King Solomon’s TARDIS: “Many Dimensions”

It’s old, it’s new, it’s borrowed, it’s blue! It’s the TARDIS!

many_dimensions No, wait: It’s new, it’s old, it’s stolen, it’s gold! It’s… the Stone in the Crown of Suleiman ben Daood, King in Jerusalem.

This tiny, square, cream-colored stone is flecked with gold, and contains within it black markings that shape the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. It enables its possessor to travel anywhere in time or space. It is bigger on the inside, because “All times are within it and all places.” If you chop it in half, the result is two identical Stones with precisely the same qualities, on and on forever, in infinite division and multiplication. Yet neither it nor any of the “Types” divided from it has any weight or mass or density when measured. It is made of the First Matter from which the universe was created, and thus contains all of the universe within itself.

As the Lord Chief Justice says:

1. It is of no known substance.
2. It answers to no re-agents.
3. It can be multiplied by division without diminution of the original.
4. It can move and cause movement from point to point, without leaving any consciousness of passage through intervening space.
5. It can cause disappearance—possibly in time.

Indeed, as experiments in the novel show, “it moves in time and space and thought. And in what else?” in “The Transcendence.” It seems to channel God’s original creative power, and thus “Anyone who has this Stone can heal himself of all illnesses, and can move at once through space and time, and can multiply it by dividing it as much as he wishes.”YHWH

What is this strange object? It is the sacred ritual object at the center of CW’s third novel, Many Dimensions.

This is an astonishing novel. You really need to rush out and read it right away. It is fast-paced and compelling, and not at all obscure except in some of the more introspective and mystical passages.

And it’s a time-travel story! Not only that, but it deals with time travel in a straight-forward, rational, sensible manner that I find extremely courageous. Here’s what I mean: in this book, CW lets the plot get out of hand in a way that’s very brave for a writer. He lets people do what they would do, dragging in other people, rushing away in all directions, getting lost and complicated in very realistic tangles both social and metaphysical (realistic, that is, given the basic premise of a magical healing Stone that enables travel in time and space!). Many other writers would be afraid to let everybody run around like crazy and bring other characters and complications in, but not CW. He believed that everyone was interconnected, and that everyone’s actions affected everyone else’s, and so in this book he shows that messy reality in all of its difficulties and confusion.

Meanwhile, at its center, the ritual object and the submitted Saint are quiet, peaceful, and unmoving in the midst of the madness.

The Saint in this story is Chloe Burnett, secretary (or general intellectual factotum”) to the Lord Chief Justice. As soon as she sees the Stone, she is possessed by a “vivid excitement,” and as the story progresses she chooses to believe in God and to know Him in some sense or other through the Stone. She submits her will more and more to God, or to the Stone, until she is the quiet means of saving the world.

Meanwhile the Persian Embassy, the British government, the heads of transport monopolies, an American millionaire, the Mayor of the little town of Rich, Sir Giles Tumulty (of villainous fame from War in Heaven), and any number of smaller people all strive for possession of the Stone or one of its types. Miraculous healings occur, and murder, and supernatural assassination, and it’s all very exciting and profound.

Yet the true power of this novel lies in something less exciting than the external mechanisms of plot. It lies in the embodiment of CW’s primary themes, in the way he brings natural and supernatural so close that they blend and become indistinguishable, and in the way he brings mystical devotion to life.

Triskel_type_Tonkedeg..svg I have written often in the past here about Co-Inherence, Romantic theology, The Two Ways, Ritual Objects, The Crisis of Schism, Mystical Tranquility, and The City. In Many Dimensions, CW brings those themes to life in integral, embodied ways. The Crisis of Schism is made shockingly physical when the Stone is cut in two. Here is an emotionally-charged passage in which the disgusting, subtle antagonist commits blasphemy against the Stone by dividing it, and Chloe tries to stop him:

