That Hideous Strength
by C S Lewis.
Pan Books 1955 (1945).
“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”C S Lewis, ‘The New York Times Book Review’, 18th November, 1956
Composed during the war years, when That Hideous Strength was finally published in 1945 it was subtitled ‘A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups’. In his original preface Lewis declared that he “called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled,” before finally characterising it as “a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”
The following year when Lewis abridged it for a new edition it was retitled The Tortured Planet, presumably to make clear its association with Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. When that same abridgement then appeared in a new 1955 paperback edition it had resumed its original title and included another preface by the author in which he confessed:
In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace — I would not wish even ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Faerie Queene’ any shorter — but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.
All of which is noted as a preamble to saying that the transformations the novel went through in its first few years are as nothing compared to the complexity that C S Lewis aimed to incorporate in his “fairy-tale for grown-ups”. It contains moralising, it’s true, but it’s also a thriller, a science fantasy, and a repository of ancient myths and legends.
That title first: based on a quote by Tudor-period poet David Lindsay, the “strength” referred to is Scots for a stronghold, and in this instance indicates the biblical Tower of Babel, the shadow of which supposedly stretched for more than six miles. What Lewis wants us to understand is that his story is a metaphor about a monstrous institute being built in England’s green and pleasant land, and of course we all know what was the outcome of the original undertaking. This ‘tower’ is being put together at the significantly named Belbury, a blood transfusion centre not far from a town called Edgestow (which we may imagine as somewhere in the Midlands, at the notional centre of England); and the organisation putting this entity together is the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. Except that, as a centre for “Remedial Treatment”, they’re not very nice.
So, is this a good novel? Well, yes and no. Its strengths come from its function as a thriller, with N.I.C.E. seeming to have the upper hand way past the middle of the novel. Then — with its mix of elements of science fiction (the vivisection experiments of the Institute, for instance, the part organic computer like Roger Bacon’s oracular Brazen Head) and fantasy (Merlin redivivus, parapsychological powers such as oneiromancy) — That Hideous Strength can justifiably be called a science fantasy, one I think that is constantly inventive.
The fantasy side is reinforced with motifs from myth, legend and folklore. Thus we have Mr Bultitude the bear as a kind of avatar of Arthur, the root of the name being the Welsh arth meaning ‘bear’; the presence of Merlin, Arthur’s wizard; Ransom part conflated with Odin (through a member of the corvid family functioning as his familiar) and with, of course, the Fisher King of Arthurian lore, partly through his assumed name (‘Mr Fisher-King’) and partly through the grievous wound both the Grail King and Ransom share.
Furthermore, there’s Edgestow itself which may, like Lewis’s alma mater Oxford University, appear to be a symbolic omphalos or navel of Britain. In the native Welsh tale called Lludd and Llefelys the island is beset by a succession of so-called plagues, the ending of one of which involves discovering a battle royal between two dragons, one red and one white, going on in a pit at the very centre of the island. It’s almost certain Lewis drew on aspects of this medieval tale for plot details in That Hideous Strength.
But what doesn’t work — for me at any rate — is Lewis’s attempt to draw in Christian themes as analogues and mix them up with the mystical scenarios he’d established in the earlier parts of his Space Trilogy, drawn from his study of medieval cosmology. His SF version of angels, eldila, and his planetary tutelary beings the Oyéresu (one representing Jesus, another Satan) at best feel shoehorned into his narrative, at worst the motivation for composing a mish-mash of biblical themes such as the Garden of Eden, Samson destroying the temple of Dagon, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood or, indeed, Babel:
“For the Hideous Strength confronts us, and it is as in the days when Nimrod built a tower to reach heaven.”Chapter 13
Often Lewis is blatant about his proselytising, as when the atheist Mark Suddock refuses — in an echo of the initiation rites supposedly practised by the Templars before the head of Baphomet — to stamp on a lifesize crucifix; or when the apostate Jane Studdock has this conversation with Elwin Ransom (who is suffering from a very Arthurian dolorous stroke):
“You mean I shall have to become a Christian?” said Jane.”It looks like it,” said the Director.Chapter 14
I have said very little about the very many personages in this novel, or the main thrust of the plot — though I may do so elsewhere — but in truth That Hideous Strength is essentially a tale about the struggle between Good and Evil, an attempt to forestall a conspiracy which, with the ‘liquidation of anachronisms’, wants to expunge in humanity whatever it is that makes it human, to free mankind from Nature:
“[The Institute] is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer.”Chapter 8
My response to the novel largely chimes in with George Orwell’s when he reviewed it on its first publication. “On the whole,” he wrote, “novels are better when there are no miracles in them,” adding that Lewis’s story “would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it,” a judgement Lewis would not have agreed with. Orwell also compared the novel — I think correctly — to G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, adding that it “ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.”
On this, my second reading almost exactly fifty years after my first, I was struck with how many ideas in here Lewis was to recycle five years later in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). I’ll mention just two now. The first is when Jane is affected after first meeting Ransom, whn she feels virtually lifted to “the sphere of Jove, amid light and music and festal pomp, brimmed with life and radiant in health, jocund and clothed in shining garments” — very much like the state the four Pevensie children experience in the presence of Aslan, in this most Jovian instalment of the Narniad.
The second occurs in the final chapter when the women in Ransom’s Company go to put on bright raiment in a wing of the Manor they’re residing in. Here a large room is called the Wardrobe, a space where they feel “not in a room at all but in some kind of forest,” an illusion created by the many robes of state hanging there. It is surely not coincidental that the area around Edgestow, for so long an area where it felt like “winter but never Christmas,” experiences the same thaw and emergence into summer that Narnia did when the White witch was defeated.
It’s unsurprising then that Lewis’s fairy-tale for grown-ups contains so much of what he thought “says best what’s to be said.” Did he try, however, to say too much?