“War In Heaven” debate part 1

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned an “online interlocutor” with whom I carried on an extensive debate about War in Heaven years ago. Her LiveJournal name was Orphan Ann. She gave me permission to reprint our debate on my “Islands of Joy” blog — then called “Iambic Admonit”, which I did. I have since lost contact with her. Orphan Ann, if you are out there, please make contact! In any case, I am going to reprint our debate here, hoping that permission still holds (Under the Permission), over the course of several days. I’ll post her writing, then mine, then hers, then mine, and so forth. Here is Part One.

Orphan Ann wrote:

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?

 

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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6 Responses to “War In Heaven” debate part 1

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for (re)posting this! Very thoughtful and thought-provoking! Perhaps a nice step in the Lewis ‘experiment in criticism’ – not only what people like, but why they like them, and what they candidly don’t like in them. Maybe I need to reread the novel, but my memory of and reflection on my experience leads me to disagree with the idea that “There’s no compassion in it” (even when it is qualified as it is in the following sentences). There even seems to me to be a certain real tenderness toward the locum. (It is also delicious how he contributes decisively to the solution of the murder.)

    “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning springs to mind by way of partial comparison, especially its last line: “And yet God has not said a word!” What is the extent of the horrors of existence? Lionel (the character closest to Williams – or part of Williams – in significant ways) sees horrors, and imagines horrors beyond what he sees (though he fails to see or suspect the intended and actual horrors planned for his son and perpetrated on his wife). What, if any, limits are there to such horrors? Can magic work as effectively as chemistry? Could someone be so interfered with that death would not free him from bondage to a human tyrant? Is there no horror God will not permit?

    Again, what are the limits of horrors? Are any horrors final, irremediable? Williams imagines Barbara rescued, Jessie and Adrian rescued, the Archdeacon rescued, the murder victim rescued, Mornington not rescued in this life yet both convincingly ‘headed for death’ (note his conversation with Barbara) and for rescue beyond death. Gregory seems – partly rescued? well started on ‘the road to rescue’, spiritually?

    But, can one successfully resist limitation of horror with respect to oneself? Six years after War in Heaven was published, Chesterton wrote in chapter 7 of his Autobiography of a “sort of optimistic theism” which was “substantially the same as that which I had learnt since childhood under the glamorous mysticism of George Macdonald. It was a full and substantial faith in the Fatherhood of God, and little could be said against it, even in theological theory, except that it rather ignored the free-will of man.” Have Manasseh and Dmitri and Sir Giles put themselves beyond salvation – or go on insistently holding out against repentence in a way that is final, or effectively final, in that God will not insist on overcoming it? What are we to make of the ‘hardness’ of Prester John to them, in this context? Are they, like Lewis’s Dwarves later in The Last Battle, seeing what they insist upon seeing, and are we given a glimpse of this?

    Incidentally, Orphan Ann slipped in saying “the only foreign characters are both evil”, for Prester John seems a distinctly ‘foreign’ character, so that the astonishing confrontation of John and Manasseh and Dmitri is purely a mutual confrontation of drastically opposed ‘foreigners’. I hope somewhere to say something about possible allusive name-symbolism. But if Williams is “too – schematic” in his depiction of (some) characters or ‘figures’, he here associates Manasseh with a name-sake who comes to a very different point than that which this Satanist reaches when last we see him (note not only Second Chronicles 33:12-16, but the Prayer of Manasseh in the King James Version Apocrypha). And Dmitri’s name-sake is presumably St. Demetrius of Thessalonica (in traditional iconography in a position to another corresponding with John’s to him!) while the first part of his last name has monastic, eremitical associations (‘lavra’): there are Greek Orthodox roots from which he has departed.

    Orphan Ann asks, “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”. To suggest a possible part of the answer by quoting an article of mine in the Williams Society Quarterly (later than those online, and, candidly, needing a corrected and revised reprint): “It may also be worth noting that in Wolfram, Parzival’s converted half-brother, Feirefiz, foreswears his lady, Queen Secundille of Tribalibot, who resided at the foot of the Caucasus Mountain, to marry the (consequently retiring) maiden Grail bearer, the Princess Repanse de Schoye: their son is Prester John – “and, ever since, they call their kings by no other name” in India/“Tribalibot”.

