“War In Heaven” debate part 2

Yesterday’s post was part 1 of a debate I had seven years ago (!) with a pseudonymous online interlocutor calling herself Orphan Ann. I posted her first message to me yesterday; here is my first reply. Tune in tomorrow and the day after for two more installments.


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.


*I have since learned a lot more about CW’s occult involvement; see my many posts on this subject.
**Charles Franklyn Beach gave an excellent paper on this topic at the same conference where I first presented the Christian Mystery Story paper. Let me know if you want me to try to get him to post on the topic!


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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7 Responses to “War In Heaven” debate part 2

  1. Marc Hutchison says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed “War in Heaven”, especially his ability to bring the Cosmic down to everyday experience. After all, what better place to hide the Grail than in an obscure English country church? Life can be magical, if we let it.


  2. I completely agree with the two-dimensionality of most characters in Williams’s novels, and I completely agree that this is not a flaw in his “novels.” He is simply not writing realistic fiction. He has created a new genre, which intends to open the minds and hearts of his readers to the spiritual realities that interpenetrate the “real” world and in one sense are more real than the “real” world.

    And I love the conclusion of the book. Who but Williams could write of the Holy Mass in such a glorious way!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It is wonderful!

      Those present seem to experience different liturgical details, and I got to wondering if any Eucharistic celebration combined the Lesson Barbara and the Archdeacon, at least, hear (including Genesis 1:26) and the other (including Revelation 21:5) called “the Gospel”, though it cannot be that in the usual sense. So, I decided to try a little lectionary detective work.

      The Roman Missals I checked (an American one from 1910 and a Dutch one from 1944) had the first in the First Prophecy on Holy Saturday, and the Dutch Missal had a Common for the Dedication of a Church which included the second. A modern Orthodox calender (2003) had only the first, on the first Wednesday of Lent (I have no idea how representative that is!).

      We also have a Book of Common Prayer which someone owned in 1912. There, neither text occurs in a Lesson for Holy Communion on any of “the Sundays and other Holy-days throughout the Year.” But in “the Calendar with the Table of Lessons”, the First Lesson of Evening Prayer on 2 January is Genesis 1:20 – 2:4, and the Second Lesson of Evening Prayer on 30 December is Revelation 21:1-15: 361 days apart, that way round, though only four, across the Year’s turning. One of the choice of Lessons Proper for Evensong on Trinity Sunday is Genesis 1 – 2:4. But the Mass at the conclusion of War in Heaven seems to take place on the Friday of one of what Mornington earlier (ch. 2) describes as “the usual Sundays after Trinity.”

      One BCP service, though not one of Holy Communion, does fit the bill, however: Mattins on Septuagesima, where the First Lesson is Genesis 1 – 2:4 and the Second Lesson Revelation 21:1-9. Is it too bold a leap to notice that Septuagesima fell on 31 January in 1926, when Williams was writing War in Heaven, and to speculate that meeting these Lessons together, there, just then, may have been a little extra encouragement to him to describe the Graal Mass just as he does?

      (But do you, or does anyone, happen to know of other likely services with both Lessons?)


  3. Alice Degan says:

    How interesting that the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Williams’s characters are flat! I absolutely see how that is true, now that I think about it, but they never struck me that way in reading. And I would have said that flat characters would be a turn-off for me generally. Instead, I find my favourite of Williams’s characters live in my memories, and I even strongly identify with them in various ways (I find his portraits of friendship particularly compelling, for instance). But now that I come to think of it, I can see how they could be described as one-note. It’s just that I guess that one note often resonates with me.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m with Alice Degan, and think we need to wrestle some more the interesting subject of Williams’s characters!

    I am very struck by Orphan Ann’s analysis: “Most of them have a fairly good introductory scene, especially the Duke, and then pale off into plot-related actions.” I need to reread to test that, but if it is so, it may be the result of Williams’s art – whether successful or not. (How does this compare with the tradition of rhetorical ‘descriptio’, I wonder? – by the way, I see Derek Pearsall has a fascinating-looking article on “Rhetorical ‘Descriptio’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, which, if I were only a member of the MHRA, I could go on reading online…)

    She continues, “This is especially bad for Adrian” – and I wonder if she was thinking this partly because he has such a very good introductory scene. I have seen the beginning of it – the first paragraph-and-a-half of chapter 2 – interestingly discussed at least once (I think in a dissertation, but can’t recall whose – and won’t go note-combing, now!). It is splendid! Perhaps its closest predecessor is C.W.’s poem “I saw Shakespeare…”, though there are things not unlike it even in The Silver Stair (1912): perhaps it is an example of what Brian Horne (in his dissertation) called “the sudden, surrealistic twist”.

    And, I suppose it is not simply a playful tour de force, but also thematic in the way it jolts us into attended to ‘appearance and reality’.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Do, please, approach Charles Franklyn Beach: I was interested in Prester John before I ever heard of Williams, I think, but have never studied him enough!


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of real characters, the Duke says to Kenneth when they are setting off to investigate – and, if possible, to regain the Graal (in chapter 13), “I should leave a statement for the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster. My father is supposed to have had something to do – indirectly – with getting him the Hat.” Not only was this Francis Alphonsus Bourne when C.W. drafted the novel at the turn of 1925-26 and still when it was published in 1930, but he was already Archbishop when R.H. Benson wrote his futuristic novel, Lord of the World, in 1907 (with its amazing last-chapter Mass). He ‘got the Hat’, that is, was created Cardinal-Priest of S. Pudenziana by Pope Pius X in the consistory of 27 November 1911 (and by the time he turns up here in the novel had in real life been a cardinal elector in the conclaves of 1914 and again in 1922, which selected Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI respectively: to quote Wikipedia).


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