The last volume of the Space Trilogy is longer and has a much more intricate plot than the first two.
The story is set in and around Edgestow, a small university town somewhere in the English midlands. The time of the story is "after the War," that is the late 1940s or possibly early 1950s, and therefore in the near future for when it was written (1943, with World War II still in progress).
The protagonists are Jane and Mark Studdock, a young married couple. For the most part, the story alternates between their two points of view.
Mark is a research fellow, a professional scholar, at Bracton College, in the University of Edgestow. His subject is sociology. Mark has a burning ambition to belong to the "inner ring," whatever the group of exclusive, important people is wherever he happens to be.
Jane is a homemaker, but is college-educated and is working on post-graduate research on John Donne. She has a great distaste for being interfered with, for anything that compromises her independence (a trait Lewis gave her from his own early character). When she is driven to seek help, she often resents it afterward.
The story starts with Jane at their flat, feeling bored and lonely. Mark is away at college a great deal lately, working on his career, and generally preoccupied when he gets home. Her boredom evaporates when she flips over the newspaper and sees a story about the execution of François Alcasan, a French physicist of Arabic extraction, for the murder of his wife. There is a photo of the man, which reminds her of a nightmare she had the previous night:
She sees Alcasan, consumed with fear, in his jail cell. A man comes in, with a pointed goatee, icy smile, and shiny pince-nez that hides his eyes. He speaks to Alcasan in French, which Jane partly understands, just as she would in waking life. At first, Alcasan seems hopeful, but then terrified. The stranger, still smiling, unscrews Alcasan's head and takes it away. The dream then shifts to the face of an old man with a long white beard, being dug up out of a churchyard. Jane fears his waking. But he does wake, sits up, and begins talking in something that sounds vaguely like Spanish. Jane then wakes.
Jane tells herself the nightmare must have been inspired by a previous newspaper photo of Alcasan. But she is oppressed by the experience and decides to go out.
In town, Jane encounters Mrs. Dimble, an old friend, who invites her home for lunch. Mrs. Dimble's husband, Dr. Dimble, is a fellow at Northumberland, another college of Edgestow University. Jane and her friends used to meet at their house often in their undergraduate days. But Jane now learns the Dimbles are being forced to move; they rent their house from Bracton College and it will be sold to the N.I.C.E. along with several other properties, including Bragdon Wood, a small park that has belonged to the college for centuries. It contains "Merlin's Well," beneath which Merlin himself is said to be sleeping.
Over lunch, talk of Merlin's Well leads Dr. Dimble to talk about literary history (his subject) and the Matter of Britain in particular. He remarks about how much historical accuracy there is or could be in the Arthur stories, and describes the half-Celtic, half-Roman society Arthur would have lived in. When he remarks that the Celtic language Arthur spoke would sound "something like Spanish," Jane nearly faints.
Jane then describes her nightmare to the Dimbles, who take it with gratifying seriousness. She asks if they think she should be psychoanalyzed. Dr. Dimble tells her that, if she wants to go to anyone about that dream, he has a name and address he could give her.
Mark, meanwhile, is wheeling and dealing at Bracton College. He has recently worked his way into "the Progressive Element," as it calls itself, a clique that seeks to modernize the college. He is going to the college business meeting and has been invited by Curry, another member of the Progressive Element, to come to Curry's rooms afterward and meet Lord Feverstone, who turns out to be Dick Devine, the lesser villain from Out of the Silent Planet. Devine is no scholar, but the Progressive Element has got him into the college by their machinations, because he will be politically useful. Mark is startled to learn that Devine, whom he does not know, got Mark his fellowship.
At the college business meeting, the Progressive Element urges the fellows of the college to sell Bragdon Wood. The buyer is the National Institute for Co-ordinate Experiments, or "N.I.C.E." They say they want to build their new headquarters in the park. The Progressive Element is desperate to get the N.I.C.E. as a neighbor and affiliate the university with it, seeing this as a gate to great advancement, prestige, and power. They are fiercely resisted by other people among the fellows, but win their way by manipulating the uncommitted.
Mark has dinner with the Progressive Element and meets Dick Devine, now Lord Feverstone. The Progressive Element waxes enthusiastic about all the technocratic bureaucracy the N.I.C.E. will bring. Afterward, Feverstone takes Mark aside and offers him a job in the N.I.C.E. He tells Mark the N.I.C.E. is far more important than even the Progressive Element imagines – it proposes to start managing human destiny through Science. He says the N.I.C.E. has a threefold program for it – the interplanetary problem, the problem of humanity's rivals on Earth, and the problem of human nature.
Regarding the interplanetary problem, Feverstone says there's nothing to be done about it at the moment; the only person who could address it was Weston, who was not, as Mark thought, killed in a blitz, but murdered by one of "the enemy" among the forces of "reaction." He then describes, but does not name, Ransom as the murderer.
