I read an article recently that talked about C.S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength. The article is by Gavin Ortlund, called “Conversion in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength” (Themelios, 41.1 (2016): 8-19). You can find it here. I have read That Hideous Strength a few times, and I always found the book a bit strange, especially the ending. That Hideous Strength is not, to my mind, Lewis’s best book. It doesn’t have the magic of Narnia or even the straightforward plot of the first two Space Trilogy books. (Also, if you have not read Till We Have Faces, check that out; it is an overlooked gem.) The article I read, though, helped me to see some new things in That Hideous Strength. I enjoyed reading the article because it showed me what Lewis was trying to communicate in the book, and this helped me appreciate the book more. I have been writing for the last few weeks on modernity and morality, and how humans try to avoid the reality of God and His moral code by leveraging science and technology. In Lewis’s Space Trilogy books, he tells stories to show how terrible and dangerous this is when lived out. These books have lessons of warning for us.
I have read Lewis’s Space Trilogy a number of times. The first book of the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, takes the protagonist, “Ransom”, to Mars, showing species that never sinned, living in harmony and joy. Two horrible humans, driven by modernity and progress, have come to invade and take over. They believe they are “saving the savages,” but they are ruining the goodness that is already on the planet. Ransom has to help save the day. We often believe that we should go to other planets to make things better. Lewis is warning us: going to other planets would mean infecting them with our problems, with our sickness.
The second book, Perelandra, takes place on Venus and retells the Adam and Eve story. Lewis uses this story to show the nature of temptation and evil, and also the goodness of how God created us. In this story, it is a human who actually plays the role of Satan, the Tempter. A corrupt human has come from earth to tempt the First Woman to disobey God. The corrupt human is so deceived that he thinks that disobeying God is a good thing, and wants “Eve” to do what is wrong to become “better” (actually, much worse). The other human, Ransom, has to do his best to stop this from happening. Humans going to another planet would mean we would make things worse: we have ignored God’s universal moral code, and we encourage others to do so as well – calling this “progress.”
The first two books of the trilogy take place in space and other planets. The third book, That Hideous Strength, takes place on earth, what Lewis calls “The Silent Planet.” Earth is called this because the overseeing angel of our world, Satan, has fallen and is no longer in communication with the rest of the angels, or with God. In fact, Lewis believed that perhaps the enormity of space was created to act as a quarantine, protecting the rest of the universe from the sickness of human sin. We often believe that we need to move to other planets to bring our goodness; Lewis countered that perhaps God is trying to contain the problem: us.
That Hideous Strength is about a married couple who are being pulled apart because they don’t understand themselves, what it means to be male and female, how marriage works, or God. To put it simply: they are modern people! Jane, who sees visions, is being drawn to the godly organization led by Ransom. Mark, who longs to be part of the inner circle, is being pulled towards a dark organization (ironically called N.I.C.E.) that wants to use technology to control all of humanity. The article by Ortlund focused on the conversion stories of Mark and Jane, and how their personal stories are a contrast to the “fairy” (or fantasy science-fiction) that is happening in the rest of the story. The article also highlighted Lewis’s point: that modernity was moving away from true humanity, creating a new (false) morality, and leveraging technology to do so. In fact, modernity was (and is) creating a new Tower of Babel (the name of the book comes from a medieval poem about the Tower of Babel, which is called “that hideous strength”): we are trying to invade heaven and have all of the benefits of heaven…without God.
I will share more next week about how humans are repeating the foolishness of Babel all over again.