological perspective. Williams, not being a historical or metaphysical relativist, has a different nonrelative view that stands in contrast with postmodernity:

He was singularly free from that hypertrophied ‘sense of period’…. Williams never forgot that every age is modern to itself, and that this fact, or illusion, links it to our own. Thus to all men in all ages he has the same direct approach;… the same charity, to which irony gives a certain wholesome and astringent edge. This freedom of judgement is not to be obtained except from the viewpoint of a theology which postulates an absolute truth, and which, moreover, sees in the material facts of history the symbol and expression of that truth.[7]

Williams’s perspective also challenges the fragmentation of postmodernism, as Brian Horne writes,

Williams will be disliked by those of our contemporaries who have surrendered to the fashion of ‘post-modernism’, who have accepted the proposition that the only truth we possess is that there is no truth, the only surety we have is that there is no surety. His work, from first to last, is a challenge to the current, prevailing philosophy of multi-valence and fragmentation; but, as will be seen,… it is precisely because he experienced, inwardly, the possibility of fragmentation and dissolution so acutely that he was able to expose the dangers of this ‘reading’ of life so cogently.[8]

As Horne suggests, Williams identifies with those who suffer and, at the same time, he shares a true deep sympathy with the honest questioning skeptic whose skepticism is often prompted by suffering. Williams’s identification with suffering and skepticism resonates close to postmodernism. But he has limits to his thinking because he brings God and Christ into the picture. He wrote a poem in honor of The Feast of St. Thomas Didymus, Apostle and Skeptic.[9] Williams allows his readers to ask, like Job, Mary, all innocent sufferers, and even critics, that God answer for the suffering and injustice in the world.[10] God’s words and the consequences of His acts must have an accounting. Williams makes Christianity plausible and credible for those who share such supposals. He develops a dialogue relevant to the impossibilities, suffering, and contradictions that man experiences, and questions, universally. His theological interrogation also allows the world to be narratable. He writes, ‘A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God’.[11] For Williams, arguing means an honest dialogue and holding God accountable for the way things are. Williams says that the same philosophical curiosity accompanies the Annunication with Mary’s question: ‘How shall these things be?’

In her essay, Cath Filmer-Davies tackles these issues and demonstrates how ‘Williams’s approach, in The Place of The Lion, to skepticism is depicted as the nutrient agar of faith and faith is supported and energized by the constant challenge it receives from skepticism’. [12] ‘Williams believed that skepticism is not antithetical to faith but in fact informs and constitutes it’ (104). She goes on to say, “Postmodernist skepticism can become, as it has for Williams, a way of faith. And that premise—that faith arises from doubt, that ‘without contraries is no progression’—is at the heart of Williams’s argument in The Place of the Lion” (112).

However, in his overall understanding Williams goes to a different place than postmodernism and most postmodern scholars. He introduces Christ’s role into the picture, which fundamentally alters the whole understanding of suffering and skepticism. Williams’s response to postmodernity is in humility and trust. God expresses his definitive identification with all who innocently suffer, in answer to Abel’s and Job’s voices, in the cry of Christ’s passion: ‘My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?’ Williams expresses Christ’s identification with man:

There is no more significant or more terrible tale in the New Testament than that which surrounded the young Incarnacy with the dying Innocents: the chastisement of His peace was upon them. At the end … He too perished innocently…. He had put Himself then to His own law, in every sense…. Thiswas the world He maintained in creation…. They crucified Him … He had shown Himself honourable in His choice. He accepted Job’s challenge of long- ago, talked with His enemy in the gate, and outside the gate suffered (as men He made so often do) from both His friends and His enemies.

Williams’s ultimate response to man’s suffering and skepticism is Christ’s response: ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). As previously noted in Chapter II, Williams shares the conviction with Kierkegaard that, while experiencing these terrible impossibilities, man, in humility and trust, should leap into the arms of God.


