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c.s. lewisMost who remember C.S. “Jack” Lewis (1898-1963) remember him as the author of the seven Narnia books as well as a host of works of Christian apologetics, such as The Screwtape Letters (1942), The Great Divorce (1945), and Mere Christianity (1952). Few, however, remember his science-fiction trilogy, his vast literary criticism, or his somewhat archaic poetry. Everything Lewis touched, however, was imbued with his characteristic excellence. His space trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and, especially, That Hideous Strength (1945)—will be studied decades, if not centuries, after almost all  twentieth-century literature has generally faded from popular and academic awareness.

Born into a northern Irish family at the very end of the nineteenth century, Lewis converted to Christianity in the autumn of 1931, following a conversation with one of his closest friends, J.R.R. Tolkien. As Lewis recalled:

He stayed the night with me in college—I sleeping in order to be able to talk far into the night as one could hardly do out here. Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning: and after seeing him out by the little postern on Magdalen bridge Dyson and I found still more to say to one another, strolling up and down the cloister of New Building, so that we did not get to bed till 4. It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still calm warm evening and said so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other to appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books.1

Through this long conversation, Lewis decided that the mythologies he had loved his entire life had all been glimpses of the truth, of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’ 2

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Lewis’s conversion for his own life and how it affected the rest of the twentieth century. Lewis, who never did anything halfway, threw himself into his new-found faith in every aspect of his life.

Had one been a betting person, he most likely would not have chosen Lewis as a likely candidate for greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century prior to his conversion. A brilliant but deeply prejudiced anti-Catholic of the Ulster variety, Lewis wore his eccentricities rather openly. A confirmed bachelor until his surprise marriage in the late 1950s, he drank heavily and smoked upwards of sixty cigarettes a day, plus a pipe, and he often would rumple his clothes so as never to appear as a fop. “The thick-set body, the red face with its domed forehead, the dense clouds of smoke from a rapidly puffed cigarette or pipe, the brisk argumentative manner, and the love of debate kept the conversation going at the pace of some breathless game,” John Wain remembered. Another student, Anthony Curtis, recalled his relationship with Lewis with less diplomacy and affection but with equal respect:

At the end of the hour with Lewis I always felt a complete ignoramus; no doubt an accurate impression but also a rather painful one; and if you did venture to challenge one of his theories the ground was cut away from beneath your feet with lightening speed. It was a fool’s mate in three moves with Lewis smiling at you from the other side of the board in unmalicious glee at his victory. By contrast Tolkien was the soul of affability. He did all the talking, but he made you feel you were his intellectual equal. Yet his views beneath the deep paternal charm were passionately held.

Despite his abruptness, most students at Oxford and, later Cambridge, admired Lewis for his wealth of knowledge as well as for his cleverness.

Famously, during the 1930s and the 1940s, Lewis kept a vibrant, if fluid, set of friends around him known–somewhat tongue-in- cheek–as the Inklings. For almost two decades, the Inklings met twice weekly and sometimes more. One of its occasional members, Owen Barfield, described the power of a community of friends in 1940 in an article describing means by which ideologies could be defeated. One must “build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than…startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions—like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.”3 Could one find a better description anyway of the Inklings? Probably not. With the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien and the others shared their ideas, their poetry, and their fiction. Somewhat famously, Lewis and Tolkien made an agreement to write about the notions of time and space through the language of the fantastic. Lewis agreed to write about space, if Tolkien wrote about time.4 Out of this came much of Tolkien’s mythology regarding the second age of Middle-earth, the fall of Númenor. Tolkien, of course, never finished these, but he did incorporate them into aspects of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Lewis, however, dove into the project producing not one but three novels: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and, especially, That Hideous Strength (1945). Throughout his trilogy, Lewis employs the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic understanding of the universe. There exists no “space,” only the heavens, teeming with life. The heavens are the home of the powers, thrones, dominions, etc. Each “planet” of our solar system, then, has its own celestial sphere as well as its own guardian angel. Of the guardian angels of our solar system, all have remained faithful to God with the exception of Earth’s. He, the Bent One, has attempted an overthrow of the Lord from almost the beginning of things. Lewis’s protagonist, Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, travels to Mars in the first novel, Venus in the second, and fights “That Hideous Strength” on Earth in the third novel. Throughout each, Lewis incorporated many of the ideas of the Inklings. In the first novel, many of the observations about awareness and consciousness come almost word for word from Owen Barfield.

Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world—a water-colour world out of [a] child’s paintbox.5

In the second of the three, Perelandra, Lewis engages a popular topic among all Inklings: the natures of good, evil, joy, and beauty. The story re-imagines Genesis 1-3 on Venus, but importantly, after the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

How could they come again? Since our Beloved became a man, how should Reason in any world take on another form? Do you know understand? That is all over. Among times there is a time that turns a corner and everything this side of it is new. Times do not go backward.6

In all three, Lewis modeled his main character, Ransom, after Tolkien and, in That Hideous Strength, after Charles Williams.

