Saturday, February 16, 2019

Charles Williams, War in Heaven; The Place of the Lion


Opening Passages: From War in Heaven:

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse. (p. 3)

From The Place of the Lion:

From the top of the bank, behind a sparse hedge of thorn, the lioness stared at the Hertfordshire road. She moved her head from side to side, then suddenly she became rigid as if she had scented prey or enemy; she crouched lower, her body trembling, her tail swishing, but she made no sound. (p. 335)

Summary: War in Heaven is a mystery story, and opens with someone having been murdered in a publishing office. While it all starts out ordinarily enough, it gets stranger and stranger, until it becomes a struggle to protect the Holy Graal from occultists who intend to use it for dark purposes. To a great extent this is possible because a mystery story does not obey Chekhov's rule about the gun; Chekhov's Gun is a rule for drama, which requires streamlining the tale to prevent the dramatic flow from being clogged. A mystery story, on the other hand, is about giving you information and preventing you from seeing its relevance until the right time. In a mystery, you are usually given a flood of things so that you cannot see the relevant tree for the possibly-relevant forest. Anything could be important -- and your mystery will get stranger and stranger if the little things that normally wouldn't be important keep turning out in this case to be very important indeed. A canceled passage in a proof for a book on the Holy Grail by a brilliant but amoral antiquarian -- a little church in Fardles with a very old communion chalice -- the twitchy relationship between the publisher and his father -- and things become very strange indeed. As Inspector Colquhoun says at one point, "It's the unexpected that happens."

While the solution to the murder eventually comes out, it recedes in importance because it is merely the framework or trellis for an immensely more powerful story, in which the Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum (the old Roman name for Fardles), Kenneth Mornington, who works for the publishing house, and the (Catholic) Duke of North Ridings become the protectors of the Graal from those who want to steal it. They are not particularly effective. How could they be? They are trying to outwit ruthless and cunning people wielding dark forces, they can hardly get help from anybody (who would believe it? and if they did, what more could they do to help?), and, having come into it all quite suddenly, they have no plan. But the Graal is an expression of something higher that ultimately requires no protection; their protection of it is more for them, and for their own souls, than for the Graal.

Much of the story is taken up with the contrast between different kinds of mentalities, and how the Graal seems to those with different perspectives. For the Archdeacon it is nothing but a kind of unification with God ("Neither is this Thou, yet this also is Thou", as he puts it), and for the Satanist who is in some sense his opposite number, it is a sacrament by which one might do terrible things in a Black Mass for the damnation of souls. The Duke sees it in terms of allegiance and loyalty -- his family has spent long centuries loyal to the Catholic faith even at great costs to themselves, serving king and Church through every generation even after the two services were not easily combined, and thus for him it is a responsibility falling to him under traditional obligations. One of the continual problems the defenders have is that the Archdeacon and Mornington are Anglican, but for the Duke, the cup of Christ, the holiest chalice from the first Eucharist, is part of the tradition of the Catholic Church that he is honor-bound to uphold. Kenneth Mornington, whose acquaintance with it is more literary, views it in Arthurian terms, chivalry caught in poetry. Each of these, in their own very different ways, have a sort of devotion to it. Others regard it without devotion: Sir Giles Tumulty as a matter of antiquarian interest, and the Satanist's more nihilistic associates as a thing to be destroyed.

One thing that gets shortchanged in this set-up is the conception of it as a relic. The Duke, while Catholic, is a Catholic more as a matter of loyalties than as a matter of devout insight. That there is such a perspective is explicitly recognized by Williams -- at one point the Duke almost convinces the Archdeacon to take the Graal to Rome, because, as the Archdeacon reflects, "It had the habit of relics, the higher way of mind and the lower business organization to deal with them." That's a very striking sentence, and it captures exactly the double character of seeing something as a relic. But there is nobody with "the habit of relics" in the story. You'd need someone that combines the mysticism of the Archdeacon ("the higher way of mind") and the practicality of the Duke ("the lower business organization"), and there is really no one with it, which occasionally makes the exploration of the Graal seem like it is missing something.

I had forgotten until this re-reading that Sir Giles Tumulty was in this book. Tumulty is the villain in Many Dimensions. In that book he is a very nasty piece of work, and notably tries to do with the Stone of Suleiman what the Satanist is trying to do here with the Graal, but here he is more of a secondary character. Although he is an entirely unpleasant person, put in the mix with people who are trying to damn souls and destroy the world he comes across as more abrasive than corrosive. It's interesting that he learns no lesson whatsoever from his experience with the Graal.

The mystery largely works, although it does recede behind the Mystery. Sørina Higgins has a good discussion of how the book handles this, with which I largely agree: Is a "Christian" Mystery Story Possible? Charles Williams's "War in Heaven" as a Generic Case Study.