“If the Government,” Sir Giles went on, “wish to conduct an inquiry into the nature of the Stone I shall be happy to assist them by supplying examples.” He covered the Stone on his knee with both hands and apparently in some intense effort shut his eyes for a minute or two. The inquiry looked perplexed and doubtful, and it was Chloe who suddenly broke the silence by jumping to her feet and running round the table. Sir Giles, hearing the movement, opened his eyes just as Palliser thrust his chair back in Chloe’s path, and leapt up in his turn, throwing as he did so about a dozen Stones, all exactly similar, on to the table. Everybody jumped up in confusion, as Chloe, still silent, caught Palliser’s chair with a vicious jerk that unbalanced and overthrew the Professor, and sprang towards Tumulty. Sir Giles, the Stone clasped in one hand and his open knife still in the other, met her with a snarl. “Go to hell,” he said, and slashed out with the knife as she caught at his wrist.

101202-DreidelAndStoneHere CW shows the horror of divisions in things that ought to remain a Unity, and shows it in a vivid, unforgettable way.

Similarly, the Two Ways are dramatized by those (on the one hand) who want to use the Stone for good things and those (on the other) who desire to find in it the End of Desire. The Mayor of Rich has seen its healing powers, and people are rioting in his village to be allowed to touch it and find health. His own son lies dying of cancer, and he knows that one touch of the stone would cure his beloved son. Chloe, however, come more and more to believe that using it in any way, even for good ends, is wrong. She follows this so far that she will not even use it to save her life when she is assaulted by a murderer, but chooses to lie still, submit her will to It, and let it save her—or not.

Finally, Many Dimensions shows an interesting version of CW’s distinctive Romantic Theology: a variation that is particularly fascinating in light of his own life. A powerful bond exists between the young lady, Chloe, and the elderly Lord Arglay, Chief Justice of England. Their relationship is something like that between a father and daughter, or between a mentor and a student, or between lovers who have sublimated their sexual desires into a spiritual union, or between a master and a slave. It has been noted (by Hadfield, mostly) that CW modeled many characters in the 1930s after Phyllis Jones, and Chloe is one of the clearest examples of his idealization of both her and of their strange love.

Yet I find that their interactions, their selfless and absolute commitment to one another, is so deftly handled in this novel that it is not uncomfortable. There is the clear admiration of a young woman for an old man who has achieved a high degree of wisdom and the highest possible success in an important vocation. He is protective of her, but knows that she is capable. There are moments of intellectual exchange and social understanding. There is a terrifying, but almost funny, scene in which the evil Giles uses the Stone to possess Chloe’s mind and make her lust after Lord Arglay’s wealth and attempt to seduce him. His calm reaction, and her lack of embarrassment after the episode is over, shows the depth of their mutual trust and understanding.

And there is one more element I need to mention before I close: the fascinating use of Islam in this story. There is a Hajji (one who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca), and he clearly possesses true spiritual knowledge. He is the one who communicates truth to Chloe and sees that she will be the means and conduit of goodness and restoration. I would love to have a Muslim friend or colleague read this novel (by an Anglican Christian) and comment on its depiction of Islam. It seems to me to be a very tolerant, open-minded depiction, especially given its early 20th-century British Imperialist context. Yet I do not know how accurate its descriptions of prayers and doctrines are, and would be happy to know. Thomas Howard has commented on this matter in his excellent book The Novels of Charles Williams, and he argues that CW delicately maneuvers the Muslim doctrines in order to undermine them and show that Islam could never be a vehicle for truth, and I would be interested to hear an insider’s perspective. Please do write to me if you are able to provide that viewpoint or connect me with someone who can.

And in any case, whoever you are, do leave a comment letting me know if you have read this book and what you thought of it! Many thanks.

 

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Worlds Subtle and Strong: Guest Post

SignumBadge_90x90The following guest post was written by a student of mine at Signum/Mythgard. I hope you have been enjoying these guest posts recently. Next week I plan to transition back to the book summaries. Meanwhile, let me know if YOU want to write something for this blog. Today’s post is about CW’s two close friends and writing partners, Lewis and Tolkien.

