That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis opens with a grumbling wife and goes onto weave in realities of marriage, science, the supernatural, morality, magic, politics, violence and animals, all under the auspices of exploring, through story, what a well-lived life looks like. The answer it settles on is surprisingly warm and domestic.
This was the first of the Space Trilogy (which began with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), which grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me right through the pages; it is far more character-driven and less allegorical than the others, while equally thoughtful. It is one of those life books that encompasses so many experiences, states in life and realities that it is grand and revelatory such that every page seems to reveal more to me of own soul. Another book I have read like this was The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which was my book of the year for 2015. I loved it so much I couldn’t decide what to write about it, so I never wrote anything, a tragedy.
Anyway, the themes addressed in That Hideous Strength were manifold, though very pointed and specific, such that I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers did not connect with this book because it does feel located in a very concrete time and place, with very precise philosophical concerns–those of C.S. Lewis–a small university in a quiet, English town and the rising onslaught of scientific materialism. While I find the academic setting relatable and generalizable, not all readers might agree.
Here is a short list of themes worth noting; their breadth is the pleasure of the novel:
*Marriage, discord, repentance and reunification
*Science and ethics: what are legitimate limits to scientific investigation; should it be guided by a moral compass
*The often disconnect between scholarship and reality
*The legitimacy of a turn to physicality to fight evil
*The theological status of magic, especially of the ancients, how white magic in earlier times was more an expression of communing with angelic spirits rather than demonic attempts to overthrow the natural order, but no longer as time and culture develop
*Animals and angels, the ladder of creation.
*The nature of God: powerful, untameable, wild, and loving (similar to the other books such as the character Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia) is this time represented through Ransom, the Director of St. Anne’s house
*The two kingdoms: Logres and Britain as he put it, the Heavenly Kingdom and the Kingdom of Man, City of God or City of Man, as Augustine put it, the divided spheres of those who follow God and those who do not, which he says exists in every national or social context.
*The nature of the good life, as played out at St. Anne’s house. Literally warm, with a fire going, democratic division of labor yet acknowledgement of sex difference and different approaches, the role of beauty for the purposes of elevating others, the integration of previously-wild animals through mutually beneficial obedience.
That Hideous Strength was the only of the Space Trilogy to be more heart than allegory and that made infinitely more human and connecting to read.
I found in most moving at its description of the nature of religion and God, not as something insipid and repressive, but as tapping into enormous realities that circulate beneath the surface of our day-to-day world.
When Jane is in the midst of the adventurous hunt for Merlin, she reflects:
“If it had ever occurred to her to question whether all these things might be the reality behind what she had been taught at school as ‘religion,’ she had put the thought aside. The distance between these alarming and operative realities and the memory, say, of fat Mrs. Dimble saying her prayers, was too wide. The things belonged, for her, to different worlds. On the one hand, terror of dreams, rapture of obedience, the tingling light and sound from under the Director’s door, and the great struggle against an imminent danger; on the other, the smell of pews, horrible lithographs of the Savior (apparently seven feet high and with the face of a consumptive girl), the embarrassment of confirmation classes, the nervous affability of clergymen. But this time, if it was really to the death, the thought would not be put aside…The world had already turned out to be so very unlike what she had expected.” (234)
Here Lewis has captured the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the stunning, enrapturing metaphysical realities of God and the eternal struggle in which each of us truly has an important role to play, and the quaint uncomfortableness of much of the day-to-day practice of the much-lambasted “organized religion.”
But this is what many of C.S. Lewis’s works are about, particularly Narnia and the Space Trilogy, and especially That Hideous Strength, which sets up a climactic collision between the forces of evil trying to take over the world by flattering man’s intelligence and urging him to deny the body and morality in favor of relentless progress towards an inorganic, untainted world, and the forces of good, a quaint household of a motely band of persons: Jane, our main character, the Director, a skeptic, a housemaid, and an old university professor and his wife. The struggle is played out through intrigue, magic, an exploration of wicked and pure and just good enough motives, which in the balance hangs the world.
C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity after conversations with many of his friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, in which he came to understand Christianity not as a myth, but the myth–the underlying reality of epic struggle from which all human stories and myth pull their significance. Understood in this way, the Christian faith is not a mere set of rules, bows, and Sunday schedules. It is the truest quest for the good, which invites us all to come along, to seek, to find and to bring back to others.
In his work, Lewis wrote of worlds that might capture the epic significance of the faith and bring it back in a way that modern readers, often jaded, might recognize.