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.