As you know, I started working on a short story the other day: a piece of alternative history about the Inklings. It’s very silly, but in a way it’s a love song to my favorite writers–C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield–to whom I have devoted a decade of my life. I post the whole story here because I don’t think it’s professionally publishable. It’s too goofy, and it employs too many quotes and paraphrases from their works (not to mention that it’s very slightly plagiarized from Wikipedia on a few historical points!). But I would love critiques from Inklings scholars, historians, and writers about how to improve it. Enjoy.
The Long Defeat
It was the spring of 1945, and Hitler was about to plant his boots on English soil. The United States had refused to come into the war, in spite of the unprovoked attack on military personnel and civilians alike at Pearl Harbor. The testing of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos had gone horribly wrong, wiping out the local population and affecting millions of people in the subsequent fallout. Hitler had made plans to invade Russia early in the war, but had changed his mind and strengthened his alliance with Stalin. With the Soviet Union, Japan, and Italy as strong Axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north. The morale of the Royal Air Force was broken, its once cocky young pilots dead, imprisoned, wounded, or traumatized, and the Luftwaffe ruled the skies. The English Channel, swept clean of English mines and sealed off by Germans at either end of the Strait of Dover, was open and waiting for the German navy’s easy crossing, further protected by heavy artillery along the coast of occupied France. The Royal Navy, distracted by meaningless skirmishes in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, was scattered and destroyed piecemeal. London was on her knees, bombed into submission, beaten and dying. Churchill, defeated and desolate, committed suicide, and the nation collapsed into impotent mourning.
Oxford had survived the Blitz; the rumor was growing that Hitler coveted it for his British headquarters, and many residents were bracing themselves to accept the possibility that he would set up his center of operations in the ancient university city after the inevitable end of the war. There, in the golden bubble of Oxford, the towers and spires dreamed on, and children were still sent there for safety from the relentless bombing of London and the south coast. But the corridors of the great colleges were nearly empty of echoing footfalls: most of the faculty and nearly all of the students had been massacred in the killing fields of France. As the war dragged on and the Allies lost one battle after another, as Germany was victorious at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of the Bulge, as D-Day failed and the Nazis overran Normandy, a desperate Britain had begun calling up older and older men, younger and younger boys, and finally women.
Oxford fought to keep her irreplaceable Dons, those human receptacles of wisdom and culture. If England’s greatest minds were blown apart on the battlefield, who would rebuild civilization when the warmongers were done destroying? If England won the war but lost her wisest men, how would victory be any different than defeat? And now that defeat was inevitable, the men of letters were more valuable than ever before: they were the last hope of the human spirit, the tiny enclave of all that was good in human history, and they were the only ones who could rebuild all that had been lost. Who would educate that generation of lost, fatherless children, refugees in this quiet golden city? Who would teach them to keep the old ways, when the tyrant had them under his sway? So argued the University’s Chancellor, more and more feebly, as his faculty were killed off one by one, and he heard the tramping boots of England’s enemies drawing near.
Huddled in the back room of a smoke-darkened pub, four men shared one cigarette among them, passing it from hand to hand. The smoky haze hovered over their heads and wrapped around their dark coats, hiding them from a hostile world. The Chancellor’s special authority hovered over them, too, keeping them safe in the ivory tower while their friends, brothers, sons, colleagues, and students fought on the south coast and in the skies above England. One was unfit, anyway, with a nervous disorder that made his hands shake so badly he could not shave himself, but had to go to a barber every morning. The others were beyond the usual age of fighting men: one, a hearty, loud, beefy man of forty-six; the other two tall, slender, ages forty-six and fifty-three, the younger with the delicate build of a dancer—but men a decade older than they were dying in the air and on the beaches and in the streets of London even now.
Were they cowed and quiet, this quartet of veterans from the first war, these men held back in their books while the world fell apart around them? Did they creep and crawl with embarrassment that they were not fighting again while their loved ones were? Did they shudder and shake with fear of the coming invasion?
An enormous guffaw exploded from all four mouths, puffing away the smoke and rattling the walls. Four heads were thrown back, hands slapping the table or someone else’s back in merriment, faces red with laughter, feet pounding the floor in delight. The slender dancer leaped up and cut a caper in the middle of the room. Then the tall, thin fellow did him one better by clambering upon the table and declaiming with gusto:
“Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.”
After only two words, the big fellow joined in, adding his booming voice to the other’s rather garbled articulation, and the ancient sounds rolled across the pub:
“Hēr līð ūre ealdor eall forhēawen
gōd on grēote. Ā mæġ gnornian
se ðe nū fram þisum wīġplegan wendan þenċeð.”
