That Hideous Strength
C. S. Lewis at his best.
by Everett Wilson
September 10, 2005
We are in the sixtieth anniversary year of the publication of That Hideous Strength, the concluding novel in C.S. Lewis's space trilogy. The first two volumes were about space trips by an Oxford don to Mars and Venus —the first trip because he was kidnapped, and the second because he was the willing draftee of a benevolent and alien of extraordinary power.
I was in seminary when I read the first two novels. They were my first experience of Lewis as a writer of narrative fiction; I was not yet aware even of The Narnia Chronicles, then in the early stages of their long popularity. Because I had Lewis fixed in my head as a Christian apologist and Oxford intellectual, I thought his sci-fi fantasies were oddities, that Lewis was goofing off or showing off: "Look, guys, I'm good even at this!"
These two books in length and style are more like novels designed for older children. They are short, straightforward narratives, and the violence is g-rated. This is not a criticism, but a fact; I love good books written for older children.
I discovered That Hideous Strength, much later, some twenty years after its initial publication. It is not about space travel as such, but completes the story of the space traveler. While its prose is as accessible as all of Lewis's popular writings, it is no children's book. Lewis's subtitle is "A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups." The unwholesomeness of evil is strong in every chapter. One of its chief villains is a lesbian sadist. The bad guys who are her bosses are masters of euphemism, but they do not fool the good guys and Lewis sees to it that they don't fool the readers either. As one of the good guys says to a young man who has been taken in by the bad guys, "You are (at least to some degree) the accomplice of the worst men in the world."
In sheer gruesomeness, the climax of the novel leaves little to the imagination. It is definitely not a children's book.
The jacket blurb quotes the Time critic, who called it "well-written, fast-paced satirical fantasy." If seen as satire, it satirizes post-modernism as Lewis could foresee its consequences and before it became an academic topic. But the satirical elements are secondary. In satire, the point hangs on the success of the author's joke. In a fairy tale, the story makes the point by being the point.
The title is a reference to the tower of Babel, taken from an obscure (to me, at least) Renaissance history of the world, with "strength" used to mean "stronghold." The biblical tower expressed the motive of its builders, which was to challenge God in his own realm. In the novel, the tower is not a building, but a scientific and philosophical enterprise run by "the worst men in the world" from its base in a small English university city. If Babel is its symbol, then the curse of Babel is its doom. At the climax one of the good guys utters in Latin the triumphant cry: "They that have despised the Word of God, from them shall the word of man also is taken away."
How and why that happened is for you to read. You may or may not like Lewis's point of view, but if you are a serious reader you will probably agree with The Saturday Review anyway: "No one in the least susceptible to Mr. Lewis's conjurations... can drop the book at all."
About the Author:
Everett Wilson has not been reading Lewis for sixty years, but he has for fifty.
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