Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

My mention of Jane and the Pendragon in my earlier post suggested to me that some of the good things about C S Lewis’ problematic text That Hideous Strength come from the interplay between the modern world and the enigmatic emergence of Merlin, meeting with his leader, Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, a Cambridge academic who by chance or design now holds the fate of an embattled world in his hand. In a comfortable country house in England the two men are in discussion about how to save Britain – the Arthurian Logres – from the grasp of its power-hungry and immoral leaders:

Suddenly the magician. smote his hand upon his knee.
“Mehercule!” he cried.“Are we not going too fast? if you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres and I will counsel you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now. Is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres. I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it then his great men — the counts and legates and bishops — who do the evil and he does not know. of it?”
“It is — though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl.Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now.They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people.There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher.We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms.We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor…” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.

No Emperor.  Lewis’ meditation on the collapse of morality and faith comes immediately after the Second World War, another episode in the devastation of Europe in the C20th.  It is a fantasy novel, of course, and has moments of comedy, insight – and a troubling theological sexism. It would make a wonderfully quirky film – with some very notable rewriting.  It is a harking-back to a golden age that Lewis tries explicitly in some of the Narnia books, and indeed the kings and queens and heroes who come to rescue Narnia are in some ways reimaginings of the Arthurian rescue: they do not sleep under a hill, but take another life in our mundane England.

It is this that Susan Cooper is answering in her charge when her Merlin tells the children that their task is to take up the Matter of Britain themselves, not as fantasy readers or antiquarian scholars but by engaging with the power that harms and grasps and mocks. Cooper’s Merlin is more worldly wise than Lewis’ when she has him say “ the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control.” I have discussed this hard lesson before – but it is a hard lesson. Arthur will not do it; no Archbishop or Monarch is going to save us: we have to do it. Lewis’ Merlin, under the guidance of his Pendragon, rises to the challenge, and the difference between Cooper and Lewis is that his Science Fiction does have rescuers, in the tutelary spirits of the solar system who endow Merlin with supernatural power. Lewis is playing with allegory here, and in the passage cited above shows how the disjunction can be an effective plot line. Cooper saves her message for the last pages of her sequence of books, and the message is clear: in times of crisis, of confrontation, a new post-War morality requires us to step up, to make choices and to act on them.

And the “Most perilous time”?  A line from a monk on the eve of the dissolution of his monastery, another period of question, of violence, manipulation and painful reemergence. Not always are these moments of crisis just the matter of fiction.

3 thoughts on “Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

  1. It’s an odd book: sharply observed in many ways, and thus interesting social commentary. At the same time Jane’s dilemma is set against the priestess-like presence of “Mother” Dimble and the unpreposessing, sadistic sexual predator Miss Hardcastle. I need often to set the whole female narrative aside to see what else is going on…

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