January 22, 2021

On Charles Williams

charles-williams-writingO Champion General, we your City ascribe to you the victory in gratitude for being rescued from calamity, O Theotokos. But since you have invincible power, free us from all kinds of perils so that we may cry out to you: Rejoice, O Bride unwedded!

When he perceived what had secretly been ordered, to the abode of Joseph urgently reported the bodiless one and said unto the Unwedded: The Lord who has bowed the heavens in His descent, in you is contained completely and without change; and beholding Him in your womb taking the form of a slave, astounded I cry out to you: Rejoice, O Bride unwedded!

(Troparion  and Apolytikon of the Great Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos)

JRR Tolkien, the author of The Lord Of The Rings, never cared much for Charles Williams.  In one occasion, he referred to him as “that witch-doctor”, and lamented his growing influence over this friend and  CS Lewis.    By all accounts, Charles Williams never was as central a participant in the Oxford literary circle that included both Tolkien and Lewis, and witnessed the birth of both Middle Earth and Narnia as they emerged from the crania of their creators.  Williams was not an academic.  He attended, but never graduated from University. In another, more primordial sense, Williams was as  different from Tolkien as anybody could be.  Tolkien was the voice of Deep England, and Deep England was aways a rural, almost Arcadian vision.  I think the American version of this, the mythology of the Plain Man with his Plain Speech speaking the Plain Truth is invariably Red State-rural, or at least small-town.  Throughout all of Tolkien’s  works, there is a mistrust of the Machine, an abhorrence of the Algorithm, a wistful desire for a simpler more straightforward relationship between men and the natural world as well as between men and other men.

Williams, on the other hand, was a life-long Londoner and an urbanite through and through.  Unlike the romances of Tolkien and Lewis, Williams’ novels are set either in cities or in a countryside to which urban denizens have retired, but which is to them what rural spaces are to the majority of us; a restful and aesthetically superior extension of the city, economically dependent on it, to which a favored few who can afford it are allowed too escape from time to time.  It is telling that the one Lewis romance set in an urban environment, That Hideous Strength, is considered the one book of his that is most influenced by Charles Williams.  In Tolkien, the City was seen as either a a necessary evil (Minas Tirith) or as the embodiment of the diabolical (“lovely Lugbürz”).   Even though the first glance of Peter Jackson’s Edoras provoked the comment from my son – ‘he’s king of that?’ – there is never any doubt where Tolkien’s sympathies lay.  The Companions of the Ring, even the restored King himself, spend as little narrative time in Minas Tirith as possible.

In contrast, Williams both saw and expanded upon one of the central visions of the Scriptures; we began our career in a Garden, but we are not to return to it.    Whether or not the cherub with the double-edged sword will still be keeping guard or not, it will be unnecessary.   The Tree of Life has been uprooted and replanted in a City, which City is our final destiny.  It is not for nothing that the City gives the name to that most desirable state of man; civilization, apart from which there is only savagery and barbarism.  For Williams, the Image of the City was the Image of what he calls the vicarious life.  Christians are always being exhorted to “live for others”.  Williams says that the City makes it known that we not only live for others, but because of others.   Others have labored and you have entered upon their labors.  You only have to spend a day in a major city where there is a sanitary strike to understand just how little of an abstraction this is.  Cities are the places par excellence, where human energies are collected, weighed and measured, and submitted to the process of Exchange.  For Exchange, to Williams, is not primarily a Christian doctrine explaining how the virtues of Christ are applied to the accounts of sinful men.  Exchange is,  because of Christ’s sacrifice, the very Life of the Universe.  A sodium atom may live unto itself and remain as it is, volatile and intolerant of light, and a chlorine atom may remain as it is, corrosive and poisonous, or one may surrender an electron to the other and they may become the Power That Preserves.

