Descent into Hell (1937)
Ere it shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust,
Charles Williams is less well known than his fellow Inklings, like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, but like them he wrote a series of novels which combine elements of fantasy and Christian symbolism. The action of Descent into Hell takes place in Battle Hill, outside London, amidst the townspeople's staging of a new play by Peter Stanhope. The hill seems to reside at the crux of time, as characters from the past appear, and perhaps at a doorway to the beyond, as characters are alternately summoned heavenwards or descend into hell.
Pauline Anstruther, the heroine of the novel, lives in fear of meeting her own doppelganger, which has appeared to her throughout her life. But Stanhope, in an action central to the author's own theology, takes the burden of her fears upon himself--Williams called this The Doctrine of Substituted Love--and enables Pauline, at long last, to face her true self. Williams drew this idea from the biblical verse, "Ye shall bear one another's burdens :"
She said, still perplexed at a strange language :
'But how can I cease to be troubled ? will it leave
'It is not,' he said, 'and you shall not pretend
at all. The thing itself you may one day meet--never
'But that means---' she began, and stopped.
'I know,' Stanhope said. 'It means listening
sympathetically, and thinking unselfishly, and being
And so Stanhope does take the weight, with no surreptitious motive, in the most affecting scene in the novel. And Pauline, liberated, is able to accept truth.
On the other hand, Lawrence Wentworth, a local historian, finding his desire for Adela Hunt to be unrequited, falls in love instead with a spirit form of Adela, which seems to represent a kind of extreme self love on his part.
The shape of Lawrence Wentworth's desire had emerged
from the power of his body. He had
As he isolates himself more and more with this insubstantial figure, and dreams of descending a silver rope into a dark pit, Wentworth begins the descent into Hell.
Because of the way that time and space and the supernatural all converge upon Battle Hill, the book can be somewhat confusing. But it is rich in atmosphere and unusual ideas and it is unlike any other book I've ever read. It is challenging, but ultimately rewarding if you stick with it.
See also:Science Fiction & Fantasy
-APPRECIATION SITE: The Oddest Inkling
-REVIEW ESSAY: Jonathan Walker on Charles Williams’ Supernatural Thriller: This is a guest post by Jonathan Walker, whose latest novel, The Angels of L19, is published this month by Weatherglass Books (Jonathan Walker, neglected Books)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "charles williams"
-The Charles Williams Society
-The Web Of Exchange: The Charles Williams WWW Page
-BIO : Charles Walter Stansby Williams 1886-1945
-BIO : Charles Williams
-Author Spotlight: Charles Williams (hallbook.com)
-MAILING LIST : 'Co-Inherence', the lightly moderated e-list for discussion and application of the works and ideas of Charles Williams
-The Mythopoeic Society, a non-profit international literary and educational organization for the study, discussion, and enjoyment of fantasy and mythic literature, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams
-ESSAY : READING AND WRITING; THE POET OF THEOLOGY (D.J.R. Bruckner, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : SACRAMENTS FOR THE NEW AGE : The Mechanics of Salvation in the Works of Charles Williams (John Mabry)
-ESSAY : CHILDREN OF A DARKER GOD: A TAXONOMY OF DEEP HORROR FICTION AND FILM AND THEIR MASS POPULARITY (Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts)
-REVIEW : "Descent Into Hell" exemplifies supernatural novels (Andrew Bogner, The Emporia Bulletin)
-BOOK LIST : BOOKS OF THE CENTURY: Leaders and thinkers weigh in on classics that have shaped contemporary religious thought (ChristianityToday.com, April 24, 2000)
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