As the chanting went on, the other two joined, a line or so behind, adding modern English antiphonally to the din:
“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
courage the greater, as our might lessens.
Here lies our leader all hewn down,
the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever
who thinks now to turn from this war-play.”
The gentleman on the table tripped on an empty pint pot—there had been only a couple of beers shared among them that evening, what with the rations and the shortages—and the others reached up to steady him, roaring with laughter as they offered their hands to help him down from the table.
“No, no!” he protested. “I have a song to sing first!”
They struggled with him for a moment, trying to get him off of the table-top, but he resisted, shook himself free of their hands, and announced:
“The Man In The Moon Came Down Too Soon.”
“The old man had better not send you off to war, Tollers,” the beefy chap bellowed. “You’d only sing songs at the Germans to frighten them away.”
“And then begin analyzing the history of their language,” the lithe little fellow put in. “Didn’t you spent the whole of the first war talking about verbs with a German prisoner?”
“I fought in the battle of the Somme!” the table-top singer protested, but the little man went on:
“And Jack would retell their own myths to them until they all fell asleep with boredom and we could walk right into Berlin over their snoring forms.”
C. S. “Jack” Lewis howled at this, banging the table with his fist. The table shook, and Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wobbled among the dishes. He put out a hand to steady himself, and it landed on the head of the stoop-shouldered man on his right, who grasped it and burst into a fluid stream of quotation:
“A pack of blessings light upon my head,
Happiness courts me in her best array,
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
I pout upon my fortune and thy love.”
Tolkien and Lewis, tears of merriment running down their faces, shouted together:
“Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable!”
And Lewis went on:
“Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art. Thy tears are womanish. —But you are a true man, Williams, and regular charmer to the ladies. Maybe the top brass should send you to Germany to seduce all of Jerry’s women. You could do what you liked with them as either a cad or a Don Juan, undermining national morale and making way for an Allied invasion—if you were not a thoroughly good man.”
Tolkien harrumphed, as it he wasn’t quite sure about the “good man” part, but he kept his hand on Charles Williams’s head to steady his precarious balance upon the table. Williams beamed up at him, a beatific smile that glowed upon the little fellowship, transforming his face from simian wizardry to angelic beauty. Dapper little Owen Barfield looked on, tapping his heels in an impatient rhythm on the floor, and said:
“But we need Charles here more than over there. Not for the women, but for the sanity and consciousness of England herself. Your doctrines of love and forgiveness keep madness at bay here in this city of wisdom in our trying times.”
The others nodded soberly.
“I have never heard anything like your lecture on Milton,” Lewis agreed. “It is the first, and probably the last, time that I have ever seen a university doing what it was meant to do: teaching wisdom.”
Williams stood gracefully, catching Tolkien’s hand to steady the professor, who still stood on the tabletop, waiting to sing his song. Williams bowed ceremoniously, one hand on his heart, then kissed his hand to each of them, gracious as an emperor.
“Wisdom shall soon cease in this city and all such ordered civilizations of our times,” he said, “if we are all sent off to wield our useless weapons in aged hands, to die beside our sons and brothers, and for all our learning to be buried with our bones in France.”
A blue haze settled over the friends for a moment—then Tolkien burst out, waving the smoke away from his face with a slender hand:
“Enough of this serious chatter! I have a song to sing!”
He began warbling:
“There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.”
There was much more of this song, and much more of their talk, in a tiny pocket of laughter on that Oxford evening before Hitler landed.
One week later, Prof. Tolkien walked swiftly through the empty street, until he came to the corner of St. Giles and Beaumont Street, next to the silent, shuttered Ashmolean Museum. He was thinking of his son, Christopher, flying at this moment with the RAF. He was thinking of his other children and of the refugees he and Edith had taken into their house. He was thinking of Major Warnie Lewis, Jack’s brother, recalled to active duty at age forty-nine, who had fought in France, was supposed to be evacuated at Dunkirk, but had been taken prisoner and never heard from again. He was praying for the safety of them all. He was remembering the encouraging words of the Mass this morning: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” And he was thinking of Beowulf—he was lecturing on the ending of that great poem today—and pondering the brave northern warriors who fought on when hope was gone. His quick steps echoed off of the stone floors and walls, beating back against him as he strode on, lecture notes in hand. He passed between the columns of the Taylor Institution, one of the many buildings in the Bodleian Library system, threw open the huge doors, and walked up to the lectern just as the great bells of Tom Tower were striking the hour.