If the City is primarily the engine of Exchange, it is to be contrasted to what Williams calls the Infamy.  The Infamy is that which either precludes participation in Exchange, or that which compels it unwilling.  Williams contrasts the City, which he poetically describes as something that can be founded

¿Y fue por este río de sueñera y de barro

que las proas vinieron a fundarme la patria?

“and was it for me that against this sleepy, muddy river

the ships’ prows slapped to found my native city?”

Jorge Luis Borges , “The Mythological Foundation of Buenos Aires”

with its counterparts the Nation and the State.   The Nation is something that emerges from the quantum foam of Nature into the currents of History.  There is a measure of fatalism in the statement “He is a German” that is lacking in the statement “He is a Berliner,” and an assumption of participation in the latter that is not present in the former.  It is hard for us Americans (speaking hemispherically not nationally) to understand the subtle interplay between soil and DNA that composes a robust nationalism, and there is a place for a robust nationalism.  After all,  it is “the Nations” that will participate in the City, and who will be the sources of its wealth, not individuals.  A case in point is Miami.  Miami is a vibrant city that owes its vibrancy to the number of nations that participate in it.   This makes it a wonderful city to go restaurant hopping in, but not an easy city to govern.  Miami could never be the capital of the Shire, but I have a suspicion that Heaven  will be more like Miami than it will be like the Shire.  The problem with the Nation is that no one who was not born into it could possibly be a participant in it.  This was the heresy of National Socialism and all other similar ideologies, the absorption of the City into the Nation.

The State, on the other hand, is a far more volitional and less organic creature.  We Americans (speaking nationally, not hemispherically) almost always mean “the State” when we speak of “the Nation”, that is to say, those intentional and explicit manipulations whereby the process of Exchange is spelled out in painful and stultifying detail and to which all are compelled to participate.  The Law has a breathtaking pedigree, but it is telling that the State speaks more often of “due process” when people speak more often of justice.  The State is parasitical on the City and continually seeks to subjugate it, but it is never capable of doing so completely.  That would be like a virus so virulent that it killed 100 percent of the organisms it infected.  Historically, though, the State appears always to seek that point of stasis where the maximum amount of energy is diverted to the wielders of its levers and just enough is retained in the grid to ensure ongoing activity.  The problem is that when that point is passed, the City does not stutter to a halt like a car running out of gas.  It collapses like a car going off a cliff.  this is the heresy of Communism and other sympathetic ideologies; the absorption of the City into the State.

For the City, even the Earthly City which is an icon of the true City,  has a source of Life hidden from both the Nation and the State.  Even though she was founded by Cain (!!!), she is the Mother of Us All (Galatians 4:26).  Her charter is the last stanza of the great Creed: I believe in the Holy Ghost, Who propels her inexorably Godward, in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is her true Name, I believe in one Baptism, her process of Naturalization, for the Forgiveness of Sins, the coin of Her realm, the Resurrection of The Dead, the restoration of her lost unity, and the [Exchanged and Exchanging] Life of the Age to Come.


“The City is simultaneously hierarchical and republican.”

Charles Williams, He Came Down From Heaven



  1. I wonder if Tolkien’s dislike of William’s writing was because it is not alone mystical, it does lean towards the occult (in a sense); although writing from a Christian view, he does use the Western Esoteric Tradition as the Tarot in “The Greater Trumps”, the Stone of Solomon in “Many Dimensions” and séances, ghosts, spiritualism and magic (both black and white) in “All Hallows’ Eve”. Even when dealing with the Holy Grail in “War in Heaven”, he very much contrasts an Anglican character to a Roman Catholic one, which may or may not have ruffled Tolkien’s feathers; it ruffled mine a tiny bit, and Tolkien had more grounds to be ruffled, due to his experience of anti-Catholic prejudice even in Oxford – an extract from a letter to his son in 1944:

    A propos of that, but concerning another occasion: that you may judge of the atmosphere of tact and courtesy in my beautiful college. I took Rice-Oxley to dine on the second Tuesday in term. The election to the Rectorship of Lincoln had just been announced: the college had elected K. Murray the young Scotch Bursar responsible for the Turl atrocity. The obvious (and I think proper) person was V. J. Brooke (St Cath’s Censor); but Hanbury was also a candidate. Sitting next to me, the Master in a loud voice said: ‘Thank heaven they did not elect a Roman Catholic to the Rectorship anyway: disastrous, disastrous for the college.’ ‘Yes, indeed,’ echoed Dr Ramsden, ‘disastrous.’ My guest looked at me and smiled and whispered ‘models of tact and courtesy!’….”

