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The Descent of the Gods

April 24, 2017

 

That Hideous Strength, having evolved from the skeleton of a political and supernatural thriller into the body of an Epic fantasy, comes closest to being an essay at the point when Ransom, Director of St. Anne’s, converses with the re-born Merlin. Having re-orientated the reader to a degree to the new, extraverted and Epic world, in which forces are not merely psychological but external and real, he has the Dimbles discuss the question openly:

 

"Cecil," said Mrs. Dimble, "do you feel quite comfortable about the Director's using a man like this? I mean, doesn't it look a little bit like fighting Belbury with its own weapons?"

 

"No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He's at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one's horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead--a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won't work the way he pleases.”

 

Dimble’s comments neatly summarise the cerebral argument put forward by Lewis’s close friend Owen Barfield, who stated that human consciousness itself had developed from one which was in touch with or participating in the natural world to one which had separated itself from natural operations, a change which took place during what was called the Enlightenment or the Scientific Revolution. Mankind now regarded the world as a cold and detached machine, just as it introverted mentally; Merlin is from a time when such a detachment had not taken place. Dimble continues:

 

Finally come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking on to it the aid of spirits--extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin, which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goeteia--the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense, Merlin represents what we've got to get back to in some different way. 

 

Barfield hoped that there was a further stage to human consciousness in which we would regain our former ‘naive’ or ‘original participation'  in reality but in a wiser condition. Lewis is re-stating this in a fictional context.

 

As Ransom, at this point established for us as the ‘wise old man’ archetype of the trilogy as a whole, engages in conversation with Merlin, the contrast between the modern world and the mediaeval world from which the wizard comes is such that one of the effects it produces is comic:

 

The Druid sat in a chair facing him, his legs uncrossed, his pale large hands motionless on his knees, looking to modern eyes like an old conventional carving of a king. He was still robed and beneath the robe, as Ransom knew, had surprisingly little clothing, for the warmth of the house was to him excessive and he found trousers uncomfortable. His loud demands for oil after his bath had involved some hurried shopping in the village which had finally produced, by Denniston's exertions, a tin of Brilliantine. Merlinus had used it freely so that his hair and beard glistened and the sweet sticky smell filled the room. That was why Mr. Bultitude had pawed so insistently at the door that he was finally admitted and now sat as near the magician as he could possibly get, his nostrils twitching. He had never smelled such an interesting man before.

 

Contrasts are explicitly pointed out by Merlin as the conversation gets underway:

 

"Sir," said Merlin, in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him, "I give you great thanks. I cannot, indeed, understand the way you live, and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it: a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone, with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh, but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there is warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.

 

When Merlin suggests that, in order initially to help Ransom bear the pain of his wounded heel, he re-awaken his power to commune with the natural world, Ransom further reinforces the Barfieldian view that the essence of things has evolved since Merlin’s time:

 

"Hidden it may be," said Merlinus, "but not changed. Leave me to work, Lord. I will wake it. I will set a sword in every blade of grass to wound them and the very clods of earth shall be venom to their feet. I will----"

 

"No," said the Director, "I forbid you to speak of it. If it were possible, it would be unlawful. Whatever of spirit may still linger in the earth has withdrawn fifteen hundred years further away from us since your time. You shall not speak a word to it. You shall not lift your little finger to call it up. I command you. It is in this age utterly unlawful." 

 

Thus Lewis brings us to the point of the third novel: bringing the ‘heavenly powers’ of the planets down to Earth through Merlin, and thus initiating the mechanical descent of the Dantean experience into an earthly context. Merlin is to receive into himself the essence of each of the planetary angels, in order to destroy Belbury in what we can now recognise is an almost allegorical image of Lewis’s intention to produce in his readers the viewpoint shift common to his writings. By taking into Merlin the heavenly, Epic perspective and using it to crush the modern, worldly perspective, Lewis could be said to be ‘acting out’ that intention. Ransom continues:

 

"The Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes. But for their one mistake, there would be no hope left. If of their own evil will they had not broken the frontier and let in the celestial Powers, this would be their moment of victory. Their own strength has betrayed them. They have gone to the gods who would not have come to them, and pulled down Deep Heaven on their heads. Therefore they will die."

 

In the style of all typical antagonists, the enemy’s own actions or inactions have opened the door to their defeat - but this has been a fictive tool used by Lewis to once again embody his purpose, to bring down into the modern framework of the contemporary reader the overpowering capacity of the mediaeval stance on the world so that the ‘switch’ might occur. The modern reader, bearing the weight of this descent of the gods through the story, might be impinged upon sufficiently to have his own ‘Belbury’ destroyed, or at least a little undermined. 

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