The Space Trilogy (series), by C.S. Lewis
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Well, I read Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series when I was quite young, and I liked it. (I need to reread that someday, and write up reviews.) Those books were published in the 1950s, though of course I wasn't born til 1975, so it must have been the 1980s when I read them. Anyway, "The Space Trilogy" was published between 1938 and 1945, though I suppose I mustn't have been aware of it til after "Narnia." It's hard to say when I first heard of it; perhaps I noticed it in a list of books by the author within the Narnia books themselves, though I don't recall whether or not I paid it any mind, if I did. What I do remember is, at some point years after reading the Narnia books, seeing "The Space Trilogy" in my church's little library (a few shelves in a back room, at the time, though later the building got an additional wing that included perhaps a slightly expanded library; it's still a relatively small place, though). In any event, I always wanted to read that series, but never got around to it. And many years later, my cousin happened to give me the first book in the series for Christmas (2009), and so I finally read it in 2010 (along with its two sequels, older printings from a different publisher, which I picked up at, I believe, two different used book stores).
Whereas "Narnia" was a fantasy series, "Space" is, of course, a science fiction series (though in the preface to his third "Space" book, Lewis calls it a "fairy-tale," and makes an interesting point about that). But it's interesting to see SF from back then. I suppose the genre first came to be truly recognized as such in the 1920s, though stories which might later have been considered SF had existed for several decades, at least, before that. However, I have a tendency to think of SF as really getting serious in the 1950s and 60s. I'm not terribly familiar with anything from prior to that era, though the "Space" books do rather feel something like Jules Verne's books, which came out in the last few decades of the 1800s (and Lewis himself references H. G. Wells, whose books came out over several decades beginning in the 1890s). I dunno, though, maybe beyond a certain point in the past, everything starts seeming the same to me (it's weird to think that I might not notice much difference between things that were written from the 1850s through the 1950s, whereas each decade after the 1950s has its own distinct feel, to me). This perceived "sameness" (whether accurate or not) is not just in regards to literary genre, but the way people actually thought, the way they went about their lives, the way they turned their phrases in everyday speech, as well as... the way writers like Lewis would have, you know, written. It all has rather a quaint, old-fashioned feel to it, you know? So that's kind of how I feel when I read these books... I'm trying to grasp how the world (and England in particular) was in the 1930s and 40s, to better understand the characters. It's a bit tricky, being so firmly ensconced in a more modern mindset (and mostly American, though probably with a more open-minded global perspective than most people had in the first half- or even first eight or nine tenths- of the 20th century), and being so used to the SF of the present. (I also can't help thinking that Lewis- clearly a good deal more learned than am I- may have been read differently even by people of his own time, of differing social classes; the main characters mostly seem to be of a more educated class than was necessarily typical of the time.)
Anyway, it's not made clear precisely when the books are set, but it does seem to be around the time they were each written. Still, there's much about these books that harkens back to medieval ideas of cosmology and theology. One thing about Lewis, his work is well known to have Christian leanings... the "Narnia" series is a pretty straightforward, if fantastical, allegory for various Christian stories. But the "Space" books are... not exactly "allegorical," but more like revisionist history (and speculative science). The series takes a rather different view of religion, definitely science-fictionalized (hence the genre). Anyway, I've always enjoyed the mixing of subjects like religion, science, fantasy, and so forth. So I definitely enjoyed these books. Not just because of the subject matter, but because they're so well written, so detailed, so fascinating, and also, now and then, there's a bit of dry wit that I find greatly appealing. And... I guess that's all I can think to say, by way of introduction to the series. On to the actual book reviews....
The protagonist is Dr. Elwin Ransom (described as 35 to 40 years of age), who was a philologist and a fellow of Cambridge College. As the book opens, he is on a sort of walking holiday, trying without much luck to find lodging for the night. He ends up getting kidnapped by a couple of men named Weston and Devine. Weston was a physicist who had built a space ship (of course you will recall this was written more than two decades before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and more than three decades before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon). Anyway, Weston and Devine take Ransom to a planet which is called Malacandra by its inhabitants; it's some time before Ransom learns which planet it is by the name given it on Earth, but I don't consider it a terrible spoiler to tell you that it's Mars.
