A fellow online writer, Orphan Ann, and I have been having a friendly debate about Charles Williams's War in Heaven. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce our debate here, so I am doing so, with slight editorial omissions and alterations. Please feel free to participate!
Orphan Ann wrote:
Dear Iambic Admonit,
You commented in my Livejournal about Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven and I thought I’d tell you what I though of the novel now that I’ve finished it. In short, I liked it, but found myself strangely unmoved. I thought that it was good, but too intellectual and didn’t have enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons.) That it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular. And this looks true to me throughout the different parts of the book.
The plot, for instance. It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realise that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked wilfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succouring the physical. (Did Williams read thrillers, and was this a deliberate subversion, do you know? Or did he just do what he felt he had to?) As far as I can remember, the mystery subplot serves only one plot function, “mopping up” Persimmons at the end. But the “good” characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about; I can only remember two times they take the initiative (when the Archdeacon steals the Graal and when Mornington and the Duke attack the chemist’s shop [which was a scene I enjoyed, even if it did involve my favourite character being killed off], which backfires mondo.) I realise that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read. The Graal’s defence mechanism makes the good side’s actions retroactively pointless, it seemed to me, as well. Now, on the one hand, I quite enjoyed seeing plot subverted, but on the other hand it made the story seem designed solely for the edification of the Archdeacon and the readers – which isn’t just “preachy”, but, I think, completely disrespectful to both readers and characters. There’s no compassion in it. That’s going a bit too far, as both Adrian and Jessie are saved by the Archdeacon’s making a nuisance of himself, and the Satanists’ ill-starred attempt to kill him, but it’s certainly the main thrust of the novel. You won’t find many descriptions of it as “Good vs. Evil struggle over the fate of a serving girl and a four-year-old boy”.
Nor did I think the characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri, one of whom explains to Persimmons that they are literally evil for evil’s sake (in the chapter “The Ointment”.) The satirical aspects of the book I felt were a bit mean-spirited, but I often feel that way about satire (not my favourite genre) and they weren’t that bad. But making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair. One of the best characters, I thought, was Sir Giles; any opinions there? All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.) I think the fact that the only foreign characters are both evil (and referred to as “the Jew” and “the Greek”) is related to this. He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.
I didn’t like the ending. It would have been sappy if a lesser talent had written it, but I can’t think quite how to describe it. I didn’t like the fact that Mornington’s death wasn’t mentioned at all, as if it was unimportant, and the rest of the book supports that reading to me. The chapter title was a bad touch. And I thought the identification of the Archdeacon with Sir Galahad, whilst resonating nicely with the Duke’s offhand comment earlier, was truly presumptuous. (That looked like a typical Inklings move to me, wouldn’t you say?)
A few scattered thoughts: the basic Archdeacon/Persimmons structure was too schematic, I thought. I did like the humour, though I wouldn’t call it hilarious; dry, perhaps. Was I totally ignorant to realise that the Holy Grail came from Ephesus? And do you have any idea why Prester John cropped up? I don’t think he’s got anything to do with the Grail at all, and assumed he was an angel, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. But it was only Williams’ second novel, so I’ll definitely give his others a try – have you a favourite?
And I replied:
I’ll see if I can respond somewhat intelligently to your clearly presented objections, but I’m not sure I can. This is due to the fact that the very characters, techniques, events, and other elements that you object to with clarity and precision are some of the elements that delight me—so part of our responses to each other is the incontrovertible matter of taste! I’ve been perhaps raised to enjoy a certain flavor in a book, which you find unmoving. That’s fine. But I suppose the more important question is whether the elements you mention are flaws in CW’s book and I like it even though it’s a poor work of literature, or whether it’s a great work that just doesn’t appeal to you. Hum. Let’s see what we can do.
