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War in Heaven by Charles Williams

I haven't read any of the Left Behind series — not that I'm boasting (much, at least) — though I imagine they're more spectacular than War in Heaven. But for a sheer theological freak-out, it's hard to beat Williams's 1930 classic.

War in Heaven
The appropriately psychedelic cover of the 1988 edition.
Charles Williams was one of the famous "Inklings," the literary kaffeeklatsch that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. In comparison to theirs, however, his works are little-known. And that's a shame. His series of "supernatural thrillers," of which this is the first, stand alone for their high-octane blend of Christian mysticism, detective-story conventions, and philosophical sophistication.

In this volume, for instance, in what may seem to be classic detective-fiction tradition, he presents a murder that remains long unsolved — until the murderer simply tells another character that he did it. (The only mystery remaining in the reader's mind is who the victim was.) At the same time, the central object of interest in the plot is the Holy Grail itself, hardly your typical mystery prop. The deep obsession of English literature with the Graal (as Williams spells it, as do the oldest English versions of the Arthurian stories) is in full view, with two characters in particular motivated to defend the chalice by love of the literature of "Hawker and Tennyson, John, Malory and the mediævals" (136).

But most unlikely of all is the central hero of War in Heaven, the Archdeacon of the village of Fardles, one Mr. Davenant. This is a Christian literary hero with whom Williams flouts the early-twentieth-century clichιs of "muscular Christianity," an elderly, intellectual, even dainty Anglican cleric whose great strength is unambiguously pacifist, who turns the other cheek and even hands over the Graal on more than one occasion — in order best to keep it.

Despite such intriguing, seeming paradoxes, Williams's sense of psychology rings as true as can be, and as true as any realist novelist must be. One passage offers a good case in point. Inspector Colquhoun is worrying out the threads of the murder mystery, and comes to a standstill:

His particular attention was by now unconsciously fixed on [So-and-so]. [The reason for this was], absurdly enough, the adequacy of the alibi. Where few had anything like a sufficient testimony to their occupation during the whole of one particular hour, it was inevitable that the inspector should regard, first with satisfaction, but later almost with hostility, the one man whose time was sufficiently vouched for by almost an excess of evidence. His training forbade this lurking hostility to enter his active mind; consciously he ruled out [So-and-so], unconsciously he lay in ambushed expectation. The alibi, in spite of himself, annoyed him by its perfection, and clamoured, as a mere work of art, to be demolished (125).

This miniature sketch of the aesthetic of destruction that lies near the heart of analysis and dissection is a gem of literary psychology.

(For another more humorous vignette, of the Archdeacon's dealings with his foolish colleague the Rev. Mr. Batesby, see the text of my recent sermon, "All Things in Common," published here at

The juxtaposition of holy mysticism with black magic in this story — which sets them together in the plot but stands well clear of combining or confusing them — is refreshing in an era where literature that embraces the supernatural often does so indiscriminately. As much as I have enjoyed reading Michael Chabon's Summerland, Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, and Jane Langton's Diamond in the Window, their lack of spiritual discernment, failing to tell the difference between good and evil, is a critical error. Williams instead shows us characters who are engaged in truly mortal combat whose stakes are high and whose outcome is in real doubt, but he avoids buying into the (post?)modern assumption that there's no real difference, but merely contest, between good and evil since power is all that could possibly be at stake. Nor, on the other hand, does he depict good and evil as deadlocked in Manichean stalemate.

As you can tell from the very title, this book definitely fits into the tradition of apocalyptic literature that runs (somehow) from Milton to LaHaye & Jenkins — but without the reductionism which so often attends the depiction of epic struggles between the binary elements. Neither the "good guys" nor the "bad guys" are undivided among themselves, and both sides come in for occasional sympathy as well as merciless skewering upon Williams's sharp insight. This sets these novels most sharply in contrast against Philip Pullman's phenomenally popular trilogy, His Dark Materials, wherein the divine is so one-dimensional (and patently decadent) that it would be funny if it weren't so embarrassingly unimaginative.

Speaking of unimaginative, modern "mysticism" often ironically lacks the imagination to conceive of non-naturalistic explanations for supernatural phenomonen. Witness the introduction of "midi-chlorians" in the later Star Wars films to explain (away) the Force. In contrast, Williams can horrify the reader with an account of a magic ointment that carries the villain to a witches' sabbath — in vivid passages undeniably influenced by awareness of psychedelic drug culture — without letting the reality of the character's Satanism to become reduced to a mere chemical trip. The spiritual is simply real in Williams's books, and that is perhaps his greatest accomplishment.

I recommend War in Heaven for earnest readers who can handle a steeper theological, liturgical, and philosophical learning curve than normal — and who are willing to risk a frightening look at one skirmish in the battle between good and evil.


This review cites the 1988 Eerdmans edition of Charles Williams's War in Heaven (a scan of whose cover appears here). The novel was first published in 1930. Eerdmans has a newer edition in print, which is widely available.


first published May 25, 2004

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