At one point during the voyage to Malacandra, Ransom overhears part of a secret conversation between Weston and Devine, which involves the plan to hand Ransom over to creatures called sorns, presumably as a sacrifice; though they don't really know what the sorns intend. So, he decides to escape when they reach the planet. And when on Malacandra he finally sees a group of sorns for the first time, he runs away, and spends some time alone, almost going mad. But after awhile, he meets a different kind of creature, called a hross. From him, he begins to learn the language of the hrossa (his philological skills came in quite handy, and he ends up becoming more conversant in the language than Weston or Devine, even though they'd been here before).
The hross who found him was Hyoi, who takes him to his people, among whom Ransom lives for a time. He begins to learn more of their language from a hross named Hnohra, and more about Malacandra. There were three intelligent species on the planet: the hrossa, the sÚroni (the proper plural of "sorn"), and the pfifltriggi. Intelligent species such as these three, and humans, are called "hnau" (or just "nau," because hrossa tend to pronounce an unnecessary "h" at the start of many words). Earth is called Thulcandra, which means "the silent planet." Malacandra is ruled by someone called Oyarsa, who is not hnau in quite the same sense, though it's some time before Ransom learns what he actually is. (But I'll again provide a minor spoiler and tell you that Oyarsa is an eldil, which is something like what we might call a spirit or angel, though not exactly.) All the worlds are ruled by Maleldil the Young, who I gather is sort of God, as we would call Him, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call Him Jesus Christ, though... this is never made explicitly clear. In any event, Maleldil is said to live with "The Old One" (who I'd presume to be God the Father, though nothing is really said about Him). But I get the impression that Maleldil was the one who made the worlds, as well as all hnau and eldila, so it's kind of confusing (though I suppose it's possible both Father and Son could bear the name "Maleldil," I sort of vaguely doubt it).
Eventually, an eldil appears and commands Ransom to go to see Oyarsa. On the course of that journey, he is eventually helped by a sorn called Augray, from whom he learns more about Malacandra and eldila. Ransom had a tendency to think of the sÚroni as the planet's dominant species, but actually they're all equal, all ruled by Oyarsa. It's just that each species is adept at different types of knowledge and skills, and the sÚroni are the ones who would seem the most advanced, from a human point of view. Anyway, finally Ransom reaches a place where many hnau and eldila are gathered, and Oyarsa soon comes and converses with him. Ransom learns more about certain things, including just why Oyarsa wanted the sÚroni to bring a human to him. Weston and Devine had misunderstood his intentions, and were scared, so they had returned to Earth to get someone to serve as a sacrifice. But what Oyarsa really wanted was to talk, and learn more about Thulcandra, from which the eldila of outer space had been cut off for a very long time. (I wish I could avoid spoiling why they'd been cut off from Earth, aside from saying that it happened before mankind existed, but I feel a certain degree of spoilers are necessary to set up my reviews of the other two books in the series. So, if you wish, perhaps you should skip the next paragraph, and possibly the two after that. The final one should be reasonably safe, though. But it may also be that you won't consider the story unduly spoiled by the next three paragraphs. *shrug* It's up to you.)
The reason they were cut off from Thulcandra (a name, btw, which was given to the world after the event in question) is this: the Oyarsa of Earth- "Oyarsa" being the title of the eldil who rules a planet- had become bent. ("Bent" is the closest word Malacandrians have for "bad" or perhaps more accurately "insane" or "foolish," or some concept that overlaps those three adjectives. I don't think we ever heard the actual Malacandrian word for "bent," though.) Weston and Devine, and perhaps all of humanity, are to some degree bent, from an extra-terrestrial perspective, due to the influence of our Oyarsa (aka "the Bent One"; and I suspect you could guess some other names we have for the Bent One). Anyway, before mankind existed on Earth, the Bent One made both our Moon and Malacandra nearly uninhabitable (the Oyarsa of Malacandra barely managed to save the hnau of his world). And so, the Bent One and the eldila who followed him were, after a great war, confined to Thulcandra (unable to reach farther than our Moon), to prevent them doing further harm to the rest of the Solar System (or Field of Arbol, "Arbol" being the Malacandrian name for the Sun). Since then, the Oyarsa of Malacandra (among other eldila) has heard rumors of Maleldil's struggles against the Bent One on Thulcandra, and is curious to learn the truth about it, from one of Earth's inhabitants.
