John Jr.'s Reviews > That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
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May 03, 2012

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bookshelves: sf, fiction-modern-british
Read from August 10 to 31, 2001 — I own a copy , read count: 1

First, a reminiscence. I continue to be surprised by my mother, though she died three years ago. She gave at least one volume of this trilogy to me when I was a young adolescent and finally gave the third to me some 40 years later, at Christmas 2000. I imagine she understood that, insofar as they're allegorical, Lewis's Narnia books derive from a formerly great literary tradition, but she knew as well that they were meant for children; she had no interest in them herself (that I can recall) and never expected that I would either. Lewis's so-called Space Trilogy, on the other hand, is thoroughly adult. By giving its volumes to me over the years, my mother honored what she saw as my intelligence, beginning before my mind had developed much and extending throughout her life.

Some comments: It’s a fine and lovely book, often very funny (the dithering speech of the Deputy Director is an example, as are the maneuverings for position among the academics), wondrously imaginative (Merlin himself figures into the story, and the beings that appear to be angels are presented in terms of the old planetary gods of the astrologers--Mercury, Venus, and the like), and a good deal concerned with ethics and morality. This is a rare combination; in fact, the feel of the book, the flavor that results from Lewis’s particular combination of those ingredients, is something I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Maybe the biggest surprise is that it’s clearly a Christian book, by virtue of the metaphysical hierarchy that informs its world, yet one finds very little mention of Christian beliefs and practices: Christianity is an aspect of the story, not one of its subjects. (One could wish for the same from many of today’s Christian artists.)

Some quotations that I copied into my journal:
Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Haven’t you ever noticed it on a snowy day? The grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children--and the dogs. They know what snow’s made for.

That’s Denniston, one of the “good guys,” talking. They’re clearly not ascetics; their simple, direct (and, as his own words suggest, childlike) response to a sensual experience is one reason we like them.

If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, “Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,” and then drop it?… Minerals are clean dirt. But the real filth is what comes from organisms—sweat, spittle, excretions. Is not your whole idea of purity one huge example? The impure and the organic are interchangeable conceptions.… You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable.… The world I look forward to is the world of perfect purity. The clean mind and the clean minerals. What are the things that most offend the dignity of man? Birth and breeding and death.

This is Filostrato, one of the scientists attached to the “institute” that’s a front for the dark forces, the initials of which are N.I.C.E.. What he outlines is part of their project to improve the condition of man.

…they had discovered the state of Merlin: not from inspection of the thing that slept under Bragdon Wood, but from observing a certain unique configuration in that place where those things remain that are taken off time’s mainroad, behind the invisible hedges, into the unimaginable fields. Not all the times that are outside the present are therefore past or future.

A filigree of fine phrasing and idea creation.

…he was past the age at which one can have night fears. But now … he felt those old terrors again.… Materialism is in fact no protection. Those who seek it in that hope (they are not a negligible class) will be disappointed. The thing you fear is impossible. Well and good. Can you therefore cease to fear it? Not here and now. And what then? If you must see ghosts, it is better not to disbelieve in them.

Simply good writing (an explanation wrapped up with an aphorism), though of course the anti-materialist point serves Lewis’s larger purpose.

It isn’t to his wife that a man turns under the influence of aphrodisiacs.

A comment by Frost, another of the bad guys. The statement has a degree of truth that’s not undercut by the identity of the speaker.

In case anyone wonders about the source of Lewis's title, the title page of this edition gives it as follows:
The Shadow of that Hyddeous Strength
Sax Myle and More It Is of Length.
—Sir David Lyndsay, from Ane Dialog,
describing the Tower of Babel
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