18 February 2016

That Hideous Strength

Last year I read the first two parts of C.S. Lewis’s “Space Trilogy,” Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. I thought they formed a wonderful experiment in meshing old-school science fiction to medieval cosmology. I especially liked Perelandra, which is a bit unusual because many people name it as their least favorite. However, despite how much I enjoyed the first two books, I approached C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength with some trepidation.

I might as well start by saying that I like J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction better than C.S. Lewis’s. I’m not dissing Lewis here; I already hear the boos and hisses from the Lewis fans. I do think that most of Lewis’s non-fiction is stellar and his fiction is great too. But none of the Narnia books come close to comparing to The Hobbit. And though Till We Have Faces is a great book, in my opinion Lewis’s best fiction, it doesn’t hold a candle to The Lord of the Rings. So, all that said, I was in two minds going in to That Hideous Strength because Tolkien, who was a fan of the first two books of the space trilogy, thought that the third book “spoiled it.”[1] He attributed this to the great influence of Charles Williams on That Hideous Strength and said that Lewis’s mythology was “broken to bits before it became coherent by contact with C. S. Williams and his ‘Arthurian’ stuff.”[2] So much for that. It’s well known that Tolkien and Williams, though on friendly terms, never saw eye to eye as far as literature went. Now add to this the fact that I am actually a fan of the novels of Charles Williams, and you can see why I approached this book with mixed feelings.

This book is very different from the first two. The first two books felt very much in the line of classic pulp sci-fi. They would fit well on a shelf with Edgar Rice Burrough’s Carson of Venus or John Carter of Mars series. This third book is wholly earthbound. We don’t see any of the characters from the first two book for a good long time (or at least we don’t know that we’ve seen them.) The plot does pick up elements of the first two, but it uses them in a wholly different way. This book does, as Tolkien said, take a distinctly Arthurian turn, and Lewis does channel Williams in parts. However, there are also parts of the book that are quintessentially Lewis. I will say that Lewis doesn’t do as good of a job being Charles Williams as Charles Williams does. When it’s time for psychedelic, esoteric, mystical/spiritual happenings, Williams beats Lewis hands down.  But the parts of the book that play to Lewis’s strengths are wonderful! Lewis is a master of understanding human psychology: what makes people tick, why we make the decisions we make, what motivates us to sin, etc. Lewis is also one of the only authors I know of who can make simple virtues seem exciting. The domestic scenes and the lessons Lewis has to teach about our relation in the modern world to careers, marriage, family, and fulfillment are perfectly expressed and wonderfully portrayed.

There are parts of this book that are beautifully written. The plot and pacing is gripping. I didn’t want to put it down, and only did so reluctantly. There is certainly a larger cast of characters in this book than in the first two; your mileage may vary on this, though, as one of the things I liked best about the first two books was the sense of adventure, isolation, and loneliness. However, having a large number of realistically drawn characters is something Lewis does well.

As far as weaknesses go, the first I would point out is that this book is clearly no longer science fiction like the first two. I loved the first two for their sci-fi vibe and this one clearly trips over into fantasy. It’s a great book in and of itself, and it could be read as a standalone novel without prior knowledge of the other books. However, as a book that is meant to be part of a series, the tonal shift is just too great for continuity. The very ending of the book was a bit weak as well, but it was a very “Charles Williams” ending. As I said before, Williams does Williams better than Lewis does Williams.

Overall, it is a very good book with clever satirical commentary on modern culture. It’s required reading for Lewis fans, and would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys Lewis’s other fiction.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 342.
[2] Ibid., 361

1 comment:

Rick said...

In other news, I think this is my first blog post ever with footnotes!