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Friday, July 15, 2005

The Strangely Rewarding Novels of Charles Williams

Elsewhere on this site, Kathy Hutchins briefly mentioned the novels of twentieth century British writer Charles Williams. I agree with Kathy's implicit assessment that Williams's novels are excellent.

I think that their decidedly lower popularity compared with the major works of Williams's friends Tolkien and Lewis is explained by the great difficulty most readers encounter in understanding precisely what is going on in Williams's novels.

One problem is that the books do not lie in a single identifiable genre. They are part horror, part fantasy, part mystery, part action-adventure, and all simultaneously. The events are those of romance, but the texture is of a realistic novel. One's expectations continually prove wrong.

The greater difficulty, however, surely lies in the nature of the world Williams depicts. It is exactly like our own, except for one thing, and this thing makes it so unlike our own as to be continually puzzling.

In these "spiritual thrillers," ideas and concepts from the spiritual realm manifest themselves in the natural world, though they are not immediately identified as doing so. If that seems a rather difficult explanation to grasp, it is because the concept itself is something that is best experienced rather than summarized.

However, once one overcomes the surface strangeness of Williams's narratives, they are quite compelling.

I would suggest starting with the most conventional of his books, War in Heaven (1930), his first novel. It tells the story of the Holy Grail having been found in a country church, and recounts the efforts of two groups to gain control over it. If this sounds rather like Tolkien's later Lord of the Rings trilogy, one can only note that great minds think alike, especially when they are friends and read each other's books. (Obviously the influence in this case would have been from Williams to Tolkien.)

Most of Williams's novels can be obtained online through used-book services, and some are available as etexts. Project Gutenberg Australia offers a page where some books no longer in copyright in Australia are available online. (These books are still in copyright in the United States and many other nations.)

An excellent introduction to Williams's fiction is available online here.

I highly recommend Charles Williams's challenging and rewarding novels. Careful reading of them will fully repay the effort expended.


Kathy Hutchins said...

I have long struggled with the concept of "best work to start with" and have concluded that I don't understand how other people's minds work well enough to make such judgements. So I will just say that the two novels I found the most enjoyable, and the ones I return to and reread the most often (although I have read all multiple times) are The Greater Trumps and All Hallows Eve.

Williams also wrote non-fiction and poetry. I have had a hard time trying to get through Descent of the Dove, but continue to think it's my fault for not concentrating, and that I should try again, because I think my effort would be rewarded.

The Mythopoeic Press brought out an edition of The Masques of Amen House in 2000, and I believe it is still available from them. These are three "skits" about working at Oxford University Press, which were written by Williams to be performed by and for his co-workers. It also contains an excellent short biography of Williams.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, Kathy. The reason I recommend starting with War in Heaven is that I think it is the easiest to assimilate logically, though still quite difficult. I started with The Greater Trumps myself, and was quite mystified, although I enjoyed it greatly. I suspect that it is because I have a too-literal mind and have difficulty freeing my imagination sufficiently to appreciate such things without a good deal of hard work. Others, as you say, may be able to jump right in.

Williams's worldview, although compatible with and a manifestation of orthodox Christianity, is highly eccentric and imaginative, as Wiliams looks beyond the Christian creeds to find thoroughly sophisticated explanations of the nature of God and of the relationship between the Lord and His creation. That is perhaps why Descent of the Dove has proved so difficult for you. It certainly did so for me.

Hunter Baker said...

I've been meaning to read Williams for years. I'll add it to my pleasure list.