    Tolkien didn’t like ‘mystery cults’ and secret knowledge; again, in a letter of 1958, speaking about the other two wizards of the Five Istari (besides Gandalf, Radugast and Saruman) he says “What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.”

    And Sauron, of course, tricks Ar-Pharazon of Numenor into his own destruction by pretending to tell him the ‘real’ truth, that the Valar are lying, Eru does not exist, and the ‘real’ god is Morgoth, for whose worship an entire religion is set up in Numenor (including human sacrifice).

    • I failed to say that Williams, of the four Literary Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Willams), is the hardest for Evangelical Christians to understand. Tolkien’s deep and evident Catholicism seems to be overlooked by his Protestant fanboys in favor of his agrarian, localist vision, and Lewis’ Evangelical zeal is so heartwarming to the Hot Gospellers that they are willing to overlook his belief in Purgatory and evolution, but it is ironic to me that in order to grasp what Williams, perhaps the most Nonconformist of them all, was talking about, I had to transform from a Hot Gospeller into a (small-c) Catholic Christian.

      • Certainly, if you have any qualms about “the occult” (whether or not you’re an Evangelical), you’ll run screaming from Williams’ novels which brazenly use the Tarot as mystical and magical realities, or (especially when I see the huffing and puffing about “No, Muslims do not worship the same God as Jews and Christians” and “Allah is a pagan moon god”) where the Stone from Solomon’s Crown is a Muslim relic and where Solomon is referred to throughout as “Suleiman ben Daood, King in Jerusalem”.

        There’s also an amusing (if you have a dry sense of humour, considering how matters stand nowadays) portrait of a very orthodox young Muslim (the Prince Ali Mirza Khan, First Secretary to the Persian Ambassador at the court of St. James) in the novel about the Stone of Solomon, “Many Dimensions”:

        “Ali himself had been trained through his childhood in the Koran and the traditions, and, though the shifting policies of Persia had flung him for awhile into the army and afterwards into the diplomatic service his mind moved with most ease in the romantic regions of myth. Suleiman ben Daood, he knew, was a historic figure: the ruler of a small nation which, in the momentary decrease of its two neighbours, Egypt and Assyria, had attained an unstable pre-eminence. But Suleiman was also one of the four great world-shakers before the Prophet, a commander of the Faithful, peculiarly favoured by Allah. He had been a Jew, but the Jews in those days were the only witnesses to the Unity. “There is no God but God,” he murmured to himself, and cast a hostile glance at a crucifix which stood as a war memorial in the grounds of a church near the Embassy. ” ‘Say: for those who believe not is the torment of hell: an evil journey shall it be.’ ” With which quotation he delivered the car to a servant and went in to find the Ambassador, whom he discovered half-asleep over the latest volume of Memoirs. He bowed and waited in silence.

        “My dear Ali,” the Ambassador said, rousing himself. “Did you have a good evening?”

        “No,” the young man answered coldly.

        “I didn’t expect you would,” his chief said. “You orthodox young water-drinkers can hardly expect to enjoy a dinner. Was it, so to speak, a dinner?”

        “I was concerned, sir,” the Prince said, “with the Crown of Suleiman, on whom be the Peace.”

        “Really?” the Ambassador asked. “You really saw it? And is it authentic?”

        “It is without doubt the Crown and the Stone,” Ali answered. The Ambassador stared, but Ali went on.