The seats in the hall were empty.
He arranged his notes. Still no students appeared. Hilary term was drawing to a close, and ordinarily his lectures would have been packed at this time, as students crammed for final essays and exams. Tolkien adjusted his black gown, checked a translation note, and waited. No one came.
Slowly, sadly, he began lecturing to the desolate room, as if trying to speak across the miles and through the defeat, past the lines of Nazi troops who were nearing London, to reach his son, in the air over France, to reach Lewis’s brother, presumably in a German POW camp somewhere, to reach Williams’s colleagues at Oxford University Press’s publishing house in the city, to reach all the men and women who were falling now, wheat cut down by the indifferent sickle, lying in the mud of Hastings or the streets of Amen Corner. His voice mumbled on, around the stem of his pipe (which he still kept in his mouth at all times, in spite of the lack of tobacco), weaving together the tragedy of the battle of Maldon with the Norse concept of bitter courage, tying both to the tragedy of his times. His swift mind leaped from point to point, masterful in its control of language, timeless and modern as it faced the facts.
The huge doors opened. Lewis and Williams came in, walked down the central aisle, Lewis heavily, Williams deftly, and sat down in two of the empty chairs. Williams looked up at Tolkien, his eyes red-rimmed and brimming. Lewis buried his face in his hands. Tolkien’s voice wobbled to a stop, and he struggled down from the podium and sat beside his friends.
These cheerful veterans and makers of myth, their keen eyes honed by one war and their hearts steeled by another, their minds sharpened by contact with the conflicts and hopes of many cultures that had gone before, sat in numb silence in the vacant hall.
At last Lewis shook himself and spoke.
“It does not matter whether we are sent to France or kept at home. It does not matter whether we stay here to nurture good philosophy to combat the bad ideas.”
Williams picked up the thread of his thought: “The collective wisdom of Oxford cannot long be protected behind the golden walls of its ancient colleges.”
“What is the latest news?” Tolkien asked, trembling a little.
“London is finished,” Lewis told him. “Panzers are unloading at all of England’s southerns ports.”
“The Wehrmacht’s infantry have swarmed up the white cliffs and is marching inland across untended fields,” Williams went on.
There had been little military resistance. An entire generation of British youth had been erased on the killing fields of France. Their fathers and uncles—and even some of their mothers and sisters—were stranded on the Continent, swiping ineffectually at the enemy’s backside, or languishing in POW camps, while the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population went on unchecked. The refugee children, hiding behind Oxford’s walls, were being orphaned day by day.
The door opened again, and Owen Barfield stood there, a slender silhouette against the dreary light of a rainy English afternoon.
“The King has surrendered,” he whispered. “Hitler has landed.”
A silence fell on the group. Lewis gripped Tolkien’s shoulder. Williams took off his spectacles and wiped his eyes, then clutched at his stomach as he was racked by a spasm of pain. Barfield crossed the flagstone floor and folded himself up in a chair beside them. At last Williams looked up, cleared his throat, and spoke strange lines in his Cockney accent:
“There on the waves a headless Emperor walked
coped in a foul indecent crimson; octopods
round him stretched giant tentacles and crawled
heavily on the slimy surface of the tangled sea,
goggling with lidless eyes at the coast of the Empire.”
“But in your myth, Williams, the Empire rallies,” said Lewis. “The young pope prays, and the invaders are defeated on Christmas day. Surely in this Easter season—”
His strong voice trailed away.
“And in yours, John Ronald,” Barfield said to Tolkien, “the tyrant will go down into defeat, conquered by the little people at last, will he not?”
“He will. On the Feast of the Annunciation,” Tolkien mumbled. “Which is also the last day of Creation. But that is only one small victory in the whole history of the legendarium. Sauron is the servant of Melkor or Morgoth, and—”
Lewis interrupted him.
“Let’s not go into your whole convoluted history of Middle-earth just now, Tollers. We’ll never get back out to real history, which is looking bleak enough right now without adding the fading of the Elves to it.”
“But you see,” he said. “I am a Christian. I believe we are fighting the long defeat. I do not look for hope in this world.”
“All the peoples await the Parousia,” Williams muttered, “and even your elves look forward to a victory at the end of all times.”
Lewis jumped up, strode to the front of the room, and pounded his huge fist on the lectern.
