Places: Descent into Hell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1937

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Moral

Time of work: June and July in the 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Battle Hill

*Battle Descent into HellHill. This setting is an actual hill with a long and bloody history, from legends of human sacrifice among the Britons and Saxons to that of a dejected construction worker who hanged himself while working on the suburban estate that now covers most of the hill. The hill also includes a manor house, currently owned by the poet and playwright Peter Stanhope. This manor house is the site on which a martyr was burned to death. Thus, Charles Williams writes, life and death are closer in Battle Hill than elsewhere, the membranes between the worlds thinner. Williams also refers to Battle Hill as a place of skulls, recalling Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Much of the action occurs in the houses and yards of Battle Hill residents. Not far from the manor house lives Lawrence Wentworth, whose home (unknown to him) holds the ghost of the construction worker. Elsewhere in town, Pauline Anstruther lives with her dying grandmother. Near them lives Myrtle Fox, another young woman in the play.

Although Lily Sammile seems to visit everyone, no one knows where she lives. The reader is shown the woman’s supernatural nature and learns that she lives in a shed by the town cemetery. In the apocalyptic moments after the climax of the play, some graves literally open, their tattered inhabitants gravitating toward Lily Sammile. She attempts to lure various living residents of Battle Hill, and when she fails, her shed, which is also referred to as a cave, collapses around her.

Williams makes much of gates, doorways, and other entrances. Wentworth encounters a female demon (a succubus), but she falls down at a threshold. Lily Sammile is often seen by a gate–Margaret Anstruther’s house’s gate, the cemetery gate–waiting for people she can talk into becoming like her. Since the novel is about choices of modes of being, a gate can represent choice, the definite border between one place and another, and, more specifically, the entry to heaven or hell.

Wentworth spies on Hugh Prescott and Adela Hunt at a train station, and at the end, a train takes both him and Pauline Anstruther to London. Just as gates mark a choice between two places, trains are vehicles from one place to another, representing movement and change.

*London

*London. Capital of Great Britain to which Pauline goes at the end of the novel in order to enjoy her new life. Wentworth takes the same train, but will not sit with her. In fact, he has forsworn all human community, and in London he completely loses any comprehension of the people and world around him.

London is also a spiritual destination, symbolic of heaven, or at least some desirable afterlife, when the ghost of the construction worker asks Pauline for directions to London. London is also the city of eternity, and by asking to be directed there, the ghost has begun the path to redemption and travel to his next existence.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden. Biblical paradise in which Adam and Eve live until their Fall. When Wentworth takes the demon into his house, his arms, and his bed, he has an illusion of Eden, with him in the role of Adam and the demon as Eve. What he perceives as paradise is actually closer to the experience of being lost in the woods, which the tree and leaf imagery also supports. Moreover, Williams describes the garden as if it encloses Wentworth; instead of being banished from a garden, he has consigned himself to be its prisoner, as he grows more and more infatuated with the demon and will not leave his home.

Gomorrah

Gomorrah. Ancient Palestinian town near Sodom that was, according to the Old Testament, destroyed by God because of its wickedness. Williams alludes to Gomorrah, which symbolizes spiritual sterility and avoidance of life, just as its companion town Sodom is symbolic of sexual perversion. When the real Adela faints outside Wentworth’s house, she is said to have fallen by the wall of Gomorrah.

BibliographyBleiler, Everett F. The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983. The treatment of Williams’ novels is brief (pages 532 to 534) but places them in context of the fantasy genre.Cavaliero, Glen. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology. New York: Macmillan, 1983. Explains influences on Williams and contains excellent descriptions of Williams’ originality. Pages 78 to 90 give interpretative commentary on Descent into Hell.Glenn, Lois. Charles W. S. Williams: A Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975. A comprehensive listing of writings about Williams up to 1975.Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A critical biography by Williams’ colleague at Oxford University Press. Hadfield understood Williams’ creative intentions and was a trusted confidant in Williams’ circle of family and friends.Shideler, Mary McDermott. The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966. An indispensable study of Williams’ central theological ideas and recurring symbolism.
Categories: Places