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Sunday Night Journal, November 5, 2017

The November-December issue of Touchstone contains an article on Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions. I dislike reading about books I haven't read but which I intend or at least hope to read. With a lot of classics that's almost impossible, because so much has been written about them. But Williams is relatively obscure, and I've read and liked at least three of his seven novels, and intend to read the others. So I decided that before reading the Touchstone piece I would read the novel itself. Having had all seven on my shelf for many years, I picked this one up.

But as soon as I'd read the first few paragraphs I realized that I had already read it.

The Persian, sitting back in his chair, and Sir Giles, sitting forward on the edge of his, were both gazing at the thing which lay on the table. It was a circlet of old, tarnished, and twisted gold, in the center of which was set a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters. 

The description of the stone told me that this was a book I'd read roughly thirty years ago, and liked.  But I didn't remember it very clearly, so I proceeded.

Someone asks if the letters are important:

"They are the letters of the Tetragrammaton," the Persian said drily, "If you call that important. But they are not engraved on the Stone; they are in the centre--they are, in fact, the Stone."

The circlet in which the Stone is set is the crown of Suleiman ben Daood. It wasn't until I was twenty or thirty pages along that it dawned on me that "Suleiman ben Daood" is "Solomon, son of David." To say that the Stone has magical powers would be to trivialize it. Even to say that it has powers is not fitting: it is power in some sense. In fact it seems to be everything in some sense. It's not God, but it is somehow very intimately connected with God. At one point it is called the First Matter, the first thing created by God, and said to have been in the possession of Adam in Eden. For many centuries it has been in the possession of Muslims, who have kept it secret and dormant. But it has been stolen and sold to Sir Giles Tumulty.

Tumulty is a kindred spirit to Josef Mengele (though the book was written in 1931, before Mengele's name and deeds were known), an amoral inquirer who seeks knowledge as a means of power and is psychopathically devoid of human sympathy. Also present at the meeting described above is his nephew Reginald Montague, who wants to use the Stone to make money. The Persian is Prince Ali, attached to the Persian Embassy in London, and outraged by the blasphemy of Tumulty's possession of the Crown and the Stone. Tumulty and Montague discover that a person holding the Stone and willing himself to be somewhere else will be instantly transported there. So Montague immediately conceives a business plan: to sell chips of the Stone at enormous prices to wealthy people who would like to be able to travel anywhere instantly.

Unsure about several legal aspects of the venture, Montague decides to consult another uncle, Lord Christopher Arglay, Chief Justice of England. He and Tumulty take the Stone to Arglay, show it to him and to his young secretary, Chloe Burnett, and demonstrate the one power that they've so far discovered. They also learn that an attempt to chip off a piece of the Stone creates a duplicate of it--a copy in their word, a Type in the word of those who have more understanding of it. 

And thus is set in motion a story which is both exciting and profound. It is fundamentally a three-way struggle over the Stone. There is the Tumulty-Montague party, which wants to use it for various instrumental purposes, including especially the making of large sums of money, though Tumulty himself is not interested in that possibility--he is less human than that. Soon there are multiple Types of the Stone abroad, and more powers are discovered, powers that bring people into conflict with each other. One such power is that of healing, so now there is a party that wants to distribute it everywhere and heal every physical ill. But that is not in the interests of those who want to sell it as a means of transportation and need to keep it rare and expensive. And so on. 

Then there are the Persians, led by Prince Ali, who want to retrieve the Stone and put it back where it belongs (wherever that is) and are quite willing to kill any infidel who possesses it, or one of its Types.

And there is the party which wants to do what is right, what is most in keeping with the nature of  the Stone. This party consists chiefly of Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett, with a few allies, including a wise Muslim called the Hajii who objects to Ali's violent single-mindedness. 

Arglay, Chloe, and Tumulty are the chief characters. Tumulty is simple enough, perhaps a little overdone in his brutality and spiteful pride. But Arglay, Chloe, and their relationship could be studied at length. Arglay's concern with Law and Justice assumes cosmic significance. And Chloe--well, she is really in many ways the center of things, eventually...well, that would be giving away too much. The relationship between them is a beautiful picture of the masculine and feminine dynamic. It's not romantic--he is many years older than she and more of a father, even addressing her as "child." But if it's father and child, it's not father and son, which would be a very different thing. He is master and she is both daughter and servant. And yet it is she who leads the way in their understanding of the Stone. She alone of all the characters has a direct intuitive grasp of what it represents, and of how one ought to comport oneself toward it, beginning with reverence. She doesn't learn this by reasoning or study; she simply sees it, and teaches him. Arglay asks her what she "would have the Stone to be," which seems to mean at least as much "What do you believe it to be?" as "What do you want it to be?" 

"I am afraid of it but I--don't laugh--I love it."

Lord Arglay looked at her thoughtfully. Then, "Do you believe in God?" he asked.

"I suppose so," Chloe said. "I think I do when I look at the Stone. But otherwise--I don't know."

