Book Review: That Hideous Strength

“That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis

The final book in the “Space Trilogy” is by far the longest, and has had the greatest lasting effect on society. That said, it was probably my least favorite of the three novels.

That Hideous Strength, which takes its name from a 16th century poem about the Tower of Babel (this comes into play in the story’s final moments), can be evaluated in two ways: its influence, and the story itself.

There is no doubt that this has been an influential book. Along with The Abolition of Man, a non-fiction book written by Lewis in 1943 (two years prior to That Hideous Strength), this book addresses a reductionist, science-based understanding of humanity and the decreasing acceptance of an objective moral standard. Lewis felt very strongly about the issues he’d presented in the essays compiled in Abolition, but felt that literature was a more effective way of disseminating his own views.

The antagonists in the story are a secret society with influence throughout British society, from politics to education to media to religion. They even have their own private army/police force. This group (called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, or “N.I.C.E.”) believes that mankind must take charge of its own evolution, and that through scientific means, can determine what it means to actually be human. Through subversive means (primarily through control of the media) the N.I.C.E. aims to bend England, and eventually the rest of the planet, to its own worldview.

This presents a dystopian view of the future, which has been seen by many readers as a distinct possibility in reality. There are people and organizations with those motives (though perhaps not the exact method of seeing them through). They have largely gained control of the media and educational institutions. The result has been a loss of “faith” in objective moral standards in society-at-large. For these reasons, That Hideous Strength has been seen as somewhat “prophetic”, much in the same way as other novels written by some of Lewis’ contemporaries, such as Orwell’s 1984 and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

While I agree with the Christian worldview which tinted Lewis’ novels far more than I agree with the worldviews of atheists such as Orwell and Rand, I thought that the supernatural elements of That Hideous Strength actually detracted from the story. The story is obviously a fantasy (the book is subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups”), but Lewis’ depiction of angelic beings and mythical creatures seemed an awkward addition to an otherwise very realistic depiction of a (then) near-future England.

I certainly believe that spiritual warfare plays a more significant role in day-to-day events than most people realize, but I found the combination of mystery/intrigue with medieval and mythological characters a bit confusing at times. Personally, I think that Lewis could have communicated his point better had he chosen to focus more on either the fantastic or the realistic elements, rather than juxtaposing them to the extent that he did. In this regard, I am in agreement with George Orwell himself, who reviewed That Hideous Strength himself in 1945. You can read that review here.

However, I also agree with Orwell that, on the whole, this is a tremendous book, and worthy of recommendation. Buy it here.

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