That Hideous Strength: Fiction vs. Reality

I just finished reading the third book in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. I haven’t read it since high school, and I regret every decision that distracted me from picking it up again.

In the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on a few observations that stood out to me this time around.

Observation #1: Fiction vs. Reality

Several aspects of Lewis’ biography stood out to me–he quotes directly from Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres, he references Owen Barfield’s theory of semantic “ancient unities,” and Tolkien’s myth of Numenor. I’m also convinced that it would be possible (and I’m sure someone has already done it) to map many of the real-life Inklings members onto the characters in the story. Lewis, obviously, is the Ulsterman MacPhee–the snuff-addicted, hyper-rational skeptic member of St. Anne’s on the Hill.

The cross-over between Lewis’ real life and the fictional world of the story creates an effect that blurs the line between fiction and reality. The self-assertion of the narrator also contributes to the effect. The narrator frequently interrupts the story with personal/retrospective opinions about the events; he refers to himself with masculine pronouns; and he explicitly states his own limitations as a narrator. However, it’s not clear how/why the narrator knows as much he does about the details of the story–especially the thoughts and emotions of many of the characters. This narrative device is often used in fairy tales, which makes sense given the subtitle of the book: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. But I think its significance plays into Lewis’ deeper philosophical conception of the relationship between fiction and real-life.

For example. In his essay, “On Stories,” Lewis writes:

To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series–the plot, as we call it–is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path.

The “quality” or “state” is the reality caught by the fictional series of events and characters who act, think, and appear in very specific ways. For Lewis, this has a direct correlation with everyday life and forms one of the underpinning themes of the book. Based on the knowledge we have about biological life we have three interpretive/philosophical options in front of us, all of which are represented by three different groups of people in That Hideous Strength:

  1. The Materialist Interpretation: We can, like Mark Studdock and many people within the N.I.C.E., define life down to purely physical phenomena–e.g., emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain; the appearance of “ghosts” are hallucinations, etc. The physical world does not point beyond itself. It is, instead, a highly rationalistic, machine-like system. Every event or phenomenon has a material explanation that explains away whatever spiritual significance we think it may have.
  2. The Evolutionary Interpretation: The N.I.C.E. looks at human evolution and attempts to harness it and direct it to what the organization perceives as a “higher” mode of existence. The ultimate goal is to transcend human physicality–i.e., the aspects of an embodied existence that hamper intellectual achievements. Birth, decay, and death stand in the way of human achievement. This philosophy is a form of trans-humanism–the attempt to evolve beyond our physical limitations.
  3. The St. Anne’s Interpretation: I don’t know what label to give this interpretation. Fundamentally, it stems from a traditionally Christian anthropology: man is neither solely beast (materialist) or solely angel (evolution); he is by nature an in-between creature–one for whom there seems to be infinite potential, but never at the cost of either aspects of his nature. In the image of St. Anne’s on the Hill, Lewis describes a kind of monastic commune where the people work in a garden, maintain friendly relations with animals, submit themselves in obedience to the authority of Ransom, and, in the end, entertain the gods. The community of St. Anne’s represents the ultimate–and only–resistance to the growing evil and encroachment of the N.I.C.E. It resists by cultivating a way of life, not by marching out against the enemy (much to the frustration of MacPhee). It’s an odd form of resistance because it doesn’t feel like anything is being done. No quantifiable progress is being made–nobody attempts to capture enemy soldiers, commit espionage, or invade N.I.C.E. headquarters. Instead, they simply wait and obey. Preserving a way of life, especially one centered on an anthropology that is conducive to man’s dual nature, is the only effective resistance against evil. Any other active form of resistance falls into the trap of mirroring, and ultimately being consumed by, the enemy’s own tactics (…there are echoes here of Saruman’s downfall in Tolkien’s The Two Towers).

Like our understanding of a story, all three philosophical alternatives attempt to make sense of the world by way of it’s events, characters, and physical structure. These give rise to the plot of every day life, the net whereby we try “to catch something else.” And in this instance, the “something else” is a proper understanding of human nature and the cosmos.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality in That Hideous Strength, Lewis prompts readers to confront their conception of reality–or, at least, our interpretation of the physical world which suggests/signifies/indicates/catches “something else.”



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