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.
Why 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.
And 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.
In 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.
Lewis’ 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).
Over 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?
I 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.”
As 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.
Filmer 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.
In 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.