IMG_2913A copyJennifer Raimundo entered the world on a blustery day in Canada, where she learned to love strawberries, sunflowers, cozy winters, and hot cocoa. At an early age she and her family migrated to the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island that taught her the beauty of sea breezes and the glories of a sunrise. A few years later, she found herself living in the United States and establishing a joy in all things letters as a means to put the colourful pieces of her life together. To further this desire, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in History and Literature, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Language and Literature from Signum University. Jennifer lives in Virginia, where she continues to forge her love of literature and life into a sub-creation that would glorify her Maker. She is currently finishing an essay on laughter in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which will appear in a collection of essays to be published by Walking Tree Publishers in the summer of 2015.

Worlds Subtle and Strong
by Jennifer Raimundo

C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began with a picture and Tolkien’s The Hobbit began with a word. This is ironic, for when we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, what we gain is a collection of words and dialogue so deeply felt it can change lives, whereas upon closing the pages of The Hobbit what remains are a series of visuals and sensations so powerfully imagined that we will never be the same. Both authors express secondary worlds, but Lewis describes while Tolkien depicts. One works through pointed words and the other through weighty pictures. These alternative methods create a difference between the relationship of each secondary world to our primary one:Middle-Earth is a subtle Myth and Narnia is a blatant one. Both worlds captivate, both worlds change, but each do so in unique ways.

tumnus

Pauline Baynes’ Illustration of Lucy and Tumnus

For one, Lewis and Tolkien initiate readers into their respective sub-created worlds from completely opposite angles. Lewis begins his tale with both readers and characters safely in war-torn England of the 1940s. There are no distant lands, no mythical creatures, and certainly no strange magic. There are simply four Pevensie children, a housekeeper and three maids, and an eccentric professor. It is our world Lewis describes, going drearily about its own business. But once we are settled in to what sounds like will be a warm, kind story, Lewis whisks his protagonist Lucy through a familiar wardrobe into a fantastical wood and into the arms of a faun. What was so familiar, the War and the wardrobe, suddenly fades away to be conquered by a frosty forest, fauns, dwarves, and basically anything our imaginations ever held. We are allowed the process of feeling the jerk and the pull into Myth, and are welcomed into the wonder of seeing a whole new world for the first time, of viewing the fantastic through the familiar eyes of a believing child. But Lewis characteristically makes sure we his readers are not left wondering what happened to us. He leaves nothing to chance, instead introducing us and Lucy to Mr. Tumnus, a faun who lures Lucy to his cave and, importantly for our purposes here, tells her all about Narnia. Dialogue, along with sense-experience, drives home the fact that we and Lucy are working on a plane not our own. Of course everything feels new and marvellous. We are in another world! And it is a world which can in no way be conflated with ours, but in every way must be embraced as equally real, and equally fantastic. We have been transported to Myth itself.

tolkien-smaug-artwork-2

Tolkien’s Illustration of Smaug

Not so with the sub-creation of Tolkien’s classic. Here Myth has been brought to us. From the first page of The Hobbit, we are placed quite firmly yet ever so gently into a fantastic though not wholly foreign world. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’(Tolkien 11). ‘Hobbit’ strikes us with strangeness, but holes in the ground do not. Hobbits and The Shire are indeed new, but they dwell in our earth, and seem to belong here just as much as does the ground beneath their feet. How do we know this? Tolkien’s masterful depiction of the people, the landscape, the customs of Middle-Earth, makes us feel it. Here are no talkative fauns to tell us where we are. Instead, Tolkien shows us what fills hobbit pantries and what decorates hobbit gardens, only for us to find they are filled with flowers and colours and foods that we from the Primary world deeply enjoy. Tolkien turns the seemingly mundane elements of life into common ground between us and the fantastic. A few pages later a wizard appears at Bilbo’s door, a door which by now feels as though it belongs to us as much as it does to Bilbo. The wizard arrives in upsetting fashion. His long grey mantle and tall blue pointed hat feel all out of place in that sunny garden, both to Bilbo and to us. Now, it seems, the fantastic has truly struck. Nevertheless, Gandalf laughs merrily and smokes his pipe with as much relish as any kindly gentleman would, so that, despite his magical shroud, he still smacks of a grandfather. Tolkien’s pictures of the familiar draw us to unconsciously accept the fantastic, leaving us hard pressed to recount whether the meeting of the two worlds was shocking or if it happened at all. The Hobbit, from its beginning,shows us that the fantastic belongs in the familiar.