While Ransom is conversing with the Oyarsa of Malacandra, Weston and Devine are brought forward as prisoners, and attempt to converse as well, in spite of not seeing, only hearing Oyarsa, and disbelieving in the existence of eldila. And, after Weston has limited success in his attempt to communicate with Oyarsa, Ransom has to translate Weston's words as best he can, which is tricky because, aside from Ransom's own grasp of the Malacandrian language being incomplete, the concepts Weston was expressing were a bit complicated and didn't exactly have direct parallels in the understanding or mindsets of Malacandrians or eldila. So it takes awhile to explain things, and while Weston's intentions, and the very philosophy of Life which he espouses, are on the surface objectionable from a moral standpoint, to say the least... at least one can perhaps somewhat understand how he can think as he does. I doubt any reasonable person would agree with him, in the entirety; though one might agree at least on some points. But the way Ransom translates it- which involves breaking down complex concepts into simpler ones- it becomes much plainer how absolutely absurd and unconscionable those intentions really are. Anyway, in the end, Oyarsa sends the three humans back to Earth. He advises Ransom to keep an eye on Weston and Devine, who may continue to cause trouble. But there is also the hope that the "siege of Thulcandra" may soon be over. Great changes have been prophesied to happen in this year (though he speaks of a celestial year, which is far longer than one of years; the current celestial year apparently began in the 12th century).
And then, there is the revelation that the author himself, C.S. Lewis, had learned of all these things from his friend "Ransom" (which turns out to be an alias used for the purposes of this book, as are "Weston" and "Devine"). The story has been published in the guise of fiction, so that people might learn of these things, and some might find their way to the real Ransom or Lewis. Then there's a postscript, a letter from Ransom to Lewis about various things the author had left out of his book, so we learn still a bit more about his time on Malacandra, which didn't quite fit into the story. Anyway, I don't know what else to say about that, except that I've always been fond of the idea of an author inserting himself into his own story, and it's something I've done myself in the past, and very well may in the future....
Well, as for my general impressions of the book: I quite enjoyed the descriptions of space travel, and the terrain of Malacandra, and of its various species, and of eldila (their nature makes them hard to see, because they're made of a kind of light, and also their physical presence in relation to places is different from ours), and... everything. It's all rather fascinating, as is the philosophical thought in which Ransom engages throughout his strange experiences. All he learns about the real history of the Solar System and whatnot, and about the differences between the various hnau, what things like space and planets and light and movement and such are all "really" like... And of course, I always enjoy seeing theology reworked into fantasy or science fiction, to look at it in a new way. And... I don't know what else to say except... it's just all very well written and quite interesting, really makes you think about things- not just theology- in new ways. (I suppose I should say that our understanding of space is different now than it was when the book was written, but Lewis's descriptions of it, and its relation to "heaven," per se, are nevertheless quite thought-provoking.)
As I indicated in the penultimate paragraph of my preceding review, the author inserted himself into his own story as a friend of the "fictitious" Dr. Ransom. In this book, at the outset, Lewis plays a more active role. He is on his way to Ransom's cottage, and as he walks, his thoughts explain some of the things the reader will already know if they've read the first book in the series. But we also learn some new things, including that Ransom has remained in contact with eldila, who have visted him on Earth, since his return from Malacandra. Naturally, Lewis (the fictionalized version of himself) engages in some interesting philosophy, such as the difference between the scientific and the supernatural, a difference which may not, as it turns out, mean anything at all. (I also want to mention that in this book- I don't think the word appeared in the previous book, though it does in the next- the author sometimes uses the word "Tellus" to refer to Earth. It's a Latin word, equivalent to "Terra," which is much more familiar to me. I may have heard the word "Tellus" before, somewhere, I don't really remember. I suppose I must at least have heard the derivative adjective "Tellurian," which also appears in these books, so it really shouldn't be that distracting to me, but it is. Which isn't to say I didn't like it.)
