Having visited both Mars and Venus, Dr. Ransom’s battle with evil spirits now turns to Tellus – that is, Earth.
If you read these reviews, you may remember that I raved about how amazing Perelandra was. This book isn’t quite as amazing, but that’s almost an unfair comparison, because it is so vastly different, both in setting and in philosophy. That difference is its greatest strength.
This world is still, at its core, the same world. Dr. Ransom still has the benefit of his visit to Perelandra. The eldils of Earth are still evil. Maleldil is still the name of God. But in a stroke of genius, Lewis does not describe an external attack from supernatural forces. Instead, the villainy of the Tellus eldils comes internally, from a group of scholarly academics. The true conflict of the story is not whether Ransom will succeed against the evil spirits, but whether Mark, an ambitious sociologist, and Jane, his wife, will be pulled unknowingly into this vile scheme.
While Perelandra was about temptation, faithfulness, and the fall, That Hideous Strength is about on one hand the consequences of naturalistic and atheistic philosophy (it was Lewis who said “good philosophy must exist if for no other reason than that bad philosophy must be answered”), and true conversion of the already fallen person on the other. There are many interesting things to say about both of those ideas. But the strongest thing about the book is how Lewis brings a sense of realism to the story, much more so than in the first two of the trilogy. It reminds me a lot of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Called Thursday in that it starts out very grounded and moves gradually to the more fantastic. This is also apparent in his characters – Jane and Mark, the two main characters of this book, are very flawed characters whose primary vice is pride, but that expresses itself totally different ways. Jane is utterly convinced of her need for no one as a modern woman, while Mark is very much like a shallow middle-schooler seeking popularity (or prestige, in his own mind) with “the cool kids,” which in this case happen to be progressive academics.
Through Mark’s eyes, we eventually see what the “bad philosophy” of the N.I.C.E. (the aforementioned evil scholars) leads to. If there’s anything Lewis wants us to learn here, it is perhaps that worldviews have consequences. And so we get a firsthand look at where subjective morality and naturalism lead, and it isn’t pretty.
But the most curious thing is how even as Mark is trying to get a position with the N.I.C.E., we never get a real firm indication that he actually believes their philosophy, much less the secret and disturbing conclusions of it. Instead, he just wants the prestige of being one of them, no matter what he must do to obtain it. This can certainly be read as a certain cynicism Lewis may have had for academia (he was himself an English professor), but it also teaches us much about pride, and undresses the pretty exterior of the places unbridled pride and ambition lead us to.
Jane’s character development, while less tied to the overall plot, also reveals something of pride. It seems that Lewis had much to say about marriage at this point, and what he says is very traditional. Jane is horrified at the thought that she should obey her husband (even more so when Ransom suggests it is an ultimate obedience to Maleldil). This book is not primarily a love story, but the ending of this subplot is significant: they each humbly come to the other not realizing that the other has changed.
None of this even approaches how good Lewis is with the more fantastical elements when they do arrive. More so than his other books (perhaps even Perelandra), he excels at describing the indescribable, such that you can see a great deal of influence from the writings of Ezekiel, even though the adaptation of these ideas is unquestionably Lewis’ s own.
This book does take a little bit to get going, and it’s not quite as theologically rich as Perelandra, which I still say is Lewis’s greatest work of fiction. But it’s doing different things, which is one of the greatest things about this trilogy as a whole. Each of them is so totally different than the other, and so philosophically rich, that I marvel at the fact that the Space Trilogy is not as massively popular as The Chronicles of Narnia.