rules were against rights and rights against rules, and a ghost in the fire was a ghost in the street, and the thing that had been was the thing that was to be and it was coming, was coming; what was coming; what but herself?
Like Williams’ first novel War in Heaven, the main business of Many Dimensions is an extended scrimmage over a holy relic: in this case, the Stone of the Wise that was set in the crown of King Solomon. Continuity with the earlier book is provided in the person of a single character, the sadistically inquisitive Sir Giles Tumulty. Other key characters include English Chief Justice Lord Christopher Arglay, who seems to be a sort of secular adeptus major undergoing an initiation to adeptus exemptus in the course of the novel, and his personal secretary Chloe Burnett who meanwhile climbs the entire mystical ladder from neophyte to magister templi.
Many of the chapter titles have a clever ambivalence. “The Refusal of Lord Arglay” could mean that Arglay is refused or refusing. Similarly, “The Discovery of Giles Tumulty” could mean that Tumulty is discovered or discovering.
Many Dimensions functions with some effectiveness as a parable regarding the magical will. The overt reflection on this topic is quasi-incidentally remarked in a quotation from 13th-century English jurist Henry of Bracton: Attribuat igitur rex legi, quod lex attribuit ei, videlicet dominationem et potestatem. Non est enim rex ubi dominatur voluntas et non lex. (214) Williams doubtless contemplated this maxim in a theological, rather than a magical sense, but the action of his novel is open to both.
There is a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Islam in this book, creating a contrast with the sort of moronic Islamophobia in which Williams’ friend C.S. Lewis trafficked in the form of his villainous Calormenes. Although Williams was the author of works of Christian theology, his fiction shows him to have a generous religious imagination, including a warmth toward conscientious skepticism. This latter is on full display in the character of Lord Arglay, who at one point describes the Christian Passion as “one of the myths of our race.”
Her beatitude leant forward to her, as if to embrace. The rich presence enveloped her; out of a broken and contrite heart she sighed with joy. On the inhaled breath her splendour glowed again; on the exhaled it passed. She stood alone, at peace. Dawn was in the air; ecce omnia nova facio.
I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater Trumps, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read.
The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)
I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey.
First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.
To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)
Then the plot was incredibly loose. It was of no particular time and no particular place, and to any cultured listener it seemed to have little bits of everything and everybody put in at odd moments.
Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell
Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams is an amazement. I was taken by the curiosity of the Endymion Press cover of this book having a unicursal hexagram. So, I think I picked this up without really knowing much about it other than the oddity of its appearance. But, in the end, this was fantastic to finally find.
This is quite a wonderful, convoluted, interesting story! There’s moments that seem to presage the style of the Beats, and a grand theory of a kind of Christian magic detailed here; but it’s an intensely written episodic twisty tale mostly drawn with magical realism, but that reaches some great creepy and supernatural heights.
I didn’t feel that this supposedly “Christian” book was particularly so. At least it didn’t put me off at all, so it was not preachy but rather well woven in. And the particular magical theory of exchange and substitution described is quite interesting to see developed, and something to consider for one’s own personal experiments. I’m curious to learn more about Williams’ Companions of the Coinherence, and if there’s much to be found on that topic.
I was on a Gothic binge for a while, and this is a great bridge from there to here. The writing is luscious and thick, but there’s a newness to the pacing and the style. There’s as much inbetween-ness to the action as the novel itself, for me.
Reading this wasn’t, I’d say, easy, but I felt it was well worth the effort to get far enough in that I was drawn to finish. I’m wildly impressed with this book enough that I’m very interested in what others by Charles Williams might be like.
I must admit that I was not really aware that Charles Williams was one of the Inklings, along with J R R Tolkien, whose writing I’ve adored, and C S Lewis, whose work I cannot seem to enjoy. Because I couldn’t ever get into C S Lewis, I think I pretty much gave up on exploring the work of Inklings other than Tolkien. I regret not ever having read anything by Williams until now.
I also didn’t recall knowing Charles Williams was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. If you don’t know already, for those into esoteric traditions, you will find out that Charles Williams is one of us, part of our cultural inheritance, and someone whose work is worth getting to know.
This story is an experience worth having. I highly recommend it.
I made 149 highlights.
Originally posted on my personal blog at Descent Into Hell
Capacity which, in her nature, had reached the extreme of active life, seemed in him to have entered the contemplative, so much had his art become a thing of his soul. Where, in their own separate private affairs, he interfered so little as almost to seem inefficient, she was so efficient as almost to seem interfering.
Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell
There was, in that latest poetry, no contention between the presences of life and of death; so little indeed that there had been a contention in the Sunday Times whether Stanhope were a pessimist or an optimist. He himself said, in reply to an interviewer’s question, that he was an optimist and hated it.
Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell