Orwell’s review of C. S. Lewis, That
Hideous Strength (1945)
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
On the whole, novels are better when there are no
miracles in them. Still, it is possible to think of a fairly large number of worth-while
books in which ghosts, magic, second-sight, angels, mermaids, and what-not play
Mr. C. S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength” can be included in their number –
though, curiously enough, it would probably have been a better book if the
magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the
miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not
integral to it.
In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, it rather resembles
G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly
shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the
title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel)
and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against
scientific materialism or nihilism.
His book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a
nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists – or,
perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human
feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then
the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe
under their control.
All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the
common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling
caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon
themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or
even to become a god himself.
There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a
moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” –
has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds
all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams
of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight
of the time when such dreams will be realisable.
His description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated
Experiments), with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret
torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious
personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story.
It would be a very hardened reader who would not experience a thrill on
learning that The Head is actually – however, that would be giving the game
One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping
it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in,
and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways. The scientists are endeavouring, among other things, to get hold of the body
of the ancient Celtic magician Merlin, who has been buried – not dead, but in a
trance – for the last 1,500 years, in hopes of learning from him the secrets of
They are frustrated by a character who is only doubtfully a human being,
having spent part of his time on another planet where he has been gifted with
eternal youth. Then there is a woman with second sight, one or two ghosts, and
various superhuman visitors from outer space, some of them with rather tiresome
names which derive from earlier books of Mr. Lewis’s. The book ends in a way
that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in
spite of much bloodshed.
Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with
evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis
appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as
well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only
because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in
effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the
Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole
drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have
supernatural aid. However, by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays
this is a book worth reading.