[1] Robert Brown, ‘Charles Williams: Lay Theologian’. Theology Today July 10, 1953: 217. [2] Aidan Nichols, A Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003. 11. [3] Cavaliero,  Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, 172. [4] C. Moorman, ‘Sacramentalism in Charles Williams’, The Chesteron Review 8, no. 1 (1982): 38. [5] John Heath-Stubbs, Foreword to The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams by C. A. Huttar and P. J. Schakel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Press, 1996), 8–9. See also 17, 21–22, 101. [6] Williams’ identification with man’s inner suffering may be one reason for the continual republication of his work and a hint as to his viability today. My italics; he was an Inkling and his work fits the description. [7] Dorothy Sayers, Introduction to James I by Charles Williams (1934; London: Arthur Barker, 1951), xii–xiii. [8] Brian Horne, Introduction to Charles Williams: A Celebration, ix. [9] Williams, Divorce, 1920. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007, 105–06. [10] Williams also uses critics such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, Pascal, and D. H. Lawrence when they have exposed the hypocrisy in the Church. [11] Williams, He Came Down from Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins, 1938; 1942. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005. 4, 30. [12] C. Filmer-Davies, ‘Charles Williams, a Prophet for Postmodernism: Skepticism and Belief in The Place of the Lion’, in The Rhetoric of Vision (London: Associated University Presses, 1996), 103. [13] Williams, The Image of the City and Other Essays, Selected by Anne Ridler. 1958. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007, 133; Williams’s italics. [14] Williams, Introduction to KierkegaardThe Present Age and Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises. Translated by A. Dru and W. Lowrie. London: OUP, 1940. xii.



Can you imagine suddenly discovering a trove of major new works by one of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, a worthy companion of C. S Lewis and T. S. Eliot? In a sense, we actually can do this, and we don’t even need to go excavating for manuscripts lost in an attic or mis-catalogued in a university archive. The author in question is Charles Williams (1886-1945), well-known to many readers as an integral member of Oxford’s Inklings group, and a writer venerated by Lewis himself. (Tolkien was more dubious.) T. S. Eliot offered high praise to both the work and the man. Among other admirers, W. H. Auden saw Williams as a modern-day Anglican saint, to whom he gave much of the credit for his own conversion, while Rowan Williams has termed that earlier Williams “a deeply serious critic, a poet unafraid of major risks, and a theologian of rare creativity.” Some thoroughly secular critics have joined the chorus as well.

Williams exercised his influence through his seven great novels, his criticism, and his overtly theological writings—although theology to some degree informed everything he ever wrote. Some, including myself, care passionately about his poetry (I said “care about,” not “understand”). Amazingly, though, given his enduring reputation, Williams’ plays remain all but unknown and uncited, even by those who cherish his other work. Now, these plays are not “lost” in any Dead Sea Scroll sense: as recently as 2006, Regent College Publishing reissued his Collected Plays. But I have still heard erudite scholars who themselves advocate a Williams revival ask, seriously, “He wrote plays?” Indeed he did, and they amply repay reading, for their spiritual content as much as for their innovative dramatic qualities. Two at least—Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and The House of the Octopus—demand recognition as modern Christian classics, and others are plausible candidates.

As a dramatist, Williams was a late bloomer. Although he was writing plays from his thirties, most were forgettable ephemera, and his most ambitious work suffered from his desire to reproduce Jacobean styles. In 1936, though, as Williams turned fifty, his play Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury was produced at the Canterbury Festival. This setting might have daunted a lesser artist, as the previous year’s main piece was Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which raised astronomically high expectations. Thomas Cranmer, though, did not disappoint. Cranmer was after all a fascinating and complex figure, the guiding force in the Tudor Reformation of the English church and a founding father of Anglicanism. Yet when the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, Cranmer repeatedly showed himself willing to compromise with the new order. He signed multiple denials of Protestant doctrine before reasserting his principles, recanting the recantations, on the very day of his martyrdom. Famously, he thrust his hand into the fire moments before he was executed, condemning the instrument by which he had betrayed his beliefs.

