“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.

Merry Wakes From a Dream as He Reaches The Shire But Frodo is Falling Asleep.

Last week I wrote about the hobbits as they prepare to return to the Shire after their adventures. In a comment  on the post Brenton Dickieson who writes the truly wonderful blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia,   https://apilgriminnarnia.com told me that his son Nicolas noted that in returning to the Shire the hobbits re-entered history once more.

When I read this it was one of those revelatory moments that causes you to see a text in an entirely new way. The idea was not entirely new and for that I am grateful to Joe Hoffman who writes as The Idiosopher http://www.idiosophy.com. Joe wrote a fascinating piece in which he noted that different places within Middle-earth exist in different periods of history and that the Shire belongs to the 18th century while Gondor, for example,  belongs to the high Middle Ages. My first reaction to this was to concede that Joe had made an excellent point but also to admit a certain disappointment to myself. I had always admired the care with which Tolkien had created his legendarium and it seemed that Joe had discovered a major flaw in Tolkien’s work. Far from being a remarkably consistent creation Middle-earth was full of historical inconsistency. Now in reading Nicolas Dickieson’s comment I realised that far from being inconsistent Tolkien had created a remarkable whole that I had never before fully realised or understood.

It is as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax towards the Barrow Downs and beyond to his meeting with Tom Bombadil that Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together… We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”

To which Frodo replies,  “Not to me… To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

In just a few brief lines Tolkien has drawn a profound contrast between Faerie and History and yet tells us that the hobbits live in both.

The Inklings, the fellowship of like-minded academics and writers of which Tolkien was a central figure, had long explored this relationship. Perhaps it was most explicitly stated in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis in which the history of a research institute is gloriously invaded by mythology, by Faerie, in the figure of Merlin. Later a character by the name of Dimble reflects on this.

“There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeded. Logres was our name for it- it will do as well as another. And then we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”

The haunting is the inbreaking of Faerie, of Myth, and beyond that, the True Myth of the Incarnation to which all other myth points, into History. In Lewis’s story this is íÓby means of Merlin and in Tolkien’s by means of the whole mythical story of the Ring entering the history of the Shire. Frodo and his companions embody the tension between the two. For Merry and Pippin the mythical has a dreamlike quality from which they are awaking. For Frodo it is the myth that is the real. Sam is “torn in two”.

In thinking about this I was drawn to the story of Oisín (pronounce Osheen) and Niamh (pronounce Neeve) and the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, the land of Faerie that feels so much in character like Tolkien’s Beleriand or perhaps Lothlórien. Oisín falls in love with Niamh, the Fairy princess and dwells with her in bliss for three hundred years. Eventually he wishes to visit his home in Ireland but finds that it is now Christian and effectively ruled by St Patrick. In some versions there is a debate between Patrick and Oisín http://www.ricorso.net. I have to say that in the version I read, translated from the Irish by Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904, Patrick comes across as a particularly unattractive character and my natural sympathies were with Oisín. I would like to say that in his breastplate Patrick feels much closer to Oisín’s world than in the debate that I read.

But whatever the nature of that debate I believe that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien achieves a unity between Faerie and History and the relationship between the two. In coming weeks as we read The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens I hope to explore this more closely and to consider Tolkien’s version of the Haunting and to relate it to our own experience. But now we must leave the hobbits at the shut gates of their homeland either awakening or falling asleep.

The artwork this week imagines the encounter between Oisín and St Patrick.

Gandalf Thinks About the Weather

We can forgive Gandalf for mixing not just two but three metaphors because of who he is. Perhaps he mixes them deliberately in order to leave his hearers in no doubt about the point that he is making. The hearers are the lords of the allies gathered at the gates of Minas Tirith. Denethor and Théoden are dead and Faramir is recovering from his wounds in the Houses of Healing so it is Aragorn, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Éomer and Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond who listen to what Gandalf is saying.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,  but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Weather is one of those elements of life over which we have no immediate control although climate is something that we have always had the capacity to influence. Climate usually changes gradually while weather can change from day to day. Those who live on the Atlantic coast of Europe know this very well as the prevailing wind blows from that ocean more often than not. In order to live successfully in such a changeable climate it is necessary to be prepared for it. And those who wish to be happy will learn to enjoy the changes.

Two of my favourite characters in C. S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are Frank and Camilla Denniston. I know that if I ever met them I would like them. And one of the things that I like about them is their attitude to Weather.

“That’s why Camilla and I got married… We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”

And the Dennistons explain to Jane Studdock that we tend to grow up by learning to mistrust attitudes to life that once came quite naturally. Mistrust seems to be something that too many people regard as a necessary life skill. Eventually as they proceed upon this unhappy pathway they come to regard life itself as something to be guarded against. They may fear death but come to exist, and only exist, in a kind of half life. This is the existence that Théoden endured under the tutelage of Wormtongue until Gandalf delivered him and it is no accident that one of the first things that Gandalf did after setting Théoden free was to take him out into the weather, into the rain that was falling.

It has been my habit for a few years now to take my dog out for a walk in the Worcestershire countryside at about 6 in the morning. I do this in every season and whatever the weather. For part of the year I take the walk in the dark, for part of it in the light, and part too in the days when the earth moves from dark to light at that time of the day. No two days are ever quite the same and slowly this walk is teaching me a wisdom for living that is not about mustering sufficient resources to overcome the world about me but about learning to live with the world as my friend.

Next week we will think about Gandalf’s counsel to those gathered in the tents of Aragorn but this week it is this central element within his wisdom that we highlight. We cannot chose the challenges that we will have to face in our lives. We can only choose the manner in which we deal with them.

Next week we will think about how the lords of the West choose to deal with the impossible challenge that faces them.