Charles Williams and the Mysticism of the Graal

War in Heaven is often recommended as the first novel one should pick up as introduction to the fiction of Charles Williams. Having just re-read it, I have to concur. Not that it is always easy. None of Williams’s novels are easy. But it may be a tad more accessible than the others, especially if you are a Christian. It contains more explicitly Christian symbolism and imagery than his other novels.

On the surface War in Heaven is a mystery. It begins with this sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” One might think one had opened a Dorothy Sayers’s novel. But when we are introduced to the sociopathic occultist Gregory Persimmons, we begin to realize that this is no ordinary tale; and when the Holy Graal is introduced in the next chapter, we know this is no ordinary tale.

The central character of the story is the Venerable Julian Davenant, Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum. Mr. Davenant initially appears as a typical Anglican priest—thoughtful, pastorally conscientious, well-read, suspicious of high church folderol, devoted to the services of the Book of Common Prayer. But as the story unfolds we learn that he is also a contemplative conversant in the spiritual life and the ways of God. This quiet priest finds himself in possession of the sacred cup of the Last Supper. He does not understand why people are so interested in this relic. Yes, it is sacred, as it was the vessel used by the Lord to commune his disciples in his Precious Blood and indeed used in hundreds of subsequent eucharistic celebrations; but it is not Christ. The Archdeacon’s spirituality is informed by a sacramental apophaticism, “This also is Thou, neither is this Thou”:

He looked at the rapt faces of the young men; he looked at the vessel before him. “Neither is this Thou,” he breathed; and answered, “Yet this also is Thou.” He considered, in this, the chalice offered at every altar, and was aware again of a general movement of all things towards a narrow channel. Of all material things still discoverable in the world the Graal had been nearest to the Divine and Universal Heart. Sky and sea and land were moving, “not towards that vessel, but towards all it symbolized and had held.” The consecration at the Mysteries was for him no miraculous change; he had never dreamed of the heavenly courts attending Christ upon the altar. But in accord with the desire of the Church expressed in the ritual of the Church the Sacred Elements seemed to him to open upon the Divine Nature, upon Bethlehem and Calvary and Olivet, as that itself opened upon the Centre of all. And through that gate, upon those tides of retirement, creation moved. Never so clearly as now had he felt that movement proceeding, but his mind nevertheless knew no other vision than that of a thousand dutifully celebrated Mysteries in his priestly life; so and not otherwise all things return to God.

Though drawn neither to ecstatic visions nor the veneration of relics, the Archdeacon knows that he has a duty to keep the Graal out of the hands of those who would use it for demonic purposes. Upon his devotion and duty to his Lord hangs the tale.

In the course of the story we meet a number of curious characters. The most mysterious is the young stranger, who names himself to the amoral Sir Giles Tumulty: “I am Prester John, I am the Graal and the Keeper of the Graal. All enchantment has been stolen from me, and to me the Vessel itself shall return.” Prester John, we learn, is priest, king, and appointed guardian of the sacred Chalice. He states that he is not Christ, yet he appears to dissolve into Christ in the glorious celebration of the Graal-Mass.

Everything was veiled, but not so entirely that he did not hear from somewhere behind him, in space or in experience, the Duke’s voice saying, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” or a call from in front, “Lift up your hearts,” or again, from behind, Barbara’s voice crying, “We lift them up unto the Lord,” or, in a higher and more tremendous summons, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord,” and, amid the tumult of song that broke out, Lionel’s own voice joining in the answer, “It is meet and right so to do.”

“It is very meet, right…” the priest-king said; the three heard it, and heard no more intelligible words. They saw Adrian moving up and about; they saw his grave and happy face as he turned to some motion of his Lord’s; they saw him go back and sit down again on his hassock, cuddling his knees, glance down at his mother, and turn to watch the event. For now the unknown sounds were pealing steadily on; all separate beings, save where the hands of the lovers lingered in a final clasp, were concentrated on that high motionless Figure–motionless, for in Him all motions awaited His movement to be loosed, and still He did not move. All sound ceased; all things entered into an intense suspension of being; nothing was anywhere at all but He.

He stood; He moved His hands. As if in benediction He moved them, and at once the golden halo that had hung all this while over the Graal dissolved and dilated into spreading colour; and at once life leapt in all those who watched, and filled and flooded and exalted them. “Let us make man,” He sang, “in Our image, after Our likeness,” and all the church of visible and invisible presences answered with a roar: “In the image of God created He him: male and female created He them.” All things began again to be. At a great distance Lionel and Barbara and the Duke saw beyond Him, as He lifted up the Graal, the moving universe of stars, and then one flying planet, and then fields and rooms and a thousand remembered places, and all in light and darkness and peace.

