Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Troubling of the City

‘Suppose that a number of fiends from Hell were sent to make war on a modern English cathedral city . . .’

Not the plot of a hitherto unknown Charles Williams or C S Lewis novel, but the enticing opening sentence of the blurb for an early Sixties fantastical thriller, The Troubling of the City (1962), also described by the publisher as ‘a new engagement of ‘The War in Heaven’’. The book’s epigraph is from Revelation XII, verses 7-9 and 12, the origin of that phrase, which was also used by Williams as the title of his first published novel.

The author, Roger Lloyd (1901-1966), was a Canon in the Cathedral close at Winchester, where he was appointed Vice-Dean, and the city provides the setting for his novel. He explains in a foreword that it was ‘first written to be read aloud on seven successive evenings to a conference of the Servants of Christ the King’ at the city, but has been much revised and expanded for book publication. The plot also takes place in part at a retreat and conference, on the theme of reconciliation.  The SCK organisation had been founded by Lloyd in 1943.

He was a prolific writer of books on theology and related social issues, and also incidentally (like many clergymen) a railway enthusiast, issuing three books on that subject. He had some success with two epistolary historical fictions, The Letters of Luke the Physician (1957) and Letters from the Early Church (1960). After these he also wrote a literary study, The Borderland: An Exploration of Theology in English Literature (1960), with examples that included Charles Williams. Like Williams (and Eliot, and Mary Butts, and Dorothy L. Sayers), Lloyd was evidently of the High Church persuasion.

Lloyd says in the Preface to this latter book that among citizens of the ‘Borderland’ he discusses, ‘one of its most recent, and certainly most honoured, was Charles Williams of blessed memory.’ He was, he tells us later, ‘the spiritual adviser of so many who had the luck to have his friendship, and, in all but name, the confessor of some of them’. The book does not offer a close critical study of Williams, but he is clearly a major influence on the author’s ideas.

His fictional approach, however, is rather different to Williams. A strength in Williams’ novels is his cast of all-too-human characters, with failings and foibles, whom we get to know first before the full force of the supernatural is evident. This is the approach also adopted by M R James in his ghost stories: to start with the fairly familiar before you introduce the unearthly.

By contrast, the first few chapters of The Troubling of the City depict the machinations of a princely demon sent to Winchester to undermine the city, and his conference with a few minor resident demons, whose infernal work has not been judged effective enough. The conceit of the conspiring, and not always competent, demons will call to mind the flavour of C S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942).  Lloyd also introduces celestial figures who have been sent to aid the city, including a converted buccaneer, St Swithin and King Alfred.

The ancient city of Winchester is not described in a lyrical and vivid way, as for example Machen does with Caerleon. There are episodes in the cathedral and other notable places, and even a few contemporary touches, such as a scene in a Robinson Crusoe themed beatnik coffee bar, but there is not a strong sense of place. I think this is because the novel is driven more by pace and polemic than by atmosphere or mood. There are some effective scenes outside the city, for example at a gathering of demons at the Devil’s Punchbowl, and in the series of malevolent attacks on a monk travelling through London, but these are linked to action rather than ambience.

Charles Williams’ novels gain by deploying talismans with a rich heritage of symbolism, such as the Grail, the Tarot, the Stone of Solomon and the Platonic Images. These impart an aura of magic and mystery which contrasts with the everyday lives of the characters and opens entrances to other dimensions. There are glimpses of one or two localised ancient objects in Roger Lloyd’s book, but they are not to the fore.

On the other hand, his book does have the shrewd idea that it is easier to undermine a city and a community by building up manifold minor irritations – locked gates, blocked roads, noise, sleeplessness, all leading to bad temper – rather than by more dramatic supernatural incursions. It is no doubt a sound pastoral insight: but it does not make for sweeping drama (though there is some of that too).

I think it would have to be conceded, therefore, that the Canon’s book does not have the sophistication or nuance of Williams or Lewis, either in the metaphysics or in the literary qualities, and it is also more earnest and missionary in tone. Nor does it quite avoid the problem Milton encountered in Paradise Lost – that his Satan was rather too glamorous and compelling, as is the princely Archdemon here. Even so, the novel has its own brisk sincerity, a certain brio and a clear resolve, and is an interesting example of a supernatural thriller in the service of theology, seeking to follow in the tradition of the two Inklings.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Fascinating: thank you - and on the 137th anniversary of Williams's birth and (with "a converted buccaneer") just after Talk Like a Pirate Day! How can I not know (of) him? What a lot of interesting-looking books he has written - and publishers and series shared: this one - and going by his Wikipedia article, five more - with Tolkien (Allen and Unwin); The Mastery of Evil (1941, ed. 3 1944) in the same Christian Challenge Series as Lewis's Problem of Pain; another 1944 one, The Inspiration of God, with Lewis - and Williams (Geoffrey Bles). And the first version of his biography, The Stricken Lute: A life of Peter Abelard came out in 1932, the year after Williams's Abelard novel, The Place of the Lion. (I should probably look into the 'Texts to Borrow' set-up in the Internet Archive, as most of his books scanned there fall under that...)

  2. Thanks for this - my mother liked this book enormously, good to see it getting a mention