Letter to a Friend on the Front Line of the Culture War

soapbox_webDear Friend,

This letter may shock you, but I think we’ve known each other long enough that I can mention this.

I’ll just come out and say it:

You know that person/group that you admire so much? Well, I disagree with something he/she/they said.

I know, I know. You didn’t see this coming. You and I agree on so many things. We are both passionately invested in the same political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic. And that person/group you admire so much shares that too. Together we have all invested so much to make sure our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic is/are well represented in the world.

I know we all share a lot, but there are some differences too.

Soapbox-barefoot-wreflectionRemember, not long ago, when that person/group you admire so much courageously spoke out against/for that other person/group? How could you forget?! It became a hot button issue and was covered in all the media. As a result of the courageous statement that person/group made against/for that other person/group, there was a lot of public scrutiny and a lot of criticism.

Soon people that share our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic responded, trying to support that courageous person/group against the public attack. Some of that was well done—including the statement of support that you made. I was impressed with your tact, and I thought you handled difficult social media moments well.

However, we must agree that there was also a lot of negative in our side’s response. There was mudslinging on both sides.

soapboxI think that’s bound to happen, isn’t it?

The result of this public battle, however, is that the original statement by that person/group that you admire has become a way of testing allegiances to the political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic we share. The sides soon became definitive. Being for or against that original statement meant being for or against our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic.

But here’s the thing:

I disagree with the original statement for/against that person/group. I deeply, deeply disagree.

soapbox upside downEven though I too admire the person/group who made the original statement, and even though we share much of the same political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic, I just didn’t agree with him/her/them.

In fact, I don’t think his/her/their statement is really true to our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic. More than that, I really was embarrassed that our side supported/criticized that person/group. Even though that support/criticism won us some points now, I think in the long-term we did a lot of damage.

And I think the way we drew lines of allegiance around that statement hurt a lot of people.

I suppose, at the heart of it, I really felt let down by that person/group we admire. I think our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic is/are more expansive/specific than that. When we make statements for/against groups/people like these, we are not being true to who we really are.

Soapbox7As I sit here writing this letter, I know that lots of people who share our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic would decide that I am now “out”—outside the lines we drew, so outside of the group of people who share our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic. At this moment in time, this issue seems critical to who we are. But I think we’ve got it mostly wrong, and in time we’ll see that people who share our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic will have diverse thoughts about that other person/group.

So I hope you can accept this note as a sign of allegiance rather than a declaration of separation. I wanted you to know how I felt.

soapbox 2If you want to talk about the merits of the original statement for/against that person/group, I’m okay with that. Even if we just disagree, though, I accept our disagreement. I value our friendship more than this issue.

But more than that, I think that our political views/religion/belief/cause/parenting approach/pedagogy/food ethic is big enough to encompass both responses to that person/group.

I hope then, that you will not think less of me because I disagreed with that person you admire. I don’t think less of you.

With Regards,

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Orwellian Advice: A Guest Post by the Mere Inkling


The title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

  1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”


The “Mere Inkling” is a blog I read every week. You can check it out here. If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here. This post is part of a series on Orwell and Lewis at the 70th anniversary of Animal Farm and That Hideous Strength. See also:

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Is Animal Farm Greater than 1984? C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts about George Orwell’s Work

george-orwells-1984-bbcOn Dec 12th, 1954 there was a live BBC TV adaption of George Orwell’s chilling dystopia, 1984. Although it was voted one of the top 100 British TV events, it is doubtful that C.S. Lewis took the time to watch it. He did use the publicity of the event to write a thoughtful essay on George Orwell’s work. He compared 1984–almost immediately a hit–withAnimal Farm–which was slow to catch on. He argued that Animal Farm, despite being the underdog and despite being cast in a parable or children’s tale–or, worse, an allegory–is truly the greater book. Here is a substantial portion from Lewis’ essay, first published in Time & Tide. You can now find it in Of This and Other Worlds.

