War in Heaven ★★★☆½

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Title: War in Heaven
Author: Charles Williams
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 211
Words: 81K


From Enotes.com

War in Heaven is a novel concerned with the struggle over possession of a chalice that the characters believe is the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. A cup that could be this holy relic turns up in England in the twentieth century. Julian Davenant, the archdeacon of the Fardles village church, tries to protect it and prevent it from falling in to the wrong hands. In contrast, Gregory Persimmons, a retired businessman, strives to possess it and uses its power for black magic. Ultimately, the forces of good prevail, and Gregory is punished.

Two possibly unrelated events begin the novel. First, an unidentified corpse is found at the publishing firm that Gregory owns. Second, the contents of a manuscript at the firm are revealed, suggesting that the Grail is in the Fardles church. Gregory begins to obsess over the Grail. Renting a house in the Fardles area, he tries to buy the chalice and then pays to have it stolen; during the theft, Julian is attacked. Gregory also lures the Rackstraw family to his new residence, with the plan to kidnap their four-year-old son, Adam, and use him in black magic.

Aided by the Duke of North Ridings and Kenneth Mornington, Julian locates the chalice in Gregory’s home and steals it. Taking it to London, Julian hides in the Duke’s home. His prayers protect it from the evil spells that Gregory’s accomplices, Manasseh and Lavrodopoulos, are putting on it to destroy it. Gregory injures Barbara, Adam’s mother; poisons her; and brings in a “doctor” Manasseh, who will worsen her ill health while pretending to cure her. Julian agrees to exchange the chalice for Barbara’s health, for which they pray all night. A mysterious stranger, John, arrives in Fardles just as she is cured; he is Prester John of Arthurian myth.

In London, occult forces kill Mornington and threaten Julian, who is captured and tied up to be ritually killed. The combined positive forces emanating from the Grail and the actions of Prester John, who arrives in the nick of time, save Julian. Moreover, Gregory is arrested after confessing to an unsolved murder that had set the novel in motion. Back in Fardles, Prester John celebrates mass at the church; both he and the Grail disappear, and Julian dies in peace on the altar.

My Thoughts:

Christian Mysticism. What C.S. Lewis is with his Narnia and Space Trilogy to Fantasy and Science Fiction, that is what Williams is to Mysticism. Not being an advocate for, a believer in, or even a fan of, mysticism, this was a hard book to get through.

I was discussing this with Pilgrim over at Librarything and ended up saying this about the book part way through:

I guess part of it is that the idea that God’s Power can imbue an object and then be used willy nilly, by anybody. While there are a few instances that spring to mind of that happening in the Bible (Elisha’s bones raising the dead man and Peter’s hankerchief healing people) most of the miracles were directly tied to a prophet on a mission. Gahazi couldn’t use Elisha’s staff to raise the dead woman’s son, the river didn’t heal all the lepers only Naaman, etc.

I guess I reject mysticism because I view it as a way to use God’s power through our own power (incantations, etc) instead of it being something that God’s does through us. I certainly do believe in miracles and I do believe in magic. I just don’t see how a Christian can think of miracles in the same vein as magic.

I reject with every fiber of my being the idea of there being White and Black Magic. God’s Power is not magic and the power of Satan and the fallen spirits is corrupted and its final goal is the damnation of the user and recipient.

While Williams makes it impossible for Persimmons to use the Grail himself, Persimmons manages to get around that by using the child Adrian. Of course, it backfires, but still, the idea that an evil person can use an object of Holiness for the “power” contained therein just rubs me completely the wrong way. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this idea in our popular culture. The idea that Nazi’s could harness the power of the Ark, the very seat of God on Earth, for themselves is simply abhorrent to me. It also displays a shocking lack of understanding on the subject. Williams understands the theology behind what he’s writing, it is just that he and I disagree on the interpretation.

That led me into my other main issue. The boy Adrian. Persimmons makes it his mission to win the child so he can use him as a conduit for the Graal (everybody referred to it as the Graal instead of the Holy Grail. I have no idea why) and in the back of his mind is that Adrian would also either make a pefect Disciple of Satan or a fantastic sacrifice after being used by Persimmons. I had to stop reading and ask Pilgrim if Adrian was going to be ok before I could go on. Thankfully, everything WAS ok, but the leadup to that was very ominous and not something I enjoyed contemplating. Kids in danger, physical or spiritual, is something I don’t handle well.

At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a book about Christians and the working out of everything through a Christian world view. While I gave it the Fantasy tag, it is way closer to real life than I’d ever be truly comfortable with. I’ve got several more of Williams books available to me and I think I’ll add them to my tbr, just further down the line.