“We shall not give in!” he bellowed. “Though they set their boots and drive their tanks on our English soil, we shall not give in! Have we not the power of the great stories on our side, the myths and the legends and the fairy tales, the encounters with dragons, the battles with sorcerers, the recurring victory of spring over winter in every land, the dying and rising god who is torn to pieces but comes to life again? These are the stories on which our children were fed from their earliest days, the stories that were in the hearts of our boys when they marched across Europe, the stories that are at the foundation of the wisdom we teach in this place. Surely those tales of unexpected victory and of unlooked-for return should rally our hearts and the hearts of English youth to hope and to resistance?”
The others looked up at him, light returning to their eyes. All the books they knew and loved poured back into their minds: the hopeless battles, the unlikely heroes, the swift turns of fortune at the end of the tale.
“The eucatastrophe,” Tolkien murmured.
The others nodded.
“What do you think we should do, Jack?” Barfield asked.
“We could form a secret society and promulgate these truths in the true fellowship,” Williams suggested.
“No, no, no,” Lewis cut in. “It must be public. Let us use those avenues that have worked before for spreading truth. The schools, the radio, and the press.”
“But is there time?” Barfield wondered. “It takes time to write books, to publish books, to arrange speaking engagements, to record broadcasts.”
“Then we must move swiftly,” Lewis said.
“The world is changing,” Tolkien hummed to himself. “I can feel it in the waters. I can sense it in the air.”
“We shall do it,” Williams said, bowing his head in a gesture that turned his pronoun royal. “We shall gather the stories into propinquity and promulgate them to the far corners of the kingdom.”
“I’ll talk to the BBC,” Lewis said.
“I’ll talk to the OUP,” Williams said.
“I’ll talk to the Chancellor,” Tolkien said.
“I’ll arrange the financing,” Barfield said.
And so it was settled, and they got to work.
Over the next few weeks, while Hitler imprisoned or shot all the members of the British government, blew up Big Ben, and established the ministers of the Third Reich in the Houses of Parliament, the Inklings worked feverishly from their Oxford rooms. Lewis scheduled a series of talks on the BBC about “Forgiveness and Resistance” and scrambled to write his own notes and schedule guest lecturers. The German High Command seized Blenheim Palace, metaphorically throwing out Winston Churchill’s body before it was cold, and twisted that ancient castle into their central headquarters. Williams stayed up all night, many nights in a row, writing pamphlets with such titles as “The Image of the Invaded City,” “The Figure of the Führer,” “The Defeated Way of Exchange,” and “The Theology of Surrender.” He passed these along to his colleagues at the Oxford University Press, who worked long hours, printing them nearly before he had finished writing them. Hitler vivisected the United Kingdom and Ireland into six military-economic segments, passing each to one of his trusted administrators, giving them total control over search, seizure, arrests, and “liquidations.” Tolkien arranged for a meeting of the combined—remaining—English faculty, then labored over a lecture in which he would blend the historical with the present, the mythological with the actual, agonizing over details of etymology and chronology, discarding them time and time again, starting again, and meandering off on long sidetracks of purely philological interest or topographical precision. All over England, armed civilian resistance arose, farmers and shop workers wielding pitchforks and spanners against assault rifles and machine guns. These were obliterated so fast they didn’t even make it into the news. Barfield, with speed and panache, darted back into occupied London, scurrying through the deserted Underground tunnels like a literary mouse, popping aboveground into the offices of lawyers and bank managers, securing his own and his friends’ small collective wealth before the tyrants could seize all assets. Mrs. Tolkien and Mrs. Barfield took in more and more refugees, their homes bursting, and they and their husbands read fairy tales to the wide-eyed flocks every evening. Lewis also read to his house full of frightened refugee children, saying:
“Since they will soon meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Let them know stories of wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”
Not satisfied with only the radio program, Lewis dashed off a new children’s story and an adult spiritual fantasy, both with allegorical import or at least thematic applicability to the dire situation his nation faced. Williams shuttled those off to the Press, too, and they were rattling merrily along through the printing process, when—
The printing presses stopped. The radio broadcasts stopped. The meetings of the Oxford faculty stopped. Hitler had seized control of them all.
Although not one German soldier or administrator had yet set foot in Oxford, the long arm of the Nazi’s political machine reached even there. By means of subtle—and not-so-subtle—threats, the seizure of bank accounts, the liquidation of other financial assets, the placement of personnel, and strategic arrests, the Third Reich had maneuvered itself into positions of power in every cultural institution in the nation. All broadcasts and all books scheduled for printing had to be passed by the Minister of Propaganda. All lectures and tutorials at the great Medieval universities were canceled, pending the colleges’ transformation into military training schools. Lewis’s rooms were boarded up. The flagstone corridors lay silent, awaiting the moment when they would ring to the sound of marching boots.
