I am writing a paper on C.S. Lewis and the Arthurian tradition for Sørina Higgins’ collection, The Inklings and King Arthur. As I trawl through the materials one common theme keeps coming back: How do we explain the sudden appearance of Merlin in That Hideous Strength (1945)?
Part of the ultimate answer is this: “Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien.” Williams and Tolkien, both writers struggling with Arthurian stories and both close friends of Lewis—they are the reason that Merlin appears. They influence the way that Lewis shaped his science fiction writing during WWII.
This claim won’t shock readers of the Inklings or C.S. Lewis scholars; it was from Sørina that I first heard That Hideous Strength (THS) called “The Charles Williams novel by C.S. Lewis.” While the first Ransom book, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), was an H.G. Wells space fantasy—what he and Tolkien called a Romance—and Perelandra (1943) became a new myth like what Milton did in Paradise Lost. THS really sets itself apart from the other books as a supernatural thriller. It is dark, eerie, peculiar, a clear precursor to Orwell’s 1984 (1948), and for some reason includes the great wizard Merlin. It is certainly in the stream of Charles William’s work. Read Williams’ Descent Into Hell (1937) and some of his Arthuriana, then read That Hideous Strength. You’ll see what I mean. My chapter in the book is going to work out that link (if I am successful!).
But Williams and Tolkien are not Lewis’ only influence. One hint that is often missed is the subtitle to That Hideous Strength: “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups.” That Lewis has to include a preface defending the subtitle makes the reader wonder why he even bothered. THS doesn’t feel like a fairy tale; it’s missing all the things we would expect, including evil stepmothers, wrinkled crones, knights in shining armour, breadcrumb pathways, woodcutter cottages, and, well…, it’s missing fairies. There are no fairies in That Hideous Strength.
While that last statement isn’t exactly true, as we’ll see, the average reader who ignored the subtitle would feel about the same as I did: This Merlin thing doesn’t fit. I think, though, that Lewis’ little paratextual clue, “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups,” sets the reader up in a key way to expect the kind of book that Lewis has written. In this case, the subtitle takes us back—as so many other things in Lewis’ writing do—to George MacDonald.
While George MacDonald is a relatively famous father of the faërie tradition and a well-loved children’s author in the day before children were a market, MacDonald was also tremendously influential to C.S. Lewis. As I explain in my article, “Be Careful What You Read,” it was George MacDonald’s first prose book, Phantastes (1858), that Lewis encountered by accident one day at the train station. It erupted into his mental life, “baptizing his imagination” and preparing the way for his life as both author and Christian.
George MacDonald wrote a whole host of books that explored all aspects of faërie. But here’s the link to That Hideous Strength. Depending on your edition, you may not have noticed the subtitle to Phantastes. It’s easy to miss, especially for those of us using a digital copy. But the subtitle is significant. The full title of this 19th century classic is Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Sounds a lot like Lewis’ subtitle:
Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women
That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups
The echo is pretty clear.
What is the link, then, that Lewis was trying to make? He connects the Ransom world of THS with Tolkien’s and Williams’ fictional worlds with overt references. But he connects THS to George MacDonald’s Fairy Land through this subtle paratextual hint, the subtitle that rhymes with MacDonald’s own subtitle.
When I first read Phantastes, I was extremely confused by the character of Sir Percivale, the Arthurian knight and seeker of the Holy Grail wandering through George MacDonald’s Fairy Land. What I had missed early in Phantastes was George MacDonald’s preparation for the Arthurian thread in his faërie garment. Early in the book, in a cabin on the threshold at the edge of the fairy wood, the protagonist Anodos reads from a great book. Here is what he reads:
“Here it chanced, that upon their quest, Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale rencountered in the depths of a great forest. Now, Sir Galahad was dight all in harness of silver, clear and shining; the which is a delight to look upon, but full hasty to tarnish, and withouten the labour of a ready squire, uneath to be kept fair and clean. And yet withouten squire or page, Sir Galahad’s armour shone like the moon. And he rode a great white mare, whose bases and other housings were black, but all besprent with fair lilys of silver sheen. Whereas Sir Percivale bestrode a red horse, with a tawny mane and tail; whose trappings were all to-smirched with mud and mire; and his armour was wondrous rosty to behold, ne could he by any art furbish it again; so that as the sun in his going down shone twixt the bare trunks of the trees, full upon the knights twain, the one did seem all shining with light, and the other all to glow with ruddy fire….”
It is a fairly significant clue; if Anodos had kept reading, he would have heard his own tale. Even this I missed when I first read Phantastes, though once you work it out, it has a way of sticking. Given that Lewis is echoing MacDonald, is there something similar at play in That Hideous Strength? I went back to THS to see if I had missed the same kind of hint.
As it turns out, it begins almost immediately.