Some of Lewis’ ideas are intriguing. Most of Lewis’ reasons for linking Animal Farm best are precisely what others would think would merit 1984. And, intriguingly, Lewis critiques the anti-sexual nature of the 1984 totalitarianism, and the sexual freedom the rebels find. He does not critique it because it is sexual, but because it seems inauthentic. Perhaps. Yet Lewis has the exact same parallel in his That Hideous Strength, where bodiness and sexuality are problematic and true sexuality is fulfilled in the rebels in the ultimate scene. Still, Lewis may have a point about authenticity. He certainly lands home (for me) in other ways.

What do you think? Did history agree with Lewis?

animal_farm russian styleHere we have two books by the same author which deal, at bottom, with the same subject. Both are very bitter, honest and honourable recantations. They express the disillusionment of one who had been a revolutionary of the familiar, entre guerre pattern and had later come to see that all totalitarian rulers, however their shirts may be coloured, are equally the enemies of Man. Since the subject concerns us all and the disillusionment has been widely shared, it is not surprising that either book, or both, should find plenty of readers, and both are obviously the works of a very considerable writer. What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on ‘Newspeak’) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. Callimachus, to be sure, thought a great book a great evil, but then I think Callimachus a great prig. My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it. And I think we can all see where the dead wood

poster_1984_lrgIn the nightmare State of 1984 the rulers devote a great deal of time – which means that the author and readers also have to devote a great deal of time – to a curious kind of anti-sexual propaganda. Indeed the amours of the hero and heroine seem to be at least as
much a gesture of protest against that propaganda as a natural outcome of affection or appetite.

Now it is, no doubt, possible that the masters of a totalitarian State might have a bee in their bonnets about sex as about anything else; and, if so, that bee, like all their bees, would sting. But we are shown nothing in the particular tyranny Orwell has depicted which would make this particular bee at all probable. Certain outlooks and attitudes which at times introduced this bee into the Nazi bonnet are not shown at work here. Worse still, its buzzing presence in the book raises questions in all our minds which have really no very close connection with the main theme and are all the more distracting for being, in themselves, of interest.

The truth is, I take it, that the bee has drifted in from an earlier (and much less valuable) period of the author’s thought. He grew up in a time of what was called (very inaccurately) ‘anti-Puritanism’; when people who wanted – in Lawrence’s characteristic phrase – ‘to do dirt on sex’ were among the stock enemies. And, wishing to blacken the villains as much as possible, he decided to fling this charge against them as well as all the relevant charges.

But the principle that any stick is good enough to beat your villain with is fatal in fiction. Many a promising ‘bad character’ (for example, Becky Sharp) has been spoiled by the addition of an inappropriate vice. All the passages devoted to this theme in 1984 ring false to me. I am not now complaining of what some would call (whether justly or not) a ‘bad smell’ in the erotic passages. At least not of bad smells in general only of the smell of red herring.

Animal-Farm-RulesBut this is only the clearest instance of the defect which, throughout, makes 1984 inferior to the Farm. There is too much in it of the author’s own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist. The Farm is work of a wholly different order. Here the whole thing is projected and distanced. It becomes a myth and is allowed to speak for itself. The author shows us hateful things; he doesn’t stammer or speak thick under the surge of his own hatred.

The emotion no longer disables him because it has all been used, and used to make something.

One result is that the satire becomes more effective. Wit and humour (absent from the longer work) are employed with devastating effect. The great sentence ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’ bites deeper than the whole of 1984.

Thus the shorter book does all that the longer does. But it also does more. Paradoxically, when Orwell turns all his characters into animals he makes them more fully human. In 1984 the cruelty of the tyrants is odious, but it is not tragic; odious like a man skinning a cat alive, not tragic like the cruelty of Regan and Goneril to Lear.

Animal_FarmTragedy demands a certain minimum stature in the victim; and the hero and heroine of 1984 do not reach that minimum. They become interesting at all only in so far as they suffer. That is claim enough (Heaven knows) on our sympathies in real life, but not in
fiction. A central character who escapes nullity only by being tortured is a failure. And the hero and heroine in this story are surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.

