The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Festschrift Makes a Lovely Present

As I have gotten older my tastes have gotten, well, specialized. So for my birthday I allow myself to buy a book that may be a little harder to find, possibly rare. Something nobody else is likely to buy for me. This year's book was Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947)--a festschrift written in William's honor to mark his departure from Oxford at the end of World War II,but one that they ended up publishing as a memorial to him in the wake of his sudden death.

Oh, who is "they," you ask? Only, y'know, the Inklings, in their one jointly authored book. Dig the table of contents, my friends:

1. C.S. Lewis: Preface
2. Dorothy L. Sayers: "'... And Telling you a Story': A Note on The Divine Comedy"
3. J.R.R. Tolkien: "On Fairy-Stories"
4. C.S. Lewis: "On Stories"
5. A.O. Barfield: "Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction"
6. Gervase Mathew: "Marriage and Amour Courtois in Late-Fourteenth-Century England"
7. W.H. Lewis: "The Galleys of France"

[By the way, recent scholarship is doing a lot to rehabilitate W.H. Lewis's reputation. He did suffer from a lifelong battle with alcoholism, as noted in many depictions of his brother's life, but Major Warren Lewis was a pretty good popular historian, the author of a series of explorations of Seventeenth Century France that are quite readable, and whose work is worth a look for any fans of the period.]

Anyway, C.S. Lewis's preface is a delight in introducing what Williams meant to his friends, and tells a great deal about the narrator too. Here's Lewis describing Williams's serene spiritual side compassionating Williams' dour, pessimistic side:
He saw its point of view. All that it said was, on a certain level, so very reasonable. He did not believe that God Himself wanted that frightened, indignant, and voluble creature to be annihilated; or even silenced. If it wanted to carry its hot complaints to the very Throne, even that, he felt, would be a permitted absurdity. For was that not very much what Job had done? It was true, Williams added, that the Divine answer had taken the surprising form of inviting Job to study the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But Job's impatience had been approved. His apparent blasphemies had been accepted. The weight of the divine displeasure had been reserved for the "comforters", the self-appointed advocates on God's side, the people who tried to show that all was well--"the sort of people," he said, immeasurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing me with his eyes--"the sort of people who wrote books on The Problem of Pain."
Beyond that great comedic deadpan, and being the best writer to rock a semi-colon I have ever read, Lewis is one of the very few writers about English literature to make me feel, and deplore, my own ignorance of far too much. He makes me want to remedy that, plunging headlong into medieval texts. To the extent I've remedied some of those defects, the credit goes to Lewis, and of course to Jim Earl, who taught me to read the good stuff, and miss the dross.


trueanglican said...

I read a good deal of Charles Williams 50 years ago including all his novels, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, and The Descent of the Dove. I thought then that his thought, especially in his poetry, was much richer than that of C. S. Lewis. But I haven't returned to Williams in a long time. Do you think he has a word for 21st century Christians?

Incidentally, there's an odd review in the current Christian Century of a new book on Lewis by Rowan Williams. What's odd about the review is it never mentions whether the author is the same Rowan Williams who until a few weeks ago was archbishop of Canterbury. And if the author is the archbishop, why among all the people he might have written about he chose to examine Lewis.

William R. MacKaye

Anglocat said...

Sorry about the delayed response; yesterday was a very full day, and I didn't have a chance to think through your response. I'm limited in my ability to answer because I've read considerably less Williams than you have. (Descent of the Dove and He Came Down from Heaven.) But yes, I do think he has something to say to 21st Century Christians. He's not as easy a read as Lewis, whose style is deceptively chatty, but I believe he is very rich indeed.

You're encouraging me to try some of the poetry; do you recommend "Taliessin"? I'm an old fan of the Arthurian legends, so that seems like a fit to me.

According to Amazon, "The Lion's World" is by former Archbishop Williams, so I'm in your debt for drawing my attention to it. (The Kindle edition is downloading. . . now...)

Thanks for commenting; c'mon back, now, y'hear?

trueanglican said...

Fear not, you've gathered me in. I'll be back. And yes, I do recommend Taliessin Through Logres highly. Somewhere, possibly in Alice Mary Hadfield's biography of Williams, I picked up the detail that he considered his late poetry his most important work. I'm myself intrigued by the idea of wrestling with theological ideas in poetry. There are terrific examples of this in Scripture, Isaiah for one, and in some of the church fathers, St. Ephrem the Syrian is one good example.
And do read at least some of Williams' novels. They're well worth it.