Following Many Dimensions, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, I decided to read all the Charles Williams novels that I had not previously read, in order of publication. According to Wikipedia, that's:
War in Heaven (1930)
Many Dimensions (1930)
The Place of the Lion (1931)
The Greater Trumps (1932)
Shadows of Ecstasy (1933)
Descent into Hell (1937)
All Hallows' Eve (1945)
I've since read War In Heaven and The Place of the Lion. Or rather re-read: as with Many Dimensions, as soon as I'd read a few paragraphs of War In Heaven I realized that I'd read it before. And I thought I remembered reading The Place of the Lion, and I had. In all those instances the previous readings were some thirty-five years ago, and I had only vague memories of the books. I've read Descent Into Hell and All Hallows' Eve twice and thrice, respectively (I think), the last times relatively recently. In short, there were and are only two that I've never read, The Greater Trumps and Shadows of Ecstasy. So, onward to those next.
Of the two most recent, I liked War In Heaven better. I hadn't paid any attention to publication order when I read the novels back in the 1980s, so it was interesting to see that all of William's themes and, more or less, his plots, were already in place in his first novel. (I assume it was the first written.) War involves an evil magician attempting to do evil things with the aid of dark powers, and this is, very broadly, also the basic situation of All Hallows' Eve. I think it's done more richly in the latter, but more excitingly in War. There is at least in the first two novels what Alfred Hitchcock called a "maguffin" or "MacGuffin," an object which is desired and pursued by various parties and thus provides the impetus for the plot. The Wikipedia entry for the term mentions the Holy Grail as an early example, which is interesting because the Holy Grail is in fact the MacGuffin of War In Heaven.
It's called the "Graal" here, which seems a bit of an affectation, and bothers me a little because I hear it in my mind as a sort of long growl, "Ghrrraaallll". The Graal Grail has been tracked down by a character, Sir Giles Tumulty, whom I had previously gotten to know in what is actually the next novel. Turns out it is a rather ordinary-looking chalice which has for some time been sitting unrecognized in the little parish church (Anglican) of Fardles. The priest there is an archdeacon (a term I haven't heard in the Catholic Church, and refers to a sort of practical assistant to a bishop). He is something of a mystic and something of a spiritual warrior, in a passive, almost Zen-ish sort of way: he doesn't do much, and he doesn't do it until he knows what to do, but when he does, it's right. In this brief note I won't go into all the people who get involved in the pursuit of the Grail. Suffice to say that some of them are evil (of course) and wish to use the Grail for evil purposes, and that it is a very good story. It almost deserves to be called a thriller, and has some elements of detective fiction--there is a murder, and a police inspector who is investigating it.
This is the one that Janet mentioned in the discussion of Many Dimensions, saying that she had stopped reading it because it was too disturbing, especially as it involved a child in danger. Well, I wouldn't try to talk anyone into reading it, but I will say that it is safe to press on, provided you don't mind learning somewhat more than ordinarily comes our way about truly evil people in league with truly evil forces. It is undoubtedly true that this work, like other Williams novels, suggests a much-too-close acquaintance with sorcery. But he is in the end clearly and literally on the side of the angels--the good angels, that is, and perhaps his experiences with darkness help to make his visions of light more powerful; they certainly are powerful to me.
Also in the comments on that post, Marianne quoted C.S. Lewis as saying that Williams "did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse." That's funny, but it didn't at first make a lot of sense to me. But the more Williams I read, the more I see what he meant. The truth is that a number of his characters are potentially Wodehousian--bright and often flippant young people, eccentric older ones, and the like--and could fairly easily be turned into comic-farcical rather than serious-heroic characters.
I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I tell you that Prester John makes an appearance here. And I'll say that I didn't entirely understand him or his role...well, I understand what he does, but I don't understand exactly what or who he is. This is my ignorance, as I know almost nothing of the Prester John legends. If you share my ignorance and are thinking of reading this book, it might be worth your while to learn a little something about him first--though I would not be at all surprised to learn that Williams modified and embellished the legend to suit his purposes.
The Place of the Lion is a considerably lighter book than either of the two that preceded it, though "lighter" is not the most apt word, the potential destruction of the world of matter and of the human beings who live in it is not being, all told, the material of sunny romance. But there is no dark magician involved, just a Platonist who wants to get closer to the Forms. This enterprise has dramatic effects, but I didn't see any indication that they were intended. This philosopher is unconscious throughout, so he doesn't really figure as a character, and we don't really know what he was thinking. But one of his disciples gives this account of what he is up to:
"He believes--and I believe it too," Mr. Foster said, "that this world is created, and all men and women are created, by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matter. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. It may be that they are the angels and archangels of which the Christian Church talks....those Powers are the archetypes of the beasts, and very much more.... Now this world in which they exist is truly a real world, and to see it is a very difficult and dangerous thing, but our master held that it could be done...."
This master is the unconscious philosopher, who has apparently succeeded in seeing these Principles, but by so doing has brought them into our world, to very destructive effect, as they tend to absorb into themselves all individuated manifestations of themselves--i.e., the world and everything in it. The Principles are visible, first of all in the figure of the enormous lion referred to in the novel's title. And the story is the story of the effort to put these mighty forces back where they belong. It gives the word "metaphysical" a force which it does not ordinarily have.
In every one of Williams's novels I've read--that is, five out of seven--there occur passages which are always puzzling and a little frustrating to me. These are attempts to put into language actions and experiences which occur in the spiritual world. These are semi-abstract, not pure ratiocination, but in a reality where discrete entities, motives, and actions exist and must be described as such although they have no material presence, or are connected only loosely to the material. I don't say that they are incomprehensible, but I often find them obscure, and on finishing them ask myself "What just happened?" Perhaps a little more effort and a re-reading or two would help. But I am sometimes impatient with them.
And then you have passages like this one from The Place of the Lion; Anthony's close friend Quentin is in great danger, and Anthony, wanting to help him, is in their "rooms," as the English say, and remembering him:
Light and amusing, poignant and awful, the different hours of friendship came to him, each full of that suggestion of significance which hours of the kind mysteriously hold--a suggestion which demands definitely either to be accepted as truth or rejected as illusion. Anthony had long since determined on which side his own choice lay; he had accepted those exchanges, so far as mortal frailty could, as being of the nature of final and eternal being. Though they did not last, their importance did; though any friendship might be shattered, no strife and no separation could deny the truth within it: all immortality could but more clearly reveal what in those moments had been.
This is applicable to all relations of love. It makes me think of Brideshead Revisited, of this exchange between Charles and Cordelia, Charles first:
“Have you told Julia this about Sebastian?”
“The substance of it; not quite as I told you. She never loved him, you know, as we do.”
“Do.” The word reproached me; there was no past tense in Cordelia’s verb “to love.”
Perhaps in the end there isn't in anyone's. No, not perhaps: probably. Probably certainly.