That Hideous Strength

thoughts on one of my favorite authors, c. s. lewis

Part I:

It is thanks to C. S. Lewis, and my older sister Janna, that I developed a lasting love of books. It started with The Chronicles of Narnia. How I found these marvelous books and lost myself in them is related here. Not long after, I had the great pleasure of reading The Space Trilogy and That Hideous Strength, a book which affected me on an even deeper level. I will talk about it in the next post.

One of my most lasting impressions is of my sister reading voraciously. I looked up to her and wanted to be like her. Where other older brothers and sisters might have been leading younger siblings into drug use and similar bad habits, my sister was leading me to the library and showing me how to navigate all those intimidating rows of books.

Neither of us knew about C. S. Lewis until I was ten and she was twelve and my family was off on a wild adventure, traveling the world. A few months previously Dad had sat us down in his library and informed us that God had spoken to him. God often spoke to my dad so this wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was what God said–to give up his successful business career and become a writer. And not only that, but we should start traveling the world, going where God would lead us, so my dad could gain inspiration for his books.

I’m writing about these amazing adventures in a memoir-in-progress called INTO THE WORLD. Some of those adventures included escaping out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, smuggling Bibles into communist countries, and living in a 17th century Swiss castle. Along the way I struggled with how we, as Christians could insist we had the only way to God when I saw so many wonderful people of different faiths who, it seemed to me, also deserved to go to heaven. Not only that, I saw so much suffering, so many children my age in terrible living conditions, begging in the streets. All of this affected me greatly. It was hard to reconcile the horrific things I saw with a loving God. By the time I reached my teenage years, these experiences had formed a conclusion within me that no one person or religion has a monopoly on God. No one has the right to judge another. Everyone should be free to believe–or not believe–as they wish.

With The Narnia Chronicles, I discovered the freedom of going anywhere I wanted in my imagination. With That Hideous Strength, I discovered that freedom can be taken away and should be fought for furiously, every freedom, not just what I believe, but the freedom of all.

The adventures start with us landing in London in 1966, confused and lost, despite the fact that we had thought it would be a good starting point since at least they speak English.

Fittingly, England is where Janna and I discovered C. S. Lewis. We had driven to meet friends who lived in the Cotswolds. Here is an excerpt.

One of the original covers, published by Geoffrey Bles

Miraculously, we made it to our destination, the home of Noel and Hillary Doubleday. They lived in the Cotswolds, near one of the most idyllic villages in the world, Castle Combe. It was better than a postcard, so perfectly quaint, so cozy and absolutely lovely. Mom sighed with rapture. Cotswold villages are built of limestone from the surrounding hills, and most still have the gable-fronts, labelled and mullioned windows, and often the wide stone-arched fireplaces, characteristic of ancient English architecture.

“Oh, my goodness,” Mom said.

            We all agreed.

            The Doubledays lived in an old farmhouse, whitewashed and thatched. Dad parked and we tumbled out, excited to be staying in a home, and such a picturesque one.

            The couple came out to greet us, Noel tall, slim and slightly stooped, a messy mop of thin dark hair on his head, an oversized pair of glasses on his face. He wore a slightly surprised, absent-minded expression, as if he were constantly trying to remember something important that he’d forgotten, only never quite could. Hillary was tall, too, and large in personality and size, with wispy hair the color of muddy water, cheeks as red as apples and three chins that jiggled like jelly when she laughed, which she did often, in a high-pitched shrill tone. Where her husband was reserved, she was loud and jolly, running forward and snatching each of us up in a smothering hug. The couple was followed by a pack of dogs of every shape and size, barking, jumping, tails wagging joyously.

            The house was solid, sturdy, the walls thick to withstand the forces of nature. Everything here was built to last forever. You had the feeling that it all had a history, a life inside of it. Built lovingly. Forever. The farmhouse was big with many rooms and steep narrow staircases leading up to other rooms. Two of the dogs were allowed inside the house and were treated much like humans, allowed full access to everything, food off the tables, beds, chairs. I fell in love with the little dog, Esther, who I convinced to sleep with me in my bed. We were given hot water bottles to warm our feet at night. I slept in a room at the top of the stairs, the ceiling sloping down, one small window to look out of if I knelt on the bed. From there I could peek out at the rolling hills and hedges. I saw a woman on horseback riding along a pathway between the fields. I loved horses, dreamed of having one for myself. I sighed, my elbows resting on the ledge, chin in my hands. What I would give to be that woman, riding along like that!

