Saturday, February 27, 2016

Charles Williams: The Lost Letter (Part one)

So, my piece on Charles Williams was published in the latest issue of MYTHLORE* a few months back (my copy arrived the end of October). And, once it was in print, we contributors received permission to post our pieces to Since I don't have an account on that site, I got permission from the editor (Janet Brennan Croft, to whom much thanks) to repost my article here on my blog. I've been meaning to post it here since early last month but kept putting it off for one reason or another (mainly absorption in my ongoing Nodens piece); the recent publication of A. N. Wilson's interesting review of Lindop's biography has spurred me to dig it out and get on with it). It's a lengthly piece (taking up thirty of MYTHLORE's pages), so I'll be breaking it into a series of smaller, more accessible posts (probably seven in all). Comments welcome. Enjoy!


*MYTHLORE issue 127 (VOl.34 No.1), Fall/Winter 2015, pages 5 - 36)


(Mythlore 127, Fall/Winter 2015, pages 5-36)

The sales of Charles Williams
Leapt up by millions,
When a reviewer surmised
He was only Lewis disguised.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, circa 1943 (Carpenter 187)

The story is well known how, upon the death of his friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis prepared two memorial volumes in his friend’s honor. The first was the essay collection Essays Presented to Charles Williams [1947], a festschrift said to have been already in the works at the time of Williams’s death, all but one of whose contributing authors were Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Gervase Mathew, Warnie Lewis (his first publication), and Dorothy L. Sayers (the only non-Inkling)—although this near-Inkling- exclusivity was incidental and not by design, as is shown by the fact that T.S. Eliot was asked to contribute an essay on Williams’s drama but in the event was not able to complete it in time. [Note 1]  This volume is remembered today primarily as the first place of publication of Tolkien’s seminal essay On Fairy- stories, just as Williams is primarily remembered for his association with Lewis (and, to a lesser degree, Tolkien).

The second memorial is the monograph-length Williams and the Arthuriad, based on a lecture series of the same name delivered by Lewis at Oxford after Williams’s death, published together with The Figure of Arthur, Williams’s unfinished prose account of the Grail legend, as Arthurian Torso [1948]. So far as I know, this is the only time one Inkling taught a course on another Inkling. [Note 2]   In this work, Lewis sought both to champion and to explain Williams’s Arthurian cycle, as depicted in Taliessin Through Logres [1938] and The Region of the Summer Stars [1944]. Just as Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories essay is the most valuable part of Essays Presented to Charles Williams, so too the most valuable part of Williams and the Arthuriad are the excerpts it contains of a long letter by Williams himself explaining the symbolism in his poems: the ‘Lost Letter’ of my title. As Lewis tells the story:
Since I had heard nearly all of [Williams’s Arthurian cycle] read aloud and expounded by the author and had questioned him closely on his meaning I felt that I might be able to comment on it, though imperfectly, yet usefully. His most systematic exposition had been given to me in a long letter which (with that usual folly which forbids us to remember that our friends can die) I did not preserve; but fortunately I copied large extracts from it into the margin of my copy of Taliessin at the relevant passages. (Lewis, Torso 1)
I might say, as an aside, that this is entirely in keeping with Lewis’s disregard of manuscripts, his own and other people’s. After all, this is the man who, Tolkien said, destroyed the only copy of not one but two stories by Tolkien. [Note 3]  Given such a straightforward account, it seemed that Williams’s careful explication of his symbolism was lost forever. Imagine my surprise, then, when reading Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep and finding among the endnotes (being myself a reader, and writer, of notes) the following bombshell:
Unbeknownst to Lewis, Williams kept a typescript of this commentary on his Arthurian work, and he distributed a number of copies of it . . .  One of these typescripts is available to researchers at the Marion E. Wade Center. (Glyer 164n28)
It turns out that Lewis did indeed destroy the original, but Williams had kept a copy. Its survival seems to be largely unknown among Lewis and Inkling scholars, although Williams scholars are more cognizant of the fact. [Note 4]

