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.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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52 Responses to George Orwell’s 1984 and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: A Conversation about Influence and Pride of Place

  1. Tom Campbell says:

    Brenton – apologies. I posted this reply at the older post just before I read your new post. And my reply seems appropriate here. So I’m resubmitting it. I hope that’s OK. I’m not trolling.

    It seems to me very fitting that Orwell reviewed THS. It could have been a lot worse. Ayn Rand wrote some marginalia in her copy of The Abolition of Man that clearly revealed her utter disdain for Lewis. One could also imagine a snarky review from someone like Dawkins.

    Orwell, on the other hand, was about to publish perhaps the sine qua non of dystopian novels. In his review he seems to me (at least between the lines) to understand the enormous responsibility of describing such a dystopia. He may have had an atavistic fear of enchantment – if you call for the devil he may come and you get more than you bargained for. In THS this in fact occurs to various characters on different levels. Of course, Orwell was not glibly recommending his dystopia as the Director might, but possibly he was preparing himself to deal with it realistically when it arrived as Lord Feverstone did.

    By recognizing, highlighting and criticizing the supernatural element in THS Orwell showed his latent Christianity while at the same time rejecting it, not as wholly undesirable, but as just not possible. He was not a glib utopian. He (like Huxley and Lewis) knew that human beings are incapable of producing a utopia, try though they might. And in the attempt, they produce the opposite. As such, he seems to me to be approaching THS from two angles. From the first angle he considers THS as a dystopian novel and judges it good. From the other he considers it as simply a fantasy novel and is not satisfied with its miraculous deus ex machina ending. But he does feel the tension, I’m sure, even in his own works, where there is only machina and no deus and the disastrous outcome of this state of affairs. Do atheists sometimes get righteously indignant at God for not existing?

    I would also like to respectfully differ about which book was the most prophetic. I think Lewis’ was. 1984 was universal in its scope, whereas THS was confined to the UK. I feel that Lewis more accurately portrayed the bureaucratic and political gobbledygook that actually exists today in the western world. And the utter demonic character of 1984’s government has not yet arrived (except perhaps briefly in Cambodia and N. Korea). Orwell did hit the target though with the 2 Minute Hate. He had no way of knowing that the Twitterverse would actually come into being. But we are now regularly treated to the spectacle of some sinner being Twitterlynched (the recent story of the dentist and the lion comes to mind). The 2 Minute Hate is here.

    On a different tangent: I’m not sure if you have noted this before but there actually is a department of the UK government called NICE. Here is their website:

    Clearly the government committee-persons who came up with this moniker had either not read THS or they were utterly tone deaf to its ironies


    • I’m sorry Tom–both these landed in Spam. I love your engagement here.
      I love that Ayn Rand-Abolition piece. Brilliant. I wish I thought of it!
      I like how your knife slices through Orwell’s review.
      I wonder, when considering “the god of the machine,” if it is a double sin that if the god of the machine is God. Tolkien’s eagles or Harry Potter’s last chance–these are providentially tinged, but really just the great twist that wins. In THS, it is a spiritual counter-conspiracy, so the “god of the machine” is capital-P Providence: Merlin knows which side to be on, and Ransom knows the answers to the questions because of the bad luck of being kidnapped to another planet. It is the story of Joseph, in Genesis: “what you intended for ill, God meant for you.”
      I think that story will always be intolerable to some.
      Yet, I think it can be good storytelling. THS has lots of messiness and some inelegance, but it is a good story, for those who like the kind.
      Are there many dystopias that end well? Lois Lowry, perhaps.
      On “propheticness”–I take your point. I think Animal Farm is far more universal than 1984, which was formed out of the heat of WWII’s aftermath. Newspeak is brilliant, and so is brainwashing. I hope he is wrong, though, when it comes to real freedom. MOral freedom, I mean.
      I can’t believe that NICE exists! It does demonstrate that THS hasn’t had the lasting cultural impact that Orwell has.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Arend Smilde attends to the bizarre Rand annotations:

      Liked by 1 person

    • Annis Bailey says:

      Yes, NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) was particularly un-nice to people with ME until Long COVID proved it is a real and serious disease – so all that felt very dystopian, for far too long. As for the Government, my review here probably says as much as I am willing to observe, in 2022.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  3. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Loved this article!


