C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I’ve spoken before on this blog about the weirdness of the third of Lewis’ space trilogy books. To people who have read those earlier pieces my most recent Left of Cool will contain nothing new. But here it is, for the sake of completion.

 

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Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia series of children’s books. Many are also aware that he and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, and that the two belonged to an Oxford writing group called The Inklings.

Some of Lewis’ strangest work is a direct result of this friendship. The story goes that Tolkien and Lewis had a bet, according to which one of them would write a space-travel story and one a time-travel story. Tolkien got the time-travel assignment – his “The Lost Road” was never completed. Lewis more than made up for this by writing an entire trilogy; Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength.

All three contain a strong religious element. The first is closest to a conventional science-fictional novel – it is a voyage to Mars which draws much of its inspiration from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. With its sense of the vast, unknown history of the planet it is occasionally magnificent despite its preachiness. Perelandra has Lewis’ protagonist Ransom (an Oxford philologist – probably a nod to Tolkien himself) travel to Venus, where he is called upon to avert the Fall. He must do this by arguing his case with the Venusian version of Eve. Unfortunately, the arguments are only particularly stimulating if you believe the forces of evil to be colossal idiots.

It is in That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy, that Lewis touches the heights of strangeness. Unlike the first two books, this one is set on Earth. Like them it is concerned with evil scientists overreaching – the title is a reference to the Tower of Babel. Lewis’ villains keep alive the head of an executed murderer (with mysterious wires- Lewis doesn’t dwell much on the actual science) creating a horrendous abomination. Meanwhile there are college politics, an Orwellian organisation called N.I.C.E., a domesticated bear, and a butch, chain-smoking policewoman. There’s also the resurrection of Merlin, come to save Britain in her hour of need. Lewis completely mixes his interplanetary mythology with Arthurian legend, turning Ransom into the new Pendragon. As if this were not enough he also drags in references to Numénor, Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth. Since none of Tolkien’s writings on Numénor had been published at the time, it’s difficult to imagine what readers thought. Tolkien himself was reportedly displeased.

A major concern of That Hideous Strength is gender. Jane, half of the couple around whom the story is centred, has been ruined by such things as higher education and feminism. Her marriage is falling apart, and her failures as a wife have left her husband susceptible to negative influences. Worse, the couple have been using birth control! Merlin stigmatises Jane as ‘wicked’ when he meets her. Apparently she and her husband had been destined to conceive the child who would save England; thanks to contraception (evil science again!) that child was never born. It’s not the strongest argument against family planning that you will ever hear.

These are not the only delights afforded by That Hideous Strength. There’s the revelation that the dark side of the moon is actually a place of beauty and fertility (the barren side facing us is due to evil lunar scientists). There is a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which everyone talks in Latin to a confused homeless man. There’s a scene in which, in another reference to the Tower of Babel, all the guests at a formal dinner lose control over language and begin to speak gibberish. The bear kills and (I think) eats a villain. At one point, as the spirit of Venus descends to the earth, all the animals in the area begin to have sex, while the humans feel elevated and aroused.

My enjoyment of That Hideous Strength is of a sort that would probably lead Lewis to lump me in with the evil scientists. But for all its perversity, this enjoyment is vast and sincere. If only Lewis had given up academia (and religion) for a career in pulp SFF.

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