And thanks to Williams’s disciples Raymond Hunt [Note 5]  and especially Margaret Douglas, [Note 6]  best known in Tolkien circles as the woman who typed The Lord of the Rings (Letters of JRRT 94), today we have, preserved at the Wade, no fewer than three different typescripts (CW MS-2, CW MS-166, CW MS-415) giving the full text of a document thought destroyed more than seventy years ago. This ‘lost letter’, I would argue, is the first of three keys needed to unlock Williams’s poetry, to find our way through what the Zaleskis, in their new book on the Inklings, call “a nearly impenetrable thicket of obscurities” (Zaleski 433). And I think the effort worthwhile because Lewis considered Williams one of the two or three greatest poets of the twentieth century, and his Taliessin cycle to be one of the greatest works of literature of the century. And Williams thought so too. Hence the importance of ‘the lost letter’ to help us see both Williams’s work as he saw it, or purported to see it, and perhaps also what Lewis saw in it that so many others have failed to see. 

1 Cf. Lewis’s letters inviting Eliot to participate (May 17th 1945; Collected Letters Vol. II page 650), agreeing on a choice of topic (June 1st 1945; II 658), worrying about the non- arrival of his essay (February 28th and March 11th 1946; II 704), and finally the decision to go ahead without Eliot’s contribution (May 17th 1946; II 710).
2 I am grateful to Janice Coulter for drawing this point to my attention.

3 The source for this information is an unpublished ‘MS note by Tolkien’ cited by Carpenter:
Tolkien recalled: ‘He was indeed accustomed at intervals to throw away papers and books—and at such times he destroyed those that belonged to other people. He “lost” not only official documents sent to him by me, but sole MSS. of at least two stories.’ (The Inklings 48 & 268)
4 Glyer cites “Ridler 178” as her source; this alludes to a passage in Williams’s posthumous essay collection The Image of the City and other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (1958, pages 178–179), in which Ridler prefaces her publication of the headnote from the Lost Letter with the following note (emphasis mine):
Here I add, for the sake of clarity and with Professor Lewis’s permission, a couple of passages from an exposition of Taliessin through Logres which Williams made for him. Professor Lewis had written the relevant parts of these into his own copy of the book, and had destroyed the original. He lamented this, when he came to write his Commentary, not realizing that Williams had kept and distributed some copies of it; but in fact all that is essential is to be found in the Commentary, I merely add Williams’s own summary here for the reader’s convenience. A.R.
David Llewellyn Dodds, in his essay in The Rhetoric of Vision, also quotes from the Lost Letter and devotes a long note to it on (Dodds, “Co-inherence” 197). The full Letter had been published as far back as 1965 by Glen Cavaliero in the small-press journal Gnomon, but that piece is hardly accessible to Inklings scholars all these years later. I am grateful to Greval Lindop (author of the forthcoming biography of Williams) and Stephen Barber (Treasurer of the Charles Williams Society), Williamsians extraordinaire, for information about this little-known publication (GL to JDR, email of October 12 2010; SB to JDR, email of October 13 2010).
Finally much, but not all, of the contents of the Lost Letter were incorporated into the Charles Williams Society booklet The Taliessin Poems of Charles Williams, by Various Hands [1991]. Unfortunately, its presentation there is both incomplete and interwoven with commentary by others (Hadfield, Ridler, Shuttleworth, et al), so that it is sometimes difficult to identify which comments come from this particular source. In any case, such treatment tends to obscure the Lost Letter’s unique nature of having been written more or less at one sitting at a particular time and place and in response to specific stimulae (i.e., Lewis’s questions).
5 For more on Raymond Hunt, see Appendix B at the end of this paper.
6 Hadfield, Williams’s biographer, says of Douglas:
A trained typist, she . . . saved armfuls of his verse by typing it and putting it in order as he showed her. Much that would have become illegible by age and bad treatment has been saved because she could ask him to decipher it. (Hadfield 180–181)

[end of Part One]

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