Anyway, I digress. Lewis makes his way to Ransom's cottage, in spite of certain psychological struggles that are trying to get him to turn back. (We later learn these struggles were imposed upon him by Earth's own dark eldila.) We also learn more about the nature of eldila in general. When he first arrives at the cottage, it is dark, and Ransom isn't there. But there is an eldil, the Oyarsa of Malacandra, of whom Lewis is afraid. Luckily, Ransom soon shows up. He tells Lewis that he (Ransom) is going to be transported to Perelandra (Venus) by the Oyarsa of Malacandra. He's meant to stop some sort of attack which the Tellurian Oyarsa intends upon that planet, though he doesn't know quite what he's meant to do. He supposes the only reason he's been selected for this task is because he speaks Old Solar- the original language of the entire Solar System, which he had previously mistaken for the language of Malacandra, and more specifically of the hrossa. The language had never been spoken on Earth, until Ransom (and Weston and Devine) had learned it on Mars, but it ought just as well to be spoken by the inhabitants of Perelandra.
Well, it turns out the reason Ransom has invited Lewis here is to pack him in the coffin-like vessel the Oyarsa will use to transport him through space; and later, upon Ransom's return, to unpack him. It is a bit over a year later that Ransom returns to Earth, and of course the Oyarsa had contacted Lewis (who then, per his prior arrangement with Ransom, contacted a doctor named Humphrey, who was one of the few people who knew of all these extra-terrestrial affairs in which Ransom had gotten caught up). Lewis and Humphrey arrive at Ransom's cottage in time to attend to him when his vessel returns to Earth. Ransom's bleeding from one heel, but otherwise seems in better health than ever. He soon begins to tell the story of his trip, which comprises the rest of the book. (Jumping to the end, I should mention that the book ends rather abruptly, right after he's packed into the vessel on Perelandra... it's a bit disconcerting, but it makes sense when you think back to the fact that, many chapters earlier, we had already read what happens immediately after that point.)
Well, Lewis's account of Ransom's descriptions of everything he experienced are at least as vivid as the descriptions of his earlier experiences on Malacandra. First, of course, there's the description of what it was like to be transported to Perelandra, though this was inadequate... because there aren't words that can truly make one understand what it was like. But while Ransom did the best he could to describe it, at least equally as interesting is the explanation of the exact nature of... well, what was meant by saying words couldn't adequately describe it. Then of course, there came the descriptions of the geography and weather and flora and fauna of Perelandra. I couldn't begin to do it all justice, but I'll say that normally I'm not a big fan of, you know, descriptive narrative... but here (and actually in all of the "Space" books), I really do enjoy the way Lewis (the real one) has written it. It's rather fascinating. And of course, I also always quite enjoy reading the thoughts of the characters, in each of these books.
Well, I should say that Perelandra consists mostly of water, with islands which float around on the waves, not in any way anchored, so that the water's movements beneath the islands frequently reshapes the land, which makes it rather hard to stand, though one eventually gets the hang of it. I should also mention that the planet is very hot; surely not as hot as Venus is in reality, for I don't think any human could survive there. But at least it was hot enough that Ransom had to be naked. Anyway, he eventually meets someone he refers to as "the Green Lady" (I gather she was quite human in appearance, except for, you know, being green). She was, of course, naked as well, though somehow, in spite of her beauty, she didn't really provoke sensuous thoughts in Ransom.
Anyway, she calls Ransom "Piebald." The two of them begin to have occasional discussions about various things. She refers to having known less than one currently does as being "younger," and to learning new things as becoming "older." (This is at first hard for Ransom to grasp, as it has nothing to do with actual age or the passage of time, per se.) She learns many new things from Ransom, but also she is made older by Maleldil Himself (though Ransom can neither hear nor see Him). Of course, Ransom also learns some things from her, such as that ever since Maleldil took the form of Man on Earth, there can never again be newly created reasoning creatures in any other form but human; hnau on Malacandra looked different because it is an older world than Thulcandra, and Perelandra is itself younger than our world. (I personally find this concept strange and unnecessary, but at the same time rather intriguing.) Ransom also learns that there is, aside from the Lady, only one other human on Perelandra, who she calls the King (the Lady will later be called the Queen). Ransom would like to meet him, and of course the Lady is also anxious to find him, though she doesn't know where he is, at the moment. He also finds that the animals follow the Lady (and presumably the King) around, and are totally obedient to them; and the King and Lady make the animals older, though of course they can never become quite as "old" as a hnau (or maybe they will, after thousands of years, I dunno). One more thing she tells Ransom is that Maleldil has forbidden the King and her to ever sleep on the Fixed Land, apparently the only island on Perelandra which isn't constantly being moved by the waves. This, it turns out, is basically the same as His having forbidden Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of a certain tree.