Gandalf-2

Two Archetypal Guides

And both authors employ guides which perfectly suit their story-telling methods and worlds. Tolkien uses a wizard to direct us and his protagonist through the fantasy of Middle-Earth. Notice again the vivid subtlety. We have been drawn to imagine Gandalf in full colour, yet he takes hold of Bilbo’s life by giving it a gentle nudge and dwelling in all shades of grey. Gandalf proceeds to propel Bilbo’s journey from the background, only at last appearing when he is absolutely needed. Moreover, on the rare occasions when Gandalf speaks he does so in what seems to be riddles, leaving us ultimately to wonder along with Bilbo just what his role in the grand story we completed was. Just as we know Gandalf’s storyline is real without quite knowing how it is real, so do we know deep inside of us that Middle-Earth is real, though we cannot quite articulate in what sense. Lewis, on the other hand, creates an altogether different guide. While Gandalf reassures us that fantasy dwells in the familiar because we see him living in the haze between the two, Professor Kirke asserts Narnia’s existence by explaining that it must logically be so. ‘I wonder what they do teach them at these schools,’is the exclamation punctuating his rhetorical argument for Narnia’s reality, as if all academic knowledge pointed to that fact of Narnia’s existence (Lewis 90). And just as the Professor is certain about Narnia because of simple logic, so must we take Narnia as a blatant, obvious fact. What do they teach in those schools, after all? Narnia simply is. Therefore, while they work from separate positions, both the wizard and the Professor serve as powerful bridges between the familiar and the fantastic.

Lewis’s words and Tolkien’s pictures both create effective secondary worlds, but their varying creative methods cause their worlds to work upon us differently. The mythic vision of Middle-Earth silently penetrates our earth, as a green and steady shoot overtakes bland concrete only to grow into a mighty oak. It is a visceral place, a world inside and behind and underneath us but stronger than our own, unnoticed but always there until quite naturally it overcomes everything else. There is no escape from its visually rich history and geography, a history and geography so deep our ancients grew out of it. What could be more subtle? But what could be more strong? mrsbeaversconcerns2And what but a wizard with a propensity to leave us in the dark could guide us through the deep but narrow gaps separating primary from secondary without our brains going mad at the wild familiarity of it all? Lewis, on the other hand, creates Narnia, a land so completely distinct from ours that it can be peopled with the characters dancing in our imaginations from school and play. It, like Tolkien’s world, has always existed, but it shall go on to exist regardless of what we do now that we know about it. And because Narnia is so blatantly other and parallel, the only reasonable response to its discovery is to simply accept it in all its vibrant and childlike glory. Of course Mrs. Beaver uses a sewing machine! She lives in Narnia, a world alive with the stock-characters of our imagination.And so, quite rightly, it takes a professor to explain its reality.

But whether it is the slow shock of wild things growing out of our dark mountains deep, or the magical overthrow of a blaring horn and bannered red lion charging at us and our world, in both Lewis and Tolkien’s sub-creations there is a mythic glory. And both the choking of this world’s concrete and the slaying of whatever it is they teach in our schools are each a real death. But it is a death making way for life. We have come out of both secondary worlds unscathed, but certainly not unchanged. We have been made new. And that is the point of Mythopoiea: bathing the truly familiar in the fantastic so that what is truly fantastic may become familiar. Bilbo returned home to his tobacco jar and the Pevensies stepped back through the wardrobe into childhood and plain clothes, but never again were they merely a hobbit under hill and siblings caught in an air-raid. Other lands and deeper magic, Myth, had sparked their souls. It can also spark ours.Mythopoeia

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The Posts Go Ever On: Guest Post on “War In Heaven”

Just when you thought we were done with War In Heaven, I have another guest post to offer you. This is by CW scholar David Llewellyn Dodds. Enjoy!

