That Hideous Strength – Chapter Nine – The Saracen’s Head

“If you two quarrel much more,” said the Director, “I think I’ll make you marry one another.” (197)


Jane sees the Head – Mark’s reaction – The morning after – Mark’s letter interrupted – the Fairy strikes – DD? – Mark makes a break – Foiled! – Talking with McPhee – A brief summation of parts one and two – Meeting of the company – Merlin – A junction between two kinds of power


Marriage and Sexuality

The lead quote above just kills me. CS Lewis was not married when he published THS and wouldn’t be for some years later (15ish). But it would appear he had eyes in his head and saw that married people fuss at each other. And why not? We are all sinners after all. Time and sanctification (mostly sanctification but that takes time) changes the amount of quarreling, the object of the quarreling, and the nature of the quarreling, but it does not eliminate it.

This passage reminds me of a passage out of Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy:

Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarreling and making it up that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.

Lewis takes a high view of marriage and sexuality in THS, but that does not stop him from poking fun at those things from time to time, in a good-natured way.

On a more serious note, we see Mark struggling along. We’ve already established that neither Mark nor Jane loved each other very much at all (87), that they each predominantly loved themselves and wished to be admired. (And who can’t see him or herself in that picture?)

Now we have Mark, seeking to write to Jane… about what, exactly? He wanted her to come to Belbury, because that’s what the NICE wanted. He considered it a matter of life and death – his own. He seems afraid that they may just kill him if he fails to get Jane. But as he tries to write to Jane, he wonders what they would want Jane for. He found the letter “almost impossible” to write. He wanted Jane to come for his own sake but worried about her safety and well-being at Belbury.

Formless fears stirred in his mind. And Jane of all people! Would they take her to the Head? For almost the first time in his life a gleam of something like disinterested love came into his mind; he wished he had never married her, never dragged her into this… (183)

Wishing he hadn’t married her is love? Well, Lewis doesn’t say it is pure perfected love, just that it is a gleam. Mark has a desire for Jane’s well-being and not just his own. And it is well-being for her sake, and not just his own. Sure, it seems like bringing Jane in would increase his status at Belbury, but at what cost to Jane. He is hesitant. The Fairy ends up interrupting such that Mark doesn’t write the letter though he doesn’t consciously decide against it. That’s for the better as I’m not sure he’d have decided to do the right thing.

But the Fairy, who Mark (to his credit) “hated and dreaded” (183) interrupted and pushed Mark to what looks like an increased love and concern for his wife. Alarmed that she could be in trouble, he resolves to go and see about her. All good for Mark and his journey through this time of his life, his journey toward salvation.

Wither Weirdness

What is going on with Wither in his office? (185) His body is there. His mind? He speaks but is it Wither? He seems confused as to who Mark is. Then he’s outside on the edge of the grounds wandering about when Mark is on his way to Edgestow. Its previously been shown that he’s always showing up at inopportune times and puttering about.

Is this some type of Astral Projection? Does Wither “channel” other… beings. Has it anything to do with the eldila.

I don’t recall if there is an answer later in the book or not, but I think there is. We’ll press on for now, only noting the weirdness.

Mark and Jane

Two of the trails I’ve tried to follow in this blog are the journeys of Mark and Jane toward their salvation, the happy endings. After all this is a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups. The main characters are bound to come out on top. So lets take a quick look at them.

Regarding Mark, as I’ve already discussed, he feels his first disinterested love. That’s a good step, along with hating the Fairy, as she’s quite “hatable” and was someone he admired at first, at least on some level. His reaction to the Head is in his favor. He couldn’t “take it” (182), however that was a point of shame for him, when it should have been pride. But progress if progress; we’ll take it in any form.

Then he simply had to get away from Belbury to check on Jane, and though it wasn’t explicit, I got the feeling it was for Jane’s sake, not simply concern that she would make him look bad in front of his progressive friends. Sadly his conviction fails him. We must wonder how many chances he will have.

He also has the general feeling that he needs to be cleansed and thinks Jane might be a part of that:

He was devoured for a longing for Jane which was physical without being at all sensual: as if comfort and fortitude would flow from her body, as if her very skin would clean away all the filth that seemed to hang on him. (186)

It would be a mistake to think that Jane could clean him in some spiritual way. I don’t think Lewis is arguing that she could. (But I’m not sure. His view of the divine in erotic love seems to have been somewhat off, maybe heterodox.) It is not, however, a mistake to think that he could derive some “comfort and fortitude” from his wife. That would be appropriate. For though husbands and wives often quarrel, they also reap great benefit from each other.

Regarding Jane, there is less in this chapter regarding her. She has done well to help the Company at St. Anne’s in sharing her “dreams” (178). She is not yet a member but seems to be accepting the underlying realities as being important, true, and worthy of fighting for (192).

Merlin and Logres

Now I had never heard the term “Logres” before coming to this book. But the concept has been brought up – by Camilla, no less: “[Ransom is] a man, my dear. And he is the Pendragon of Logres. This house, all of us here, and Mr Bultitude and Pinch, are all that’s left of the Logres: all the rest has become merely Britain” (192).

I don’t even know how to say Logres. But I can look it up on Wikipedia and then make some inferences into Lewis’s novel. Keep in mind that Lewis was a good friend of JRR Tolkien who was working on the Lord of the Rings and all that, sort of constructing a modern-ancient mythology of England, a mythology Lewis mentions in this chapter (198). Logres comes from a Welsh word and refers to southern England and involves the idea of King Arthurs governed realm. That was before the invasion from France and all the Normans and what-not. (I’m not up on early medieval British history either).

