As a member of the Inklings group that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams was naturally interested both in fantasy and Christianity. Like Lewis, he used fiction to explore that interest and particularly the idea of “substituted love,” which he portrayed as literally true.
It becomes the crux of the issues in Descent into Hell. Pauline Anstruther is startled when Stanhope suggests that he might carry her fear for her, and she is moved by joy when he does so. Her belief in the process enables her to help first the workman and then the protestant martyr. Clearly, Williams suggests that such love can transcend time, thus accounting for the blending of past and present in the novel. John Struther died in the 1550’s and the workman evidently killed himself decades before the novel’s main action, but Pauline is able to aid both of them, just as her grandmother seems somehow in touch with them. Williams’ imagery suggests, in fact, that substituted love explains how the Crucifixion—here portrayed as the ultimate burden bearing—works for salvation.
Some characters reject the reaching beyond oneself that leads to heaven; that is what happens to Wentworth and to the characters who succumb to the offers of the demoniac Lily Sammile, who threads her way through the novel offering people like Wentworth the damning narcotic of self-indulgence and fantasy. Williams, like Dante Alighieri in the Inferno (in The...
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