Williams’ play is a superb retelling of the history of the English Reformation, but most of the interest focuses on Cranmer himself. Williams studies the journey of a soul en route to salvation despite every effort it can make to resist that outcome—what he calls “the hounding of a man into salvation.” This powerfully reflects the belief in the working of Grace, of the Holy Spirit, that is such a keystone of Williams’ theological framework.

We follow Cranmer along his way through the acerbic commentary of the Skeleton, Figura Rerum, one of the mysterious characters Williams repeatedly used to reveal the inner spiritual aspects of the drama. Although they appear on stage, they normally remain unseen by most or all of the human characters. But the Skeleton is much more than a chorus or commentary: rather, he represents both God’s plan and Cranmer’s destiny, “the delator of all things to their truth.” He is also a Christ-figure, who speaks in mordant and troubling adaptations of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John: “You believe in God; believe also in me; I am the Judas who betrays men to God.” He is “Christ’s back,” and anything but a Comforter. The Skeleton, moreover, is given some of Williams’ finest poetry, lines that stir a vague recognition until you realize the intimate parallels to Eliot’s yet-unwritten Four Quartets.

Despite Cranmer’s timid and bookish nature, he is led to a courage that will mean both martyrdom and salvation, and will moreover advance God’s purpose in history. Ultimately, having lost everything and all hope, he throws himself on God’s will (in one of Williams’ many echoes of Kierkegaard). “Where is my God?” asks a despairing Cranmer. The Skeleton replies,

Where is your God? When you have lost him at last you shall come into God. … When time and space withdraw, there is nothing left But yourself and I; lose yourself, there is only I. But even at this moment of total surrender, the play offers no easy solutions, and no simple hagiography. In the last moments, with death imminent, Cranmer even agrees to the Skeleton’s comment that “If the Pope had bid you live, you should have served him.” If he is to be a martyr, that decision is wholly in God’s hands: “Heaven is gracious / but few can draw safe deductions on its method.”

The success of Thomas Cranmer marked a shift in Williams’ interests to drama. Over the next nine years, up to his death in 1945, he would publish only two novels, as against eight other dramas that, together with Cranmer, would make up his Collected Plays. Like his friend Christopher Fry and other English dramatists of the age, Williams sought to revive older forms, including mystery plays and pageants, and some of these works are among his most accessible. Seed of Adam and The House by the Stable are Nativity plays, but as far removed from any standard church productions as we might expect given the author. In Seed, Adam also becomes Augustus, and the Three Kings represent different temptations to which fallen humanity has succumbed. In the pageant Judgement at Chelmsford, episodes from the span of Christian history provide a context for one very new and thoroughly modern diocese largely composed of suburban and industrial regions, and already (in 1939) facing the prospect of destruction by bombing. Yet Williams unites ancient and modern, placing Chelmsford firmly in the Christian story alongside Jerusalem and Antioch: all times are one before the Cross.

But if all the plays are worth rediscovering, it is his very last—The House of the Octopus (1945), a theologically daring story of an encounter with absolute evil—that best makes the case for his stature as a first-class Christian writer. Remarkably too, this play gains enormously in hindsight because of its exploration of ideas that seemed marginal to Christian thought at the time, but which have become pressing in an age of global church expansion.

The House of the Octopus offers a highly developed statement of Williams’ elaborate theological system, which we can trace especially through the earlier novels. His key beliefs involved what he termed substitution and exchange, in a sense that went well beyond the customary interpretation of Christ’s atonement. For Williams, human lives are so intertwined that one person can and must bear the burdens of others. We must, he thought, share mystically in one another’s lives in a way that reflects the different persons of the Trinity: they participate in what Williams called Co-inherence. Moreover, this mutual sharing and participation extends across Time—to which God is not subject—and after death. In his novel Descent Into Hell (1937), a woman agrees to bear the sufferings and terrors of a 16th-century ancestor as he faced martyrdom in the Protestant cause; he in turn perceives that loving aid as the voice of a divine messenger—and he might well be right in his understanding.

