War in Heaven

A dead body is found under a desk in publisher's office. A chalice is fingered as the Grail cup in a book published by the same company. The two are connected and thus starts Charles Williams' 'spiritual shocker'  - 'War in Heaven' - that with suspense, mystery and humour - explores deep themes wrapped in a thriller's mantle as the characters wrestle for possession of the Grail and for the power or the grace it may bestow.

Williams was one of the quartet of writers who formed the core of 'The Inklings' with C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield. A publisher by living, a poet and novelist by vocation.

At the heart of 'War in Heaven' is an exploration of the difference between religion and magic - and if that strikes you as too esoteric, you quickly realise that this unfolds into issues of freedom and power, grace and control, good and evil.

The hero is the mild mannered Archdeacon in whose parish the Grail is discovered - an unassuming cup, recently replaced as the mainstay chalice - and he is heroic precisely because each and every of his actions is determined by his attempt to freely dispose himself to God's will and in his recognition that the Grail, however significant, remains but a symbol of yet someone other. The arch enemy is Gregory Persimmons, the semi-retired owner of the publishing house, who is the servant of a darker lord. Herein lies one of Williams' many paradoxical contrasts - the Archdeacon's power comes in willingly surrendering it - even unto the possibility of death. Gregory's comes from a willed servitude to the devil (though he is never named as such) that disguises itself as an autonomous freedom. Religion offers an opportunity to navigate the world in a liberating freedom. Magic offers to bind the world to one's power but in truth it is never a power that one owns.

Power is legitimate and necessary but only when it is navigated in grace.

These themes, and their supernatural background, all unfold against a commonplace backdrop and it is an element of William's genius to make you feel that everything is perfectly 'natural' - that, as Barfield wrote, 'Charles William's firm conviction that the spiritual world is not simply a reality parallel to this one, but rather its source and its abiding infrastructure, is explicit in both the manner and the matter of all he wrote'.

It enables the books to be read as both thriller and theology (and the latter may be more implicitly noticed depending on the reader) and with humour. Not for the first time in the thriller genre are the police clueless where the 'amateurs' are knowledgeable (think Sherlock Holmes) and Williams gently satirises his milieu (publishing) and the Church. The Archdeacon has in the Revd Batesby a locum priest straight from stereotypical central casting, replete with a tendency to wholly inappropriate Biblical quotation.


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