        “And it is in the hands of the infidel. I have seen one of these dogs – ”

        His chief frowned a little. “I have asked you,” he said, “even when we are alone – to speak of these people without such phrases.”

        “I beg your Excellency’s pardon,” the Prince said. “I have seen one of them use it -by the Permission: and return unharmed. It is undoubtedly the Crown.”

    • Randy Thompson says

      It has always seemed to me that Tolkien’s dislike of Williams was based more on his “occultism” than his views on the Catholic Church, real or imagined.

      Williams’ novels are a profound explorations of deep Christian themes, often using very real occult motifs. Williams was a member of the Order of the Golden dawn during WWI. From what I can make it, it was something he wandered into and then wandered out of. I suspect his interest had something to do with a hunger for spiritual experience more tangible than what was found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Yet, despite the occult themes and motifs in his novels, he did more in his novels to put the fear of God in me about occult practices than anyone or anything else. To play with or to attempt to manipulate spiritual forces for one’s own purposes is the way of destruction, as the satanists seeking the “Graal” in “War in Heaven” illustrate. Insofar as anyone can “understand” darkness, Williams did. To read him is to come away with a very real sense of the darkness of darkness. Of course, one comes away with other things too, such as a profound sense of God’s love being at the center of Creation, which, for Williams, reflected the unity and diversity of the Trinity.

  2. Charles Williams is one of the least known Inklings, but a very profound one that I like immensely. Thanks for doing this blog on him.

    • Sounds like the city of Miami should take warning from the fragments of “The Lament of Atalantë” (as in this excerpt translated from the Adûnaic):

      Bârim an-Adûn yurahtam dâira sâibêth-mâ Êruvô
      Lords / of-West / they broke / Earth / assent-with / from Êru
      azrîya du-phursâ akhâsada. … Anadûnê zîrân hikallaba…
      seas / so-as-to-gush / into chasm. … Númenor / beloved / she-fell down


  3. Thanks for this, Mule. It makes a lot of sense and helps to illuminate my mixed response to Williams — although I have to appreciate a writer who gives a character my name! Like you, I’ve had to come to terms with the image of heaven as city after having been raised on Lewis’ and Tolkien’s rural ideals.

    • I think Tolkien is not so much opposed to the idea of the city qua city, but more the danger of the City as Hive, the city as representing dehumanisation and mechanisation, the temptation of the Tower of Babel – I’m thinking of Gondolin, where when the warning came to abandon it because it was in peril, the Elvenking of the city preferred to trust in its strength and hope that secrecy would preserve them, because after such long labour to build it he was reluctant to give it all up.

      Williams is maybe more the City as City of God, as in St. Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man. Tolkien is very aware of the flaws of the City of Man 🙂

      From a letter to his son in 1943:

      “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!”

  4. Very nice post. I hear echoes of Brunner’s “The Misunderstanding of the Church”. After reading your post on a Church Bible, why not change the non copyrighted title to Ecclesia Bible?

  5. I know this is off-topic, but…

    Jeff, people have been saying things about you.
    Hope you are going to a party.

  6. “The Law has a breathtaking pedigree, but it is telling that the State speaks more often of “due process” when people speak more often of justice.”
    Interesting quote in light of of the Zimmerman verdict. The state also speaks of due process most often .in the context of protecting the rights of the individual from tyranny. Despotic states don’t care much for due process either.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks so much for this terrific post on Charles Williams. He deserves way more attention than he gets (although he does still have a loyal following of admirers).

    One of the things I learned from reading him was how one can see the pattern of the Trinity throughout creation as well as in his image of the City. The City was an image of God, one entity but many persons, each person separate but dependent on others, and each person needed by others. As God is One and a relationship of persons, so is the City. Likewise, Creation reflects this unity and diversity of the Godhead. Williams’ use of a patristic technical term describing the relationships of the persons of the Trinity, “Coinherence,” is a key concept not only for the Fathers, but Williams.