At Lewis’s house in Headington, a suburb of Oxford, the Inklings gathered in his gloomy, ash-bestrewn living room. This time, there were no drinks at all, not even one cigarette among them. They sat quietly this time. No one made jokes. No one sang songs. No one danced on the table or the floor. They were gathered around the wireless, listening to a broadcast in German, and Tolkien was translating it for them, sporadically, sometimes sinking into morose silence until one of the others roused him again and asked what Hitler was saying. It was all the now-familiar rhetoric about the “Final Solution” ushering in world peace, about the “Master Race” establishing its rightful superiority over all the earth, about “High culture” reigning the earth at last, ushering in a golden age. Tolkien choked on many of the phrases, coughing them out as though their taste was revolting on his tongue. The Führer’s speech ended, accompanied by a patter of rhythmical applause, and the four men shook themselves and looked miserably into one another’s eyes.
Then a voice in English came on the radio, heavily accented but clear.
“As you have just heard from our great Führer,” it said, “each nation will be ushered into the New Order in the way most fitting to its culture. Some have embraced the Führer as their longed-for savior. Others, emerging from centuries of oppression, are misguided and confused. They have attempted resistance. They will be brought in by liberation from their false ideologies and corrupt leaders.
“England is one of these.”
“Of course,” whispered Barfield.
“Now, you can hear behind me,” the voice went on, “the sound of marching feet. Members of the Gestapo are leading onto the platform here outside of Westminster Abbey the last tyrant of a unified Europe: Albert Frederick Arthur George, known until today as King George VI.”
The four men sucked in their breath and sat up straight, staring at the radio.
“He is here with the members of his family: his wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and their two daughters, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth and fourteen-year-old Margaret. They have been lined up along the stage, and the Führer is speaking to each one of them. I am too far away to hear what he is saying, but it looks as if he is giving them his blessing.”
“Blessing, my arse,” Lewis snorted.
“The Führer has stepped aside now,” said the announcer, “and it looks as if he has asked if the former King of England wants to say anything.”
“Former,” Williams noted.
A little silence fell from the radio, interrupted only by small shuffling and coughing sounds from the great crowd gathered outside Westminster Abbey to watch their King stand before Adolf Hitler.
Then four shots rang out, sharp, shocking, in quick succession.
The crowd broke into screams, shrieks, and howls of agony, and the four men gathered around the radio yelled, too, and leaped out of their chairs.
“Thus ends the life of the last tyrant of our times,” the calm German voice said. “Europe is now one!”
The Inklings sat in the darkened room for hours, unmoving. Williams recited poetry under his breath. Tolkien prayed the Rosary, Barfield meditated, and Lewis read verses from the Psalms. All of them scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper now and then, but mostly they sat still, stunned.
The telephone rang.
They looked at each other, startled, confused. Then Jack Lewis heaved himself up out of his chair and lumbered down the hallway. The others heard his voice, muffled but astonished.
He shuffled back into the room.
“That was MI6. They want to meet with us. All four of us. Now. They’ve relocated their headquarters to Oxford, and they’re sending a car.”
The four Oxford men rode through the dark streets of Oxford, bundled together in the back seat of a black car that slid smoothly through the night. No one spoke. They arrived at a darkened building and were ushered out, pulling their hats down over their eyes, and shown to a small door in an unlit entryway. In they went, and along a hallway, and into a large, smoky room. A man stood with his back to them, reading a document by the light from a fireplace. He turned. They gasped.
It was Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, chief of MI6. There he stood, with his particular poise, trim, fit, with an aura of wealth and restrained power.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” he said, waving them into chairs, offering them whiskey, cigarettes, cigars, tea—all luxuries they hadn’t seen for weeks. His smooth accent rivaled even the public-school suavity Lewis and Tolkien had tried to spread over their Irish and South African backgrounds, and put to shame Williams’s Cockney. Only Barfield’s voice came close, but even his diction was garbled, and he quailed before Menzies posh precision.
“I am sure this meeting comes as a surprise to you. It isn’t every day that the British Secret Service calls upon its poets, its professors, its philologists for clandestine military work. But these are dark times: the darkest Britain has ever known.”
They nodded, all except Williams, who was characteristically trying out contradictions in his mind to see if he could think of a darker possible time. He could, but he thought it better not to share.
