“Rather a Pleasant Notion”: Humor in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven

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 

WiHUntil 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.csl cw

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:

funny– 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.

oupAnd 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).

lionIt’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?john s

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).

 

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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9 Responses to “Rather a Pleasant Notion”: Humor in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Hurray! War in Heaven was the first Williams novel I read, too, and the one I most enjoy rereading – not least for all the humor – and also, I see more clearly, now that you have said it so well, for “Williams’s admirable ability to switch in and out of different tones without losing the power of the story.”

    I’ve been re-enjoying a lot of Dorothy Sayers’ Wimsey and getting better acquainted with a variety of Agatha Christie’s (earlier) stories, lately, including all the humor I remembered in the former and finding a lot more than I had realized in the latter. I wonder if the distinct humor – and admirable switching – of War in Heaven may be in part due to Williams playing with the detective story there, including such characteristics of good contemporary works.

    Like

    • John Stanifer says:

      Thank you!

      I also couldn’t help noting the explicit references to P.G. Wodehouse at a couple of points in War in Heaven. My sister is a Wodehouse fan, but I confess I haven’t read any of his works yet. If I had, I’d probably have been able to tie that in somehow with C.W.’s sense of humor.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve only been catching up with Wodehouse fairly recently – after hearing such good things from about him for years from people whose recommendations I trust (better late than never!). And, in good part thanks to LibriVox.org for works that are out of copyright in the U.S.

        I haven’t yet gotten to know all the Jeeves and Wooster ones that Williams – and his characters in War in Heaven – could have read before (1) it was first drafted in 1925-26 and (2) finally published in 1930, but a fun one LibriVox has of those is the first book with a Jeeves title (and four of the eight stories featuring him), My Man Jeeves (1919), well read by Mark Nelson (if an American reader does not seem too shocking…).

        Like

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your well-chosen example from the conversation “in close proximity to the body” makes me think I never did my homework on The King’s Threshold, which both characters know well, quite unlike me (unless I’m getting more forgetful than I realize – always a possibility). Some quick checking online turned up lots of interesting stuff – the description at the CornellUP site of Declan Kiely’s edition (available for $166.95), the abstract for Richard Allen Cave’s article in the Yeats Annual No. 13 (1998), online scans and a Project Gutenberg transcription – which got me wondering, did Williams say anything about it in his Yeats chapter of Poetry at Present (1930)? – and yes – in the context of humor and Yeats’s style!:

    https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.46602/2015.46602.Poetry-At-Present#page/n73/mode/2up/search/Threshold

    Like

    • John Stanifer says:

      Nice find, and thanks for sharing it! I don’t doubt that more digging would yield even more insights into not just that scene but C.W.’s sense of humor in general. Even from what little I know of him, I’m most definitely getting the sense that C.W. is the sort of writer it would be very hard to get to the bottom of . . .

      Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Good to learn of your book, as well: wow! As Lewis was frustrated in his attempts to learn to drive, so I do not think I have the manual dexterity for gaming, but am happy to be learning more about it. I’ve just started to learn more about what one Wikipedia article aptly calls the “God of War (franchise)”, with comics and novels spun off as well as the games – and it sounds interesting to compare and contrast with what Stephen Hayes says about Lovecraft’s mythology in his recent guest post (especially in the linked extended version), some of which (I say – too? – vaguely, to avoid spoilers) I had been thinking was interesting to compare to the whole of the story of Pattison in War in Heaven.

    Indeed, from what I hear about Kratos in the God of War series (which reminds me in some ways of Pär Lagerkvist’s Bödeln [‘The Hangman’ or ‘Executioner’], which I enjoyed in English translations of the original story (1933) and his 1934 dramatization of it), it would be interesting to compare and contrast him with all sorts of characters from War in Heaven – the ‘baddies’, Pattison, the Archdeacon, and Prester John – and maybe in other ways both Lionel and Mornington!

    Like

    • John Stanifer says:

      Funny you should mention Lovecraft. I’ve been meaning to comment on that other article, as it’s eerily in line with the subject I’ll be presenting at the Ewbank Colloquium this year (Upland, IN).

      This year, I decided to present an essay comparing and contrasting the life and work of Lewis and Lovecraft. It was actually prompted by a thought I had while re-reading The Magician’s Nephew (namely, that Charn bore a few intriguing similarities with Cthulhu’s dead city of R’lyeh).

      I haven’t played God of War but have enjoyed what I’ve heard of its soundtrack. I guess there was a rumor recently that Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Justice League) was playing Kratos in a Netflix series? Seems that was false, but it would have made for an interesting series I’m sure.

      I also got a ticket for a Lovecraft themed “escape room” at Gen Con this August. It’ll be my first time trying an escape room, but the promise of a detailed recreation of a 1930s setting sold me.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Good wishes for the presentation of your essay – in only a couple weeks, now! Let us know (here, or, say, at a Pilgrim in Narnia – or both!) if you’re going to publish it after that, too. (It would be good to get to read it!) The Inklings and Lovecraft – possible acquaintance, and comparison in any case – is a fascinating matter! But, while Lovecraft’s ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ has put me onto various interesting writers and works, I’m glad I encountered Williams before I read this (in case I might have ‘taken it seriously’):

        http://sacnoths.blogspot.nl/2016/04/lovecraft-on-inkling.html

        Maybe Lovecraft is one of those people whose ‘likes’ we should try and ‘dislikes’ ignore…

        And, good luck with the escape room, too! I’ve watched vloggers’ attempts on YouTube, but never tried one, myself, yet, either – I love Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Albert Campion, and many others, but don’t think I’d be likely to solve my way out (but the Lovecraft them and atmosphere sounds very attractive)…

        Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just learned of the new Lovecraftian game, Fhtagn! – from the YouTube loading of the latest Co-Optional Podcast, where they were hoping for the return of the host, John Bain, for the next episode, admirable teacher and sufferer (despite the “strong language”, etc.) – Under the Mercy!

    Like

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