In Animal Farm all this is changed. The greed and cunning of the pigs is tragic (not merely odious) because we are made to care about all the honest, well-meaning, or even heroic beasts whom they exploit. The death of Boxer the horse moves us more than all the more elaborate cruelties of the other book. And not only moves, but convinces. Here, despite the animal disguise, we feel we are in a real world. This – this congeries of guzzling pigs, snapping dogs, and heroic horses – this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them. It is as if Orwell could not see them until he put them into a beast fable. Finally, Animal Farm is formally almost perfect; light, strong,
balanced. There is not a sentence that does not contribute to the whole. The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. Here is an objet d’art as durably satisfying as a Horatian ode or a Chippendale chair.

four legs good two legs badThat is why I find the superior popularity of 1984 so discouraging. Something must, of course, be allowed for mere length. The booksellers say that short books will not sell. And there are reasons not discreditable. The weekend reader wants something that will last till Sunday evening; the traveller wants something that will last as far as Glasgow.

Again, 1984 belongs to a genre that is now more familiar than a beast-fable; I mean the genre of what may be called ‘Dystopias’, those nightmare visions of the future which began, perhaps, with Wells’s Time Machine and The Sleeper Awakes. I would like to hope that these causes are sufficient. Certainly, it would be alarming if we had to conclude either that the use of the imagination had so decayed that readers demand in all fiction a realistic surface and cannot treat any fable as more than a ‘juvenile’, or else that the bed-scenes in 1984 are the flavouring without which no book can now be sold.

that hideous strength cS lewis 1990sThis post is part of a series featuring the 70th anniversary of both Animal Farm and That Hideous Strength

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George Orwell’s 1984 and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: A Conversation about Influence and Pride of Place

This post is a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the publication of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

2+2=5Why did That Hideous Strength, which preceded 1984 and was reviewed by Orwell, remain mostly a fan favourite while 1984 is still regarded as a dystopian classic?

It is one thing to say, “1984 is a greater book.” It is true; I can feel that it is tighter, more invasive as cultural critique, a fuller fictional world, and less contextually specific (so more universal). But there are problems with 1984. There is a huge section of reading from a nonfiction book; while fascinating, it is unnecessary to the plot to go into that detail. 1984 is didactic, often lecturing the reader in the way that Ayn Rand does. Moreover, much of the detail of that nonfiction book is repeated somewhere in the actual action. There are repetitions throughout the book as if Orwell didn’t trust us to get it.

1984And then there is the conclusion of the book: There is no happy ending, no hope. Orwell gives a maddening answer to the question of human freedom. At the time, theists were claiming that we are free within the strength of God, and existentialists were saying that we rise up into the world and define ourselves—there is no freedom, so we live, absurdly, as free men. But Orwell answers by suggesting that totalitarianism in the proper technological regime can destroy human freedom.

And that is why 1984 is greater than THS. Since 1948, when Orwell finally published his dystopia, we have been asking the question: Will this new technological advancement or social cultural moment lead to the kind of regime that Orwell talked about.

It is not a question that Lewis gets us to in THS, though Lewis is prophetic in other ways.

In many ways, THS predicts 1984. They are both about a transnational, dehumanizing, technocratic collective that seeks to remove the individual human value and replace it with power for power’s sake. In both books, the technocratic dictatorship devalues the beautiful and the good, and the natural for the sake of human advancement. In THS it is the übermensch, the human-beyond-human, the next evolutionary step that one man may achieve for all men. In 1984 the human-beyond-human is the loss of individual identity in the collective.

That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis 1970s coolIn these ways, as well as the dreary tone and the promise-less future they both offer, the books are very close. I am especially struck by the “head” in each. We all know of “Big Brother,” the watching figure on monstrous sized posters throughout London, reminding all in the party that they are being watched. Three years earlier, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis is quite literal in creating a disembodied figurehead. The grotesque, liquimagnified head of a criminal, pumped with air and snot and blood and electrical current and animated by the spirits of earth, is the near-omnipotent autocrat surrounded by an inner ring who none of them have a clear idea of what is really happening.

