From “The Abolition of Man” to “That Hideous Strength” Part Four: Why Myth?

oxford-fellows-garden-exeter-college-antique-print-1903-279904-p

Fellows’ Garden, Exeter College, Oxford, 1903 (by John Fulleylove)

Ransom:  “…what we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a changeover from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”

Why Fairy-tale, Myth, and Legend?

“On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them,” wrote George Orwell in his review of That Hideous Strength.[1]  According to him, it “would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out.”[2]  The relevance of Lewis’s use of the fairy tale form, medieval cosmology, and Arthurian legend completely escaped Orwell.  Still, it should be noted that the book’s anti-materialistic, anti-reductionist message was able to come through for him in spite of this.  Orwell understood the philosophy behind Lewis’s fairy tale, but, without an appreciation for spiritual things, the fantastic elements in That Hideous Strength were merely noise.

In order to understand why Lewis would choose to transpose such a philosophically heavy book as The Abolition of Man into the fairy tale form, it is important to consider Lewis’s theological outlook and the means by which he came to adopt it.  As mentioned above, for Lewis, the true forces behind his “de-humanized conditioners” would necessarily be demonic, given his Christian beliefs.  Just as Satan appeared in the garden to tempt Mankind with godhood, the Macrobes take full advantage of the fact that the lust for power dominates when Man reduces himself to mere instinct.

With respect to the fairy tale form, medieval cosmology, and Arthurian legend, Lewis could have been offering these as the antidote, or the bridges by which abolished man could recover what was lost in the reductionist tenets of scientific endeavor.  These provide the balm to heal the wound.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis asks whether or not there could be “a new Natural Philosophy” that is “continually conscious that the `natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view” and ‘when it explained it would not explain away.”[3] When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole from which they have been temporarily reduced. For Lewis, this would be a science that “would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.”[4]  Lewis believed that such an approach had already been modeled for us centuries ago.

As a medieval scholar, Lewis had a high regard for the medieval thinkers that sought to harmonize rather than discard the vast array of knowledge handed down to them through time.  According to him, “they tidied up the universe” without stripping it of meaning.  Lewis describes the medieval mind as one in which “we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of a passionately logical mind ordering a huge mass of heterogeneous details into unity.[5]  They desire unity, proportion, all the classical virtues, just as keenly as the Greeks did.  But they have a greater and more varied collection of things to fit in. And they delight to do it.” The key for Lewis was that the medieval mind took for granted that there was purpose in the universe and, as a result, their models were richer, more imaginative, and better at reconciling all the data. Indeed, one could say that That Hideous Strength itself is an imaginative tribute to the medieval mind with its synthesis of seemingly disparate things – the propositional and more abstract content of The Abolition of Man, science, Arthurian legend, classical mythology, theology, and even Owen Barfield’s ideas on language and “ancient unities.”[6]

For Lewis, this was also personal, for it was George MacDonald’s adult fairy tales, Phantastes and Princess and Curdie, that he credits for first baptizing his imagination with Christian truth, long before his reason was able to catch up.  That Lewis would have both Jane and Mark come to a new understanding of the value of fairy tales is significant.  For Mark, “the grown-up stories to which, after his tenth birthday, he had turned instead of it [fairy tales], now seemed to him, except for Sherlock Holmes, to be rubbish.”[7]  After her torture at the hands of the sadistic Fairy Hardcastle, Jane requests that Princess and Curdie be brought to her when recovering from her wounds at St. Anne’s.  These references to fairy tales are important.

In addition to this, the inclusion of Merlin can be accounted for by Lewis’s insight that the hunger to conquer Nature can be found in both magic and the sciences.  Both were “born of the same impulse” in the same “unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.”[8]  “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages,” wrote Lewis.  To the dismay of the N.I.C.E., Merlin was too rooted in the pagan myths of those earlier ages to be drawn into the destructive forces of materialistic science.

In the end, just as Orwell was able to appreciate the ‘serious point’ in That Hideous Strength, despite his distaste for its supernatural ingredients, it is hoped that it has been demonstrated that this book is indeed an excellent counterpart to The Abolition of Man.  Finally, it was myth that would eventually bridge the gap between Christian truth and a “glib and shallow rationalism” that had hindered Lewis’s own acceptance of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. This might account for his inclusion of the mythic and cosmological elements in the Ransom Trilogy.  Just as he found a correspondence in the tales of the dying and rising gods of the pagans with the Gospel of Christ, he believed that “the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem … to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols.”[9]  Lewis could be offering all of these mythic elements as the medicine to heal the wounds created by the basilisks of modernism – a cosmological picture teeming with imagination, beauty, and truth.  It is the music of spheres, not noise, that Lewis attempted to capture in his Ransom Trilogy and this stands in stark contrast to the meaningless babble at Belbury.

Part One: Gaius and Titius – The Fellows at Bracton College

Part Two:  The Pupils – Jane and Mark and the Abolition of Marriage

Part Three: The Innovators – The Progressive Element and the N.I.C.E. and The Conditioners – Wither, Frost, and the Macrobes

Notes:

[1] George Orwell, “The Scientists Take Over,”Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945. Reprinted in The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), No. 2720 (first half), pp. 250–251, first accessed September 28, 2016, http://lewisiana.nl/orwell/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 91.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 258.

[7] Ibid., 358.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 89.

[9] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 30-33.

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