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 academia.edu 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: the 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:
“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.”
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.