That Hideous Strength by C S Lewis

The third book in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is very different from the first two. Out of the Silent Planet was about a trip to Mars, Perelandra was about a trip to Venus, but That Hideous Strength (published in 1945) is set entirely on Earth. It’s subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, which makes me think of another book for adults that came out in the same year, also subtitled “A Fairy Story”: George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the things that surprised me while reading That Hideous Strength was how closely it comes, in its presentation of the aims and methods of the evil organisation the N.I.C.E., to Big Brother in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (which came out in 1949). (And Orwell actually reviewed That Hideous Strength, but I’ll come back to that.)

Another way to look at the three books of the Space Trilogy is that Out of the Silent Planet presents us with a world (Malacandra) where the key battle against evil was won long in the past; Perelandra presents us with a world at the moment that battle is fought; That Hideous Strength presents us with a world where the battle with evil was lost long ago. Earth, Tellus, Thulcandra — all names for the same place — is in the hands of the Bent One, Lewis’s version of Lucifer, and what we witness in this novel is the fight-back against his tightening grip.

Pan paperback. Art by Sax.

The novel starts by following two characters, Jane and Mark Studdock, a recently married, modern-minded couple whose marriage is already starting to show cracks. Mark is a sociologist, currently placed in Bracton College at the University of Edgestow, and has just managed to get himself accepted into the inner circle of the “Progressive Element” of the university. But along comes an invite (from Lord Feverstone, a.k.a. Devine from Out of the Silent Planet) to become part of an even more progressive element: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, whose sinisterly unspecific name hides (behind a camouflage of almost Kafkan levels of bureaucratic obfuscation) a plan to transform humankind into “the most efficient animal” — in fact, the only animal, because this plan includes ridding us of all “our rivals on this planet”: insects, bacteria, animals, and plants. At the same time, the N.I.C.E. want to realise the Kingdom of God, but through entirely scientific means, to create a world where:

“The Son of Man — that is, Man himself, full grown — has power to judge the world — to distribute life without end, and punishment without end.”

Even death will be conquered. And, to literalise their idea of making this world (to them, the only world) the Kingdom of God, they are also creating their own God, or “the Head” as they call it, and which turns out to be just that: a human head, separated from its body, kept alive by a whole roomful of machinery. It is immortal, but, really, it is dead. And we know from Perelandra’s Un-Man that an undead body becomes, in Lewis’s universe, a mouthpiece for evil spirits, and most probably the evil spirit, the Bent One.

The N.I.C.E. believe their intention is entirely scientific, but they are simply serving the Bent One using different terms. (And the misuse of language to political ends — something that’s so important in Nineteen Eighty-Four — is clearly on display here, with the N.I.C.E.’s police being called its “Sanitary Executive”, and torture — which, of course, the Sanitary Executive employ — “Scientific examination”.)

Another Pan paperback, cover by S R Boldero

Meanwhile Jane, an academic herself but frustrated by her new role as a housewife, has been having a number of vivid but horrific dreams. She gets advice from a couple who lead her to a nearby house that becomes, as the N.I.C.E. takes over the city of Edgestow, a refuge for those prepared to resist this evil organisation. And it’s here, nine chapters into a 17-chapter novel, that we finally get our first hint of this book’s link to the previous two in the Space Trilogy, as we meet Ransom again. Only, this is a Ransom transformed. Known at first as Mr Fisher-King because of the unhealing foot-wound he received in the previous novel, he seems to have stopped ageing, grown a transplendent golden beard (it instantly reminds Jane of King Arthur), and has retained his links to the eldil. Jane’s prophetic dreams allow the mixed group that surrounds Ransom (including a friendly bear, Mr Bulstrode) to discover the N.I.C.E.’s plan, which involves using the power of Merlin — who’s not dead, but has been held suspended in a “parachronic state” since the 5th century — to achieve its evil ends.

I found That Hideous Strength a bit of a mixed novel. (It’s also about as long as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra combined.) It’s certainly not what you expect as the third in a trilogy that began with two interplanetary adventures (though its setting on Earth makes perfect sense). Its tone is very different, veering into absurdist satire in its depiction of the N.I.C.E.’s internal workings, and feeling at times like Kafka, like Orwell, and (with its inclusion of Arthurian myth in a modern setting) like Charles Williams’s occult thrillers, but at the same time, it’s never anything but C S Lewis.

