“If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point where there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder. Like the poem about Heaven and Hell eating into merry Middle Earth from opposite sides…”It probably seemed that way to C.S. Lewis, writing in the latter days of World War II. I think here he succumbs to the same mistake he finds in Modernists, that they see all history as a seamless progression from point A to and anticipated point B.
But whether Dr. Dimble is mistaken or not, Mark and Jane Studdock have found themselves on opposite sides of a cosmic war and there is little neutral ground to stand on. The age-old conflict between Good and Evil is about to enter a startling new phase.
We are not told how Mr. Bultitude first came to St. Anne’s. He seems to have just shown up one day. Very likely, MacPhee’s guess that he was a trained bear who wandered away from a carnival is correct; but if Mr. Bultitude was ever a wild animal, the peaceful environment of St. Anne’s has tamed him. The manor is like a second Eden, where man and animals co-exist in harmony, and even the mice are welcome to eat the crumbs which fall from the Master’s table. This is largely due to Ransom’s influence. The Director’s brief sojourn on the unfallen world of Perelandra has given him the rapport with animals which is Adam’s neglected birthright.
Mr. Bultitude is largely contend to live in the garden, occasionally wandering into the manor house to startle unwary guests, like Jane, or to sit by the fireside and receive affectionate scratches from Ransom. He is vaguely aware that he is not supposed to stray from the garden, but being a bear of little brain, his thought processes get a bit fuzzy. When he finds the garden gate accidentally left unlatched, his curiosity gets the better of him. This passage, told from the bear’s point of view, is one of my favorites in the book.
A couple of workers from the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments happen to drive by. They have been assigned to acquire animals for the N.I.C.E. laboratories and are a bit behind quota. Coming across a stray bear wandering loose is quite a stroke of luck for them – one might almost say a Godsend – and they easily lure Mr. Bultitude into their truck.
What they don’t realize is that Mr. Bultitude is not your average bear. Merlin has identified him as one of the Seven Bears of Logres, and in one of the strange oracular moments that seem to strike him occasionally has prophesied “…that before Christmas this bear would do the best deed that any bear had done in Britain except for other bear that none of us had ever heard of.”
The Director has asked Jane and some of the other women to put the Lodge, a small cottage on the manor grounds, in order. Household chores at St.Anne’s are done on a rotating basis; the men do them one day, the women the next. Jane doesn't see how this democratic division of labor fits in with the Ransom’s insistence that wives need to submit to their husbands, but the system seems to work; at last so long as the women don’t look too closely at the dishes on the guy’s day to wash.
Previously I've said that in Lewis’s world the gods and goddesses of classical myth are something like racial memories of the actual cosmic beings which rule the planets. This is not strictly true. There are echoes of those cosmic entities here on earth; reflections like the shadows in Plato’s cave of the actual planetary beings. “That is why there was an Italian Saturn as well as a Heavenly one,” Ransom explains, “and a Cretan Jove as well as an Olympian.”
Jane comes across such an avatar in the lodge: a tall, intimidating goddess in a flame-colored robe. Were she a pagan, Jane might worship her; were she a Christian, like Mother Dimble, she could trust in God’s protection. Lacking the spirituality of the former and the faith of the latter, Jane finds herself overwhelmed by the terrifying apparition.
Later Ransom offers another suggestion why the goddess seemed so terrifying, reflecting again Lewis’s orthodox views of gender. Jane is neither matron nor maid. She has renounced her role as a virgin – which is not by itself a bad thing – but has refused to take on the role of a mother. Are these the only two roles permitted a woman? I think Lewis over-simplifies things; and once again, I have to wonder how Dorothy L. Sayers would have written such a scene; but I have to admit, it makes sense that a fertility goddess would have strong opinions on this subject.
Ivy Maggs and Mrs. Dimble do not see the apparition. They lack Jane’s psychic sensitivity. But the goddess’s appearance probably has a good deal to do with the presence of Merlin. “We are not living exactly in the Twentieth Century as long as he’s here,” Ransom explains. “We overlap a bit; the focus is blurred.”
And what of Merlin? Merlin has been wondering about that himself. He’s been taken out of time for 1500 years and brought back in the present day to combat the Forces of Darkness; but what is he to do?
Ransom has been trying to bring him up to speed on the 20th Century, and he’s managed to wrap his brain around the idea that the present king is what he’d call a Saxon; but he doesn't understand why this king doesn't just send an army against Belbury and crush the N.I.C.E., or why the Ransom, the Pendragon, doesn't try to raise the populace against the tyrants. “They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived,” Ransom tells him.