The Corpse and Its Contemporaries

War in Heaven, published in early summer, 1930,  has, to my way of thinking, gone from a story set in the contemporary world to a classic ‘period piece’ without any loss of vitality. It was drafted, as The Corpse, four years earlier, having been finished in time to be offered to, and rejected by, Faber, by the end of May, 1926. I do not know how much or little The Corpse differs from War in Heaven as we know it. But the Twenties seem to have been a rapidly and even wildly changing literary landscape as far as ‘mystery’ and ‘detective’ stories went. And some facts about literary context at the turn of 1925-26 strike me as interesting.

In her paper “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?” (2011), Sørina Higgins refers to “the inimitable, Chestertonian Archdeacon” – partly and very justly so, I take it, in comparison to (as well as contrast with) G.K. Chesterton’s clerical detective, Father Brown.  Now, when Williams was writing the novel, only the first two of the eventual five books of Father Brown stories had been published.

But in its humor, where treatment of characters, dialogue, and diction in general are concerned, Williams’s debt does not seem limited to Chesterton. There is, indeed, an intertextual clue (as well as a humorous touch of characterization) when Barbara Rackstraw introduces the retired publisher, Gregory Persimmons, to Jeeves, and her husband, Lionel, goes on to explain something about him to his old boss. At the time Williams was initially drafting the novel, only the first three of Wodehouse’s books with Jeeves and Wooster stories had been published (the most recent only in October 1925).

A more straightforward detective novel than The Corpse had already shown the influence of Wodehouse: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? (1923), her first Wimsey novel and the only one to have appeared when Williams embarked upon his story.

James Brabazon, in his biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, says of the literary figures who were Lord Peter Wimsey’s “progenitors” as “silly-ass aristocrat with nerves of steel” (like Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel), “being a modern silly-ass (in 1921), who does he take his cue from but Bertie Wooster? – who must of course be accompanied by his Jeeves, now transmogrified into Bunter.”

Whether Williams had read Whose Body? by early 1926, or not, I do not know, but War in Heaven, and presumably, The Corpse, exhibits a similar combination of Wodehousian verbal humor and characterization with moral and metaphysical seriousness.

Father Brown and Jeeves and Wooster were, of course, already famous by the turn of 1925-26, and Whose Body? was selling well enough for Unwin to want to publish more Wimsey, but their fictional worlds of humor of character and style and diction, combined by the two detective story writers with depth and seriousness, were still new and close by in their freshness, when Williams started his entertaining second novel. Not a Wodehouse pastiche, nor even, as Sørina Higgins observes,  primarily “a mystery to entertain”, but very much, I think, intended to entertain in various ways, and to be (may I say) seriously entertaining.

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“It’s Very Weird.” Guest post on “War in Heaven”

Here is a guest post by Medievalist Alice Deegan to finish off War In Heaven week. Drop me a line if YOU want to write a guest post on anything CW-related. Cheers.

I should start by making clear what I don’t know, which is much of anything about the circumstances of the novel’s composition or what Williams thought he was doing when he wrote it. I make this disclaimer because, while I think I’m on board with War In Heaven’s theology—or at least the theology that I find in it—part of my enjoyment of it involves a kind of indeterminacy that is only possible because it is a novel. I love the fact that I get something new from it on each rereading.

I’m a medievalist, so the Grail angle is appealing. I like the way the meaning of the Grail is handled, the neat laying-out of its significance to the different heroes and to the villains, and the fact that the most spiritually authoritative character, the Archdeacon, ultimately decides that as an object it both does and does not matter. I think that’s the perfect way to approach such a fraught and difficult artifact, and it also chimes with my own understanding (such as it is) of the meaning of the material world for Christians.

As I mentioned before in a comment, I’m drawn to the sympathetic characters in War in Heaven, as I am in all CW’s books, actually, and I don’t find myself bothered by the fact that they don’t “develop” or are somewhat schematized. In fact, I never noticed that on previous readings. I also find the main villains very compelling. I love that we see so much from Gregory’s perspective, making him simultaneously more creepy and more comprehensible (which is yet more creepy) than if he were presented strictly from the outside. It struck me as a particularly bold stroke, and very effective, to present the main antagonist as deeply religious, but for the wrong side. And Sir Giles is so wonderfully hateful, yet also chillingly believable. (Dmitri and Manasseh are disappointingly cartoonish by comparison, and on first reading I was really hoping that where CW was going with them was that one or the other would turn out to be a straight-up devil, kind of a counterpoint to Prester John. If I’d been a friend of Williams’s and read early drafts of the book, I would have lobbied for that.)

