Losing the Safety of the Real in That Hideous Strength

Ptolomaic Cosmos from Planet Narnia dot comThough at times hauntingly realistic, scattered throughout C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy are moments where reality slides away from us. In the midst of the mundane—a walk at night, a conversation in a parlor, a sleepy, sunny afternoon on a hillside, a stroll in woods—almost imperceptibly the threshold between this and other worlds begins to dissolve. And rather than be taken up into that other time and space—or a time and space beyond space-time—some element of that other world slips into our own. Again and again the reader experiences the strange foreignness of the fantastic invasion as the character struggles to realize its implications with all of its sensations but only a tiny part of how that fits into the whole story.

Ransom_CycleOne collection of those moments where the trustworthy borders of Reality fall to dust is the invasion of the Medieval world into Modern Britain in That Hideous Strength. We talked about one of these scenes when I asked the question, “Why is Merlin in That Hideous Strength?” There the narrator–C.S. Lewis the character in his own fiction–takes a lonely and illicit walk into the ancient Bragdon Wood in a kind of pilgrimage to Merlin’s well. I argued there that Dr. Dimble’s scholarship blends the Arthurian past with the modern world of war and woe, and that those elements collapse into the figure of Merlin in THS ch. 1.III. “The sense of gradual penetration,” as the narrator describes it, is one of these threshold moments, a time of a slow-motion dissolution of all our protections from the unknown.

Perhaps the main book behind That Hideous Strength—and there are many—is George MacDonald’s Phantastes. Upon waking from sleep, Anodos transitions from his bedroom to Fairy Land almost seamlessly, and I have argued that this kind of transition is what happens in THS. This is one of the reasons for the peculiar subtitle: That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown Ups.

That Hideous Strength CS Lewis oldIs THS really a fairy-tale, though? On the face of it, we would reject the suggest outright. I don’t know if anyone has suggested this, but Lin Carter’s critique of MacDonald’s work causes us to wonder something about the genre of That Hideous Strength.

In the introduction to the Ballantine edition of William MorrisThe Well at the World’s End, Carter argues that Morris is the first modern fantasy writer, as the 19th century fantasists used either an element of allegory or a dream cycle to create the link into the speculative world. J.R.R. Tolkien addressed these things in his own way in “On Fairy-Stories”—and we must recognize how influential Tolkien was to Lin Carter, both in his own fantasy writing and in his (most important) role as a curator of 20th century imaginative literature. Neither Lillith nor Phantastes are allegories—though they have allegorical moments and symbolism at various levels. So Carter rejects these work as modern fantasy because MacDonald’s two great works have the suggestion of the dream to them.

There is some reason to be critical of Carter’s argument, but by that way of looking at things That Hideous Strength may not be modern fantasy, but may be best understood as a Fairy-Tale (as it claims of itself). In that intriguing walk to Merlin’s Well in That Hideous Strength, the Lewis character drifts off to sleep:

“The air was so still and the billows of foliage so heavy above me, that I fell asleep. I was wakened by my friend hallooing to me from a long way off” (1.III).

that hideous strength first trilogy edition lewisIs the rest of That Hideous Strength a mere dream—or a nightmare perhaps? Like Anodos in Phantastes, Lewis in THS transitions from real life into Fairy Land almost seamlessly, and both have the suggestion of a dream to them. Both books have dreams within them, though neither lays claim to a dream in absolute terms as the structure of that fantastic world. In the case of Phantastes, we have to reject Anodos’ initial waking as real if we accept the final awakening as a demonstration that it was all a dream–but that may be intentionally ambiguous. In the case of That Hideous Strength, we have none of the dream clues throughout the piece, though all the protections against the fantastic disappear in the set up to the ultimate scene—the wedding bed where the mythological erupts into a waking dream of the seer, Jane.