Merlin offers to summon magical forces to come to their aid, but Ransom forbids it. The spirits Merlin once commanded are long since gone, dormant under centuries of industrialization. Times have changed, and the kind of meddling with natural forces Merlin used to do is no longer permitted by the cosmic forces Ransom serves. “It was never very lawful even in your day.” Merlin is not sure that the forces of nature he knew are completely dormant, and from Jane’s experience in the lodge we see he may be right. Nevertheless, he concedes to Ransom’s other point.
But the question remains: what is Merlin here for and what is the Director’s plan? Ransom’s answer is the same as the one he earlier gave MacPhee. He is waiting on his Masters, the Oyarésu.
But surely they will not intervene directly, Merlin protests. The cosmic planetary powers are forbidden by divine edict from crossing the Lunar orbit, as part of the cease-fire decreed following the rebellion of Earth’s own Dark Archon.
Ah, but that’s just the thing. The treaty has already been broken. The cosmic entities were forbidden to cross the orbital embargo, but nobody ever said that humans using their own intelligence and science couldn't. By travelling to Mars, Weston has already crossed the line; and when the Enemy possessed Weston on his trip to Venus the decree was broken. The Oyarésu are now free to come to earth; but they too are waiting for something.
Jane’s husband Mark, meanwhile, is still a prisoner at the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury, where Wither and Frost wish to initiate him into their Inner Circle. Mark wants nothing to do with the Institute. He has finally realized how they've been manipulating him all this time; but since he is a captive, he sees no choice but to play along while Frost subjects him to bizarre rituals which seem to be intended to desensitize him to societal taboos and, by extension, to ethical norms and conventional notions of Good and Evil in order to inculcate “Objectivity”.
Mark has an unexpected ally in the form of a nameless tramp, picked up by the N.I.C.E., whom Wither and Frost have mistaken for Merlin. The tramp has neglected to undeceive them, partially because they keep speaking to him in Latin; (they think he’s a 5th Century wizard who wouldn't understand Modern English) and so he assumes they are foreigners; and partially, I think, because he’s been arrested enough times to know that you never volunteer information to the cops. As far as the tramp is concerned, he’s been given a warm place to sleep, and good food. His confinement is undoubtedly better than many jails he’s been in. The tramp comes from a culture so alien to Mark that he has trouble understanding him; and yet Mark feels an affinity to him based on their shared captivity.
Every now and then, Wither and Frost come in with an expert in old Celtic languages hoping to find someone who can communicate with “Merlin”. They've been unsuccessful so far. The philologist Elwin Ransom would be an obvious choice, but their people have had difficulty in finding him; (undoubtedly one of the reasons why Ransom has changed his name to Fisher-King). Finally, Wither resorts to putting an ad in the newspaper for linguists.
When he sees this ad, Ransom knows that their opportunity has arrived.
That night, Ransom tells his household to remain downstairs. He and Merlin are going to entertain visitors in his upstairs study. The Oryarés are going to descend in person. In this memorable passage, Lewis describes parallel scenes how the presence of the gods affects the people in the manor house. Their conversation becomes lively and witty, almost giddy, as Vilitrilbia, whom men call Mercury, arrives; a sweet peacefulness descends upon them and the couples begin to snuggle as upstairs Perelandra, the personification of Venus appears. The men become more aggressive and impatient for action with the arrival of Mars. One by one, the great planetary powers manifest in Ransom’s study, and one by one, they infuse some of their power into Merlin.
These entities are mind-bogglingly powerful, and here I’m reminded of something from The Simarillion, by Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the Simarillion was not published in its finished form until after Tolkien’s death, he had read portions of the unfinished stories from it to his friends. Lewis might have borrowed this idea from his friend, or it is just as possible that they were both drawing off a shared Christian Cosmology.
In The Simarillion, the Valar, god-like beings subordinate to the Creator-God, are also barred from interfering in the affairs of Middle-Earth. They remain on the sidelines throughout Melkor’s age-long war against the elves until one of the elves makes the arduous voyage to return the last of the Simarils to Valinor. Only then do the Valar come to personally kick Melkor’s butt. The powers they unleash to do it, however, obliterates half of the continent.
Likewise, the Oyarsés could easily leave all of England a giant hole in the North Sea if they unleashed their full powers. Instead they are going to channel their powers through a mortal. This is why Merlin was important. Using their power thus is going to be hard on the vessel receiving it. The Oyarsés refuse to subject even a volunteer to this. But Merlin is no stranger to powerful spirits. He he has never met any of the Oyarsés scale before, but he has channeled supernatural forces. Metaphorically speaking, he is not a virgin. Merlin realizes he is not likely to survive this experience and it frankly terrifies him; but he understands that this is the purpose for which he has been brought here and so he resolves to go through with it.
The next day another visitor comes to the N.I.C.E; a Basque priest who understands not a word of English but who somehow has come in answer to Wither’s newspaper ad. When he is brought before the supposed “Merlin”, he is actually able to converse with him. This is because the priest is the real Merlin, using his Jedi Mind Tricks to control the tramp. We have a comical situation where Merlin is making the tramp give orders in ancient Celtic, which he then translates into Latin for Wither’s benefit.
