A Year of Reading Lewis: That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, written in 1945. It seems a bit of a misnomer to say that it is part of the “space” trilogy, as the events of this book take place on Earth. There is some cross-over from the other books, though: Devine from the previous books is present in the book as Lord Feverstone, a politician, who is involved in the workings of  Edgestow University, and eventually we find out that Ransom, the hero of the other books, is there as well.

Another funky 70s cover. Not sure what any of this has to do with the book, except for the University building.

Another funky 70s cover. Not sure what any of this has to do with the book, except for the University building.

My memory of this book from when I read it as a teenager was that it was a bit wordy, a bit complicated, but with the bonus addition of Merlin and Ransom. I liked it then, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the first two books. I would say that this is probably the consensus of most who read all three books. This one is a bit of an odd duck, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other two.

So, I delved in with some eagerness to see how it would strike me now. The book centres around the young married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a sociologist who is a Fellow (one of the governing council) of Bracton College (part of the University). Jane, his wife, is pursuing her doctorate thesis. As Lewis describes them, “Both were young, and if neither loved very much, each was still anxious to be admired.” Mark is  a shallow young man, whose chief ambition in life is to get “in”. He is longing for acceptance into the Inner Circle, made up of the real “movers and shakers” among his peers at the University. At the book’s opening Mark has just found acceptance there, but of course it’s not enough – he immediately realizes there is another “set” to get into: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (shortened in Orwellian fashion to  N.I.C.E., though this book was written pre-1984)), which is a scientific institute which is gradually taking over the University and the town it resides in, and which is later revealed to be a front for a sinister takeover of the human race by the bent eldil who are the masters of our planet.

Mark becomes more and more involved in the workings of N.I.C.E., wrestling with his conscience a time or two as those above him require to do one thing or another to be truly accepted, but generally happy to go along with whatever they ask just as long as he is able to stay “in” with those who are the real powers at the University. Jane is left further and further behind, until his superiors order him to bring her to the University. Mark has grown suspicious enough of their motives by this time to balk at this suggestion, and he can’t understand why they want Jane in the first place.

Jane, as it turns out, has been having adventures of her own while Mark is increasingly occupied with the goings on at the University. She is having strange dreams, which she discovers are visions of things that have happened or are about to happen. She comes into contact with a group of people who are gathering under the benign leadership of the Director, revealed to be Ransom. It is precisely because of this ability that the powers of N.I.C.E. want her, for she has the ability to find Merlin, buried centuries ago but waiting to be resurrected in order to orchestrate a new Britain. Ransom wants to find Merlin before N.I.C.E. does, and so he needs Jane’s assistance as well, but freely given, so he waits for her to make her choice.

Mark and Jane must both overcome their reluctance to see what is really going on, that the groups of people they are involved with have deeper motives for doing what they are doing than what seems apparent at first. Jane quickly comes to realize that Ransom can be trusted, and that the people who have gathered around him have been drawn together not by Ransom himself but by Maledil (God), to band together to stop the evil plans of N.I.C.E. It takes longer for Mark to understand that he has allowed himself to be used by thoroughly bad men (and women) who are involved in a very odd and frightening plan: to remake humanity into something quite different than what it is now.

I found myself quickly drawn in to the plot, despite the fact that there is not a lot of action at the beginning, It opens with the plans of N.I.C.E to buy Bragdon Wood, a small piece of property belonging to the University, in order to build their research centre there. This is presented as a long Council meeting, and it could be seen as being tedious to read. Except….I found it absolutely fascinating and actually quite chilling. The way in which N.I.C.E turned a normal, sleepy University town into their centre for the transformation of the human race was presented in masterful fashion by Lewis. The steps are all so reasonable  and the people who at one point or another object to this or the other thing are portrayed as backwards, ignorant or ill-informed. So much so that, because I couldn’t remember the details of the book from the first time I read it, I found myself agreeing with some of the decisions and sharing the negative impressions of the objectors, until I realized what was going on.

