The third and final science fiction novel written by CS Lewis, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is touted by some as a fantasy novel. I hesitate to go deeper to explain why that might be, for fear of spoiling, but let’s just say that the story takes place on Earth, not in space, and one of the key characters who acts in a miraculous and decisive way to defeat the enemy, is a wonderfully fantastical character.
As I have talked with friends who have read all three, I get different answers about which is the “favorite” in the trilogy. There are individuals who love Out of the Silent Planet. I personally like it for its length…it is as short as a novella and a tight little narrative. Others love Perelandra. I appreciate Perelandra, but there are portions where reading was a chore. For me, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is the true novel. It is my favorite of the three.
The Short Review: 5 Reasons I Recommend THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH
- Compelling main character(s) both grappling with interior life, particularly with identity and faith
- A rich setting, a modern academic world and progressive (Lewis’ words) university leadership that feels creepy, yet familiar
- An amorphous and terrifying villain, well written and historically relevant
- In the midst of the horror, a comedic twist that feels like a Shakespeare switch-a-roo
- A companion novel to 1984. Many minds in this era of the 20th century understood the tyranny of government control. Lewis and Orwell were cut from that same cloth. Warnings that are relevant today and always.
For me, the young married couple, Mark and Jane, makes this story compelling in a way that is unique among the three novels in the trilogy. Jane is a crucial player and well developed. In the previous novels Lewis did not present the reader with a compelling female lead who was relatable. The Perelandra Queen is wonderful, but otherworldly. Jane, in this book, is utterly relatable. Her discomfiture with domestic life, her struggle with a husband who is caught up in his own professional world, felt deeply real. Mark is also real. Lewis highlights his hubris and insecurity, showing the reader how one might choose to align oneself with a horrific community. Mark’s longing for belonging, his hope for recognition are powerful human motivators and have the capacity to diminish the moral spine, especially if that spine is wobbly (as Mark’s is). Despite Mark’s poor choices, I got the feeling that Lewis, like the deity he knows and loves, has not given up on this lost soul. When Mark sinks low enough and faces the worst of himself, there is a promise of redemption.
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a story with complex layers. The deeper conversation about nations and their “haunting” is a topic I will not cover in this review, but in case you’re wanting to understand more, an article in The Imaginative Conservative called America’s “Logres”: The Mythology of a Nation helped me muse on what might be the American Haunting. That conversation is a crossover of the spiritual and the literary and takes the reader deeper into the mind of CS Lewis and those who were writing in like spirit, JRR Tolkien being one of those writers.
PERELANDRA is the second installment in CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Below is my no-spoiler short review, but the longer review that follows the image of PERELANDRA’s cover, will contain spoilers…beware. This is not a children’s book, but I recommend this novel to all ages who like the story. For all readers, taking the time to discuss after or along the way will deepen philosophical and theological understanding.
Link to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET for a review of the first book in the trilogy.
5 Reasons to Read PERELANDRA, A Classic Science Fiction Story
- One of the more unique portrayals in literature of paradise and/or a pre-fallen world
- Beautiful CS Lewis prose
- The ideas are put forward clearly and by someone well acquainted with 20th century ideas
- Finally…a strong female character (there were none in the first novel)
- Read all three to make sense of what Lewis was trying to accomplish in the longer narrative arc
3 Reasons PERELANDRA is My Least Favorite of the Trilogy
- There are so few characters and the villain does not arrive until about 1/3 of the way into the book
- Not a lot of drama…there is a slow build and eventually, high drama, but it takes the novel a while to arrive (see #1)
- A lot of speech-making in the final pages. Interesting ideas, but coming at me in my least favorite non-dramatic package
The Longer Review (With Spoilers)
While PERELANDRA is my least favorite of the three books Lewis wrote in the scifi genre, it does have its merits.
For one, anyone who has read his Narnia books, knows how well CS Lewis puts his imagination on the page. He has the ability to create a world both strange and fabulous and took on a bold task to put before the reader a paradise, a pre-civilization and pre-fallen planet with only two human-like people. Basically, he created an Eden. And how would one write this in a convincing way?