In his preface to That Hideous Strength, Lewis calls the book a “modern fairy-tale for grownups,” a working out of his ideas as expressed in his short but powerful 1943 book, The Abolition of Man.7 That small book of philosophy and theology attempts to defend the idea of Natural Law as inherent in all cultures, applicable to all times and places. In late February 1943, Lewis devoted three of his addresses to a philosophical rather than a theological question. These relatively heady lectures were entitled: “Men without Chests,” “The Way,” and “The Abolition of Man.”8 In each, Lewis addresses the nature and the future of character in England. Rather than spending his words on buoying the optimism of the English during the war against the German National Socialists, Lewis asks what the English are really fighting for. Freedom from Nazi brutality is good, of course, but not, he argues, if it merely leads to the victory of the “conditioners,” the democratic bureaucrats on the loose in England who serve as an internal threat. The conditioners claim to be liberating individuals from arbitrary restraints imposed by “religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ and ‘basic’ values may emerge.”9 In other words, the conditioners need to destroy history and faith, which they claim to be artificial shackles on the true, unadulterated self. Such debasement of tradition, Lewis argues, can only lead to the creation of man-made (and consequently, man-centered) philosophies, ignoring the Creator and ignoring the creation, and thus ignoring the Natural Law. But the Natural Law, Lewis cautions, “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.”10 Anything created outside of the natural law will simply be mere “ideologies,” that is, finite systems created by finite minds, shadows of shadows of a complex and nuanced world. “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in,” Lewis concludes.11

In the novel, That Hideous Strength, Lewis considers what might happen should the purpose of the Natural Law be perverted, intentionally. The plot considers the idea that throughout the history of England (as in every other country), two forces have been at work. The first is God’s, the path of the Natural Law as defended by a small community of believers. For England, that small community centered around the office (not person) of King Arthur, dedicated to defending Logres, the true kingdom of God in this world. The other force, perverted by the bent one, seeks to establish nations and communities as higher than the welfare of humanity. It played—as all sin does—subtly on our sense of pride. In That Hideous Strength, an organization known as the NICE (National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) proclaims its love of science while actually engaging in deep (as it turns out, Satanic) mysticism.

As with so many other dystopias, procreation and sex plays the vital role in the plot. Jane Studdock, the woman appointed by Providence, to bear the new Arthur, and her husband, the hapless Mark, decide to use birth control. In so doing, they have perverted thousands of years of work. When Merlin—a never dead, reawakened Romano-Celtic wizard—learns of Jane’s decision, he hopes to behead her.

Be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land shall never be again.12

Ransom, of course, refuses to behead Jane, but the point has been made. This, however, is not the last time Merlin is shocked by the modern world. Modernity perplexes Merlin. In a telling conversation, Merlin states:

This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther…beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.13

Ransom/Arthur responds:

You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.14

Though the story ends happily, it does so with incredible sacrifice and destruction, as well as a direct intervention by the divine. In a personal correspondence with an angry young Arthur C. Clarke, Lewis explained his own anti-imperialism and reluctance to embrace technology. “I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe,” he wrote. “Certainly if he goes on this present course much further, man can not be trusted with knowledge.”15

C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, September 22, 1931. See also CSL to Arthur Greeves, October 1, 1931; and CSL to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931.

Lewis to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931.

3 Owen Barfield, “Effective Approach to Social Change,” Christian News-Letter 39 (July 24, 1940).

4 Christopher Tolkien, ed., “The Early History of the Legend,” in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lost Road and Other Writings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 7.

5 Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, 42.

6 Lewis, Perelandra, 62.

7 Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 7-8.

8 Colin Duriez, The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000), 12-13.

9 Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944; New York, Touchstone, 1996), 43.

10 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 55.

11 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 56. See also, Gerhart Niemeyer, “Augustine’s Political Philosophy?,” in The Christian Vision: Man in Society, ed. Lynne Morris (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1984), 51.

12 Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 278-279.

13 Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 293.

14 Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 293.

15 Lewis to Arthur C. Clarke, December 7, 1943, in Walter Hooper, ed., Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2004): 593-594.

This essay is part of a series on dystopian literature. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. The author is good to focus on That Hideous Strength as the key title among Lewis’ body of work, and certainly none of his works are as more suited to our time now. He was incredibly prescient about modern society and the path to ruin that it’s been taking.

  2. I adore studying from Lewis. I feel as if I knew him, and that I am connect to the Inklings time. I am so, very grateful, and honored, for sure.

  3. I think it is remarkable that Lewis should focus in on the existence of a conspiracy that runs things (with deleterious effects, of course), but it is even more extraordinary that he should in a list of conspirators include the name of a real conspirator, Cecil Rhodes, one that would be discussed in a book that gave way the secret of a conspiracy that runs things and discusses Rhodes at some lengths. I refer to Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope published about a quarter of a century after Lewis trilogy. Dr. Quigley was professor at Georgetown University and was Mr. Clinton’s Mentor; he also recommended him for his Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

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