He seemed to hold the Graal no more; the divine colour that had moved in that vision of creation swathed Him as a close-bound robe. Beyond Him the church was again visible, and silence succeeded to the flying music that had accompanied vision. Like the centre of that silence, they heard His voice calling as if He called a name. He had not turned; still He faced the altar, and thrice He called and was still. The Archdeacon stood up suddenly in his stall; then he came sedately from it, and turned in the middle of the chancel to face the three who watched. He smiled at them, and made a motion of farewell with his hand; then he turned and went up to the sanctuary. At the same moment Adrian, as if in obedience to some command, scrambled to his feet and came down towards his mother. At the gate of the sanctuary the two met; the child paused and raised his face; gravely they exchanged the kiss of peace. Before Adrian had reached Barbara the other began to mount the steps of the altar, and as he set his foot on the first sank gently to the ground.

On the instant, as they gazed, the church, but for them and the prostrate form, was empty. The sunlight shone upon an altar as bare as the pavement before it; without violence, without parting, the Graal and its Lord were gone.

Who but Charles Williams could have so envisioned the eucharistic marriage of heaven and earth?

Before the Mass, Prester John has an illuminating conversation with Lionel Rackstraw. Rackstraw is filled with terror, anxiety, hopelessness. He is convinced that only terrible things will happen to himself and to those he loves. The dialogue spoke to me with special power.

Lionel received with a certain shock the news of Gregory’s surrender, but it was a shock produced merely by its suddenness. His eyes dropped to Adrian [his young son] with a certain questioning dread, as if he were wondering what similar fate in after-life already predestined that innocent and ignorant head. And as Barbara, murmuring of breakfast, or at least of some sort of coffee and biscuits before they went over to the church, disappeared into the cottage with her son, the stranger said to Lionel, “Yet he may escape.”

Lionel looked up. “Oh, yes,” he said vaguely, though he felt the fantasy, as he stood alone with the other, take sharp form within his mind. “Oh, yes–that, but something awaits him surely of ruin and of despair.”

“It may be,” the stranger said, “but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves, and I think you fear them overmuch.”

“I fear all things,” Lionel answered, “and I do not understand how it is that men do not fear them more. In the town it is bad enough, but there one is deafened and blinded by people and things. But here everything is so still and meditative, and I am afraid of what those meditations are.”

“Is there, then, nothing pleasant in life?” Prester John said.

Lionel answered, almost savagely, “Can’t you see that when life is most pleasant one suspects it most? Unless one can drug oneself with the moment and forget.”

“I do not think you drug yourself much,” the stranger said, smiling. “Are you sure you do not love your fears?”

“No,” Lionel said; “I am not sure of anything. I do think I love to feel them though I loathe them, but I do not know why.”

“Because so chiefly you feel yourself alive,” the other said, “separated from them and hostile and tormented, but alive in heart and brain. You desire death! Your very desire witnesses how passionately you feel these things and how strongly you live.”

Lionel smiled a little. “Heautontimoroumenos?” he asked doubtfully.

“No, not that,” the stranger answered. “But you are afraid of losing yourself in the fantasies of daily life, and you think that these pains will save you. 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.”

God is the goal and end of all desire. He gives himself and only himself. The last paragraph is revelatory.

Are you tempted to enter into the esoteric and mystical world of Charles Williams? War in Heaven would be a good door through which to walk.

(Also see Sørina Higgins’s “A Reader’s Guide for Beginners.”)

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13 Responses to Charles Williams and the Mysticism of the Graal

  1. mkenny114 says:

    Thank you for this interesting post. Having only read War In Heaven fairly recently, and having read it after some of the more ‘difficult’ novels, I would have to agree that it is probably the best place to start! I think I probably enjoyed it from the perspective of story more than Descent Into Hell, The Place of the Lion or All Hallows Eve, though I think DIH offers the most clear presentation of his theology/philosophy.

    Having said all this, I am still not sure whether I like (though I am not sure if ‘like’ is really the right word) Williams – at times he moves towards the sublime and the profound, but at others seems to clutter his thought with unnecessary over-development of his ideas. I also suspect sometimes that his metaphysics (especially wrt to the Way of Affirmation) suffers from being too closely impinged upon by his (rather neurotic, I feel) psychology and personality.

    Apologies for the lack of clarity here – this always happens when I try and think/talk about Charles Williams! And thank you again for the post – most thought provoking.


