Their own strength has betrayed them. They have gone to the gods who would not have come to them, and pulled down Deep Heaven on their heads. Therefore, they will die. (291)
The Magician and the Pendragon – Talking birds – “Three questions, if you dare” – Next steps at Belbury – The company meet Merlin – Jane’s head – Dimble’s musings – Old things – “A wonderful woman” – Planning
Marriage and Sexuality
Everything in this chapter, save one page in section 2, is from the viewpoint of the company at St Anne’s, so Jane plays in here quite a bit. We also get Merlin’s view on some things, a decidedly pre-modern view.
While Merlin and Ransom are testing each other there is a series of three questions. The first regards the identity and implications of “Sulva.”
Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place. (271)
There’s a lot in this paragraph. I wouldn’t get it all if I tried. So I will just hit an overview and a couple of points. Medieval cosmology is key here. Under the medieval world view, earth is fallen and has “our curse.” They understood the other planets to orbit the earth, the closest being the Moon (which actually does orbit the earth). The Moon lay on the border of the curse. The side facing us was dead, marked by our curse. The opposite side, which faced what we call “space” or what is above called “Deep Heaven” – and at other times in the Ransom cosmology is called the Fields of Arbol. So the Moon is split – half good and half bad. (Filostrato has previously mentioned this dual-natured moon (173) though his understanding is a little bit twisted.)
So Ransom is describing the Moon and the effects of the curse within our “sphere.” The moon’s orbit is the border of our sphere. The second half – beginning “On this side…” – describes people on earth, our fallen or cursed people. We are focused on self, worried about equality and such. We don’t give ourselves to each other – even in marriage. This is THE relationship – when two become one flesh. This should be where love is most manifest and instead is where selfishness is most manifest. The marriage relationship is the place for sexuality to be lived out in its fullest expression – in fruitfulness. But alas. We hate fruitfulness. What God called good and told us to do – be fruitful and multiply – we have decided is bad.
We still want sex, yes, but we want to use it for self-satisfying eroticism instead of for producing the fruit that God intended. Our marriages are cold because we only care about ourselves. Our wombs – our marriages – are barren, fruitless. We embrace a form of the sex that God gave us but not sexuality in all its beautiful fruitfulness. We are “dainty” or delicate in our sex. We don’t want the real thing in all its fruitfulness; we only want to feeling. For some it is the orgasm. For some it is the closeness. Wanting only the orgasm seems more crass, and may be less noble, than wanting the closeness, the “oneness” that sexuality can produce. But why reject the fruit?
Lewis, at the time of writing THS, was “pre-pill.” Oral birth control wasn’t invented until the early ’50s. He saw the future, the “liberation” of women from the fruitfulness of sex. He saw the hatred of that fruitfulness. Lewis was wading into the edge of this and we are swimming in it. (Now I don’t want to condemn oral birth control pills categorically. They have place – and that is assuming they aren’t abortifacient. I guess that remains to be seen. Its grey enough that I wouldn’t recommend it, but also grey enough that I wouldn’t categorically reject it. And there are a lot of uses for the same medicines to do things beside preventing the birth of children.) The “pill” has come to represent the eroticism of sex without the fruitfulness, which is a very hurtful understanding of it. The pill itself is not evil. If it disappeared tomorrow we would still have the sin.
This passage is calling us back to the fruitfulness of sex, calling us to love the fruitfulness, to see fruitfulness as a gift. The whole world is fruitful. Life is fruitful. Without reproduction of organic life, all life loses its meaning. Look at other visions, other contemplations of this in literature. Consider PD James’s Children of Men where mankind completely ceases to be fruitful. Consider the fallout from the end of the fruitfulness of the plant kingdom in McCarthy’s The Road. All life is fruitful. God made it that way. We ought not turn against it.
More could be said of this paragraph, but I’m moving on. I think I hit the main points. (Then I’ll come back to this in three years and wonder what I was thinking.)
