“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.

“I Only Said I Think I Shall Come.” Life With and Without Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.266

I have long been drawn to the figures of old men in literature and have wanted to spend time in their company. As a small boy I read and re-read T.H White’s The Once and Future King and the scene that gave me the greatest pleasure was that in which the Wart (the young King Arthur) comes across Merlin in a clearing in the Forest Sauvage for the very first time and you just know that life is never going to be the same again and it is going to be good. Then a few years later I settled down with Frodo by the open window of his study to smoke a pipe with Gandalf and was content. Years later I read the Harry Potter stories to my daughters and found that the attraction had not gone. I was never happier than in the scenes with Albus Dumbledore and when there seemed to be some distance between Harry and Dumbledore I felt an old familiar ache and longing inside. And perhaps one of the most significant and vivid dreams in my life ended, almost uniquely, in perfect resolution when I knelt before an old man who I identified as the Pope in order to receive his blessing. I could even smell the fragrance in the air at that moment of perfect peace and harmony.

Alan Lee’s sublime imagining of Merlin and the Young Arthur together in Merlin’s study. Can anything be more perfect?

I am not sure that I ever quite met the elder that I was looking for and at the age that I have now reached the opportunity to do so is receding but the longing has not gone. It’s just that I begin to realise that I am going to have to find this father within myself and not in a figure that I am likely to meet. Maybe that is the meaning of my dream. A dream that I think was given for my whole life and not just for a moment within it.

During these weeks of the summer I have been writing about some bigger themes in The Lord of the Rings before turning to The Two Towers in the autumn and I have begun to think about both the presence and the absence of Gandalf in the story. My readers may remember that I wrote a piece entitled “We Must Do Without Hope” back on December 11th 2021 https://stephencwinter.com/2021/12/11/we-must-do-without-hope-the-company-go-on-after-the-fall-of-gandalf/ as Aragorn takes command of the Company after the catastrophe of the fall of Gandalf in Moria. These words are almost a title for the early chapters of The Two Towers as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue Merry and Pippin and their orc captors across the plains of Rohan towards the Forest of Fangorn. Again and again Aragorn reflects both upon hope and its absence. Surely he knows that to free the young hobbits is a hopeless task against so numerous a foe, as Éomer tries to convince him, but he continues with grim resolution until at last in the forest he meets Gandalf once more. From that moment onwards he is a man transformed.

Meeting Gandalf in Fangorn Forest

And we see the same reaction from Frodo when Gandalf announces to the hobbits, “I think I shall come with you.” Indeed, Tolkien writes, “So great was Frodo’s delight at this announcement that Gandalf left the windowsill, where he had been sitting, and took off his hat and bowed. ‘I only said I think I shall come. Do not count on anything yet.'”

Gandalf’s presence is so important that it gives huge confidence, energy and hope to all around him. When the Company are attacked by wargs near the western gate of Moria Sam is given hope as he says, “Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly.”

And then comes the moment when Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and for a time at least all hope is gone. Eventually Gandalf is restored to the Fellowship, for all at least except two. For Frodo and Sam have to go on alone step by step to the Cracks of Doom bearing the burden of the Ring and without even the sustaining thought that Gandalf is out there somewhere fighting on their behalf. It is worth pondering the fact that they, alone among their fellows, achieve their quest entirely without this source of strength and of hope. They know the loneliness of being a grown up and what strength they are able to find must be found within.

Frodo and Sam alone in Mordor