In many other ways this is a very different book. Although it continues the exploration of Christian theology that is the underlying theme of the other books, rather than interplanetary excitements this book involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil involving a talking head and the discovery of Merlin, the magician from the Arthurian legends, who is not dead but sleeping underground.In many ways, therefore, this reminded me of one of the many children's books that have delivered this theme such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.
The plot revolves around the development of NICE, a sinister research institute that promises to revolutionise scientific research. It is, essentially, the Nazi programme and comes complete with its own police force headed by Miss Hardcastle, who goes by the whimsical but unlikely nickname of Fairy. Mark, a fellow of Bracton College, is persuaded to join NICE and part of the story follows his attempts to join the inner circle of NICE, never quite realising their true evil. The other half of the story involves his wife, Jane, whom Mark has left behind in Bracton, who has visionary dreams and joins a strange religious commune; these are the goodies who are striving to discover Merlin before NICE so they can recruit him to their side.
The main trouble with the book is that the Goodies are good and the Baddies are bad and there are no shades of grey, no characters who move from one side to the other, in fact no character development at all. Even Mark, becoming embroiled in evil, is fundamentally innocent in the sense that he is ignorant of what is really happening. And having once depicted the boundaries of Good and Evil it therefore follows that everything represented by NICE, such as relativism and scientific progress must be Bad and everything represented by the Goodies, such as growing your own vegetables and speaking Latin, is Good. There are large and tedious chunks of theology in the book but they seem to boil down to the idea that the old ways are best (one of the problems the Goodies have is that Jane is Mark's wife and a wife must obey her husband even if he has gone over to the dark side) and that good old chaps such as English dons, country parsons and honest labouring men are the distillation of virtue while people who dispute the ordained social order must be sinister (almost at the end of the book Ransom compares the Goodies (Arthur, Milton, poets) with the Baddies (Mordred, Cromwell, shopkeepers). Shopkeepers?
The other main trouble with the book is the fundamental silliness of the plot. Merlin! A (Goody) bear called Mr Bultitude! The denouement takes place at a formal dinner (after the King's health has been toasted) and is accomplished by a cheap magic trick; one wonders why the Goodies needed Merlin and one wonders how the Baddies could pose such a threat if they could be vanquished so easily.
Nevertheless, there are some moments of magic:
There are some lovely descriptions:
- “He drove slowly - almost sauntering on wheels.” (p 306)
- "There were the placid faces of elderly bons viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate.” (p 476)
There are philosophical insights:
- "There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there's never more than one." (p 87)
- “Does it follow that because there was no God in the past that there will be no God also in the future?” (p 241)
- “Husbands were made to be talked to. it helps them to concentrate their minds on what they're reading - like the sound of a weir.” (p 93)
- “Men can't help in a job, you know. They can be induced to do it: not to help while you're doing it. At least, it makes them grumpy.” (p 224)
- “The cardinal difficulty ... in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, ‘Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.’ The female for this is, ‘Put that in the other one in there’.” (p 224)
- And this one, although it sounds the sort of thing that might be said today, is actually the author writing about something he condemns: “Men - complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women with children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’)” (p 152)
And there are just some interesting and even witty asides:
- “His education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote about more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.” (p 109)
- “Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Haven't you ever noticed it on a snowy day? Grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children - and the dogs? They know what snow was made for.” (p 146)
- “It all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.” (p 171)
- “The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms.” (p 273)
- “Not all the times that are outside the present are therefore past or future.” (p 276)
- “From now onwards till the moment of final decision should meet him, the different men in him appeared with startling rapidity and each seemed very complete while it lasted.” (p 296)
- “One might as well have thought one could buy a sunset by buying the field from which one has seen it.” (p 502)
- “The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.” (p 513)
- “Shakespeare never breaks the real laws of poetry ... but by following them he breaks every now and then the little regularities which critics mistake for the real laws.” (p 513)