Charles Williams

Charles Williams
Charles Williams

Charles Walter Stansby Williams (20 September 1886 – 15 May 1945) was a British poet, novelist, playwright, theologian, literary critic, and member of the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group associated with J. R. R. Tolkien at the University of Oxford.

Early life and education

Williams was born in London in 1886, the only son of (Richard) Walter Stansby Williams (1848–1929), a journalist and foreign business correspondent for an importing firm, writing in French and German, who was a ‘regular and valued’ contributor of verse, stories and articles to many popular magazines, and his wife Mary (née Wall, the sister of the ecclesiologist and historian J. Charles Wall), a former milliner (hatmaker), of Islington. He had one sister, Edith, born in 1889. The Williams family lived in ‘shabby-genteel’ circumstances, owing to Walter’s increasing blindness and the decline of the firm by which he was employed, in Holloway.

In 1894 the family moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire, where Williams lived until his marriage in 1917.

Educated at St Albans School, Williams was awarded a scholarship to University College London, but he left school in 1904 without attempting to gain a degree due to an inability to pay tuition fees.

Williams began work in 1904 in a Methodist bookroom. He was hired by the Oxford University Press (OUP) as a proofreading assistant in 1908 and quickly climbed to the position of editor. He continued to work at the OUP in various positions of increasing responsibility until his death in 1945. One of his greatest editorial achievements was the publication of the first major English-language edition of the works of Søren Kierkegaard. His work was part of the literature event in the art competition at the 1924 Summer Olympics.

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’s fantasies, unlike those of J. R. R. Tolkien and most of those of C. S. Lewis, are set in the contemporary world. Williams has been described by Colin Manlove as one of the three main writers of “Christian fantasy” in the twentieth century (the other two being C.S. Lewis and T. F. Powys). 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’s greatest admirers, reportedly re-read Williams’s extraordinary and highly unconventional history of the church, The 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. His work inspired Dorothy L. Sayers to undertake her translation of The Divine Comedy. 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’s essays were collected and published posthumously in Image of the City and Other Essays (1958), edited by Anne Ridler.

Williams gathered many followers and disciples during his lifetime. He was, for a period, a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He met fellow Anglican Evelyn Underhill (who was affiliated with a similar group, the Order of the Golden Dawn) in 1937 and was later to write the introduction to her published Letters in 1943.

When World War II broke out in 1939, Oxford University Press moved its offices from London to Oxford. Williams was reluctant to leave his beloved city, and his wife Florence refused to go. From the nearly 700 letters he wrote his wife during the war years a generous selection has been published; “primarily… love letters,” the editor calls them. But the move to Oxford did allow him to participate regularly in Lewis’s literary society known as the Inklings. In this setting Williams was able to read (and improve) his final published novel, All Hallows’ Eve, as well as to hear J. R. R. Tolkien read aloud to the group some of his early drafts of The Lord of the Rings. In addition to meeting in Lewis’s rooms at Oxford, they also regularly met at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (better known by its nickname “The Bird and Baby”). During this time Williams also gave lectures at Oxford on John Milton, William Wordsworth, and other authors, and received an honorary M.A. degree. Williams is buried in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford: his headstone bears the word “poet”, followed by the words “Under the Mercy”, a phrase often used by Williams himself.

Personal life

Williams’ grave at Holywell Cemetery in Oxford

In 1917 Williams married his first sweetheart, Florence Conway, following a long courtship during which he presented her with a sonnet sequence that would later become his first published book of poetry, The Silver Stair. Their son Michael was born in 1922.

Williams was an unswerving and devoted member of the Church of England, reputedly with a tolerance of the scepticism of others and a firm belief in the necessity of a “doubting Thomas” in any apostolic body.

Although Williams attracted the attention and admiration of some of the most notable writers of his day, including T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, his greatest admirer was probably C. S. Lewis, whose novel That Hideous Strength (1945) has been regarded as partially inspired by his acquaintance with both the man and his novels and poems. Williams came to know Lewis after reading Lewis’s then-recently published study The Allegory of Love; he was so impressed he jotted down a letter of congratulation and dropped it in the mail. Coincidentally, Lewis had just finished reading Williams’s novel The Place of the Lion and had written a similar note of congratulation. The letters crossed in the mail and led to an enduring and fruitful friendship.


Williams developed the concept of co-inherence and gave rare consideration to the theology of romantic love. Falling in love for Williams was a form of mystical envisioning in which one saw the beloved as he or she was seen through the eyes of God. Co-inherence was a term used in Patristic theology to describe the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ and the relationship between the persons of the blessed Trinity. Williams extended the term to include the ideal relationship between the individual parts of God’s creation, including human beings. It is our mutual indwelling: Christ in us and we in Christ, interdependent. It is also the web of interrelationships, social and economic and ecological, by which the social fabric and the natural world function. But especially for Williams, co-inherence is a way of talking about the Body of Christ and the communion of saints. For Williams, salvation was not a solitary affair: “The thread of the love of God was strong enough to save you and all the others, but not strong enough to save you alone.”[citation needed] He proposed an order, the Companions of the Co-inherence, who would practice substitution and exchange, living in love-in-God, truly bearing one another’s burdens, being willing to sacrifice and to forgive, living from and for one another in Christ. According to Gunnar Urang, co-inherence is the focus of all Williams’s novels.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvelous.

C.S. Lewis on Charles Williams's novels

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling

This is the first full biography of Charles Williams (1886-1945), an extraordinary and controversial figure who was a central member of the Inklingsthe group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Charles Williamsnovelist, poet, theologian, magician and guruwas the strangest, most multi-talented, and most controversial member of the group.

He was a pioneering fantasy writer, who still has a cult following. C.S. Lewis thought his poems on King Arthur and the Holy Grail were among the best poetry of the twentieth century for ‘the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique, and their profound wisdom’. But Williams was full of contradictions. An influential theologian, Williams was also deeply involved in the occult, experimenting extensively with magic, practising erotically-tinged rituals, and acquiring a following of devoted disciples.

Membership of the Inklings, whom he joined at the outbreak of the Second World War, was only the final phase in a remarkable career. From a poor background in working-class London, Charles Williams rose to become an influential publisher, a successful dramatist, and an innovative literary critic. His friends and admirers included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and the young Philip Larkin.

A charismatic personality, he held left-wing political views, and believed that the Christian churches had dangerously undervalued sexuality. To redress the balance, he developed a ‘Romantic Theology’, aiming at an approach to God through sexual love. He became the most admired lecturer in wartime Oxford, influencing a generation of young writers before dying suddenly at the height of his powers.

This biography draws on a wealth of documents, letters and private papers, many never before opened to researchers, and on more than twenty interviews with people who knew Williams. It vividly recreates the bizarre and dramatic life of this strange, uneasy genius, of whom Eliot wrote, ‘For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world.’


Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams is good. The research is well done, with many footnotes and ample evidence of thorough research into Williams’ extensive correspondence and his voluminous literary estate. This is a book that needed to be written and has been written well. If it fails to inspire as much as a biography of another Inkling, that is likely because a fair telling of the life of Charles Williams cannot be a happy story if it is to be an honest one.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling

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