The second problem amounts to too much life on Earth other than human, but he admits we can't do without plants and animals for air and food and the like. Not yet.
The third problem is that human nature needs to be re-designed for greater "efficiency," to preserve the species. This problem is the one the N.I.C.E. means to tackle.
The grand plans, the secrecy, and the whiff of danger all have Mark salivating for the job with the N.I.C.E. To be in on this will clearly mean to be Important.
When Mark gets home, he finds Jane in a nervous panic. She found herself increasingly edgy as the evening wore on. She called the Dimbles and got the name they had offered: Dr. Grace Ironwood at St. Anne's on the Hill, in the nearby village of St. Anne's. (Jane thinks herself an egalitarian but was put off by the idea of a female doctor.) Jane got the impression that Ironwood will be expecting her, which struck her as sinister. After the call, the fear continued to grow. Jane falls into Mark's arms. Later, she resents having shown this weakness to Mark and also resents his further plans with the Progressive Element, whom she dislikes.
The next day, Feverstone takes Mark to the N.I.C.E.'s temporary headquarters at Belbury, a nearby manor house. Jane takes the train to another manor, St. Anne's, to see Dr. Ironwood.
At Belbury, Mark is introduced to most of the main members of the N.I.C.E. Most powerful is the Deputy Director, John Wither. (The official Director is one Horace Jules, a novelist and political journalist (and satire of H. G. Wells) who is really a mere figurehead.) Mark thought he was coming out for a job interview, but finds Wither takes it that he has already decided to join the N.I.C.E. However, Wither is infuriatingly vague about what, exactly, he wants Mark to do for the N.I.C.E. Other members tell him that Wither hates being "pinned down."
Mark also encounters William Hingest, also a member of Bracton College, and indeed its most prestigious member, a professor of chemistry. However, he tells Mark that he only came out to look over the N.I.C.E. because he thought it had something to do with science. Finding it does not, and is more like a political conspiracy, he's leaving, and offers to take Mark back to Edgestow with him. Mark declines.
Hingest also introduces Mark to a Mr. Steele, directory of the Sociology department, and everyone supposes Mark will be working for him, though in fact nothing has been declared or written – Wither's vagueness again.
He next meets Prof. Filostrato, a famous physiologist, who tells him to never mind about Steele etc.; the important thing is the destiny of the human race, which is the real work of the N.I.C.E. He then introduces him to Miss Hardcastle.
"Fairy" Hardcastle is the head of the N.I.C.E.'s own private police force. She is middle-aged, blocky, and radiates "butch lesbian." She amuses herself by making Mark profoundly uncomfortable. She also tells him the only people he need really worry about are Wither and Prof. Frost, whom he has not yet met.
Mark has dinner at Belbury and spends the night. Hingest leaves.
The next morning, Mark meets Straik, a ranting preacher who sees the N.I.C.E. in apocalyptic terms, as the literal salvation of the human race, even at the cost of fire and blood. A very strange recruit for such a worldly, secular group as the N.I.C.E. otherwise seems to be, but Straik has lost his Christian faith and now sees the Bible as metaphor for the coming revolution. Mark also finds that he has lost his wallet.
At a morning meeting, he learns that Hingest was assaulted and killed on his way back to Edgestow. He is then sent off to the nearby village of Cure Hardy, with Cosser from the sociology department – a place next on the N.I.C.E.'s list to take over and demolish. Mark can't help seeing how much pleasanter the place and people are than the N.I.C.E. at Belbury, but dismisses this as irrelevant.
Jane, meanwhile, has gone up to St. Anne's on the Hill, to see Dr. Ironwood. She is met at the gate by Camilla Denniston, wife of Arthur Denniston, an old friend of Mark's from undergraduate days, but Mark has dropped the Dennistons, so Jane does not know her at first.
This manor, unlike the one at Belbury, is much more a working farm and residence. Camilla escorts Jane through to Dr. Ironwood. While she waits for a bit, Jane picks up a book and is startled to find in it a passage that was floating through her mind minutes before, though she is sure she has never read the book. And again, when she is ushered in, Camilla uses the exact words she had imagined earlier.
Jane meets with Dr. Ironwood and tells her the dreams. Ironwood is intensely interested but Jane is confused and disappointed when Ironwood tells her she can't be "cured" of the dreams because she is not sick – she is a visionary, a clairvoyant, and Ironwood wants Jane to assist the "company" she belongs to. Jane leaves in disbelief, anger, and frustration.
At home, Jane is surprised by a call from Mrs. Dimble. She and Dr. Dimble are being evicted immediately. Mrs. Dimble asks if she could stay the night, while her husband goes to his rooms at college. Jane readily agrees. During the night, Jane dreams of Hingest's murder as it happens.
The next day, in town, Jane encounters Curry from Bracton College and learns of Hingest's death. This proof of her clairvoyance upsets her.
