There has always been two Englands: a nation of shopkeepers and a nation of poets; behind every Arthur a Mordred and behind every Milton a Cromwell. The secular land of Britain ruled by the King, and Logres, the spiritual core, ruled by the Pendragon. There have been eras, as in the time of Arthur, when the King and the Pendragon were one and the same. Currently, Logres consists of about maybe a dozen people and a trained bear living in a commune at the Manor of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill near the university town of Edgestow, and it’s director, the current Pendragon, is Mr. Fisher-King, formerly the philologist Elwin Ransom.
St. Anne’s stands in opposition to the National Institue of Co-ordinated Experiments at Belbury, or the N.I.C.E., a think-tank ostensibly dedicated to improving society through scientific means but actually to imposing a totalitarian regime on the world. The Director has done very little to actually combat this threat, though, apart from raising vegetables and taking in the occasional stray, like Mr. Bultitude, the tame bear; or the Dimbles and Ivy Maggs, evicted from their homes by the N.I.C.E., or Jane Studdock, seeking answers to her disturbing dreams. MacPhee, the group’s resident skeptic, finds this lack of action infuriating, but Ransom says he is waiting for instructions from his Masters, the cosmic entities he calls the eldila.
This wait is about to end.
Jane’s clairvoyant dreams have revealed that the forces behind the N.I.C.E. seek to revive the wizard Merlin, who like sleeping under Bragdon Wood, a piece of property formerly owned by nearby Bracton college but recently acquired by the Institute. They’ve been delayed in their search because the ground of the wood is marshy and needs to be drained before they can perform major excavations.
This makes me wonder: why was Merlin buried in such an unsuitable location? Well, from a plot point of view, it’s an excuse to delay the N.I.C.E. while they much about diverting the river flowing through Edgestow to drain the marsh and displace half the population in the process. But there is another peculiar parallel.
In his History of the Kings of Britain, medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth tells of how King Vortigern tried to build a tower but the foundation kept collapsing. His seers advised him to sprinkle the foundation with the blood of a fatherless boy. They find such a child, the son of no mortal man, but the boy is himself a seer who reveals that there is a lake under the tower with two dragons, symbolizing the Saxons and the Britons.
Which doesn't actually have anything to do with the story, except for the swamp and the legend that Merlin, the boy in Geoffrey’s tale, was rumored to have an inhuman father. This is why the N.I.C.E. thinks they can recruit him for their side.
Ransom is not entirely sure about that. He notes that the magic of Merlin, as portrayed in legend, seems of a different sort than that of the wannabe sorcerers and alchemists of the Renaissance.
“What common measure is there,” [Dimble] would ask, ‘between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different – something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know.(And yes, C.S. Lewis is giving a shout-out here to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who at the time Lewis wrote this was still struggling to finish The Lord of the Rings. The tribute bugged Tolkien, because Lewis misspelled “Numenor.”)
Jane’s latest dream has shown her a tunnel leading to Merlin’s resting place. The entrance, an ancient and forgotten cairn, lies outside of Bragdon Wood and the property under the N.I.C.E.’s control. This is the opportunity Ransom has been waiting for. He sends a small team, guided by Jane, to the site; but when they get there, they find that the sealed tunnel entrance has been broken open – from the inside. The stones have been rolled away and the tomb is empty.
Jane’s husband, Mark, meanwhile, has been arrested for the murder of William Hingset. He’s pretty sure that the N.I.C.E. really killed Hingset and framed him for it; but he has finally come to realize that the management philosophy of the Institute greatly resembles the aphorism of Nixon’s: Once you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. Not that I think Lewis was familiar with the wit and wisdom of Richard Nixon, but he undoubtedly knew the sentiment.
Mark is not actually being held by the police; he’s in N.I.C.E. custody. Wither and Frost, the chief administrators of the N.I.C.E. have decided to let Mark sit in a holding cell overnight, believing that marinating in apprehension and fear for a few hours will make him more compliant. And it might have too, except that Mark has been dwelling on the royal chewing out that Dr. Dimble gave him on his visit to Edgestow.
