Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams (1931)

Shadows of Ecstasy was Williams’ first effort at a novel, but it was not published until after War in Heaven and Many Dimensions. It is easy to see this fact in the way Williams here has less polish on his story and more interest in communicating his ideas. He does this by continually exploring the (very dense and complexly worded) thoughts of his characters. This is a style that Williams uses in all of his novels, but here one gets the impression that he had several philosophical issues he wished to explore and almost forgot to attach them to an engaging plot.

The plot, so far as there is one, concerns the attacks on Europe from an African force, led by a humanist ascetic who has managed to live for 200 years. More important than this plot are the reactions to it by several characters of various world views that Williams would continue to explore in his writings. There is an older man who closely resembles a follower of the absurdist branch of agnosticism. There is a literature professor whose religion is poetry. Another young man is a devotee of romantic love. The most admirable characters, as Williams presents them, are a priest who is the orthodox Christian view, and the poet’s wife who exhibits Williams’ ideal of truly selfless love.

For modern audiences this book might be nearly unreadable. The vocabulary, writing style and sheer depth of meaning are not something people are used to anymore. Williams fails (more so here than in others of his efforts) to clearly and effortlessly present his ideas amidst the story in the way that C. S. Lewis and others do so well. However, it is a worthy effort and rewarding to those who enjoy examining and critiquing the beliefs that people follow.

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