Ransom and the Lady go to the Fixed Land, which is in itself not forbidden to her and the King, as long as they don't stay there overnight. They continue to talk, when suddenly something falls out of the sky, into the ocean nearby. From it, a man makes his way to the Land, and it turns out to be Weston. Ransom warns the Lady to stay away from him, but she doesn't heed him, at first. It turns out also that Weston now speaks Old Solar fluently. But soon, the Lady departs, and Weston converses with Ransom alone. Weston describes his new philosophy and goals, which are much broader than his original plans on Malacandra, and more spiritual. Though his idea of religion is... well, it's just different. I can't really explain it. But in the end, he... invites something into himself, which doesn't seem to be quite what he expected. And this... possession... appears to kill him. Meanwhile, it's getting late and dark very quickly, so Ransom has no choice but to sleep on the Fixed Land. And in the morning, he finds that Weston is gone.
Eventually, Ransom makes his way to one of the floating islands, where he finds Weston talking with the Lady. He soon realizes that Weston's body is no longer Weston, but is merely being inhabited either by the Bent One, or else by one of the eldila whom he commands; Weston had been sent there as a way for such a dark eldil to gain entry to Perelandra, which none of them could have done themselves, being bound to the Earth. And Ransom, of course, was there to stop this dark eldil from influencing the Lady. I must say, I enjoyed all the conversation between Ransom and the Lady; that kind of thing, sort of philosophizing, has always been something I liked, and in a way it's even more fascinating when one side has no real starting point, no common understanding... so that Ransom has to try to teach her new concepts essentially from scratch.... But then with Weston, or as Ransom calls him, the Un-man, added to the equation, it gets more interesting still. I have to say I've always also had some interest in debate; not in any formal sense, but mostly either in my own mind or with a friend. And I've always had some interest in the whole "Devil's advocate" sort of thing, or not actually an advocate, but in fact the Devil himself; in fact I've written bits of such stories myself. What could be a greater debate than one in which the Devil is your adversary? He is, after all, terribly clever, and much of what he says may sound quite logical and convincing (though possibly I feel this way because I, like all humans of Thulcandra, have since our species' very beginning been bent by his influence; but then again, the Lady finds him convincing, as well, and she is one of the first of her race, with no such history). In any event, it is now Ransom's job to debate with the Un-man, each trying to sway the Lady's thinking. Ultimately, the Un-man wants to lead her to believe that it is Maleldil's will that she disobey His own order not to live on the Fixed Land.
For some time, Ransom does his best to counter the other's arguments, but eventually he begins to despair that he cannot win the debate, in the end. He spends some time worrying about this, and thinking about what had happened on Earth with Eve and the serpent, and what might have happened if... well, he wonders different things. And after awhile, an idea comes to him about the action he must take in this situation. At first he rejects the thought, but his mind keeps coming back to it, and after awhile, he starts... almost to hear a Voice, as if Maleldil is telling him that he must do this thing. (There's also a bit of dialog in which the very name "Ransom" is significant, which I find confusing if we accept that that's not his real name, and I wonder if that even occurred to Lewis when he wrote the book, or ever after.)