Stricter Protestants found Williams’ vision of the overlapping worlds of living and dead unacceptably Catholic, if not medieval, and accused him of heresy. Wasn’t he teaching a doctrine of Purgatory? Williams was perhaps taking to extremes the Catholic/Anglican doctrine of the communion of saints, but he was guided above all by one scriptural principle, expounded in Romans 8: the denial that anything in time and space can separate us from God’s love.

If some of Williams’ visionary ideas fitted poorly in the England of his day, they could still resonate in newer churches not grounded in Western traditions. House of the Octopus, for example, used a non-European setting to suggest how familiar dogmas might be reimagined in other cultures. The play is set on a Pacific island during an invasion by the Satanic empire of P’o-l’u. Although the situation strongly recalls the Japanese invasion of Western-ruled territories in World War II, and the resulting mass slaughter of Christian missionaries, Williams never intended to identify P’o-l’u with any earthly state. This is a spiritual drama, and the leading character is Lingua Coeli, “Heaven’s Tongue,” or the Flame, a representation of the Holy Spirit, who remains invisible to most of the characters throughout the play.

When alien forces occupy the island, they immediately demand the submission of the native people, who have recently become Christian converts. Terrified, one young woman, Alayu, denies her Christian faith and agrees to serve instead as “the lowest slave of P’ol’u,” but even that apostasy does not save her life. And this is where the theological issue becomes acute. The Western missionary priest, Anthony, is convinced that Alayu’s last-minute denial has damned her eternally. The local people, however, realize that salvation absolutely has to be communal as well as individual:

We in these isles Live in our people—no man’s life his own— From birth and initiation. When our salvation Came to us, it showed us no new mode— Sir, dare you say so—of living to ourselves. The Church is not many but the life of many In ways of relation. Wiser than Fr. Anthony, they also know that death itself is a permeable barrier, and so is the seemingly rigid structure of Time itself. As a native deacon asks, could not Alayu’s original baptism have swallowed up her later sin?

If God is outside Time, is it so certain That we know which moments of time count with him, And how? Alayu is saved after her death, through the support of her people and the direct intervention of the Flame. Formerly an apostate, the dead Alayu becomes a saint interceding for the living. As the native believers tell the horrified missionary, “Her blood has mothered us in the Faith, as yours fathered.” When Anthony in turn faces his own torment and martyrdom—and the danger of apostasy—it is Alayu who will give him strength: “He will die your death and you fear his fright.” Fr. Anthony learns that the Spirit’s power is far larger than he has ever dared believe. And he also realizes how deceived he was to think he could have kept his status as paternalistic ruler of his native church indefinitely, among believers who had at least as much direct access to the Spirit as he did himself.

Although Williams was claiming no special knowledge of newer churches and missions, recent developments have given his work a strongly contemporary feel. The ideas he was exploring in 1945 have become influential in those rising churches, especially the emphasis on the power of ancestors and the utterly communal nature of belief. In such settings, the ancient doctrine of the communion of saints, the chain binding living and dead, acquires a whole new relevance, and a new set of challenges for churches that thought these issues settled long since.

Like his other writings, Charles Williams’ plays offer plenty to debate and to argue with—but his ideas are not lightly dismissed. Some of us have been wrestling with them for the better part of a lifetime.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperOne).

Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine. Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.