The philosophy of the N.I.C.E. had already been addressed by Lewis in a non-fiction book, The Abolition of Man (three lectures on education, published in 1944), in which he projected what he saw as the modern trend of regarding our core human values as merely subjective judgements, into a future where morality has been replaced entirely by the whim of a manipulative elite. For Lewis, this “modern” tendency formed a sort of dark circle: first, the abandonment of God leading to the “Despair of objective truth”; then, “a concentration upon mere power” until power itself is deified; finally, “the old dream of Man as God”, and human whim replacing divine order.

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the N.I.C.E. aim to achieve this through, among other things, manipulating the press, the use of euphemistic terms for terrible deeds, and keeping even its own employees in a constant state of terror, as when the Deputy Director gives one of his subordinates advice on how to behave:

“On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action — anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours — might have consequences from which even I could not protect you.”

The key difference between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength is that Orwell only presents the horrible extreme of how things might be, while Lewis presents both what might go wrong and the thing that must, in his opinion, replace it. This means that Orwell was arguing for freedom, but Lewis, as in the other books of the Space Trilogy, is arguing for obedience.

…Whilst also arguing against obedience. The N.I.C.E., after all, demands obedience (“Your line is to do whatever you’re told and above all not to bother the old man,” as Mark is instructed). But when Jane sees Ransom, she’s told that lack of obedience is why her marriage to Mark is failing. It would be easy to deliberately misunderstand Lewis, particularly when he has Ransom say, “No one has ever told you that obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity,” which sounds like it’s heading into John Norman/Gor territory, but Ransom says he’s not talking about obedience to Mark. The trouble is, he doesn’t really say what the obedience is to. (I assume it’s to the marriage, with both Mark and Jane subordinating themselves to that, but Lewis doesn’t actually say so.) “Obedience” seems to have become, throughout this series, a magic word for Lewis, not so much a thing you do, as a state you’re in. He means, of course, obedience to Maleldil — God — and makes it clear this isn’t a strict obedience to an exact course of action, but something more pliable, and fitted to each individual, or at least every culture:

“Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue… The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.”

But Lewis never gets into the nitty-gritty of how, as an individual, you tell the difference between obedience to Maleldil and obedience to the Bent One. (As readers, it’s easy, because we can see behind the scenes to what they’re trying to do. One is clearly evil, one is clearly good. But it’s less easy for the characters.) Because, obedience surely means putting what you’re told to do above your own idea of what you should do. If what you’re told to do aligns with your conscience, then no obedience is necessary. It only becomes obedience when you have to overcome yourself in order to obey. And we don’t ever get a representation of that inner struggle. Jane has to be convinced to join Ransom and co., but only because she doesn’t want to accept that her dreams are prophetic (because that, to her modern mind, makes her worry she might be mentally unbalanced). It’s the reality of the supernatural she has difficulty accepting, not what’s good and what’s bad. In Mark we get a far more convincing portrait of a man being led astray (“For he now thought that with all his life-long eagerness to reach an inner circle he had chosen the wrong circle”). Mark’s involvement with the N.I.C.E. comes in small, deliberately deceptive steps — too small and unexplained for him to realise what he’s doing till it’s too late. As readers we can see he’s doing wrong from the start, because the author lets us know. But for Mark, somewhat weak-willed, un-idealistic, and wanting to get on in the world, it’s harder. And this, surely, is the point: many people fell into line with pre-War fascism in a similar way. So, what we need is a way to know what to do, from Mark’s point of view, as a weak, muddled, peer-pressured human. But we don’t get that. So, it seems to me, neither Mark’s corruption nor Jane’s correction really gets to the core of how to tell right from wrong.

As I say, it’s easy for readers to tell right from wrong in That Hideous Strength, because the right is supernaturally good, and the wrong is supernaturally evil. And this was Orwell’s point in his review of the book, where he says that “it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out”, as, in actuality, the “whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid”.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, cover by Pauline Baynes

Lewis was, of course, writing a fantasy, but fantasy works better from a clear vision than a rational argument. And I can’t help feeling what he was doing in That Hideous Strength he went on to do better in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There, we have the White Witch’s rule of Narnia (like the N.I.C.E.’s take-over of Britain) opposed by Aslan (whose golden mane recalls Ransom’s “gold hair” and “gold beard”), as well as the corruption of Edmund (paralleling Mark’s corruption in That Hideous Strength), the recourse to “Old Magic” (Merlin in That Hideous Strength, “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time” in Lion) and both novels even end with a lot of recently-freed animals running about. By throwing out the more explicitly philosophical parts of That Hideous Strength, that first Narnia book gains a lot in power and clarity. Story is more convincing than even the most rational argument, and symbols (the Lion, the Witch, the sacrifice and so on) have much more power to convince than abstract ideas. I don’t feel Lewis ever lets go of things enough, he’s always subtly telling me what to think. But by doing so less explicitly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he at least makes it more accessible, and a better read.