Anyway, I don't want to say what the solution to Ransom's problem was, but I will say that I found it shocking and disturbing and just... immoral. And if one resorted to these means to win a debate, even if their side of the debate was the right one, winning this way... would make them seem wrong, and even if their goal was achieved, I'd feel that in a certain sense, they would have lost. But I suppose... it's also not inconsistent with a certain side of God's personality and methods, even if in this enlightened age we find such things distasteful and would rather imagine that God's not like that... we have to admit that He is, at times. (Hell, there's plenty in the Bible that I cannot accept, but even I have to accept certain things I'd rather not.) Perhaps more to the point, whatever distaste I felt for this solution was largely moot; Ransom was being asked to do something which... wasn't truly what it seemed on the surface, and it was a very thin surface, at that. My real problem wasn't the act itself, but how it might appear to the Lady, if she was aware of it, while not seeing the truth beneath the surface. But... she wasn't aware of it, anyway. (And I don't suppose she would have really understood it one way or the other, if she had been.) So I needn't have worried so much.
Man, I do ramble, don't I? The important thing is, Ransom accepts what he must do, and he does it (it is sometime during this act, which takes alot longer than one might expect, that he receives the wound in his heel, though he doesn't recall exactly when it happened). And then... eh, I don't want to give away any more details. Bad stuff happens, good stuff happens, stuff so confusing and trippy that you'd probably only understand it if you were on some kind of psychedelic drugs happens.... There's all kinds of philosophy and more revelations about the past and the future and.... yeah, all kinds of weirdness. In any event, the end seems a pretty happy one, in spite of all my confusion. And finally, the King and Queen pack Ransom into his vessel-
The third and final book in the Space Trilogy is set entirely on Earth, so on the whole, it will be grounded far more in that which is familiar to the reader than were the first two books. At least at first; though the further into the book you get, the stranger it all becomes. Anyway, there's a brief preface to the story (dated 1943), which I rather liked, including, as I mentioned earlier, a bit about the nature of fairy-tales. Lewis also mentions other writers: Olaf Stapledon (with whose works I am shamefully unfamiliar), and more importantly, J. R. R. Tolkien (with whose works I am of course familiar). There are some things mentioned in this book which are based on conversations Lewis had previously had with Tolkien, and I suppose he intended some vague connection between this book and the ones Tolkien was working on. But it's best, I think, to pay that as little mind as possible. Whatever hint of a connection there might be between the works of Lewis and Tolkien, I daresay it is... non-canonical.
Anyway, the central characters of this book are a young couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, who have been married for six months. From the beginning of the story, it is evident that marriage has not turned out to be what Jane had thought it would. She sees very little of her husband, who doesn't talk to her much when he is home; so, of course she's not really happy. But soon the narrative moves on from these thoughts, to tell of a nightmare Jane had recently had, which she recalls upon seeing in the morning paper a picture of a prisoner named Alcasan, who had just been guillotined; the man's face was one she'd seen in her nightmare. The dream had later segued into something else entirely, though we'll eventually see that both parts of the dream held greater significance than Jane could have possibly imagined.
Mark, meanwhile, is a sociologist, and a fellow of Bracton College, at the University of Edgestow. He's only fairly recently become a member of "the Progressive Element," which is the inner circle at Bracton. It's important to note that all his life, Mark has striven- often against his own natural preferences- to be part of one kind of inner circle after another. Even if he tends to find the actual people and business of such circles unpleasant, I suppose one can say he finds pleasure just in the idea of being an insider rather than an outsider. Anyway, we meet several other members of the Progressive Element, though I'm afraid I couldn't really keep good track of who any of them were, aside from Bracton's sub-warden, a man named Curry. There was also a man called Lord Feverstone, who is rarely actually at Bracton, rather spending most of his time in London. Mark learns from Curry, early in the book, that Feverstone had fought for Mark's appointment as a Fellow, while most of the others had favored another man, named Denniston. (We learn later in the book that Feverstone is an alias, and the man is actually someone we'd met in a previous book. This somewhat surprised me, as I thought at first that his personality was different than it had been before, but ultimately I suppose it made sense. And, really, it's not so much his personality that was different, but that he seemed a bit more intelligent, or at least of a higher class, now.) Anyway, I suppose none of the other members of the group are that important to the story, so I won't mention them, specifically.
