This is the fifth post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out the others here. This series serves a double purpose: (1) We have reached 1937 in the chronological blog-through of CW’s books [although I’m missing a few] and (2) I am taking November off from social media and blogging into order to focus on NaNoWriMo, The Inklings and King Arthur, and other endeavors.
Today’s post is by DJ Dycus.
DJ Dycus is an instructor of freshman composition and literature and humanities courses at Point University in West Point, Georgia. He teaches a seminar course on the Inklings that examines J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers. Other favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Annie Dillard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Cormac McCarthy. DJ lives in West Point with his wife, three daughters, two dogs, and one cat.
The World Beyond
Descent into Hell is one of my all–time favorite stories. This novel is intriguing, mysterious, puzzling, and even scary.
My great love for this work is probably due to its numinous qualities, because I happen to believe that we live in a world where there’s more going on than meets the eye. I mean, that’s the message we receive through fields as diverse as quantum mechanics and depth psychology, right? Appearance versus reality. Charles Williams, of course, firmly believed in a world of angelic and demonic activity that lurks behind the veil of this physical construct that we call reality. Battle Hill, the setting for the novel, is described as a “haunt of alien life” (21), as a neighborhood where the “dead troubled the living” (67).
So what do things look like in this mystical reality that Williams presents to his readers?
We are introduced to a man who has committed suicide, but is not without hope. Even in the afterlife he is able to change his course, to effect change in his final outcome. His path follows an upward trajectory over the course of the novel.
In Lawrence Wentworth we come to realize that while he appears to be a man of standing and accomplishment from the outside, like a house with a fresh coat of exterior paint, on the inside the structure is beginning to collapse in upon itself. No one on Battle Hill is aware of this, least of all Wentworth himself. The fixation on his fantasy life pulls him further and further from authentic human interaction, which is killing him spiritually.
In contrast, we meet Peter Stanhope, who looks, to the world, like a milquetoast, but is actually a spiritual colossus. He is creative and gifted, but also quiet and perfectly content to let Mrs. Parry bully everyone in the production of his play. Stanhope is sensitive, compassionate, empathetic, and generous in reaching out to serve others. Unlike Wentworth, he is committed to nurturing community.
Through the spiritual lens that Williams provides, we see how Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:2––our responsibility to bear one another’s burdens––is not just a figure of speech, but that we are literally able to serve one another in this capacity. Stanhope offers to serve Pauline, the young heroine of the story, in just this manner, taking her fear and anxiety upon himself.
In Lily Sammile we meet a witch, or a succubus maybe, who appears to be a kindly old lady who offers folk remedies and to fulfill all of one’s desires. The reality, however, is that she is consuming people’s souls. It is because of Lily that Wentworth’s humanity is diminishing. Williams demonstrates that within the nonphysical realm, there are dangerous, predatory elements.
Finally, we see that, in the light of eternity, time has no meaning. Early in the novel we read, “if the past still lives in its own present beside our present, then the momentary later inhabitants [of Battle Hill] were surrounded by a greater universe” (26). Margaret Anstruther, a kind, matronly figure in the story who is nearing the end of her life, looks out the window of her home to discover Wentworth and the Suicide leaning from the same window across the way, although neither is aware of the other’s existence, “the dead man had been contemporaneous with the living” (76).
In another example, toward the end of the novel, Pauline has an encounter with her ancestor who had been martyred 400 years in the past––even meriting a spot in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs––on the way to his execution. Earlier in the novel she had become intrigued by this aspect of her family’s history, and Stanhope suggests that she carry John Struther’s burden, which is met with incredulity, “Do you tell me to try to carry his fear?” (149). Stanhope offers the possibility that “you might, in the Omnipotence, offer him your––anything you’ve got” (149). It is through this transaction, this exchange, that Struther is able to approach his executioners with a spirit of praise and joy, because Pauline has been carrying his burden all along, even before she herself was aware. Her suffering, even 400 years later, is his liberation.
The message of this novel is an important one for audiences today. Everyone wants for there to be more to life than just…this––the mundane existence with which we are encumbered. There has to be more than paying the bills, going to work, cleaning the flat, doing the chores, shopping for groceries. The widespread nature of this longing, which C. S. Lewis preferred to call by the term Sehnsucht, is evident in the way that we seek to escape our humdrum lives through movies, novels, social media, television, video games––or else we immerse ourselves in work or projects or worthy causes. These lists go on and on.
Charles Williams assures us that the significance of our lives is greater than what we might imagine it to be. Furthermore, he pulls back the veil to show us what that might look like, how it might play out. Pauline, like Stanhope, is selfless––she puts others’ needs before her own. And this is the antithesis of Wentworth’s actions. While he makes his final descent into the wretched state he has chosen for himself all along, Pauline is set free, through the ministrations of her tight–knit community, to live a life of contentment and joy. This is what Williams would have all of us understand and believe for ourselves.