In Merlin’s Cave, Hank, Clarence, and their 52 “fresh, bright, well-educated, clean-minded […] British boys” wait for the onslaught. Hank orders all the factories closed and abandoned with the warning that he will be blowing them up in the near future. In the week they wait for the attack, Hank busies himself with writing, first catching the story of his adventures up to the present moment and then writing letters to Sandy and Hello-Central. The letters make him feel almost as if his family is with him.
Hank and the tiny fragment of medieval England he was ultimately able to adopt his 19th-century ideals wait for the crashing wave of England’s chivalry. Hank’s account of writing letters to his family, although an aside to the novel’s plot, offers a touching description of the power of writing to make distant events and people feel close—a fitting reflection for a work of fiction.
Hank’s spies carry news of the gathering forces of knights and priests, and Hank slowly starts to realize how much of a “donkey” he was to believe that just introducing the idea of a republic would be sufficient change society. The spies tell Hank that as soon as the gentry and the Church expressed their displeasure, the remaining ranks of society quickly fell into line behind their “righteous cause” of killing the republic. Soon enough, the boys realize what Hank already knows: “All England—ALL ENGLAND—is marching against [them]!” They don’t want to destroy their nation or kill their own kin.
Despite his awareness of the power that training holds over people’s thoughts and actions, Hank failed to fully account for it in his attempt to impose his 19th-century society on the Arthurian England. With a colonial mindset that his ways were inherently superior, he misjudged how complacent most people were in the old status quo. As soon as the opportunity arises to reclaim their power, the chivalry and nobility seize it, the rest of the country falls into line out of habit.
Hank assures his boys that they will have to do no such thing. Thirty thousand knights march against them, and as soon as they engage with the republican’s greater force, the rest of the “civilian multitude” will abandon them. Sufficiently heartened, the boys shout their refusal to retire from the field of battle. When the sun rises on the “big day,” it reveals a host of knights approaching the cave like a tsunami. When they are close enough that the defenders can see the plumes on their helmets, a trumpet sounds and the cavalry breaks into a gallop. When the reach the yellow belt of sand, they trigger the land mines and are turned into “a whirling tempest of rags and fragments.” Hank choses that moment to remotely detonate the explosives under all of the abandoned “civilization-factories.”
Having once seized authority from the medieval society by defeating Sagramore and others in combat, Hank confidently predicts that he can do so again. Despite his belief in the power of democracy and the inherent equality and rights of the English citizens, he betrays a profound disrespect for their autonomy in his assurance that, with their leaders gone, they will fall into line behind him again. Hank doesn’t see the lesson of how people cling to their old ways, although he has concluded that no remnant of the old order can remain.
It takes half an hour for the smoke to clear away, revealing no living creatures anywhere near the cave, and a new ditch carved out by the explosions. The “destruction of life” is “amazing” and “beyond estimate” since the dead are no longer individuals, only “homogeneous protoplasm.” Hank knows that there are no reinforcements and that this is the “last stand of chivalry in England.” He issues a congratulatory proclamation to his army for their “brief” and “glorious” conflict. This is, he knows, the only engagement in the war. And it’s imperative that they finish the job, since “English knights can be killed, but they cannot be conquered.”
Hank’s reaction to the knights’ deaths shows that he values gaining and maintaining personal power more than he values improving and empowering society at large. Only smoking craters and undifferentiated goo remain as monuments to the productive capacity of Hank’s factories. And, by blowing up his factories, Hank literalizes his opinion of medieval society as an undistinguishable mass for him to manipulate rather than a nation of individuals to for him to free.
To prepare for the next attack from the ignorant forces of chivalry, Hank has some of the boys dig a ditch to divert a nearby stream behind the line of the electrified fences. Then he waits for the knights’ next move, which he expects will be an attempted sneak attack under the cover of darkness. He drafts a message warning the knights that the strength of their thousands is no match for the 50-odd “minds” in the cave and their only chance for survival is unconditional surrender. Clarence laughs at the message then reminds him what they knights will do: they will disregard the message and likely kill the messenger who brings it.
Hank believes he will win because he can predict what the intellectually inferior forces arrayed against him will do next. To emphasize this point, he drafts a message in which he claims the outright superiority of mind over might. But Clarence, ever the bridge between Hank’s 19th-century ideas and the realities of the medieval world, knows that this will change nothing. The knights, determined to protect the way of life they were raised to uphold, will never surrender.
Hank waits in the darkness, straining to hear any approaching knights since the night is too dark to see. When he hears enough commotion to know that the knights are gathering in the ditch, he turns on the power to the two innermost electric fences. He and Clarence approach the fences to watch the show, where they find a knight has already touched the upper wire of the second fence and electrocuted himself. They watch many knights sneak up, swords drawn, only to fall silent and dead with a little zap when they touch the wires. Once the dead bodies clog the space between the second and third fences, Hank turns on the current to the third fence, and so the area in front of the cave gradually fills up with an impenetrable bulwark of corpses.
Hank and the vast army arrayed against him are equally unwilling to surrender and admit defeat. And he has the superior technology to back up his feeling of superiority. Heavy, old-fashioned plate armor protects the knights against attacks by sword or lance. But it renders them vulnerable to electrocution. Hank allows his technology to do the dirty work of killing off the knights one by one. But he doesn’t appreciate the importance of the mountain of corpses he’s creating.
Feeling that the moment has come, Hank throws a switch and turns on floodlights that illuminate the area outside the cave. The knights who are still alive instantly freeze. Before they have a chance to swallow their surprise and rush the wires (which they would likely have destroyed with a concerted enough force), Hank floods the plain with the water-diverted stream and orders his boys to open fire with the gatling guns. Within ten minutes, 25,000 men lie dead at their feet. This is where Hank closes his account, not wishing to write of a “thing” that happened “by my own fault” within the hour.
In a harshly ironic twist, all of the work that Hank has poured into modernizing medieval England over the course of nearly a decade culminates in an act of utter annihilation. The end of the Battle of the Sand Belt braids together the morals of many of the novel’s strands: despite his belief in the superiority of his New World values, Hank realizes that it’s hard to create a just society in any century, that the strength of a person’s early training is almost impossible to overcome, and that his desire to conquer and impose his will on others has planted the seeds of his own destruction.