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    Ere it shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust,
    the Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
    Met his own image
    Walking in the garden.
    That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
        -Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

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
    off coming because I pretend it wants you ?  Is it your resemblance that hurries up the street ?'

    'It is not,' he said, 'and you shall not pretend at all.  The thing itself you may one day meet--never
    mind that now, but you'll be free from all distress because that you can pass on to me.  Haven't you
    heard it said that we ought to bear one another's burdens ?'

    'But that means---' she began, and stopped.

    'I know,' Stanhope said.  'It means listening sympathetically, and thinking unselfishly, and being
    anxious about, and so on.  Well, I don't say a against all that; no doubt it helps.  But I think when
    Christ or St. Paul, or whoever said bear, or whatever he Aramaically said instead of bear, he
    meant something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else.  To bear a burden is
    precisely to carry it instead of.  If you're still carrying yours, I'm not carrying it for you--however
    sympathetic I may be.  And anyhow there's no need to introduce Christ, unless you wish.  It's a fact
    of experience.  If you give a weight to me, you can't be carrying it yourself; all I'm asking you to
    do is to notice that blazing truth.  It doesn't sound very difficult.'

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
    assented to that making, and again, outside the garden of satisfied dreams, he had assented to the
    company of the shape which could not be except by his will and was imperceptibly to possess his
    will.  Image without incarnation, it was the delight of his incarnation for it was without any of the
    things that troubled him in the incarnation of the beloved.  He could exercise upon it all arts but
    one; he could not ever discover by it or practise towards it freedom of love.  A man cannot love
    himself; he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize--without purpose.  The great
    gift which the simple idolatry os self gives is lack of further purpose; it is, the saints tell us, a
    somewhat similar thing that exists in those wholly possessed by their End; it is, human experience
    shows, the most exquisite delight in the interchanges of romantic love.  But in all loves but one
    there are counterpointing times of purpose; in this only there are none.

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.


Grade: (B)


Charles Williams Links:

    -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 (
    -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 : SACRAMENTS FOR THE NEW AGE : The Mechanics of Salvation in the Works of Charles Williams (John Mabry)
    -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 (, April 24, 2000)

    -CS Lewis and the Inklings Home Page
    -Avenging Aardvark's Aerie: The Inklings
    -C. S. Lewis & The Inklings
    -C. S. Lewis  (and the Inklings)
    -Tolkien and the Inklings Forum at Xenite.Org science fiction ...
    -The Inklings - CS Lewis - Upland Campus
    -A Beginner's Bibliography of the Inklings
    -The Inklings
    -The Bird & Baby
    -the inklings
    -The Inklings:   Religious and Literary Reflections  (drew university graduate school ~ conference in the humanities ~ october 31, 1998)
    -Inklings ?
    -Inklings Resources Web Site
    -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
    -LINKS : The Inklings Site List : A collection of online resources on C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and other members of 'The Inklings'
    -LINKS : Mythus : Verlyn Flieger - Studies in Comparative Mythology - University of Maryland
    -WEB RING : The Inklings Webring
    -REVIEW : of Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Green Man Review)

    -ESSAY : THE KING OF TERRORS: THE THEOLOGY OF HENRY SCOTT HOLLAND (John Heidt, Contemporary Review, March 2000)
    -ESSAY : The Experience of Coming to Belief (Sallie McFague TeSelle)
    -LINKS : Index to Christianity  on the Web (Jeremiah Project)