There are a couple more things I want to hit on though while in this category. The first is really in line with the idea of fruitfulness above. This shows up again when Merlin wants to execute Jane for her willful unfruitfulness. The conversation runs of the be bottom of 275 to midway down 276. I will quote only this short section:
Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. (276)
I’m certain that willful barrenness predates the actual time that Merlin may have lived (if he was an actual historic person) because even the ancient Egyptians pursued it. But I guess it was less common in 5th century Britain (England) than in the 1940s. Merlin found it scandalous, but deserving death? I would point only to the Old Testament episode involving Judah’s son Onan and his relationship with Tamar. (You might call it a marriage.) Is it wrong of Merlin to think Jane has forfeit her life because of her willful barrenness? I don’t know. It seems so. But all sin is serious. All sin is deserving of death. Ransom explains that she is “like all of us a sinner.” Of course we all deserve that ultimate penalty for our sin. To single Jane out for this sin seems harsh. I will with-hold judgement. Lewis seems to with-hold it: “We’ve all been imagining that because he came back in the Twentieth Century he’d be a Twentieth Century man. Time is more important than we thought, that’s all” (279).
And finally Dimble with his wife: they’re just great. Two people who have been married for years, have grown together and yet are still each unique. They’ve come to dance in a way that few of us will ever know. “His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them” (280). “‘Do you know,’ said Dimble, ‘I think you are a wonderful woman.'” (283).
There is a lot of talk in this chapter of older things, things that are of the spiritual realm but aren’t, strictly, for God or against Him. Cecil Dimble is behind much of this while speaking to his wife. Since “good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse” (281) there was a time when there was magic done that wasn’t, strictly speaking, good, but also wasn’t bad. When Merlin lived the first part of his life, there were more “Neutrals knocking about” (281). So Merlin practiced magic that was in between good and bad. Such in-between doesn’t exist – or there is much less of it – in the 1940s when the book is set. But Merlin is still acquainted with it. It has either gone good or bad, or else has sort of fallen asleep. Such reminds me of the sleeping Ents of Tolkien lore. Dimble compares this type of marriage to polygamy, morally (282). Maybe it used to be OK but now its unacceptable.
Ransom also speaks of Merlin as “one whose mind is opened” (288) though not a “black magician.” He needs a man experienced in magic but not the black arts. Its all very vague and somewhat troubling. I guess you could say it works in the book. But the moral implications are questionable. It may be akin to the witch of Endor. It is, however, consistent with the Authurian legendarium in which Merlin turns Arthur into different animals in order to teach him wisdom. Not wicked but not wholly Christian either.
I’ve already discussed the Moon above. That is very medieval. There are a few other ways that Merlin reflects Medievalism as well. One is his insistence that they get help from different authoritative figures. He mentions the King of England (289), the church (289), foreign Christian princes (290) and finally powers beyond Christendom (290). In The Discarded Image, Lewis explains that the Medievals put everything into a hierarchical structure. A lot of this, he says, was based in the writing of someone we refer to as Pseudo-Dionysius.
Secondly, the Medievals allowed for all kinds of angelic beings. Merlin also brings this up. Previously (p29) Dimble had referred to Merlin as a “devil’s son.” Now we have Merlin saying “I am not the son of the Airish Men” (289). By this he means the spiritual beings that aren’t bound to earth, nor are they welcome in heaven. In this Ransom Cosmology that would probably be the eldils. The Medievals would think of them as something like spirits, part good, part bad. They are who was spoken of as the “powers of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). You might call them fairies. Lewis calls them the Longaevi in The Discarded Image.
I have no great point to make regarding this hierarchy and these “Airish Men.” I just want to point out Lewis’s heavy use of the Medieval Worldview. He certainly appreciated and respected their culture, though he didn’t necessarily consider their ideas correct.
Just a couple things here. Several mentions of planets: Lurga/Saturn, Perelandra/Venus, Viritrilbia/Mercury, Mars/Malacadra. There is also the mention of Ransom and Merlin coming together like “two drops of quicksilver” (275). Quicksilver is also called Mercury – the element and the planet/Oyarsa Mercury’s representation on Earth. Lewis is laying down threads that will be woven together later.
And I love how Lewis describes Merlin and Ransom as “the man who had been dug oup out of the earth and the man who had been in outer space” (275). Heaven and earth have come together. Merlin’s earthiness is his essence.
No mention of bacon in this chapter though. Sad.