I get the feeling that, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis was ready to move on from his Space Trilogy setting but perhaps hadn’t worked out where to go. Narnia, though, was beginning to show itself. This is from the final chapter of That Hideous Strength:

“That same afternoon Mother Dimble and the three girls were upstairs in the big room which occupied nearly the whole top floor of one wing at the Manor, and which the Director called the Wardrobe. If you had glanced in, you would have thought for one moment that they were not in a room at all but in some kind of forest…”

The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

I was intrigued into reading Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia because my own experience was similar to hers: I loved the Narnia books as a kid, but felt rather betrayed when I learned they were generally seen as blatant Christian propaganda. At which point, though it hadn’t been obvious at all to me when I read them (or, rather, had them read to me), it suddenly was, and obtrusively so. I was hoping, in reading Miller’s book, to resolve the question of whether the Narnia books can be redeemed, and re-read, despite their didactic intent, or whether, once the childhood bubble of their purely imaginative world has been burst (by the pin of propaganda!), the magic can ever be recovered.

Miller’s book is divided into three sections: one covering her childhood love of the books, another covering the difficulties with them she became aware of as she grew up, and a third about revisiting them as an adult. Her method is basically discursive. She explores, chapter by chapter, various aspects of the Narnia books, and of C S Lewis as a writer, academic and person. This book is not a single, focused, critical argument, but more a literary stroll through Narnia and associated topics. I like books about books, and prefer most of all books aimed at a non-academic audience — books that focus on the joys of reading, and its links to everyday life, rather than on some particular aspect of literary theory. Miller’s book is, thankfully, not academic, and though the lack of footnotes or even a bibliography was sometimes annoying, it at least meant the book was written on my level. And, while she doesn’t treat the book as an argument in Narnia’s defence so much as an exploration of its various aspects, good and bad, she does provide some worthwhile insights on the way.

To Miller as a child, the Narnia books were a revelation. In a rather magically-tinged incident in her young life, a teacher lent her The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, having decided she was a “child who needed to read C S Lewis”. This teacher later said that, on handing the book back after reading it, “You told me, and this I have always remembered, that you didn’t know that there were other people who had the kind of imagination that you did.”

It’s the middle section that really confronts the issues an adult (or even adolescent) reader has with the Narnia books. First, that they’re sometimes blatantly propagandist; second, that they contain all of Lewis’s faults as a person — his dated attitudes towards women and race for instance, which nowadays go as much to spoil the paradisal nature of Narnia as, in Lewis’s mind at least, they once went towards building it. Miller doesn’t attempt to justify the Narnia books in the face of these faults, but makes the point that “A perfect story is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being”. The Narnia books have flaws just as Lewis, the person, had flaws, and as an adult you have to accept that is how they — and, really, all books — are. In literature (and fantasy, particularly), we may seek ideal worlds to make up for the real one’s flaws, but all we’ll find in the end is more flaws, even though very human ones.

In the book’s final section, Miller spent so much time talking about Tolkien, rather than Lewis, I wondered if she was tacitly proving Lewis’s faults by saying you couldn’t justify the Narnia books on their own terms. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, it’s easy, as an adult reader, to think the Narnia books a lesser effort, because less consistently imagined, less unified in vision. (Tolkien certainly thought so.) But, Miller says:

“The Chronicles are unified, not by anything resembling the exhaustive cultural stuff that Tolkien invented for Middle-earth, not by a single aesthetic or style, and not even, really, by a cogent religious vision, but by readerly desire. Lewis poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he’d enjoyed as an adult.”

That wonderful phrase “readerly desire” is they key to appreciating the Narnia books. “Narnia,” Miller says, “is the country of literature, of books, and of reading, a territory so vast that it might as well be infinite.” Like certain other fantasy worlds — Oz and Xanth for instance — Narnia isn’t designed to live up to Tolkien’s ideal of something that demands “credible, commanding Secondary Belief” from the reader, as set out in his essay, “On Fairy Tales”. Narnia, Oz and Xanth are more like grab-bags of all the imagination can contain, and so come to represent imagination itself. Access to Narnia is access to the imagination; the cupboard that, like the TARDIS, proves to be larger on the inside than out, and contains a whole, living, magical world, is just the human mind. Which may be why, once a relationship with such books is forged as a child, it can be so difficult to break, and feel so much like a betrayal if it is broken. But also why it is well worth recovering as an adult.