    So far, I will stick with a sentence in my Dictionary of Literary Biography entry about Williams: “War in Heaven is, in effect, a persuasive fictional theodicy – enriched and troubled by the strange figure of Prester John”.

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  2. Tovah says:

    What is CW’s thought on the Jews? I read an essay of his (imaginatively titled “The Jews”) in which he talks about how orthodox Jews and religious Christians can get along even though the beliefs of each are fundamentally opposed to the other. He also says that the Jew, even if he converts to Christianity, will still be different from other Christians because of the peculiar relationship he has with Jesus due to his background. However, I was unable to determine if Williams is actually arguing for the conversion of Jews. His thesis seems to be “they’re wrong but we should still be nice to them,” which is not a terrible thing to say.

    However, then one reads War in Heaven, in which there is a Jewish character who is extremely unsympathetic to the reader. Is this what Williams believes about Jews, or is he simply using a plot device much like Charles Dickens did in Oliver Twist (the nasty Fagin is Jewish) or L.M. Montgomery does in Anne of Green Gables (the lying traveling peddler is Jewish), in making a character Jewish to tell the readers he’s nasty? Dan Brown does the same thing in Angels and Demons, except his nasty cardboard character is an Arab Muslim.

    To recap: what does Williams think about the Jews, apart from them being wrong? Does he think they are bad, or simply misguided? Or is he one of those Christians who accepts that the Jews have a unique role even in Christianity?

    Thanks!

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    • Dear Tovah:
      I’ve put off and put off replying to this comment, because I simply don’t know the answer. I’m reading (and rereading) through CW’s works in chronological order now, so perhaps I will come across something. I *suspect* that CW’s position would be very similar to Tolkien’s — deep admiration for the cultural contributions of “that great people” — and Lewis — Jews have long been the most important vehicles of True Myth, but I can’t think of any textual evidence for this position. But perhaps CW would go even further, since there are times he borders on universalism, and since in “Many Dimensions” it is very nearly Islam that is the bearer of salvific truth: perhaps he would credit Judaism with even more spiritual value than his other Inklings friends.
      I don’t take his characterization in “War in Heaven” to be any kind of racial statement overall, merely a comment on that one character in particular.
      Let me say more: I think that Dimitri and Manasseh in “War in Heaven” are each individual examples of perversions of ways of truth: Dimitri of the great way of Greco-Roman myth (he is a person of Greek ancestry who has rejected the great mythic tradition of his people) and Manasseh of the great way of Judaism (he is a person of Jewish ancestry who has rejected the great truth of Mosaic monotheism). In this sense, Williams is actually giving a lot of credit to the traditions by showing us how awful they are when someone perverts them.

      What do you think?

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      • Tovah says:

        Dear Sørina,

        Sorry for the late reply. I wanted to take the time to research a proper answer, but I don’t believe that’s forthcoming so I figured I might as well answer. Thank you very much for getting back to me though, it was quite an excitement!

        I think that if CW was making a character Jewish (or Greek for that matter) there is something deeper in that decision. Judaism rejects Christ and therefore the Holy Grail. Dmitri represents… Greek myth? The Byzantine church?

        Remember though, what CW intended is not necessarily what the public understood (according to Humphrey Carpenter if I understand him correctly). That is what I was referring to in my first comment, that CW’s intention was simply for how the public would perceive his novel. Although I suppose that’s too simplistic, but when one member of a minority does something it reflects poorly on the rest because the majority will judge the remainder based on the famous example.

        How was War in Heaven perceived by the public, particularly Dimitri and Manasseh? Do you know?

        Cheers,

        Tovah

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        • Good thoughts, Tovah! And I just really don’t know. I’m thinking of doing a paper on CW’s reception, but haven’t started it yet. If I do, I’ll be sure to post about it here. Thanks.

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  3. Tobie says:

    ““““

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