I realize my complaints got more time than the positives, but this books deserves those 3.5stars. The fact that I plan on reading more Williams cements in my mind that this WAS a good read.


18 thoughts on “War in Heaven ★★★☆½

    1. I tend to disagree with the very idea of “grail mythology” altogether, not so much of its co-opting. But yes, objects are very easy to write about and thus use as the author wants.

      Man has always wanted power for himself. The easiest way for that to happen is if the power resides in an object. And that lust for power, etc, colors ancient texts of false religions…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The Graal is how the cup is named in the Arthurian tales by Chrétien deTroyes They were in Norman French, after all. The term was taken up by Wolfram von Eschenbach. (Grail is a modernisation.)
    Williams leaves lots of clues as to where things are going, if you take the hints. As you say, the term “Holy Grail” has been taken for “random magical doodad”; I think Williams wanted to signal that the Graal was the same as the item referred to in the mediaeval tradition – it makes the subsequent arrival of Prester John less out of left field.
    Williams may have been largely self-educated, but he lectured in English at Oxford: he tends to expect his readers to have a similar grasp of the English literary tradition.
    My theory for why he fell out of fashion is that his expectations in this respect are too high to make him easy popular fiction, whilst his Christian themes became unacceptable to the literati.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That clears up a lot of things. When “John” first arrived on the scene I thought maybe it was going to be the apostle John, but when he turned out to be Prester John, I just kind of rolled with it because I didn’t understand the “why”.

      I don’t even really understand who PJ is. I’ve heard the name (from other books I’ve read) but the sense I have is that he was a largely negative character. I have no idea why though.

      If he truly had those kinds of expectations of his readers, which even reading this one book of his would seem to indicate, I’d buy your theory fully.


      1. I have never heard any negative connotations about Prester John. He was supposed to be a Nestorian Christian monarch in the East, who was also a priest (Prester being a corruption of “presbyter”). He was believed to be a real figure until about the 18th century, when scientists started to suggest that his “letter to the Pope”, in which he mentioned his huge kingdom, and the interesting wildlife, such as unicorns, living there was actually a Western forgery. The kernel of truth behind the legend was probably vague memories of the Nestorian Church of the East, which got cut off from European Christianity by the expansion of Islam, plus memories of the apostle Thomas and his founding of churches in India and contact with Ethiopian (Orthodox) Christians – and an abysmal grip of geography!
        But the connection to the Arthurian legend was something that I myself had never heard of, until he popped up in War in Heaven. Part of the Arthurian cycle of stories that is generally skipped in modern adaptations is his position as Emperor: Logres included not only the Ireland of Britain, but Ireland, and much of France. Arthur is depicted as dealing with the Emperor of Rome as a fellow monarch. I think they make war, at some point, but are also related. So it is not really surprising that the great, fabulous monarch of a mighty empire in the East, Prester John, gets drawn into the cycle too, and turns out to be a cousin of Arthur’s. He is also descended from one of the Magi, apparently, which is what gives him both temporal and spiritual authority. And I think that first appears in von Eschenbach…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I really have no idea where my idea about about Prester came from. I’m wondering if a fantasy author used his name as a trickster or something. Other than that, I really have no idea where it might have come from.

          Most of my arthur info comes from the historical fantasy trilogy by Stephen Lawhead. beyond that, I just have a general american’s knowledge of the lore 😀


          1. A version of the Arthurian cycle (the Roger Llancelyn Green one) is one of the earliest books that I remember reading. I grew up with places associated with Arthur in the landscape about me. I read the romances by Chrétien Dr Troyes in my early teens, then moved on to Malory.
            And…I still didn’t know how Prester John fitted into the cycle until this year!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I feel better about my ignorance then. If you grew up with that stuff and Prester’s inclusion baffled you, then I think I “should” be baffled at it…


    1. I know, right? Sometimes I feel like I’m more negative in my reviews than the book actually warrants. But then I think about all those reviewers who sugar coat everything and then I feel better…


    1. Absolutely. Not something I’d want a steady diet of, but as a little something to please, it is good. I don’t know when I’ll work in the other 4 books of his that I have access to, but it will probably be a little while.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Kind of…?
      There is a lot of Christian Fiction, but about 95% of it is of the romance stuff. Most of the Christian SFF (science fiction, fantasy) tends to be from an older era where they weren’t trying to write Christian SFF. Authors like C.S. Lewis and his Narnia books are a classic example of this.

      There was a guy, Stephen Lawhead, who wrote a bunch of Christian Historical/Fantasy stuff in the 90’s and early 2000’s, but he’s since petered out.

      so Christian SFF is a sub-niche of a sub-niche of a small niche. If that helps any 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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