Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forests and Cities

Charles Walter Stansby Williams died 68 years ago today—on May 15, 1945. Along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, these three were the most influential and best known of the Inklings, although Williams came late to the group and is nowhere near as famous or influential as the other two. Williams lived and worked in London, but removed to Oxford during the second World War when many people were evacuated during the frequent bombings of the great cities of England by the Germans.

The move was fortuitous for Williams. He and Lewis had become friends, first by mail over mutual admiration of their writings, and then by rare personal visits. Williams’ evacuation to Oxford made it possible for him to attend the meetings of the Inklings for at least a short time. Lewis had become a great admirer of Williams and welcomed him with gusto to the gatherings of the Inklings.

It is a matter of impressive curiosity to me that Lewis would be so taken by Williams. I doubt that Lewis impressed easily. His relationship with Tolkien, which had been very close for many years, suffered greatly as a result of Lewis’ admiration of Williams, and never fully recovered. One facet of my curiosity is that both Lewis and Tolkien, as is evident in their writings, deplored Large Cities and Machinery and Industrialism, but Williams had quite the opposite view.

Tolkien’s love of the countryside is shown by his representation of the Shire in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Trees were so beloved by him that he even made them sentient beings in the ents. By contrast, the renegade wizard Saruman turned his fortress into a factory that belched poisonous smoke, and wicked Orcs and others cut down trees at will. As Tolkien himself wrote somewhere, the Shire was essentially late 19th century rural England, with its mills and streams and woods and gentle farms. The closing chapters of Lord of the Rings show the conquered and occupied Shire turned into a barren industrialized town with many trees wantonly removed and many of its cottages torn down and replaced by sterile brick box-type buildings. It is cleansed by having these presences removed forcibly and quickly, and the Shire returned to its rural charm.

In a similar way, Lewis loved his cross-country walks with friends, and such walks feature in his fiction, such as Out of the Silent Planet. Narnia is clearly a land of villages with many woods and streams. Lantern Waste and The Wood Between the Worlds are clearly rural and peaceful. He loved his woods and the small pond a stone’s throw from his home, The Kilns, in Oxford.

By sharp contrast, Williams loved the clank of machinery and the bustle of buses, banks, and businesses in the large city. For him London was suggestive of the City of God—more than that, every large city was in some way a veritable manifestation of the Kingdom of God. In the cities, people worked in a commotion of exchange of money, goods, and services that not only suggested but factually were the Kingdom. As he wrote somewhere—I cannot place where at the moment—one cannot enter a tea shop and drink a cup of tea without touching the entire world: growers, printers, truckers, manufacturers, etc. etc., even going far back in history to the people who first harvested tea and invented crockery, built tables and chairs, and developed money, etc. etc. To him, everything was the Kingdom, and the City manifested it with euphoric excitement and joy.

Certainly, in a way both views must be correct. Putting them together makes for a stunning, eye-opening, revelatory insight into the Ways of God and the World, and such an insight changed my view of these Ways for ever.

Williams died during a rather simple surgery in Oxford. In his short time in Oxford he influenced the population, especially the student population, far more than many scholars who had lived and taught there all their lives. If I had to choose between his worldview and Tolkien and Lewis’, I confess that I’d pick the latter, but Williams has “baptized” my experience of the City too.

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