C.S. Lewis‘ ‘other’ fantasy series – his sci-fi Cosmic Trilogy – are today among his less well-known works. The trilogy was published before he penned his Narnia books, but it would be an over-simplification to say the Narnia series fleshes out further ideas found in the Cosmic Trilogy. In fact, because the Cosmic Trilogy is adult fiction, it seems (to the adult reader, at least) to expand on concepts which appear rather opaquely in the Narnia books, ranging from Lewis’ perspective on apocalypticism to his understanding of gender roles and human sexuality.
I would say, however, that the trilogy is more uneven in quality than the Narnia books. If you don’t like the Narnia series, I expect you dislike them uniformly, and if you like them, I expect you like them fairly uniformly – for they are much of a muchness, all seven books being fairly similar in style and depth. My main gripe reading the Cosmic Trilogy was the lack of cohesiveness, both between and within the books. In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, I felt like Lewis was still finding his feet, and while it was an interesting book (and so packed with meaning and detail that I think I need to re-read it, as I felt like I wasn’t fully understanding it on a first read), its plot line felt a bit bumpy. Perelandra, the second work, however, was incredible, quite possibly the best C.S. Lewis book I have read: it was so deep, rich and meaningful, that I would love to read it again and again.
I read the first two books last summer, and only got round to the final one, That Hideous Strength, this summer. I was expecting that it would follow on from the brilliance of Perelandra. And I was largely disappointed. To be brutally honest, I found the first two thirds of the books pretty boring and odd in an unpleasant kind of way. This may be due more to a personal preference than to the quality of the book: almost all the main characters in the first two-thirds of the book are not likeable. The sinister members of the ‘N.I.C.E.’ enterprise are among the darkest villains conjured up in Lewis’ imagination – the devils of The Screwtape Letters have nothing on ‘Fairy’ Hardcastle, Withers and Frost! (I don’t want ever to re-read the repellent scene where Hardcastle tortures Jane with deviant, overtly sadist methods.) And the hero & heroine, Mark and Jane, are not – until towards the end of the book – admirable people, both being very foolish, selfish and self-centered. And, in comparison to the first two books – which involve travel from Earth and roving across Mars and Venus, the first half of the third book feels claustrophobically small, as it revolves almost entirely around the small fictional university town of Edgestow and its surrounding area, and mostly focuses on the even more microcosmic world of the ‘N.I.C.E.’ company in their base at Belbury.
I was ready to write this book off as a least favourite Lewis work, and then I reached the final third, and the book sprang to life. Humour emerged, in the shape of the mistaken Merlin, the hero and the heroine began to soften and morph, the little world opened into a vast inter-cosmic space. But, most of all, Lewis’ theology finally began to come to life. The last third of the book is utterly brilliant in its theological reflections. I am reluctant to give away too much of the plot to anyone who has not read the book, and so I will simply put two of the most interesting/striking passages below, which illustrate the heights and the depths of human nature and of the universe which Lewis compelling draws before the readers’ eyes in the last third of That Hideous Strength. I urge those who have not read this book to persevere through the first two-thirds – it is worth it! (Although, I concede, I might mostly only re-read the final third in future…!)
‘Suddenly, like a thing that leaped to him across infinite distances with the speed of light, desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable) took him by the throat. The merest hint will convey to those who have felt it the quality of the emotion which now shook him, like a dog shaking a rat; for others, no description will perhaps avail. Many writers speak of it in terms of lust: a description admirably illuminating from within, totally misleading from without. It has nothing to do with the body. But it is in two respects like lust as lust shows itself to be in the deepest and darkest vault of its labyrinthine house. For like lust, it disenchants the whole universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt – love, ambition, hunger, lust itself – appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children, not worth one throb of the nerves. The infinite attraction of this dark thing sucked all other passions into itself: the rest of the world appeared blenched, etiolated, insipid, a world of white marriages and white masses, dishes without salt, gambling for counters. He could not now think of Jane except in terms of appetite: and appetite here made no appeal. That serpent, faced with the true dragon, became a fangless worm. But it was like lust in another respect also. It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant. And so it was here. These creatures of which Frost had spoken – and he did not doubt now that they were locally present with him in the cell – breathed death on the human race and on all joy. Not despite this but because of it, the terrible gravitation sucked and tugged and fascinated him towards them. Never before had he known the fruitful strength of the movement opposite to Nature which now had him in its grip; the impulse to reverse all reluctances and to draw every circle anti-clockwise.’
‘What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director’s words had been entirely misleading. This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump.’