It seems odd to describe someone you deeply respect with the words “ugly as a chimpanzee,” but that’s precisely what C.S. Lewis once did.
Yet, reading the description in full, we find that Lewis considered the physical unattractiveness of his mentor to be a positive thing. In a sense, it accented his impressive persona.
Describing Charles Williams to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote:
As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel. He sweeps some people quite off their feet and has many disciples. Women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan.
I find this description evocative of the words about Jesus’ physical appearance. You can read the full passage about Jesus, the promised Messiah, here.
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
Lewis continues with his description of Williams, revealing a more intimate relationship than the previous words might suggest. Williams, you see, was one of the Inklings.
He works in the Oxford University Press. In spite of his “angelic” quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. He is married and, I think, youthfully in love with his wife still.
I find it amazing how vivid Lewis’ portrait of his colleague is. He briefly passes over his physical appearance (the least important of human traits, despite what the modern era intimates). And, even though his words are not flattering, the rest of the description reveals they are expressed with deep affection.
Lewis then quickly presses on to a poetic depiction of Williams’ oratorical skills, and concludes with a personable picture of the man among brothers. The final sentence, given Lewis’ perception that he himself would remain a lifelong bachelor, is quite perceptive.
Mutual respect—especially when tempered with affection—generates bonds that allow for honest assessments of both weaknesses and strengths.
A Personal Experience
I recall receiving a lovely engraved glass plaque as a memento of my tour at the United States Air Force Chaplain School. Most of my duties related to writing, but it was common knowledge that there were few subjects on which I did not have something to say.
When the Commandant of the Institute read the inscription during the presentation (it was the first time he had seen it), he paused in embarrassed silence thinking he must have read it wrong. It didn’t sound like the flattery that traditionally adorns such tokens.
“He says in a book what others say in a sentence.”
You can only offer such a dialectical “compliment” to a friend.
It was true, of course, and it was to much laughter that I immediately responded, “True, and it is a book well worth reading.”
When I read this description of the literary friend who made such a profound impression on Lewis, it makes me smile. It is all the more poignant, since it was written just a year before Williams’ death.
There are far, far worse things a person can experience than having someone who respects and loves them say they resemble a chimpanzee . . . or that they tend to be just a little bit verbose.