This excerpt, one of many examples…just gorgeous.
Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of a balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident, one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different than any other taste that it seemed a mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasure, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.
Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is the narrator here. He was also the protagonist in Out of the Silent Planet. In this excerpt, he is telling his tale to a fictionalized version of CS Lewis after returning from his mission to the planet Perelandra. Ransom was sent to Perelandra by the angelic ruler of Mars (Malacandra). The reader is acquainted with this ruler from the previous book. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and brought to Malacandra. That is where he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Oyarsa does make an appearance in this novel, as does Weston, one of the academics who kidnapped Ransom in the first story. Weston, the primary rival to Ransom, acts as the tempter in this narrative. He does this not by his own cleverness and strength, but by something more frightening. Weston has given himself over to the bent angelic ruler of Earth, Satan. After Weston arrives on Perelandra in his space vessel, Ransom comes to understand his mission, that he has been sent to thwart the bent Oyarsa by thwarting Weston.
In the story, Weston is an academic with the worst intellectual vices; hubris combined with a flamboyant humanism that borders on narcissism. Tragically, he falls under a true evil in his search of spiritual answers to the mysteries he experienced on Malacandra. Weston’s journey into evil reads like something out of a horror novel (or the Bible).
“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing?…This is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call the Force into me completely…”
Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared–the Old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, “Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—” and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by the handfuls…
I was in my thirties the last time I read PERELANDRA and I did not remember how clearly this Weston character gives himself over to evil. Nor did I remember that Ransom comes to the realization that he will have to destroy Weston in hand to hand combat if he is to defeat him.
That Ransom believes he must assassinate his rival provoked my horror. Moreover, the scenes of his battle with Weston are brutal. Lewis does not hold back on that reality, but the idea of this existential battle brought to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Lewis might never have known Bonhoeffer personally, but the ideas Bonhoeffer was writing about and preaching about (in Hitler’s Germany) were likely familiar to him…as they were to every thinking Christian of the time.
Bonhoeffer, while struggling to be a faithful clergy member under Nazi rule in Germany, came to terms with the idea that it was in fact a righteous or just act to kill a man who had fully given himself over to evil. That is why Bonhoeffer was executed in the end, as he played a role in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Below is an excerpt of a sermon on Colossians 3:1-4, a sermon he gave most likely after he had made the decision to collaborate with a part of the resistance determined to assassinate the Fürher.
“Instead, and precisely because our minds are set on things above, we are that much more stubborn and purposeful in protesting here on earth… Does it have to be so that Christianity, which began as immensely revolutionary, now has to remain conservative for all time? That every new movement has to blaze its path without the church, and that the church always takes twenty years to see what has actually happened? If it really must be so, then we must not be surprised when, for our church as well, times come when the blood of martyrs will be demanded. But this blood, if we truly have the courage and honour and loyalty to shed it, will not be so innocent and shining as that of the first witnesses. Our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427)
Bonhoeffer’s words evoke the idea that a conservative church is potentially an anemic one. His mention of our great guilt in the sermon I took two ways. One, the church is guilty when it does not act (or waits too long) to stand up to evil. Two, if it does join the revolutionaries, it potentially falls under the guilt of questionable acts. When evil can only be defeated by an act that lays outside of the norm of Christian ethics, there is plenty of guilt to go around. However, Bonhoeffer did not shrink back from taking on that guilt for what he (and history) thought to be the greater good. Moreover, his writings on this remain strong pillars in just-war theory and the Christian struggle with realism versus pacifism.
Lewis travels a similar line of reasoning in this novel and it should not surprise the reader that when the character Ransom leaves the planet Perelandra, he leaves having accomplished his task, but with a wound on his foot that refuses to heal this side of heaven.
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.
The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET
- Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
- Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
- Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
- Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.
A Few More Details:
When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.
Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.
Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.
In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.
This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.