Monday, December 12, 2011

"Descent into Hell" by Charles Williams

This was the one I was dreading as I decided to read all of Williams’ novels this year. Years ago when I first decided to read all seven, “Descent” is the one that undid me. Reading the previous five this year was a good preparation and training apparently. That, and as they say: the third time is the charm.

Some, like the reviewer quoted on the back of my copy, say that this is Charles Williams’ best novel. It does certainly best communicate his theology. That is also where the problems arise.

First, Williams is always in danger of getting lost in his ideas at the expense of his story—when he remembers to include a story in the first place. “Descent into Hell” has the slightest plot of any of his novels to date. Ostensibly, it is the story of a group of people trying to put on a play. In reality it is about the play of their lives as it interacts with the people of their locality, both living and dead; and the danger of choosing self over love. This is the sort of thing that Lewis was far better at, he seldom let the ideas shoulder the story out of a tale. In fact it could be said that he used story instead of words to communicate and illuminate reality.

The second problem here is Williams’ ideas themselves. They are not all problematic. He presents a compelling picture of the hell that self idolatry is. The concept of the succubus is used as a good illustration and even more realistic in its implication and effects today. The creature called Mrs. Sammile is extremely well done and perhaps the scariest thing Williams has ever imagined, but more of an afterthought with all of the other things occurring. The real problematic idea here is Williams’ pet theology, the Doctrine of Substituted Love. It is not a bad idea in principle, but the way he sees it working across time, with the martyred ancestor—baptism for the dead and all that—it ceases to be strictly Biblical.

The last problem this book had is my own. I am not well educated enough to fully grasp everything he was playing with here. This is yet another thing I have interacted with in the past couple of years that makes me see the need to improve my Shakespeare; in particular “The Tempest.”

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