For a number of years I’ve at least known about Charles Williams, one of the Inklings. I knew he was a poet and writer, and was considered difficult to understand; his writing has been described as “dense and perplexing” (“The Novels of Charles Williams,” Thomas T. Howard, 1983). I didn’t finish the first of his books I started, but recently I read through “Descent into Hell” as quickly as free time allowed. Sometimes I had to re-read passages, not infrequently look up a word (e.g. fortalice, bathos, rhodomontade, magniloquence), and often stop to ponder, but I never was bored for a second. I did not understand all of it. After finishing I remembered that, thanks to my second-hand book acquisition habit my library includes “The Novels of Charles Williams” by Thomas T. Howard, who was the Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance English at Gordon College. I enjoyed reading Howard’s commentary too. Here is just a taste of Williams, and then Howard on Williams:
[a reference to the creed of Christendom that denies final separation of the body and soul]
“Descent into Hell”
The unity of that creed has proclaimed, against experience, against intelligence, that for the achievement of man’s unity, the body of his knowledge is to be raised; no other fairer stuff, no alien matter, but this– to be impregnated with holiness and transmuted by lovely passion perhaps, but still this. Scars and prints may disseminate splendor, but the body is to be the same, the very body of the very soul that are both names of the single man…
“The Novels of Charles Williams”
At the risk of pedantry, it is worth glossing that long sentence about the creed since it is very typical of Williams’s tightly packed prose style. A reader only recently introduced to Williams almost always has trouble staying afloat in this complicated syntax. A long and rickety reading of that sentence might run this way: Christianity always has taught that despite the plain testimony of human reason (how can dust rise and be re-assembled as my body?), nonetheless our destiny is not this separation of soul and body, and this dissolution, but rather that “this body of knowledge”–that is, this body means of which I know my world via hearing and touch and smell–is going to be raised. It will not be an angelic body, made of some “fairer stuff”; and it will really be me and no “alien matter.” This very body is going to be filled with holiness. Somehow it will be transmuted, and glorious in a way that I cannot even imagine now; and the way towards that goal may involve “lovely passion” for me–some intense experience, perhaps of loving someone greatly, which is one way of learning about glory, or the passion of prolonged sickness, which is another way, or perhaps martyrdom. Never mind the particular way. For all of us the end will be the same: glory. And whatever riddles there are en route, the creature that will emerge at the end of the story will be truly me.