Charles Williams: Chasing the Holy Grail

01 Mar

The Archdeacon…looked at the [Graal] before him. “Neither is this Thou,” he breathed; and answered, “Yet this also is Thou.” … Of all the things in the world the Graal had been nearest to the Divine and Universal Heart.

So wrote Charles Williams, one of those people who are known mainly for their association with C.S. Lewis. Before reading any of his books myself, I only knew three things about him:

  1. He was a member of the Inklings.
  2. He was one of the reasons Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien became somewhat distanced from one another. (Among other things, Tolkien didn’t particularly like Williams’ books.)
  3. Williams can be notoriously hard to understand.

I finished reading my first Williams novel, War in Heaven, a few weeks ago. I’m now slowly working on Shadows of Ecstasy. I have concluded that Williams may be a little hard to understand, at times–but that he’s well worth reading.

War in Heaven begins with an inexplicable, but rather prosaic, murder at a publishing firm. An occultist, an archdeacon, a duke, and one Prester John later, the story’s cast of characters is chasing around the English countryside trying to lay hold on the Holy Grail (spelled Graal here). Once the book gets going, the action doesn’t stop. I’ve read that T.S. Eliot considered Williams’ books to be “spiritual thrillers.” In fact, they reminded me of some of Ted Dekker’s novels, but without Dekker’s postmodern bent. In any case, Williams’ stories are anything but ordinary.

The storyline of War in Heaven is easy enough to follow. The themes, however, are more difficult. According to the book cover, by “examining the distinction between magic and religion, this eerily disturbing book graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”

“Eerily disturbing”? Fair enough. And the book does touch on the distinction between magic and religion. But I found the most important theme of War in Heaven to be the Graal itself–or, more specifically, how people react (and ought to react) to sacred objects. The Graal becomes an object of contention between the story’s occultists and its Christians. Both sides (excepting the Archdeacon) have a tendency to overestimate its value. The Graal can be used for good, as well as for evil. But in the end, the forces animating the Graal are more powerful than the Graal itself, and those forces determine the outcome.

We humans were made with a tendency to worship. And we have developed a tendency to worship the wrong things. If we could truly find the Holy Grail, what would we do with it? Nothing good, probably. Williams’ attitude is hardly antagonistic toward religious relics. But he does offer a warning. Relics may be holy; but some things are holier. And even the best of objects can be used for the wrong reasons.


Posted by on March 1, 2013 in Fantasy


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2 responses to “Charles Williams: Chasing the Holy Grail

  1. Poiema

    March 1, 2013 at 1:37 am

    Great review. Sounds like a meaty read. Thank you for sharing!


    March 1, 2013 at 3:14 am

    I read this book for a college fantasy lit class and have been thinking of picking up Charles Williams again. Re-reading yields new insights, I believe.


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