T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of the novels of Charles Williams, calling them “supernatural thrillers.”
These handful of novels, written between 1931 and 1945, attracted other fans, such as C.S. Lewis, author of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R. R. Tolkien, creator of the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings — both of whom became friends of Williams.
All three — Williams, Lewis and Tolkien — could be termed writers of fantasies — although, depending on who is using the term and what context it’s used in, this can seem a term of denigration. I don’t mean it that way.
There are light, flitty sorts of fantasy novels, but these men didn’t write that sort. They were more like the sorts of fantasy novels that have come from Neil Gaiman, the late Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore.
Before you jump down my throat with protests, let me say that I recognize that Gaiman, Pratchett and Moore have produced novels that are often funny and even silly. Moore’s stories have been called absurdist, but I believe that’s because he’s an American. If he were British, they’d be fantasy.
Lewis can be somewhat playful, but Tolkien and Williams are much more serious in their approach. Nonetheless, there is, I believe, a link among all of these writers.
“If there really was…”
It has to do with how Pratchett created his fantasies, and I think it applies to Gaiman himself, Moore and the three earlier writers: Williams, Lewis and Tolkien.
It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together.
It was the engine that drove Discworld [the setting for Pratchett’s enormously popular and hilariously inventive fantasy series of 41 novels] — it’s not a “what if…” or an “if only…” or even an “if this goes on…”; it was the far more subtle and dangerous “if there was really a…. what would that mean? How would it work?”
The core of the sort of fantasy that these writers produced and, in some cases, are still producing has to do with that idea of how the world would be if there really was something — say, angels and vampires (Moore), the Antichrist and Armageddon (Gaiman and Pratchett) or an invasion of the Platonic archetypes into the mundane world that we know (Williams, The Place of the Lion).
Williams, Lewis and Tolkien were members of the Inklings, a group of writers associated with Oxford University that met regularly to discuss and encourage the writing of serious-minded fantasy. I think they saw it as a way to popularize Great Ideas.
All three write about the collision of good and evil, but, in his 1931 The Place of the Lion, Williams was more explicit in weaving his fiction with theology and philosophy.
This novel looks at what happens when the world of Plato’s principles or archetypes starts to leak into the mundane world of day-to-day existence.
For Williams, these archetypes are, in fact, God’s angels — Divine Universals. And, as single-focused as they are, they aren’t, individually, very good for humanity.
“Rather gentle and helpful?”
When the central character Anthony Durrant is told that appearances by a huge lion and a giant snake and a gargantuan butterfly are, in fact, the physical expressions of angels, he is confused.
After all, by this point in the story, the archetypes have been creating all sorts of trouble — the dog scaring one man into a coma and another into hiding in the countryside; the snake nearly choking the life out of Anthony, and the butterfly subsuming all other butterflies.
And more is to come, including a pterodactyl that attacks and tries to overwhelm Anthony’s love Damaris.
So, it’s no surprise when Anthony says:
What harm would the Divine Universals do it? I mean, aren’t the angels supposed to be rather gentle and helpful and all that?”
“A cloud of rushing darkness”
His friend, Richardson, tells Anthony that he is judging angels by their portrayal by English painters — “all nightgowns and body and a kind of flacculent sweetness.” In fact, he says:
“These are angels — not a bit the same thing. These are principles of the tiger and the volcano and the flaming suns of space.”
Anthony comes to realize that a change is under way which will result in the domination of these angels over humankind.
He thought of Tighe on his knees before the butterflies; he thought of Foster crouched back like a wild animal, and Dora Wilmot’s arm twisting like a serpent under his foot; and beyond these he saw in a cloud of rushing darkness the forms of terror that ruled this new creation — the lion, the soaring butterfly, the shaking ripples of the earth that were themselves the serpent.
Philosophy, theology and the book’s pleasures
The more that the reader of The Place of the Lion is conversant with the language and ideas of philosophy and theology, the greater will be this book’s pleasures, it seems to me.
For myself, I was able to keep up a bit with my spotty background in philosophy and less spotty learning in theology. But I fear there was much I missed.
Even so, any reader who is willing to take this novel on its own terms — perhaps not a very easy thing to do in this secular age — will find a strong, compelling story of dread and threat and heroism.
The philosophy and theology are the skeleton in which the psychology of the characters is developed. And, while this may, at times, seem constraining, Williams, nevertheless, puts recognizably human people on the page, acting in recognizably human ways.
Doing the necessary thing
There is a psychological sensitivity to his depiction of the ways the characters react to the suddenly growing danger:
Quentin, Anthony’s best friend, runs and hides. Mr. Tighe, the father of Damaris, falls to his knees in worship of the giant butterfly. Scheming characters give themselves over to the power of the angels with dire consequences. And Anthony goes out to face the angels — and stares them down.
I’m thinking that The Place of the Lion was strongly influenced by Williams’ reaction of World War I. At its heart, this book is about doing the scary thing, the hard thing, the necessary thing, the right thing.
It is about facing challenges rather than fleeing from them or succumbing to them without a fight.
It is about turning toward life — and love. And about how happiness is a mix of all the angels of human nature.
No matter what language that’s in, it tells great truth.
Patrick T. Reardon