Mark comes home that evening. He boasts to Jane of his opportunities in the N.I.C.E., but doesn't mention any of his reservations or confusions. Nor does she tell him about her visit or her dreams.
At Bracton, meanwhile, Feverstone tells Curry Mark is leaving the college. Rioting breaks out outside the college dining room as Bracton Wood is demolished.
Mark returns to Belbury, where he tries to get Wither to tell him what his job is. Hardcastle intercepts him and tells him it's a bad idea. She also tells him he needn't bother with the sociology department – it's to be disbanded. Instead, the N.I.C.E. wants him to help write articles for various papers they control, to manipulate public opinion. Mark blows her off and seeks out Wither, but the effort to clarify things results only in vague threats from Wither.
Leaving Wither, Mark receives a letter from Curry, revealing that the college has assumed he's resigning. Mark confronts Feverstone about it, but Feverstone only laughs at him. Mark realizes that he is being forced into the N.I.C.E.
Jane meets the Dennistons in Edgestow and likes them. They tell her that they and Dr. Ironwood belong to a "company" headed by a Mr. Fisher-King. He inherited St. Anne's and that name (as a condition of inheritance) from his sister in India, a Mrs. Fisher-King. She was a friend to a Christian Indian mystic, the Sura, who has recently disappeared mysteriously. Before he did so, he predicted that the company would form around Fisher-King and confront a great danger to the human race. He also predicted that a seer would appear, and go to either this company or their enemies. Jane is that seer.
Jane is upset and put off by all this, even more so when Camilla pleads with her to join the company – to come meet Fisher-King and make him certain promises. It gets worse when she learns that they would want Mark's approval of all this. The only thing that keeps her from brushing them off is Arthur Denniston's intelligent sympathy with how strange this all is.
In the end, she does not agree to join, but agrees to tell them of any more dreams she has, and to keep the affair secret.
Meanwhile, the N.I.C.E. is moving into Edgestow and taking it over. Its workers, quarrelsome thugs, begin to swamp the local population, and street violence rises. Strangely, it does not get reported in the papers. The N.I.C.E. demands that Bracton College sell the rest of its land between Bragdon Wood (now a desolation of industrial digging) and its walls. The Progressive Element finds that the N.I.C.E. has the power to compel the sale; it also finds it is now roundly hated by the whole university. Hingest's funeral takes place in a chapel rocked by machine noise and workmen's curses. Soon, the whole town is seething, it can no longer be kept out of the newspapers, and riots loom.
Mark, meanwhile, has gone back to Wither and asked for the job. After a humiliating lecture about how "sorry" Wither is that Mark can't seem to fit in, and a cut in pay, he is taken on. Wondering about his responsibilities, which are still undefined, he learns from Fairy Hardcastle that it's to do what he's told and not bother Wither. What he's told to do is propaganda. He writes newspaper editorials rehabilitating the murderer Alcasan.
This earns him exactly what he has longed for – admission to the Inner Ring of the N.I.C.E., which meets in a library most evenings. It consisting of Feverstone, Hardcastle, the physiologist Filostrato, and, surprisingly, the ex-preacher Straik, who rants about the N.I.C.E. as an instrument of God and about a coming messiah, but is somehow accepted by the (very worldly) others. Wither shows up from time to time, but does not join in. The same applies to Professor Frost, the man with the pince-nez glasses, icy smile, and pointed beard that Jane saw in her dream of Alcasan.
In the Inner Ring, Mark learns that the N.I.C.E. is planning the upcoming riot. His next propaganda job is to spin the news out of Edgestow to make the N.I.C.E. the heroes against unspecified reactionary elements. He is set to writing editorials on the riots before they even happen. He feels deliciously important.
Jane, meanwhile, has been living through anxious days without Mark. She has various visionary dreams and duly reports them. One repeating dream is of simply lying in her bed while a man sits next to it, watching her, making notes in a notebook. He is Prof. Frost, though Jane does not know his name.
One night, she dreams she is in darkness, feeling her way around a cave or tomb. She finds herself feeling over the body of a large, bearded man. She isn't sure if he's alive or dead. The dream becomes confused as she dreams of being delivered from the darkness by some warm, powerful, golden-bearded figure.
She goes out the next morning, really to quiet her mind but ostensibly to find a replacement for Mrs. Maggs, her charwoman, who lost her home when the N.I.C.E. moved in, just as the Dimbles did. While in town, she passes Prof. Frost in the street, instantly recognizes him from her dreams, and without hesitation takes the next train to St. Anne's.
There, she meets the Dennistons, Dr. Ironwood, and (to her surprise) Ivy Maggs, her former charwoman. She tells them of her dream of the body (living or dead) in the crypt and of her encounter with Frost. They are very interested, show her a picture of Frost, whom she identifies, and seem to feel this puts a lot of pieces together. They ask her if she is now willing to see Mr. Fisher-King, whom they call their "Director."