Wither is perplexed by this situation. It certainly looks as if the priest is controlling the wizard instead of merely interpreting for him, but that couldn't possibly be the case. At Merlin’s orders, he gives the supposed wizard and his interpreter a tour of the Institute. Adding to his confusion, he realizes that a dinner has been scheduled for that evening with several important backers of the Institute in attendance. Of course, Merlin will have to attend, but how will Wither explain the wizard to all these big-wigs who think that the N.I.C.E. is all about Science?
As Wither goes off with the two Merlins, Frost takes Mark back to the Objective Room for another training session. A large table in the room has been moved aside to reveal an ornate carving on the floor depicting Christ nailed to the cross. Frost tells Mark to trample on the image.
Mark hesitates. He is not a Christian; unlike Jane he has never been one; but this seems so pointless. “This is all surely a pure superstition. … Well, if so, what is there objective about stamping on the face? Isn't it just as subjective to spit on a thing like this as to worship it? I mean – damn it all – if it’s only a bit of wood, why do anything about it?”
Frost insists. “Of course, it is a superstition; but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for a great many centuries.” But Mark looks at it another way.
Mark has never had a really firm grip on the notion of Good vs. Evil, but for the past few days, he has come to regard everything about Belbury as an affront to everything that he saw as Straight or Normal or Wholesome. Looking on the suffering man on the cross, he does not see it as a religious icon or an image of worship; he sees it as what happens when the Straight meets the Crooked; what the N.I.C.E. would do to him if he refused to warp himself in their demented image.
Frost prods him. “Do you intend to go on with the training or not?”
Mark made no reply. He was thinking, and thinking hard because he knew, that if he stopped even for a moment, mere terror of death would take the decision out of his hands. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him – had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have momentarily vanished. They had been a safeguard … they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said,
“It’s all bloody nonsense, and I’m damned if I do any such thing.”And here things start to get really surreal.
The session is interrupted by the simultaneous arrival of Wither’s little tour group, and the dinner guests, including Jules, the self-important public face of the N.I.C.E. Most critics regard him as a particularly unkind caricature of H.G. Wells, and they are probably correct. Jules knows nothing about the Macrobes, the diabolical cosmic entities who control the Institute through the severed head of the executed murderer Alcasan; he knows nothing about the severed head. He thinks that he’s in charge of the Institute, and part of Wither’s job is to keep him thinking that. Jules does not understand what the old man in the robes and the foreign priest are doing here, and it takes all of Wither’s powers of diplomacy and double-talk to soothe him.
Mark is allowed to change into dinner clothes. This is England after all, and there are some societal norms which even Objectivists like Frost must follow.
The dinner is a peculiar one. The tramp seems to be enjoying himself, accepting the bizarre things that are happening to him with a cheerful fatalism. During the dinner, several things happen, and Lewis show them unfolding as they occur to several individuals.
Wither first notices something wrong when in the middle of his after dinner speech, Jules makes a remark about something being “as gross an anachronism as to trust to Calvary for salvation in modern war.” Of course, he means “cavalry”; “Calvary” is the name of the hill upon which Christ was crucified; and Jules’s significant slip has always stuck in my mind to keep me from confusing the two words. But the next sentence out of his mouth is utter gibberish, and not the type of gobbledygook platitudes he usually uttered.
Wither tries to prevent Jules from embarrassing himself further by taking the podium himself, but finds the guests staring at him as if he were speaking gibberish too. Actually, everyone in the room has suddenly lost the ability to communicate intelligibly.
Frost attempts to pass a note to Fairy Hardcastle, but the note reads “Blunt frippers intantly to pointed bdeluroid. Purgent. Cost.”. So she takes a wild guess as to what her boss wants. She discreetly gets up from the table, locks all the doors leading out of the dining room, pulls out a pistol, and shoots Jules dead.
That’s when the real panic starts. And that’s when the ferocious man-eating tiger comes out of the kitchen. Tiger? What’s going on here?
What has happened is that Merlin has unleashed the Curse of Babel on the crowd. You may recall that the novel’s title, “That Hideous Strength”, comes from a medieval poem about the Tower of Babel, that dreadful stronghold. Merlin now possesses the power of Mercury, the god of Language, to take away their ability to communicate. I recently read another critic who observed that the curse doesn't end with language; With the power of Mars, he removed from the N.I.C.E. the martial discipline they once had and with the power of Venus the camaraderie and co-operation they once enjoyed. Well, to be honest, the crew at Belbury despised all those things; their organization was based on fear, not discipline; on ambition, not comradeship; and they used language as a tool to deceive, not to communicate. So, in a way, Merlin is merely taking away from them virtues which they weren't using anyway.
