Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Williams, Charles

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(1886-1945) UK writer, editor and poet, and a key member with C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien of the Inklings. His novels are of considerable importance and influence in Christian Fantasy. Often they are theological thrillers in which powerfully numinous scenes and descriptions sit a little uneasily with the Detective/Thriller Fantasy elements; for example, War in Heaven (1930) uses the true Grail as a sought-after McGuffin while Scotland Yard complains that this is "an infernally religious case". Memorable episodes include the villains' magical attempt to destroy the "Graal" by enforced Thinning, and a graphically horrid Black-Magic booby-trap. In The Place of the Lion (1931) mundane Reality is invaded by living Platonic Archetypes – including the Lion, Serpent and Phoenix – into whom lesser creatures and people are absorbed: the world's butterflies vanish into the one Butterfly and a malicious woman's affinity with the Serpent leads to Possession. The archetypes' metaphysical threat is countered by acceptance and by giving them their True Names, as in Eden. Many Dimensions (1931) leans towards sf as the Magic Stone from Solomon's crown is blasphemously threatened by commercial exploitation of its powers, including teleportation (see Talents), miraculous multiplication into endless copies, and strange versions of Time Travel where visiting the past leads to a Cycle of Bondage, while a forward trip brings subtle metaphysical Wrongness. Ultimately a young woman (who, like others in CW's canon, platonically adores a much older Mentor), rather than commanding the Stone, places her will at its disposal and becomes the vehicle for Healing – re-uniting the copies; she then dies. The Greater Trumps (1932) introduces the "original" Tarot pack (CW knew its reviser A E Waite through the Order of the Golden Dawn) and a set of golden images corresponding to the Cards, all magically dancing except for the Fool – whose stillness, however, appears to a seer's eyes as motion so rapid as to be omnipresence. In a struggle over their ownership, the cards are misused to generate a killing storm which threatens the End of the World. Descent into Hell (1937) is perhaps the most grimly powerful and successful of CW's novels, despite a confusing plethora of uncanny events. It articulates his doctrine of "Substitution" or "Substituted Love" – which he and his mystic circle, the Companions of the Co-inherence, attempted to practise in reality – as another old and wise mentor volunteers to accept for himself the anguish suffered by a woman who dreads meeting her Doppelgänger; she is later able to give the same aid via Timeslip to a martyr burned centuries before. Other features are a suicide's pathetic Ghost, the traversing of hallucinated landscapes in an Allegory of a woman's approach to death, and the steady, horrific progress towards damnation of a scholar who through acts of pettiness gains the nasty love of a Succubus and who continues downward into empty nightmare. All Hallows' Eve (1945) traces the downfall of a black Magus whom an artist cannot help painting as an idiot preaching to a congregation of insects. This "Simon Leclerc" plans the Sacrifice of his own daughter, who is saved through Substitution by a dead woman who is CW's best-drawn female character and whose new Spirit-life in post-WWII London – where the living crowds do not register on her Perception – is shown with bleak intensity. Simon's magical abilities grow cruder and feebler with misuse (see Debasement) as he abandons pure force of will to incarcerate the inconvenient ghost (and her companion) in a Golem, and is eventually reduced to pins stuck in images, before his final confrontation by his own Doubles.

CW's verse, in Taleissin through Logres (coll 1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (coll 1944), deals extensively with Arthur and the Matter of Britain, often using quirky and personal religious imagery: representations of Evil, for example, include Islam and the headless Emperor of "P'o'lu" on the other side of the world, whose minions have not hands but tentacles as a symbol of evil's imprecision. Even C S Lewis's appreciative commentary in Arthurian Torso: Containing the Posthumous Fragment of the Figure of Arthur by Charles Williams and A Commentary on the Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams by C.S. Lewis (1948) shows occasional signs of perplexity. Feminism recoils (though Lewis does not) from CW's poetic endorsement of the view that women are simultaneously divine and unfit for church service owing to their menstrual curse.

Despite the novels' occasionally stilted dialogue, and exposition which can sometimes seem over-didactic, CW's remarkable gift for conveying both numinosity and spiritual corruption has retained a devoted cult audience. [DRL]

other works: Shadows of Ecstasy (1933), first-written and weakest of the novels; Witchcraft (1941), nonfiction; The Figure of Beatrice (1943), on Dante Alighieri; The Image of the City and Other Essays (coll 1958) ed and with critical introduction by Anne Ridler.

further reading: An Introduction to Charles Williams (1959) by Alice Mary Hadfield.

Charles Walter Stansby Williams


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.