C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the former of whom is quite possibly my favorite author, were part of a Christian writing group at Oxford entitled the Inklings. I am not familiar with all of their work, but I first read Lord of the Rings and Narnia in elementary school, I fell in love with C.S. Lewis’s adult fiction and nonfiction in high school, and in college I discovered Charles Williams–the “oddest inkling,” as described in the title of this great blog about him that I found perhaps a week ago. Here, I’d like to make a few introductory observations about two of Williams’ novels.
First, though: Williams was remarkable, troubled, and troubling (in both the best and the worst ways). Not only do I admire and love his writing, but I believe his charisma has worked on me, across the decades and through the barrier of text, to the point that I am a bit in love with him myself (following the example, apparently, of most people who knew him in his own time).
So I recently took it upon myself to reread my (and, if I remember correctly, C.S. Lewis’s) favorite two of his seven “metaphysical thrillers”–All Hallows’ Eve and Descent Into Hell. Also, these books are enough more than their hokey-sounding plots that I don’t think you should worry too much about this, but…**SPOILER ALERT***.
The former (Williams’ last novel) tells the story of two dead women, one saved and one damned, in London, and how they thwart an evil magician’s bid for world domination with the help of the magician’s daughter, the saved woman’s husband, and the daughter’s would-be fiance. The other (his second-to-last) describes the production of a great poet’s play, a military historian’s literal though not physical descent into hell, and a young woman’s coming to terms with her doppelganger–among other things.
The first thing that strikes me about both of these books, but especially the beginning of All Hallows’ Eve, is how real their strangeness feels. I don’t mean the characters, or Williams’ psychological insight, though it’s often piercing. I mean the way that London feels when you wake up dead in it, the rules by which the spiritual world Williams portrays operates. I do not share Williams’ beliefs, but I do think we must have some common sliver of our minds.
This reality is a difficult feeling to understand or describe. I feel reasonably confident that I’m not going to go outside some morning and discover, like Lester, the saved woman in All Hallows’ Eve, does, that (at first) the only parts of the world that remain to me are those I cared about in ordinary life. Yet it feels, somehow, like the kind of thing that could happen, and the spiritual world Williams describes feels obscure, deep, complex, and right. (When I read Kafka’s Trial, I had much the same reaction, and I think Diana Wynne Jones at her best offers it as well. I honestly don’t know what it is.)
Another aspect of the books that is at once thrilling and disturbing is the vast consequences that attach to the most mundane parts of life. In these books, great horrors and greater blessings await you depending whether you take advantage of your friends emotionally (Lester is “sincerely used to” the damned woman, Evelyn, and must try again and again to save her because in life she “made use of her”), whether (like Lester) you throw up your hand to send a lover away, whether you try to feel happy for a rival, whether you have a disinterested interest in any art you might pursue (Wentworth, the damned man in Descent into Hell fails to do either of these things, and it seals his doom). I believe that in real life this kind of attention to the minutiae of your own psychological reactions can, almost literally, drive you insane. But it also attaches a depth, a meaning, a narrative, to life beyond life’s apparent triviality and dullness. It can make a conversation at the grocery store seem as momentous as the winning of a war.
There may be more writing on this these books, as I keep going over a reasonable length when I try to talk about other aspects of them. So I will leave you with this: it is, in fact, the case that in All Hallows’ Eve, the spirits are at first surrounded by only that which in l they in some way cared about. Lester finds herself with her dead kind-of friend, surrounded by the physical objects people make themselves interested in, and occasionally able to see living people who were of importance to her in her previous life. Not only this, but:
She [Lester] was becoming strange to herself; her words, even her intonations, were foreign. In a foreign land she was speaking a foreign tongue; she spoke and did not know what she said. Her mouth was uttering its own habits, but the meaning of those habits was not her own. She did not recognize what she used. “I haven’t done anything….Oh my God!” This was how they talked and it was a great precise prehistoric language forming itself out of the noises their mouths made. She articulated the speech of Adam or Seth or Noah and only dimly recognized the intelligibility of it. She exclaimed again despairingly, “Richard!” and that word she did know. It was the only word common to her and the City in which she stood. As she spoke, she almost saw his face, himself saying something, and she thought she would have understood that meaning, for his face was part of the meaning as it always had been, and she had lived with that meaning–loved, desired, denounced it.
If you were to die and awaken in the world Williams depicts here, what would still remain vivid to you? What word or words would be “common to” you and the City?
I am not at all sure I would have buildings or objects–I might have vague skies, or particular plants, or nonhuman animals, judging by my tendency to happily announce every pigeon or crow I see on the street to whomever I’m walking with. I would probably have some vast, messy mass of myself to get through–wish me luck. I would have some of my favorite books, in some form. My mother’s name and the names of some good friends might remain to me. (Though if the photos on my phone are any indication I would pretty much have the neighbor’s cats and a lot of art I made.)