There is an Arthurian conversation between Jane, the protagonist and wife of Mark, and Dr. Dimble, her professor and a kind of mentor figure. Jane is a scholar of poetry and so knows England’s literary heritage well. Dimble starts exploring whether the Arthurian world sits in the pagan, Druidic side of Britain, or the Roman, Christian side. In Dimble’s view, Arthur draws them both together. But Merlin is an ambivalent character:
“Yes . . . [Merlin]’s the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil: yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’, but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember: ‘There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil.’”
Here Dr. Dimble draws together all the elements of the story: the Christian history, magic, the Grail legend, good and evil as sides, and even faërie (sky-wights). The conversation swiftly moves from this reflective speech to the question of Bragdon Wood, the property behind their Bracton College that has been purchased by a nefarious conspiracy group for development. Merlin still sleeps there, Dr. Dimble reminds them. Who knows what will happens when his grave is dug up?
If this conversation in ch. 1, section V is not enough to prime readers for the Arthurian incursion, or if they miss the names in the book—Arthur Denniston, Fairy Hardcastle, Mr. Fisher King, the Pendragon—they should have been prepared for Merlin in ch. 1, section III. What makes this section remarkable is the third word: “I”. In Out of the Silent Planet (OSP) and Perelandra, as well as in the Dark Tower fragment of a Ransom story, Lewis is a first person narrator. The first person voice grows throughout OSP to climax in a letter between “Lewis” and Ransom; in Perelandra it does the opposite, beginning with Lewis, who disappears as Ransom tells his tale. It is commonly acknowledged that the first person narrator disappears in That Hideous Strength. Through most of the book, there are no personal notes from the narrator. There is one important exception, however: ch. 1, section III. Here is how it begins:
“The only time I was a guest at Bracton [College] I persuaded my host to let … me into the Wood and leave me there alone for an hour. He apologised for locking me in….
“Very few people were allowed into Bragdon Wood. The gate was by Inigo Jones [17th century architect] and was the only entry: a high wall enclosed the Wood….
Lewis—presumably Lewis the character in the other Ransom books—is the storyteller here, like Anodos in Phantastes. Anodos transitions from his bedroom to Fairy Land almost seamlessly. You should read the whole of ch. 2, but here is an example of that seamless transition:
My dressing-table was an old-fashioned piece of furniture of black oak, with drawers all down the front. These were elaborately carved in foliage, of which ivy formed the chief part. The nearer end of this table remained just as it had been, but on the further end a singular change had commenced. I happened to fix my eye on a little cluster of ivy-leaves. The first of these was evidently the work of the carver; the next looked curious; the third was unmistakable ivy; and just beyond it a tendril of clematis had twined itself about the gilt handle of one of the drawers.
This happens in THS as well. Lewis also has a slow, incremental transition. The transition, though, is through an Oxford-style quad (you can see these in the Golden Compass film) into Bracton Wood, where Merlin rests. Here is a bit of that slide across the threshold:
“… the sense of gradual penetration into a holy of holies was very strong. First you went through the Newton quadrangle which is dry and gravelly; florid, but beautiful, Georgian buildings look down upon it. Next you must enter a cool tunnel-like passage, nearly dark at midday unless either the door into Hall should be open on your right or the buttery hatch on your left, giving you a glimpse of indoor daylight falling on panels, and a whiff of the smell of fresh bread. When you emerged from this tunnel you would find yourself in the medieval college: in the cloister of the much smaller quadrangle called Republic. The grass here looks very green after the aridity of Newton and the very stone of the buttresses that rise from it gives the impression of being soft and alive. Chapel is not far off: the hoarse, heavy noise of the works of a great and old clock comes to you from somewhere overhead.
You went along this cloister, past slabs and urns and busts that commemorate dead Bractonians, and then down shallow steps into the full daylight of the quadrangle called Lady Alice. The buildings to your left and right were seventeenth-century work: humble, almost domestic in character, with dormer windows, mossy and grey-tiled. You were in a sweet, Protestant world. You found yourself, perhaps, thinking of Bunyan or of Walton’s Lives. There were no buildings straight ahead on the fourth side of Lady Alice: only a row of elms and a wall; and here first one became aware of the sound of running water and the cooing of wood pigeons. The street was so far off by now that there were no other noises.
In the wall there was a door. It led you into a covered gallery pierced with narrow windows on either side. Looking out through these you discovered that you were crossing a bridge and the dark brown dimpled Wynd was flowing under you. Now you were very near your goal. A wicket at the far end of the bridge brought you out on the Fellows’ bowling-green, and across that you saw the high wall of the Wood and through the Inigo Jones gate you caught a glimpse of sunlit green and deep shadows.”
Anodos’ motion is like Lewis’, though Anodos is walking into the faërie forest land where humans are in some danger, and Lewis is moving back through time in an enchanted forest where most of the fay have fled (or otherwise disappeared). Anodos travels on the tracks of space and perspective, Lewis on the tracks of space and time. Both make their way from the “real” world of bedrooms and kitchen tables to the world of fairy land.
