Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Many Dimensions in one

A Persian prince argues unhappily with Sir Giles Tumulty for the possession of a stone (set in a crown). Sir Giles has purchased it from the prince's relative in what he believes was good faith. He is damned if he is going to return it, after all the stone contains magical properties. With it, you can travel in space (and possibly time) and it cures the sick. The prince leaves disappointed, threatening consequences.

Thus opens an early novel by Charles Williams - 'Many Dimensions'. It has all his future ingredients - a sacred object capable of magic over which there is a struggle for control. Yet, at the heart of the object, is a divine reality that transcends and, finally, allows the virtuous actors to overcome (if only temporarily) any thought of control.

The virtuous actors in this case are Lord Arglay, the Lord Chief Justice and brother in law to the odious, manipulative Sir Giles, and Chloe Burnett, Lord Arglay's secretary, whose willingness to serve the stone's true purpose leads her to the ultimate sacrifice: her death restores its unity.

Along the way the stone (and its capacity to be divided and yet retain its integrity) generates all kinds of set piece problems, arguments between contending parties, moral dilemmas and political machinations. As it is a William's novel, there is a seamlessness between the metaphysical and the natural - it is a world in which magical stones can, of course, give untoward practical problems to trade union officials! (If the stone allows people to travel without transport, what happens to the jobs of bus drivers and railway guards)?

Finishing it, as well pondering its remarkable ability to capture the essence of complex moral and theological ideas, I continue to consider why, as a writer, he has fallen into abeyance (or a niche) unlike his friend, C.S. Lewis?

Possibly first is the fact that his writing is 'archaic', it has a dated feel to it rather than an antique one. Unlike Lewis, Williams is driven by image and feeling and thus some of his ideas lack a controlling ordering whilst never, alternatively, finding themselves wholly immersed in the texture of the narrative. They pop up awkwardly in the unlikely speech of particular characters. Thirdly, unlike Lewis, he was never adopted by a firm and particular audience - Christian evangelicals in Lewis' case (however, sometimes improbably), for Williams was more suspect - too Christian for pagan fantasy (or secular science fiction), too magical for the straight laced Christian.

However, none of this belies his great virtues - the plots sing along, he is endowed with a fine sense of humour, he writes beautiful and magical set pieces such as the culminating moment when the stone is restored to its unity and he makes you think (and wonder) that the world is not as it appears and the deepest ordering is a sacred one.

It is a deepest ordering that is found in the harmonious, free surrendering of the will into the way of the whole that miraculously returns you to a deep, identifiable self that is uniquely you.

The fulfillment of the person is a union in diversity.

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