Lewis’ Storybook

That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis

I recently finished reading That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis (1945). Having read Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra last year, I was anxious to learn how Lewis would conclude his trilogy, and picked up Strength with high hopes. As you may have heard, Lewis’ space trilogy grows in complexity and maturity as you move from novel to novel. Out of the Silent Planet is almost a fantasy for children, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perelandra is a more complex journey that is more abstract, though no less fantastic. It reminded me more of Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I thoroughly enjoyed both books, and expected the third to follow suit with broader strokes, higher ideas, and more mind-bending strangeness than I could imagine.

Necessarily, spoilers follow…

In that respect, I was somewhat disappointed. Strength is many things, but it is usually more mundane that the first two space books. At first, it is a gritty tale of a marriage crumbling from neglect. Then, when husband and wife become entangled in opposing secret organizations we are anticipating a great human conflict, and being a Lewis book we know that some kind of spiritual warfare will be involved as well. Eventually the powers reveal themselves and we reach the Sodom and Gomorrah climax of the book, and in the end the marriage is healed. It’s all well and good, I suppose, but nothing in this book stood out to be as being masterful or original. I had a hard time figuring out just who the book was about. Are Mark and Jane (the aforementioned couple) at the core of the book? Or are they nothing more than a device to help us connect to the larger war, supposedly coming to a climax here at the end of the trilogy? I’m not sure, and maybe it’s not important. Here, I feel like the full arc of the story is just a frame on which to hang Lewis’ best scenes and ideas.

To be fair, I enjoyed the book very much. Certain conversations between the characters, certain incredible descriptive scenes stand out like works of art leaping off the page. In one sense, it’s like reading a Jan Brett Picture Book, in that you spend so much time looking at the gorgeous illustrations that you forget what’s going on in the story. The sequence where the planets descend on the house of Logres is beautiful.

Unfortunately, I think I read this book all wrong. I enjoyed the artistic moments, but I was looking so hard for story connections that I don’t remember as many of those moments as I should. Looking back (even immediately after I finished the book) I remember it being full of important bits of wisdom and poignant reflections on my own marriage, but I couldn’t remember specifically what any of those were. I feel like I’ve missed something important. I wonder if I’m not old enough for this book yet – or maybe I just need to read it again, keeping in mind that it’s a picture-book and I shouldn’t worry so much about the filler prose.

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