In Lewis’s stories, the most important action always seems to occur in the protagonists’ heads, which is possibly why they are so infrequently adapted. Here Mark looks back on his own life and takes stock of what a mess he’s made of it. He should have seen immediately that Wither, with his alternating vague flattery and vague threats, was playing mind games with him. Except that Dick Devine, Lord Feverstone, had vouched for him. And why did he ever trust Feverstone, with his flashy, cynical manner and his insincere grin? Because Feverstone seemed so wise and knowing compared to puppets like his old colleague Curry. But he didn’t always think Curry was a puppet…
Mark comes to the disquieting realization that all his life he’s been trying to get into the “in crowd” and he has nothing to show for it. Even when he was a boy in school, he ditched his best friend in order to get into a popular clique. And for what? The only real joy he’s gotten out of life has been from people outside his ambition track, like his sister, like his boyhood pal, like his friend Denniston from his undergraduate days, and like Jane. He realizes with horror that in his deepest fantasies about his career, he pictured Jane as serving as a kind of Perfect Hostess whose beauty and charm would reflect credit on her husband; not an individual in her own right, but merely an extension of himself. Mark recoils at this thought and realizes glumly that perhaps his being hanged for murder might be the best thing that could happen to Jane.
He now realizes that he has somehow wound up on the wrong side. He doesn't think of it as a matter of Good and Evil, or even of Right and Wrong, because, as Lewis frequently tells us, his upbringing and education have provided him with no sort of ethical grounding. All he knows is that he wants to be on Jane’s side, and that he doesn't want to be on Belbury’s.
It is while he is in this state of mind that Frost comes to visit him. Frost and Wither have decided to accelerate their “treatment” of him. Frost believes that initiating him into the innermost circle of the Institute will be the impetus to bring him completely on their side.
Frost is a pure Materialist; he believes that all emotions, all morals and all social interactions are at their root merely chemical reactions in the brain. But this does not mean he does not believe in a Higher Power. He explains to Mark the existence of beings he calls “Macrobes”. Not microbes, mind you – “The formation of the word explains itself.” -- but beings as far above human reasoning and intelligence as humans are above the bacteria.
“These organisms, then,” said Mark, “are friendly to humanity?”It occurs to me that Lewis is playing here with the toys of H.P. Lovecraft; although being Christian, Lewis uses them for different ends.
“If you reflect for a moment,” said Frost, “you will see that your question has no meaning except on the level of the crudest popular thought.”
It is these macrobes who are the true force behind the organization at Belbury. Filostrato, the Italian transhumanist, is deluded. Although he has doubtless scored a great scientific achievement in keeping the severed head of the scientist Alcasan functional, it is not Alcasan who commands the N.I.C.E. but rather the macrobes using the Head as a conduit. Frost coolly explains the goal to cull humanity until only the intellectual and technological elite remain. The previous two wars, he says, are merely the first of a series of sixteen wars scheduled for the 20th Century as part of this plan.
Mark finds these revelations abhorrent; yet at the same time enticing. Now he is on the verge of becoming the ultimate insider, one of the handful of mortals who really know what is going on.
But the interview is cut short. Frost is summoned away. Merlin has been found.
The workmen excavating Bragdon Wood uncovered the empty burial chamber, and followed the tunnel to the surface. After a search on the dark and rainy moor, they came across a bearded old man, weathered and gnarled, lying naked in some sort of a trance. They immediately brought him back to the Institute.
He is nothing like what Wither and Frost expected. When the stranger awakens, Wither addresses him in Latin, for of course a 5th Century wizard would not know modern English; but the man does not seem to understand. He happily accepts the food and drink Wither provides, although he seems more interested in the beer than in the bottle of port; but he says nothing; he doesn’t even seem to pay attention to Wither at all. Most of all, Wither is disturbed by the man’s face; it shows none of the signs he associates with a “Master”, or even one who could be made into a “Master.” Still, Merlin is a man from the 5th Century. One must make allowances for these things.
Except this man is not Merlin.
The real Merlin appears at the door of St. Anne’s, dressed in the raggedy clothes of a tramp. He at first mistakes Ransom and MacPhee for servants, and he puts MacPhee to sleep using something the narration describes as hypnotism but which seems more akin to Jedi Mind Tricks. He does not believe Ransom’s claim to be the Master of the House and challenges him to answer three questions of Ancient Lore. Ransom can answer him from the knowledge he gained in his trips through the Heavens and his conversations with the eldila. Merlin acknowledges him as Pendragon.
When the party sent out to look for Merlin returns, they find the two men in conversation. Merlin shocks the party by calling Jane “the falsest lady of any at this time alive” and suggests that it would be a charity for the Pendragon to order her head chopped off.
And here we run up against another of Lewis’s bêtes noires; one which is frustrating because it seems so irrelevant to his story. Merlin’s condemnation of Jane comes because she uses birth control. Now what does that have to do with anything?
A couple reasons. The first one, which Merlin gives, is that if Jane and her husband had conceived a child, he would have grown up to be a great champion in the struggle against Evil. They didn’t, and the opportunity has passed. This doesn’t mean that Evil will win; but it means that a good which could have happened now won’t, and something else will happen instead.