“It is probably darker than you know. The SS death squads have spread out across southern England, rounding up soldiers, diplomats, Jews, and other unwanted elements of our population. Nearly all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of seventeen and forty-five have been interned and will soon be deported the Continent, where some will be shot, some hanged, and the rest put to industrial hard labor. Estimates suggest about twenty-five percent of our remaining male citizens have been thus interned. Meanwhile, the SS is systematically liquidating our entire Jewish population, which numbers well over three hundred thousand individuals. Our population will soon be decimated, and replaced by hand-picked Nazi officials and sympathizers. A massive eugenics campaign will be put in place. All of this is designed to establish the so-called New Order of Europe, the Neuordnung Europas, and the creation of a pan-German racial state. This will exist to promulgate German National Socialist ideology and ensure the supremacy of an Aryan-Nordic master race.”
He looked at them, fixing each with his leveled gaze in turn.
“I don’t need to tell you, gentlemen, what this would mean for civilization, for the human race.”
They all nodded this time.
“You are writers and thinkers of great imagination,” he went on, “and you have shown in your works that you have trenchant insight into the human condition and into possible totalitarian futures, as well as their alternatives. So I have decided to enlist your assistance in our last great work: the last great work of free humanity, if it does not succeed.
“I need not warn you that this work I am calling you to is intensely dangerous. I am sure you are well aware what will happen to you if you fail, if you are caught, probably even if you succeed. You have most likely heard of the Nazi’s ‘Black Book’?”
He strode over to his desk and picked up a thick file.
“This is a copy of the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B., the Special Search List Great Britain. It was compiled by the SS Einsatzgruppen, a special deployment task force. It is the list of prominent British residents whom the German High Command names to be arrested upon the successful invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany. Now that they are here on our soil and have taken control of the public branches of government, the Gestapo has begun systematically working its way through this list, hunting down, arresting, and executing those individuals whose names appear here. The list was expanded just months before invasion; it now includes all four of you, in such illustrious company as Leonard and Virginia Woolfe, H. G. Wells, E. M Forster, and Aldous Huxley.
“Mr. Barfield, as your name occurs quite early in the alphabet, you are advised to prepare yourself for arrest at any moment. We will, of course, do all we can to protect you, but there is only so much we can do, especially now. So I do not know how long you may have.
“Now, to your missions. These are primarily propaganda missions, as you are no longer fit for active service, nor would physical resistance be the best use of your considerable talents.
“Professors Tolkien and Lewis: although the British Broadcasting Company has fallen into the hands of the enemy, we have our own means of disseminating radio programs both inside and outside of England. We are going to ask you to assist us in reaching out to our allies and potential allies abroad, in a campaign to win their hearts and minds and move them to assist us in our dire plight.”
He turned to C. S. Lewis.
“Professor Lewis,” he said, graciously, “this will be very like the mission you completed for us in 1941.”
The other three stared, astonished.
“Jack?” asked Barfield. “What is this all about?”
Lewis looked at Menzies, eyebrows raised, and the chief nodded his permission.
“In May of 1941,” Lewis told his friends, “when we were about to occupy Iceland, I was recruited by MI6 to record a propaganda message, to help win the hearts of the Icelandic people. I gave a talk on ‘The Norse Spirit in English Literature,’ and it was disseminated across that island.”
“And of course he never disclosed this information,” Menzies told his flabbergasted colleagues, “but now you have a chance to serve your country in a similar way, and in even more dire times.”
“We are honored,” said Tolkien, “to join the mighty company of those who have fought to the last in hopeless battles.”
“Not hopeless,” said Barfield.
“There is always hope,” said Williams.
“Let’s give ’em hell,” said Lewis.
And so they set to work. Menzies had designed propaganda missions for all of them: talks on language and literature by Tolkien and Lewis, to prove England’s kinship with the nations to whom they appealed; pamphlets and novels and children’s books by all of them, to foster a love of England in the hearts of the many people who would read them; the composition of new occult rituals by Williams, to unify the European secret societies in magical and mystical resistance to Nazi rule; and special assignments in code-breaking for Tolkien at the new, underground Bletchley Park. Barfield was charged with writing dystopian fiction and, more importantly, working with his contacts in the legal profession to develop a lawful footing for the British resistance. Much of the work was what the four men had tried to do on their own, in the public forums and publishing houses before Hitler took over. But now they had the massive, clandestine machinery of the British Secret Service at their disposal, and no one could shut them down. For now.