First of all, you say the book is “too intellectual.” This can be either a fault or simply the author’s choice to pack his work with ideas as the expense of alienating certain readers. In C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress, I would say the esoteric intellectualism is inaccessible to a fault. Lewis himself admitted this ten years later in the afterword to the third edition. He wrote it when he was very young, either trying to show off or honestly and naively thinking that everybody else had gone through the same complex intellectual journey he had! But then other books, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or even Moby Dick need all the facts and ideas and thoughts that are packed in; they are as much compendiums of the knowledge of the day (in Dante’s case) or the science on which the story is founded (in Melville’s case) as they are ripping good stories. I think that War in Heaven is the latter, that the thoughts and ideas and big words and metaphysics are integral to the story. But of course, they do slow the plot down. For example, I think that the details of publishing, the pedantic quotes from archeological type texts, etc., are necessary for giving the mock-scholarly background to finding the Grail in Fardles. Could CW have done the same thing in a more lively, lighter way? Well, he couldn’t; somebody else could, I’m sure. Is it a fault? Maybe, but I personally love the layers of dry academic dust on top of the murder-theft-black mass-car chase plot. It just tickles me pink!
Next, you object that there isn’t enough time spent on the characters themselves (with the exception of the Archdeacon and Persimmons). Right, there isn’t a lot of time spent. Whether it isn’t enough time is a matter of opinion. Sure, CW’s characters are kind of flat, almost two-dimensional. You correctly observe that none of the “characters were very interesting people, except Persimmons and the Archdeacon. Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions. This is especially bad for Adrian, who is only a child but seems to be little more than a spiritual poker chip for Persimmons to cash in, and Manasseh and Dmitri.” Yes, I agree. You could add to that the apparent racism, which infiltrates some of CW’s other books, too, especially Many Dimensions. But I think we need to stop and ponder CW’s Platonism here, as well as his theology. First of all, CW was some kind of a neo-Platonist who believed that everything here is a shadow or copy of its reality in the World of Pure Forms—or, in Christian terms, in Heaven. So therefore his characters were kind of copies of absolute spiritual realities, which is why Manasseh and Dmitri can be “pure evil”: they are earthly manifestations of the Form of Absolute Evil. Adrian is a terrestrial representation of Innocence; Mornington and the Duke are a shadow and copy of the Ideal of Friendship, and so on. Also, CW believed that human relationships (especially romantic ones) followed certain theological patterns. For example, Williams believed that marriage follows the pattern of the earthly life of Christ, including the times of temptation, crucifixion, and death. So he would structure the interactions of his characters to emphasize the action, not the person. Furthermore, one of his friends wrote about him that “I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal were so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted” (Browne, E. Martin. Two in One. Cambridge UP, 1981. p. 101). In other words, he will sacrifice the psychological and emotional complexities of a character to the eternal realities or dramas they represent or in which they participate. It’s a choice he made; lots of readers won’t like it. But he’s not writing realistic, psychological fiction or novels of manners and relationships. I’m rereading Pride and Prejudice right now; nothing could be more different! So you are exactly right when you say that “it’s a somewhat austere novel for this reason which one wouldn’t ever expect to be popular.” Yup. And you also say “He’s too – schematic, perhaps – in his attitude to people, and not interested enough in people per se; who are the bedrock, I think, of a novel.” Well, of some novels. That’s why he called these “metaphysical thrillers” rather than novels. I think I’ve already tried to explain that he’s interested in people not for themselves but for what they represent, or for the larger realities behind them. But this doesn’t lessen their importance, at least he (and I) doesn’t believe so. It actually puts them in their rightful relationship to the cosmos, and therefore gives them universal and eternal importance, rather than just localized and particularized emotional or psychological interest. And that’s really the very reason other readers (including me) love it!
Also about characters, you also say that “the ‘good’ characters are so passive they become a nuisance to read about… I realize that it’s partly the point, but it’s not much fun to read.” Well, maybe. They certainly are passive. But their passivity is a choice; not CW’s choice, now, but their own choice. It’s the active, intentional decision they have made to submit their wills to the Will of the Omnipotence. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. Williams grants his heroes or saints—Isabel Ingram, Archdeacon Julian Davenant, Chloe Burnett, Anthony Durant, Sybil and Nancy Coningsby, Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther, Betty Wallingford, and Lester Furnival—a profound serenity that might be called “the peace that passeth understanding.” It is their quietness, their unshakable tranquility, that allows them to be the instruments of averting or righting catastrophes.
