War In Heaven

War In Heaven is the title of a book by Charles Williams which Steve Hayes recommended to me and which I’ve read a couple times now. It’s an unusual book for me to read because it involves Christian supernaturalism which I’d never been that much interested in in the past. But this book takes the reader right into it, pretty much bypassing conventional scripture or doctrine, or at least relegating it to second order, I think, even satire. For the latter I’m thinking of the rattlings of the conventional Rev. Batesby who is oblivious to the real desperate and exciting war going on between the occult and heavenly forces.

The story describes both a spiritual and physical battle over the Holy Grail, called Graal in the book. The occult forces launched by a wicked person named Persimmons, and his even wickeder supporters, battle the protective forces of a seemingly complacent priest, called the Archdeacon, and his two youthful defenders.

I think there’s a bit of satire, or irony, in the choice of these names: the word persimmon suggests to me astringent tasting fruit, whereas Gregory Persimmons is glibly smooth talking, and Archdeacon is sort of a pun on Archbishop; how can anybody be an Archdeacon? The book also includes a murder mystery and has supporting characters portrayed as conventional people unaware of the battles of good and evil, and therefore helpless to ward off the evil or take advantage of the good. At least that’s my interpretation of Barbara and Lionel Rackstraw, the latter name being also somewhat comical. And there’s a precocious small child, named Adrian, who becomes the focus of the attempted evil use of the Graal. A number of minor characters, including policemen and servants, add to the complexity, suspense and, yes, humor in the story. Finally, the Prester John character appears near the end to save the day.

Although I can’t bring myself to “believe in” the supernatural, I was very strongly affected by the detailed descriptions of the occult influences, especially, the effects of the transforming ointment on Gregory Persimmons, and the ritualized transformations of the atmosphere surrounding the Graal during its attempted evil uses. The overwhelming of Barbara Rackstraw’s personality caused by the ointment was eerily frightening. She was poised on the brink of the “pit” and only saved by Prestor John (invisibly) at the last moment.

The shimmering and shaking of the Graal during its attempted destruction as the Archdeacon held it in his hands was a critical and crucial moment, saved again by the invisible Prestor John nearby but also by the quiet steadfastness of the Archdeacon. Finally, in the last battle all the stops are out and glorious music of angelic choruses together with triumphant trumpets, suggesting to me the overarching trumpets in the Tuba Mirum section of the Verdi Requiem, unquestionably vanquish the enemies. Gregory gives himself up, as instructed by Prestor John, and the other two wicked ones are crouched on the floor in utter defeat and destruction of their personalities.

Well, I’ve given away the key points of the story but these are the things that really affected me. So, what would be the overall message? Perhaps that evil contains the seeds of its own destruction and good will triumph only if it faces evil with steadfast calmness and trust in heavenly powers. It would be nice if this were true; perhaps it is in some circumstances.

Now, on to the next Charles Williams book Steve recommended, The Place of the Lion.

UPDATE 8/14/2007: My apologies to all the Archdeacons of the world. My “pun” was totally inapplicable. In checking on wiki, as suggested by Steve Hayes, I see that Archdeacons have higher status in the Church of England than those who are referred to as “The Reverend”.

  1. Steve Hayes’s avatar

    I’m glad that you seem to have enjoyed William’s book and hope that you enjoy the next one you read.

    For more information about archdeacons, see:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archdeacon

  2. Mardé’s avatar

    Thanks for your comment, Steve. I’ve already started The Place of the Lion and find it interesting. Yes, I knew I was probably wrong about the Archdeacon, thinking the name was a sort of pun. Thanks for reminding me to look at the wiki. I should have done it before I made the statement.

  3. Steve Hayes’s avatar

    No problem. I hope you enjoy Place of the Lion too, and I’m glad to see you liked Pan’s Labyrinth, the movie. I’ve heard there are plans to film Charles Williams’s stories, more than 70 years after publication!

  4. Mardé’s avatar

    Yes, I’ve been thinking the two books I’ve read — I finished Place of the Lion during my mid-August vacation — could be made into great movies, especially given the movie industry’s ability nowadays to create all kinds of special effects. I can just see Gregory Persimmons undergoing his transformation from the ointment — a sort of Hollywood Jekyll and Hyde psychological trip in vibrant Technicolors. Of course, there’s a danger as well his stuff could be hammed up. Too bad Charles Williams won’t be around to set Hollywood straight. Maybe a good independent film producer could do a better job provided there were funds. The Place of the Lion could be a mind-blowing movie.

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