  2. Bill B says:

    Wonderful post concerning a fantastic novel – but is the link to the Sørina Higgins article broken?


  3. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    Great post! Continue writing, my brother!


  4. Todd Granger says:

    Agree with you completely about _War in Heaven_, Al.


  5. Pingback: Charles Williams and the Mysticism of the Graal | The Oddest Inkling

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am glad my first Williams novel was War in Heaven, and I still like it best of them all. My account of the history of its composition (and that of the other novels) in my contribution to Volume 153 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography is still probably the most detailed published to date.Summing up there, I say, “War in Heaven is, in effect, a persuasive fictional theodicy – enriched and troubled by the strange figure of Prester John”. I devote some more attention to him in “The Holy Chalice of Valencia, the Holy Grail – and (possibly) Charles Williams”, published in The Charles Williams Quarterly, No. 139 (Summer/Autumn 2011). I have since revised this, adding an appendix with yet more attention to Prester John, but not yet published it anywhere.

    Williiams could have read about John as Keeper of the Grail in Jessie Weston’s translation of Wofram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (1894: a 1912 “anastatic reprint” of which is available online at the Internet Archive), though he could of course also have read of that detail elsewhere. Another curious possibility is that he is playing with ideas derived from interpretations of the Gospel of St. John 21:21-24 – might he even intend Prester John to be St. John the Divine? You mention “the esoteric and mystical world of Charles Williams”. It is interesting in this context to note not only A.E. Waite’s Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909), Book X, “The Secret Church”, section VI, “The Tradition of St. John the Divine and Other Traces of a Higher Mind of the Church”, pp. 661-68 (also in the Internet Archive), but the Rev. Mr. A.H.E. Lee’s The Wisdom of the Cross: Meditations for Passiontide (Mowbray, 1926), VI. “Mother and Disciple at the Cross” (pp. 50-59) – which seems in many ways close to what Waite writes in his book,even to the point of having verbal echoes. Lee, who became a life-long friend, seems to have helped introduce Williams to Waite, and both were members of Waite’s Rosicrucian Fellowship. Not that one can reduce Williams to what Waite or Lee may have said or thought, but there seems a real possibility that arcane discussions about St. John might well have taken place between the friends.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you for the info on Prester John and Charles Williams. Very interesting.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Fr. Aidan,

        It could all be seen as an elaborating or varying of your observation, “He states that he is not Christ, yet he appears to dissolve into Christ in the glorious celebration of the Graal-Mass.”

        In Outlines of Romantic Theology, only published posthumously in1990 but finished in the autumn of 1924, not much more than a year before he began writing War in Heaven, Williams includes a chapter, “Doctors and Documents”, among which he considers Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. There he writes, “the whole purpose of Galahad is the Achievement of the Graal, the being made one with the Body and Blood of Love. This is brought about at the Mass sung by Love in the spiritual city – a Mass of our Lady, she who is herself historically Galahad and herself the Graal in which the Divine Body dwelt.”

        Nearly 20 years later, in “Malory and the Grail Legend” (published in the Dublin Review in April 1944 and reprinted in The Image of the City and Other Essays), he says much the same thing, though with more scholarly reserve and detail: “Joseph of Arimathie says Mass – only he? only he in Malory, but there is a phrase which suggests more: ‘a man kneeling on his knees in the likeness of a bishop, that had about him a great fellowship of angels [what follows he italicizes] as it had been Jesu Christ himself; and then he arose and began a mass of Our Lady’. The italics are mine; they will suffice to suggest that at that moment something like the Creation and the Redemption exist at once.”

        A comparison between Prester John in War in Heaven and references to “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament has also occurred to me – and may have, to Williams as author as well.


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Correction: “Wolfram”.

    Around a decade after War in Heaven was published, Williams included St. John in a play (which also includes Simon Magus). If I am not mistaken, Prester John does not turn up again as a character in any of his work. But in War in Heaven, John not only announces, “This war is ended and another follows quickly”, but also says something to another character which finds a clear fulfillment in the novel Many Dimensions, which can therefore be regarding as a kind of sequel.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    May I add one of my favorite quotations to your excellently chosen ones? It is a prayer by Archdeacon Davenant, with a diction perhaps recalling that of another ‘Julian’ (of Norwich) – a copy of whose book he carries around with him (it is in chapter 4): ““Ah, fair sweet Lord, […] let me keep this Thy vessel, if it be Thy vessel; for love’s sake, fair Lord, if Thou hast held it in Thy hands, let me take it into mine. And, if not, let me be courteous still to it for Thy sake, courteous Lord; since this might well have been that, and that was touched by Thee.”


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