Unlike any other writer in the 20th century, Charles Williams (1886-1945) had an uncanny grasp of the sublime and the spiritual, and an unusually sharp insight into the mystical realm. Williams grew up in a particularly questioning age, an age which shook the foundations of the Christian Church. It saw the invention of the automobile and the telephone, and it hurtled toward an increasingly rationalistic and scientific approach to learning. As almost a backlash against such dry science, interest in the occult and the spiritual flourished, fueled, perhaps, by the very body of knowledge it sought to offset. Attraction to things of a mystical nature became widespread and commonplace- the public was hungry for something to fill the void left by rationalism, something other than orthodoxy. Various groups sprang up to fill the need. Thus the Theosophical Society, the Rosicrucian Order (Rose Cross), and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were formed. The works of Charles Williams can only be properly understood in the context of his association with these groups.
These orders differed in some respects, but they shared certain characteristics. All were secretive and based around a prescribed ritual. Some who participated in them held an actual belief in magic. Some solemnly practiced certain sublime rituals in order to obtain enlightenment or spiritual awareness. Such orders drew their philosophies from many sources, from the Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, and the Eastern traditions, as well as from gnostic Christian traditions. Certain orders were what some would term 'occult' with no ties to Christianity; others considered themselves to be Christian but held to gnosticism or 'secret teachings' outside of Canonical and Apocryphal scripture. Some orders of this second variety claimed to have ancient roots, as did the Rosicrucian Order, which was supposedly instituted by Christian Rosenkreuz in the 1600's and which initially had ties with Freemasonry, though later broke from it. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was also associated with Rosicrucianism. Forms of Rosicrucianism still exist.
Charles Williams grew up in the time that spawned these orders, and spent a period of his life involved with one branch of what he personally termed the 'Golden Dawn,' but was technically an offshoot of that order called 'The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross' founded by A.E. Waite.
The Golden Dawn, originally initiated by S.L. MacGregor Mathers and others, attracted prominent members, including Waite, W.B. Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley. Yet members differed on the focus of the order. When Yeats published a tract entitled 'Is the (Golden Dawn) to Remain a Magical Order?' Waite aligned himself with those whose answer was that it should not, and assumed power when Yeats and his supporters were outvoted. He later founded a subsect, the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross on July 9, 1915, patterning the order on the Rosicrucian manifesto of 1614.
Charles Williams joined this order on September 21, 1917. Accounts of Charles Williams by those who knew him indicate that he was deeply intellectual, but did not possess the financial means to pursue University education. Yet he was steeped in intellectual works by his father, who owned and ran an artists supply shop and who was moderately successful as a writer of various plays and short stories. Speculatively, Williams may have been attracted to the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross because it was one of the few avenues of study available to him, and it appealed to his interests at the time.
Waite, who was also a Master Mason, wrote on a subject which fascinated Williams -- the Holy Grail.Whether or not the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross was actually gnostic, esoteric, or simply secretive is a matter open to interpretation. However, it's probably reasonable to say that Williams' experience with A.E. Waite focused him in a unique direction. In Williams' novels, the concept of magic is portrayed as a potent force; he was likely not unaware of the existence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the order originally founded by Mathers and continued by Yeats and Crowley, the latter who came to refer to himself as the 'The Beast,' and who became known as a 'Satanist.'
Williams attended the FRC and held office in its ranks. Yet he eventually stopped attending. His last recorded attendance was on June 29, 1927. No one knows exactly why. Speculation on his reason for leaving ranges from the simple fact that he had too many other commitments, to that he quietly rejected the FRC and its structure, and voted with his feet to discontinue his association with it. He did, however, keep in contact with A.E. Waite at least minimally after that date.
An Englishman, Williams was strongly influenced by the Church of England, and belonged to the Anglican Communion. He was a member of St. Silas' church, where he attended with his wife and child. The Anglican influence combined with his long-standing interest in holy artifacts and perhaps his involvement in the FRC brought forth his major works. That Williams was paramountly a Christian is evident in the scope of his writing, which is either directly related to the Church or has strong threads of Christianity interwoven throughout. Though his writings might be referred to as visionary, Williams saw himself as too cynical and pragmatic to label himself a mystic. He considered himself primarily a poet. He is, however, best known for his seven spiritual thriller novels, and for his detailed non-fiction works on the history of the Church.
