C. S. Lewis and George Orwell

One of my favorite books is That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. If you’ve read it, then it is probably one of your favorites too. If you haven’t, then that’s your next assignment. (Take notes; there will be a quiz later.) The same goes with 1984 by George Orwell. The books are at once strikingly similar and worlds apart. If you take That Hideous Strength, remove God, and advance 40 years, you have 1984. Interestingly, THS was written in 1945. Both of them might be called dystopias, literarily speaking. I’ve always been attracted to them myself. It’s the worst kind of horror to imagine a world without God. In THS, you have a group of people who would like to create just such a world. In 1984, it’s an accomplished fact. (Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) follows those lines too, but that’s another post.)

What is really fascinating is a review I found this evening by George Orwell. It’s very revealing, but more about Orwell than Lewis:

George Orwell’s review of C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)

On 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.

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.

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.

His 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 [these are more like angels in the story, certainly not “ghosts” -ed.], 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.

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, 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.
Wow, what a backhanded compliment that last sentence is! Clearly, he didn’t think much of the novels of his day. These two sentences are quite interesting: “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.” It is made quite clear in the novel that there is no certainty of a good outcome for the group battling the evil scientists:

“You must risk that,” said Dimble. “I can offer you no security. Don’t you understand? There is no security for anyone now. The battle has started. I’m offering you a place on the right side. I don’t know which will win.” –That Hideous Strength, chapter 10

True, we know that “the gates of Hell will not prevail against [the church]” (Mt. 16:18), but that doesn’t mean that individuals will not die along the way. And the statement about the “whole drama” of good vs. evil and supernatural aid is difficult to understand. What is evil? If there is nothing beyond ourselves, nothing beyond humans, then what is good and what is evil? I think there’s quite enough “drama” as there is. And if there is to be no “supernatural aid” for those fighting evil, then evil will triumph every time.

Thank goodness that’s not the case.

If I were going to be stuck on a desert island with either Lewis or Orwell…

10 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis and George Orwell

  1. THS is the third in his “space trilogy” (not quite aptly named) and while you can read it without having read the other two (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), I recommend you read those two, mostly because they're fantastic books. It's also always nice to have context.

    I like Till We Have Faces too. (c;

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  2. I also recommend starting with Out of the Silent Planet and working your way to THS. My husband and I started reading THS once (after I had already been through the other two) and he quit because he really could not get a clear picture of what was going on. After he went back and read the first two books he went back to THS and totally understood and enjoyed the book.

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  3. I too advise reading the other two books first. The trilogy is a trilogy and needs all its parts. Centuries ago I wrote a paper on them, about the central character as an embodiment of Christian magnanimity. It's been so long ago, probably time to read them again.
    As for being stuck on an island, chose Lewis. He wrote in three entirely different genres, so you would never get bored.

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  4. love this – btw, Lewis was scarily ahead of his time, did you know there actually exists a group called NICE, in England, nicely enough within the wonderful social medical system of England, NICE gets to make decisions on who gets care and who doesn't.

    While we are on the topic of great dystopian novels, my personal fav. is Fahrenheit 451 – I think Bradbury was the first to predict reality TV as we know it today! And now, my train of thought will leave me singing George Strait's “They Call Me the Fireman” all night long 🙂

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  5. Anna, Lewis was frighteningly prescient on a number of things. Every time I read something of his I'm brought up short by something I'll notice for the first time. I like F451 too, although I read it long after high school. I don't know why, because I love Bradbury in general and had started reading him very early. Remember the story, The Veldt? Frightening. We have that kind of virtual reality that kids are addicted to today.

    And there should be no doubt in ANYone's mind that I would pick Lewis! (If I couldn't have Father, of course…)

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  6. I am a great fan of Lewis and would love to have his stuff on a desert island. But better than Orwell? I am not sure how you could even put them in the same league. Orwell is one of the great writers and journalists of the 20th century. I have read all of his books and all the journalism I can lay my hands on. It is simply impossible to put down. If it was a choice of one of the other it would have to be Orwell.

    Anna hasn't quite got the role of NICE right. It is the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and its role is to make sure that drugs do what they say they do based on clinical evidence and experience. There is nothing sinister about it.

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  7. Just came across this post after finishing one on the same topic… actually, I was fishing for a good graphic and that's how I found your post. Lewis was a great man. Orwell was a great writer. I'm looking forward to meeting the former some day… and wish I would have had the opportunity to meet the latter as well.

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