“Please, tell me who you are,” I said. I am me, that’s all.
“I should tell you all with pleasure,” said the General, “but you would not believe me.” “Why should I not?” he asked. “Because,” he answered testily, “you believe in nothing but what consists with your own prejudices and illusions. I remember when I was like you, but I have learned better.” “Try me,” said my father; “I am not such a dogmatist as you suppose. Besides which, I very well know that you generally require proof for what you believe, and am, therefore, very strongly predisposed to respect your conclusions.”
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.”
Thomas Burnett Swann’s Minotaur trilogy was written and published in the reverse of its narrative chronology. By chance, I have been reading these in the narrative sequence, starting with Cry Silver Bells. But The Forest of Forever is second no matter which way you count. The book is divided into two parts, each of which is effectively a novella, titled “Eunostos” and “Aeacus,” the names of two principal characters. Eunostos is a minotaur, the last of his kind in the Land of Beasts. Aeacus is a human Cretan prince. The whole is narrated by the 360-year-old dryad Zoe, who also is the speaker in Cry Silver Bells.
“Eunostos” is largely an adventure story, centering on dryad peril, in which the minotaur plays the hero. “Aeacus” is a slower tale of affections and disappointments, circulating through a few linked households in the Land of Beasts, and reaching its climax at the royal court in Knossos. The book is typical of Swann, set in his fantasized antiquity with intelligent non-humans and a relaxed sense of happy carnality.
As with several other Swann books, this one is illustrated with line art from George Barr. The drawings are attractive and apt, but in my 1971 Ace pocket paperback edition, there has been no care to align them with the texts that they represent, or even to sequence them according to the narrative.
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)