This is an honest question that I hope readers can help me with, and a proposal I would like to test out. C.S. Lewis’ second space travel adventure, Perelandra, begins like this: “As I left the railway station at Worchester….” It just occurred to me to find out where that station is (or was).
As far as I can tell, Worchester spelled thusly is not a place we would have found in WWII England. There is a Worcester College at Oxford, the alma mater of Emma Watson and Richard Adams—a fact that probably is more interesting to me than to Lewis. Lewis had a friend named Wyllie at Worcester while he was attending Oxford as a student. Lewis had once been given a pair of swans by the Provost of Worcester College, which he hated—the swans, not the Provost. Still, not a terribly strong link.
There is a Worcester in Worcestershire, England—a small city I passed by last year on my way from Birmingham to Cheltenham to visit friends. There are random historical events that are set in Worcester that Lewis might have found significant. Tyndale appeared for charges of heresy there in the early 1520s. Hugh Latimer was Bishop there 1535-39 when he resigned to take up being a heretic full time. Most significantly, the Battle of Worcester closed the English Civil War as Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army defeated King Charles II’s Royalist and Scottish army. Worcester was also plan B for the Parliament in WWII in case London had to be abandoned, though I doubt if Lewis knew that.
Perhaps the link is more personal. Lewis and his brother Warren spent a good deal of time at the schools of Malvern College, which is in Worcestershire. It is where C.S. Lewis abandoned his Christian faith, as he describes in Surprised by Joy and therein calls his school Wyvern College. This was not a warm place in Lewis’ memories, though he had friends, and he would have gone to the city of Worcester for enjoyable outings (escapes) from school.
Of all these, the links to Ransom’s world are not terribly clear. The strongest one is the Battle—and that link might not be more than tangential. Let’s walk through them.
In Perelandra, Lewis the character-narrator gets off at the Worchester station to go to Dr. Ransom’s cottage in the first lines of Perelandra. Ransom is a Cambridge philologist at the fictional Leicester College. If Worchester is Worcester–the misspelling is made with frequency and my audiobook pronounces it like the latter spelling–then the commute from Worcester to Cambridge would be unusually long—at least four hours. The reason that Ransom isn’t home when Lewis gets there is because he had to slip up to Cambridge. There is now a West Chesterton district in the suburbs of Cambridge, but I doubt that is the fictional town in view. Lewis did end up commuting from Oxford to Cambridge, which might have been a three-hour trip, but this wasn’t until more than a decade after Perelandra was written.
Is Worchester meant to be the Worcester of Lewis’ youth? Most of the geographical set up of the Ransom Cycle is fictional. In Out of the Silent Planet, the hiking villages of Nadderby and Sterk are not (unfortunately) real places where a philologist could have walked in the 30s. St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength is not the end of any line I know (though there is a St. Anne’s College not far from Worcester College in Oxford). Among early readers or the Inklings, there may have been conjecture that Lewis was veiling real places in THS. It seems some thought Lewis’ Town of Edgestow and Bracton College were related to Durham:
A very small university [in That Hideous Strength] is imagined because that has certain conveniences for fiction. Edgestow has no resemblance, save for its smallness, to Durham—a university with which the only connection I have ever had was entirely pleasant (Preface to That Hideous Strength).
The fiction of Edgestow is filled out with a number of scenes in the text and with a college that has a deep history that roots the story:
Though I am Oxford-bred and very fond of Cambridge, I think that Edgestow is more beautiful than either. For one thing it is so small. No maker of cars or sausages or marmalades has yet come to industrialize the country town which is the setting of the University, and the University itself is tiny. Apart from Bracton and from the nineteenth-century women’s college beyond the railway, there are only two colleges: Northumberland which stands below Bracton on the river Wynd, and Duke’s opposite the Abbey. Bracton takes no undergraduates. It was founded in 1300 for the support of ten learned men whose duties were to pray for the soul of Henry de Bracton and to study the laws of England (ch. 1).
If Edgestow is fictional, there are some real English reference points in THS. Oxford is added to Cambridge as real universities, and there is also London, Lancaster, and, as we see below, York in the north and Warwickshire, on the borders of Worcestershire. Belbury, which houses the evil N.I.C.E., is fictional. But Belbury and Edgestow must be within a difficult walking distance of Worcester, as N.I.C.E.’s forced exodus has driven “driven two thousand families from their homes to die of exposure in every ditch from here to Birmingham or Worcester.” We also find out that St. Anne’s is on the way to Birmingham when Jane is saved from a riot in ch. 8 and as Mark tries to stumble towards his wife in ch. 17.
As mentioned above, the clearest link to the historical area of Worcester is to the Battle of Worcester that ends the reign of Charles II. It is captured here in this dialogue with Jane and Miss Ironwood at St. Anne’s Manor, as Jane is slowly discovering she is a seer—a thing she doesn’t believe in:
“What was your maiden name?” asked Miss Ironwood.
“Tudor,” said Jane. At any other moment she would have said it rather self-consciously, for she was very anxious not to be supposed vain of her ancient ancestry.
“The Warwickshire branch of the family?”
“Did you ever read a little book—it is only forty pages long—written by an ancestor of yours about the battle of Worcester?”
