Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hideous, but Fascinating

That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, Book 3)This post will not be an attempt to do anything like a formal review of the C.S. Lewis work, That Hideous Strength.  Many others have done it far greater justice than I ever could.   
What I hope to do in this brief article is to engender enough curiosity on the part of those of you who have not read it, to perhaps give it a try.  It is a tough book to categorize and has been described as science fiction crossed with spiritual metaphor; and that is surely an odd pairing, although an accurate one so far as it goes.

But that is so broad a stroke as to miss entirely the wonderful nuance, humor and sheer scope of the thing.  And that says nothing of the beauty of the language.
The plot revolves around a poky little backwoods college in England, and the parochial politics and panderings that go on therein.  Dull stuff at first glance.

Equally stultifying is the initial description of the relationship between newlyweds Jane and Mark, who seemed to have missed the honeymoon period entirely, and have proceeded directly to tedium and irritation.

It would be understandable, if at this point, you were thinking sarcastically, "Now this sounds like a fun read."  

Lewis is, however, the unparalleled master of mixing the mundane with the magnificent, all the while injecting genuine humor and even joy into the whole picture.  Not easily done.

So although the structure of the book involves the futuristic plot to rid mankind of its pesky reliance on "virtue", while also ridding it of actual physical bodies, leaving these repugnant "mind-only" ghouls, and the heart of the book is about relationships between men and women, the soul of the book, in my opinion, is about the contrast between Lewis's vision of peace, beauty and order; and the conflict, chaos and ugliness that evil produces in the universe.

For example, the nasty pseudo-scientific organization known as N.I.C.E. plans to completely eliminate a beautiful little river that runs through the college town.

"...[they] learned for the first time that the Wynd itself was to be diverted:there was to be no river in Edgestow." (page 119)

This seems to be a direct and contrasting allusion to the fact that in the City of God described in the book of Revelation there is indeed a river that runs through it.  The River of Life.

Beauty is a recurring theme in many of Lewis's works.  By beauty I mean both the abstract concept of beauty, as well as the more common instances of a rose, a sunrise, or a lovely face.  Wonderful trees, and exquisite mountain tops are frequently part of the picture, as well as streams and rivers.

Order is an adjacent theme, as the miscreants running N.I.C.E. proceed to destroy a lovely little college community and turn it into complete and utter chaos.  This includes razing homes, uprooting trees that are a hundred years old, creating riots, and messing with the trains.  And as anyone who has ever read any English literature knows, the British take great pride in "keeping the trains running on time".  Thus, when they are disrupted, it becomes another metaphor for the general chaos created by human sinfulness.

The protagonist, Dr. Ransom, is clearly a saviour figure.  And the first time Jane meets him, Lewis uses the phrase "her world was unmade" no fewer than three times.  This is reminiscent of the Psalmist poetry, or the New Testament structure wherein any thing repeated three times is meant to have great significance. (pages 139-141)

I will admit that I was a bit surprised at some of Lewis's mild profanity, as I had not recalled that from reading it many years ago: tepid by today's deplorable standards, to be sure; but what must have been pretty edgy for Christian literature in the 1950s.  To me it simply demonstrated his commitment to realism in the day-to-day society which he was describing.

As to the humor, it comes in broad form and in more subtle tones.  In one instance, as two characters continue to disagree, they are told, "If you two quarrel much more," said the Director, "I think I'll make you marry one another." (Page 197)

In a character who is an unwitting pawn, Lewis says, "The fantastic suggestion that he, Curry, might be a bore, passed through is mind so swiftly that a second later he had forgotten it forever."  (Page  90)

This light touch allows Lewis to comment upon the lack of self-awareness that creates such arrogance, without become preachy.  Instead he brings the reader a smile.

However, he does not hesitate to use goofy imagery to poke fun at a serious character.  The skeptic of the group, on a evening when romance is in the air, and a veritable Noah's ark of creatures seem to be pairing up states, "I'd feel easier in my mind if I were inside and the door locked before any crocodiles or kangaroos start courting in the middle of all my files." (Page 377)

I don't often read a book that contains words with which I am unfamiliar, except when I read C.S. Lewis.  In this case, two such words were "veridical" and "frousty".  Both are fairly easily understood within their context, but still I had to look them up to be sure.  I truly want to keep my head in the game, when reading Lewis!

As to the sheer beauty of the language, the instances are too numerous to list.  A few are:

"descending the ladder of humility"
"prim little grasp upon her own destiny"
"plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced"

For me, reading Lewis is more like listening to good music, or watching birds at the bird bath, or looking upon a Renoir in its proper setting.  It is simply art, art that is earthy, heavenly, humorous, and serious.

Consider giving yourself the treat of reading That Hideous Strength.

Note:  Please see The Quiet Quill for D.J. Hughes thoughts on this and other reviews which are part of the C.S. Lewis Book Club which she hosts.


  1. Wow, Marsha---you do an awfully good book review! I'll have to put this one on my list.

  2. This is an amazing review, Martha! I love to read and think this will be a winner! Thanks for piqueing my interest!!

  3. You have an amazing way of doing a book review! Thanks for sharing.