If the connections between the two are the obvious threat of totalitarianism in the Communism and Fascism (Nazism) that were the energies of WWII against which the Allies’ Democracy was struck, the connection of “Newspeak” is even more poignant. “Newspeak” is among the most brilliant parts of Orwell’s world creation. It is a language created to be an efficient machine for the totalitarian state. One cannot control the thoughts of others while dangerous words still sneak about in the universe. Newspeak kills those words—murders them with the hope of murdering the thoughts they allow. In most cases this verbicide reduces communication to meaninglessness. Since the regime still needs bombs and buildings, some precise language is necessary. Therefore, within Newspeak is the principle of Doublethink, where one can hold two competing ideas in one’s mind without cognitive dissonance. This is captured in the idea that, if the leadership of the 1984 regime say 2+2=5, then it is true.

war is peaceLewis’ use of this idea is not nearly as elegant as Orwell’s. But it is there, built into the very framework of the book in a show vs. tell sort of way. The phrase “That Hideous Strength” comes from a modern poem on the Tower of Babel—an early Bible story about the confusion of human language that delays or refocuses human technological progress. Within the leaders of N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), that confusion of language is essential to their conspiracy. In particular, Mr. Wither, Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., is invested in a way of speaking that uses many words but never says anything in particular. When one of the protagonists, Mark Studdock, presses Wither for a job description, he gets a typically Witherian response:

“I assure you, Mr. Studdock,” said the Deputy Director with an unusually far-away look in his eye, “that you needn’t anticipate the slightest … er … the slightest difficulty on that point. There was never any idea of circumscribing your activities and your general influence on policy, much less your relations with your colleagues and what I might call in general the terms of reference under which you would be collaborating with us, without the fullest possible consideration of your own views and, indeed, your own advice. You will find us, Mr. Studdock, if I might express myself in that way, a very happy family” (That Hideous Strength 52-53).

that hideous strength cs lewis panbooksOver a dozen more meetings with Wither and other N.I.C.E. members of the inner ring, Studdock is never able to get anything more specific. All truth is lost in a mist of verbiage. Ultimately the entire conspiracy falls to its own myth: N.I.C.E. is given over to its murder of meaning in the end as the Babel curse descends upon them.  Lewis’ “inverted logos”—to use Kath Filmer’s term—is not as specific and complete as Orwell’s Newspeak, but it is an intriguing connection.

The parallels between the two books are stunning. If Lewis had published THS after Orwell’s masterpiece, we would presume that Orwell was the shaping figure. As 1984 is the greater book, we don’t tend to think in that direction. Intriguingly, Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and Orwell’s Animal Farm were published the same week in 1945, so it is evident that both authors were thinking about the effects of totalitarianism in the final year of WWII. Moreover, both of those books coincidentally have the subtitle “Fairy Tale” or “Fairy Story” (Filmer 163).

While 1984 is the greater of the two books, was there any influence of THS on 1984?

ignorance is strengthI suspected there was, so I did some digging. In all the years of having 1984 taught to me—and me teaching it—no one has ever made the connection. Yet George Orwell had read That Hideous Strength. And he reviewed it (see the full review in Monday’s blog). While Orwell dismisses THS for its supernatural component and problematic ending, he is struck by the nature of the conspiracy in depicts:

“His book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control.

“All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.”

that hideous strength CS Lewis Panbooks 1950sAs Orwell continues the review, he proclaims that Lewis’ book is current. It is a contextually probable tale:

“There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable.”

Just a few days after Orwell wrote these words, the bomb was dropped.

In 1984, Orwell takes a similar conspiracy to its completion and shows the world after. In this way 1984 tells the story of what England will be like if the counter-conspiracy group in THS don’t defeat the N.I.C.E. and regain what is lost.

