It’s “War in Heaven” week!

War In Heaven

War In Heaven

It’s War In Heaven week here on The Oddest Inkling! We are well into that most exciting phase of CW’s writing life: the 1930s and 40s. During the last 15 years of his life, he wrote nearly all the works that matter, with astonishing speed and great skill. So I will continue to work my way through his books chronologically, one at a time with whatever interesting interludes come up. We’ll take a little while now on his first important novel, War in Heaven, published in 1930. We’ll have some plot summary, a paper on the topic, an online debate, a guest post, and anything else I can cobble together. Enjoy!

It is a lively, fast-paced novel with perhaps the most straight-forward storyline of all CW’s works. I recommended it to you in my Reader’s Guide for Beginners. If you have read this novel, please leave a comment about it or contact me if you want to write a guest post.

In 2011, I published a paper entitled “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible? Charles Williams’ War In Heaven as a Generic Case Study.” It appeared in Mythlore (30:1/2, Fall/Winter 2011). You can buy a copy of the article on amazon (?!), download it from my page, or read a messy html version online. The following plot summary is drawn from that paper.  Warning: spoiler alert!

The story opens in a publishing house with the discovery of a body. The murder‐interest is soon supplanted by an astonishing revelation: the Holy Graal resides in the quiet country parish of the unlikely hero, a dapper Anglican Archdeacon named Julian Davenant. Soon the murderer, Gregory Persimmons, hires a thug to whack the Archdeacon on the head and steal the Graal. Mr. Davenant calmly steals it back, gathering allies and enemies for a brief chase across the countryside into London. Meanwhile (besides using the Graal for a black mass and for spiritual domination), the villain has a side plan: warthe ravishing of a child’s soul. While apparently safe in the home of a Roman Catholic Duke, the Graal suffers a metaphysical attack, which the Archdeacon fends off by a mighty feat of prayer. Persimmons blackmails the priest into exchanging the Graal for, apparently, a woman’s salvation. At this point Prester John appears. The pace quickens as Persimmons and his cronies murder a young man trying to recover the Graal, lure the Archdeacon into their lair, and attempt to bind his body to a dead man’s soul. The Power of God sets the little priest free, Persimmons surrenders to police, the child is out of danger, and the Archdeacon dies a sublime death during Prester John’s celebration of the Eucharist.

What’s fascinating about this story is that it is a combination of two genres: the murder mystery and the Grail Quest. Williams was not bound by generic conventions; like every great writer, he could develop, evolve, and defy a genre’s history when he liked. So this novel opens like a standard 1930s murder mystery (in fact, it feels very like Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, about which Michael Paulus wrote a guest post recently), but soon dashes off in entirely unexpected directions. Yet the more important point is the ways in which CW’s uses the two genres to transform one another. Many religious writers have taken on the murder mystery as a chosen genre, because — as P. D. James said in an interview on The Mars Hill Audio Journal — murder is the ultimate crime, taking away the most precious reality, life itself, and thus the murder mystery affirms the value of life.

Yet that is not what CW does. He does not use the mystery genre to affirm the value of life. Indeed, death is not seen as an evil in this novel, never mind the ultimate evil. At one point, someone is complaining that his work duties will be delayed because of the dead body found in his office. The Archdeaon (who is the “submitted saint” in this story) replies:

mice“After all, one shouldn’t be put out of one’s stride by anything phenomenal and accidental. The just man wouldn’t be.” “But, still, a murder–” the Vicar protested. The Archdeacon shrugged. “Murders or mice, the principle’s the same,” he answered.

Williams is not arguing that murder is all right, of course, nor that death is not an evil.Instead, he is making his signature claim that everything that happens — EVERYTHING! — is in God’s will, or “Under the Mercy,” and that the Christian’s job is to accept everything as a revelation of God’s nature. Indeed. two beloved characters in this novel die quite sudden, shocking deaths, and nobody is shocked. Nobody even seems to mind. This all turns some readers off… but wait! There’s more.

Having stripped the murder mystery genre of its usual spiritual content, CW then brings the Grail Quest in to re-infused the whole with powerful theological truths. Instead of death being the ultimate evil, death is the doorway into the presence of God: which is, after all, the real purpose of a Grail Quest. No one wants to own the Cup for its own sake. Instead, as the Archdeacon says:

“In one sense, of course, the Graal is unimportant–it is a symbol less near Reality now than any chalice of consecrated wine. But it is conceivable that the Graal absorbed, as material things will, something of the high intensity of the moment when it was used, and of its adventures through the centuries.”


