In the summer of 1945, George Orwell wrote a review for the Manchester Evening News, beginning, “On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them.” That said, he was ready to give a grudging thumbs-up to C. S. Lewis’s latest, which completed the cycle begun with Out of the Silent Planet and continued in Perelandra. Orwell summarized the story as “the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists–or perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil–are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control.” He describes it as essentially “a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.”
That Hideous Strength could be described as the crime story: the ultimate crime against humanity. In The Abolition of Man, published two years before THS, Lewis remarked on the rise of scientism (science as ultimate truth) expressed in the idea of “man’s conquest over nature”: “From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Every scientific advance comes at a cost, ironically in the same area of its benefit: computer technology increases our knowedge while it curtails our comprehension; embryonic stem cell research promises to enhance life while actually commodifying it. As knowledge grows more specialized and esoteric, fewer and fewer individuals have access to it, and those are the few who can control the many.
Orwell had thought long and hard about this; at the time of this review, he was probably already working on his masterpiece, which would be published three years later. 1984 addressed the same theme from a materialist point of view–no miracles, and we’d all agree that man has enough cussedness in him to bring about a totalitarian world all by himself, without demonic help.
But Lewis, in the first two volumes of the Space Trilogy, had already grounded the good vs. evil conflict in supernatural terms. The basic problem goes way back: back to the garden. The power-grabbing government entity that takes over a small university town and plots to seize control over human evolution is an echo of Babel (subject of the late-medieval poem from which the novel takes its title). Time and time again, humanity tries to seize ultimate power, which always means resorting to Orwell’s definition of totalitarianism: “a boot smashing a human face, over and over and over.” But Orwell could offer no reason why this is wrong–why shouldn’t the strong subdue the weak? It seemed to be the way nature worked. Lewis could: Humanity is made in God’s image, a little lower than the angels, the object of a massive, age-old, ultimately successful rescue. A miraculous rescue. That’s why THS ends positively, while 1984 is a total downer.
Published immediately after a totalitarian attempt that wrecked Europe (World War II), squarely in the center of another one that threatened both Europe and Asia (Communism), both novels seemed painfully relevant. But they still are–especially THS. Orwell’s dystopia is ruled by intimidation; Lewis’s near-dystopia is ruled by scientism. Our own world is apparently up for grabs. The federal government, by grabbing more power to itself, threatens to rule by kindness, i.e., taking care of us. All of these systems diminish humanity by aggrandizing themselves.
The action of That Hideous Strength takes place after the first two volumes of Lewis’s space trilogy, but seems to have absolutely no relation to them (at first). That’s why you can read it independently, with only a passing acquaintance with what happened earlier. So here’s a passing acquaintance:
In Out of the Silent Planet, Dr. Elwin Ransom, professor of linguistics, is kidnapped and carried aboard a spacecraft to Mars. His kidnappers are Dr. Westin, a physicist, and Richard Devine, scion of nobility and a former classmate. Westin’s interest in Mars is humanistic–he’s looking to conquer the planet for the perpetuation of the human race–while Devine is only interested in profit. They intend Ransom as a human sacrifice to appease the alien life forms, but they’ve misunderstood what the natives want. On Mars (whose inhabitants know it as Malacandra) Ransom escapes his captors and becomes acquainted with the three societies of intelligent beings. He also learns Old Solar, the interplanetary language, and recognizes that Malacandrians worship the same diety he knows on earth, only under another name. The planet is ruled by an eldil (angel), whom he is allowed to meet. Westin’s plans for conquest fail, and the three men are allowed to make a perilous return to earth.
Malacandra is an older civilization than earth’s, but Perelandra (Venus) is brand new. In the next volume, Ransom is summoned by the eldila to this new world, where he meets “the green lady,” a being like himself (except for the color), only with an otherworldly beauty and dignity. This, he recognizes, is what Eve was like before the Fall. Trouble arrives in the form of Dr. Westin, whose goals have shifted from his simpler chauvanistic designs toward Malacandra. Ransom can’t quite figure out what Westin is after until a potential Fall narrative develops with Westin playing the role of the snake and Ransom as . . . what? By the time he realizes that Westin has been possessed by a malevolent power, it’s almost too late to stop him. But Perelandra is saved, by the narrowest of margins. Ransom returns to earth triumphantly, but with a wound on his heel (Gen. 3:15). (Perelandra had a profound effect on me the second time I read it; my memoir is here.)
Ransom’s space adventures take place sometime during World War II; That Hideous Strength opens a few years after, and never ventures beyond our own atmosphere. No spaceships hidden in barns, no alien creatures or eldila; just a rather commonplace academic couple and a quick, less-than-invigorating plunge into campus politics. But in the first chapter, the lady has a very disturbing dream . . .
Here’s what I hope to do this week: read chapters 1-4 (that’s 81 pages in my old paperback edition). I’ll post some notes about it tomorrow, along with things you might want to look for and parts you might be able to skip (Lewis himself said it was okay to do that, even though he wasn’t talking about this particular novel). Please feel free to chime in with your comments as you read, because what strikes me may not affect you the same way. If you need a copy of the book, Emily posted a link to a free version on our Facebook page. It promises to be a long hot month, so find yourself a shady tree, get a glass of lemonade or ice tea, and let’s do some reading.