Well, the group has a meeting about various issues, one of which is the proposed sale of some college land, chiefly including Bragdon Wood, to the N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), an organization which was supposedly going to revolutionize the way scientific research was carried out. It soon turns out to be pretty much impossible to vote against the sale. Anyway, we then see Jane visiting old friends of hers, a teacher named Dr. Cecil Dimble, and his wife, Margaret. Dr. Dimble talks a bit about Merlin, who, according to legend, is buried under Bragdon Wood; but not dead, merely sleeping. This all leads Jane to tell the Dimbles about the dream she'd had, which leads them to encourage her to visit someone else....
Well, that weekend, Feverstone takes Mark to Belbury, where the N.I.C.E. is currently headquartered, to meet the Deputy Director, John Wither. (The Director is an older popular scientific journalist named Horace Jules, though he has no real knowledge of what the Institute is actually about; Wither is the one who's really in charge.) Mark meets various people at Belbury... much like the people at Bracton, there tend to be more than I can keep track of clearly, and again, most of them aren't that important, in the long run. There's a professor named Filostrato, who is of some importance in explaining certain ideas to Mark, though ultimately he's rather a dupe, as is a reverend named Straik. Aside from Wither, the most important person Mark meets is Miss Hardcastle (aka "the Fairy"), who is the head of the Institutes's private police force. She's a rather overbearing, powerful woman, and we'll eventually see that she's fond of torture. But she provides Mark with more information than anyone else at the Institute does. I should particularly mention that Wither himself is prone to speaking in a most confusingly and frustratingly vague manner. I find it terribly amusing how he can say so much without ever really saying anything, in his effort to avoid details of any kind (and later on, we learn just why he's like this). But while it was fun for me to read, at the same time I always felt bad for Mark, who was unable to ever get a straight answer from him about anything, most importantly A: whether he was in fact being offered a job at all, and if so B: what precisely that job actually was. So, he spends much of his time at Belbury feeling very uncomfortable and eventually, very nervous about his future, when it becomes apparent that if he didn't get the job there, the N.I.C.E. would see to it he didn't have a job to go back to at Bracton, either.
Meanwhile, Jane goes to a place called St. Anne's, to meet with a woman named Grace Ironwood, on the recommendation of the Dimbles. She tells Miss Ironwood about her dreams, which Ironwood tells Jane are actually visions; this prophetic dreaming is a hereditary faculty. Jane could be of use to the company at St. Anne's, or she could fall into the hands of their enemies. But Jane doesn't believe in any of this, and just wants the dreams to stop. Meanwhile, she also meets a young woman at St. Anne's named Camilla Denniston. And soon after Jane's visit, she learns that the Dimbles have been turned out of their house. The two of them will have to go stay at the Manor at St. Anne's, as will Ivy Maggs, who had worked for Jane a couple days a week as a domestic. It seems the N.I.C.E., once it has obtained the land at Edgestow, sends in all kinds of laborers and construction equipment, which all causes progressively worse and worse trouble for the University and pretty much the whole town, many of whom become homeless.
Anyway. Things at Belbury, as I've suggested, quickly become confusing, and in fact rather ominous. I started thinking that, even though the story is set on Earth, in a way the N.I.C.E. was as different from anything with which Mark might be familiar as Mars or Venus were to Ransom, in the first two books. And eventually, things at St. Anne's will become just as strange for Jane... but I'm getting just a bit ahead. As I said, she didn't want to have anything to do with them. But one day, she happens to meet up with Camilla Denniston and her husband, Arthur (an old friend of Mark's, who I suppose was the same Denniston that Curry had said nearly got the post Mark ended up with at Bracton). From them, Jane learns a bit more about the company at St. Anne's, the Director of which is a man called Mr. Fisher-King. (The explanation of how he'd assumed that name was a bit interesting, if hurried, and it makes me wonder if it might contain some kernel of a possible future story in Lewis's series, though of course this is all there is.) They try to convince her to come see their chief- also called the Pendragon- but some of the things they say rather put her off, including the fact that it would be preferable to obtain Mark's permission (or at least clear lack of objection) for her to join them. What's more, there's a lot they can't tell her about their society until she actually joins them, and she doesn't want to join them without knowing more about them. But at least she promises to tell them if she has any more dreams (which she already has).