Chris Gaertner as King Arthur

Yet that is not really the point, either. One does not want the Grail for its absorption of energy — at least, that is not why one ought to want it. The true Grail Knight wants to achieve union with Christ and Identification with Him, as Prester John does at the end of this novel. That is the only quest worth pursuing.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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18 Responses to It’s “War in Heaven” week!

  1. Alice Degan says:

    I’m so excited to discover this blog right when you’re launching into a week devoted to discussing my favourite of Williams’s novels!

    One interesting thing I discovered recently, in the course of teaching Arthurian Literature to undergraduates, is how well the end of War in Heaven reflects the climax of the French Vulgate Quest of the Holy Grail (i.e. the text that really spelled out the story of the Grail for the first time). It actually made the medieval version feel a bit of an anticlimax for me. It was like, yes, so a mysterious figure celebrates Mass, and the knights have a vision of Christ, and then the hero dies ecstatically … and? I’ve seen all this before. But it gave me a new appreciation of what Williams is doing in that rather dense and difficult ending!


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Alice! Welcome! But why oh why didn’t you find me when I was collecting paper proposals for “The Inklings and King Arthur” — I love what you said in comparing those two Arthurian texts. Wow. Well, stick around, and I’ll recruit you in my ongoing Arthurian work somehow!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    To reorder, partly, a sentence from your 2011 paper (which I am glad at last to have caught up with!), “His plot does begin with a crime, but the murderer confesses on page twenty-six” yet I am convinced you are right that “Williams is not breaking with tradition when he stretches the rules almost out of recognition.”

    I wonder if we might consider Williams as stretching the rules of a particular sort of story, “the inverted detective story” (invented, according to R. Austin Freeman, by himself, in 1912), where we know ‘whodunit’, and when, and how, etc., and then follow how the detective discovers and collects the evidence and solves the crime. In this context, the only possible candidate for an ‘unfair’ feature, is how Prester John helps things along in a conversation.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Also in your 2011 paper you note, “Joel Black reminds those readers who might feel pity for the murdered man that ‘the victim does not play much of a role in the tale of murder’ “. I would like (spoiler alert!) to underline how unusual Williams’s novel seems among the “few stories in which the reader is led to empathize” with the murder victim. For the victim goes on playing a role throughout most of the tale. Death has not freed him from “spiritual domination” by Gregory: Williams imagines the horrible possibility of one person (magically) enslaving another’s soul after their death. (This is comparable to the horror of Goethe’s ballad, hair-raisingly set to music by Schubert, ‘The Erl König’ (spoiler alert!): is the little boy merely hallucinating and does he die of his illness or fear, or has the Elven King actually gotten him?) And there is worse in the works: for, the “dead man’s soul” which the evil magicians aspire and attempt to bind with, or wreck into, the Archdeacon – forever after – in the parodic “marriage ceremony between a live man and a dead one” (no ’till death do you part’, here!), is the murder victim’s. Throughout most of the story, they have succeeded in this worse than murder, and seem to be succeeding in their attempt in the relevant chapter…

    It is interesting to compare this with Simon’s evil aspirations for his specially procreated daughter in Williams’s last novel, All Hallows’ Eve, and also the deeds of the evil magicians in the last of his finished Arthurian poems, ‘The Prayers of the Pope’ – and to note the importance in these contexts of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist respectively.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      One could also compare the liberation of the living Inkamasi through a Eucharist celebrated by the archbishop from “the sleep” which Considine has imposed on his will and consciousness in C.W.’s first-and-third novel, Shadows of Ecstasy. If this was a feature of the draft as completed in 1925, War in Heaven could be seen as developing the theme by extension to someone dead and still enslaved. This thematic link might also tie in with Joe Christopher’s interesting consideration of the first three novels as closely related (in a way analogous to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories).

      (Incidentally, if the world of Shadows is imagined as alternate history of largely the world of exactly contemporary England, the unnamed archbishop would have presumably in fact been Randall Davidson when it was drafted, but Cosmo Gordon Lang when it was published.)


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    On the Grail (or Graal) story side of things, how unusual is it to have baddies – evil magicians at that – trying to get the Grail?

    The only precedent my fuzzy brain can think of, is Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal.

    I am not sure whether we know how much C.W. knew about Parsifal, or what his most likely printed sources would have been for such knowledge (though there were many around, one way or another, before he began his novel at the turn of 1925-26). But it makes an interesting comparison in any case: the evil magician, Klingsor, who is after the Grail for his own purposes, and who, incidentally, has abused chastity by making himself a eunuch in pursuit of his ends and has learned how this “might serve him in acquiring occult sciences” (as Maurice Kufferath puts it, in The Parsifal of Richard Wagner (NY: Holt, 1904), p. 131: Internet Archive scan), dominates Kundry (who has lived since the time of Christ), and wants to use her to corrupt the young Parsifal.