"Well," said Lord Arglay, "I will make you a fair proposal--I will if you will. It's all perfectly ridiculous, but since I saw those people [Tumulty and others of the first party] this morning I feel I must be with them or against them. So I suppose I'm against them. Not, mind you, on the evidence. But I refuse to let you believe in God all by yourself."

Chloe looked up at him, her eyes shining. "But dare I believe that the Stone is of God?" she said. "And what do I mean by God--except..." she half added and stopped.

"Except--?" Arglay asked, but she silently refused to go on and he said: "If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and not sit in the seat of Giles Tumulty...."

If that dialog intrigues you, read the book. Philosophy and theology aside, it is really quite a good story.

I'll also note in passing the very respectful treatment of Islam in the novel. Christianity in fact is hardly mentioned at all; the English characters (and one American), are pretty much the sort of post-Christian moderns we know well, even, more or less, Arglay and Chloe in the beginning. Interestingly, Prince Ali is representative of the fanatical and violent aspect of Islam with which we are too familiar--he threatens to rouse "all the places of Islam" against the English until the blasphemy is avenged and the Stone returned. But the Hajji (see Wikipedia for a bit of information about the title) is a deeply devout and very wise man. And one whom the prince, for his own well-being, would have done well to heed.

I know I've written about Williams more than once here. I think this post is the first; it's mainly about All Hallows' Eve. And there is this book review of Descent Into Hell which was published some thirty-five years ago, but which seems still fairly well on target to me. As with these others, there is a good deal in Many Dimensions that I don't understand very clearly. 

I'm fairly sure that I've read at least one other Williams novel but I'm not sure now (obviously) which one it was. Now that I think of it, I believe it involved the Holy Grail. War In Heaven, perhaps. 

The Touchstone piece, by the way, focuses on the Stone, and the uses to which those who see it as an instrument wish to put it--as a metaphor for technology and its perils. It's an interesting piece, but I'd like to know more about the Stone itself. I don't entirely understand what it is supposed to be, and I don't know to what extent it and its powers are Williams's invention, and to what extent, if any, he is drawing upon existing legends. 

This review of a Williams biography at The University Bookman is a nice brief overview of his life and work. I quibble with that opening sentence, though: at least since the early '80s, when Eerdmans reissued his novels, Williams is considered one of the Inklings, and has been known for many years among those who are interested in Tolkien and Lewis. Relatively obscure, yes, but certainly not forgotten until 2008, as the writer seems to imply. 

This is the cover of the edition of Many Dimensions that I have. On the lurid side but well-founded in the book. 

Williams-ManyDimensions

Comments

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I see on Wikipedia that one of his novels is titled The Greater Trumps - ha!

Ha indeed--it didn't even cross my mind to connect that with Trump. Which I guess is what you mean?

Yes

There's also the collective biography of the Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, that if anything has rather too much about Charles Williams relative to the others. I think that came out in the 1980s too.

Late 1970s, actually, and I'm a little embarrassed to say that I'm not sure whether I read it. I think not. I read Carpenter's Tolkien biography which came out around that time, and which I read in the early '80s, and I remember it pretty well, though I haven't read it since. So probably I haven't read The Inklings.

Maybe it was in the Tolkien bio that I read about Tolkien disliking Williams and referring to him as "that old witch doctor." And about Lewis's disappointment. I didn't go into it in this post but there is definitely something a bit unsavory about Williams's penchant for the occult.

I've read The Place of the Lion, which was pretty good. It was about how the study of philosophy when you don't believe any of it is bad.

I started All Hallow's Eve but didn't finish it precisely because "there is definitely something a bit unsavory about Williams's penchant for the occult."

I think I may have read The Decent of the Dove, or at least part of it, but it didn't leave any lasting impression.

I think Anglicans are more easily drawn into fascination with the occult than Catholics.

I am pretty sure I have read all but two of the novels. One because I just never got around to it and another because it was getting very creepy--well more than creepy--and there was a child involved and I was so terrified for the child that I couldn't keep reading.

I think that I like Descent into Hell the best. Aside from that and All Hallow's Eve the others are all confused in my mind.

I probably mentioned in my Authors post about Thomas Howard that he has a book on Williams novels that I found extremely helpful.

I do think that Williams got awfully close to a line that one should stay further away from.

In the CSL group we read He Came Down from Heaven, which is about the Incarnation. His theology is very mystical, as you would imagine, and very thought-provoking. I don't remember it well now, but while I disagreed with some of what he said, I thought there was a lot of good stuff in the book.

AMDG

Uh-oh.

Fixed. :-) I happened to be in the neighborhood.

Is Place of the Lion the one where archetypes get loose in the world, or something? If so I've read it. I didn't like it as well at the time (thirty-plus year ago). And unless it also involves the Grail I guess I've read two more.

Both All Hallows and Descent involve characters who are damned, and as unhealthy as it may have been for Williams to imagine it, the latter especially I think is a worthwhile counter to all the idiotic "Well, I'd rather go to hell because it will be more fun" stuff that people say so often.

