Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Surfeit of Creativity

Diana Glyer, author of Bandersnatch, was asked on the Babylon Bee podcast what she thought was up with That Hideous Strength, the third and last book of CS Lewis's "Ransom" trilogy. Both Glyer and the interviewers were clearly less fond of the book than they are of much else of Lewis's fiction. This is not uncommon. Readers will shrug off Till We Have Faces (which Lewis regarded as his best work) as something they just didn't quite get or warm up to, or will be displeased that Aslan is too obviously* allegorical in Narnia, but I think only THS provokes that much active dislike. Glyer, whose book I liked very much and found quite informative during the interview, attributes the weakness to an excess of creativity.  She notes that there are too many plots, all running into each other. I count seven: Merlin and Albion/deep England, two separate Studdock adventures plus the enough attention to their marriage to perhaps be stretched into a very different book of its own, the Oyarsa and planetary conflict, the national political conflict around the N.I.C.E, and the local one at the college. Most if not all of them could be worked into a book on its own.  Arthurian fantasy, science fiction, speculative political along the lines of Brave New World, something like an early genre romance...Yes, there is just too much going on here. It's out of control.  Because there are brilliant observations about each of these topics - I will never view Merlin quite the same way again, for example - Lewis fans, including me, treasure the book.  But she is right.  It's not a good book in the sense of being well-written.  Novels are not expected to adhere to Aristotle's unities, but since those were recognised we do tend to expect a work to keep heading in the same direction without too much distraction.  Even Tolkien's LOTR has only three interwoven plots, Frodo's, Aragorn's and Gandalf's.

Once I noticed this, I saw that it is just everywhere in Lewis.  He just overflows with creativity, usually kept under enough control to be fascinating without being overwhelming. Tolkien disliked The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe from the first few pages, not because Aslan is too clearly allegorical - the lion does not show up until much later in the book - but because you can't have a Greek faun in a Northern adventure that includes endless winter and Fenris Ulf.  That the faun carries an anachronistic umbrella (though Hobbits have them also, Tollers, evidence for my observation about your own time periods) and had a shelf of books with a wink to modern humor bothered him right out of the gate. Tolkien has a point.  Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia Lewis has both Greek and Northern myths and monsters. Plus Father Christmas, and beast fable. Plus Arabian, Celtic, and Roman mythologies.  The visits to many places and their marvelous tales was common in  both classical and medieval works, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader alone has island after island, each of which might be an adult novella. Then, woven throughout, is the Biblical mythos, creeping in even though Narnia is not the same world as ours. All this in a series of short works for children, grades 5-12. There is just too much going on. Apollonius of Tyre, Ariosto, The Faerie Queen, and Don Quixote have varied adventures, yet they are internally similar.  Even The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, designed to be many stories, have less variety because of their interconnection.

There is just too much going on.

The first scenes of The Great Divorce could have themselves been made into a play by Sartre, Beckett, Artaud, or Camus, and Lewis is just getting started. He plays before us a series of scenes, each developed intellectually if not always dramatically. They strut and fret their few pages upon the stage and are no more, making way for another crucial debate ending in heaven or hell.  The Screwtape Letters does seem to be more tightly designed.  By following Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis's book about philosophies, The Pilgrim's Regress gets fenced in somewhat.  But Lewis's characters in that book are not simple concepts like Truth,  but large unwieldy concepts like Freudianism, Hegelianism, and Idealism. 

He covers most of apologetics in Mere Christianity, a short book. The Abolition of Man condenses the great trends of mid-century Western thought in a few pages and relates it back to an idea of a similarity of moral thought in all developed religions of human history. That it hangs together at all is remarkable. 


james said...

He would perhaps say that when you found the master key, all sorts of doors open easily; and from the right vantage point the outline of the battle becomes simpler.

Galen said...

I think "That Hideous Strength" is a mirror of our times.
A few years ago, I came across this profound address by Lewis, titled "De Descriptione Temporum".


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I loved that essay and have referred to it a few times here. More often, I do what you did here and mention it on a comment thread where is seems to fit. The other one with a similar history is "The Dangers of National Repentance" which you may also like. https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/04/16/dangerletters/

Galen said...

Thank you for the link, and thank you for your blog! You've created a virtual space for a good meeting of the minds. I hope you're faring well in retirement, spending time with old friends and finding new daily routines.

Tom Bridgeland said...

That Hideous Strength was difficult the first time through, but is the only one of the trilogy that I re-read occasionally now.