(Note: this review appeared in the National Catholic Register, some years ago—around 1982, I think. I found, on re-reading it, that I had identified the character to whom the title refers. In the interests of not giving away too much of the story to first-time readers of the novel, I’ve removed that name; otherwise the review is as it originally appeared.)
Charles Williams was a member of the circle of literary friends which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He shared with them a belief in Christianity and a dislike for the prevailing naturalistic mode in literature. And like them, he wrote novels in which the natural, the supernatural, and the sheerly imaginative are freely mingled, though his work is utterly different from theirs, with the exception of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
For much of his life Williams belonged (with Yeats and the Satanist Aleister Crowley) to the Order of the Golden Dawn, a gnostic cult with secret rituals and a devotion to the study if not the practice, of magic. In spite of this, his writings leave one with no doubt that he was a Christian, though not a Catholic. He himself always considered his great work to have been a long and complex Arthurian poem, Taliessin Through Logres. Unfortunately, almost no one else (not even T.S. Eliot, another friend and admirer of Williams) has been able to make much sense of it. His reputation now rests chiefly on his novels.
These suffice, however, to make Williams a Christian author worth everyone’s attention. Six of the seven, most of them long out of print, have now been reprinted by Eerdmans in paperbacks of reasonable price and quality. This brief review will mention only one, considered by many to be Williams’ best: Descent Into Hell.
This book is as dreadfully accurate and complete a description of the psychology of sin as can be found in fiction. It confronts us with the truth which each of us holds, consciously or not, in his heart: the fact that we desire to sin and are often willing, not in ignorance but in full knowledge, to choose certain misery over obedience. The damned soul in Descent Into Hell chooses to reject the world of the living because he does not occupy in it the position of importance to which he feels entitled.
A striking aspect of Williams’ conception of sin is his equation of evil and illusion; this notion has the lovely converse that only what is good is really true. The characters in the book who yield to temptation are yielding to a desire that the universe be modified to suit their preferences, and when this desire is not granted by reality they embrace falsehood. In the case of this book’s lost soul case especially, and in a manner which I leave to the reader’s discovery, the phrase “devices of our own hearts” (from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) has a horrible and entirely literal meaning.
This literalness in Williams’ treatment of supernatural reality makes the book very strange, so strange and so complex that it is folly to hope to give any real sense of its richness in so brief a review as this. Time and space in the book are subject to the most extreme transformations, and the lost one’s fall is only one of a number of contrapuntal threads in the narrative, several of which lead to salvation for the people involved, so that the book could almost as well have been titled Ascent Into Heaven.
Williams’ prose, and his vision as well, become obscure at times, and a certain odor of occultism clings to the book—especially to the character Stanhope, half guru, half poet, and entirely benevolent, but having a little too much of the magician about him to suit me. Still, most of the book has the clear ring of Christian truth, and I think the descent mentioned in the title will put a distinct and very healthy fear of the Lord into any reader’s heart.