A reader of Williams’s biography is likely to come to the conclusion that he was rather creepy. His “romantic theology” – which understands erotic love not so much as a path or ladder to the love of God but as a form of the love of God – encouraged him to flirtations, at the very least, with young women (Williams was married and had a son). He seems to have had the same sado-masochistic tendencies as the young Jack Lewis, though without ever escaping them. His fascination with the occult exceeded what most Christians think of as appropriate bounds. Yet few who knew him saw him in this light. Lewis adored him, finding him chivalrous, generous, even selfless, as well as a major thinker and a brilliant (though often too obscure) writer. “I begin to suspect that we are living in the ‘age of Williams,’” he once wrote in a letter to his friend, “and our friendship with you will be our only passport to fame.” T. S. Eliot wrote, “I think he was a man of unusual genius, and I regard his work as important.” The poet W. H. Auden, who worked with Williams on a collection of poetry he edited for Oxford University Press, had perhaps a stronger response still, though he never knew Williams as well as the others. Many years after first meeting Williams, he would recall that interview in surprising terms, and mark it as one of the events that led him to embrace the Christian faith:
For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity… . I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man – we never discussed anything but literary business – I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many other people.)
Yet in all this praise there remains – and all the praisers are well aware of this – an element of the inexplicable. How could a conversation about “literary business” generate such an aura of “personal sanctity”? Likewise, Eliot, after having affirmed the value of Williams’s work, goes on to say, “it has an importance of a kind not easy to explain.” And Lewis has to agree with a colleague – probably Tolkien – who says that Williams was “one in whom, after years of friendship, there remained something elusive and incalculable.” Williams simply made an exceptionally powerful impression on almost all who knew him, and his work similarly affects people, though in more variable ways: for some, like me, his books, especially his novels, are disturbing. (Tolkien, though he liked Williams personally very much, found his writing “wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous.”) I find that I do not trust Williams; though almost all who knew him trusted him implicitly.
A passage on the eminently weird Charles Williams from my biography of C. S. Lewis. Prompted by this brief reflection on Williams by Caleb Crain.