Tag Archives: Charles Williams

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

Hermetic quote Williams Descent plot

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

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.

The Greater Trumps

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams:

Charles Williams' The Greater Trumps


The Greater Trumps is one of Charles Williams’ cycle of occult fantasy novels, and this is the one that foregrounds the tarot. I found it less engaging than War in Heaven or Many Dimensions. It has a few interesting visionary episodes, but the characters are fairly static, and the plot, although conveying a real sense of distress, neither excites nor illuminates the reader. The book will be most enjoyable to those with some prior orientation to tarot symbolism, and in particular a knowledge of the central images of the trump series. But such readers should not assume that their own understanding of the tarot informs this novel.

Williams is said to have been an initiate of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a Christian magical order descended from A.E. Waite’s Golden Dawn schism. It was a little surprising to me that the tarot symbolism in his book departs so far from the system of correspondences developed in the Golden Dawn. There is no use of Tetragrammaton as a key to the minor suits, and the element of Fire is attributed to Swords, while Air is assigned to Wands, in the manner of Gardnerian Witchcraft. The particular “Greater Trumps” of the novel are the usual array, but numbered in an unaccustomed sequence: Empress before High Priestess, and Emperor before Hierophant; Hermit numbered VIII, Temperance IX, Fortitude X, Fortune XII, and Death XIV.

This edition of The Greater Trumps carries a foreword by american writer William Lindsay Gresham, who lionizes Waite as THE great authority on tarot. While one might (I would) dispute such an award, it is fitting in reflections on the work of Williams, for whom Waite was certainly more important and useful than any of the competing figures of modern occultism. [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.