Kath Filmer in her essay, “That Hideous 1984: The Influence of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” notes some more specific parallels between THS and 1984. In both totalitarian movements, sex is set aside. More poignantly, the Objective Room used for brainwashing in THS prefigures Room 101 in 1984. Orwell’s version is more complete, less absurd, and leads to different results. But Lewis is more restrained, and does not use the opportunity to preach at his audience.

freedom is slaveryFilmer helpfully links these books, but I’m not sure she demonstrates “influence” conclusively. H.G. Wells had set the stage for science fiction, and both Orwell and Lewis had read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I don’t know if we can speak of influence definitively, though I suspect that Lewis’ supernatural dystopia had helped Orwell define his world in some ways.

We can say, however, agree that these two science fiction apocalypses give us a vision of what could be, written by two intellectuals struggling with the implications of totalitarianism in the last days of WWII. Lewis’ tale is richer in how it draws in other fictional worlds into his own. He also attempts to defeat a “myth”—the idea of what could happen if we forget that science is an exercise in discovery and description, not a reason for social formation. Lewis is also more restrained than Orwell in lecturing to the reader.

Despite these strengths—or because of them—Orwell’s tale is greater of the two. Although over-worn in its description, the path that could lead to a 1984 world is clear. The symbols are bright and clear: Big Brother, Ingsoc, Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime. The phrasing in 1984 is memorable:

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength
We shall abolish the orgasm.
Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain.

that hideous strength first trilogy edition lewisIn all these ways, 1984 is the more prophetic book. Neither book gives a first responders’ action plan to totalitarian apocalypse. If faced with thought police or a dehumanizing bureaucracy, one cannot hunt for Merlin’s tomb, as the counter-conspiracy of THS do. And Winston Smith’s experiment in 1984 leaves us with no hope for recovering freedom when lost.

But when it comes to preventing the regime in the first place, 1984 is the greater book. Thus it is consistently place on top 100 lists and That Hideous Strength is all but forgotten, save for a remnant of Lewis readers.

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George Orwell’s Review of C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength”

ingsoc logo 1984This week we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the publication of That Hideous Strength (THS). While George Orwell’s 1984 is considered among the great 20th c. dystopian novels and C.S. Lewis’  THS is read mostly by fans of dystopia or of Lewis’ work, it is Lewis that preceded Orwell. Even Orwell’s genius “newspeak” finds its prepubescent cousin in the technocratic rhetoric of the evil N.I.C.E. in THS. Orwell was aware of Lewis’ project, and reviewed THS the day it was published–the same week that Animal Farm hit the stands.

Setting aside the connection between the two authors (which I will discuss on Wednesday), Orwell’s great bias is in his first line:

On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them.

While you may or may not agree with him, this way at looking at books shapes his response to THS. Orwell is not without admiration for Lewis’ dystopia, and there is humour and enjoyment behind the review. Let me ask readers two great discussion questions: 

  1. Did Orwell review the book that he wished Lewis had written (rather than the one Lewis wrote)?
  2. Are books really better without miracles?

Feel free to leave comments below, answering these questions or asking your own.

that hideous strength first trilogy edition lewisOn the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them. Still, it is possible to think of a fairly large number of worth-while books in which ghosts, magic, second-sight, angels, mermaids, and what-not play a part.

Mr. C. S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength” can be included in their number – though, curiously enough, it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.

In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, it rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday.”

Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.

that hideous strength CS Lewis Panbooks 1950sHis book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control.

All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.

There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable.

that hideous strength cs lewis HeadHis description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story.

It would be a very hardened reader who would not experience a thrill on learning that The Head is actually – however, that would be giving the game away.

One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways. The scientists are endeavouring, among other things, to get hold of the body of the ancient Celtic magician Merlin, who has been buried – not dead, but in a trance – for the last 1,500 years, in hopes of learning from him the secrets of pre-Christian magic.