Another reason is that Lewis wants to emphasize for us that Merlin is a man from another century. Like the old saying goes, the Past is a different country; they do things differently there. Lewis gives us a couple of vignettes in the next chapter or two to illustrate how different in manner and psychology Merlin is from a 20th Century man. He just whacks us in the skull with this first instance.
But deeper than that, it resonates with Lewis’s greater theme of marriage and the relationship between the sexes. We’ve seen that Mark and Jane are in an unhappy marriage. Throughout the book, Lewis introduces other relationships with which to compare them. We have the Dennisons, a happily-married couple; we have the Dimbles, an old established marriage, which like the Studdocks’ is childless, but unlike theirs is not childless by choice. Mrs. Dimble is a loving, maternal woman, who over the years has become a surrogate mother for her husband’s many students. Ivy Maggs has a difficult marriage in that her husband has had trouble with the law, but was mostly reformed since marrying her. This hasn’t ended his problems with the law, but she deeply loves him despite his fallibility. Neither the argumentative MacPhee nor the intimidating Miss Ironwood are married, although Ransom at one point jokes that if they continue fighting he might be forced to marry them. One gets the strong sense that Miss Ironwood is in love with Ransom, but it is a chaste love which she understands will never be consummated.
On the Belbury side, we have no married couples. Fairy Hardcastle is portrayed as an unnatural woman with mannish habits. She likes her subordinates to be fluffy girly girls; she is less Pussy Galore than Rosa Klebb. The scientist Filostrato is described as a eunuch. But then there are the natives of Sulva, which we call the Moon. Filostrato earlier described how the inhabitants of the Moon had almost succeeded in purging their sphere of biological life forms. In Merlin’s riddle challenge with Ransom, we learn that the people of Sulva practice “cold marriages”, where couples mate not with each other, but with artificial surrogates; and that children are incubated in artificial wombs. Merlin lumps birth control in with these other “practices of Sulva”; as being unnatural.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that both Merlin and Lewis are being needlessly dogmatic here, and if Dorothy Sayers were writing the book she would have done things much differently. This section never fails to take me completely out of the story.
Merlin grudgingly allows that Jane will not be decapitated; one of the many aspects of the 20th Century he has difficulty grasping. But despite his bloodthirsty impulses, he is not on the Enemy’s side. The tale of his being the offspring of a demon he calls a lie. He has always been on the side of Heaven, and he is willing to serve the present Pendragon.
Mark continues grappling with his conscience. He is more convinced than ever that wants no part of the N.I.C.E., but he keeps finding his thoughts slipping back into old habits and familiar patterns. In this Lewis is a little more realistic than some of his latter-day admirers, who claim that once you have your Moment of Conversion you are Heaven Bound. Lewis had enough difficulty with his own conversion to know it isn’t that easy. Mark has a vague sense that it ought to be, though, and that he ought to be rewarded for finally resolving to Do The Right Thing. It seems unfair of the Universe that he keeps sliding back.
Frost now institutes a new phase of Mark’s initiation; one designed to break down his preconceptions. He is taken to a special room, called the “Objective Room” where everything, by design, is just a little bit off. Mark quickly realizes the point of all this; Frost wants to break him of preconceived notions of Good and Bad by immersing him in an environment where nothing is regular and everything is just slightly crooked. He puts Mark through exercises where he is made to perform pointless, silly, but non-normative actions. Mark plays along with Frost’s little games because he sees little else he can do, but the whole farce does the exact opposite of what Frost intends: it helps solidify Mark's idea that there is Normal and there is Abnormal and he wants to be on the side of Normality.
He is aided in this by an unexpected ally. The mysterious stranger whom Wither mistook for Merlin has been put in the same sleeping quarters as Mark. It turns out that the man is a tramp. He hasn’t spoken to Wither and Frost, because they keep talking to him in Latin so he assumes that they’re foreigners. The man seems a cheerful fatalist, who takes being a prisoner in stride. It seems that the night before a fellow came across the tramp and somehow commanded him to give him his clothing -- the real Merlin. Mark has difficulty understanding what the man says, and the man understands as little of Mark; but Mark comes to regard him as an ally against Wither and Frost. And in a way, Mark has finally become the Ultimate Insider. After all, he now possesses a secret that both Wither and Frost would dearly love to have, and he has become friends with a man whose intimacy they desire.
NEXT: The Gods Descend; Dinner at Belbury, and Venus Comes to St. Anne’s