Lewis travels a half mile into the wood, but the pilgrimmage feels much longer. The walled-in nature of the Wood gave it a “peculiar quality,” but his real object was the Well at the centre of the Wood. Merlin’s Well, where legend supported by some archaeology and bulky tradition said Merlin lay until that day. As Lewis thinks about the history of Merlin’s Well, the story of Bracton Wood, and how the Bragdon College fellows were debating with Kings and Queens, he falls asleep, only to be “wakened by my friend hallowing to me from a long way off.”
Who is this Merlin?
In Lewis’ faërie lecture that he used to give at Oxford and that became the chapter “The Longævi” in The Discarded Image, he defines Merlin as almost in the category of “High Fairies”:
The Fairy Damsels are ‘ met in forest wide’. Met is the important word. The encounter is not accidental. They have come to find us, and their intentions are usually (not always) amorous. They are the fées of French romance, the fays of our own, the fate of the Italians. Launfal’s mistress, the lady who carried off Thomas the Rymer, the fairies in Orfeo, Bercilak in Gawain (who is called ‘ an alvish man’ at line 681), are of this kind. Morgan le Fay in Malory has been humanised; her Italian equivalent Fata Morgana is a full Fairy. Merlin—only half human by blood and never shown practising magic as an art—almost belongs to this order. They are usually of at least fully human stature. The exception is Oberon in Huon of Bordeaux who is dwarfish, but in virtue of his beauty, gravity, and almost numinous character, must be classified among (let us call them) the High Fairies (130).
While That Hideous Strength is a very un-fairylike book at first blush, Lewis does not accidentally or carelessly place it within the MacDonald stream. For MacDonald, the inclusion of the Arthurian legend within the speculative Fairy Land is not a significant stretch. The Arthurian legend has always sat on the threshold of faërie with hybrid characters like Merlin and Morgana le Fey (fey=fairy). It is a hybrid world, as Dr. Dimble explains, combining the Druidic and the Christian, the Magic and the Moral. Some texts blend the two, so that Arthurian knights contend not just with giants and dragons, but with the ambivalent world of faërie (such as the “Sir Orfeo” poem translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the Welsh tradition). As Anodos wanders through Fairy Land—like Christian wandered through the wide world in Pilgrim’s Progress before him—Sir Percivale is available in the imaginarium (the imagination bank) as a character to encounter.
C.S. Lewis’ fairy tale is more complex in that he intends a contemporary re-imagining of the fairy tale setting. Here is his rationale in the preface to That Hideous Strength:
If you ask why—intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels, I nevertheless begin with such humdrum scenes and persons—reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become to us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories.
The contemporary re-imagining of faërie will be familiar to those of us for whom urban fantasy is common fare (Holly Black’s work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Upon a Time, etc.). But Lewis only had Edith Nesbitt’s Bastable Children tramping around London and Charles Williams’ supernatural thrillers for models. Lewis exchanges woodcutter cottages and impenetrable castles for college dining halls and institutional bureaucracies. So we can see how the frameworks of faërie would differ from MacDonald’s in the key symbols of the faërie world.
But the storyline is quite different too. MacDonald’s Anodos is a precursor to new adult fantasy, a young man coming into his heritage who finds that he is discovering self in the midst of self-denying adventure. Although the protagonists Mark and Jane of THS are also new adults on a journey of self-discovery and self-denial, the context is not adventure but apocalypse. Anodos will, like Bunyan’s Christian or Homer’s Odysseus, face temptations, trials, and his own final test of strength. Mark and Jane’s context is totalitarian conspiracy—the threat of a Brave New World. Their own angst, their personal limitations, and their lack of direction is washed over by geopolitical forces that consider them merely cogs in the inevitable machine of progress.
Unlike Anodos, neither Mark nor Jane ever draw a sword—or even the pacifistic version of a sword. They merely remain steadfast in the onslaught before them. Yet they are not weaponless. A dim echo of the Round Table has been re-formed with the re-emergence of the Pendragon, and Merlin stands in the balance between anthropocide, a nation collapsed into the collective mind of a nihilistic totalitarian übermensch, and the restoration of true Britain.
The “why” of Merlin has complex answers, including the influence of Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the Arthur reborn myth in England and the apocalyptic mists of WWII. If Tolkien supplied energy for imaginative world-building possibilities, and Williams extended Lewis’ choice in shaping the atmosphere of the novel, MacDonald provided the generic framework. Tolkien and Williams extend Lewis’ mythopoeic vocabulary; MacDonald provides the grammar.
So, why does Merlin appear in That Hideous Strength? One aspect of the full answer is the simple reply, “Because he can.” When Lewis adopted a fairy tale form, Merlin became one of the available characters. It may have worked the other way around for Lewis. When he discovered that Ransom was truly Arthur reborn and the Fisher King, he only had three options for generic framework: Epic Prose (as in Tolkien’s “New Hobbit,” which became Lord of the Rings), Epic Poetry (as in Williams’ Arthuriad), or Fairy Tale. Having tried and failed at both the other two forms, Lewis chose fairy tale. Viewed from this angle, Lewis’ move from WWII-era fiction to Narnia is not that great a leap.