“That Hideous Strength” by CS Lewis

Everyone knows CS Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles, but not so many people are familiar with his earlier Space Trilogy. Unlike Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength were definitely not written for children. As Lewis says, they are fairy-tales for grown ups. They are also ripping yarns about the nature of evil and God’s plan for dealing with it.

I have just finished reading That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy. Like every other time I’ve read this book, it has left me with a deep impression. Lewis’s breath-taking insight into the human condition, the nightmares we make for ourselves, and our need for divine intervention is breath-taking.

What’s it about? It’s a story of righteousness versus evil, the straight versus the crooked, resurrection life versus annihilation. The battleground is a village in England. Into this village comes a mysterious institution hell-bent on improving humanity. A young man by the name of Mark is recruited into this modern Babel. At first, Mark is impressed by the goal of engineering a better society, but slowly he comes to realize that he has been duped into a diabolical program of unimaginable horror. Too late he realizes that the inner circle he has always aspired to, will not let him go.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife Jane ends up at the house of the ageless Ransom. (In the two earlier books Ransom travelled into the heavens, but in this book he stays home and heaven comes to him. And I will say no more lest I spoil the story!)

Jane’s marriage to Mark is a loveless sham. Fiercely independent, Jane is wary of men and conscious of her rights. Her identity is defined by an obsession with the rules regarding fair-play. But in a conversation with Ransom she begins to learn that there is more to life than rule-keeping:

Jane said, “I always thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”
“You were mistaken,” he said gravely.  “That is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes – that is very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food. You might as well try warming yourself with a blue-book.”
“But surely in marriage . . . ?”
“Worse and worse,” said the Director. “Courtship knows nothing of it; nor does fruition. What has free companionship to do with that? Those who are enjoying something, or suffering something together, are companions. Those who enjoy or suffer one another, are not. Do you not know how bashful friendship is? Friends – comrades – do not look at each other. Friendship would be ashamed…”
“I thought,” said Jane and stopped.
“I see,” said the Director. “It is not your fault. They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience – humility – is an erotic necessity. You are putting equality just where it ought not to be.

Mark’s and Jane’s stories are personal, but Lewis weaves grander themes involving planetary gods, King Arthur, and a bear named Mr. Bultitude. One moment you’re listening in on private conversations in college rooms; the next you’re chasing Merlin through a rainy forest at night. This is Lewis at the top of his game relishing in his God-given talent.

Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength at the end of World War II. It’s an old book, yet its message may be more relevant today than it was when it was written:

“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe, and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point? … If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.”

Since the original Tower of Babel, our best and brightest minds have been seduced by a humanistic vision of self-improvement. (To see what this looks like in 2011, check out this cover story from a recent issue of TIME.) We have put our faith in technology and been rewarded with atom bombs. I have nothing against technology, but the materialist world-view is part and parcel of what Lewis would call “the wrong side.” Contrary to what we’ve been taught in schools, our planet doesn’t hang in empty space. As Lewis describes so vividly, we are in the middle of a cosmic battle between fallen angels and Deep Heaven.

It is the nature of the story that Lewis must write about some very horrible things. But the most shocking aspect of evil in this book, is how ordinary and commonplace it appears from the outside. If you have read The Screwtape Letters, you will know that Lewis is adept at contriving evil schemes in the minds of administrators. In his preface to that book he wrote,

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

Think of the chilling Kenneth Branagh film Conspiracy, and you’ll get the idea.

Lewis writes about goodness with as much skill as he does evil. He has a knack for inspiring you to think lofty thoughts without using lofty words. I agree with Baxter Kruger who notes that “Lewis says more in a turn of phrase than many writers do in whole books.” Lewis also enjoys a good joke, as this comment from one of his characters illustrates:

“The cardinal difficulty,” said MacPhee, “in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men are doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, ‘Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.’ The female for this is, ‘Put that in the other one in there.’ And then if you ask them, ‘in where?’ they say, ‘in there, of course.’ There is consequently a phatic hiatus.”

If you don’t know what a phatic hiatus is, it’s a conversational pause. I had to look that up which is why, if you plan to read the book, I recommend using a guide such as this one by Arend Smilde. Unless your knowledge of medieval literature, the Greek classics and Celtic myths is as good as Lewis’s was, you’ll miss a lot of the color and detail in this masterpiece. A good guide will help you get more out of the book.

That Hideous Strength may be the very best Christian science fiction ever written. It may even be the best science fiction book of all time. If you know of a better book, do let me know for it seems to me to be all down-hill from here.
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Related posts:
- Top 12 CS Lewis quotes
- Grace and love in the Chronicles of Narnia
- see all E2R’s book reviews here

Comments

  1. Sad, isn’t it, to strole the bland plains after the exotic multi-dimensions Lewis opened up :-) The greatness of the book, is that it is real – it is a vision into reality, like the effects of the red pill in the matrix movie. Also like a phrase in an ee cummings poem: “now the eyes of my eyes are opened…” Truth IS stranger than fiction… but of course Truth, absolute Truth, is God’s Word.

  2. I invite you to read, C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: Science and Magic, Spirit and Matter, and the Figure of Merlin. I think a fan of “That Hideous Strength” would appreciate it.

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