    Williams’s Satanist threesome, are even more evilly ambitious in abusing the murder victim, and aspiring to corrupt the much younger Adrian and use the Graal
    destructively. But Klingsor is a sort of precedent.


  5. Lynn Maudlin says:

    It’s been a long time since I reread War in Heaven but I remember well my sense of excitement: it was my first exposure to Charles Williams, having joined the Mythopoeic Society and learned there was a third Inkling upon whom the MythSoc focuses its attentions, and the novel did not disappoint at all – I was energized by it, so many exciting things to ponder! I loved the combining of elements: murder mystery, Christian mystery, exalted and corrupted forms of spirituality– I should reread it soon.

    I should also remind readers of this blog that next year’s Mythcon theme is The Arthurian Mythos (see ) – a great time to incorporate Charles Williams and Arthurian elements – all are welcome!


  6. David Lenander says:

    I reread _War_ in the last couple of years for a Rivendell discussion, and the thing that struck me most was the curious wavering of tone. This novel is a comic novel, and the characters share something with characters like (I think–not having read them, or only a bit, and seen a bit of the television programs) Jeeves & Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s curious because in the midst of the absurd events we suddenly encounter horrific evil, and it’s not just comically evil (as, for instance, Satan in the later Paradise Lost), or alternately, sublime good, which Williams does better than most anyone else. (I’ve often thought about how similar approaches from James Blaylock, for instance, can manage the evil characters and situations, but they don’t seem to quite manage the good ones).


    • Charles Huttar says:

      Another instance of the element of comedy: I have long thought of Descent into Hell as sharing much with the comedy of manners genre, especially in the minor characters (Mrs. Parry and the others)


  7. Jared Lobdell says:

    Yes, WAR IN HEAVEN is, if not a comic novel, then certainly a novel with a great deal of the comic — like other Williams work, like Lewis’s novels, liked much of Tolkien — and see some of my work on the RISE OF TOLKIENIAN FANTASY — and forthcoming on Inklings Humor, especially these three. All wrote comic verse — I know Tolkien wrote clerihews on each of the Inklings. Thank you David for bringing up the topic. And yes, Sorina, I would like to contribute a post on CW and WIH.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Remembering your very interesting contribution to Word and Story in C.S. Lewis (1991), I was hoping you might just have something to tell us about War in Heaven and the comic!


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A recurrent – and major – character in the first two of Williams’s novels to be published, has a surprising surname, but not one of Williams’s invention: ‘Tumulty’. When Williams first drafted what was later published as War in Heaven, there was someone of that name who had fairly recently and over the preceding decade or so repeatedly been very much in the news, Joseph Patrick “Joe” Tumulty, whose Wikipedia article notes, “He is best known for his service, from 1911 until 1921 as the private secretary of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson” (adding, “This position would in later years become the White House Chief of Staff”) and that he “published a memoir, Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him (1921). The book enraged Wilson, who made it known that his former private secretary would never again be admitted into his presence or inner circle.” Was Williams familiar with him? Would the name ‘Tumulty’ in 1926 have been likely to call him to mind in England? Might Williams even had had some sort of parallel in mind when Sir Giles Tumulty turns out to be closely related to the Lord Chief Justice Arglay, though in a distinctly different way than J.P. Tumulty to the scholarly Wilson? Presumably Williams could not have known the full extent of J.P. Tumulty’s power and manipulations behind the scenes – as chronicled in part by Kenneth S. Lynn:


  9. I just went back to this post after reading a comment by David Llewellyn Dodds on Brenton Dickieson’s blog. I recalled finding Julian Davenant’s character deeply attractive when I read War in Heaven, probably around the time you wrote this. Far more attractive than any archdeacon I have ever had to do with although Davenant probably did not spend too much time as an enforcer of church law and regulations. Now I need to go back to the story again. I realise that it needs a second reading.


  10. Helionomicon says:

    I have just finished reading it. Evil just wants to destroy but ones own destruction leads directly into the presents of God. O death, where is your sting? Marvelous. Thank you for your summary here in this blog entry.


  11. salooper57 says:

    “War in Heaven” is my favorite and, I think, the most accessible of Williams’ novels. It struck me when I first read it, and many times since, that Williams (like Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and especially George Macdonald) possessed the ability to make good more interesting than evil. God, it seems to me, is pleased when his people do this in life as well as in literature.

    Thanks for the post (and thanks to Brenton Dickieson for directing me to it).


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