The Place of the Lion is a very different sort of book, but could also be seen as exploring the idea of devotion -- this time intellectual rather than religious. Damaris Tighe is writing a thesis on Abelard and Pythagoreanism in an effort to get her doctorate in philosophy. It is significant that she is studying Abelard, since Abelard holds that universals are nomina, mere names, although for a medieval philosopher like Abelard, this does not automatically imply, as it would today, that they are purely linguistic conventions. It does mean that they are 'in the mind' and cannot exist in the real world. What two dogs share is our ability to refer to them together, not some real nature of being a dog. This is no doubt why she has some difficulty with the notion that there could be representative beasts expressing the Ideas of Strength, Subtlety, Beauty, Speed, and so forth; it's the sort of thing she studies, and knows about, but she has no particular sympathy with it. Her boyfriend -- I suppose that's the closest designation -- is Anthony Durrant. We never get a good sense of what Anthony studies, despite the fact that he too is a student of philosophy. This is probably deliberate -- Damaris studies people writing philosophy, Anthony philosophizes. It is Anthony who will really be in a position to learn what is happening when the Platonic Ideas begin to invade our reality in the forms of Lion, Crowned Snake, Butterfly, Horse, Eagle, Phoenix, and Lamb, and he is the one who will ultimately discover how to save our world from being absorbed into them.

Most of the characters in the book have some kind of occupation or interest that could be considered in some way intellectual, and the work can be seen as an exploration of the motives underlying intellectual inquiry. Anthony serves the Eagle, which is Knowledge; he seeks in order to know. But knowledge is not the only thing that draws people to inquire. Richardson is associated with the Horse; it is swiftness in reaching the destination that matters to him. Damaris's father has an enthusiasm for practical entomology; he is drawn into that by beauty, and the most vivid scene in the book is when he sees great masses of butterflies uniting with the Butterfly, Beauty itself in the form of a butterfly. Dr. Rockbotham is governed by compassion, love, the Phoenix that dies and never dies, that burns and is never entirely consumed. Others have a darker experience. Foster, who inquires for the sake of power, is overcome by the Lion of Strength; he becomes a brutal beast, because his taste for strength is impure. Miss Wilmot, who craves a different, more manipulative, kind of power, is overcome by the Serpent of Subtlety. (Being a mind as often drawn by subtlety as by knowledge -- it is practically a requirement for a good historian of philosophy to be motivated by both -- I've always found her way of going wrong a salutary warning.) Damaris herself narrowly avoids being destroyed by the Eagle manifested as a pterodactyl; unlike Anthony, who serves Knowledge for its own sake, as a higher thing, she sees it as a way to serve her pride.

All of these are very different paths of inquiry. When Damaris's father sees the Butterfly, it ends all of his interest in butterflies; his mind comes to rest in the Butterfly. The pure entomology for the pursuit of beauty is just to know Butterfly; having experienced that, butterflies become merely veils of Butterfly, which is what you were really trying to study when you studied butterflies to begin with. Anthony, on the other hand, has many experiences of the Eagle, and it has no such effect on him. Love of truth does not motivate inquiry in the same way that love of beauty does; it seeks to view rather than to dwell, to soar rather than to stay. And so on with all the rest, included the degraded experiences of the same.

Of all of Williams's works, this is easily the best. His occultish tastes are muted here; the medievalish Neoplatonism lends everything a higher tone. (A literary problem with War in Heaven, not in any way fatal but nonetheless real, is that the diablerie is consistently more vivid than the religious devotion, the dark more clearly depicted than the light, because the latter is regularly lost in a host of abstractions. The mix of allegory and emblem fixes that problem here.) Williams's tendency to downplay evil even when talking about evil is not a serious problem here, and the idea that all things serve the Angelicals, the Ideas, and that evil is merely a degraded service to them, is not only the least problematic characterization of his problematic view of evil that Williams ever gives, it is the one that best fits its narrative context. And the subject lets Williams give in fully to his poetic impulses without slowing down the story. There are endlessly many vivid passages in this book -- the experience of the Butterfly, Miss Wilmot being overcome by the Serpent, the blaze of the Phoenix, the Naming of the Beasts. Without doubt this is an excellent book.

Favorite Passages: From War in Heaven (Mr. Batesby, like the Archdeacon, is an Anglican minister), a passage I find utterly hilarious as a jibe at a certain kind of Anglican clergyman:

"I think we had better return the money," the Archdeacon said. "If he isn't a Christian——"

"Oh, but he is," Mr. Batesby protested. "In effect, that is. He thinks Christ was the second greatest man the earth has produced."

"Who was the first?" the Archdeacon asked.

Mr. Batesby paused again for a moment. "Do you know, I forgot to ask?" he said. "But it shows a sympathetic spirit, doesn't it? After all, the second greatest——! That goes a long way. Little children, love one another—if five pounds helps us to teach them that in the schools. I'm sure mine want a complete new set of Bible pictures." (pp. 42-43)

There are many excellent passages in The Place of the Lion. Here's one that I particularly liked in context this time around:

In consequence he had not been able to do more than hint very vaguely at Mr. Foster's theories. Theories which were interesting in Plato became silly when regarded as having anything to do with actual occurrences. Philosophy was a subject—her subject; and it would have been ridiculous to think of her subject as getting out of hand. Or her father, for that matter; only he was.

Anthony would have been delighted to feel that she was right; she was, of course, right. But he did uneasily feel that she was a little out of touch with philosophy. He had done his best to train his own mind to regard philosophy as something greater and more important than itself. Damaris, who adopted that as an axiom of speech, never seemed to follow it as a maxim of intellectual behaviour. If philosophies could get out of hand … he looked unhappily at the Berringer house as they drew near to it. (pp. 369-370)

Recommendation: War in Heaven is Recommended, as a solid mystery-fantasy, and The Place of the Lion is Highly Recommended, as one of the great works of its kind.


Charles Williams, Charles Williams Omnibus, Oxford City Press (Oxford: 2012).

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