For the first time since our arrival, clouds were gathering and the night was cold. The next day it was raining hard. We were happy to be stuck inside with no prospect of having to sight see. Janna and I explored the house, naturally drawn to the library, which reminded us of our dad’s library back home, except that this one had a beamed ceiling, ancient walls and moth-worn sofas and chairs so thick with cushions that when I sat on one, I sank down as if on a thick pile of downy feathers. The room was empty and silent except for the fire that crackled cozily in the grate.

            “Books!” breathed Janna happily.

            We both approached the shelves with excited reverence, wondering what treasures we would find. Many looked uninteresting, like our dad’s books. But on one shelf we found a series of books that attracted our attention. The binding was bright, I peered closer and took the first book in the row off the shelf.

            “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe.”

            It was clearly a children’s book, with a picture of a very English-looking girl, wearing a worried expression, disappearing through what looked like an old-fashioned closet. Above the closet was the face of a long-maned lion starring straight out at me.

            “This looks interesting,” I told Janna, showing it to her. “What’s a wardrobe?”

            “That,” she said, pointing to the old-fashioned closet in the picture.

            Hillary appeared at that moment, the two house dogs bounding in after her. When she saw the books we had picked she clapped her hands excitedly.

            “Lovely, lovely” she cried. Lovely was her favorite word. There didn’t appear to be anything in the world that Hillary didn’t think was lovely. “Would you both like to read it?”

            We nodded.

            “Oh, lovely!” she cried again. She bustled out of the room and quickly returned with another copy. “You haven’t heard of The Narnia Chronicles?” she asked, flabbergasted.

            We said no.

            “Well then, you are in for a treat, aren’t you!” She fluffed up some cushions on the two big chairs facing the fireplace. “Now sit down, there you are my dears!”

            We sat and began to read. That was the moment when I discovered magic. Sitting in that old thatched farmhouse in the English countryside, in an overstuffed chair in front of a crackling fire, the rain beating down outside, I read and read, forgetting where I was or who I was, living the adventures of Lucy, Edmond, Susan and Peter. Just like the four of us, two boys and two girls, off in a strange land.

            And once we had finished the first book, wonder of all wonders, there were more! The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and so on.

            But that first book was the beginning. Lucy had found Narnia by walking into a wardrobe. I was sure that Narnia existed. It was too real, nobody could make something like that up!

            Who was this C. S. Lewis, the man who had written these books?

            “The most wonderful person ever to live!” declared Janna, eyes shining with enthusiasm.

            “The wardrobe was made from wood from Narnia. Do you think it still exists?” I asked.

            Janna gave me one of her most disdainful looks. “Of course!”

            “So maybe we can find it?” was the logical next thought in my mind.

            “Maybe. But that’s not the only way to Narnia. There’s got to be other magical ways. Anyway, it makes sense that there’s other worlds, and doors that lead to them. I mean, we can’t be the only ones in the universe,” said Janna with conviction.

            I frowned at that. “But mom and dad say–”

            Janna interrupted me, lowering her voice, “They don’t know everything.”

            “They don’t?” I was shocked. How did my sister dare think like this? 

            “Well they almost know everything. But trust me, there’s other worlds.”

            “That’s blasphemous.”

            Janna snorted. “Tell me where it says in the Bible that there’s no other worlds.”

            I thought about that. “Well…”

            “See?” she said triumphantly. “You can’t think of anything. People are way too uptight. They think up all these things without any basis, just so they can suit their own theories. Anyway, C. S. Lewis is a Christian. He’s talking about Christian stuff here, the lion is Jesus, it’s obvious. But see, he still believes in all this magic. There are people in the world who are Christians but they believe in other stuff, too.”

            “But then, how can they really be Christians?” I asked, confused.

            “They just can, okay? I mean, the Doubledays are, right, and they gave us these books!”  Janna folded her arms across her chest and gave one emphatic nod of her chin. Well, that was it then.

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