Over here on TOI, it’s all guest posts, all the time — at least until I get through the end of this semester of grad school. It’s a tough life, folks. But I’m enjoying the work I get to do on medieval writers, modernist playwrights, ritual, magic, metatheatre…. It’s all fun. But back to Charles Williams for a moment. Here I’m happy to offer you a fun, light-hearted, insightful guest post by John Stanifer. Enjoy!
“Rather a Pleasant Notion”: Humor in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven
by John Stanifer
Until last week, I only knew the work of Charles Williams secondhand. I had a sense that he was indeed “the oddest Inkling,” an intriguing (and occasionally disturbing) figure in the biographies I’d read of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings as a group.
I knew he had worked at Oxford University Press for much of his life. I knew he had passed just months before the end of World War II. I knew Lewis had considered him a great friend, even a spiritual mentor.
I also had read bits and pieces about his interest in the occult, and thanks to Sørina Higgins’s presentation at the 2016 Ewbank Colloquium, I knew he had some bizarre (to put it politely) ideas involving women’s bodies and spiritual enlightenment.
To put it bluntly, my impression of Williams as a writer was that he was weird, and at least to an average twenty-first century reader (i.e. a non-specialist), difficult, even inaccessible.
But after reading The Inklings & King Arthur, I finally felt the urge to experience C.W. firsthand. Maybe, just maybe, what I’d learned about his work in those essays would be enough to push me through at least one book by this “difficult” writer.
So I started with War in Heaven, and there were two things about it that shocked me right away:
– C.W. is surprisingly readable
– War in Heaven is hilarious*
(*At the beginning, anyway—more on that in a minute)
“Hilarious” probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind when most people think of Charles Williams, but I was laughing within the first two pages.
Take this early sentence, for instance:
“That dead bodies did not usually lie round in one of the rooms of a publisher’s offices in London about half-past two in the afternoon was a certainty that formed now an enormous and cynical background to the fantastic possibility” (8).
I mean, everyone knows that dead bodies only show up at half-past six, right? And then there’s that qualifier “usually,” as if this has happened just often enough in the past to justify that bit of uncertainty.
And then there’s C.W. setting all of this in a publisher’s offices. Maybe it’s just me, but knowing that C.W. spent so many hours of his working life in just such a setting made it funnier.
I guess I have a dark sense of humor.
A few paragraphs after the body is first discovered, the reader is witness to an argument between multiple characters over whether the body is actually dead.
At first, our protagonist Lionel thinks it’s merely a workman who has entered his office without prior notice to fiddle with the telephone. Lionel is offended that the man refuses to answer him after several attempts to get his attention.
Once the reality of the death finally starts to dawn on everyone, Lionel’s colleague, Mornington, quips:
“How fortunate . . . if he were alive and had got under your table and wouldn’t take any notice I should be afraid you’d annoyed him somehow. I think that’s rather a pleasant notion . . . a sort of modern King’s Threshold—get under the table of the man who’s insulted you and simply sulk there” (8-9, emphasis mine).
I might try this the next time I’m annoyed by a coworker or a student (or not).
It’s worth noting that all of this banter is going on while the characters are still in close proximity to the body of a person who has just been murdered by strangling. Do we chalk this conversation up to callousness in the presence of death, or is it an attempt to diffuse the feelings of horror and despair that might otherwise overwhelm them if they didn’t try to lighten the mood somehow? I don’t know, but this whole scene struck me as more than a little humorous.
Yes, the plot gets much more serious later on, but I’d argue that only demonstrates Williams’s admirable ability to switch in and out of different tones without losing the power of the story.
We still see flashes of his gift for humor every so often, like this gem of an exchange in Chapter 5:
“If he left at half-past two, that’s all I want to know,” the inspector said. “Did you happen to mention to anyone that he was coming?”
“Yes,” said Sir Giles, “I told the Prime Minister, the Professor of Comparative Etymology at King’s College, and the cook downstairs” (58).
How very specific.
I know I shouldn’t let it surprise me that much. After all, this isn’t the first time in my life as a reader that I’ve built up assumptions about a particular author or body of literary work, and the assumptions were finally exploded (or at least put into perspective) by firsthand experience.
Just ask me about my firsthand experience of Harry Potter, two years after the final book came out. How differently I see that series now from when I first heard of how “dangerous” it was to unwary youngsters.
Do I still think Charles Williams is a weird writer? There were certainly passages I read in War in Heaven that seemed to confirm at least some of my impressions (I could have done without the image of Persimmons lying naked on his bed all night after rubbing the magic ointment on pretty much every crevice of his body).
And yet, it’s amazing how much one’s attitude can change after that first direct exposure to an author’s work.
So count me the newest fan of C.W.’s work . . .
. . . even if I still find myself with raised eyebrows at some of the juicier details one finds in his biography.
Who knew the presence of a dead body in a publisher’s offices could be so entertaining?
Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Eerdmans, 1974.
John Stanifer has an M.A. in English from Morehead State University. He is a tutor and library assistant at Ivy Tech Community College and is also the author of Virtuous Worlds: The Video Gamer’s Guide to Spiritual Truth (Norwalk: Winged Lion Press, 2011).