Bearing One Another’s Burdens: Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell

--Father Michael, Holy Nativity Orthodox Church, Langley, BC, Canada


In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters, an old man and a wise poet, Peter Stanhope, helps a young woman, Pauline, who is tormented by fear. She fears meeting her double. One might argue that she is psychotic, believing that her double exists and that she has several times seen her double walking toward her. Psychotic or not, Pauline’s fear is real. She is like everyone else. We all (and often) experience very real fear, worry, anxiety, doubt or any number of distressing feeling-thoughts over matters that are not real, over matters that we imagine may be real, or may become real, but are in fact not real. Few of us have hallucinations as Pauline seems to have, but all of us create mental scenarios that are no more real than hallucinations, but which produce in us very real emotional responses and even mental confusion.


I am intrigued by the way Stanhope helps Pauline. He does not question the logical possibility of meeting one’s double, nor does he attempt to assure Pauline that such a thing can’t “really” happen. He accepts her version of reality as hers, and offers to bear part of her suffering--the real suffering that she is experiencing because of what seems to be her fantasy. If she will allow him, Stanhope says to Pauline, he will carry her fear for her so that she will not have to bear it. Pauline doubts this is possible, but Stanhope persists and encourages her to accept that he will bear it. He refers to St. Paul’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” but he does not dwell there. He focuses on encouraging Pauline, when she feels fear coming on her to remember that she does not need to carry it, because he is carrying it for her. Stanhope will be afraid for her, so she doesn’t have to be.


When they part company, Stanhope allows himself to imagine and then feel the fear Pauline must experience seeing her double walking toward her, and the increasing dread that something terrible will happen if they ever meet. Of course for Stanhope, the fear is easier to bear than it is for Pauline. He feels it, but he feels it as one who is not trapped by it, as one strong, as one who willingly carries the load of someone weaker, someone he cares for. For her part, Pauline forgets about the matter and enjoys her walk home distracted by pleasant sights and smells and thoughts. She forgets until she realizes that she has not been afraid. In realizing that she is not afraid, fear seems to knock at her door. She knows that Stanhope must have done something--she doesn’t know what it is nor how it has worked--but she chooses to believe it, to accept that Stanhope is carrying her fear so she doesn’t have to: she said that she would let Stanhope handle the “trouble,” and to keep her word, that is what she would do.


On one level, we can say that Pauline’s deliverance from fear is a mere psychological trick. We see right through it. However, as most of us know from experience, psychological tricks seldom really work, or seldom work very well. Just on a psychological level, the trust necessary for one to believe fully the words of another--especially about a matter that as been deeply hidden and tormenting since childhood--is so rare that I am tempted to say its occurrence is miraculous. People whom we can trust are very rare. People whose wisdom is manifest, whose genuine care for us is not questioned, and whose love is not possessive, grabbing nor contingent, such people are very, very rare.


Understanding how a psychological trick might work is one thing, finding someone whose character is such that he or she can pull it off, that’s another matter altogether.


But if we probe deeper than the mere psychology, we might see something that Williams says is “hidden in the central mystery of Christendom.” This is something Williams calls “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.” What he seems to mean--I guess I’ll understand it more as I finish the novel--is that, so long as both parties are willing, it is indeed possible to “bear one another’s burdens.” Central to Christianity is Christ’s bearing the burden of sin for the whole world. Those who would be free from the driving passions of sin may experience the lifting, the freedom, from the sinful passions--if they really want it. Similarly, each of us is able to bear the burdens of those we love and have our burdens born in turn. In fact, Williams goes so far as to say this is a universal law, and “not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s.”


I think Williams is onto something. I have experienced something like this phenomenon myself in relationships with those I have come to trust. I have experienced, on the one hand, the lessening of anxiety, worry or any number of unnamed mental torments by obeying (trusting) the advice, counsel or just accepting the support of a friend. On the other hand, I have also taken the suffering of others into my heart. Whether or not it has done them any good, I cannot say. I’m sure correlations are not linear. One bears the pain of another out of love, not utility.

I don’t think “the doctrine of substituted love” is a good name for this principle. Nevertheless, I know that something like this principle functions in the universe. Love compels us to bear one another’s burdens. And just as compelling, love teaches us to let others bear our burdens, for so we fulfill the law of Christ.