In any case, dystopia is a difficult genre to pin down. While Brave New World and 1984 are best viewed within the science fiction world rather than the categories of modern fantasy—remember, this is before urban fantasy emerged—it is hard to see THS as merely an SF book. It is true that the N.I.C.E. is constructed as a scientific enterprise to create a totalitarian, post-human world—which is the kind of thing that most dystopia of the period did. However, it turns out that all the scientific structures are a cover for two kinds of cruelty—1) the human leveraging of power against the weak; 2) backed by demonic forces—and two kinds of beauty—1) the strength of the Company of St. Anne’s; 2) backed by angelic and interplanetary powers. It is this crossover between SF and supernaturalism that George Orwell found so offensive in a book he otherwise admired.

that hideous strength CS Lewis Panbooks 1950sStill, the dream-like tang of That Hideous Strength haunts me with its possibilities. Lewis was very much attuned to the genre of the book. He not only subtitled it a “Modern Fairy-Tale,” but defended that unlikely genre self-designation in a preface. He also gives a warning to the reader:

This story can be read by itself but is also a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet in which some account was given of Ransom’s adventures on Mars—or, as its inhabitants call it, Malacandra. All the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical.

If there is a Phantastes-like dream structure to THS, Lewis is pulling back from the allegorical layering of MacDonald’s work. This distinction is important: the characters are often caricatures because fairy tale uses and reuses familiarly molded characters. And some of the characters have sophisticated symbolic layering, so Dr. Ransom is Arthur reborn, prophetic master, and Christ figure, while Wither embodies a worldview option for Western people in a Faustian deal with an ideological devil of their time. But none of these is allegory, despite their suggestive possibilities.

So we see that Lewis excels in blurring of the lines between generic categories as he blurs the lines between fictional and realistic worlds. As Dr. Dimble reminds us,

“We are not living exactly in the twentieth century as long as [Merlin]’s here. We overlap a bit; the focus is blurred” (14.V)

Field of Arbol
The fictional world of That Hideous Strength is one that is neither merely this world or the world of the past. The fictional world of THS is almost like a wood between the worlds where both modern Britain and ancient England exist, but also our imagination of the Druidic past, Dr. Ransom’s Field of Arbol, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Númenor, Charles Williams’ Logres, the legendary Atlantis, the biblical Babel, and the heavens of classical and medieval thought. The time of the crisis at Edgestow is a pinch-point in history. And in this elbow-joint of time, a multidimensional breach allows access into all the worlds of history, myth, legend, scripture, fairy tale, and fantasy: all of these are available and each encroaches on the others.

The various instances of this encroachment is worth exploring but it is the effect I want to leave you with. Here is a typical example of that blurring of the distinction between worlds. Jane, Denniston, and Dimble are in the woods, in the dark, searching for evidence of an old man. It is a rainy night, pitch dark, and their flashlight does little to give them the big picture. Jane, the seer, is guiding them towards Merlin’s tomb. Watch how we leave the world of the contemporary fabrics of technology and culture—a flashlight, a gentlemanly gesture, the grit of the real world. And watch the invasion of other worlds into this one.

Jane, as guide, went first, and Denniston beside her, giving her his arm and showing an occasional gleam of his torch on the rough ground. Dimble brought up the rear. No one was inclined to speak.

The change from the road to the field was as if one had passed from a waking into a phantasmal world. Everything became darker, wetter, more incalculable. Each small descent felt as if you might be coming to the edge of a precipice. They were following a track beside a hedge; wet and prickly tentacles seemed to snatch at them as they went. Whenever Denniston used his torch, the things that appeared within the circle of its light—tufts of grass, ruts filled with water, draggled yellow leaves clinging to the wet blackness of many—angled twigs, and once the two greenish—yellow fires in the eyes of some small animal—had the air of being more commonplace than they ought to have been; as if, for that moment’s exposure they had assumed a disguise which they would shuffle off again the moment they were left alone. They looked curiously small, too; when the light vanished, the cold, noisy darkness seemed a huge thing.

The fear which Dimble had felt from the first began to trickle into the minds of the others as they proceeded—like water coming into a ship from a slow leak. They realized that they had not really believed in Merlin till now. They had thought they were believing the Director in the kitchen; but they had been mistaken. The shock was still to take. Out here with only the changing red light ahead and the black all round, one really began to accept as fact this tryst with something dead and yet not dead, something dug up, exhumed, from that dark pit of history which lies between the ancient Romans and the beginning of the English. “The Dark Ages,” thought Dimble; how lightly one had read and written those words. But now they were going to step right into that Darkness. It was an age, not a man, that awaited them in the horrible little dingle.

And suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested—little Christian sites, Camalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury—a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning scarcely a stone’s throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies’ blood. They had tried to do that to Merlin. And now all that age, horribly dislocated, wrenched out of its place in the time series and forced to come back and go

through all its motions yet again with doubled monstrosity, was flowing towards them and would, in a few minutes, receive them into itself.