She agrees, and is ushered away. She is told Fisher-King is more widely travelled than she could believe, older than he looks, and suffers from a wounded foot that does not heal.
At last, she meets Fisher-King, whom the reader will recognize as Ransom. He is still in the exalted state he attained by the end of Perelandra, bearded, athletic (except for the foot that still bears Weston's bite), looking twenty despite being nearly fifty, and radiating gentle, confident authority. Jane is alarmed to find herself in grave danger of becoming a Ransom fangirl.
Ransom thanks her for reporting the dreams but regretfully tells her he can't let her become a full member of this company because of Mark being a member of the N.I.C.E. This turns the conversation to how Ransom's "Masters" view marriage, and on the complexities of the idea of "obedience" ("more like a dance than a drill" in marriage, "where the roles are always changing"). When obedience comes up, a strange, heady atmosphere invades the room. Ransom sharply tells the air "Stop it," and it goes away.
Ransom then shows Jane the lighter side of obedience by tipping some crumbs from a plate onto the floor, blowing a whistle, and summoning a troop of trained mice out of the walls to clean up. Jane reflects on how huge humans must seem to them, and suddenly finds an intolerable impression of hugeness flooding in on her. It's affecting Ransom too, but he tells her "You must leave me now. This is no place for us small ones, but I am inured."
On the train ride back she tries to sort out her thoughts and feelings. Mainly, she is just happy, happier than she has been in a long time. She is fascinated by Ransom, and yet ashamed of so losing control, and at the same time resolved to try and patch up her marriage – because Ransom would like that.
She arrives in Edgestow to find the riots now begun. She tries to get home but is swept away by the crowds. When she tries to go up a side street a cop – an N.I.C.E. cop – tells her she can't go that way. She tries to dart past him and is arrested.
She is brought before Miss Hardcastle. On learning who she is, Hardcastle determines to take her back to Belbury and is insistent on knowing where Jane was coming from on the train. Jane realizes that these are the enemies of humanity she has been told about and says nothing. Hardcastle happily settles in for a little private orgy of sadistic interrogation and gets as far as burning Jane on the chest, several times, with her cigar, before the riot gets too violent outside the office and they have to flee.
Hardcastle gives up on trying to keep hold of Jane when the riot becomes too chaotic, and disappears into the mob. Jane gets well away, wanders a bit, then collapses in a doorway. When she comes to, the riot has moved on. An anonymous couple in a car stop, help her in, and ask her where they should take her. She tells them St. Anne's.
We cut away for a rare section where neither Jane nor Mark is the viewpoint character. Instead, we see Miss Hardcastle being dressed down by Wither for failing to keep hold of Jane. She's quite bulletproof to his scolding, but gets unnerved when told she must go see "the Head." They then go to a laboratory being run by Filostrato, who puts her through a sterilization prep and warns her not to argue or do much besides say "Yes, sir."
Jane wakes in a bed at St. Anne's. Ivy Maggs gives her breakfast in bed, then Dr. Ironwood dresses the burns, which are superficial. Ivy tells Jane she will soon get "Mr. Bultitude" out of the bathroom so she can use it, but Jane ventures to the bathroom on her own first, only to discover that Mr. Bultitude is a bear. A tame bear, and Ivy soon shifts him as if he were a large and imperfectly obedient dog. She assures Jane that no animal at St. Anne's is any danger after Ransom has had "his little talk with them."
Jane learns the Dimbles are also staying at St. Anne's. She goes down to the kitchen where she meets Mrs. Dimble, Camilla, Ivy, and the final member of the St. Anne company, Mr. Macphee. He doesn't believe in her dreams, she learns, or at least he suspends judgment. Suspending judgment and being skeptical are the main things he does, providing the group with a reality anchor.
Mark, meanwhile, has been getting on famously with the Inner Ring. (He knows nothing of Jane's encounter with Hardcastle.) His compliance in writing the propaganda in aid of the riots has made Wither much warmer toward him. Then Wither suggests that Mark bring Jane to stay with him at Belbury. Mark is shocked to realize how little he would want to see Jane mingling with these people, and politely refuses.
Hardcastle soon informs him that he is again out of favor for refusing Wither's great offer. Then Filostrato takes him aside and tells him the suggestion did not even come from Wither, but from the Head. Mark is now too far into the N.I.C.E. to back out, Filostrato says, and the Head thinks Mark cannot be completely committed to the N.I.C.E. unless he brings Jane into the Inner Circle, too. Mark is both revolted and tempted.
