Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My First Dip into Charlie Williams

So, while I've heard about Charles Williams in relation to Tolkien, I'd never actually read anything by him. In fact, only last summer did -- as I read Carpenter's The Inklings -- did I begin to know anything about Charles Williams at all. Being famed for the "third Inkling" is a bit like being famed for being the third wheel.

Anyway, while Carpenter had a fairly positive portrayal, he couldn't well ignore Williams's intense interest in supernaturalism and the occult. That put me off instantly. I'm already at a disadvantage in Inklings studies insofar as I can't take their religious views as seriously as they did, but the marginalization of hocus pocus and superstition is one of the happiest byproducts of the Enlightenment, so Williams's major theme had absolutely no personal interest for me. But duty calls, so I finally read two of his novels: War in Heaven and Descent into Hell.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. Williams has a quite a bit of talent as a novelist. His handling of narrative in War in Heaven engaged me, and he created a highly distinct and vibrant cast of characters. And it's funny, too -- basically a detective story that adds a touch of farce to the main occult themes. For example,

  • “So through the English roads the Graal was borne away in the care of a Duke, an Archdeacon, and a publisher’s clerk, pursued by a country householder, the Chief Constable of a county, and a perplexed policeman. And these things also perhaps the angels desired to look into” (120).

Because of the occult, the novel could almost be considered "magical realism," although that tends to be more self-conscious a mode than War into Heaven allows itself, taking occultism very seriously. Also, of course, occultism has a lot of historical baggage that magical realism doesn't have, especially in the way Williams interweaves it into his sincere Christianity. It made me wonder about possible personal bias, though, so that genre relationship might be something to look into if time ever allows.

Alas, Descent into Hell wasn't nearly as good -- although comparative terms like "good" and "bad" are a little inapplicable here, considering how unique the novel is. Williams foregos the detective story in favor a more plot-less psychological/spiritual novel. I only got into the book about halfway through. I particularly liked the sections dedicated to the doomed Lawrence Wentworth, who conjures up a succubus-creature because of unrequited love for a younger woman.

Still, I found myself skipping broad swaths of the novel because of Williams's tendency to devote long descriptive passages to spiritual states of one sort or another. In fact, there's comparatively little dialogue, and I had absolutely no patience for the intricacies of such-and-such a spiritual condition or mental state, which really demands the reader share some of the author's beliefs about the importance (or existence) of such things.


Some observations:
  • Peter Stanhope the playwright (a stand-in for Williams himself) formed the philosophical core of the novel, but his sections became preachy, especially in the long speech-like conversations with Pauline where he expounded his views. 
  • Pauline's fear of the doppelganger was a nice touch. 
  • Lily Sammile, though, was less an antagonist -- after all, this isn't a plot-oriented novel that really requires antagonists -- and more an alternative to the doctrines proposed by Stanhope. Her presence was somewhat creepy, but not overly so. 
  • Overall, philosophical novels can certainly work well (Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy, etc), but this one seem to emphasize the philosophy over the novel aspect much too much.




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