Monday, June 11, 2018

tolkien | notes on roy campbell and charles williams

Key complicating factors in the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were the influence of Charles Williams and Roy Campbell. When viewed as a love story (however platonic), Williams and Campbell clearly play the role of interlopers, and the ways that Jack and Tollers read these two men and respond to them so very differently provides some of the irony and complexity of the story as it played out historically.

My play has prompted one friend to dig in and read biographies of these four men, and of the Inklings as a group. Here are some thoughts I sent him.


You won’t find a lot on Roy Campbell’s role in the Tolkien-Lewis friendship, because his involvement with them was very brief. I included it because I think it is very telling, and I think highly significant - it’s the first evidence I’ve seen of Tolkien beginning to perceive Lewis as anti-Catholic, which by the time of Lewis’s death had become a virulent (and I think unfounded) conviction. Here’s all there is about Campbell’s interaction with the lads, from the letters of JRR. You’ll see how closely I stuck to the events of the two encounters, apart from the fact that I separated them by months instead of only a couple days (and put some of the content into an invented intervening scene).

Oct 6 1944: JRR Tolkien to Christopher
"On Tuesday [Oct 3] at noon I looked in at the Bird and B. with C. Williams. There to my surprise I found Jack and Warnie already ensconced. (For the present the beer shortage is over, and the inns are almost habitable again). The conversation was pretty lively... & I noticed a strange tall gaunt man half in khaki half in mufti with a large wide-awake hat, bright eyes and a hooked nose sitting in the corner. The others had their backs to him, but I could see in his eye that he was taking an interest in the conversation quite unlike the ordinary pained astonishment of the British (and American) public at the presence of the Lewises (and myself) in a pub. It was rather like Trotter [an early name for the character later renamed Strider] at the Prancing Pony... In a few seconds he was revealed as Roy Campbell (of Flowering Rifle and Flaming Terrapin'). Tableau! Especially as C.S.L. had not long ago violently lampooned him in the Oxford Magazine, and his press-cutters miss nothing. There is a good deal of Ulster still left in C.S.L. if hidden from himself. After that things became fast and furious and I was late for lunch. It was (perhaps) gratifying to find that this powerful poet and soldier desired in Oxford chiefly to see Lewis (and myself).
"We made an appointment for Thursday (that is last) night [Oct 5]. If I could remember all that I heard in C.S.L.'s room last night it would fill several airletters. C.S.L. had taken a fair deal of port and was a little belligerent (insisted on reading out his lampoon again while R.C. laughed at him), but we were mostly obliged to listen to the guest. A window on a wild world, yet the man is in himself gentle, modest, and compassionate. Mostly it interested me to learn that this old-looking war-scarred Trotter, limping from recent wounds, is 9 years younger than I am, and we prob. met when he was a lad, as he lived in 0[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street... Here is a scion of an Ulster prot. family resident in S. Africa, most of whom fought in both wars, who became a Catholic after sheltering the Carmelite fathers in Barcelona – in vain, they were caught & butchered, and R.C. nearly lost his life. But he got the Carmelite archives from the burning library and took them through the Red country. He speaks Spanish fluently (he has been a professional bullfighter). As you know he then fought through the war on Franco's side... it is not possible to convey an impression of such a rare character, both a soldier and a poet, and a Christian convert. How unlike the Left – the 'corduroy panzers' who fled to America (Auden among them who with his friends got R.C.'s works 'banned' by the Birmingham T. Council!). I hope to see this man again next week. We did not leave Magdalen until midnight, and I walked up to Beaumont Street with him. C.S.L.'s reactions were odd. Nothing is a greater tribute to Red propaganda than the fact that he (who knows they are in all other subjects liars and traducers) believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him. Even Churchill's open speech in Parliament left him unshaken. But hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C of E – so deep laid that it remains even when all the superstructure seems removed (C.S.L. for instance reveres the Blessed Sacrament, and admires nuns!). Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered – he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it). But R.C. shook him a bit....."


I believe the best-rounded source on Roy Campbell himself is Peter Alexander’s “Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography,” which not only makes clear Campbell’s, shall we say, lack of veracity (show in this excerpt, for example) but also does a good job celebrating his real accomplishments.

"The Campbells' most immediate need, once they had settled into their rented rooms [in Barcelona] was for money... He had written 20,000 words of his autobiography before leaving France, and now he raced to finish it, writing the last chapters stanidng up against a bureau so as not to fall asleep... He padded the book with any story he could remember, adapting the anecdotes of friends into autobiography, and giving himself a leading role. Few of his stories are imaginary; fewer still are entirely accurate. For example, his stories about boating on the lagoon in Durban, being chased by a python or being nearly drowned by the tidal bore, are true enough – but they happened to his elder brother George, not to himself. A tale about kidnapping dogs in Cannes was taken from a book of reminiscenses by JB Booth. Another yarn, of sailing a drunken doctor out to Bardsey Island in a storm, was the genuine feat of the barman in the Ship Inn in Aberdaron, the Welsh village in which the Campbells had lived immediately after their marriage. In most of these tales, Campbell figures as the sort of assured, devil-may-care man of action he would so much have liked to have been, the sort of man he felt his father and brothers would have admired. Of his poetic achievements he said virtually nothing. This became the pattern of his myth-making; he seldom boasted of things he could do."
Peter Alexander, "Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography"


As for Williams, the was no authoritative biography until Grevel Lindop’s 2015 “The Third Inkling”, which is a marvel of scholarship and readable writing - though he doesn’t actually devote a lot of pages to the Tolkien friendship. I corresponded with him prior to the release of that book, and while he confirmed my sense that perhaps Tolkien’s qualms about Williams (esp his involvement in the occult, and his relations with women) didn’t really flower until after Williams’ death, Grevel did feel it would be legitimate to incorporate them into the play, simply due to the timeline coherence required for the stage. They were real enough issues; there’s just no telling when exactly they materialized, and no point keeping them out of the story just because the actual timing was probably different. The other thing worth reading re: Williams is “Letters To Lalage,” his correspondence with a young woman during his Oxford / WW2 years, which makes it clear that Tolkien’s misgivings were actually very well founded. In earlier drafts of the play I had scenes showing the Williams-Lalage relationship, but they pulled the play off-centre and I cut them (along with many, many other scenes!).


So pleased you’re digging into the ground of these fertile fields. These are fascinating, and great, men!

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