Thursday, April 17, 2014

C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy: That Hideous Strength (part 1)

The title is taken from a line by the 16th Century poet Sir David Lyndsay (no relation, as far as I know, to the author of A Voyage to Arcturus):
The shadow of that hyddeous strength
Sax myle and more it is of length.
The  word “strength” here is used in its original meaning of a stronghold or a fortress and refers to the Tower of Babel, that dreadful monument to pride which according to some traditions was the citadel of the first world-conquering despot.

Each of the volumes of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is its own animal; each written in a different style and evoking a different theme. Out of the Silent Planet was an admitted and unashamed pastiche of the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Perelandra, on the other hand, drew it’s inspiration from medieval fantasies. Lewis’s third book, That Hideous Strength, is literally more down-to-earth, set in the most mundane location imaginable: a small university town.

Which is why Lewis subtitles his book “A Modern Fairy-Tale.”
If you ask why – intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels – I nevertheless begin with such hum-drum scenes and persons, I reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters and petty kings with which a fairy tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories.
But Lewis’s real inspiration here is not the Brothers Grimm, but his friend Charles Williams, who perhaps is best-known today for his connection with the Inkings, a circle of Christian writers which included by Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but who was a highly-regarded poet in his day and the author of fantasy novels which brought magic into the modern age. Lewis tries to adopt a style similar to Williams’s in this book and the theme of magic encroaching on the mundane 20th Century is one that Williams liked to use.

Mark and Jane Studdock are a not-exactly-happily-married couple. They’re not exactly un-happily-married, but their relationship, after less than a year of marriage, is already showing strains. Mark has just gained a fellowship at Bracton, a small college in the town of Edgestow and Jane is trying to finish her dissertation for her Master’s Degree from an neighboring woman’s college.

The relationship between Jane and Mark form an important subplot in the book and is both one of the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses. It’s a strength in that it gives the work an emotional grounding that the previous, more fantastical novels lacked. It’s a weakness in that Lewis’s experience with marriage was almost entirely academic and based on his observations of his married friends.

In the movie adaptation of William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands, based on the relationship between Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham, a friend teases him that he’s a writer of children’s books who has never had children and a lecturer on marriage who has never known a wife. There’s some truth to that gibe. Lewis did not marry until very late in his life and spent most of his time in the almost exclusively male company of his Oxford colleagues.

The novel begins with Jane bitterly quoting words from the Anglican marriage service and musing on how little the liturgical ideal matches the reality. I suppose it’s appropriate that Lewis starts with words from the liturgy, because he never strays far from church orthodoxy as his characters discuss marriage. The service also contains the words “Love, Honor and Obey”, and part of Jane’s subplot is how she comes to terms with the command “Wives, submit your husbands.” This is one of several things modern readers find annoying with this book.

But St. Paul’s admonition has a flip side which is often overlooked. As wives are obliged to defer to their husbands, Paul also requires husbands to be deserving of that deference. It’s not a perfectly balanced reciprocation, perhaps, but then neither is it an entirely one-way street either. This is a lesson Mark needs to learn. He has been preoccupied with his own career and climbing the greasy pole of faculty politics at Bracton and had been frankly taking his wife for granted.

Unfortunately, although we see Mark and Jane grappling with their relationship separately, and in conversations with others, we rarely see them talking to each other. Granted, this is a big part of their problem; but since we don’t actually see them working things out, their eventual reconciliation rings a little hollow.

Jane has been suffering from disturbing dreams. She has one of a man in a prison cell receiving a visitor who unscrews his head and carries it off, and about a sleeper buried underground. They bother her, but she doesn't know what they mean.

She winds up describing her dream to her neighbors, Dr. Dimble and his wife. Dr. Dimble had been her tutor when she had been an undergraduate, and she had remained a close friend. Lewis had a great affection for his own tutor when he was a young man, and tutors in his stories are always good people. Dr. Dimble thinks her dreams are significant, but doesn't seem to think she needs a psychiatrist. “I’m not going to give you any advice. But if you do decide to go to anyone about that dream, I wish you would first consider going to someone whose address Margery or I will give you.”

