Williams was born in London in 1886, the only son of Richard and Mary Williams of Islington. He had one sister, Edith, born in 1889. Educated at St Albans School, Hertfordshire, Williams was awarded a scholarship to University College London, but was forced to leave in 1904 without taking a degree because his family lacked the financial resources to support him. In the same year he began work in a Methodist bookroom. Williams 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.
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' best essays were collected and published in Anne Ridler's Image of the City and Other Essays (1958).
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. 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. Their son Michael was born in 1924. Later, he would struggle to reconcile a long-lasting (but probably unconsummated: indeed only vaguely, at most, reciprocated) love affair with Phyllis Jones (who joined the Oxford University Press in 1924 as librarian) with his Christian faith (he 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). Williams also formed master-disciple relationships with young woman admirers. The best known (though probably not the most significant) of these occurred in the early 1940s with Lois Lang-Sims. Lang-Sims, whom Williams referred to as Lalage, published a series of letters that Williams wrote to her during this period in a volume entitled Letters to Lalage (1989).
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. 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 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 St Cross Churchyard Oxford: his headstone bears the word "poet", followed by the words 'Under the Mercy', a blessing often used by Williams himself.
Williams developed the concept of Co-inherence, described as a theology of romantic love. 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." He proposed an order, 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.
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.
Shadows of Ecstasy. 1933. – A humanistic adept has discovered that by focusing his energies inward he can extend his life almost indefinitely. He undertakes an experiment using African lore to die and resurrect his own body thereby assuring his immortality. His followers begin a revolutionary movement to supplant European civilisation.
War in Heaven. 1930. – The Holy Grail surfaces in an obscure country parish and becomes variously a sacramental object to protect or a vessel of power to exploit.
Many Dimensions. 1931. – An evil antiquarian illegally purchases the fabled Stone of Suleiman (Williams uses this Muslim form rather than the more familiar King Solomon) from its Islamic guardian in Baghdad and returns to England to discover not only that the Stone can multiply itself infinitely without diminishing the original, but that it also allows its possessor to transcend the barriers of space and time.
"Et in Sempiternum Pereant," 1931? (first published in 1986) – Lord Arglay (protagonist in Many Dimensions) risks his life in a vain effort to rescue a ghost on the path to damnation.
The Place of the Lion. 1931. – Platonicarchetypes begin to appear around an English country town, wreaking havoc and drawing to the surface the spiritual strengths and flaws of individual characters.
The Greater Trumps. 1932. – The original Tarot deck is used to unlock enormous metaphysical powers by allowing the possessors to see across space and time, create matter, and raise powerful natural storms.
Descent into Hell. 1937. – Generally thought to be Williams's best novel, Descent deals with various forms of selfishness, and how the cycle of sin brings about the necessity for redemptive acts. In it, an academic becomes so far removed from the world that he fetishises a woman to the extent that his perversion takes the form of a succubus. Other characters include a doppelgänger, the ghost of a suicidal Victorian labourer, and a playwright modelled in some ways on the author. It is illustrative of Williams's belief in the replacement of sin and substitutional love.
All Hallows' Eve. 1945. – Opens with a discussion between the ghosts of two dead women wandering about London. Ultimately explores the meaning of human suffering and empathy by dissolving the barrier between the living and the dead through both black magic and divine love.
1930: War in Heaven (London: Victor Gollancz)
1930: Many Dimensions (London: Victor Gollancz)
1931: The Place of the Lion (London: Mundanus)
1932: The Greater Trumps (London: Victor Gollancz)
1933: Shadows of Ecstasy (London: Victor Gollancz)
Sibley, Agnes (1982), Charles Williams, Boston: Twayne.
Walsh, Chad (1974), "Charles Williams' Novels and the Contemporary Mutation of Consciousness", in Montgomery, John Warwick, Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Charles Williams, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, pp. 53–77.
Wendling, Susan (2006), Charles Williams: Priest of the Co-inherence in INKLINGS Forever, Vol V, a collection of essays presented at the Fifth Frances White Colloquium on CS Lewis and Friends, presented at Taylor University.
^Glen Cavaliero, "A Metaphysical Epiphany? Charles Williams and the Art of the Ghost Story," in The Rhetoric of Vision, ed. Charles A. Huttar and Peter J. Schakel. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1996 (pp. 93–97).
^David Llewellyn Dodds, "The Chapel of the Thorn, an Unknown Dramatic Poem by C. Williams," Inklings Jahrbuch 5 (1987): 134,
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