Friday, May 23, 2008

Book #7: War in Heaven

Charles Williams published his “theological thriller” War in Heaven, his first novel, in 1930, but Eerdmans mercifully reprinted it in 1991. I borrowed the term “theological thriller” from some commentator, I can’t remember who, but it sums up Williams’ novels very well (those that I’ve read, at least). The novel is shrouded in mystery from its very arresting beginning to its mesmeric ending, complicated and somewhat obscure, but it is an action/detective story and packed with adventure throughout. It begins with a murder victim and rushes into a struggle of good against evil and a race against time, but it is swathed in both the myth of the Holy Grail (“Graal” as Williams spells it) and of Prester John. Prester who? Exactly. This is part of Williams’ mythopoeic genius, in my opinion – a detective story of epic proportions.

In War in Heaven, a holy alliance comprised of an Anglican archdeacon and two unlikely allies struggle against a cabal of occultists for possession of the Graal. The bad guys seek to use the Graal for various wicked ends, and the good guys attempt to preserve its sanctity. Williams does a good job of demonstrating the parasitical nature of evil – the paths to God made crooked – and the utter banality of nihilism at the bottom of it all. For instance, the archdeacon’s nemesis and chief antagonist, Gregory Persimmons, owner of an obscure publishing firm in London (Williams himself was a publishing agent in London), conspires to use the Graal as a vessel of spiritual power to destroy the lives of several people and enter the Black Sabbath (apologies to Ozzy Osbourne) hosted by Satan himself. Persimmons craves power, but he also wants to be part of something greater than himself and to enjoy the satisfaction of sacrifice that leads one to the steps of this forbidden fruit. As Prester John explains, Persimmons ultimately and unknowingly desires “the God of all sacrifice and sacrifice itself.” The very same crooked paths that hitherto led away from God, once straightened, lead directly to him.

Persimmons’ sinister cohorts, on the other hand – two mysterious figures from the East – seek nothing less than the destruction of all things, even desire and power themselves. They embody the pure essence of sin and evil, which result in a lifelessness of utter abhorrence. Surely none but the most mindless haters of God and celebrators of evil would find this limpid nihilism attractive.

Speaking of mysterious figures from the East, Prester John is really, delightfully, eerily strange. Not too dissimilar from Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

Williams skillfully portrays the inner experiences of spiritual lives. He was an erudite literary savant who wore his romanticism and mysticism on both his sleeves. It’s no accident that the reader finds the archdeacon reading Julian of Norwich at one point. (I rode my bike to Norwich once, by the way. Great castle and cathedral.) The only other work I’ve read by Williams is Descent into Hell. In both this and in War in Heaven, Williams adeptly illustrates the reality and meaning of the interior lives of his characters. Ironically, it’s this very facet of his work that I think makes his novels prime candidates for translation to the big screen. Trust me on this one, but don’t hold your breath.

1 comment:

CMWoodall said...

I'm reading the book at the moment and I agree that this could make a great film. I'm no scriptwriter, but the whole way through chp.9 I've been casting my favorite actors in this story. Williams is pretty heady--I would have laid him aside only a few years ago.