Merlin leaves the banquet hall quietly without being observed and takes the tramp with him. No one sees the tramp again, although I like to think he made off with some of the N.I.C.E.’s silverware and got many a drink at the local pub telling of his adventures. Merlin goes to the labs where the animals are kept for vivisection experiments and frees them, sending them to the dining room. To dine. Here he finds Mr. Bultitude, and gives him a special blessing, temporarily freeing him from the tameness Ransom had imposed upon him and reminding the bear that he is a carnivore.
Merlin also releases other captives, prisoners who have been transferred from the local jails to the N.I.C.E. as part of the Institute’s takeover of local civil government. One of these prisoners is Ivy Maggs’s husband, and Merlin gives the man a note from his wife instructing him to come to St. Anne’s, but to avoid Edgestow.
Belbury is now utter chaos, which is only intensified when the Macrobes, seeing that their plans have been upended, decide to destroy their tools. Wither along with Filostrato and Straik flee to lab where Alcasan’s severed head is kept.. The men find themselves compelled to worship the head as if it were some kind of scientific Lord of the Flies. Then the head commands them to get it a new one, and Filostrato finds himself dragged off to the lab’s mini-guillotine. They kill Filostrato and are in the process of trying to kill each other when Mr. Bultitude comes in to finish the job.
Frost finds himself compelled, as if his body was controlled by superior forces, to gather all the flammables in the lab and immolate himself.
Lord Feverstone, ever the opportunist, manages to slip out of the banquet before everything goes pear-shaped; but when he heads towards Edgestow, he finds an exodus of people leaving it. He presses onward, and so is swallowed up by the unexpected earthquake which destroys the town.
As it happens, very few people die in the destruction of Edgestow. Many had already been displaced. Many more providentially left town for seemingly coincidental reasons. But in any case, the only people left in Edgestow when it was destroyed were the Very Good, who were ready for Heaven anyway, and the Very Bad, who were getting what they deserved. George Orwell disliked this eldila ex machina ending, feeling that it detracted from a perfectly good cautionary dystopia; but Lewis re-wrote Paradise Lost so that the Snake loses; he’s not about to end the novel with a boot on humanity’s face forever.
The next morning, many of the animals freed from the N.I.C.E. turn up at St. Anne’s. Mr. Bultitude returns, in the company of a friendly she-bear. Many of the other animals also have arrived two-by-two and celebrate their new freedom under the blessing and sanction of the goddess Venus. “This is becoming indecent,” MacPhee complains as the elephants begin copulating in the garden. “On the contrary,” Ransom replies, “decent in the old sense, decens, fitting is just what it is.”
Lord Byron once said that every tragedy is ended with a death, and every comedy with a marriage. This comedy ends with couples united. Ivy is reunited with her husband. And then there’s Jane.
The Director is bidding all his friends good-bye. Ransom’s task here is finished. He is ready to go. Like Frodo, he has suffered wounds which cannot be healed in this world; but the eldila are going to come and take him to Perelandra, where he will wait with Arthur and a handful of others until the End of Days.
Jane would like to stay with the Director until he leaves, but Ransom tells her that she is being waited for. “Your husband is waiting for you in the Lodge. It was your own marriage chamber that you prepared. Should you not go to him?”
Since Ransom requests it, she accedes to his will. “But – but – am I a bear or a hedgehog?” Is she just another female to be paired off at the end?
“More. But not less,” Ransom says. “You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.”
Mark too has escaped the chaos at Belbury. Merlin also found him and gave him a letter from his one-time friend Dennison, telling him that his wife was waiting for him at St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill.
When he was a prisoner at Belbury, he flattered himself in thinking himself heroically resisting the N.I.C.E. He doesn't feel so heroic now, and can only think of how badly he’s treated Jane and how unworthy he is of her. What he’s feeling is the flip side of Paul’s admonition for wives to obey their husbands; the husbands need to strive to be deserving of that deference. As he approaches the small cottage on the manor property he encounters a gigantic woman in a flame-colored robe with a beautiful but sternly enigmatic face who opens the door for him and wordlessly commands him to enter.
Jane does not see the goddess this time. But she sees through the window that Mark has left his shirt lying draped over a chair. How like the man. She goes in to him.
And do Mark and Jane really reunite and re-establish their relationship? Lord Byron would say yes. And so would every Happily Ever After. But for all his theoretical musings on the proper relation between the sexes, C.S. Lewis never shows the two actually together and trying to make things work.
So maybe it’s best to leave it as a Happy Ending. Jack has his Jill, and the Forces of Darkness have for a time been forestalled. The darkness will gather again, but for the time being Venus presides over St. Anne’s and elephants are dancing in the rose garden.