At first, Mark thinks "the Head" Filostrato mentions is Horace Jules, the Director of the N.I.C.E. But Filostrato gestures through the window at the Moon and tells him what a wonderful world it is – inhabited by a race almost free of the limits of organic life, who have cleansed all such life from the near hemisphere; the far hemisphere still harbors "savages" and air and trees, and there is war between the two. He then tells Mark the Head has likewise become nearly free of the organic, and it is not Jules, but Alcasan, the executed murderer. Then he leads Mark to the lab where Hardcastle conferred with the Head.
The next morning, at St. Anne's, Jane reports a nightmare in which she saw Mark, in surgical garb, speaking in halting French to a severed head, set up on a framework and supplied by tubes of blood and air. Other figures introduce Mark to the head, which interrogates him and demands something of him. He says he will try to do it in a few days. Then she sees that Mark is about to be sick.
Ransom sympathizes with her, promises to try to rescue Mark, and says she is not the only one with husband troubles – Ivy Maggs' husband has been jailed for petty theft. (Jane is secretly humiliated by the comparison.)
That morning, Mark wakes with his mind full of the nightmare events of the night. Terrified, he tries to obey and write a letter to Jane, telling her to come to Belbury. Hardcastle comes along and tells Mark she met Jane during the riot, and she seemed very unhinged. She recommends Mark bring Jane to Belbury for Jane's own mental health. This has the opposite of the intended effect: Mark insists on leaving at once to see Jane. He rushes into Wither's office, only to find Wither in some sort of trance. Wither rouses enough to order Mark away. In more horror, Mark simply bolts outside. But there he encounters Wither again. (Already, Wither has shown a strange facility for showing up at unexpected times and places around Belbury.) Nerve broken, Mark returns to Belbury.
Back at St. Anne's, Jane is given background by Macphee. He tells her (and the reader) that their Director is Ransom. She recognizes him as a respected philologist. He then gives a capsule summary of Ransom's adventures on Mars and Venus , and tells her about eldila, and how the ones from outer space are good, while the ones from Earth are evil. And how he has grave reservations about believing any of it. Jane then goes for a walk in the gardens with Camilla, who tells her that Ransom is now the Pendragon of Logres.
The St. Anne people – Logres , in fact – discuss their new data. It's clear to them that the N.I.C.E. are working toward the goal of a disembodied brain, as a way of attaining physical immortality. They probably intend to set up a technocracy in which the rulers are immortal brains. Macphee demands to know what Ransom proposes to do about the situation, or, if he will do nothing, dissolve the company. Ransom says he is waiting for orders (from the eldila Macphee doesn't believe in), and that he has no authority to dissolve the company. We then find that Ransom never founded it. It did, indeed, just sort of accumulate around him, as the various individuals and couples came to St. Anne's for different reasons. Just as the Sura prophecied.
Ransom then says that the Head isn't nearly as important as Bragdon Wood and why the N.I.C.E. are digging there. They are intending to dig up Merlin. Ransom has learned this from the eldila, after they were tipped off by Jane's dreams. (Yes, the eldila needed Jane's information; they aren't omniscient.) Once the N.I.C.E. can combine their own technocratic power with Merlin's magic – and Ransom sees no reason why Merlin wouldn't ally with them – they would have humanity in a grip breakable only by Armageddon.
Back at Belbury, Mark is still creeped out by his encounter with the Head. Wither and Hardcastle then approach him and confront him with the wallet he lost the night he first came to Belbury. They say it was found where Hingest was murdered. Wither says the N.I.C.E. need not turn the evidence over to the police. Then he repeats the recommendation that Mark bring Jane to Belbury, remarking that the Head is not patient. Mark realizes they are threatening to frame him for the murder if he doesn't fetch Jane.
As soon as he is alone, Mark bolts again. Again, he is confronted with Wither, wandering the grounds outside. In a rage, he tries to punch the old man in the head, but he vanishes. Wither does astral projection, or haunts even though living, or something of the sort. Mark runs on and ultimately makes his way back to Edgestow, passing on the way a procession of refugees fleeing the city. He finds their apartment empty, Jane being at St. Anne's.
He seeks out Dr. Dimble, who is at his own college in the university, doing normal academic duties. He asks Dimble where Jane is, but Dimble won't tell, only saying she is safe. They get into a shouting match over Jane, during which Mark is amazed to find Dimble knows about the Head, and horrified to find out about Jane's torture by Hardcastle. Mark says that sooner than put up with such mistreatment of her, he'd leave the N.I.C.E. Then Dimble offers to help him do so. Mark hesitates and goes away to think. He is almost immediately arrested for Hingest's murder.
Dimble is unknown to the N.I.C.E., so he simply drives back to St. Anne's in the usual way at nightfall. The place is in a turmoil. Jane has had another vision, dreaming of the crypt again, and a long tunnel leading out of it, to a place along a country road. And the crypt was empty; Merlin has waked and left of his own accord. Arthur, Jane, and Dimble are to go out into the night and bring back Merlin, by persuasion or force. Arthur for basic muscle, Jane because she can recognize the place, and Dimble because he can speak not only Latin but some Old Solar, which ought to attract Merlin's attention.
