When the MacGuffin Becomes THE MacGuffin

Long kept secure and hidden from the grasping of men, the Stone of Suleiman finds itself once again an object of desire and action. The Persian guardians seek to recover it, for the honor of Islam and family. Sir Giles Tumulty seeks to comprehend its mysteries, no matter what the cost to others. Cecelia Sheldrake and her husband seek to monopolistically exploit its supernatural power of translocation, while Theophilus Merridew, General Secretary of the National Transport Union, seeks to seeks to protect the employment of his workers from the the same power. Eustace Clerishaw seeks to use the Stone to heal the sick of his village. Garterr Browne seeks to appropriate it for the perhaps nefarious purposes of the government. And pathetic Frank Lindsay seeks to use it to help him pass an estate agency exam. All seek to possess the Stone, to own the Stone, to use the Stone, to exploit the Stone—to impose their will upon it.

Given how the the Stone drives the narrative action of Many Dimensions, one might plausibly propose that it functions as a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock offers this anecdote:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.
“What is that?” the first man asks.
“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”
“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.
“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

“So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all,” comments Hitchcock. Nothing at all! How can that which commands the attention of the characters be a nothing? Because its sole purpose is to create the suspense and tension. “The MacGuffin,” states Jeffrey Bays, “is like a wild card which can be inserted to stand for anything.”

Yet the Stone of Suleiman certainly seems to be more than a nothing; but if it’s more than a nothing that is because it is more than a something. It bears within itself the holy, unpronounceable Name of the Creator. Hajii Ibrahim, guardian of the Stone, tells us that it is “the First Matter of Creation, holy and terrible.” As the Silmarils contain the heavenly Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, so the Stone contains “that Light which is the Spirit of Creation, the Adornment of the Unity, the Knowledge of the Loveliness, the Divine Image in the mirror of the worlds just and true” (p. 227). The Stone is seemingly impersonal, passive, unable to will anything for itself … and yet to Chloe Burnett, the one person in the story who does not seek to use it, the Stone invites absolute surrender.

A key moment occurs one night while Chloe is quietly in bed, the Stone tucked under her pillow. She hears the faint click of the door-handle. She knows that someone has come to steal the ancient talisman. She must protect it. She needs only to invoke the Stone to teleport herself to safety. But using the powers of the Stone, even for the purpose of protecting it, seems wrong.

She only had to make use of the Stone and all would be safe. In the thrill of assured safety she all but made a face at the unknown, if there were an unknown. And there was; for one second on the edge of the dark an edge of a finger showed. Something was moving towards her in the night. Well, that was all right; they could go on moving. She had only to will and—She had only to will … to use the Stone. In a horror of anguish she understood the choice that was presented to her.

Her thoughts went through her head like Niagara. … How could she use the Stone? yet how could she bear not to if whoever it was came nearer? He was probably trying to see if her hands were empty; well, they weren’t. He won’t know if I ve got it in my hand or not, she thought. Could she sit up, switch on the light, and with the Stone in her hand dare him to move? No—it was too risky; he’d think of something she wasn’t prepared for and perhaps snatch it from her. Then she would use it; after all she was using it to save it. She was doing for it what it could not do for itself. She was protecting it. Not being a reader of religious history Chloe was ignorant what things have been done in the strength of that plea, or with what passionate anxiety men have struggled to protect the subordination of Omnipotence. But in her despair she rejected what churches and kings and prelates have not rejected; she refused to be deceived, she refused to attempt to be helpful to the God, and being in an agony she prayed more earnestly. The God purged her as she writhed; lucidity entered into her; she turned upon her face, and with both hands beneath her pillow holding the Stone, she lay still, saying only silently in her panting breath: “Thy will, … do … do if Thou wilt; or”—she imagined the touch of the marauder on the calf of her leg and quivering in every nerve added—“or … not.” (pp. 217-218)

In that moment Chloe gives herself to the Stone. She renounces the employment of the Stone and grants it the freedom to act, or not act, on its own behalf. Through this surrender Chloe is brought into a union with “the Will of That which is behind the Stone” (p. 228). Placing herself within the Stone, Chloe achieves the end of desire. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 16:25).

A McGuffin is nothing because it ultimately disappears into the characters and their relationships; by the end of the story the reader no longer cares about it. In Many Dimensions the Stone of Suleiman and its multiple Types finally disappear from the narrative, returning through Chloe to the holy Transcendence that created it. Chloe herself disappears, her soul and body consumed by her ineffable union with the Unity: “what the Stone had been she now was” (p. 261). Yet in the mind of the reader the mystery of the Stone remains: “The way to the Stone is in the Stone” (p. 268).

