Monday, October 28, 2013

Many More Dimensions

I’ve written before about the power of hype to shape my reaction to something. To give a couple of cinematic examples (and to show my age fairly precisely), after hearing so much about Ishtar being history’s worst movie, I enjoyed it. On the other hand, after hearing so many positive things about Dances with Wolves, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. It works on me so well, that I get concerned sometimes when I come back to a book I’ve enjoyed before. With my memory touting the book so highly, I fear that I’ll become the victim to my own hype and end up finding that the book couldn’t possibly live up to the reputation I’ve built up for it in my own mind. But Charles Williams's Many Dimensions did not disappoint at all. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished it, but I can’t let it go without saying more: just two things that I love about the book that I can’t quite find anywhere else.

Okay, the first aspect appears in other books, but they’re all by the same author, and that’s the way Williams makes the familiar exotic and puts the supernatural back in what seems merely cultural. For instance, in this very Christian book, the most devout believer is a Persian Muslim. No English person in the novel seems ever to have read the book of Kings or to have heard of the boy who slew the giant with his sling or of his son who showed his wisdom by threatening to split a baby in half. So when they hear of Suleiman ben Daood, they encounter a bigger-than-life potentate wrapped in the mystical glory of ancient times and faraway lands. Watching through their eyes as we read, we too encounter Solomon son of David for the first time. The Persian speaks of the Mercy, the Peace, and the Protection. The definite article and initial capital lifts each characteristic to divine status and brings the reader, through a few marks of ink on paper, to an understanding of a God Who Is What He Has. The Muslim even hints at the basis of the Trinity by explaining that “the Way to the Stone is in the Stone.” The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

What I enjoyed most this time through, I had completely forgotten about: the mystical Stone’s own personality and mysterious ways. The supernatural focus of the plot is a small Stone that embodies the power of God. Inscribed with the tetragrammaton, it can transport people bodilessly, reveal the thoughts of others, and heal the sick. Characters may argue over who owns this marvelous, wonder-working Stone, who has paid for the Stone, or who has rights to the Stone. But after all, it is just a small stone, and small stones can be lost. While one of the best characters, Cecilia Sheldrake, rides down a country lane in an open roadster, admiring the Stone her husband bought her – or rather admiring herself for being the one person in the world who deserves to have such a powerful object – the Stone flies out of her hand. She and her husband search for the Stone, but perhaps they should have asked themselves whether the Stone was searching for them. Along comes Oliver Doncaster, who, with no notion of what’s going on, spies the stone immediately, picks it up, and walks away. When he arrives home, his landlady’s dying mother rises from her bed completely healed. Most of the characters have strong intentions concerning what to do with the Stone, but in the end human intentions have very little to do with what the Stone itself does.

Writing a Christian novel is such a terribly tricky business. Portraying spiritual states faithfully requires a careful eye and an imaginative eloquence. But sooner or later, if the novel is to be a novel, some character’s spiritual state has to change, and spiritual change, if the novel’s theology be sound, must come from God. How can the author presume to know what God would do in the situation he has subcreated? I’ve wondered sometimes if the inclusion of God as a character in a story, even if only implicitly, doesn’t flirt with violating the Commandment against likenesses. What I do know, though, is that I remember no other novel that displays more clearly the principle that those who strive for control of their lives never change, while those who do change do so only by submitting their wills to the Stone. Whoever loses his life will preserve it.

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