The three locate the area, make an extended search through wet autumn woods in the night, and find only a camp abandonned by some tramp. The hunt ends when a man on horseback rides past them, jumps a fence, and is gone.
Meanwhile, the N.I.C.E. is also hunting for Merlin, without success, and debating among themselves what to do with Mark. Hardcastle is sure she could torture Jane's location out of him (incorrectly: Mark doesn't know). But Wither and Frost veto the idea because of the emotional effect torturing Mark would have on Jane. It might disturb or destroy her psychic faculty, and that is what they want.
We learn that Jane's mind has become opaque to Wither and Frost's "authorities," who can no longer read her dreams. This tells them that she has come under some hostile influence, and the "authorities" consider this a grave danger. Frost and Wither consider it likely (correctly) that if they could locate Jane, they would have located "enemy headquarters," but fear the kind of retaliation a direct attack would provoke.
In short, the only way to get Jane is to get Mark to get Jane for them. So they decide to switch from threatening Mark to tempting him. His biggest lust is membership in Inner Rings, so they will try to get him to join them. (Mark and the reader may have thought he was already in the Inner Ring. By now, it has become clear that Frost and Wither are even further in than Feverstone, Hardcastle, and Filostrato.)
Besides, Frost remarks, the couple is eugenically interesting.
Mark, now, is sitting in a cell, convinced that he will be hanged. Looking back on his life, he now sees the perpetual scramble for importance and membership in exclusive groups to have been a pointless waste of time that led him away from every good relationship in his life, except Jane. The thought of Jane mixed up with the likes of the N.I.C.E. still repels him and he is glad she will be free when he is dead. Then Frost walks in.
Frost tells Mark that the mind-games he has been put through are part of a program to promote Mark's "objectivity," so he can see facts with no emotional coloring. Mark is in great danger but also has the opportunity of joining Frost and Wither's inner circle. Mark displays a calm and considering front but is now determined to remember that Frost is an enemy, though he feels the tug of the temptation.
Frost goes on to tell him that this program of initiation, and the whole policy of the N.I.C.E., is not set by himself or Wither, nor even by Alcasan. When you talk to the Head, you are not talking to Alcasan. Instead, you are talking to the Macrobes (as Frost calls them). A little description shows the Macrobes must be eldila, the dark eldila, devils, confined to Earth. They propose to change the human race into just such a technocracy of immortal ruling brains as Ransom and his friends predicted, wiping out most of humanity and as much other life as possible in the process.
This Lovecraftian scenario actually increases Mark's temptations – nothing could be really supremely esoteric without a flavor of horror – but he fights against it. Then suddenly, Frost is called away.
The hunters that the N.I.C.E. has sent out, in parallel with Jane, Arthur, and Dimble, have found a naked old man, unconscious, shaggy-bearded, and weather-beaten, found in the same woods Jane and her friends were searching. The trance and the nudity make Frost and Wither certain this is Merlin. They put him in an elegant room, with a warm bed and rich food, and wait. Soon, he wakes and they address him in Latin. But "Merlin" does not speak to them and is interested in nothing but the food and drink. They serve him.
Meanwhile, back in the cell, Mark is wrestling with temptation. He intuits that the "Macrobes" are probably there in the cell with him, messing with him, but that doesn't diminish the unholy attraction he feels at the idea of finally getting IN on the secret springs of the world. Then he remembers what these people are like and that they almost certainly intend to kill him. The fear of death returns and cools him off.
Hating himself for being so vacillating, so easy to manipulate, he prays – half unintending, not really believing in anything to pray to, not even thinking about such issues, but he prays. He prays just to not fall into that temptation again. Lead us not into temptation. Soon, he is calmer and his mind made up.
Back at St. Anne's, Ransom and the others talk quietly while waiting in the kitchen for the hunters to return. Then a horse comes thundering up, the door is flung open, and Ransom is confronting a huge man in tramp's clothes. After the dramatic entrance, he is oddly still, staring at Ransom. Ransom calls on Macphee and finds that he and all the others are suddenly asleep. Ransom demands to know the meaning of this. In Latin.
Instead of answering, the stranger replies in Latin, quizzing Ransom about some very esoteric things, such as who Sulva is (the Moon), where do accursed people make their babies artificially (on the Moon), where Arthur is (on an island on Venus), and "Who shall be Pendragon in the time when Saturn descends from his sphere? In what world did he learn war?"
"In the sphere of Venus, I learned war," said Ransom. "In this age Lurga shall descend. I am the Pendragon."
And the man, Merlin, kneels to Ransom.