As I've indicated, Miss Hardcastle is really the only one of any use to Mark in figuring out what he's meant to be doing at Belbury. Under her direction, he eventually begins writing some articles which are meant to make the general public see various matters the way the N.I.C.E. wants them to see them (including things such as disturbances at Edgestow, before they actually happen). And he finally begins to be accepted into the inner circle there, which I've mentioned is the kind of thing he always pursued. So he becomes happier, for a time. Meanwhile, Jane has more dreams, and finally goes back to St. Anne's. Of course there's a certain degree of familiarity there, with the Dimbles and the Dennistons, though she's soon a bit confused by the fact that Mrs. Maggs is an equal there, rather than a servant. There's also a man named Andrew MacPhee, who is there essentially as a skeptic (he'd been mentioned briefly in the previous book, though his name was spelled McPhee). And there are various animals about the Manor, most notably a bear called Mr. Bultitude. They all seem obedient to the humans, particularly the Director of the company, who Jane finally gets to meet. He produces some confusing feelings in Jane, who likes him and wants to please him, but at the same time, much of what he says is contrary to what she's always believed, about various matters, including marriage. (I myself cannot fully accept what he says, things that on the surface I find somewhat offensive, though I think upon deeper reflection, the things he says don't mean exactly what they seem to mean, at first.) In any event, it's not so much his beliefs or Jane's that are important, but those of his "old-fashioned" Masters. (I think it's safe to spoil you by saying that his Masters turn out to be eldila, and further, that Fisher-King himself is actually Ransom, who has been much changed by his adventures on Malacandra and Perelandra, and by the years since then interacting with eldila on Earth).
Well, I feel like I've already said quite a lot, possibly too much, but at this point I've merely gotten you halfway through the book, and barely set things up for you. I've left out a fair bit, but from this point on, I feel I should leave out a great deal more. What happens in the remainder of the book is the really weird stuff. I suppose I can say there's another man at Belbury named Frost, who is roughly as important as Wither (and like Wither, his own motivations are interesting to learn about), and who Jane has seen in some of her dreams. And there is a Head who is occasionally spoken of, which at first Mark assumes to mean Jules (who does eventually show up, toward the end), but he was wrong about that. I'd really not like to spoil anything about the Head, or... the ultimate goals of the N.I.C.E. As for the company at St. Anne's, there's stuff, in the end, about the nature of Britain as opposed to the Logres (a word with which I'm not really familiar, though it refers to the realm of King Arthur, I guess). And of more immediate importance, there's the possibility that Merlin will awake, and the N.I.C.E. desire to use him for their own purposes, though he could just as well side with the company at St. Anne's. Though what exactly he could do for either side is... well, it's not as straightforward as you might guess. Anyway, the climax of the conflict... seemed too easy to me. And kind of strange, possibly a bit amusing- or even ridiculous- though I suppose it did rather make a kind of sense, given various things that had been previously established in the story, things which seemed almost random, earlier. But at any rate, good triumphs, although certain evil forces are still out there. The whole story is but one early battle in a war that's likely to go on for a very long time, so it's rather a shame there can be no more told of any future battles....
Meanwhile, what was always most important to me about this book was, of course, Mark and Jane. They're both caught up in separate worlds, equally strange to them, and frightening, and dangerous. But the thing is... they seem to have loved each other before they were married, and yet since their marriage began, they've lost that love, and neither seems to have ever truly known the other, nor themselves, nor what marriage itself should actually be. So... what really matters is what they each learn in the course of their separate experiences, which will ultimately make them more understanding of themselves and each other, and bring them together, in the end... not so much "back" together, as truly together for the first time. And I must say, I really loved the way it all ended, on a sweetly humorous note....
I guess that's all I can say, then. There's lots of weirdness. A fair bit of humor, which I quite liked. Lots of terribly important drama that doesn't ultimately seem to amount to much, at least not in quite the way one might expect (assuming one had the capacity to expect anything of any degree of specificity, from all this weirdness); I rather relate to MacPhee's view of everything. ...And, finally, there's a happy ending. As I said, I wish there could be more stories in this series, but... as far as the book itself is concerned, it's a good end.