“No. Father had a copy—the only copy, I think he said. But I never read it. It was lost when the house was broken up after his death.”
“Your father was mistaken in thinking it the only copy. There are at least two others: one is in America, and the other is in this house.”
“Your ancestor gave a full and, on the whole, correct account of the battle, which he says he completed on the same day on which it was fought. But he was not at it. He was in York at the time” (ch. 3).
How do all these individual links connect?
My proposal is this: That Lewis’ fictional Edgestow is in a small town (2000 people or fewer) in the real Worcestershire, and that That Hideous Strength is likely set in a fictionalized campus like Lewis’ own Malvern College, which is about 10 miles southwest of Worcester in Worcestershire. I will explore a few connections which leads me to this idea.
Lewis loved the architecture of Malvern, and was delighted by the “great blue plain below us and, behind, those green, peaked hills, so mountainous in form and yet so manageably small in size” (Surprised by Joy ch. 4). THS is filled with small English villages, college buildings, large hills, open fields, and ancient woods. Great Malvern and Malvern Hills is a good fit for the novel, though many other places would do as well.
Pressing in on distances, if one was a N.I.C.E. exile pulling a farm cart or a wheelbarrow full of one’s possessions—”chests of drawers, bedsteads, mattresses, boxes, and a canary in a cage”—Great Malvern would be a long day’s walk to Worcester. Birmingham would be two or three days further at the pace of an exodus as one reads in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds–the image doubtless at the back of Lewis’ exiles in THS. Moreover, a train from Edgestow to St. Anne’s would follow a Birmingham direction from Malvern (or any number of nearby places).
Malvern, then, transformed into a late medieval university instead of a Victorian school (with its nostalgic architecture), could be the setting. Great Malvern, before its post-war renovations, would have had a lot of the features of the classic English village of Edgestow. Particularly intriguing is the St. Anne’s Manor in THS. Great Malvern–the town connected to Lewis’ boyhood schooling–is home to St. Ann’s Well, which has a cafe attached to its spring water well named after Saint Anne, mother of Mary. The inclusion of Merlin’s Well and St. Anne’s Manor in That Hideous Strength makes a pretty interesting connection to Great Malvern.
If Malvern is the site of Edgestow and Bracton College, and Worchester is Worcester, it also means that Ransom’s move to St. Anne’s Manor at his sister’s will would have been a relatively simple one. He would have merely moved from his cottage in Worcester city–which would be about a half hour walk from the main station–to an estate a few trains stops that side of Great Malvern.
If all of this geographical speculation is remotely plausible, the really critical question remains: Would Merlin’s resting place be in Worcestershire?
That’s hard for me to answer. While Merlin is probably from Welsh origins—and Malvern isn’t far from the border of Wales—I would expect Merlin to be asleep in Broceliande. Where would that be? Bookies would say to put your money on Brittany, and the French tradition of the Matter of Britain is critical.
Clearly, though, Brittany would not suit Lewis’ purposes in his modern English Arthurian tale. It is a peculiarly English apocalypse (as is H.G. Wells’ apocalypse fifty years before). Oxfordshire and Worcestershire are not far from the legendary downtown Logres, and almost any historic place of interest south of there has a claim of being Camelot. Wales is not that far away, and I have heard the area north of there called “Merlin’s Land” (though I don’t know why).
Could Malvern as Edgestow be where Merlin has been secretly asleep for centuries? It’s possible, and Merlin’s waking is distinctly Lewisian in THS, and pulls at the threads of the Arthurian garment in more ways than just geography.
Unfortunately, I cannot tell more from the details. Most of Lewis’ connections with the area are later. Lewis walked in Great Malvern at various times in his adult life, including a tour with J.R.R. Tolkien. George Sayer was a friend of Lewis’ and his biographer, and he was head of English at Malvern from 1944–Sayer got the post as Lewis was editing THS (the draft was complete the previous December). And, of course, we don’t know how clear in his own mind Lewis had the geography of the Ransom Cycle in place. Perhaps he was just making it up as he went along.
The use of Worcester does seem striking, though. The claim that the action of That Hideous Strength takes place around Malvern–the college, Great Malvern, the evocative hills, with train and exodus lines to Worcester and Birmingham–is a good one.
Still, now it’s your turn: What do you see in the tale? Is there a significance to Worc(h)ester? Or are the geographies drawn variously to obscure a non-location for the tale—or intentionally hidden, as per the conspiracy intimated at the end of Out of the Silent Planet or Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis? I would love your thoughts.
As an afterthought, and certainly no link in C.S. Lewis’ mind, is the College Grace (which is the same as Christ Church’s long-form grace. It is always given in Latin, but here is the English translation I took from Wikipedia. You “unhappy” isn’t the right word, it strikes me as a good Ransom Cycle prayer, with its request for the heavenly food that brings true sustenance:
“We unhappy and unworthy men do give thee most reverent thanks, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for the victuals which thou hast bestowed on us for the sustenance of the body, at the same time beseeching thee that we may use them soberly, modestly and gratefully. And above all we beseech thee to impart to us the food of angels, the true bread of heaven, the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, so that the mind of each of us may feed on him and that through his flesh and blood we may be sustained, nourished and strengthened. Amen.”