This section chiefly concerns the sale of the college property. It catalogs the meeting of the fellows of Bracton and how the Progressive Element managed to work their will to sell Bragdon Wood, including Merlin’s Well, to the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (abbreviated NICE from here on out). NICE is designed to be the “fusion between the state and laboratory” (21). Financially backed by the government, they would move to Edgestow but only if they can have Bragdon Wood. Once NICE comes to Edgestow there is doubt as to whether “Oxford and Cambridge could survive as major universities,” so great is this organization. The Progressive Element, lead by Curry and Feverstone (previously Devine) strategically move through the day long business meeting by beginning with introducing certain major problems and ending by posing the solution as the sale of “college property” which consists of the majority of Bragdon Wood. A few “Die-Hards” are against the sale, but in the end, “the motion carried” (26).
Again, striking is the mundaneness of this degree of hashing out a college business meeting to describe the sale of some land. But this is really the introduction of a major plot point – the coming of NICE into the story – and, on top of that, a lot of commentary.
And yet, I think that is something Lewis would like for us to take a keen interest in. Of course at this point in the story it is hard to tell who are the “good guys” and “bad guys.” Still, we have the previous section describing the author’s fondness for Bragdon Wood. The idea of letting it slip away so easily would seem to align roughly with the “bad guys.”
Let’s note also that our co-protagonist, Mark Studdock, is going right along with the “bad guys,” the Progressive Element.
Consider for a moment the way in which these “bad” measures are being launched. It is not a secret meeting of nefarious criminals. It is a college business meeting. Lewis had a general distrust of an overbearing state and of bureaucrats doing things for our own good. Consider this proceedings of this business meeting in light of this from the preface of his Screwtape Letters:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
And consider Governor Gumpas from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who oversees the slave trade with such civilized means as the use of statistics and graphs and considers it an “essential part of the economic development of the islands.”
The way to accomplish evil ends in a managerial world is by managerial means. This does not mean that the “Admin” is necessarily evil, it is but a tool. But it also isn’t necessary that a group of leaders coming together and acting on behalf of others – be that the the government of a nation or the board of fellows of a college – are the answer to the presented problem. We must consider right and wrong and not merely the trouble-shooting of perceived obstacles. That “technocratic” thinking is something that will be hit upon again during the course of THS.
Is the limited funds for the Bracton fellows a problem? Yes. Is the disrepair of the wall about Bragdon Wood a problem? Yes. But there is right and wrong involved in the solution and not just problem-solving. In earlier less civilized eras the solution may be seen as robbing a bank. Use the money to fix the wall and give the fellows a raise. But anyone can see that robbing a bank would be wrong. The real reason it would be wrong would be because robbery is morally wrong. But we needn’t bring morality into this. After all, robbery goes against the accepted methods of how things are done in the civilized world, but the sale of property is perfect. Robbery may be found out and the money may be taken back. Society may require some type of punishment (Lets call it corrective justice, not retributive.) or rehabilitation.
But is the sale of Bragdon Wood wrong? This is a question that needs to be answered. After all, the property does belong to the college and it has every right to do with its property as it sees fit. So what’s so wrong with selling the property? I would say first that the Wood is closely tied to the college historically. It has basically been entrusted to the college to care for the Wood. Just look back at section 3 at the mention of the many “tiffs” that have taken place over the Wood. There have been many “do-gooders” who have wanted to scrub the area of its pagan associations by destroying the Wood and Merlin’s Well. Merlin had come to represent an older less civilized, less Western, less Christian and less British world, a world that – the thinking went – we would do good to forget had ever been and to cut ties with completely. The thinking is not so different from modern arguments to tear down certain statues in our own country.
I suppose there could be good reasons for Bracton and Bragdon to part ways, but for the sake of bringing in NICE is not one of them, as will become obvious at some point in the future chapters.