Monday, December 10, 2012

All Hallows' Eve by Charles Williams

Like Lewis and Tolkien and many of the other great authors of the last century--Chesterton comes to mind immediately, as do Flannery O'Connor and John Buchan--Charles Williams's work is rooted in the past. While other authors drank stright from the cultural zeitgeist--Tolkien's popularity spawned thousands of equally-huge, superficially-similar, deeply modernist imitators--the great authors of the last century seem almost obsessed with the past; not the trappings of the past (historical fiction still belongs to Scott, Stevenson, Henty, and the like in the 1800s) but the ideas of the past. But these authors were not simply nostalgists, sighing over the ideals of chivalry and Christendom. Instead they declared Christendom to be the cure of the ills of the modern age. Chesterton, Lewis, and above all Williams saw the world in terms of antithesis. They knew they were on the right side; they did not care greatly that they were on the old-fashioned side. And so in all their books lay a challenge to the modernist world.

In Charles Williams's books perhaps more than any. Of all the Inklings, his books are the most inaccessible, making few allowances for folks who aren't sure what "the City" is or what's so important about a "roseal glow". But although they require patience and thought, Williams's books are closely related to the life that we know. They are at once the strangest and the most mundane of the books of the Inklings, and perhaps their strangeness stems from their otherwise mundanity.

All Hallows' Eve is an excellent example of Williams's work and perhaps one of the best places to start reading. At the book's opening, a woman named Lester Furnival  is standing on Westminster Bridge in London waiting for her husband. Around her the City seems empty and quiet; then, it occurs to her that she is dead, killed in a plane crash with her friend Evelyn. As she wanders through the City, Lester realises that she is all alone except for Evelyn, one of the few people she ever had a use for. Evelyn, terrified by the loneliness, whimpers--
"Why are we here like this? I haven't done anything. I haven't; I tell you I haven't. I haven't done anything."
And Lester, realising that she hasn't done anything either, sets out on her journey to redemption:
"Evelyn, let's do something now."
Meanwhile, in the living world, Lester's husband Richard is drawn into his friend Jonathan's strange predicament. Jonathan hopes to marry the domineering Lady Wallingford's daughter Betty (an old school friend of Lester and Evelyn's); but when Lady Wallingford sees the painting Jonathan was commissioned to make of her spiritual mentor Simon LeClerk, she is so offended by it that Jonathan enlists Richard to smooth over the breach. Unexpectedly, Simon himself approves of the painting which shows him dominating insect-people in a wilderness, though he dislikes another recent painting showing the City full of, and possibly even made of, Light. Feeling that Jonathan and Richard may be useful to his plans, Simon decides to initiate them into his group of acolytes, but though he promises to bring back Lester and make Lady Wallingford give up her jealously-guarded daughter, what he has in mind for Betty and Lester is something even more sinister than necromancy.

As Lester and Richard fumble towards salvation, Simon the sorcerer puts the last touches to a plan centuries old. And, unlike another 'sorcerer' years ago--'the son of Joseph', as Simon calls Him--this plan will lead not to death but domination.

Like all Williams's novels, All Hallows' Eve meshes a strong plot with profound philosophical and theological meditation. Williams at once affirms the everyday world and the spiritual world behind it. Like the painter, Jonathan, who claims that he paints what he sees though "common observation and plain understanding", Williams would say that he simply writes about what is there. He may even have objected to his books being called "fantasy"--yes, they are tales of ordinary people joining a titanic battle of spiritual good against spiritual evil; but if you are a Christian you believe in this, in the antithesis, already. This is not fantasy; it is above all, not illusion. Williams called it Fact, Fact to which the only appropriate reaction was Joy. To him, God Himself was Fact, and so all the facts of the world were a reflection of God: Lester, gazing into the dirty Thames, muses "A sodden mass of cardboard and paper drifted by, but the soddenness was itself a joy, for this was what happened, and all that happened, in this great material world, was good." But this is a theme which is fully discussed in Descent Into Hell.

And so, for Williams, his writing is simply a way to reproduce the world of Fact as it is: full of, and made of, the Light which is God. And this is exactly what Christian fantasy exists for.

Other themes which cropped up and perhaps were more fully explained in Descent Into Hell include the "doctrine of substituted love". For Williams, substitution and exchange are a way of life within the City. Exchange means giving and taking; Lester and Betty, at one point are able to exchange smiles, and even Simon, unable to escape the law of exchange, intended them to exchange something else. Not that he doesn't try to escape this law. He is all take and no give; his smile is only a grimace, a constriction of muscles, since "one cannot smile at no-one." Substitution in turn means bearing one another's burdens, and in such a way that the others are relieved of them. Lester does this for Betty; but explicitly underlying this and all substitutions is the substitutionary atonement of the Cross. On the other hand, Simon has no experience of providing substitution--"I never see things with other people's eyes"--only of taking it--"he had dismissed [his anger] for her to bear".

