Tagged: C.S. Lewis

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams, 2/5

I’m not going to lie: I had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on for large portions of this novel and ran immediately to Google after finishing it to see what overarching themes I was too oblivious to comprehend. I guess it says something that the most helpful-looking analyses were hidden behind academic paywalls…

Undoubtedly, Williams had a more coherent vision than what he communicates through the overlapping stories of a saintly poet, an orphan haunted by her doppelgänger, the ghost of a past suicide, and a historian who creates a succubus from pure ego, among others. In retrospect, it is surprising that a novel with so many interesting characters could have so little plot and so many tedious passages of incomprehensible spiritual imagery. There are several places in which Williams purposefully disintegrates the English language in what I can only guess is an approximation of what having a stroke would feel like.

All in all, not my favorite reading experience, though with themes like art, sacrificial love, death, and the sin of self-absorption, I can understand how it might resonate better with other people or at another time.

Why I read it: the last of Williams’ seven “novels of the supernatural” I had left, since starting with All Hallows’ Eve.


Shadows of Ecstasy

Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams, 3/5

Brimming with Williams’ trademark brand of semi-plausible bizarreness, this story depicts the “Second Evolution of Man,” a physical and spiritual take-over of Western civilization, centered in Africa and led by the charismatic Nigel Considine. The author (not very convincingly) pits Christianity, spirituality and agnosticism against a cult of super-humanity which, having re-focused the most powerful human emotions to unlock the secret of perpetual fulfillment and eternal life, is on the cusp of mastering the act of self-resurrection as well.

The plot moves along well and Williams refrains from too many of the tiresome and esoteric flights of spirituality that characterize many of his other works. However, I felt ambivalent about the main characters and a bit exhausted trying to distinguish any potential racism amongst the 1930s vocabulary.

Why I read it: the fifth in Williams’ set of supernatural thrillers.

The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams, 3/5

This story of a young couple’s quest to unlock the power of the original tarot deck features beautifully crafted dialogue, fantastical imagery, interesting characters and, unfortunately, some Romani stereotypes that have not aged well.

Why I read it: it’s the fourth book in Charles Williams’ set of supernatural thrillers.

Many Dimensions

Many Dimensions by Charles Williams, 4/5

This spellbinding book must not be judged by this later edition’s psychedelic cover art or by a mere summary of its bizarre plot, in which an infinitely divisible holy relic empowers its keepers to travel through time and space. The story is, in fact, much more sophisticated than you might expect–peopled with interesting characters and exploring (often humorously) the political, social, and ethical ramifications of such an object’s existence. I felt the plot was a little weak towards the end, or it would have been a 5/5 for me.

Why I read it: I am working my way through Charles Williams’ seven supernatural novels.

War in Heaven

War in Heaven by Charles Williams, 3/5

I’m not going to pretend that I understood the more esoteric implications of this bizarre spiritual thriller, but I certainly did enjoy its zany plot, humor, and original take on the ever-popular search for the Holy Grail. It’s not a particularly well-crafted novel, but it’s hard to fault a story that opens thusly:

The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.

Why I read it: After my introduction to Charles Williams via All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to read some of his other “novels of the supernatural,” of which War in Heaven is the first.

All Hallows’ Eve

All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5

I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.

Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.


miracles c.s. lewis harpersanfrancisco 2001Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis, 5/5

It’s like no one told C.S. Lewis that you can’t prove the existence of God, so he just does.  And that is merely to lay the foundation for his main topic, which I actually found much less interesting and convincing than the preliminary discussions–the man does not shirk an intellectual challenge.  Though I have occasionally sensed some antagonism from him towards science, in this book he cheerfully tackles both the known and unknown with the grace, focus and rigorous logic that make me sometimes fear that I tend to put more faith in him than in God.  Of course, no matter how hard one tries to be open-minded and logical, it cannot be too difficult a task to convince someone of something they already believe.  With that in mind, I would love to know how this book is perceived by people with different backgrounds and beliefs than me.

Why I read it: C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and thankfully, every time I think I’ve read all his books I come across a new one.