So then you talk about the plot. You are precisely right: “It begins with a murder victim being discovered, but this subplot isn’t attached to the rest of the plot until almost the end, when the police realize that Persimmons was the murderer and move to arrest him. This looked willfully perverse and boring to me when first I read it, but now it’s an obvious part of the novel’s theme of the spiritual world succoring the physical.” Yes. I honestly do not know if CW was being deliberately subversive, but I suspect he was. And I love that! I think it’s just hilarious that you being the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important. I don’t know, it just makes me chuckle endlessly. Maybe I have as twisted a sense of humor as CW did. I just don’t see this method as “completely disrespectful to both readers and characters” as you do; I just think it’s a clever and tricky as any magician’s sleight-of-hand. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to the reader who has no idea what she’s getting herself into, and this was his first novel. But I just love the idea of being totally fooled.
I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say “making the Archdeacon look clever by comparing him to his locum isn’t playing fair.” Would you want to explain that a bit more?
Now you introduce a complex and interesting discussion. You think Sir Giles is one of the most interesting characters, and I agree; he turns up again as the primary villain in Many Dimensions. Then you observe: “All the not-explicitly Christian characters seemed to be either entirely unspiritual or, in Lionel’s case, miserable, with the possible exception of Inspector Colquhoun. And that is not true. Non-Christian lives are not necessarily either worldly or meaningless (and yes, they’re both the same in War in Heaven), and this is just a basic mistake Williams makes describing these characters. Unbelief doesn’t lead to depression. (He might think their lives are ultimately worthless because they’re not based on God, but that’s not the same thing either.)” Hum. I’m not sure. Let’s see. I think Sir Giles and Persimmons are extremely spiritual; Persimmons actually worships a spirit—Satan—and both are very in tune with the spiritual world. Williams would just argue that there’s a good side of the spirit world and a bad side, and that all the characters are spiritual, but some have chosen “The Dark Side,” as it were. He himself, by the way, dabbled in the Dark Side. Williams was a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for either four-five years or for his entire adult life, according to various sources. He reportedly practiced bizarre sexual/magical/poetic rituals with various young women. If nothing else, he was something of a mystic and was fascinated by all that side of the spiritual world which Christianity traditionally avoids or forbids. So I really don’t see an non-spiritual characters in the book. And I’m not sure that all the “non-Christians” are miserable. Barbara isn’t. She is a profoundly solid, rooted, happy character, who grounds Lionel when he’s about to fly off into black depression. And I get the feeling that Lionel’s deep skepticism and negativity are such integral parts of his disposition that even if he “got saved” he’d be the same way. Williams sees something strangely salvific in Lionel’s assumption that everything will be difficult and that the universe will not be handed to him on a silver platter.
You didn’t like the ending. I understand. I’m not sure how to respond to it, either. I also hate the fact that Mornington goes unmourned. But again, that’s because he was a part of something so much larger than himself that his death is caught up into redemption and all that. And the same goes for the archdeacon’s death. He didn’t really die; he was absorbed or assumed into the larger life he had always worshiped. I don’t have a problem with his identification with Galahad; I just think it’s weird and bizarre, not presumptuous. It has to do with Archetypes again. He’s another manifestation of the archetype of the male virgin who is given over to a quest or a cause. Williams’s great work is his cycle of Arthurian poetry. He worked his favorite themes into these poems; he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britain” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence. In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), Galahad’s household was the ideal civilization of the True Logres where reciprocal love and the bearing of one another’s burdens were practiced. Yes, this is a typical Inklings, times ten! And it thrills me.
As far as the Holy Grail coming from Ephesus, and why Prester John crops up, I’m really too ignorant of Arthurian lore to comment intelligently, except to refer again to what I wrote above about CW taking everything he ever believed and mapping it all on to the Arthur legend. I do think that Prestor John was the keeper of the Grail in one thread of the legend, but I don’t really know.
I do hope that you give some of his other novels a try. Descent into Hell is probably his best, and The Place of the Lion is my favorite. But a fair warning: in all of them, you will probably be frustrated by the flatness of his characters, because they continue to be subordinate to the great forces they serve. I’d love to hear more of what you have to say if you read more.