King Solomon’s TARDIS: “Many Dimensions”

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.

many_dimensionsThis 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.”

YHWHWhat 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.

Triskel_type_Tonkedeg..svg 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.

101202-DreidelAndStoneHere 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.

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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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12 Responses to King Solomon’s TARDIS: “Many Dimensions”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    What a fine summary and evaluation!

    It would be very interesting if you found one or more Muslim-reader-reactions! My impressions of the history of Islam in Persia/Iran leave me bewildered. (I think of the chart in the Wikipedia article on Isma’ilism, for example.) I have no clear ideas of any likely sources for Williams’s treatment, here (or for his characterization of Palomides as Persian in the Arthurian retelling in verse).

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your post is such a good discussion in its own right, and I’d so like to read various responses from readers, as I did with War in Heaven, that I am a bit shy of trying to say any more, in case I unintentionally scare anyone off! So, dear fellow readers, skip or ignore me further if it suits you, but do respond to the post – and the novel!

    If I try to say more, it may be a bit jumbly, too. One thing that has struck me about War in Heaven and Many Dimensions taken together is not only the reappearance of Sir Giles, but a prophecy about him in the first which seem fulfilled in the second (which I won’t spoil for new readers). And, in this context, Prester John saying in the first (ch. 17), “This war is ended and another follows quickly.” Is that new “war” found in Many Dimensions? And does it have something to do with the Graal in some sense?

    The Graal Mass in the last chapter of War in Heaven has a lot to do with the Creation and making all things new. And, as noted in the post, the Stone “is made of the First Matter from which the universe was created”.

    C.S. Lewis, in discussing possible ” ‘sources’ for medieval story” about the Grail in a letter of 17 December 1955 to Fr. Peter Milward notes among “facts I’d try to hold onto”, “The resemblance of the Grail to Manna (see, I think, Wisdom […])”. I’m sure he was right in this reference to The Wisdom of Solomon 16:20-29.

    Verse 25 says (in the King James version), “Therefore even then was it altered into all fashions, and was obedient to thy grace, that nourisheth all things, according to the desire of them that had need” and in the Douay-Rheims, “Therefore even then it was transformed into all things, and was obedient to thy grace that nourisheth all, according to the will of them that desired it of thee.”

    Something like this could be said, not only of the Grail feeding all according to their distinct choices (as in Williams’s later poem, “The Coming of Galahad”), but of the Stone. It gives “according to the desire” movement in space and time and healing, since, as First Matter, it is that which “was transformed into all things”.

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  3. Alice Degan says:

    Not scared off, but late to the party. 😉 I love the analogy with the TARDIS, and agree that the relationship between Chloe and Lord Arglay is very well handled. One thing I find interesting (and I’ve been meaning to write about this myself for ages) is the importance in a number of Williams’s novels of a sceptical central character who comes to believe in the truth of whatever weird thing is going on. On the surface, this is similar to what happens in a lot of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy and “portal” fantasy where a character from the real world is thrust into fantastical circumstances. But Williams is using this device to point toward Truth, not just a fictional truth about fairies or vampires or time-travel. So it’s interesting that we don’t see these characters experiencing a religious conversion in any conventional sense. I think that’s what you pinpoint when you describe Chloe choosing “to believe in God and to know Him in some sense or other through the Stone.”

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Very interesting!

      I really need to do some rereading to test my impression, but how far might this “sceptical central character” be true, with distinctions, of both Chloe and Arglay? And how do their interactions contribute to the distinctive growth of each?

      And, comparing further, how different are the responses of the various Persian Muslim characters – especially those most involved in the hereditary guardianship of the Stone? Again, rereading called for, on my part! But my memory is that there are not merely prudential differences about how to ‘tackle the problem’, but differences in degrees of experience and wisdom, within a truly shared common faith.

      Is there also an interesting parallel (with contrasts) between the younger and older Chloe and Arglay and Prince Ali and Hajji Ibrahim?

      (Perhaps the changes in Palomides from Heroes & Kings and related ‘Advent of Galahad’ poetry to the later poetry, invite attention, too, with Many Dimensions appearing somewhere in the middle! There is no Persian Muslim character in the novel like the earlier Palomides (apparently convincedly converted in Heroes & Kings!), or like the Palomides much more complex in his experiences generally and in his relation to baptism in particular in the later poetry. And where might the lively, young, seemingly initially Muslim Joseph of Seed of Adam (1936) come into all this?)

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This may be ‘somewhere out in left field’ (or worse), but we have finally caught up with the delightful 1979 BBC adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s Enchanted Castle, and its got me wondering if the statues there and the “the ring” which “is the heart of the magic” (ch. 10) and the moonbeam touching “the very heart and centre of that central stone” and “It is the centre of the universe and it is the universe itself” (ch. 12), may have made some sort of contribution to Many Dimensions.

