What we're reading: War in heaven
- What Were Reading: Charles Williams
Posted by Caleb Crain
Notes from New Yorker contributors on their literary engagements of the week.
Last weekend, at a used-book store, I picked up a quaint little hardcover
Faber & Faber 1954 reprint of Charles Williamss 1930 novel War in Heaven.
In its opening pages, a corpse is discovered under an editors desk at a
publishing house. A chapter later, a postcard from one of the publishing
houses authors demands, with mysterious urgency, the deletion from his page
proofs of a paragraph about the Holy Grail. The Grail, according to the to-be-
deleted paragraph, may reside today in a church in the parish of Fardles, a
short commute from the city. Are the murder and the chalice somehow linked?
If Muriel Spark had drunk a little too much Sir Thomas Malory, she might have
written something like this. I was incapable of resistance. I bought it.
I knew I had heard of Williams before, but I couldnt, on the spot, remember
where. The jacket copy, anonymous but evidently written by the Faber editor
T. S. Eliot, described Williamss novels as supernatural thrillers. The
jacket also credited Williams with having written The Descent of the Dove: A
Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, whichI learned when I got
home to the InternetAuden claimed to have re-read once a year. A resort to
our bookshelves turned up more data. In the critical study Later Auden,
Edward Mendelson relays Audens report that he felt sanctified in Williamss
presence: I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or
thinking anything base or unloving. Curiouser and curiouser. A re-perusal of
The Magicians Book, Laura Millers account of her reading of C. S. Lewiss
Narnia chronicles, reminded me where Id heard of Williams before. He was one
of the Inklings, a group that included Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. More
precisely, Williams was a friend of Lewiss and a rival of Tolkiens.
According to Miller, Lewis thought Williams godlike, and Eliot thought he
approximated a saint, but Tolkien, though he liked Williams well enough as a
person, thought his literary influence was baleful. He ruined Lewiss sci-fi
novel That Hideous Strength, in Tolkiens opinion.
Now that Ive read War in Heavensome thirty years after reading Lewiss
That Hideous Strength, for the recordI have to say that Tolkien had a
point. That Hideous Strength is deeply Williamsian. And Im not sure that a
Williamsian novel is altogether the sort of thing I enjoy. I read War in
Heaven compulsively, I admit. Good versus evil makes for a lively story, and
a person like me always wants to know what happens to the Grail. I was
charmed, moreover, by the bumbling archdeacon who has written a treatise on
the League of Nations, and by the way a Catholic duke and an agnostic
assistant editor fall into sodality when they discover they both know George
Chapmans poetry by heart.
But the book isnt all small-town British eccentrics. Its plot is driven by a
florid sadist who has designs on a defenseless child, up to and including
human sacrifice, and I found myself setting down the book out of excessive
dread as often as I picked it up out of unsatifised curiosity. The logic that
governs the black magicits theology, for lack of a better wordseems
muddled. At times, the archdeacon seems to believe that he neednt worry too
much if the Grail falls into the wrong hands because Satanism has no power in
and of itself, and at one point, in the presence of the novels chief
Satanist, an assistant editor goes so far as to diss Satanism as the clerk
at the brothel of belief. Surely these are orthodox opinions, as far as
Christianity and science go, but in Williamss supernatural thriller, by
generic necessity heterodox, floor chalkings can be lethal, whole buildings
can be hidden by conjured-up fog, and evil people are capable of using the
Grail for evil purposes. I found it quite upsetting when the bad guys tried
to use the Grail to cement an eternal Mezentian gay marriage between the
archdeacon and the lost soul of a masochist. The psychodynamics of the
relationship are imagined with a telling and disconcerting vividness. Neither
your vicar nor queer theory would approve.
The Grail that I remember from Malory was never so merely instrumental; its
purity was unassailable. By the end of War in Heaven, I found myself
sharing with Tolkien a certain aesthetic distaste for Williamss imagination.
Which made it somewhat puzzling that what Williamss Grail most reminded me
of was Tolkiens Ring. Like the Ring, Williamss Grail grants to
knowledgeable users the faculty of vision at a distance. Like the Ring, its
possession can be sensed by others who have possessed it. And like the Ring,
it is capable of imparting tremendous power. The resemblance seemed to me
most striking when a nihilist in Williamss novel urges a Satanist to destroy
Destroy it! the Satanist wails in protest. But there are a hundred things
to do with it.
Thats the treachery, the nihilist replies. Keep it for this, keep it for
that. Destroy it, I tell you; while you keep anything for a reason you are
not wholly ours.
The exchange could have been lifted from Gandalf and Frodos in the second
chapter of The Lord of the Rings. Do not tempt me! Gandalf insists when
Frodo offers to hand the Ring over to him. The way of the Ring to my heart
is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not
tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to
wield it would be too great for my strength. In these passages, the Grail
and the Ring are almost perfect mirror images: Williamss Grail is dangerous
even to the most dedicated of Satanists because, though it can be used for
evil, it has an inherent bent for good. And Tolkiens Ring is dangerous even
to the most virtuous of wizards because, though it can be used for good, it
has an inherent bent for evil.
Had Williams sensed Tolkiens disapproval, and was he having a laugh at
Tolkiens expense? Chronology overthrows the hypothesis. Williams published
War in Heaven in 1930, and Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings between
1936 and 1949. Maybe the resemblance is no more than coincidence. Or maybe,
once my stomach settles, I should read another Williams novelthe other one I
bought last weekend seems to be about a platonically ideal lion, and happens
to have been published nineteen years prior to The Lion, the Witch, and the
Wardrobeand see what else I find.
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