Briefly Reviewed: May 1984
The Novels of Charles Williams
By Thomas Howard
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: Arthur Livingston
The verbal pyrotechnics of Thomas Howard, coupled with his pellucid thought, have helped produce much of the best prose written in this country in the last decade and a half.
His new book on Charles Williams’s novels is no exception. Sharp similes and rich vocabulary dance across nearly every page. He deftly avoids both the pedantic pomposity of the professional literary scholar and the milquetoast emptiness of the popularizer — all of which makes him remarkably qualified for the task at hand.
In contrast to Howard, Williams’s style and thought are baroque, even Byzantine, in their labyrinthine contours and eccentric curlicues. Consequently, numerous readers who are not accustomed to contending with such idiosyncrasies, except in the received standard of the Joyces and Woolfs, can easily be taken aback and even repelled when first encountering a page of Williams. Unlike nearly every other orthodox Christian author of this century, Williams does not assume an ignorance of the faith among his audience. Rather, he speaks from the heart of the Christian tradition in general, and (as I have maintained elsewhere) the Franciscan tradition in particular. This is the primary reason that, whereas his fellow Inklings C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are widely read and appreciated in non-Christian circles, Williams’s audience thus far has consisted almost exclusively of the orthodox who are sensitive to his fresh emphasis on incarnational theology — and to a few odd occultists who misunderstand him.
Unfortunately, this means that to the vast majority of the reading public, Williams needs much explication; this Howard provides in as straightforward and readable a manner as anyone has done to date. He does this by recapitulating the plots of each of the seven novels, which under normal conditions is a deplorable method of writing a secondary work on an author. Why read B’s summary of A when we can simply read A himself? Do we really need such pabulum? Yet, Williams creates the peculiar circumstances that justify this kind of project. In addition, Williams’s stories are so well constructed that, once shorn of references and other cumbersome paraphernalia, Howard’s retellings seem less like a weak introduction to the classics than a sturdy recasting of each of the tales — what Dryden did for Chaucer or Sidney Lanier did for the Arthurian tales. This is high company indeed, but then both Williams and Howard belong there.
The only failure of the book is the critical assessment afforded Williams. A generation ago C.S. Lewis suggested that a moratorium be placed on evaluative criticism. On reading the last chapter of Howard’s work I was struck by the soundness of Lewis’s advice. Because Williams defies conventional categorization, and because the times and Williams are currently at opposite poles, Howard (the professional scholar) has difficulties with questions that Howard (the man of letters) has already answered conclusively.
Williams’s tales are magnificent; his prose is as rich as possible. Perhaps a time will come when Williams will be perceived in his full greatness. But until then, this will be the book for those who have been afraid to tackle the novels.
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