    The Enchanted Castle was first published in The Strand Magazine between December 1906 and November 1907 (vols. 32-34), so Williams could have read it while it came out, when he was twenty to twenty-one years old – or in book form from 1907 on. (We know he read the book immediately preceding it, The Story of the Amulet, sometime between its appearance in The Strand or hardcovers and his mentioning it in the Commonplace Book.)

    I further suspect possible Tolkien and Lewis debts to it – but that’s another story or two. Delightfully, it is available at the Internet Archive in scans of both magazine and first edition book issues.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The things I did not know about Pahlevi Persia (but C.W. may well have)!
    http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2015/05/a_persian_artist_at_91.html
    “Mirrors” rings one spoilerish bell which I will not descant on…

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  6. Christopher Bauer says:

    Charles Williams continued, in Many Dimensions, a British line of thinking that seemed impossible at the time to alter. John Buchan, in Greenmantle (1916) wrote of a threat to set the entire Muslim world against Britain, as did Charles Williams years later. In between, the Foreign Office sponsored the Hashimite family in the Arab Revolt in the hope that they would become sorts of British controlled Popes of Islam. The truth was, and is, that Islam has less central control than does Christianity. In Many Dimensions, Williams also considered neither the differences between Shia and Sunni nor even that between Persian and Arab: differences that are played out regularly on our evening news broadcasts.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve just become at least a bit aware of the place of Ahvaz or Naseri and ‘Arabistan’ or Khuzestan and its importance in c. 1925 in Reza Shah’s attempt to centralize the state. Do we know just where in Persia/Iran the Stone had been secluded? (Careful rereading called for, on my part!) Are its guardians ‘Arab’ (from ‘Arabistan’) or ‘Persian’? Can we tell? That is, are there clues to Williams attending to “differences between Shia and Sunni nor even that between Persian and Arab” after all that we need to spot? All sorts of things were presumably in the news while Williams was working on his first three novels, starting in summer 1925 – what traces may some of then have left, here, if we can discern them?

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just encountered this en route to looking for something by Israel Gollancz.

    Professor Dr. Hermann Gollancz was Israel Gollancz’s older brother. His Sefer Maftea Shelomoh = Sepher Maphteah Shelomo (Book of the Key of Solomon) : An Exact Facsimile of an Original Book of Magic in Hebrew with illustrations was published in 1914 by Humphrey Milford at the OUP!:

    https://archive.org/details/sefermafteashelo00golluoft

    Though the back of title-page notes “Only 300 copies of this work issued”, Williams could presumably have seen in while in the course of production (and/or later in the British Museum, or, later still, in the Bodleian – I further presume).

    It was preceded by his Clavicula Salomonis : a Hebrew Manuscript Newly Discovered and Now Described, published by Nutt in 1903 (as can be seen, a much drier work):

    https://archive.org/details/b2487694x

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just became aware of the Iraqi scholar, Majid Khadduri (1909-2007: at least, I do not recall being properly aware of him previously), in encountering a quotation from the 1955 revised and updated edition of his War and Peace in the Law of Islam (first published in 1941 by Luzac and Co., London). Having a look in the Internet Archive to see if they had any of his works, I found Independent Iraq: A Study of Iraqi Politics since 1932 (OUP, 1951). Browsing a bit, I get the impression that it probably gives an illuminating picture of part of the background against which Many Dimensions was written – for example, in its attention to “the Organic Law of Iraq” , the framing of which was a concern of Article 3 of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 10 October 1922, and in its attention to Iraqi-Persian relations.

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just became aware of Men of Order: Authoritarian Modernization Under Atatürk and Reza Shah (London: Tauris, 2004; paperback reprint, 2017) edited by Touraj Atabaki (Department of Oriental Languages and Culture, University of Utrecht) & Erik J. Zürcher (Professor of Turkish Studies, at University of Leiden) – apparently (according to a learned review at Amazon) “a number of essays born out of a 1999 conference […] well organized into a coherent whole.” And Atabaki has also subsequently edited another collection, The State and the Subaltern: Modernization, Society and the State in Turkey and Iran (Library of Modern Middle East Studies) (Tauris, 2007).

    Interestingly, Many Dimensions seems to fall exactly in the time between the beginning of the Shah’s authoritarian modernizations and his imposition of Western dress.

    Perhaps the context, in the news for C.W., but unknown to so many of us, now, suggests closer connections between elements of Many Dimensions and Shadows of Ecstasy (as its predecessor Adepts of Africa became when, after revision, it was published its a successor – so to put it).

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  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Reading the R.W. Thomson translation of The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos with Historical commentary by James Howard-Johnston (Liverpool UP, 1999), I’ve just become aware of various Persian place-names associated with Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba, and wonder if any knowledge of such things, and associated legends, may have fed into Williams’s imagining the Stone in the care of Persian Muslims.

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