But probably the most important of the motifs used in All Hallows' Eve is the motif of the City. At first we think he is referring to London, and then perhaps that he is referring to London and its purgatorial counterpart in Lester and Evelyn's afterlife, but then it becomes obvious that "the City" is something much bigger than London; London and all cities are only a symbol of it. In short, Williams's City is Saint Augustine's City, is the Apostle John's City, the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God. (I am, by the way, two books from the end of Augustine's City of God, and can recommend it to anyone who wants to understand CS Lewis or Charles Williams better.)

The City
The story of All Hallows' Eve is the story of Lester's entrance into the City through grace and forgiveness. The life of the City, or as Williams calls it "the Acts of the City" is a life of exchange and substitution. The term most important here is "co-inherence", a theological term used by the Church Fathers to describe both the union of the natures of Christ and the union of the Trinity itself. Williams also used it to describe what he (and later, in Perelandra, Lewis) called "the Great Dance": the communion of saints in the Body of Christ, with each other, with Christ the Head, and with the Trinity. The life of the City is a co-inherent life, and Lester gets a vision of this life when she sees all places, times, and peoples within the City. Only a life in the City, illuminated with the intelligible Light which is God, brings true co-inherence; there is none apart from the City. Another way to say it would be to say that the Christian life is necessarily a life of society. Angelee Sailor Anderson says,
The City may be said to represent the Kingdom of God working among us both temporally and eternally; discipline, civility, order, hierarchy, and formal courtesy are some of its attributes. Its true citizens acknowledge by their mode of life their unity and mutual indebtedness -- "here citizenship meant relationship and knew it," says Williams.

Evil, represented by Simon, exists to destroy this co-inherence. The body he makes for Evelyn and Lester to share can be controlled by either of them, but neither of them can communicate through it: "through it they co-hered to each other but could not co-inhere.”

The life of co-inherence is lived through exchange and substitution, the Acts of the City. Lester’s afterlife—before she moves on—brings her into the City through finding and attempting to co-inhere with three people: her husband Richard, her friend Evelyn, and her school-day victim Betty. She has used them as means to her own satisfaction, and otherwise left them to their own burdens instead of seeking to bear them. Meanwhile, Richard comes to his own realisation that what he showed to Lester was at best unselfishness—letting her do as she liked; not love—entering into her hopes and burdens. Marriage is of course intended to be a co-inherent life, representing as it does the co-inherence of Christ and the Church, and Richard and Lester slowly realise how they failed. When Evelyn says that she “hasn’t don’t anything” Lester’s reaction is, “No. I know. Nor have I—much.” She should have been living the life of the City, doing the Acts of the City, but of this her life was empty.

The Acts of the City govern the relationship of the citizens to each other, but there is also the matter of the relationship of the citizens to the King. Angelee Sailor Anderson shows that in Williams’s thought, there were two ways to know God: through the Affirmation of Images—seeing all creation as an image of God, as Richard begins to see Lester as a salvific figure—as well as through the Rejection of Images—remembering that nothing on earth can fully bear God’s image, as at the end the wiser Lester understands that she must endure the final separation from the friends and husband she has only just learned to value.

I enjoyed All Hallows’ Eve. I found it much more accessible than Descent Into Hell, although I wonder if this is because the latter book is harder, or because having struggled through that one I am better able to understand the former.

Williams does have his weaknesses as an author. He is one of those authors who require an audience willing to let him ramble into philosophical asides at every opportunity, but the effect is quietly astounding.

His personal philosophy, as you will know after this long review, is quite complex and full of words for which he had specific and unusual definitions; it also has both feet planted in medieval thought, with its double death (of the mind, and of the body, of which the latter is by far the less important). All Hallows’ Eve also suggests that Williams knew a fair bit about sorcery.

This is not, of course, a book for children but one thing Williams does brilliantly in all his novels is to make the evil very evil indeed, and the good overpoweringly good. When Simon goes to trap Lester as part of his terrifyingly evil plan—

Evelyn said: "Do come, Lester. It can't hurt you." Lester unexpectedly laughed. […] "No," Lester said, "I don't think it can.”
The evil magic Simon performs is at once more unsettling and more mundane than one might imagine: simply standing by a bedside saying a word over and over, for instance. I don’t know how it might compare to real-world attempts at magic but it seems entirely mundane, low-key, and unexciting. It is evil entirely without glamour (in the current sense of the word). In his introduction to the book TS Eliot says, “it is Evil which has no power to attract us, for we see it as the repulsive thing it is, and as the despair of the damned from which we recoil.” By contrast, the closer the characters, for example Lester and Betty, get to the Ultimate Good, the more unafraid they become. In Williams, the evil is always profound and terrifying but there is no panic or grinding helplessness: the good is always, always stronger.

All Hallows’ Eve is a fascinating and at times beautiful book by a fascinating author: perhaps a little difficult, but rewarding of the effort. As the world continues to read and enjoy the more famous Inklings, I hope that this and Williams’s other novels will also gain some recognition.

Gutenberg Australia etext

I am indebted for much of this review to Angelee Sailor Anderson for her article “The Nature of the City: Visions of the Kingdom and its Saints in Charles Williams’ All Hallows’ Eve”.


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