Descent into Hell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent into Hell: A Novel by Charles Williams:

Charles Williams' Descent into Hell


Of Charles Williams’ six novels, Descent Into Hell has a special place, according to a number of reviewers. It is purportedly his best or most important. I will quickly agree that it is somehow different from the other three I have read. It is far more interior in its focus, and thus it reminds me more of Lilith by George MacDonald. (Interestingly, Lilith herself features by name in Descent, though the name is only in the title of MacDonald’s book.) Stylistically, this interiority sometimes leads to real stream-of-consciousness passages, and the prose feels far more “modern” than that in War in Heaven, for example.

The notion that Descent Into Hell is a cornerstone work exposing the author’s worldview is supported by the arrangement of characters. The playwright Peter Stanhope is clearly a Mary Sue or idealized authorial proxy for Williams, flagged by explicit allusions to that hoary Mary Sue, Shakespeare’s Prospero! In addition, Williams supplies an “Eram Eus” — an inverted Mary Sue to embody the culpable perversion of his own dearest virtues — in the form of the historian Lawrence Wentworth. Stanhope and Wentworth are alike defined by their relationships with female disciples, in keeping with a notable feature of Williams’ biography.

In addition to these and other polarities of character, the novel advances a dualist scheme under a metaphor borrowed from Augustine of Hippo. Where Augustine’s City of God used Rome as the contrast for the New Jerusalem, Williams uses Gomorrah as the pole opposite Zion. He explains his choice of the city by way of the vulgarly misconstrued “sin of Sodom” as homosexuality, with the “sin of Gomorrah” being the ultimate love of self to the exclusion of others (174). At another point, Williams offers and subsequently applies the idea that there are only four possible human responses to any circumstance: revolt, obedience, compromise, and deception (185). These options are presented with moral valences, and for all his evident psychological subtlety in this book, Williams seems unequipped to appreciate the wisdom offered by his elder cousin in esoteric initiation who wrote, “The Key of Joy is disobedience.”

In any case, there is but one character in this novel who descends to hell through “Gomorrah,” and while the terminus of that descent is the close of the book, that storyline is mixed with other, more hopeful passages. The universalization of certain Christian doctrines is carried out deftly; on the religious front, Williams may have been pious, but he was no bigot. As in all of Williams’ books, the focus is on characters who are immured in “bourgeois propriety.” But the author, who was himself of comparatively humble stock, offers some unusual (for him) glimpses of “The poor, who had created [the estate in which the story is set],” although they “had been as far as possible excluded, nor (except as hired servants) were they permitted to experience the bitterness of others’ stairs” (9).

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and I would rank it within the author’s oeuvre next to Many Dimensions for insight, and probably a bit higher for its language. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.