It’s old, it’s new, it’s borrowed, it’s blue! It’s the TARDIS!
No, wait: It’s new, it’s old, it’s stolen, it’s gold! It’s… the Stone in the Crown of Suleiman ben Daood, King in Jerusalem.
This tiny, square, cream-colored stone is flecked with gold, and contains within it black markings that shape the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. It enables its possessor to travel anywhere in time or space. It is bigger on the inside, because “All times are within it and all places.” If you chop it in half, the result is two identical Stones with precisely the same qualities, on and on forever, in infinite division and multiplication. Yet neither it nor any of the “Types” divided from it has any weight or mass or density when measured. It is made of the First Matter from which the universe was created, and thus contains all of the universe within itself.
As the Lord Chief Justice says:
1. It is of no known substance.
2. It answers to no re-agents.
3. It can be multiplied by division without diminution of the original.
4. It can move and cause movement from point to point, without leaving any consciousness of passage through intervening space.
5. It can cause disappearance—possibly in time.
Indeed, as experiments in the novel show, “it moves in time and space and thought. And in what else?” in “The Transcendence.” It seems to channel God’s original creative power, and thus “Anyone who has this Stone can heal himself of all illnesses, and can move at once through space and time, and can multiply it by dividing it as much as he wishes.”
What is this strange object? It is the sacred ritual object at the center of CW’s third novel, Many Dimensions.
This is an astonishing novel. You really need to rush out and read it right away. It is fast-paced and compelling, and not at all obscure except in some of the more introspective and mystical passages.
And it’s a time-travel story! Not only that, but it deals with time travel in a straight-forward, rational, sensible manner that I find extremely courageous. Here’s what I mean: in this book, CW lets the plot get out of hand in a way that’s very brave for a writer. He lets people do what they would do, dragging in other people, rushing away in all directions, getting lost and complicated in very realistic tangles both social and metaphysical (realistic, that is, given the basic premise of a magical healing Stone that enables travel in time and space!). Many other writers would be afraid to let everybody run around like crazy and bring other characters and complications in, but not CW. He believed that everyone was interconnected, and that everyone’s actions affected everyone else’s, and so in this book he shows that messy reality in all of its difficulties and confusion.
Meanwhile, at its center, the ritual object and the submitted Saint are quiet, peaceful, and unmoving in the midst of the madness.
The Saint in this story is Chloe Burnett, secretary (or general intellectual factotum”) to the Lord Chief Justice. As soon as she sees the Stone, she is possessed by a “vivid excitement,” and as the story progresses she chooses to believe in God and to know Him in some sense or other through the Stone. She submits her will more and more to God, or to the Stone, until she is the quiet means of saving the world.
Meanwhile the Persian Embassy, the British government, the heads of transport monopolies, an American millionaire, the Mayor of the little town of Rich, Sir Giles Tumulty (of villainous fame from War in Heaven), and any number of smaller people all strive for possession of the Stone or one of its types. Miraculous healings occur, and murder, and supernatural assassination, and it’s all very exciting and profound.
Yet the true power of this novel lies in something less exciting than the external mechanisms of plot. It lies in the embodiment of CW’s primary themes, in the way he brings natural and supernatural so close that they blend and become indistinguishable, and in the way he brings mystical devotion to life.
I have written often in the past here about Co-Inherence, Romantic theology, The Two Ways, Ritual Objects, The Crisis of Schism, Mystical Tranquility, and The City. In Many Dimensions, CW brings those themes to life in integral, embodied ways. The Crisis of Schism is made shockingly physical when the Stone is cut in two. Here is an emotionally-charged passage in which the disgusting, subtle antagonist commits blasphemy against the Stone by dividing it, and Chloe tries to stop him:
“If the Government,” Sir Giles went on, “wish to conduct an inquiry into the nature of the Stone I shall be happy to assist them by supplying examples.” He covered the Stone on his knee with both hands and apparently in some intense effort shut his eyes for a minute or two. The inquiry looked perplexed and doubtful, and it was Chloe who suddenly broke the silence by jumping to her feet and running round the table. Sir Giles, hearing the movement, opened his eyes just as Palliser thrust his chair back in Chloe’s path, and leapt up in his turn, throwing as he did so about a dozen Stones, all exactly similar, on to the table. Everybody jumped up in confusion, as Chloe, still silent, caught Palliser’s chair with a vicious jerk that unbalanced and overthrew the Professor, and sprang towards Tumulty. Sir Giles, the Stone clasped in one hand and his open knife still in the other, met her with a snarl. “Go to hell,” he said, and slashed out with the knife as she caught at his wrist.
Here CW shows the horror of divisions in things that ought to remain a Unity, and shows it in a vivid, unforgettable way.
Similarly, the Two Ways are dramatized by those (on the one hand) who want to use the Stone for good things and those (on the other) who desire to find in it the End of Desire. The Mayor of Rich has seen its healing powers, and people are rioting in his village to be allowed to touch it and find health. His own son lies dying of cancer, and he knows that one touch of the stone would cure his beloved son. Chloe, however, come more and more to believe that using it in any way, even for good ends, is wrong. She follows this so far that she will not even use it to save her life when she is assaulted by a murderer, but chooses to lie still, submit her will to It, and let it save her—or not.
Finally, Many Dimensions shows an interesting version of CW’s distinctive Romantic Theology: a variation that is particularly fascinating in light of his own life. A powerful bond exists between the young lady, Chloe, and the elderly Lord Arglay, Chief Justice of England. Their relationship is something like that between a father and daughter, or between a mentor and a student, or between lovers who have sublimated their sexual desires into a spiritual union, or between a master and a slave. It has been noted (by Hadfield, mostly) that CW modeled many characters in the 1930s after Phyllis Jones, and Chloe is one of the clearest examples of his idealization of both her and of their strange love.
Yet I find that their interactions, their selfless and absolute commitment to one another, is so deftly handled in this novel that it is not uncomfortable. There is the clear admiration of a young woman for an old man who has achieved a high degree of wisdom and the highest possible success in an important vocation. He is protective of her, but knows that she is capable. There are moments of intellectual exchange and social understanding. There is a terrifying, but almost funny, scene in which the evil Giles uses the Stone to possess Chloe’s mind and make her lust after Lord Arglay’s wealth and attempt to seduce him. His calm reaction, and her lack of embarrassment after the episode is over, shows the depth of their mutual trust and understanding.
And there is one more element I need to mention before I close: the fascinating use of Islam in this story. There is a Hajji (one who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca), and he clearly possesses true spiritual knowledge. He is the one who communicates truth to Chloe and sees that she will be the means and conduit of goodness and restoration. I would love to have a Muslim friend or colleague read this novel (by an Anglican Christian) and comment on its depiction of Islam. It seems to me to be a very tolerant, open-minded depiction, especially given its early 20th-century British Imperialist context. Yet I do not know how accurate its descriptions of prayers and doctrines are, and would be happy to know. Thomas Howard has commented on this matter in his excellent book The Novels of Charles Williams, and he argues that CW delicately maneuvers the Muslim doctrines in order to undermine them and show that Islam could never be a vehicle for truth, and I would be interested to hear an insider’s perspective. Please do write to me if you are able to provide that viewpoint or connect me with someone who can.
And in any case, whoever you are, do leave a comment letting me know if you have read this book and what you thought of it! Many thanks.