With his fellowship, Mark has become a full-fledged member of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton College, a faction that seeks to modernize the college and opposes the calcified policies of the faculty’s Old Guard.

Lewis, ever the Medievalist, was no fan of Progress. To a large extent, I suppose, this was due to his traditionalist religious beliefs, but I suspect his love for old things, especially the old Norse sagas, which preceded his conversion to Christianity has something to do with it as well. And perhaps, although he rarely speaks of them, his experiences in the trenches, where the promise of 20th Century science quickly turned to more efficient ways of killing.

In any case, I think that Lewis’s rejection of Modernity is only partially a reactionary dislike of Change; he is also reacting to an attitude prevalent in his era and still common today, although under a different name, about Progress as a Sacred Thing. After all, You Can’t Fight Progress. His friend J.R.R. Tolkien touched on something similar once when he drew a distinction between the Scientific Theory of Evolution, which is, he said, about Change, and the Popular Myth of Evolution, which is about Improvement. When, in one of the Narnia books, the corrupt governor of a distant island defended his policy of permitting the slave trade, he did so on the grounds that it was “Progress”. Prince Caspian replies that he has seen the same in an egg. “In Narnia we call it ‘going bad.’”

But back to Bracton. The college is considering selling a piece of property known as Bragdon Wood to the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or the N.I.C.E.; a kind of think tank ostensibly devoted to applying the latest in Science to Government and Social Planning.
The N.I.C.E. was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints – “red tape” was the word its supporters used – which have hitherto hampered research in this country.
I have to say, Lewis does a lovely job with the names in this book, and the N.I.C.E. is wickedly ironic. Conservatives no doubt would call the N.I.C.E. an example of Evil Big Government, but Lewis is rather vague about this. The line about “red tape” suggests the opposite to me, and the Institute's supporters sound to me very much like some of the present-day boosters of Charter Schools. As the story progresses we see the N.I.C.E. establishing its own parallel government which winds up absorbing the existing government of the city.

At the moment, the N.I.C.E. wants to buy Bragdon Wood, a small wooded parcel of land enclosed by and old wall with legendary connections to the time of King Arthur, for a new facility and it is looking to create a partnership with the college. This of course is too great an opportunity to pass up, and the Progressive Faction rigs the order of business at the College Meeting to ensure that it goes through.

At one point we have a bit where Lewis unexpectedly indulges in a bit of the prophecy which Science Fiction is supposed to provide. A couple professors are discussing the benefits which a partnership with the N.I.C.E. will bring to the college. One describes an “Analytical Notice-Board” which will compile and display all the research done by various departments in real-time, sounding very much like a localized version of the Internet. Then another administrator puts it all in perspective by gushing about the new up-to-date toilets the N.I.C.E. plans to install.

After the meeting, Mark is introduced to another of the college fellows: Lord Feverstone, who turns out to be our slimy friend from Out of the Silent Planet, Dick Devine. He has done well for himself since his trip to Malacandra and has somehow acquired a title. Mark has always considered the Progressive Element to be the “Inner Circle” of the college and his ambition had been to join it; but in talking to Feverstone, he realizes that the faculty administrators he had jealously sought to join were themselves minor players. Feverstone he confides that he has been watching Mark’s career with interest and would like to recruit him for the N.I.C.E.

Mark has always wanted to be an insider, and this is his chance. At Feverstone’s urging, he agrees to visit the N.I.C.E. headquarters to speak with its director. At the same time, Jane makes up her mind to see the person the Dimbles have recommended about her dreams.

Without realizing it, they are choosing sides in a cosmic conflict.

NEXT:  Belbury and St. Anne's

1 comment:

alex-ness said...

Review is brilliant of a book that is my least favorite of my most favorite of the Christian writers of stuff I like.