That Maddening Book

That Hideous Strength

At that moment the door opened and a voice from behind it said, “Well, go in then, if you’re going.” Thus admonished, a very fine jackdaw hopped into the room, followed firstly by Mr. Bultitude and secondly by Arthur Denniston.

“I’ve told you before, Arthur,” said Ivy Maggs, “not to bring that bear in here when we’re cooking the dinner.” While she was speaking Mr. Bultitude, who was apparently himself uncertain of his welcome, walked across the room in what he believed (erroneously) to be an unobtrusive manner and sat down behind Mrs. Dimble’s chair.

Some people have been discussing C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately on Facebook, and I thought I’d make a few comments on the blog tonight – though I’m relatively sure I’ve said these things here before.

That Hideous Strength may be my favorite of all C. S. Lewis’s works – though the competition is fierce. And yet the book has maddening weaknesses – which nevertheless contribute in their way to the ultimate success of the work.

The commenter on Facebook had exactly my experience reading it. First of all, it’s a much longer book than the previous entries in the Ransom trilogy. It’s also a very different kind of book, not at all what the fan of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra is probably expecting. Instead of mystical space opera, we’re confronted with an earth-bound, genre-bending urban fantasy, consciously modeled after Charles Williams’s novels.

And here’s the killing thing – the first few chapters are undeniably dull. The first time I read them, it was plain work to slog my way through. Many, many readers, I’m sure, have just given it up.

And then – wham – Merlin shows up and things start moving. And soon – here’s the killer – the elements of the plot come together, and the early dullness is redeemed through being drawn up into the transcendent wonder of the climactic events. All the elements coalesce into a harmonious, perfect sphere.

This is the paradox of That Hideous Strength (as I see it). It’s a kind of a sin for a writer to make his book hard to approach, to save the interesting stuff for last. But here it serves Lewis’s artistic purposes, making it a kind of perverse masterpiece.

Lewis wrote in The Four Loves of the problem of the Good Character in fiction. He calls good characters “the very devil.” It’s so easy to make them sappy and dull, while villains, like Milton’s Satan, steal the show with their titanic passion and wit.

I suspect the main reason for this is that we (readers and writers both) know a lot more about evil than about goodness. Goodness is a foreign country to us, or one we visit only occasionally. Evil is our old stomping grounds.

Lewis’s achievement in That Hideous Strength is to first present evil as it really is – tedious, derivative, and dull. It leaves you squirming. And the good characters are just delightful. Does anyone, even the most doctrinaire naturalist or feminist, not want to live at St. Anne’s?

But that achievement makes That Hideous Strength, heavy as it is with leaden evil at the start, hard to read.

It’s almost like… real life.

2 thoughts on “That Maddening Book”

  1. Okay! But for me, it’s a book to savor, every page of it, ten times so far (not counting a reading of Lewis’s abridged version, The Tortured Planet). Passages in it are close to passages in Lewis’s letters: I think it’s in a letter that Lewis wrote of meeting a countryman who was as English as an apple in a barn, but there’s also a passage in the novel in which Jane finds herself liking an old Englishman whom in the course of her usual academic pursuits she’d never meet or, if she did, pay a moment’s attention to. I think a great part of the book’s appeal to me is that, to use Lewis’s own terminology, it is about England permeated by “Logres” as well as threatened, from within, by “Britain.” of course it’s hardly even Britain that they are getting now. The notion of the household cultivating a life of Christian culture over against the spoliation of the nation has an abiding meaningfulness to me. I wrote a paper on THS, “Bright Lights Under the Shadow of the Hideous Strength,” with appendices, for a Lutheran retreat, about 15 years ago, and would be happy to send it if someone wants to read it. Email me at dale dot nelson AT mayvillestate dot edu. I should say, though, that some things in it, here and there, I’m sure I would revise now. But there are some things in it that would probably appeal to people who like the novel a lot.

  2. I enjoy this site a lot (thanks!), but don’t do Facebook so I know nothing of the THS discussions over there. THS is my favorite as well—have read it several times. That said, a current development I completely failed to foresee during the time-frame spanning my first two or three readings of the novel, would have to be the now-apparent re-appearance of the NICE inside our present-day Vatican, wherein the old NICE somehow at some point in (or outside of) time picked up its demonic old carcass and shape-shifted its way over from Belbury to Rome. There, they’ve re-materialized in a stew of ambiguity-on-pseudo-spiritual-steroids, prelate-sanctioned sex-porn church murals, creepy on-site sex orgies, the replacing of once-venerable institutes with more “progressive” entities (entities bearing spooky vaguely-bureaucratic-sounding names like “Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences”) and a gaggle of language-bending power-loving Wither-and-Frostlike princes thereof. Like the “old” NICE in THS, the new NICE has no chance. St. Anne’s will win this one, too.

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