Descent into Hell: a Masterpiece of Emotion

Here’s a post about “Descent into Hell” by a Barbara Elin, blogging as The LawLass. Check it out!

The Law Lass

If you can get past the somewhat macabre title, you’ll find an uncommonly beautiful story about the power of fear, forgiveness and free will from the mind of Tolkien/ Lewis’s fellow (yet lesser-known) Inkling, Charles Williams. Confession time: I’d never heard of this author until recently, and I only discovered his work through searching ‘Doppelgänger books’ on Google.

But Descent into Hell is so much more than this.

The story centres on the staging of a play by famous dramatist Peter Stanhope at his home town of Battle Hill, just outside of London (though the place itself exists in a mystical, quasi-timeless state of existence). There’s much excitement at the prospect of a local boy turned celebrity returning home, and everyone gets involved in the theatrics of it all. We follow four main characters: Stanhope, Pauline (a woman who is haunted by her Doppelgänger), Wentworth (a lecherous local historian), and…

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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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5 Responses to Descent into Hell: a Masterpiece of Emotion

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention: very good indeed (leaving lots to think about)!

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This, coming on the heels of the previous one, makes me wish Sarah Thomson would consider publishing an annotated Descent into Hell edition – but someone whose next two editions are dragging on so, should probably not presume to imagine hard work for someone else!

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  3. Extollager says:

    I agree with David about the emerging need for annotated editions. The need is partly due to ordinary effects of the passage of time, so that help may be needed with pre-World War II references, and to British usages likely to be unfamiliar to American readers (particularly when the editions in view are likely to be used primarily by Americans). It seems to me, also, that many literary allusions and references that Williams once could assume educated readers would “get” (to Milton, Shelley, etc.) will now escape even those who majored in English.

    I would suggest two pieces of editorial apparatus for reprints of Williams’s novels.

    1.Footnotes or endnotes of the familiar sort that provide brief helps, e.g. telling readers which poem by which poet is being quoted, etc. Surely these are needed.

    2.A bibliography of recommended reading for the more ambitious reader, so that her or his mind may be furnished with firsthand acquaintance to works that were part of CW’s thought-world. For example, a reader proposing to enjoy The Place of the Lion might want to read the Celestial Hierarchies of the pseudo-Dionysius first. A reader looking to read All Hallows’ Eve might read certain passages in the New Testament first, and also to read Dante’s La Vita Nuova before perusing Williams’s last novel.

    It would be important to emphasize that it isn’t -necessary- tackle a load of works by other authors first. One can enjoy much in the novels if one possesses high school-level reading skills and background (take it from me). But some readers might like this enriched approach. As even more so with C. S. Lewis, reading Williams can be the occasional of a liberal education!

    Dale Nelson

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interesting idea of layers or circles of annotation and enrichment, context, depth, intertextuality, available as desired!

      “The need is partly due to ordinary effects of the passage of time, so that help may be needed with pre-World War II references” was true to my experience the other day: reading a reference in an 1935 essay by Johan Huizinga to the contemporary appeal of ‘pirates and Apaches’, I thought the combination a bit unusual, but assumed he meant Apaches – until the next day I happened to run into a reference in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys (1925) where it was clear that it could mean “a Parisian underworld subculture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” (as the Wikipedia “Apache (disambiguation)” page puts it)!

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I wonder how far afield one might go with respect to context? I’m just getting acquainted with Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), the first four stories of which were originally published in magazines before Williams wrote War in Heaven, and I was struck by some resemblances between Harley Quin and Prester John. A contribution to Williams’s conception is thus possible, and, in any case, comparing them as mysterious ‘catalytic’ figures in detective stories of the same period is interesting… (My wife suggests the further comparison of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Montague Egg… are there other apt comparisons which a better-read person than I would know?)

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