They are unique works. His fiction reflects many of his spiritual beliefs. In Williams' skillful hands, the Holy Grail (Graal) becomes easily imaginable as a real entity in a small English parish. A pack of ancient Tarot cards unleashes vast destruction. Plato's and Dante's ideas become fresh and actual portrayed against a contemporary backdrop. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and nothing is only as it seems. Good and evil battle within frameworks of multi-layered meaning, and no facile solutions are offered. Always thought-provoking, his works should increase in popularity as current events impel people to explore some of the same questions he posits.
Williams believed in and practiced several interesting tenets. He presented concepts like the Web of Exchange, or the inextricable interconnectedness of all persons in Creation and its attendent responsibilty. He also put forth a belief in the literal bearing of one another's burdens, that one could actually take on another's anxiety, sickness, or trial, drawn from the Biblical passage "Ye shall bear one another's burdens." This he called the Doctrine of Substituted Love. One novel, Descent Into Hell explores the abstraction of prayer working backward and forward through time. He had several other unusual ideas, which can be found detailed in his non-fiction, but also within his fictional works where they are clearly explained.
Williams the man was very ordinary in many respects. His father had been a man who loved the written word, and he passed his love of reading and writing to his son. After leaving school because of financial constraints, Williams served a brief stint in a Methodist bookshop, then became a proofreader and later an editor at Oxford University Press, where he worked until his death. He had one son.
Williams had a following of young women who attended his lectures, but was said by C.S. Lewis, his friend and contemporary, to have been decorous with them. However, he is said to have had an affair of the heart' with at least one young woman, Phyllis Jones, a young co-worker whom he renamed 'Celia.' He also had a peculiar relationship with Lois Lang-Sims, a young protege he rechristened 'Lalage,' a reference to the Welsh Bard Taliessin and his young female pupil Dindrane. Although many people enjoyed lively friendships with Williams and spoke highly of him, a series of letters exchanged between Ms. Lang-Sims and Charles Williams reveal that he may have possessed a tendency toward sadism. Lang-Sims alleges that he struck her with a ruler, but Lang-Sims's account of events is flawed in other areas, leaving room for doubt. Alice Mary Hadfield, Williams' friend and biographer, also refers to an incident when Williams passed a ceremonial sword over the buttocks of a woman, and also traced ritualistic circular designs on the forearm of a woman, but her accounts give no name of the individual or individuals involved, and lack detail and clarity. We can infer from the written accounts left to us that Williams was not a paragon, but all too human, a man who had significant flaws. However, despite his personal failings, his writing continues to have important things to say to the Christian communion.
In photographs, he seems slight of build with long, slender hands and an inwardly introspective appearance. Yet he was said to have had a lively sense of humor, was quick of speech, and smoked often. Hadfield indicates that Williams had considerable physical problems in 1933, and underwent surgery. Complications from this surgery were, years later, to be the cause of his death.
Around 1938 in an odd coincidence, Williams exchanged a correspondence with C.S. Lewis about a work Lewis had submitted to the press. Lewis had just read one of Williams's novels, and had also written. Their letters crossed in the mail. The result was a profound friendship which lasted until Williams' death, a friendship which opened Williams to the Inklings, an informal group of writers which included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and others. C.S. Lewis was said to have been influenced' by Williams.
Charles Williams' works went out of publication partially due to economic conditions caused by World War II. Yet his works are sharp, fresh and original, and pertinent to our age. Many have since come back into print. Williams continues to stir controversy among Christians and Occultists alike, as interpretation of his motives and writings differ among individuals who enjoy his books. Some say that Williams was an orthodox Christian, based on his published body of works. Others claim he is an occultist based on interpretations of references in his personal correspondences and his association with the FRC, both of which could be construed to allude to esoteric practices. Williams, who in his published works referred to Gnosticism, Catharism, and Albigensianism as "spreading heresies of death," would most likely have enjoyed the discourse. He was a man who strove within the boundaries of language to impart unusual perspectives, to breathe life into old, stalwart ideologies, and to encourage critical thinking.
Williams' references to Christ as 'Messias' among other things, were to jolt the mind into a new way of thinking about faith. His oft-quoted parting words to his circle of friends 'Under the Mercy' and 'Under the Protection' have an unusual quality of affection and formality to them.
Williams' works are as interesting and insightful now as they were when they were written. They are truly and delightfully unpredictable, and a welcome addition to mystical literature.