What glorious success! What heady days those were, in the wild spring of 1945, as apple trees blossomed in sweet indifference, daffodils persisted in their golden gladness, and pairs of larks went mad with love, heedless of London’s fall. Though Tolkien had been feeling the aches of age in his joints, though Lewis had put on weight and Williams’s eyesight had been failing, though Barfield had given up professional folk dancing, yet now they were given new life, new energy, new purpose: service to the British Secret State. Quiet support for MI6’s underground activities grew, both at home and abroad. The British Secret State had three purposes: plan and prepare for the overthrown of the Third Reich on British soil; maintain institutions to resume power after the German defeat; and preserve a free-thinking civilization.
Lewis and the others were amazed at the extent of the British Secret State and the sheer volume of work it involved. There was an underground parliament, a court system, a police force, schools, newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, art exhibitions, and concerts. There were active social services, taking care of the poor, the millions of widows and orphans, and the tiny remaining Jewish population in hiding. There was sabotage, guerrilla warfare, intelligence operations, and escape networks. It seemed that nearly every British citizen left alive and at large must be involved. Hope was still alive, underground, waiting, growing.
One morning the sun came out blazing. Tolkien trotted along to the new Bletchley Park, sheaves of notes under his arm. He had stayed up most of the night, working on a tricky bit of code. Today is the day, he though, that we crack the stubborn thing. Williams emerged from the house he shared with so many other displaced members of the Oxford University Press, shaking with weariness, his hands trembling so he could not button his jacket. But in an inner pocket he carried a new Masonic ritual he had written, calling all Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Golden Dawn members, disbanded and in hiding through Germany, to gather again for secret rites and call supernatural forces to their aid in the fight against tyranny and oppression. He murmured the phrases lovingly:
“The Temple is shyly offered, O Omnipotence. How is it offered? By a companion of the Fellowship, raised to Netzach, a drawn sword in his right hand and a hazel wand in his left. We shall see that all pass into the glory, exalted into spiritual equality, and all condemnation of bodies and races abolished. We shall strengthen ourselves in the light of the Holy Glory, the Sun that is beyond the Sun, to stand before the Devil and his Minions and resist them. We will be clothed in white, garmented in ceremony, shrouded in submission.”
Barfield was closeted with several other solicitors, putting the finishing touches on all the official (though clandestine) documentation that would prove to the world the legality of the British Secret State and its resistance when it was revealed to the world. He straightened up, stretched his arms, and blinked out the window into the morning light.
“Today we can bring our work before the underground parliament, gentlemen. We have done our job well.”
And C. S. Lewis was bounding along the High Street, on his way to a back-room recording studio-cum-printing-press, with his notes for a talk entitled “Back to Personality” in one hand, and the manuscript of a new children’s story—The Lion, The Witch, and the War—in the other. His heart was high, his face beaming, the birds singing.
And then Hitler drove into Oxford.
Events moved swiftly to their close from the moment the Grand High Führer of Unified Europe stepped out of his car and strode through the gates of the Sheldonian Theatre. He set up his new headquarters there, from which he could stretch out his military tentacles and grasp at all the free world.
There were no emotional goodbyes, no final gatherings of the four literary spies, no hurried hand-grips and last lingering glances. No. The Nazis liked their enemies isolated, solitary, preferably sobbing for mercy or cursing their God.
So they were glad when Charles Williams collapsed in the street, gripping his stomach in agony. His old intestinal complaint had flared up, and he writhed on the pavement unceremoniously. By the time the Gestapo had him locked in a military hospital, he was unconscious.
The Nazis were also pleased by the flutter of papers through the air when the bashed down the door of Barfield’s office, scattering their work, battering his colleagues, clapping him in handcuffs, and burning the building. As they stuffed him in the back of a car, he saw he office explode, and the last ashes of the British Secret State’s legal position disappeared in a dark conflagration against the bright morning sky.
They were happy, too, that they got to watch Lewis’s face crumple, its jovial red fading, as he ran smack up against them in the High Street and practically tumbled into their hands. They smirked and joked—with him, not just themselves; they were human, after all—as they tossed him into solitary confinement, as he shivered with the cold, as his substantial flesh quivered at the anticipation of starvation, as his ample mind shrank from isolation, as they forbid him paper and pen and watched his spirit break. That part was fun.
It was even more fun for them when they caught the dapper don, the famous Professor Tolkien, and interrogated him for hours on end in a gray concrete cell. They made a game of it, seeing in how many languages they could ask him the same questions, over and over, about the letter he had sent a German publisher in 1938, refusing to prove his Aryan ancestry, calling the Jews a “gifted people,” insulting the Pure Race by suggesting it was of Indo-Iranian origin, mixed with Hindustani, Persian, and—horrors!—Gypsy ancestry. They called in one expert linguist after another, tormenting him with vain repetition in many tongues.