They are frustrated by a character who is only doubtfully a human being, having spent part of his time on another planet where he has been gifted with eternal youth. Then there is a woman with second sight, one or two ghosts, and various superhuman visitors from outer space, some of them with rather tiresome names which derive from earlier books of Mr. Lewis’s. The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.

That Hideous Strength CS Lewis oldMuch is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid. However, by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading.

Transcription by Arend Smilde at www.lewisiana.nl. Original review found in the Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945. Reprinted in The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), No. 2720 (first half), pp. 250–251. If you haven’t found Arend’s page (which I’ve featured before), check it out.

war is peaceOn Wednesday I am asking the question, “Why did That Hideous Strength, which preceded 1984 and was reviewed by Orwell, not become a classic while Orwell’s 1984 did?”

I look forward to your comments!

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“Men Without Chests”: A C.S. Lewis Doodle

that hideous strength cs lewis 1964This is the 70th anniversary of the publication of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous StrengthWhile it remains an obscure book, it is an important dystopia from the WWII-era. In fact, it dropped the same week as Animal Farm by George Orwell. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to look at Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and Orwell’s 1984.

Not everyone knows, but That Hideous Strength is a fictional working out of Lewis’ lecture series The Abolition of Man. This is a challenging book. It took me 2 or 3 times reading it before I started to get a handle on it. I found listening to the audiobook really helped me connect the dots.

Recently, the genius behind C.S. Lewis Doodle on youtube has completed a visual interpretation of the first essay in The Abolition of Man. It is called “Men Without Chests,” and I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this is one of the most important essays of the 20th century. I hope you enjoy!

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Even on Chairs of Bronze

art chairs charlottetownI was walking from my in-law’s house to work the other day. It is longer than my normal commute by foot, but is no great punishment. Prince Edward Island, when not beset by winter storms that are just starting to get serious as they pummel New England, is an intensely beautiful place. Besides the allure of history and literature, the romance of brine-coated fishermen’s beards and red soil turned to the sky and white beaches that kiss the sea for miles on end, our city is blessed with tall trees, quaint houses, and many green squares.

I looked forward to the walk.

mark butcher chair king's square charlottetownAs I walked through Old King’s Square with some story or another in my ear I looked over to the art installation. It is a series of bronze chairs, patterned after 1880s dining room chairs but at 1.5 the size. The original chair designer was 19th century entrepreneur, Mark Butcher. His furniture factory was where Maritime Christian College spent the first four decades of its life. City Council thought a nod to this history in King’s Square would bring a sense of nostalgia and fun to the area.

As I was walking through the Square, I looked up to see the five bronze chairs. There, sitting on one of the chairs, was a young man. With Dr. Dre earphones on, he sat with his back to me, listening to some song or other. As he lost himself in the music, his legs dangled from the half-giant height of this outdoor dining room chair. And as his legs dangled, he naturally allowed them to swing back and forth, sometimes hooking onto the chair legs and sometimes churning in boyish circles.

danglingfeet-bwIt was a joyous site: an adult sitting on an expensive piece of art, enjoying his music and allowing his feet to dangle. I remembered how often I slid into old country house dining room chairs as a kid. I remember the weight of my freeflung feet on my knees, and the not infrequent reminder from a parent or grandparent or aunt to stop kicking the chair.

But how could I stop it? Legs dangle when they hang from big chairs. Every kid knows that.

All of this went through my mind I as I wandered through the park. I dallied too long in reverie, though. As I walked by the guy looked up and caught me smiling. He blushed, took up a goofy grin, and stilled his wavering feet. I tried to look away, but it was too late.

king's square chairs charlottetownI was struck, though, with how strange our world is. It honours a certain kind of adultness—adulticity, I call it–a strange desire to restrain wandering legs as they dangle from giant chairs. I felt badly that this adulticity would have brought the man into self-consciousness. I wished he could dangle anyway, despite my intrusion.

Because, after all, the child in me wants to swing his legs when he can’t reach the floor. Even when he is stealing some time on a local art exhibit.

And even when sitting on chairs of bronze.

historic king's square charlottetown

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