“It’s Very Weird.” Guest post on “War in Heaven”

Here is a guest post by Medievalist Alice Deegan to finish off War In Heaven week. Drop me a line if YOU want to write a guest post on anything CW-related. Cheers.

I should start by making clear what I don’t know, which is much of anything about the circumstances of the novel’s composition or what Williams thought he was doing when he wrote it. I make this disclaimer because, while I think I’m on board with War In Heaven’s theology—or at least the theology that I find in it—part of my enjoyment of it involves a kind of indeterminacy that is only possible because it is a novel. I love the fact that I get something new from it on each rereading.

I’m a medievalist, so the Grail angle is appealing. I like the way the meaning of the Grail is handled, the neat laying-out of its significance to the different heroes and to the villains, and the fact that the most spiritually authoritative character, the Archdeacon, ultimately decides that as an object it both does and does not matter. I think that’s the perfect way to approach such a fraught and difficult artifact, and it also chimes with my own understanding (such as it is) of the meaning of the material world for Christians.

As I mentioned before in a comment, I’m drawn to the sympathetic characters in War in Heaven, as I am in all CW’s books, actually, and I don’t find myself bothered by the fact that they don’t “develop” or are somewhat schematized. In fact, I never noticed that on previous readings. I also find the main villains very compelling. I love that we see so much from Gregory’s perspective, making him simultaneously more creepy and more comprehensible (which is yet more creepy) than if he were presented strictly from the outside. It struck me as a particularly bold stroke, and very effective, to present the main antagonist as deeply religious, but for the wrong side. And Sir Giles is so wonderfully hateful, yet also chillingly believable. (Dmitri and Manasseh are disappointingly cartoonish by comparison, and on first reading I was really hoping that where CW was going with them was that one or the other would turn out to be a straight-up devil, kind of a counterpoint to Prester John. If I’d been a friend of Williams’s and read early drafts of the book, I would have lobbied for that.)

But I think more than anything it’s the slight zaniness of the plot that makes this one my favourite of CW’s novels. The fact that the Archdeacon doesn’t take himself seriously is a major factor in setting this tone. I absolutely love the wacky “Archdeacon and Duke and publisher’s clerk steal the Holy Grail and a car chase ensues” episode, and to me that seems almost like the heart of the book, or its apex or quintessence or something.

When I was coming up with a list of Arthurian novels for my students to choose from for their class presentations, a friend dared me to put War in Heaven on the list, and I did, but when a student asked about it, I said, “Well, it’s very weird. It’s one of my favourite books, but it’s very weird.” Ultimately she picked some miserable novel about Guinevere, which she hated, so I should maybe have done a better job of selling the weird Holy Grail book. But it’s the combination of the weirdness and the theological seriousness of the book that I love, and that also make it an appropriate addition to the tradition of literature about the Holy Grail.

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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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4 Responses to “It’s Very Weird.” Guest post on “War in Heaven”

  1. Alice Degan says:

    Thanks for sharing my little guest post, Sørina!

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you!

    One of the most interesting bits is your thoughts about characters, especially villains. In chapter nine, Kenneth indulges playfully in a bit of schematizing in which he ends up relating Davenant, the Duke, and himself to the achievers of the Grail: “The Archdeacon’s Galahad, and you [to the Duke] can be Percivale […] And I’m Bors”. I’ve wondered (though I may have picked the suggestion up from someone else) how far there is a parallel between these three and the three Satanists: in how far might the Duke correspond to Gregory, Kenneth to Manasseh, and Davenant to Dmitri? Yet in the Archdeacon’s experience in chapter 17, both Manasseh and Dmitri seem (in a certain sense) much more powerful than he. It is Prester John who in some sense seems clearly “the most spiritually authoritative character”. The novel’s title got me thinking of the war in heaven described in Milton’s Paradise Lost where it seems a possibly unending stalemate between unfallen and fallen angels, even though the fallen are variously weakened by their fall – and then the Son arrives. In a sense, John here seems to correspond to the Son there. But you’ve got me wondering about Sir Giles: where does he fit in? Is he, in his way and degree a kind of ‘cerebralized’ figure corresponding to (or, as it were, aspiring to correspond to something like) John?

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  3. Alice Degan says:

    Oh, interesting! I have to admit I’ve never quite seen how the title fits, but this is illuminating.

    Yes, I should have said “the most spiritually authoritative of the heroes” in reference to the Archdeacon, because of course you’re right, Prester John carries a higher authority, though he’s also a lot more difficult to interpret.

    Also interesting that Sir Giles is the one character whose story extends beyond this book into another. Many Dimensions is one that I haven’t reread, and it’s been a few years, so I can’t remember how different his role is there (except that he’s more of a major player).

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      The implication – that you meant ““the most spiritually authoritative of the heroes” – was clear, but I wanted to bring it out even further! Prester John is such a lot more difficult to interpret! In the discussion reprinted, Orphan Ann said that she “assumed he was an angel, or perhaps the Holy Spirit.” (That last is interesting in comparison with the Flame in The House of the Octopus, and also some strange things Williams said in thinking about Garlon, the Invisible Knight, at earlier stages of his Arthurian retelling.) That ‘angel’ comparison (or identification?) has struck me, too – sometimes he seems particularly like ‘the Angel of the Lord’ in various Scriptural places, identifying his distinct existence, then suddenly speaking for God in the first person! Is Prester John something like that, when he says, “I am myself and I am He that sent me”? Though, to borrow your words, I think I can be on board with possible theological interpretations of this, it does astonish me!

      Sørina in her essay attractively talks about John in terms “the Mystery of a Christian’s identification with his Lord.” And I’ve got to wondering, is John (among other things) a fictional human being, still alive – if for a wonderfully long time (compare J.K. Rowlings use of real-world stories about Nicholas Flamel?), and therefore not fully perfected?

      Something interesting about Sir Giles is a sort of prophecy (including a reference to the Graal) spoken to him by Prester John which seems to come true in Many Dimensions, though John does not explicitly reappear in that book. John also says, “This war is ended, and another follows quickly”. Taken together, these persuade me that Many Dimensions is distinctly a sort of sequel – and that Williams may be playing in Many Dimensions with interpretations that see the Graal in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, not as a Cup wrought of stone, but simply as a ‘Stone’.

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