Was there a MacGuffin?

Who is the MacGuffin?

(Return to first article)

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10 Responses to When the MacGuffin Becomes THE MacGuffin

  1. Bilbo says:

    For some reason, reading that passage from the story brought tears to my eyes.

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  2. This was my first Charles Williams novel, and you have made me wish to reread it. A lot of the hermetic notions and symbols in his books are over my head, but the concept of a potent union of wills through surrender to the Divine is not only hermetic but very recognizably Christian and Patristic. I’ve been finding it lately in Gregory of Nyssa and John of Damascus.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I cannot recall which was the first Williams’s novel that I read. I think it was The Greater Trumps but I’m not sure. After re-reading Many Dimensions I would probably recommend it as a good entry into Williams’s fiction, though War in Heaven would also be a good book with which to begin.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      During my re-reading of Many Dimensions I wondered how Williams’s might have employed the distinction of St Gregory Palamas between the divine essence and energies.

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  3. Thank you for this. I have all (I think) of Charles Williams’ novels in a box in a closet. I have only read them once, and I think this winter is the time to dig them out to be enjoyed a second time, after a mere 30 years or so!

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If you’re ever near the right sort of library, you might enjoy having a look at my contribution to volume 153 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, which, after 19 years, still has what is probably the latest word about some aspects of the composition history of Williams’s novels, and will continue to, for at least the next few months until Grevel Lindop’s new biography of him appears!

    War in Heaven was the second written, begun by Epiphany 1926, when his friend, John Pellow, mentions it in his diary, adding he had “a third in view”. Pellow suggested his offering all three to Faber “as a trilogy”, which Williams thought “a magnificent idea.” And on 30 December 1925, Williams referred in a letter to his long poem, “Lilith”, which includes a wonderful Stone of Solomon, and which was published in Heroes & Kings in 1931. But whether “the third in view” was very like Many Dimensions, I do not know.

    The first novel (written in 1925), considerably revised, was his fifth novel published, with the title Shadows of Ecstasy. I think there are elements in Many Dimensions which could not have been written before April 1927, as well as later contemporary references. But I think Many Dimensions is clearly a sort of sequel to War in Heaven. In the first of these two novels, Prester John effectively prophesies something which is fulfilled in the second (even though he does not clearly reappear as a character). He also announces, “This war is ended and another follows quickly” – which is arguably fulfilled by Many Dimensions in general.

    So, I would suggest extra enjoyment lies in (re)reading War in Heaven and Many Dimensions one after the other in that order!

    I even wonder if Williams, with the Stone, is playing with the characterization of the Grail as “Stone” in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. (A.E. Waite, to whose Rosicrucian Fellowship Williams belonged, includes an account of the cubical stone Schethiyâ, inscribed with the Divine Name and cast by God into the abyss to form the basis and be the central point of the world, in his Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913), comparing it both to Wolfram’s Graal and the stone in Lucifer’s crown, which he identifies with each other in another book known to Williams, The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909): both of which are scanned in the Internet Archive.)

    I like to borrow a term from Williams’s play, Thomas Cranmer (1936), where one of the characters is described as Figura Rerum, and apply that to the Graal of War in Heaven and the Stone of Many Dimensions – in War in Heaven, indeed, in combination with Prester John whose form “appears to come forth from the universe it expressed” and who describes himself as “the Graal, and the keeper of the Graal.”

    Among other things, I think both Graal and Stone represent the ‘material’ Creation as Creation (sustained by God) to which Christ joined Himself, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God”, as the ‘Anthanasian Creed’ in the Book of Common Prayer puts it.

    So, no mere MacGuffin(s)!

    (I also wonder in how far the muliplication of the Stone is meant to be compared with the Eucharistic Presence of Totus Christus in each and every consecrated morsel!)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent! Thank you.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        You’re welcome! I also wrote an article for the Williams Society Quarterly, which is in a later issue than those now available as an archive at the Society’s site, and which needs a corrected reprint, sometime (and which I’ve gone on expanding, in the hope of some such reprint…!), about the possibility of Williams knowing of the Santo Caliz, the relic which is both a Chalice and (as far as the Cup itself goes) made of stone, and is now in Valencia Cathedral, and seems the best claimant to actually being the Holy Grail in the sense of the Chalice used at the Last Supper: both Janice Bennett and (in German) Michael Hesemann have fairly recently written books about the Holy Chalice.

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