At any rate, we are talking early British legendarium/mythology which involves King Arthur – hence the idea of the Pendragon (Uther Pendragon was Arthur’s father) and Merlin. Merlin, as you may recall from an earlier conversation (back around page 29) between Jane and the Dimbles, is suspected to have been buried below Bragdon Wood. And some say that he is not quite dead. Here’s Dimble:

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… [Merlin is] buried but not dead, according to the story. (29-30)

Ransom connects, conceptually, the Head at Belbury to “whatever is under Bragdon Wood” (196) which he suspects has to do with Merlin, or is Merlin. He wants to prevent the meeting of the “new power” at Belbury and the “old power” of Bragdon (197).

Middle Earth

As I referred to above, Lewis mentions Tolkien’s work in this chapter. He’d previously mentioned it in the preface. He describes Merlin’s magic as something “brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor” (198). We can forgive his misspelling as LOTR was not published until about ten years after THS. Numenor was an island home of men many years prior to the main events of LOTR, and was translated Dunedain by that time, Aragorn was one of the few men left who was descended from the Dunedain. But lets not get into that. Lets just say Lewis gave a shout-out to his good friend JRR Tolkien, and lets wonder if Tolkien appreciated it. (He seems rather a curmudgeon to me.)


Lastly, I want to discuss the scientism of Belbury again and bring in some outside sources. And I’ll use the St. Anne’s discussion of Belbury for my starting point. Here is Ransom speaking of Belbury’s “Head,” their reanimation of Alcasan:

“It means that if this technique is really successful, the Belbury people have for all practical purposes discovered a way of making themselves immortal.” There was a moment’s silence, and then he continued: “It is the beginning of what is really a new species – the Chosen Heads who never die. They will call it the next step of evolution. And henceforward, all creatures that you and I call human are mere candidates for admission to the new species or else its slaves – perhaps its food.” (194)

Indeed, Straik and Filostrato have already been describing the Head as “the first of the New Men,” and “Man Immortal.” (174-175). It is the next step in evolution, as some would see it.

This is much of the major issue which the Company at St Anne’s has been brought together to fight, or prevent. The arising of this new man, this new power, this next step in evolution.

With my first reading of THS, the cosmic and cataclysmic nature of the events at Belbury escaped me. It felt like a few little people trying to do their little experiments and being foiled. This was in part my fault, but in part it was Lewis’s. I think he could have emphasized the scope of Belbury’s plans – and its effect on all humanity – a little more. But he lived and wrote before the Marvel movies, among other films, where the whole world and humanity is obviously at stake for two hours (Terminator, Armageddon, 12 Monkeys, Independence Day…) So people were probably tuned in to the more subtle details and implications. They were used to thinking instead of having everything spelled out in a couple of minutes’ exposition.

I would like to turn now to the writings of Ray Kurzweil, noted American inventor and futurist. I don’t wish any ill will toward Mr Kurzweil. I wish him the best, and that is mostly that he would know Christ. Still, he is brilliant. I have learned a lot from his writings and benefited from his ingenuity. Still, I have reservations with certain of his ideas and that is what I wish to pick at here.

Turning to his The Singularity is Near (a great read), he recounts the history of information in six epochs (his title and my summaries as follows):

Epoch 1 – Physics and chemistry – the physical properties of the elements in the chaotic universe bring molecules together.

Epoch 2: Biology and DNA – the complexity of the molecules advance until DNA is formed.

Epoch 3: Brains – DNA encodes life which advances to the point that the human brain has formed.

Epoch 4: Technology – Humans use our ingenuity to invent tools to aid us; the complexity of those tools grow to the level of modern computers (the iPhone appears! Yay!)

Epoch 5: The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence – the ability to blend our minds with computers increases our abilities and computers abilities; think enhanced brains and AI.

Epoch 6: The Universe Wakes Up – We break out of our solar system and spread our intelligence to the far reaches of the galaxy and universe; this involves surpassing the speed of light.

One underlying thread here is that the speed at which information is advancing is continually speeding up. Take Moore’s Law as your paradigm.

Now, with Ransom’s words that Belbury will call their work the “next step in evolution” (194), let me quote Kurzweil on the 5th Epoch:

Looking ahead several decades, the Singularity will begin with the fifth epoch. It will result from the merger of the vast Knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our technology. The fifth epoch will enable our human-machine civilization to transcend the human brain’s limitations of a mere hundred trillion extremely slow connections.

The Singularity will allow us to overcome age-old human problems and vastly amplify human creativity. We will preserve and enhance the intelligence that evolution has bestowed on us while overcoming the profound limitations of biological evolution. But the Singularity will also amplify the ability to act on our destructive inclinations, so its full story has not yet been written.  (Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, pp 20-21)

The Singularity is Near is really an interesting book. Kurzweil is a compelling and interesting guy, a self-described futurist who has plans of some type of immortality. His How to Create a Mind is also a really interesting look at how our brains work and how that can contribute to AI. (A mad scientist? Striving for immortality? hmm… maybe he’s a modern fairy-tale.)

So Belbury truly plans to revolutionize life on planet earth. This is not some small group piddling around in a science lab. These guys are bringing about a Singularity, a fundamental change in life. The people who live on this side of the Singularity cannot imagine what life will look like on the other side. Artificial intelligence. All human intellect swollen into one hypertrophied brain. Eradication of life that doesn’t contribute to this intelligence. Sterilization of our planet. Advancing to other planets and stars.

I don’t think Lewis foresaw these computer advances. I know he personally disliked typewriters and cars in general. He approved of a simpler life. But I think the technological singularity lines up well with Belbury’s plans.

That Hideous Strength may well be a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups, but it deals with things that could become reality, or at least things that come people want to become reality. Lets consider it a fable as well. Lewis definitely considers the subject material worthy of serious consideration.