The Nazis were tickled by Owen Barfield’s staunch statements of loyalty as they shipped him off to Germany and gave him into the hands of counterintelligence agents, whose job was to break him and turn him into a double agent. They chortled as they settled in for the long process of brainwashing, erasing and reshaping his mind. They delighted in the back-and-forth, the repartee, the psychological pressure, the faked executions, the sleep deprivation, the endless hours of recorded propaganda playing in his cell day after day. They praised his intellect and his rhetorical skill. They were impressed by his logic. They admired his tenacity. And after a while, they stopped laughing. Then they stopped smiling. On and on it went, and he would not budge. No matter what the conditions, he behaved as if he were giving closing arguments in the courtroom or debating theology with Lewis in a pub, demanding that they make logical distinctions, clarifying fuzzy categories, insisting that they define their terms. Eventually, they left him to a slow starvation in a solitary cell, and he lawyered his way into eternity, making St. Peter define everything and interrupting his most dogmatic pronouncements with subtle distinguo’s until that Apostle opened the pearly gates in sheer exhaustion.
They were not quite as cheerful as they watched Williams slide in and out of consciousness, suffering extreme agonies in his intestines and bowels, as his insides fell apart and infection spread. Gestapo officers didn’t like to see people dying of natural causes. They gave him modern medical treatment, of course, but they didn’t let his wife visit, nor did they even tell her where he was. Michal stood in Oxford in the rain in South Parks Road, outside the last house where her poet-lover had lived, and she could feel his soul slipping away. It had never really been hers, and now it was going far, far out of reach. But it was exulting, chanting, declaiming great verse, as it mounted to the heavens. In his hard, metal hospital bed, Williams suddenly flashed into consciousness, sat up and raised his right arm. Powerful rhythms rolled out of his mouth, the great iambic lines of the past, and he named the ascending virtues of the Sephirotic tree as he drew near perfection, and he called upon Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as he stepped unashamed into their great company. The German doctor bowed his head, then moved forward to close the luminous eyes and lay the rigid figure down on the bed.
It even amused them that Tolkien almost always replied, that he knew all the languages they so abused, and that he sat upright, debonair and dignified, unmoved, as they mocked him in manifold phrases, and that he refused to cry out, even when the torture began. Instead, he retold them their own noble legends, in their own noble speech—as they deprived him of sleep, immersed him in freezing water, and administered electric shocks—about dragon-slaying warriors and heroic last stands. They laughed even harder when he began babbling nonsense, as they thought, about ‘Sauron’ and ‘Mordor’ and ‘Gollum.’ Poor old professor, they said to one another: his mind is wandering. Then he slipped into songs about the elves, and drifted away from the Grey Havens as Iluvatar gave him the gift of death.
But it wasn’t the SS officers who were laughing as they frog-marched Lewis out into a courtyard, set his back to a wall, and blindfolded him. No, they weren’t laughing. No one bit. But he was. He was roaring, his beefy face red with delight, his jowls shaking in amusement, his stocky figure aquiver with joy.
“Further up and further in!” he shouted. “This is the first step on the last great journey, the first chapter in the great story where all myths come true, all evil comes untrue, and all questions are answered at last. And you!”
He thrust a stubby finger in the direction of the firing squad he could not see.
“I jeer and flout at you devils to drive you out. You cannot endure to be mocked, and so I mock at you. And yet….” His voice softened, and the firing squad squinted at him, waiting for their orders, waiting to hear what he would say.
“And yet, I pity you, poor puppets of the Kingdom of Noise. Your dance on this little stage will be so very short, and then you will be jerked away by your strings, the boards cleared, the work of God begun again.”
At this, the commander shook himself, scowled at Lewis, and growled:
“Time to shut this one up. We don’t need his pity.”
Suddenly, Lewis bellowed: “I want to look you in the eyes! I want to square up to death and stare him in the face!”
He struggled, his hands bound behind him, scraping his blindfold against the wall. The officer leaped forward, but the blindfold fell from Lewis eyes and he stared the German down, steadily. The man stepped back, turned to the fire squad, and barked out:
“Soon it will begin,” Lewis said, in a lower voice, almost dreamily. “There will be a sudden clearing of my eyes. Just think what I will feel at that moment! Scabs falling from the old sores, emerging from a hideous old shell…”
“Aim!” shouted the officer.
“What, then, of this final stripping, this complete cleansing? This release, this glorious freedom! I wonder—”
“Fire!” came the command.
Jack’s eyes opened wide, and his face broke into an enormous grin.
“Of course!” he said.