Descent Into Hell is a novel written by Charles Williams, first published in 1937. Williams is less well known than his fellow Inklings, such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Like some of them, however, he wrote a series of novels which combine elements of fantasy fiction and Christian symbolism. Forgoing the detective fiction style of most of his earlier supernatural novels, most of the story's action is spiritual or psychological in nature. It fits the "theological thriller" description sometimes given to his works. For this reason Descent was initially rejected by publishers, though T. S. Eliot's publishing house Faber and Faberwould eventually pick up the novel, as Eliot admired Williams's work, and, though he did not like Descent Into Hell as well as the earlier novels, desired to see it printed.
The action takes place in Battle Hill, outside London, amidst the townspeople's staging of a new play by Peter Stanhope. The hill seems to reside at the crux of time, as characters from the past appear, and perhaps at a doorway to the beyond, as characters are alternately summoned heavenwards or descend into hell.
Pauline Anstruther, the heroine of the novel, lives in fear of meeting her own doppelganger, which has appeared to her throughout her life. But Stanhope, in an action central to the author's own theology, takes the burden of her fears upon himself—Williams called this The Doctrine of Substituted Love—and enables Pauline, at long last, to face her true self. Williams drew this idea from the biblical verse, "Ye shall bear one another's burdens"
And so Stanhope does take the weight, with no surreptitious motive, in the most affecting scene in the novel. And Pauline, liberated, is able to accept truth.
On the other hand, Lawrence Wentworth, a local historian, finding his desire for Adela Hunt to be unrequited, falls in love instead with a spirit form of Adela, which seems to represent a kind of extreme self-love on his part. As he isolates himself more and more with this insubstantial figure, and dreams of descending a silver rope into a dark pit, Wentworth begins the descent into Hell.
HARROWING of HELL:
"Christ in Limbo" and "Descent into Hell" redirect here. For the novel by Charles Williams, see Descent into Hell (novel). For the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon liturgical play, see Harrowing of Hell (drama).
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About the Author
Williams was born in London in 1886, the only son of (Richard) Walter Stansby Williams (1848-1929), a journalist and foreign business correspondent (for an importing firm, writing in French and German), who was a 'regular and valued' contributor of verse, stories and articles to many popular magazines, and his wife Mary, a former milliner, of Islington. He continued to work at the OUP in various positions of increasing responsibility until his death in 1945. One of his greatest editorial achievements was the publication of the first major English-language edition of the works of Søren Kierkegaard.
Although chiefly remembered as a novelist, Williams also published poetry, works of literary criticism, theology, drama, history, biography, and a voluminous number of book reviews. Some of his best known novels are War in Heaven (1930), Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows' Eve (1945). T. S. Eliot, who wrote an introduction for the last of these, described Williams's novels as "supernatural thrillers" because they explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual while also examining the ways in which power, even spiritual power, can corrupt as well as sanctify. All of Williams's fantasies, unlike those of J. R. R. Tolkien and most of those of C. S. Lewis, are set in the contemporary world. Williams has been described byColin Manlove as one of the three main writers of "Christian fantasy" in the twentieth century (the other two being C. S. Lewis and T. F. Powys).
More recent writers of fantasy novels with contemporary settings, notably Tim Powers, cite Williams as a model and inspiration.
• 1930: War in Heaven (London: Victor Gollancz)
• 1930: Many Dimensions (London: Victor Gollancz)
• 1931: The Place of the Lion (London: Mundanus)
• 1932: The Greater Trumps (London: Victor Gollancz)
• 1933: Shadows of Ecstasy (London: Victor Gollancz)
• 1937: Descent into Hell (London: Faber & Faber)
• 1945: All Hallows' Eve (London: Faber & Faber)
• 1970-72: The Noises That Weren't There. Unfinished. First three chapters published in Mythlore 6 (Autumn 1970), 7 (Winter 1971) and 8 (Winter 1972).