Sunday, September 29, 2013

Returning to Many Dimensions

I’ve groaned for a long time at the weakness of the title of one of my favorite books: Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions. Both words are vague, and the combination is vague. Just think how much better it would have sounded had Williams anticipated the 60s singing group and called his book The Fifth Dimension. To flip the coin, think how silly Dickens would have sounded writing A Tale of Some Cities.

But starting the book again has me so excited, I can see value even in its title. After all the book does start with talk about nearly instantaneous translation in both time and space. But the word dimensions might actually apply better to the layered dimensions of both the characters and the narration.

The novel begins in medias res with a conversation about the crown of “Suleiman ben Daood,” a term that instantaneously transports the typical reader of this book to a new dimension of King Solomon’s character: his depiction in the Qur’an. One of the characters, Sir Giles Tumulty, has bought the crown from a Persian. But the Persian’s nephew (it seems every male character in the book is either an uncle or nephew to another) demands that Sir Giles give the crown back, calling the transaction “theft by bribery,” adding a new dimension to the idea of a purchase transaction. The crown contains a stone with miraculous properties, including the aforementioned power of travel, and stockbroker Reginald Montague only wants to make money off of it. “By God,” he says, “you’ve got the transport of the world in your hands,” unwittingly telling the truth in his swearing and restoring the literal dimension to what had become in England at that time an empty oath. Another unconscious dimensional link occurs when one character says he ought to know more about the son of Daood, by which Williams no doubt means to suggest that the man should know more not about Solomon but about Jesus.

The character (or as I suppose I should write it, Character) displaying the most dimensions is God Himself. The stone in the crown has the letters of the tetragrammaton in it . . . or on it, or they are it. (Yet again, many dimensions.) So the stone represents God in the story, and the characters’ relationships to the stone represent their relationships to God. Sir Giles wants to contemplate the stone with fascination. Reginald wants to make money from it. Persian Prince Ali Khan wants to regain it to restore honor to his family. Each of these characters recognizes virtue in the stone, but only for selfish motives. Each wants to use the stone, to become master of the stone, or in essence to become God’s god. They each want the stone to give something. But two characters (I don’t remember their names and probably shouldn’t spoil things by telling you if I did) eventually realize that the existence of the stone demands that they give themselves to it.

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