Does Merlin Get the Last Word?

It took me a few go-rounds to get through That Hideous Strength, the last of C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy. The beginning was so mundane and the character of Jane Studdock so depressed that I found it hard to care enough to keep reading. Then, the ideas behind the novel are, I think, more interesting than the characters—concepts like Merlin’s resurrection, the Kingdom of Logres as a secret society, and the fight between fallen angels and humanity for the future. The trilogy is a bit too philosophical for novels, for my taste, but they still make interesting reads. They are “thinking” kinds of books.

Still, I found the ending particularly interesting, since Lewis left a major loose thread unresolved. Dr. Ransom is going back to Perelandra, and he says there will be an eightieth Pendragon, a successor to the Kingdom of Logres who steps into his position. They are supposed to discover who it is by the end of that night, if not by the next day, at the latest, but the book ends with Jane going to her room, where her husband is waiting, and we never are told who the next Pendragon will be.

When Merlin first encounters Jane, he claims that “it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years.” Dr. Ransom says that “The child may yet be born,” but Merlin disagrees, claiming “For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.”

And readers, despite their best efforts to scan the text for a conclusive answer, remain divided. In A Far-off Country: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’ Fantasy, Martha C. Sammons writes that “We are told that the future Pendragon would have been Jane and Mark Studdock’s child—even Frost [one of the villains] notes that they are ‘eugenically interesting’—but it is now too late for them to conceive. The eightieth Pendragon will no doubt be Arthur Denniston, not only because of his significant first name, but because his wife Camilla is told she carries the “future of Logres” in her body.”

This sounds convincing, but in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens fo the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Michael Ward claims the “Monarchal presence presiding over Mark and Jane’s bed will bring to life that eightieth Pendragon.” He claims that Jane’s ancestry as a Tudor makes this clear, because according to Lewis’ letters, “the mythical British or Celtic line (the heritage of Logres) was the one ‘that goes back through the Tudors to Cadwallander and thence to Arthur, Uther, Cassibelan, Lear, Lud, Brut, Aeneas, Jupiter.’”

But, as far as I can tell, the office isn’t a hereditary position. Otherwise, Ransom’s relatives would be in line for the position (and Ransom himself might never have received it). It is an appointment from above, which is partly why it is so open to interpretation.

As a novel, I think it could go either way. On one hand, it makes sense for the next Pendragon to still be Jane and Mark’s child. Ransom’s last words to Jane are “You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.” So the couple can conceive, and such a conception would be an act of redemption. A miracle, as Merlin states, but it would clearly show how Heaven is restoring their marriage and their lives, forgiving Mark for his work with N.I.C.E. (the villainous society that worked for the fallen angels).

And it would create a poetic balance with the beginning. Then, Jane is trying to do something important through her own efforts, through her doctoral thesis. If she achieves something important by surrendering to the Almighty’s plan in the end, the novel has a nice parallelism.

But life isn’t always that neat, and the novel gives no indication that such a pleasant miracle occurs. The couple may have children, but the child who was to be the next Pendragon may not be born to them. In the exchange between Merlin and Ransom, Merlin has the last word when he says that the time for the conception of the child is past. Ransom responds by requesting that they change the topic, not with words of further hope.

And there is a poetic justice in this, too. Jane and Mark had an opportunity to collaborate with God in the creation of the next Pendragon, but they chose to do their own thing, to not have any children, and as a result, the office and honor may go to someone else—to Camilla and Arthur’s child, if not Arthur himself. Jane and Mark are still welcomed into Logres and offered a place in the kingdom, but their place could have changed as a result of their choices. Like Frodo in The Return of the King, they are rescued from the ultimate consequences of their actions, but they may lose a finger, so to speak. They are brought out of conflict with their lives and marriage intact, but all cannot go back to what it would have been.

I think there is significant theological consequences in how you interpret the ending (perhaps this is why Lewis left it open). If every action can be undone by a miracle, than our choices have very little weight. Jane and Mark’s decision to not have children in the first few years of their marriage (they are newly married, according to Ransom) has no eternal effect on anyone if they still conceive the Pendragon. God’s plan just got put on hold and suffered a short delay. But if God’s original plan had to be altered, if they were offered an opportunity and did not accept it, then as Esther was warned in the Bible, “deliverance will arise…from another place” and it is very possible that the Dennistons are the couple that steps into the gap created by Jane and Mark’s choices.

Thus, it’d be nice if the miracle happens, but there is no guarantee that such a thing occurs. It could well be that Jane and Mark get passed over, that their marriage bed is blessed, but not blessed with the conception of the Pendragon, and that Merlin does, indeed, have the last word. Grace may be tempered with justice, mercy with consequences.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

6 thoughts on “Does Merlin Get the Last Word?

      1. I love it–don’t know how many times I’ve read it. The big issue for me now is gender–WOW does he need for men to be masculine and women to be feminine. (And yet he still writes off Susan at the end of the Narnia tales because she’s interested in romance and makeup!) But I still love the books.

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      2. I think with Susan, it isn’t so much the romance and makeup as the dismissal of Narnia; it is no longer important to her, and, if I remember correctly, she doesn’t even act like it happened to them at all. I always thought it was the renunciation of Aslan and Narnia, versus the makeup, that did her in.

        He has a very interesting viewpoint of women. I wonder what kind of novel he would’ve written after finally being married. Would it have greatly changed him? “Til We Have Faces” has very different women in it, but then, that was a very different story, so…I’m not sure. That was published the year he got married, but that doesn’t mean Joy affected it that much, and sadly, he didn’t really write any novels after that.

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