Some time later, Jane, Arthur, and Dimble return and find everyone still sleeping. They rouse them and go in search of Ransom. They find him and Merlin, robed respectively in blue and red, talking in Latin. Merlin glances at Jane and casually informs Ransom that, by not having kids yet, she and Mark have derailed a centuries-long plan to birth a hero who would put evil out of Britain for a thousand years. He'd appreciate it if Ransom had her head cut off.
Meanwhile, Macphee, resentful at having been hypnotized, demands to know what's going on, and there is a general impression from everyone that Ransom has betrayed them. Ransom is taken aback, then acknowledges that it looks bad. But he explains that, against expectation, Merlin here is on their side. (Give or take a decapitation. He is also, after all, a man of the fifth century.) He then has to explain to Merlin that, even though he's Pendragon, these people are his friends, not his subjects. It's the start of a long-running culture shock for everyone.
Merlin is a very different kind of magician from, say, Faustus. No pentacles and spoken spells, certainly no pacts with evil spirits, or even questionable ones (goetica). His magic was more like psychic powers, or the result of direct acquaintance with nature spirits (magia). This uniquely fits him for the job of being a vehicle for the Oyeresu, so they can exterminate the N.I.C.E.:
"Sir," said Merlin, "what will come of this? If they put forth their power, they will unmake all Middle Earth."
"Their naked power, yes," said Ransom. "That is why they will work only through a man."
The magician drew one large hand across his forehead.
"Through a man whose mind is opened to be so invaded," said Ransom, "one who by his own will once opened it. I take Our Fair Lord to witness that if it were my task, I would not refuse it. But he will not suffer a mind that still has its virginity to be so violated. And through a black magician's mind their purity neither can nor will operate. One who has dabbled ... in the days when dabbling had not begun to be evil, or was only just beginning ... and also a Christian man and a penitent. A tool (I must speak plainly) good enough to be so used and not too good. In all these Western parts of the world there was only one man who had lived in those days and could still be recalled. You."
Merlin takes some persuading, but ultimately agrees
Back at Belbury, Wither and Frost are unable to get a word out of their "Merlin" (who would fit pretty well into the tramp clothes Merlin showed up in). He does not respond to Latin, English, or Welsh. They must go in search of the right linguist. Elwin Ransom would be just the man, if only they knew where he was...
While they try to solve that problem, they set their pupils, Straik and Mark, to watching "Merlin" and waiting on him. As soon as Mark is alone with "Merlin," he begins talking to Mark in English, though with a nearly impenetrable country accent. He is, in fact, just a tramp, but a very canny one, who knows better than to undeceive the likes of Frost and Wither.
When Mark isn't conspiring with the tramp to keep Wither and Frost from realizing the tramp is only a tramp, he is being psychologically tortured by Frost, in various subtle ways designed to undermine his sense of normality.
Back at St. Anne's, the bear Mr. Bultitude has wandered off the grounds. He is picked up by some workers for the N.I.C.E., and taken off to Belbury, to add to their collection of vivisection material. The previous day, Merlin had called him the last of the Seven Bears of Logres and prophecied that he would do the greatest deed any bear had ever done. (Except for some other bear the moderns have never heard of. Thanks, Merlin.)
Unaware of this, Jane is helping Mrs. Dimble prepare a cottage as a home for Ivy Maggs and her husband, who is due to be released from jail soon. (Conversations with Ivy have caused Jane to think a lot about steadfast love in the face of the loved one's problems and shortcomings.) When left alone in the cottage for a bit, Jane is startled by the appearance of a gigantic woman attended by a troop of clowning dwarves. They pull apart the bedding, make a mess, and make flowers grow out of the furniture—
—and then she wakes up. But the room really is in a mess. She goes to Ransom to tell him about this. He tells her that each Oyarsa has living images, "wraiths" of itself, on every other planet, and the Terrestrial set are the origins of our myths of the gods. She has seen the wraith of Perelandra – basically, the goddess Venus. He says that, as a visionary, she's liable to such experiences, especially since the original Perelandra is going to descend soon. Jane is startled and disconcerted at the idea of real love-goddesses — of a spiritual world that is even more sensual than the material one.
Then Ivy returns, in tears, without her husband. Like many other prisoners, he's not been released on schedule, but sent to the N.I.C.E. at Belbury for "remedial treatment."
Jane leaves Ransom to comfort Ivy and takes a turn around the garden, thinking about all the strange revelations she's seen. She had always thought of religion and spirituality as souls aspiring up and out of the world; all her friends think of them in terms of God invading the world to conquer and rescue. And then God invades:
What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director's words had been entirely misleading. This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them: but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called 'me' dropped down and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name 'me' was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump.
That night, while Jane and the others huddle anxiously in the kitchen, Merlin and Ransom wait in Ransom's chambers for the angels of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and Jupiter to descend. As each spirit appears, both groups are overwhelmed, in greater or lesser degree, by the spiritual quality they mediate. Once they are all there, Merlin receives their powers.