I suppose Anglicans are more likely to at least dabble in the occult while remaining Anglican. But Catholics may be more likely to become out-and-out satanists.

"But Catholics may be more likely to become out-and-out satanists."

??!!

Not practicing Catholics, but people who have been Catholic and rejected it. I wouldn't insist on the point but it has occurred to me.

I will be careful to remain faithful so I do not stumble into a satanic ritual!

What happened to my comments?

AMDG

Oh, never mind. I see.

AMDG

That is the place of the lion. It didn't have the Grail on it, though.

I think that's War In Heaven, then--the one with the Grail. So I think I've read all except Shadows of Ecstasy and The Greater Trumps. But obviously I don't remember a couple of them very well.

What is the one that starts out with a dead body in an office and I guy that has some kind of cream that he is going to put on himself to do some magic thing?

That really sounds weird.

AMDG

Heh. Sure does. It may be War In Heaven. I don't remember magic cream but I do remember a dead body in an office.

The last Williams I read was The Greater Trumps -- it was quite a few years ago, as I read it in conjunction with a re-read of Tim Powers' novel Last Call, which also has to do with the tarot deck.

Was the one with the "cream" All Hallows Eve? I seem to remember something about an ointment that gave the power of flight or supernatural travel or something. It's been decades since I read it though. I've read all the novels once, and a couple of them twice, but its been years.

I always thought that CW was a little dicey too, especially after the biographical information came out about his odd relationships with female students. There was some stuff that was a sort of vaguely erotic ritualism that was very questionable.

Yes, so I've read. I thought that University Bookman piece mentions it but implies that it remained platonic. Not that that makes it ok. You can see him trying to purify it in the fiction

I don't think that magic cream is in All Hallows'. If I trusted my memory more I'd say it definitely isn't.

Ick.

The magic cream is definitely not in All Hallows' Eve. I don't trust my memory very much at all, but I know it was in the book I stopped reading.

AMDG

Well, before I got sidetracked I was about to reread Lord of the Rings, but I think I may stay on this sidetrack for a bit.

You are sending me down the sidetrack now. I was just thinking about that this morning, and I'm only reading about 6 books.


AMDG

We should start a LOTR reading group.

Just read in a review by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, of a 2008 book, Charles Williams: Alchemy and integration, that C. S. Lewis once said that Williams “did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse". I've never read any of Williams’s books , so don't know if that fits -- does it?

When I read Williams, Wodehouse is the farthest thing from my mind.

AMDG

I wonder what the heck he meant.

AMDG

I'll have to wait till later to read the Williams article. But believe it or not, I actually did think about Wodehouse while reading Many Dimensions. It crossed my mind that several of the characters were the same basic type as some of Wodehouse's. Reginald Montague for instance. But there's nothing lighthearted about them at all. Evil twins or something.

Williams is no dummy, especially where literature is concerned, so the piece should be interesting.

So, we're reading Williams about Williams. That should confuse the heck out of me.

AMDG

Call them the Witch Doctor and the Bishop. I read the first two chapters of War In Heaven earlier and was surprised to find the Sir Giles Tumulty is in it.

I might be interested in a LOTR reading group. Not right now though.

One more chapter of War In Heaven and it's already clear that a child is in danger, although there has not been the least actual threat. It's very skillfuly done. I can see, Janet, why you stopped.

Finally found time to read the Archbishop's piece. Really interesting, and more or less confirms the impression one gets from the novels that he dealt in some dangerous things but in the end pulls back from disaster, bringing some useful knowledge and insight with him.

I was looking for photos of Williams and stumbled upon a list of 100 tweets about him done by the author of his 2015 biography (The Third Inkling) in the lead-up to the book's release. Three of them:

#7 – Charles Williams wrote his first novel after reading a thriller by Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu, and thinking “I could do that!”

#16 – CW gave CS Lewis’s Allegory of Love its title–CSL wanted to call it “The House of Busirane: An Essay on the Erotic Allegory of the Middle Ages.”

#22 – Charles Williams’s wife Michal learned from her poacher father to tickle trout: hence the fish image in [Williams’s] poem “Bors to Elaine.”

Anyone here know how to tickle trout?

Lewis was terrible at naming things.

One of the members of our CSL group brought some first edition English copies of some Lewis books to our meeting and they had the most awful names. Unfortunately, I don't remember them, nor do I remember if they were Lewis's names, or the publisher's.

AMDG

No idea what "tickling trout" is but it sounds a whole lot better than "noodling catfish."

Wonder who Busirane is. I always thought the names in the Narnia books were a very mixed bag--some excellent, some fairly bad. Most not very good, really.

Really Maleldil is the worst. Mal is bad or evil. What was he thinking?

AMDG

Busirane is an evil sorcerer in The Fairie Queene.

AMDG

Yes, "Maleldil" is atrocious. What indeed was he thinking?!?

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