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Someone in the late 1970s or early 1980s (he said vaguely) wrote an interesting article about Lewis and Orwell – I think in Mythlore – but I cannot remember the details, or the publication details! (At some point I somehow confidently misremembered it as having been written by Joe Christopher: when I told him how much I enjoyed it, he cheerfully set me straight on that detail!) I think one detail it noted, which in some sense I had already noted myself, were descriptions in each, of the light reflecting off someone’s spectacles so you could not see his eyes while his voice went on, together creating a sort of non-human impression – or so I remember it, not having tried to look up either just now: if Lewis was first and Orwell read Lewis, he must have ‘picked it up’ from him (however consciously, deliberately, or not).

    Comparing the two, while Wither and Frost are, with varying degrees of deliberateness, dehumanizing themselves, they seem satisfied to use terror on others. O’Brien, having dehumanized himself in a more classically tyrannical way, methodically sets about moving Smith beyond terror and submission to (somehow) really loving Big Brother – which makes 1984 a more terrifying book. (Is it, in this, more terrifying than the condition of certain dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle? They have brought themselves into what seems at the least an indefinitely enduring false state of perception, consciousness, personality. And what of some characters in The Great Divorce?)

    Interestingly, while Lewis points to the explicit relation of THS to The Abolition of Man, the open-endedly horrific world of 1984 and the possible, probably future Lewis develops in those lectures seem to me to resemble each other more than THS and 1984 do.


    • Was it Kath Filmer, whom I quoted. I think her paper was “That Hideous 1984.” This meager blog is about filling out that article a bit, but a real paper response would be required. But I don’t remember the light-glinting spectacles.
      1984 is more terrifying. In that sense, Great Divorce is more successful at tapping into the deeper fears and angers.
      So, is 1984 a better fulfillment of “Abolition of Man”?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I feel pretty sure I’d remember if it was Kath Filmer.

        I’d venture (partly for the sake of discussion) that 1984 is a better fulfillment of “Abolition of Man” – and, that Huxley’s Brave New World is a still bettwe one. (In how far might 1984, consciously or unconsciously, be something like Orwell’s version of THS as he thought it could be more effectively written?!)


        • Do you know Kath Filmer? I’d love to make sure I haven’t mishandled her here.
          What’s the Father of Brave New World?


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            We were in Oxford at the same time and involved in the Lewis Soc., but in all too typical fashion for me, I have not kept up with her properly! But I can’t image she would be anything but open and helpful (time and responsibilities allowing) if you asked her!

            “What’s the Father of Brave New World?” A good question! – I’ve just picked up a handy annotated ed. for students, but not reread it with the help of the notes (etc.), yet!

            In Lewis’s 1955 Orwell essay, he talks about the familiarity of “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 Wakes.”


            • I will have to read “The Sleeper Wakes”–I haven’t read it yet.
              The Time Machine, though, is very light on dystopia–I think, simply, because it is the outworking of the philosophy in the Outline of History. Where else can Humanity go… but elsewhere?


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I haven’t read The Sleeper Wakes, yet, either! (I see LibriVox has a collaborative version of some 8 hours…)


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I just ran into what Wikiquote tells me is from Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II (1840), Book Four, Chapter VI: “After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the government then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence: it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

          It seems to me that Huxley’s Brave New World could almost be a conscious attempt to work this out as a story – how might this be achieved in the near future? “The will of man is not shattered” (contrast 1984). The “power […] compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people,” in BNW not on a national, but on a ‘universal and homgeneous State’-level, and, how frenetically actively! They are (among other things) “industrious” but the more “timid” in some (key) aspects by the skillfully channeled liberation or licensing of passions in other directions (e.g., consumerist, sexual), though that is reinforced by indoctination of various sorts and a truncated ‘rationalism’ (lest real, natural ‘ratio’ should kick in, expecting a bit of licensing itself).


