by David C. Downing
The Wade Center recently acquired C. S. Lewis’s personal copy of War in Heaven (1930), one of the “supernatural thrillers” written by his friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams. The front flyleaf of the book includes Lewis’s distinctive signature and the back flyleaf includes Lewis’s brief, handwritten index to passages in the novel that caught his attention. Like many of the more than 2,400 other books from Lewis’s personal library housed at the Wade, Lewis’s markings in the novel reveal as much about his mind as they do about the mind of the author Lewis is reading.
Charles Williams moved to Oxford in the autumn of 1939 and quickly became a regular at Inklings meetings. He worked for the London branch of Oxford University Press, which moved out of the capital during World War II, to avoid the German bombing raids. The two men met when they first exchanged letters and lauded each other’s work. Lewis had read Williams’s fantasy novel The Place of the Lion in 1936 and sent him a congratulatory note, just as Williams was getting ready to write Lewis to tell him how much he admired Lewis’s scholarly insight in The Allegory of Love. When Williams later moved to Oxford, he and Lewis became fast friends.
Lewis and Williams valued each other’s company partly because the two of them had few intellectual peers. But they also shared the same vivid sense of spiritual realities just beyond the doors of perception. T. S. Eliot, who said he considered Williams very nearly a saint, commented that “he makes our everyday world much more exciting because of the supernatural which he always finds active in it.” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 109) This sounds very much like George Sayer describing Lewis: “The most precious moments to Jack in his ordinary life were those . . . when he was aware of the spiritual quality of material things, of the infusion of the supernatural into the workaday world.” (George Sayer, Jack, p. 192)
Several of the passages in War in Heaven that Lewis marked and indexed are the ones in which the spiritual dimension of reality seems as palpable as the physical dimension. In this novel, the Holy Grail turns up in England, being used as the communion chalice in a humble village north of London. Three occultists seek to obtain the grail and to channel its powers for evil purposes. But the grail also has three defenders, the local archdeacon, a duke, and a book editor. At the end of the story, the legendary patriarch Prester John appears, traditionally seen as the protector of the grail, making sure that good prevails over evil.
Lewis noted two passages in the book in which the mystical-minded archdeacon ponders the grail chalice and says to himself: “This is also Thou; neither is this Thou.” Both Williams and Lewis were keenly aware of the tension between the Affirmative Way, finding metaphors or analogies for God (such as a king, shepherd, or a sacrificial lamb), and the Negative Way, the realization that all pictures of God must ultimately prove inadequate. Lewis discussed this problem in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (1964), referring directly to the phrase he found in Charles Williams:
“This talk of ‘meeting’ is, no doubt, anthropomorphic; as if God and I could be face to face, like two fellow-creatures, when in reality He is above me and within me and below me and all about me. That is why it must be balanced by all manner of metaphysical and theological abstractions. But never, here or anywhere else, let us think that while anthropomorphic images are a concession to our weakness, the abstractions are the literal truth. Both are equally concessions; each singly misleading, and the two together mutually corrective. Unless you sit to it very tightly, continually murmuring ‘Not thus, not thus, neither is this Thou’, the abstraction is fatal. It will make the lives inanimate and the love of loves impersonal. The naïve image is mischievous chiefly in so far as it holds unbelievers back from conversion. It does believers, even at its crudest, no harm. What soul ever perished for believing that God the Father really has a beard?” (21-22)
Lewis also marked and indexed passages in the novel in which Williams offers some lay theology for his readers. For example, he noted a passage in which the Archdeacon offers a new interpretation of the ancient commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” The Archdeacon, Julian Davenant, argues in his homily that our neighbor is God himself:
“Not His creation, not His manifestations, not even His qualities, but Him. . . This should be our covetousness and our desire; for this only no greed is too great, as this only can satisfy the greatest greed. The whole universe is His house, the soul of thy mortal neighbour. Him only thou shalt covet with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.” (115-116)
This was a theme close to Lewis’s heart. In at least a half dozen of his books, he stresses that we should have an “appetite for God,” that we should seek Him for who He is, the fountain of life and light, not for gifts in this life such as health or good fortune, nor for gifts in the next life, jeweled crowns or streets of gold. Lewis’s great mentor George MacDonald observed that “It is not what God can give us but God that we want.” Lewis wholeheartedly agreed, as seen not only in his own books, but in the passages he underlined in other books, such as War in Heaven.
Image: Charles Williams, 1935, CW / P-3
Marion E. Wade Center photo collection. Not to be used without permission.
Williams could also portray the dark side of spirituality, the power of evil that has haunted our world since the loss of Eden. In describing the sinister neighborhood where one of the occultists keeps his chemist shop, Williams conjures up an almost Dantean sense of palpable depravity:
“It was not actually quite so respectable [as he had expected]. It had been once, no doubt, and was now half-way to another kind of respectability, being in the disreputable valley between two heights of decency. . . . Squalor was leering from the windows and not yet contending frankly and vainly with grossness. It was one of those sudden terraces of slime which hang over the pit of hell, and for which beastliness is too dignified a name. But the slime was still only oozing over it, and a thin cloud of musty pretense expanded over the depths below.” (73)
Lewis may have noted this passage perhaps because he too had a vivid sense of spiritual warfare, of light ever contending with darkness. Lewis opens The Great Divorce by describing a “long, mean street . . . with only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, hoardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, goods stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle.” (11) This neighborhood in the precincts of hell sounds very much like the one Williams described as the abode of his hellish characters.
Lewis and the other Inklings sometimes chided Williams for the obscurity of expression. Williams could often be evocative without being clear, as in another passage Lewis marked in War in Heaven. At the end of the story, the champion of the Grail, Prester John, asks the world-weary, and even otherworld-weary, Lionel Rackstraw what gift he can offer him:
“‘But I bring the desire of all men, and what will you ask of me?’
‘Annihilation,’ Lionel answered. ‘I have not asked for life, and I should be content now to know that soon I should not be. Do you think I desire the heaven they talk of?’
‘Death you shall have at least,’ the other said. ‘But God only gives, and He has only Himself to give, and He, even He, can give it only in those conditions which are Himself. Wait but a few years, and He shall give you the death you desire. But do not grudge too much if you find that death and heaven are one.’ He pointed towards Cully. ‘This man desired greatly the God of all sacrifice and sacrifice itself, and he finds Him now. But you shall find another way, for the door that opens on annihilation opens only on the annihilation which is God.'”
Lewis may have marked this passage because it stresses once again that our greatest desire, whether we know it or not, is God Himself, not anything He has created, not even life itself. Talk about “the annihilation which is God” verges on the mystical, suggesting that ultimately all will pass away, even that part of ourselves which cannot bear to be in the blazing presence of the eternal divine.
Of course, one can never say for certain why Lewis marked or indexed certain passages in the books that he owned. In some cases, he offers plentiful marginal notes, which help the reader understand what Lewis had on his mind as he was reading. In other books Lewis owned, such as Williams’s War in Heaven, one can only speculate as to what he was drawing out of the text. Suffice to say, however, that Lewis’s markings in this novel are certainly in accord with the sense of vivid spiritual realities that Lewis shared with his good friend Charles Williams.
Note: Paragraphs about Lewis’s personal relationship with Charles Williams are adapted from David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe (InterVarsity, 2005).