Monday, 15 July 2013

A Strange Kind of Glory

War in Heaven

by Charles Williams

Here we are at the threshold.
This is the most important moment of your lives.
You have to know that here
your most cherished wish will come true.
The most sincere one.
The one reached through suffering.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker.

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a poet, theologian, novelist, playwright and lecturer. His distinctive imagination had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis, with Williams playing a central role in the circle of creative Oxford Christians known as The Inklings.

T.S. Eliot once remarked that if he ever had to stay in a haunted house with just one companion allowed, he would unhesitatingly choose Williams. Reading War in Heaven (1930), one can see why, the author displaying a grasp of spiritual symbolism remarkable in its perspicacity and depth. For Williams, the supernatural is wholly natural, though always beyond the reach of solely materialistic explanations.

The plot revolves around the discovery of the Holy Grail in an English parish church. A tense and gripping contest between rival powers of good and evil ensues, until the arrival of Prester John, the semi-mythological guardian of the Grail, takes the story onto a different level.

War in Heaven is not, at bottom, concerned with who 'wins' and 'loses' in the narrative tussle between light and darkness. Instead, a radical self-awareness and a recognition of our deepest, often hidden, motives and desires lies at its core. The Grail (or Graal, as Williams calls it) does nothing to us. It neither propels us into heaven nor casts us into hell. On the contrary, it actually gives us what we want. It reveals who we are. It unveils our deepest essence:

"I am John," a voice sounded, "and I am the prophecy of the things that are to be and are. You who have sought the centre of the Graal, behold through me that which you seek, receive from me that which you are. He that is righteous, let him be righteous still; he that is filthy. let him be filthy still."

In Andrei Takovsky's 1979 film, Stalker, the protagonists travel to a mysterious destination known as the 'Room', at the heart of an equally enigmatic 'Zone', where one's most cherished, intense and compelling desire is said to come true. As their journey progresses, however, the characters perceive that a strange, unsettling kind of glory has started to take hold of their lives. The Grail quest holds a mirror up to their souls and ours. The Grail is a mirror. But rather than plying us with answers and tidy resolutions, it flings back a flurry of further questions. Who are we? What are we doing here? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? What are our values?

In the Arthurian mythos, there is one all-important question the seeker needs to ask. Whom does the Grail serve? If the seeker forgets the question, confused perhaps by the blurred standards of this world, then the Grail Castle will fade and vanish and the Wasteland remain barren. If, on the other hand, he (or she) can reach deep down within and recall what is truly real and essential, then the Maimed King can be healed and the Grail unshackled - freed now from our projections and fantasies, free to perform its time-honoured role of restoration and regeneration:

Lionel shook his head firmly. "I do seem to have seen you before," he said to the stranger, "but I haven't the ghost of a notion where."
"It really doesn't matter," the other said. "To be remembered is the chief thing."

The war in heaven is over. For the time being.


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