Mark Studdock is not a very commendable person, with his obsession with being part of the “popular” crowd, but he is thoroughly human and very relatable. I see myself in him in too many ways to brush him off as stupid or naive. As Lewis writes,

It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical – merely “Modern”. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him.

The point that Lewis makes in this book about evil taking over gradually and with barely a whimper of protest is very relevant today, with our politically correct age, our press that is so often ideologically controlled, and where those who dare stand up against the “status quo” are dismissed as being backwards, ignorant, or ill informed.

I don’t remember this striking me in quite the same way when I read this first. I think that’s because I’m older now, and have seen this kind of thing in action a time or two. Which is why the beginning was so disturbing. How easily can evil triumph, when it is disguised under the name of Progress or Enlightenment or, dare I say, Political Correctness. A good example of this is where Mark is asked to write articles in the newspapers of events (riots, mainly) orchestrated by N.I.C.E. before they happen, so that they can put their own “spin” on it.

This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew it to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men. 

The end bogs down a bit in places. Lewis took a great deal of care in describing the visit of the “good” eldils to Ransom’s home when they gather to lend aide to the cause,  and their subsequent effect on those in the house.  The archetypes of Venus (Perelandra), Mars, etc are shown in their deepest, real, form, and Lewis explores how their presence would affect the smaller mortals in their proximity. I found it interesting but I suspect many a person would want to skim these parts.

There is a nice contrast in the book between the humans who cooperate with the bent eldila, who become more and more inhuman as the book goes along, with Mark and Jane, who both in different ways shake off their complacency and ignorance and embrace a belief in something beyond all they knew before, becoming more and more human as they do so.

This book I found much more intellectual than the other two. There are big ideas presented here, and the deeper truths perhaps harder to find, but present nonetheless. It’s a harder read than the sensuous, emotional Perelandra or the exciting space opera Out of the Silent Planet. But it has its rewards for the reader, too, perhaps all the more precious for being harder to find. The book is examining the possible consequences of a whole slew of political and philosophical streams of thought that were popular at the time of Lewis’ writing and still surface today in one form or another, including technocracy, managerial revolution, state-run social engineering, and more. It’s hard sledding at times, but it will certainly provide some fruit for the thoughtful reader. I found and excellent summary of how those ideologies are examined in the book here, if you are interested in further reading.

Even if you don’t delve too deeply into the social underpinnings of the novel, there is good food for thought to be found here. How often do I compromise my own standards in order to “fit in”? What group am I desperate to “belong” to? The big evil is easy to see, but how attuned am I to the smaller ways in which we as a society we are going off-track? Is there something in our society that is seen as “backwards, ignorant, or ill-informed”, which, on closer inspection, might be revealed to be the right way to do things after all?

I have my own answers to these questions. How about you?

A Year of Reading Lewis 1: Out of the Silent Planet

A Year of Reading Lewis 2: Perelandra

BONUS:  1) Just for fun…an interesting post about the different prefaces found in different editions of That Hideous Strength, by the always-interesting Pilgrim in Narnia

2) A review of all three of the books together, by the Bookheathen.

Up next month: I am going to delve into some of Lewis’ non-fiction and tackle something I haven’t read before: The Abolition of Man, which I understand is in a sense the non-fiction form of the ideas presented in this book, so perhaps it’s a good follow-up. Although I am certain my brain will hurt a time or two as I read it! Read along with me? I’d love to tackle it with you!

It’s a Monk’s Life

Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand – in particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all 150 Psalms plus a Gospel, this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their 4x daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hilda, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds and music rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr


It’s springtime, and my thoughts are starting to turn towards the garden, and flowers, and seeds. Spring is my favourite season. I love the slow turning from brown to green, the warmer temps, the longer days. It’s a time of renewal and hope after the long, dark winter.

April was a crazy month for me. But it is starting to calm down a bit, although I’m still in catch-up mode. My writing life is slowly reawakening, thankfully, and I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular rhythm of writing. But I’m behind, and especially here on the blog I feel my lack of attention. I started with a whole bunch of ideas, and had about four posts written before I launched back in January. Sadly, those pre-written posts are all used up, and I’m feeling the pressure of sitting down on a Thursday and knowing I want to have something up the next day.