Then came a check. They had walked right into a hedge. They wasted a minute, with the aid of the torch disentangling Jane’s hair. They had come to the end of a field… (11.I).


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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38 Responses to Losing the Safety of the Real in That Hideous Strength

  1. I finished reading this only a month or two ago and must compliment you on this article. I would say, however, that there is more unsafe “real” being found than lost in THS. “The fictional world of That Hideous Strength is one that is neither merely this world or the world of the past. The fictional world of THS is almost like a wood between the worlds where both modern Britain and ancient England exist,” – to me this prose was more like an exposing, revealing or unveiling plain, than a wood, between the worlds. Certain scenes are frighteningly real in their depiction of actual English village and university life, and others are almost prophetical in their, now, real actualization and possibility. THS is a fairy story only in the same way Animal Farm and Brave New World are fairy stories, and Merlin, I believe, was only a superficial substitute as a goal for “collectivist religous mystery” because the story focusses mainly on the motivation, means and limitations of collectivists, not their ends.


  2. joviator says:

    Interesting how things change: the term “Dark Ages” doesn’t get a lot of love from medieval scholars these days, but it was important to Lewis.


  3. You have written a tour de force here. Many congratulations! A reminder too of the way in which all our efforts to build a Babel strong enough to keep out other worlds are doomed to failure and we are trying very hard to do that in our times.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Makes me see I need to reread Phantastes! Rich and interesting! Within THS, the very distinct dream-experiences (with, perhaps, the mediaeval taxonomies of dreams – cf. The Discarded Image – in the background, or inviting comparison) – and this other (faerie-ish?) experience…

    Sudden thought from your attention to Merlin (“this tryst with something dead and yet not dead”): might the Paths of the Dead in LotR be part of the background of Lewis’s treatment of Merlin, here? (I need to check LotR composition history as to possibilities: but, even if not, the comparison invites – a new chance, a particular sort of service…).


  5. Co-incidence, I read this today …
    “There is a way of looking at Winston Churchill that is very tempting: that he was a deeply flawed creature, who was summoned at a critical moment to do battle with a uniquely appalling evil, and whose very flaws contributed to a glorious victory — in a way, like Merlin, in C.S. Lewis’s great Christian novel, That Hideous Strength.” [Ralph Raico]


  6. molehunter says:

    My Kindle novel “Darwin’s Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan England 2089” was inspired by the thought ‘What if the bad guys in Hideuos Strength had won, and 5 generations later a handicapped boy (the Studdock’s great great great grand grandson?) was appointed Pendragon?

    Liked by 1 person

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  28. molehunter says:

    Allegory or not allegory? I know that Lewis denied his work was allegory (except Pilgrim’s Regress, which is unashamedly allegorical), but the characters in THS especially the bad guys at Belbury do seem to me to represent certain types. I have no problem with that, but especially in the their last moments, Wither and Frost (somewhat allegorical names?) seem to represent types and philosophies. Isn’t that the essence of allegory?

    We know from Lewis’ introduction that THS seeks to embody some of the ideas developed in his essay The Abolition of Man. So I think the denial of allegorical elements doth protest slightly too much!


  29. I have a couple of questions in response. What do you gaining calling it allegorical instead of metaphorical, symbolic, representational, etc.? Lewis would want to define allegory is a character that has a one to one relationship with something abstract in the world, like Eros, Reason, Time, etc. He does this in Narnia, with an allegorical character Father Time. But he has other metaphorical usages. Aslan is a Christ figure, and thus both a figuration of Christ on the cross (like Harry Potter) and an example of moral action in the text (probably not like Harry Potter). And the characters are heroes, echioes of legend, etc. While the action may draw in mythology, legend, poetry, and pop culture. So these work on many later.
    The second thing is the genre. What does the subtitle say about genre? If THS is a fairy romance–a fairy tale adventure story, perhaps–then characters are not always there for psychological development, but are sometimes stock for the soup of story. Mark and Jane are clearly psychologically complex and developing. The NICE are mostly cartoons. It fits the modern fairy tale well.
    Do you see the force of my question? If it is allegory, how is it more like Animal Farm than Phantastes? What do we gain from calling it one thing or another? How do we read it differently?


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