But I think more than anything it’s the slight zaniness of the plot that makes this one my favourite of CW’s novels. The fact that the Archdeacon doesn’t take himself seriously is a major factor in setting this tone. I absolutely love the wacky “Archdeacon and Duke and publisher’s clerk steal the Holy Grail and a car chase ensues” episode, and to me that seems almost like the heart of the book, or its apex or quintessence or something.

When I was coming up with a list of Arthurian novels for my students to choose from for their class presentations, a friend dared me to put War in Heaven on the list, and I did, but when a student asked about it, I said, “Well, it’s very weird. It’s one of my favourite books, but it’s very weird.” Ultimately she picked some miserable novel about Guinevere, which she hated, so I should maybe have done a better job of selling the weird Holy Grail book. But it’s the combination of the weirdness and the theological seriousness of the book that I love, and that also make it an appropriate addition to the tradition of literature about the Holy Grail.

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It’s very weird: Little Guest Post on “War in Heaven”

Here are some thoughts by Medievalist Alice Deegan on War in Heaven. Please contact me if YOU want to write a guest post on any CW-related topic. Cheers. 
I should start by making clear what I don’t know, which is much of anything about the circumstances of the novel’s composition or what Williams thought he was doing when he wrote it. I make this disclaimer because, while I think I’m on board with War In Heaven’s theology—or at least the theology that I find in it—part of my enjoyment of it involves a kind of indeterminacy that is only possible because it is a novel. I love the fact that I get something new from it on each rereading.
I’m a medievalist, so the Grail angle is appealing. I like the way the meaning of the Grail is handled, the neat laying-out of its significance to the different heroes and to the villains, and the fact that the most spiritually authoritative character, the Archdeacon, ultimately decides that as an object it both does and does not matter. I think that’s the perfect way to approach such a fraught and difficult artifact, and it also chimes with my own understanding (such as it is) of the meaning of the material world for Christians.
As I mentioned before in a comment, I’m drawn to the sympathetic characters in War in Heaven, as I am in all CW’s books, actually, and I don’t find myself bothered by the fact that they don’t “develop” or are somewhat schematized. In fact, I never noticed that on previous readings. I also find the main villains very compelling. I love that we see so much from Gregory’s perspective, making him simultaneously more creepy and more comprehensible (which is yet more creepy) than if he were presented strictly from the outside. It struck me as a particularly bold stroke, and very effective, to present the main antagonist as deeply religious, but for the wrong side. And Sir Giles is so wonderfully hateful, yet also chillingly believable. (Dmitri and Manasseh are disappointingly cartoonish by comparison, and on first reading I was really hoping that where CW was going with them was that one or the other would turn out to be a straight-up devil, kind of a counterpoint to Prester John. If I’d been a friend of Williams’s and read early drafts of the book, I would have lobbied for that.)
But I think more than anything it’s the slight zaniness of the plot that makes this one my favourite of CW’s novels. The fact that the Archdeacon doesn’t take himself seriously is a major factor in setting this tone. I absolutely love the wacky “Archdeacon and Duke and publisher’s clerk steal the Holy Grail and a car chase ensues” episode, and to me that seems almost like the heart of the book, or its apex or quintessence or something.
When I was coming up with a list of Arthurian novels for my students to choose from for their class presentations, a friend dared me to put War in Heaven on the list, and I did, but when a student asked about it, I said, “Well, it’s very weird. It’s one of my favourite books, but it’s very weird.” Ultimately she picked some miserable novel about Guinevere, which she hated, so I should maybe have done a better job of selling the weird Holy Grail book. But it’s the combination of the weirdness and the theological seriousness of the book that I love, and that also make it an appropriate addition to the tradition of literature about the Holy Grail.

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