However, I do have some “seeds” – ideas for future posts. So, in a bit of a cheat, I’m going to share these with you here. Eventually these seeds will bloom into full-blown posts, or maybe not, if I get feedback that one or another has zero interest.

Anyway, here they are:

  • “Religion is what you do with your solitude” – Archbishop William Temple. I love this quote. It resonates with me on many levels, but especially as it relates to the monks at Lindisfarne, back in the 7th century. It’s a great opening to a post on the everyday lives of the monks, how they structured their days, and why.
  • Aidan of Lindisfarne. The fun thing about writing historical fiction is that you get to learn about people and places you have never encountered before. Aidan was one of these figures. He has a major part in my books, as he was the Bishop/Abbot of Lindisfarne when my main character, Thomas, arrives there. Bede, although certainly disagreeing with the Celtic flavour of the Christianity Aidan and the rest of the Irish monks practiced, had nothing but admiration for Aidan. His story is worthy of a blog post, I think.
  • Elves in story and imagination. Why are they so fascinating? These mysterious beings are a major part of my story world, known in my novels by one of their alternate names, the Fey. There are so many different cultures that have “elves” as part of their mythologies. I thought I might share with you some of the history of the elves that I dug up in my research.
  • My publishing journey. I don’t want to make this blog too “writer”-centered, and, really, there are so many more blogs out there with helpful tips on writing and publishing. But perhaps you all would like updates now and then on what I am doing to get my books published.
  • Book reviews – I have several books that I am either currently reading, have read, or that are on my “to read” list, which I would like to review. They include:
    • The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, by Max Adams. I’m halfway through this one, hope to finish it soon.
    • A Stitch of Honor, by K.M. Carroll. A novella by one of my internet writing buds, combining knitting and sci-fi. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read it.
    • The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, by Graham Robb. My kids got me this one for Mother’s Day. Itching to get into this one too!
    • The Hum and the Shiver (Tufa #1), by Alex Bledscoe. Hands down one of the best titles of a book I have ever seen. And it’s about the Fey, as well, with a similar but different take on them to the one I bring in my book. Read this one about a year ago, but I would like to review it here soon.
    • The Wool Trilogy, by Hugh Howey. One of the first self-published books to really take off. Again, knitting themes (at least in the titles), so I couldn’t resist.
    • The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Not much left to say about this huge fantasy blockbuster but I would like to throw my feeble offering into the pile of myriad reviews that this series has generated.
    • The Serpent’s Sword: The Bernicia Chronicles, Book One, by Matthew Harfly. I connected with Matthew over Twitter as he is writing about the same era, people, and places as myself. His first book in his series has just been released, and I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s a straight historical, though, no fantasy elements. From all accounts lots of clashing swords and action.

That’s about it for now. I am going to continue with my Year of Reading Lewis series, and the occasional Saturday Short, featuring some of my short stories. I would also like to add some author interviews and guest posts, to spice things up a bit.  But if you all have any thoughts about any of these or ideas on what YOU would like me to include in this blog, please let me know!

Photo: D Sharon Pruitt, on flickr

The Venerable Bede

With God’s help, I, Bede, the servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have assembled these facts about the history of the Church in Britain, and of the Church of the English in particular, so far as I have been able to ascertain them from ancient writings, from the traditions of our forebears, and from my own personal knowledge

– St. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

One cannot underestimate the influence one solitary monk, who lived all his life in  the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria, has had on our understanding and knowledge of early British history.  He never travelled further than 50 miles away from the monastery in which he spent most of his life, from the age of 7 years until he died at the age of 62. By all accounts he was an intelligent man. His most famous work was The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he wrote many more books, on numerous subjects, including biblical commentaries on dozens of the Biblical books, histories of the Abbots of his monastery, hymns, and a scientific book on chronology. But his most famous book (or books, it actually comprises five volumes) was the Ecclesiastical History, and it was believed to have been completed in 731, a few years before his death in 735 AD. It is certainly one of the most popular works of history of all time. Without Bede we would know much less about Anglo-Saxon England and the colourful history of its church and kings.