    Practically, to read Charles Williams is to be permanently inoculated against the virus that is Ayn Rand, whose hyper-individualism is simply nonsense when you see the world as Williams saw it, which is the way the world really is.

    To read C.S. Lewis is to receive a theological education without knowing it. Much the same can be said about Charles Williams.

    If anyone here is interested in reading Williams, I would strongly suggest you start with two of his earlier novels, “War in Heaven” and “Many Dimensions.” His last novel, “All Hallows’ Eve” is arguably his best written novel, reflecting his presence in Oxford during WWII and regular participation in Inklings gatherings. My personal favorite of his novels is “Descent into Hell,” which takes the effects of sin and pride C.S. Lewis describes in “The Great Divorce” to depths that are truly terrifying. This is not an easy read, but it is a very, very rewarding read theologically and spiritually.

    One last comment: T.S. Eliot once said that if he ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, he would want Charles Williams to be with him. That’s not a half bad introduction to Charles Williams!

  8. Mule, thanks for the gentle call to attention re. Williams’ work, which has always kind of creeped me out. (I feel the same way about That Hideous Strength, btw, for reasons that go far beyond Wiliams’ influence on Lewis’ writing in that book.)

    I will put Williams on the to-read shelf.

  9. Robert F says

    The noble reason (and there may be ignoble ones as well, perhaps not unlike H.P. Lovecraft’s nativism; Tolkien’s books are filled with attention to the different kinds, or shall we call them races, of creatures in Middle Earth, and some of this attention seems to be unhealthy) for Tolkien’s distrust of the city may be that he knows that in our world open cities often have become oppressive city-states.

    Berlin, Moscow, Rome, each in its turn was a city indistinguishable, at least for a while, from the evil aspirations of tyrants for whom their cities were central to the identity of the terrible forces they brought to bear on history; tyranny always comes from the the center of a society, and cities are the places where so-called advanced societies locate their centers.

    I don’t think Tolkien idealized small-town, rural life; the Shire, for all its appeal, and need of protection, is a place where small evils reflect the larger evils in the greater world and its cities, evils that the citizens of the Shire always try to avert their gaze from. Its the complacency and insularity of the small creatures in places like the Shire that provide room for the great evil outside to take root and eventually sprawl and threaten the Shire and every other similar place.

    The heroes in Tolkien, both the royal heroes like Strider and the common heroes like Bilbo, Frodo and even Samwise, are characters who are on a soujourn between garden and city, characters who because of their experience have been dispossessed of any lasting and safe sense of home, if home means that from which one started, and are on the move, trekking through ruined wildernesses and wastes. Even when they return victorious to their own houses they are not the same as when they departed, and their homes are now way-stations rather than permanent abodes; they can never be at home in Middle Earth again.

    They look to the to the Gray Haven and beyond them to Valinor for a lasting home, to the place where cities never become tyrannies and gardens are always safe and secure within rather than outside the gates of the city.

  10. MCB,

    Thank you very much for writing about Charles Williams in such depth. I haven’t read any of his works, but your articles gives me some guidance.

  11. Cedric Klein says

    There is a B&W graphic novel Heaven’s War (still in print!) in which Charles Williams, with help from Jack Lewis & John Tolkien, travels into the Astral Plane to fight… wait for it… Aleister Crowley. Not a bad read at all.

  12. I feel Tolkien, at least a little bit, in his apparent distrust of technology, urbanization, and industrialization. These things give us numerous benefits which I enjoy on a daily basis and have no intention of doing without. But the unintended consequences of technology and urbanization have, I think, made us at least a little less than fully human while disconnecting us from creation and from each other. For most of us, our only direct experience of God’s creation occurs while walking from home to car, car to office, office to car, car to home, etc, and even this experience takes place most frequently in urban and suburban environments where the hand of man upon nature is felt very heavily. Can this possibly be a good thing?

    It was interesting to read about Charles Williams’ view of city life and its honored place in God’s economy. I had never heard of him prior to this. I will have to look for some of his writings.

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