A Holy Imagination: “War In Heaven”

War In HeavenMany have heard of C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and other books. Just as many have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle-earth. But few have heard of Charles Williams, a friend to both and member of the literary group known as the Inklings. Williams wrote in what seems to be his own unique genre; T.S. Eliot called them “supernatural thrillers”. In his fiction, it isn’t that the spiritual realm breaks into the ordinary world, but rather that they are revealed to be one and the same. I decided to finally read Charles Williams and what I’ve found in his first novel makes me tentatively declare him my latest literary hero.

War In Heaven begins like a classic British detective novel, with a murder mystery in a London publisher’s office. But this is only the prelude to the accidental discovery that an old communion chalice in a small country church is in fact the Holy Grail itself. When the Archdeacon of the church stumbles on this evidence he finds himself the target of a Satanist practicing black magic, who wants to use the Grail as a force to enslave and destroy.

While this may sound like the makings of a Dan Brown potboiler, what Williams actually does is use the plot elements of a thriller to propel forward a story told with all the spiritual fervour of a mystic visionary. Yet it also avoids many of the stereotypical trappings of the battle between good and evil; God, Satan, nor any of their angels or demons appear as characters directly. Instead Williams poetically illustrates the sensations of the supernatural rather than resort to the traditional language of the Christian faith — which makes that language all the more meaningful when it is brought out in the final chapter: a climactic church service where the idea of heaven meeting earth goes beyond a metaphor.

But make no mistake, Williams is devout. Though the Grail is nothing more than a Christianized pagan legend, the novel imbues it with Christ’s genuine divine power; and the servant of a very real Devil is trying to get his hands on it. It makes for a rare plunge into the depths of a God-inspired spiritual imagination. If all you know of Christian fantasy is a wardrobe and lamppost (and that will always be one of my favourites), you should really consider widening your horizons with Charles Williams.