          • Wow! An AMAZING quotation, that is. And you nailed it: BNW (of the dystopias I know).
            I wish I had written that: the tyranny without tyranny, the revolution by inches, death of a culture with a thousand smiles.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You have somehow finally nudged me to look up Lewis’s title’s source in context: Book Two of Ane Dialog betwix Experience and ane Courteour of the Miserabyll Estait of the World. The Wikipedia “David Lyndsay” article conveniently links to volume three of David Laing’s 1879 edition of his Poetical Works, where the whole retold Babel story may be read on pages [3]-10:

    It has the interesting detail of Nemrod telling the people under his dominion whom he will have build the tower that “It sall surmonte the Planetis sevin / That we frome God may wyn the hevin” (lines 1689-90). Another interesting point is the stress on the mildness and graciousness of God’s punishment (ll. 1793-1806) – I haven’t yet read on to the sequel indicated in the last two lines of this section, but it occurs to me that NICE represents a repeated attempt, and so is punished in the same way but differently and more fiercely.


    • Funny–I just wrote a paper about “hyperlink” as metaphor for drawing texts into other texts. Here we have a literal hyperlink–or as literal as digital can be.
      I tried that poem a couple of years ago and struggled, but in OHEL Lewis praised Lindsay’s work. I think my language muscles are stronger now. and will try it again.
      “Planetis sevin”–I think Michael Ward might deal with that. If not, he should.


  6. thegatheringfire says:

    Great article! I confess I haven’t read either yet, but you certainly convinced me to add them to the list. 🙂 Very interesting!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Not to steal any of Brenton’s thunder, but I’ll go ahead and add a recommendation of Lewis’s essay, “George Orwell”, published on 8 January 1955 (and reprinted in the 1982 collection called Of This and Other Worlds in the UK and On Stories in the US – and subsequently) in which he discusses the relative merits of Animal Farm and 1984, much to the advantage of the former. (Lewis wrote after the Dec. 1954 broadcast of the BBC television dramatization of 1984, starring Peter Cushing as Smith, André Morrell as O’Brien, and Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, adapted by Nigel Kneale – the creator of Professor Quatermass. I have not yet caught up with this version, but it is available ‘out there’ one way or another having been released on dvd.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, you caught me! That essay is part of Monday’s post! I am inclined to agree with Lewis that Animal Farm is better, though I don’t think the sex inauthentic.
        The most recent film is okay, but it is hard to do a dark, dismal film. I have never really cared about the film characters.


        • levisweeney says:

          It really is a pity that the Space Trilogy has been relegated into relative obscurity these days. Do you think it would make for a good film adaptation?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have no idea how you could film Perelandra–the nudity would be a problem I think, either a farce or erotica, either one missing the point. I have heard that it has made a nice opera.
            Out of the Silent Planet could be an interesting SF film, but I doubt there is a market. And I think THS would be a super weird film!


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I thought – and hoped – you might be bringing it into this little series! I look forward to your post!


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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just finished Sauron Defeated (vol. IX of the History of Middle-earth – only some 23 years after I first thought how very interesting it sounded…), and it suddenly occurred to me (granted, with an insufficiently precise sense of the dating) how (1) the multi-stage working out of the corruption of Numenor, (2) the working out of the return of Sauron, (3) the corruption of Isengard, and (4) the corruption of the Shire are all versions of dystopias – worked out to begin with (at least, Numenor) around the time of BNW and after, and further between the times of THS/Animal Farm and 1984 (!).


    • Wow–I have to read that, only 3 years after I thought I need to read it right away!
      What’s the most readable of the history?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I like – and think very readable – the earlier and later Numenor bits in HME vols. V and IX. Very interesting indeed, but largely later (though I now think tying in distinctly in some ways with the Notion Club Papers) is the stuff in Morgoth’s Ring (HME vol. X: I still have not caught up with vols. XI and XII, but would like to try).

        Reading Tolkien’s poem together with Lewis’s commentary (as far as it goes) in The Lays of Beleriand (HME vol. III) is also very interesting. And I thoroughly enjoyed vols. I and II. I can’t remember whether I’ve read all of vol. IV, or just browsed and searched around in it – which is what i have done in vols. VI and VI (and not yet VIII): often trying to see if I can get an idea of what he was working on – and so (probably) reading aloud to the inklings – at a particular date.


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