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Monday, March 26, 2012

That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis

The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. (New York: Collier, 1962) p. 353.

That Hideous Strength is the third book in the Space Trilogy, by Lewis. As that book has its own Wikipedia article, I won't say a lot about the plot. I will say that the book can be read on its own, even though it is the third in a series, without missing much. It is set in England, in the mid-1940s.

In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis set forth a theme that comes into play somewhat in the second, Perelandra. That theme is that there are people who believe that it is the duty and privilege of humans to take full control of this planet, and to spread humanity to as many other planets as possible. That theme is part of Hideous Strength, too. In Silent Planet, Lewis makes that notion seem ridiculous in two ways. First, there are three species of intelligent, rational beings on Mars, where the novel is set. Not only are they intelligent and rational, but they are good. Sin is not known there. Why should humans have any right to remove such organisms? (Not only are there beings roughly equal to humans, but there are also higher beings, eldils, one for each planet.) Second, Weston, an obviously evil character makes a speech, advocating spreading humanity, to non-humans. Elwin Ransom, the main character, a human, who has learned Martian speech, translates. In translation, Weston's views seem laughable. Lewis didn't preach, or not too much. Silent Planet is readable, and has been, and continues to be enjoyed, for a number of reasons, including the imaginary three species. Earth is called the Silent Planet, and is so because its eldil is evil. This, of course, refers to Satan, the "prince of the powers of the air."

Hideous Strength preaches a little more, but, again, is readable. The main evil idea that it combats is that there is no objective truth. The book shows us a college where most of the faculty believe that, but also shows us an evil organization that puts it into practice, and shows us that that college faculty has not thought that philosophy through to see what would and must come of it. The names of the two main members of the evil organization are significant: Wither and Frost. (So is Ransom's name.) The human part of the evil organization, (apparently Satan himself is the real leader, although the members don't recognize this) and many of its members, are eventually brought to a final end by Ransom and some companions, who have supernatural help from the eldila of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury. The idea of taking over earth completely, eventually stamping out all other life, or at least bringing it under control, is also part of the evil shown. Merlin is an important character in the book.

It is interesting that the idea that humans have a right to propagate humanity to other planets, and to control the earth, cannot logically be defended as an important principle if there is no objective truth.

As indicated in the quotation at the beginning, spiritual choice, accepting or rejecting salvation through Christ (Maleldil in the Space Trilogy) is also part of the book.

Thanks for reading. Read Lewis.


Fred said...

Thanks for the reflections on Hideous Strength. It has been years since I read the trilogy by CS Lewis, the books seem to get darker as the trilogy progresses. Have you read the young adult books that begin with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L' Engle? If not I think you would enjoy the parallels.

Martin LaBar said...

Yes, I've read them, more than once, including fairly recently.

Thanks, Fred.

Pilgrim said...

I re-read them a couple years ago. They're worth re-reading. I should do that again this summer. As we get older, and also as the world around us changes, we read them in different ways.

Martin LaBar said...

Yes, they are worth re-reading. And we never read the same book twice, because we are different.