Thursday, February 12, 2009

Noel Perrin on Charles Williams: A Universe Charged With Meaning

Noel Perrin's A Reader's Delight is well-named. It consists of short chapters in praise, or in study, of a wide range of books, mostly from Perrin's own library. It's a magpie book, a commonplace book, wide-ranging and completely, delightfully disorganized. Each chapter contains pithy general observations as well as discussion of the book in question. Perrin is aware of context and history, and shares both with the reader. He shares his delight as a reader with us, his readers. Such enthusiasm is intoxicating.

So it was a pleasure to stumble across Perrin's chapter on Charles Williams' great novel, All Hallow's Eve. This is one of my own favorite books, re-read several times over the years. Reading about it from Perrin's viewpoint was like looking sideways through a glass, some things familiar, some things seen from a different perspective.

Charles Williams wrote novels that have been characterized as "supernatural thrillers," novels of spiritual crisis and overcoming and transcendence. He is perhaps best known for his novels, but also wrote extensive criticism, plays, biographies, theology, and a long cycle of poems in the Arthurian mythos, Taleisin through Logres. Occasionally arcane and opaque, there are in fact deeply symbolic poems that, when they rise above Williams' idiosyncratic mythos and interpretations and symbols, become sublime.

Williams was one of the Inklings at Oxford, that informal writer's group that gathered in J.R.R. Tolkien's rooms to discuss literature, and to critique each others' works. Williams is often considered the thirdmost of the group, after Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, it's two most famous members.

Perrin writes in his essay on All Hallow's Eve:

There is a lot of writing (and filming) about the supernatural going on currently, nearly all of it cynical. It's cynical in the sense that the authors don't believe for a second that there really might be a vampire lurking in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., or that some large dog is possessed by the powers of evil. All they believe in is the marketability of plots like that. Such cynicism has a price. Almost inevitably their books and movies come out shallow.

What a stunning indictment of the entertainment industry. And a true one. It's very hard not to agree with Perrin when regarding the long list of current ultra-violent, ultra-graphic (Japanese-style-influenced) horror films. It's hard at times to tell who is more cynical, the producers of these films, or the viewers. The Scream group of films was a horror trilogy, but it was also a brilliant and funny send-up of its own genre, and quite refreshing as a result. Shallow, but self-aware of its shallowness, and toying with expectations as a result.

Serious writing about the supernatural is quite another matter. That can wind deeper and more powerful than almost anything else in our literature. The Divine Comedy. for example, or Beowulf. The reason is obvious. A universe in which the supernatural operates is a universe charged with meaning. And to invest action with meaning is perhaps the most important thing literature does.

Charles Williams' novel All Hallow's Eve is one of the most powerful works of supernaturalism to appear in our century. It comes, appropriately enough, out of the same nexus as many other such works: The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, the Narnian chronicles. Williams was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—and when his work took him to Oxford during the Second World War, he promptly became the third central figure in the informal literary group known as the Inklings.

Williams is not so nearly well known as Lewis and Tolkien, and there are several reasons. One is that most of the time he is not nearly so good a writer. Another is that he's a much better mystic than either of them—and mystics make harder and higher demands on their readers than story tellers (Tolkien) and allegorists (Lewis). A third is that unlike them Williams does not write the kind of fiction available to both children and adults, but a kind available to adults only. . . .

Here I must somewhat disagree with Perrin. Perhaps I am showing my own mystic's bias, my sympathy to Williams' worldview, as I must place Williams in second position in the Inklings, above Lewis, in importance as a writer. Perrin is quite right when he says Williams is a much better mystic than either of them—and mystics make harder and higher demands on their readers. This is the crux of the matter.

Perrin rightly labels Lewis an allegorist. In even Lewis' best books, the scaffolding always seems close to the surface. His plots are driven by his philosophies, most notably his Christian beliefs which he held as strongly and implacably as most converts in adulthood do. There is always a moral, always a message. Lewis' characters are often just tools of the plot, actors to whom events happen, and who have little depth outside the plot. If you were to taken one of his characters outside the action of their story, it's often hard to know what they'd think or feel or do in a different situation. They are often ciphers of Lewis' philosophy-driven plots, and remain two-dimensional.

Williams, by contrast, gets us inside the minds and feelings of his characters. We identify with them, in his best moments we think their thoughts even as they do, and we feel how naturally their attitudes drive the action. Where Lewis is plot-driven, WIlliams is much more character-driven. We'll return to this later on.

I can agree with Perrin that Williams was not as consistently even a writer as either Tolkien or Lewis; but I don't agree that this was necessarily a fault. Rather, I appreciate that Williams took risks, and sometimes missed his target. Some of his novels, and there are only seven of them, are less well-written than The Lord of the Rings, while two are acknowledged masterpieces. Those two are All Hallow's Eve and Descent Into Hell, which some critics feel is his best novel.

Perrin summarizes the plot and characters of All Hallow's Eve, which I won't reproduce here. They do matter a great deal, but like any great novel, they are not easily summarized. I'm more interested in looking for now at Perrin's conclusions, the insights he gives us into the nature of Williams' writing, and the deeper themes of the novel.

About half of the novel takes place in what Williams

always calls The City, one of many mystical cities that coexist with the actual living London. . . . Most of the newly dead are in that City, though rarely present to each other, since for each of them it is a slightly different place, depending on what each valued in life.

The novel begins with the central lead character finding herself on Westminster Bridge in a quiet nighttime version of The City, and it takes some time and action before she realizes that she is in fact dead. And that's where the novel begins! Where it ends is in simultaneous salvation and damnation, following Williams' belief, exemplified in the parallel and divergent progresses of each character, that choice is essential to both. As Perrin notes,

One main theme in the book is the progressive salvation of [one main character] and the progressive damnation of [another] as they face what they were, and do or don't decide to change.

Choice is central to each character. Each of them are given opportunities to choose, and the choices they make determine their fate. This is a spiritual belief, almost a truism, that is echoed in many mystical traditions. Many of Williams' novels revolve around such choices on the part of a central character. In one or two instances, Williams' writing as a character chooses the Light becomes itself so luminous and bright that one must stop reading for a moment, dazzled and half-blind. If these novels are indeed "supernatural thrillers," one thrill to be found in them is descriptions of enlightenment and salvation poetically sublime.

Where Williams also succeeds as a novelist is that he shows us through action so character-driven and natural-seeming that the plot turns seem inevitable, although never predictable and never manipulative, arising out of the individual character of each player in the drama. Where Lewis, the allegorist, has a tendency to tell us what's going on, and what we should think about it, Williams shows us, and leaves us to understand on our own. You can read All Hallow's Eve purely as an adventure story, if you choose, and ignore all the extra layers of meaning that cluster around the narrative like the whispering dead. Both readings are valid, and both succeed, because they involve the reader in the story, rather than leaving us standing at one intellectual remove.

Perrin ends his essay on Williams' novel with a brief conclusion:

Philip Larkin speaks in his greatest poem . . . ["Church Going," which Perrin also discusses in his book] of people in the twentieth century surprising in themselves a hunger to be more serious than they are. For anyone with that hunger, All Hallow's Eve is a magical book indeed.

I very much agree.

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Blogger Dave King said...

Perrin's A Reader's Delight is not known to me, but it certainly sounds like one I would enjoy, as does All Hallow's Eve. Thanks for a most interesting post.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure, Dave. I predict you'll enjoy both.

8:42 AM  

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