Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Charles Williams: The Third Wheel

John D. Rateliff has written about Geoffrey Hill's review in the TLS of Grevel Lindop's new biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling.

I haven't seen the review itself and won't comment on the criticisms, except for one point on which I think Hill was correct: that The Third Inkling was a bad choice of subtitle for the book, an opinion I've already submitted to print myself in a book note for the upcoming edition of Tolkien Studies. Even if it's true that Williams is primarily known today for his connection with the Inklings, even if a biography of him would never have been published without the level of interest generated by his Inklings connection, nobody would read such a book - full-scale, over 400 pages long - unless they were interested in Williams for his own sake, regardless of how they originally came to know about him. And if someone whose interest was purely in Williams as the third Inkling were to read the book, they would be disappointed, for it has no particular focus on that area, but treats it as a minor aspect of Williams studies as indeed it was of his life.

I would further question John's blanket statement that "surely the only reason anyone reads or has even heard of Wms today is through his links with the Inklings; it's pretty much the only thing that has kept him from sliding off into oblivion." Were the last word obscurity I might agree with the second part, but oblivion is a very strong word and few writers of any importance may be said to have achieved it. And while many, perhaps most, of those who read Williams today came to him through the Inklings, and I don't except myself from that number, I doubt it is all of them. I'd like to see a survey of the members of the Charles Williams Society: I suspect that most of them did not read Tolkien or Lewis first, if only because many active in the CWS do not appear among scholars of the other Inklings.

I am further struck by a comparison once made by Lois Lang-Sims, the sometime devotee (and sexual assault victim) of Charles Williams. She wrote, "Neither Lewis nor Tolkien were original thinkers: their popularity depends upon a fashion which rates academic fantasy-weaving above the capacity to move freely in the realm of ideas. Charles Williams will be remembered when they are forgotten." (Letters to Lalage, p. 16) The denigration is ignorant and absurd, the ranking otiose - why should any of them be forgotten? Literary renown is not a zero-sum game - and the aggressiveness may be disguised defensiveness at Williams's lesser fame. Yet here is one person who, though no longer living, ranks Williams far higher than the other Inklings for his unique qualities. And where there is one there may be others. Not many, but enough to falsify a blanket denial of their existence.

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