The Roar of Love

As a follow-up to my top five fantasy concept albums, covered in Mewsings a while back, over the next few entries I’m going to look at a few more fantasy albums I’ve come across recently (one of which I’ve been trying to get hold of for some time). These are slightly different in that they’re adaptations of (or inspired by) existing fantasy books, not original fantasies in themselves.

First up is The Roar of Love by a band called 2nd Chapter of Acts. Now, did you pick up on the subtle cultural signals tucked away in the band’s name to guess they’re a Christian group? I admit that, at first, this put me off buying the album. Then I told myself to stop being silly. After all, I don’t let the fact that I don’t ride a motorbike stop me from listening to Blue Öyster Cult, do I? (Nor does the fact that I don’t use drugs stop me from listening to Hawkwind; nor does the fact that I don’t use the word motherf—! stop me listening to Jane’s Addiction, either.) I was just a little wary of the music being a bit too happy, not to mention clappy.

The Roar of Love (1980) is inspired by C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My mum read the entire Narnia series to my brother and me, a chapter at a time (with the occasional, magical, “Let’s read two chapters this time, shall we?” — she clearly enjoyed them as much as we did), and I loved them. Along with Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, they were the first proper fantasy books I read (or had read to me), and I was totally lost in their world. It was only when I was about eight or nine, when I bought a book about the Narnia series (it may have been Paul F Ford’s Companion to Narnia) that I came across the idea that the Narnia books were Christian allegories. This was a total shock to me, as I associated Christianity with school assemblies, the enforced singing of hymns (all of which but “The Lord of the Dance” I found dull), and, worst of all, school-visiting vicars with their “God is your best friend!” cheery-cheery vapidity. (I was only interested in the chap who danced with the Devil on his back.) In fact, I felt a little betrayed. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a few years ago, and was rather disgusted by how heavy-handed (not to say cack-handed) Lewis’s attempts to force the reader to feel religious awe for Aslan were. I fully intend to re-read the whole series — the through-the-wardrobe idea is, after all, one of the most magical symbols of entering the world of the imagination I know, perhaps not even second to entering the TARDIS — but I can’t help feeling Lewis’s tempering of the imaginative experience with such pointless (to me) didacticism is a little too much like the author placing an inappropriate hand on the (child) reader’s knee…

But, that aside —

The Roar of Love is fun. The music is, at times, sort of Yes-lite: full of energy, vocals in close harmony, lots of contrasting proggish sections going from classically-inspired to bombastic (light) rock to easy listening and funky pop. There was only one real trip-up moment for me (in the opener, “Are You Goin’ To Narnia”, which contains the lines “To meet the lamb that is a lion/I want to learn to love him too”), but that was more than made up for by the songs themselves being so very listenable. “Tell the Truth” became an immediate favourite with its “Turkish Delight” chorus. (It is followed by the funky guitars and soul-style vocals of a song, confusingly called “Turkish Delight”, about Edmund’s love for the White Queen. Soul, I can’t help feeling, is diametrically opposed to the fantastic. Nevertheless it will pop up again in another of the albums I’m going to cover.)

I’m always interested in how music can be used to capture the feeling of the fantastic, but I don’t think The Roar of Love is as concerned with conjuring another world as it is with just telling a story. The second track, “Lucy’s Long Gone”, covers the whole disappearance into another world with the line “I slipped right out of this world”, which doesn’t give it the awe, excitement and mystery I’d have liked. But the track does have a bouncy playfulness that reflects Lucy’s status as the youngest of the four children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — complete with circus-style calliope, at one point — which may be far more appropriate, anyway. Elsewhere, there’s enough lushness in the vocals to give the album a touch of the truly immersive feel of fantasy.

2nd Act of Chapters don’t do darkness, really. Even the track “Aslan is Killed”, though it has some lovely interweaving, almost fugal, vocal lines, doesn’t quite capture the devastating moment when Aslan is humiliated and sacrificed so much as provide a moment of sober reflection. But that’s more than made up for the truly uplifting mood of the album generally. Particularly “Witch’s Demise” with its chorus I at first misheard as: “And then He unmasked her/Then He cast her/to disaster/What a bastard!” (It’s actually “What a Master!” Oh, if only…)

Overall, great fun. It certainly captures the child-friendly fun elements of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without overdoing the allegory.