The Pilgrim’s Regress

pilgrim's regress c s lewis william b eerdmans 2000The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism by C.S. Lewis, 4/5

Motivated by a mysterious Desire, John leaves behind the lifeless religion of his hometown, Puritania, and explores both the stern, unrelenting wastes of the cerebral North and the swamps of untrammeled self-gratification in the animal South.  This journey from “‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity” will be recognizable to those familiar with C.S. Lewis’s more biographical works (200).  Admittedly obscure, this tale is similar to George MacDonald’s Phantastes in that its value may be more in the recognition than the revelation–I suspect that if I reread it every 10 years or so, my appreciation of the truths it tells will grow in proportion with my own life-experience.

[Why I read it: a fortunate thrift store find!]

Present Concerns

present concerns c.s. lewisPresent Concerns: A Compelling Collection of Timely, Journalistic Essays by C.S. Lewis, 4/5

The necessarily limited length of these articles means that Lewis doesn’t have time to fully develop and defend his opinions, but they are still a joy to read and cover a stimulating variety of topics (in addition to the ever-present subject of Christianity) such as history, philosophy, education, and morality.  Some of the essays have not aged well and some would be of little interest to the average reader, but overall they are a nice supplement to Lewis’ more in-depth works.

[Why I read it: It seems that just when I think I’ve read everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, something else turns up.  I think I picked this unfamiliar title up at some used bookstore or other.]

The Discarded Image

discarded image c.s. lewisThe Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis, 4/5

Readers who aren’t put off by the rather abstruse tour, in chapters three and four, of ancient writers who influenced the medieval mind will be well rewarded by an accessible analysis of what C.S. Lewis calls the medieval “Model of the Universe,” as evinced by the literature of the time.  This Model is fascinating in its coherence, aesthetic appeal, contrast with the modern point of view and, especially, comprehensiveness: astronomy, biology, philosophy, physiology, physics, art…none of these topics are left out.  Even the most outlandish of medieval beliefs is treated by Lewis with sensitivity, understanding and not a trace of chronological snobbery, though I do wish that many of his claims were more rigorously substantiated.

This book is full of interesting facts and themes that I am, depressingly, forgetting even as I type this review.  Some of the most interesting (stripped, in the interest of conciseness, of the discussion and proofs that accompany them) follow:

  • According to Lewis, the Medievals were “very credulous of books” and had little or no concept of fact vs fiction when it came to literature (11).
  • “I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day [the transitional period considered the source of much medieval thinking, circa 205 to 533AD] as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics.  It is a grave error.  They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man.  The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man.  Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious” (46).
  • “…educated people in the Middle Ages never believed the winged men who represent angels in painting and sculpture to be more than symbols” (71).
  • “Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. […] The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance.  Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not” (101).
  • “In all this [literary descriptions of opulence] one may suspect a certain vulgarity of imagination–as if to be a High Fairy were much the same as being a millionaire.  Nor does it obviously mend matters to remind ourselves that Heaven and the saints were often pictured in very similar terms.  Undoubtedly it is naïf; but the charge of vulgarity perhaps involves a misapprehension.  Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly.  But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so.  The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful.  They were all symbolical or significant–of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power.  They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy.  They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer” (131).
  • Medievals lacked a “sense of period” when it came to history: they “pictured the whole past in terms of their own age,” attributing to historical people the same language, clothing, customs, and religious practices as themselves (182).  This gave them a feeling of close connection to the past.  Such a close connection, in fact, that the perceived reality of the historical stories “forces them presently to see and hear, hence to set down, at first a little more, and then a good deal more, than their book has actually told them. […] If they had been less rapt by what they read they would have reproduced him more faithfully” (212).  This tendency to act “like a historian who misrepresents the documents because he feels sure that things must have happened in a certain way” (211) fills me with horror, but that is because the modern conception of “originality” and the value placed on it was simply not an issue in the Middle Ages.  “The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.  Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?” (211).

But my favourite parts of the book are those three night walks where Lewis looks up at the starry sky and helps you to feel what people from the Middle Ages might have felt at the same view (98, 112, 118).

[Why I read it: It’s unusual to find a C.S. Lewis book that I haven’t read, so I was happy to spot this attractive edition on the shelves of Magus Books.]