George Orwell Understood C.S. Lewis … a Little Too Well

By John Zmirak Published on December 28, 2016

I’ve loved every book by C.S. Lewis I’ve ever come across, even his slightly arid early allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress. His best work, I think, is Till We Have Faces, which someday will be discovered as a 20th century classic of psychology and theology. But I haven’t loved each of Lewis’s books immediately. Some of them rested on knowledge I didn’t have, or worked in genres I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate. The one book I struggled with most, and only came to appreciate after a third, careful reading, was That Hideous Strength.

It turns out that I stood in distinguished company. This morning on Twitter I came across a fascinating blog post that disinterred the 1945 book review of Lewis’s novel by his literary equal, George Orwell. That author’s problem with Lewis’s book was exactly the same as mine. His review opens with this:

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. … 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.

C.S. Lewis’s “Harry Potter” Novel

What’s especially jarring to the modern reader is seeing magic happen in a contemporary context. We can comfortably read Dante or even Dickens, and allow for the actions of angels and ghosts — since they’re filtered through mental distance. (That’s the sort of thing that everyone believed in back then, so it’s not out of place in the fiction.) But it’s profoundly uncomfortable to read realistic scenes of brutal academic intrigue and torture by secret police, then flip ahead to encounter the wizard Merlin and the actions of fallen angels.

The C.S. Lewis novel that prophesied present evils

Even for those of us who firmly believe in angels, and bear no grudge against Merlin, the result is as disconcerting as a futuristic production of Macbeth involving light sabers. A less-famous novel of almost equal merit, Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel of the Antichrist, The Lord of the World, engages the supernatural in a much more reader-friendly fashion — that is, psychologically and morally, without any bells and whistles.  

Lewis Predicted 2016 Better than Anyone

That doesn’t mean Lewis was wrong to write as he did. The flaw lies in us, and the post-Darwinian materialism which we drank in with our mothers’ powdered formula. But it does prove an obstacle, at least at first, to appreciating the extent of Lewis’s achievement in this brilliant dystopian fairy tale.

  • Lewis’ warning of the collapse of modern marriage is dead-on accurate, and prophetic. He shows in excruciating emotional detail how weak men devoid of principles make women feel too unsafe to live out the primal calling to marriage and motherhood.
  • Lewis accurately diagnoses the college faculty lounge as the seedbed for moral chaos, and then totalitarianism.
  • In the speech of villain John Wither, Lewis depicted the connection between vapid language and bureaucratic murder which Orwell drew in “Politics and the English Language.”
  • Lewis foresaw and brutally parodied Liberation Theology before the KGB had even come up with the phrase, or German Jesuits gobbled it up like a Scooby snack.
  • He saw how modernist art and architecture can serve on a deep, emotional level to make complex traditional worldviews seem contemptible and untenable without the courtesy of an argument.

Even his use of Merlin, and the other proto-Harry Potter aspects of That Hideous Strength, serves a worthy purpose which pervades all of Lewis’s work: redeeming and returning to us, untarnished, the traditional store of Western, Christian symbols for timeless truths — such as virtuous manhood, true obedience, genuine honor, and the Hierarchy of Being.

Does Bringing in God Spoil the Story?

With all of that said, one criticism which Orwell lodged deserves our attention — if only because it backfires on that author so badly, in the pages of his greatest work. Orwell wrote of1984 That Hideous Strength:

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.

Doubtless you have read 1984. You’ll remember the climactic scene where the sadistic totalitarian O’Brien tortures the hero, Winston Smith. He doesn’t just want Smith’s compliance. He hungers for total surrender — a crushed and battered “fiat” from the soul of modern man, stripped bare of every particle of hope, affirming that there is no escape even imaginable from the future: “a boot, crushing a human face, forever.”

At a crucial point in the torment, O’Brien turns to theology:

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”
“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”
“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.”
“Do you consider yourself a man?”
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.”

So Orwell accused Lewis of loading the dice to win in That Hideous Strength, not long before he wrote 1984, and loaded the dice to lose. On some level, Orwell the unbeliever knew that atheist humanism could never carry the day — that asserting secular human dignity in the depths of the Gulag or death camp was arbitrary and futile, in the face of the superabundant, tangible evidence of evil.

He knew that men like himself, like Winston Smith, could not stem the tide. What he couldn’t quite imagine was that somewhere, in camps and factories and seminaries, were men like Solzhenitsyn, Walesa and Wojtyla (St. Pope John Paul II) — who with God’s help, could. And did.

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