The next day, Merlin arrives at Belbury, in the guise of a Basque priest, an expert on obscure languages, answering an ad that the N.I.C.E. have put out, searching for an interpreter who can communicate with their "Merlin."
Inside Belbury, Mark and the tramp are surprised by the entrance of Merlin, escorted by Frost and Wither. Merlin does a great acting job, pretending to be frightened, and uses his hypnotic powers on the tramp, making him move and speak (in an unknown tongue) as required. Merlin reports that "Merlin" commands them to kneel and kiss the tramp's hand. Frost and Wither kneel; Frost commands Mark to kneel, but he refuses. Merlin then has "Merlin" order Frost and Wither out to fetch him suitable clothes. Reluctantly, they obey. As soon as they are gone, Merlin casts Mark into a sleep.
Frost and Wither are suitably suspicious of the play-acting, since the tramp was fairly clearly terrified of the real Merlin, but dare not challenge him in case they are wrong. They are also under time-pressure, because Horace Jules, the figurehead Director, is coming for a ceremonial banquet, with speeches, etc., and attending to him and all the other outside guests is necessary to keeping up appearances.
When they return, they find Mark asleep and Merlin acting terror of the tramp. Merlin claims the tramp wants Wither to escort the two of them on an inspection of Belbury, without Frost. Frost is very unhappy about this, but contents himself with waking Mark and taking him to make an emergency completion of his initiation into the inner circle of the N.I.C.E. This means deliberately trampling a crucifix, to burn the last vestiges of Christian bias out of him.
Mark is not a Christian, but he recognizes that he is being coerced to burn the pity out of his soul:
"Do you not hear what I am saying?" [Frost] asked Mark again.
Mark made no reply. He was thinking, and thinking hard because he knew, that if he stopped even for a moment, mere terror of death would take the decision out of his hands. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him—had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have momentarily vanished. They had been a safeguard ... they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said, "It's all bloody nonsense, and I'm damned if I do any such thing."
Before Frost can respond, Wither, Merlin, and "Merlin" come whirling through on their inspection tour, and Frost and Mark are swept up in it.
Soon, Mark is whirled through Jules' arrival and is seated at a formal banquet. Jules rises to give a speech, but soon is spouting gibberish. The same thing happens to Wither, and then Frost, and everyone in the room. It is the Curse of Babel, destroying language. Fear and confusion are mounting into a riot.
Merlin slips away and releases Mr. Bultitude and Ivy Maggs' husband, along with all the other prisoners, human and animal. He passes directions from Ivy to Mr. Maggs and whispers a spell into Bultitude's ear. Then animals, freed from the N.I.C.E. labs, invade the banquet hall and chaos reigns. Mark sees Jules and Miss Hardcastle killed, then gets knocked out.
The N.I.C.E. is now broken. A new principle comes into play: as Ransom said, "The moment we disable the human pawns enough to make them useless to Hell, their own Masters finish the work for us. They break their tools."
More or less possessed, Wither, Straik, and Filostrato escape and go to the lab containing the Head. Filostrato, now the viewpoint character, is horrified to find himself and everyone else ignoring the sterilization procedures, going in, and worshipping the Head. The Head, without benefit of artificial breath, demands another head. Straik and Wither tackle Filostrato and decapitate him. Then, after presenting the one head to the other, they both realize it will want yet another and tackle one another. Wither kills Straik, only to have Mr. Bultitude enter and kill him. Bultitude proceeds to chew up and maul the Head.
Likewise possessed, Frost locks himself in a room, starts a fire, and burns up.
Mark is roused by Merlin, who gives him a note from Arthur Denniston, telling him to come to St. Anne's. Merlin shoves Mark outside, and Mark finds he is under a compulsion to run away.
Feverstone escapes the melee in the banquet room, steals a car, and heads toward Edgestow. He finds he is compelled to drive there by way of an old Roman road. The car flips over and Feverstone glimpses Merlin get out and head for Edgestow. Feverstone makes his own way, but encounters many difficulties. No sooner does he get there than there is a tremendous explosion and he is buried in rubble.
After the running compulsion wears off, Mark makes his way to St. Anne. As he goes, he reflects on the waste of time and effort in his life, and on the way he has taken Jane for granted. He arrives at St. Anne's and is directed into the cottage by a mysterious giantess...
Back at St. Anne's, they are having a banquet in counterpoise to the disasterous dinner at Belbury, a victory celebration, at which Ransom and Dimble explain to Jane and the others about Logres and the Pendragonship. Tomorrow, there will be a new Pendragon, because Ransom is going back to Venus. The vessel to take him is already on the way. He blesses his friends as they take their leave, one by one. He tells Jane that Ivy and her husband have been given lodging in the manor house itself; the cottage she prepared is waiting for her and Mark is already in it. She goes down to meet him.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011