In doing my research for my novels, I quickly came to understand the value of Bede’s contribution to our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England. There is little surviving original material from this era, for many reasons. The upheavals of the age did not lend itself to the careful storage of documents. Monks and scribes would use wax tablets in their schools for the pupils to use to learn how to write and, presumably, to take notes. But these were temporary. Paper production, although done in China at that time, was centuries away from arriving in Europe. So, the options for any permanent record were stone, papyrus, parchment, and vellum; examples of all of these dating from the Early Medieval period can be found today.

All of those materials take considerable time and effort to produce, and so naturally only the most important things were deemed worthy of recording. Generally that meant information about the lives of the important people, such as kings, or the copying and preservation of documents that had either educational or spiritual value. The monks of the Dark Ages played a huge role in the preservation of ancient knowledge such as the accumulated wisdom of the Greek and Roman philosophers along with the scientific and mathematical knowledge that had been gathered to that point.

Bede was a monk who had spent his whole life studying, teaching, and writing about these works. He also contributed to them himself, by writing treatises on mathematics, chronology, and science. But he also was obviously keenly interested in history, in particular, in the history of the church in his own country. Of course the history of the church was intertwined wtih the history of the rulers of England and so he wrote about them as well.

It is certainly true that part of Bede’s motive for writing his Ecclesiastical History was to show the superiority of the Roman “brand” of Christianity that he subscribed to over the Celtic Christianity practiced by the Britons. However his admiration for some of the important leaders of the Celtic Church such as Aidan of Lindisfarne is evident in his writings, despite his dubious feelings about their church practices.

Bede begins his History with a brief setting of the scene, describing Britain and it’s location, and description of the peoples of the Island – the British, Irish, and Picts. Next he recounts the invasion of the Romans and their departure, the story of the first British martyr (Alban), the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the island, the arrival of the monks sent by St. Augustine to re-establish the Roman church in Britain, and finally he turns his attention to the dawning of the great age of the Northumbrian kings in which he, himself, lived.

If it were not for Bede we can safely say we would know none of this, or at least, none of what happened after the Romans left. The Roman themselves kept careful records, but the details of what happened after they left would likely have been lost to the mists of time were it not for Bede and his effort of researching and recording the history of his own people. His information about some of the people came from interviews of those who had known them, or even, in some cases, from first-hand knowledge. So you can see it is a rare chance to see this century from the perspective of one who lived in it.

Through Bede I got a glimpse into the world of 7th century Britain, and a sense of the people who were the major players o the scene at the time. Bede alternately praises and condemns the various kings and Bishops in his work. Some of this you have to take with a grain of salt of course, but it still gives you a picture, albeit incomplete and distorted as it might be by Bede’s particular ecclesiastical bias, of the various personalities and issues that concerned them.

Bede died on May 25th, 735 AD. A writer to the end, the monk Cuthbert describes how Bede was translating chapters of St. John’s Gospel on his deathbed, and that upon realizing that there were only a few lines left, Bede dictated them in the moments before he died. Even in his own lifetime the fame of his learning had already spread beyond Northumbria, and within fifty years of his death his relics were said to bring about miraculous cures.

Bede was buried at Jarrow, but in the 11th century his remains were interred in Durham Cathedral (brought there by a sacrist of Durham who was a collector of holy relics). I’m sure Bede would not have been happy to be moved away from his home monastery, but there he lies today.

Bede's Tomb at Durham Cathedral

Bede’s Tomb at Durham Cathedral

Bede is traditionally known as the “Venerable” Bede, rather than “Saint” Bede. It is a name that was given to him by the Council of Aachen in 836 and has stayed with him ever sense. It was a term used by Bede himself to describe some of the kings and saints he wrote about, and it meant “Worthy of honour”.

It’s an appropriate name for this monk who through dedication and careful scholarship preserved for all time an account of a history that otherwise would have been lost.

Picture credit: The Venerable Bede Translates John, by James Doyle Penrose, on wikicommons

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History can be found online. Take a few minutes to browse through it – it’s really quite fascinating (well, at least to me….).