A tall story about devilry

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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?


25 thoughts on “A tall story about devilry

  1. Well done at getting through this one. I read these books as a teen, and sort of got through them then, not really understanding them well. I tried to re-read the first one again a few years ago – Nope! I found it turgid beyond extreme. Oh Well – at least his Narnia books are interesting to re-read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The first two books I also remember as turgid, Annabel, and only have a lingering fondness for THS because of it mix of Arthuriana and other legends. I dislike fictions which preach, whether I agree or disagree with their stance, and the bits where Ransom goes off on one are intolerable. Still, I’m pleased to have reread this and hope to do a follow-up post in due course.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. (I know it well, but on clicking on your post it struck me again, to the extent it even surprised me. What a great, great painting. It’s incredible how it still radiates with meaning after all those years. Makes me want to travel to Vienna again.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Would love to see this, Bart, but for now have to rely on online reproductions, and especially several informative videos and even animations. I agree as to its affect. I assume you’ll also be more than familiar with the Rotterdam version?

      The lost version executed on ivory is imaginatively resurrected in Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree, as I discuss here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-petworth


  3. Enjoyed this and I think it saves me from having to reread the book, which I think most would agree is one of Lewis’s least successful fictions.

    He was always mashing up his literary influences, in this case early sci fi (HG Wells, Voyage to Arcturus, etc.), Charles Williams’s theological thrillers, and his own fondness for myth and animals, along with his personal hangups about the decline of Western civilization. I think the mix works better in the Narnia books, where a child’s sense of wonder mostly prevails against the turgidity when he tries to be more “adult.” Till We Have Faces is the only really worthwhile adult novel he wrote.

    Looking forward to more Lewisiana! I need to get my Prince Caspian review up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, I’d love to see your take on PC, Lory! Started my reread last night, though I’ll leave my review till after the last Friday of the month. Interesting to swap between Lewis and Tolkien — I’m rereading the Helm’s Deep chapter — and to sense the almost unbridgeable gulf between each author’s approach.

      As for THS, I despair at what Lewis came up with compared to what it could have been, given the range of influences we can detect (including the ones you list). Given his love of Norse myth, shared with Tolkien, along with his love of poetry, I thought for instance his localised Ragnarök could have been so much more effective than the combination of picking off his villains simultaneous with descriptios of celestial fireworks seen from afar and tremors in the ground. I found the whole an unsatisfactory collage.

      Incidentally, I plan a reread of Williams’s War in Heaven, followed eventually by a first read of The Greater Trumps, an opportunity for me to see if his theological thrillers are any better then Lewis’s. And then maybe Till We Have Faces, given your own evaluation!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Indeed. Having not picked it up again since I was… much much younger, all I can recall is a dystopia, and although I did recently re-read (and enjoyed more than I recall on the first read) books I haven’t read in years, I agree with Lori that this one won’t be one of them…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly, save your time and energy for stuff you enjoy! Because ofy past interest in Arthuriana I was determined to visit this again, but I shan’t bother making the effort with the others in the trilogy.


  4. Anabel’s response to rereading Lewis’s trilogy as an adult is exactly like mine. I still have the editions I read as a teen, but I’ve no idea why, for I’m certain not to waste time on them.

    On a side note, I’ve been rereading Orwell’s essays, and his review of THS matches his argument in “Inside the Whale”. I bet Orwell was often tempted to use THS for fuel on some rainy day on Jura.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You cite Orwell’s essay, thanks, which I’ve now read a bit about; and that reminds me that I fully intended to read his A Clergyman’s Daughter after our holiday in Southwold (a novel he composed in part while living at his parents’ house on the high street there). But then I’ve still to finish Sebald’s Rings of Saturn which you recommended to me some time ago, which takes in his visits to the fishermen’s library in the town… And so it goes on, one work suggesting another, and another!

      I saved my old copy of THS because of its Arthurian themes but not, you’ll notice, its predecessors — I’d need to be pretty desperate to revisit those after this showing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember the trilogy being pretty bad, but maybe so bad it might be worth checking out again? (A recent analysis over on Tor, com describes a scene from Perelandra so emotionally autistic, I wondered about Lewis’s mental health).

    I’d heartily recommend Till We Have Faces , although I think the story is undermined by its point. Or maybe the point is completely undermined by the story preceding it? Lewis’s fiction seems to have constantly worked against his intentions, with LWW being maybe the sole exception.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not desperate to read either Perelandra or Out of the Silent Planet, but I have a copy of Lewis’s fragment The Dark Tower which, as I remember, has one curious scene which is replicated in That Hideous Strength, and I might try that soon, and also locate a copy of Till We Have Faces. But the examples of his fiction I’ve read so far have mostly disappointed me in terms of pure literary worth.


  6. Okay, I will be the oddball. I know THS is a bizarre mess of a book, and I love it. I’ve read it several times and can guarantee I’ll do it again. It’s so dang WEIRD. I like the other two stories in the trilogy okay, but this is my favorite. I like seeing what he was trying to do and his experimenting with the Charles Williams style of writing, which is not suited to Lewis at all (and probably wasn’t to Williams either, very strange stuff). I also love old B-movies, and I think this tickles the same nerve, so you can just deplore my taste and move on. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I don’t want to give the impression I hated this, Jean, in fact on this reread there was a lot more to enjoy than I first remember noticing! The messy demises of the villains were fun in all their variety of execution, the feistiness of Jane for most of it despite her apparent capitulation (I bet she reverted!) and more that I hope to discuss later. Charles Williams next, I think!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I don’t deplore your taste either, Jean, just felt like Chris’s summary gave me enough of a memory-taste of the book that I don’t have to read it again. However, I may change my mind one of these days!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I haven’t read this book for decades, and when I did, it was as a Narnia fan grown older and wanting more, and finding his space trilogy really strange stuff. My main memory of the book is when Jane is scolded/condemned for using birth control. Not in so many words, as I recall, but someone (Merlin?) says that she and her husband could have had a child (of some vital importance somehow) but they prevented it from happening. At that point I really wanted to give Lewis a kick in the pants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, Jane’s capitulation in apparently agreeing to become the proper obedient wife instead of the modern woman she deserved to be — all that I put down to Lewis’s regrettable reversion to conservativism. Poor Lewis; luckily for him he died in 1963 before he could feel the full force of Women’s Lib…


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