“The Saxon King of Yours, Who Sits at Windsor, Now. Is There No Help in Him?” Thoughts on the British Monarchy from “That Hideous Strength” by C.S Lewis on the Death of Queen Elizabeth II.

That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis (Pan Books 1983) pp.286-294

The death of Queen Elizabeth II in this last week leaves a huge gap in my life and in the lives of many of her subjects. Her long reign means that you have to be a few years older than 70 to remember any other monarch and I have not reached that age yet. She was Queen for the whole of my life. That is until Thursday 8th September 2022. During her reign she graced our lives with her presence being a constant amidst all the grime of power politics. She was just there, and now she is with us no longer. May she rest in peace. May light perpetual shine upon her.

Her passing led me to think about a reference to monarchy and its significance in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis, a book first published in 1945 and written during the Second World War. At a time in which most people were thinking about the war with Nazi Germany Lewis was pondering other things. I regard this work as prophetic. Its themes are being enacted even now and will, I think, be so throughout this century.

The scene that I have been thinking about is a discussion between Elwin Ransom, Director of the Community of St Anne, and Merlin who has just emerged from the earth in Bragdon Wood after long centuries there. Merlin has learned that Ransom is the Pendragon and his true lord and has knelt before him and now they are engaged in debate about what to do with the N.I.C.E, the institute that seeks to harness the hideous strength in order to achieve absolute power.

As always, Alan Lee, penetrates to the essence of a character. This is his depiction of Merlin in Bragdon Wood.

Merlin was last above the earth in a time in which the king, Arthur son of Uther Pendragon, was both Lord of Britain and of Logres. They were one and the same thing, but this is the case no longer. Ransom is the Pendragon, Lord of Logres, but has no power in Britain. There is a king who, as Merlin says, “sits in Windsor”, and at the time in which Lewis wrote was King George VI, but he has no power in the spiritual conflict in which both Ransom and Merlin are involved.

It is this question of power that lies at the heart of the debate. Merlin, who has lived in earth for centuries and is of the earth in a way that few, if any of us are, even though we all come from the earth, argues that the N.I.C.E can be overcome by the power of earth. “You will need my commerce with field and water” he says, speaking of his power as a wizard that once he offered to Arthur. He speaks of an enchanted world that can be reawakened just as it was long years before. It reminds us of the last chapters of Prince Caspian in which the enchanted world is indeed reawakened to overthrow a tyranny, chapters that are particular favourites of mine among the Chronicles of Narnia.

Pauline Baynes’s classical depiction of the Maenads with Aslan, Lucy and Susan, from Prince Caspian by C.S Lewis. I wonder what Alan Lee would make of this scene. Probably a little more of the terror that Lucy feared that there might be without Aslan.

Ransom makes it clear to Merlin that they no longer live in the enchanted world that Merlin knew in the Age of Arthur and of Logres. Merlin is not permitted to awaken the spirit that lives in the earth. “It is in this age utterly unlawful.” But there is power and the power that will overcome the N.I.C.E is that of the angelic powers, the gods who rule the heavens. In Lewis’s mythical world they are named the Oyaresu. In Tolkien’s they are the Valar. They are the great archetypal powers who will break through into the ordinary world and throw down the tower that Nimrod builds in order to reach heaven.

In such a world, Lewis says, the king who sits at Windsor has no power, but he is still the king according to the order of Britain. He will be “crowned and anointed by the Archbishop” in Westminster Abbey in the coming year as every monarch has been in this land for a thousand years. The Britain over which he will reign is a weak and feeble thing compared to the land in which his mother became Queen in 1952. Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister. The current holder of that office is a negligible figure by comparison. But Charles is the king and I will be the king’s man having sworn an oath to serve him as a clerk in holy orders in the Church Established, by law, in this land. I will pray for him that “he, knowing whose minister he is, may above all things” seek God’s honour and glory. But like Ransom I look for another power to overcome evil in this land. I look for the euchatastrophe, for a moment when by dint of their inevitable hubris, the dark powers will pull down Deep Heaven and so overthrow themselves. And perhaps there will yet come a time in which Logres and Britain are reunited. I pray that this time will come.

They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven. The Fall of the Tower of Barad-dûr in The Lord of the Rings. Here the agents of the fall of the powers of evil are two impossibly small and unimportant figures.

“When Evening in The Shire Was Grey”. Frodo and Sam Sing Songs of Gandalf in Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 349-351

Galadriel and Celeborn wisely leave the Fellowship to themselves after the encounter in Caras Galadhon and Galadriel’s silent interrogation of their hearts and minds. What the Fellowship needs now is rest and healing of weary bodies. Even though at its borders Lothlórien is alert to possible threat at its heart it remains at rest and so it seems that the Company does “little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees”; and it is enough.

At first, as Aragorn put it, there is a desire simply to rest and to forget grief, grief at the loss of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, but inevitably after a while their thoughts turn to their loss and their grief becomes keen.

It is Frodo and Sam who choose poetry in which to try to put that grief into some kind of form. Perhaps it is as they hear songs of Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, in the Sindarin tongue of their Elven hosts, that they begin to find their own thoughts move in the same direction. Perhaps it is, as Sam has already put it, that in Lothlórien they feel themselves to be “inside a song” that enables them to create their own.

When evening in the Shire was grey
his footsteps on the Hill were heard;
before the dawn he went away 
on journey long without a word. 

John Howe wonderfully captures Gandalf’s energy and vulnerability.

The words are beautiful and full of longing for what has been lost. The aching realisation that Frodo will never hear the sound of those footsteps coming along the path to his door again, a sound that always meant that something deep and rich, old and wise, was about to enter his life once again. But Tolkien is quick to introduce a disclaimer here. These words “feel faded as a handful of withered leaves”. Tolkien uses this sad image to describe Frodo’s feelings of inadequacy as he tries to put the person of Gandalf into words but we cannot help but feel that it is Tolkien’s own feelings of inadequacy as a poet that are on show here. Gandalf is far too great a figure to reduce to a few lines upon a page, or committed to memory in Frodo’s mind.

But a good poem is not a reduction of anything. Each line in Frodo’s evocation of Gandalf points us towards his greatness but also his simplicity. They speak of his mighty journeys; of his skill in languages; of his “deadly sword”, his “healing hand”.

Gandalf, a lord of wisdom

“A lord of wisdom throned he sat, swift in anger, quick to laugh, an old man in a battered hat who leaned upon a thorny staff.”

All through the poem Frodo gives us on the one hand, his greatness, and on the other, his vulnerability and all the time he is doing something that from their earliest encounters with one another, C.S Lewis admired in Tolkien’s work. It was after an evening reading The Lay of Leithian Tolkien’s verse telling of the story of Beren and Lúthien that Lewis wrote of myth making that it is the essence of a myth “that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”. And surely here in Frodo’s lament for Gandalf the incipient allegory that is suggested to us is the connection between Gandalf, the mighty maiar clothed in the form of “a weary pilgrim on the road”, and what first Tolkien and then Lewis described as the true myth of the incarnation in which, in Christ, God is clothed in our humanity, not in its semblance but in all its reality. There is no incarnation in any part of Tolkien’s legendarium. He deliberately chose to set his story in a world that knows nothing of it but again and again, in the story of Gandalf, in the story of the true king hidden within the weather stained Ranger of the North who goes by the name of Strider, and in other characters, the true myth is suggested to us in many ways. Might this be why our hearts are drawn towards them?

He stood upon the bridge alone. Alan Lee imagines the dreadful moment.