Feast of St Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople
THE MODERN habit of boxing up literary works in genres has the deadening practice of making books about the extraordinary seem rather ordinary. One need only think of how we seat them on their shelves. How appalled would Tolkien, who referred to cars as Mordor machines, be to find himself seated among "Science Fiction"? And what fool ignorant of etymology banished all fantasy from "Fiction"? How each must long for the happy felicity found on that isle of Blessed known as the "Classics" shelf, where Achilles with his fairy-tragedy and Alcibiades with his all-too-human tragedy abide in immortal felicity.
While, upon closer examination, all art defies such scientific, encyclopedic classification, the novels of Charles Williams have suffered the most from our tendency to ask "What kind of book is it?" before "What is it about?". For they are unlike any other kind of book. Indeed, they are very singular and dangerous works.
In C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien, we visit fairyland through the eyes of ordinary individuals, whether they are children, hobbits, or philologists; and, however scary fairyland may be, we need not fear that the real world may operate on such principles. In Narnia and Middle-earth, the ordinary violates the extraordinary, with consequences good and ill.
Charles Williams, unlike his fellow Inklings, and unlike most visions of fairy, has the extraordinary visit the ordinary, the supernatural invade the natural. Platonic forms swallow up the English countryside. Tarot cards incorporate and haunt a house. The Holy Grail appears in a rural parish church.
To read his novels is to immerse oneself in a sacramental reality. The sort of fear and awe they inspire are that of a world where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It has as well the joy and surprise of such a world. It is the world as the Early Fathers saw in the Incarnation. This world is, as Fr. Hopkins said, "charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil".
If I might suggest why, then, the fairy tales of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have fared better, in popularity, than their fellow Inkling, I would point to this inversion of the traditional structure of a fairy story. It is all well to visit a fairy world where Truth, Goodness, and Beauty exist and then to reflect on how we might apply those principles to this world; it is dangerous and frightening to realize that these same Transcendentals are embedded in reality itself, if we only had eyes that we might see.
Patrick Callahan is the Dean of Humanitas, a two-year great books program sponsored by the St Lawrence Institute for Faith and Culture for students at the University of Kansas.