As Mark Studdock works his way into Belbury, we see that what people inside think N.I.C.E. does is bafflingly diverse. There are circles within circles, and each circle has a different idea of what the place is for. The point eventually comes clear: there is only one master and mastermind of Belbury, it is the enemy himself, Satan; he occupies an exclusive inner ring.
The devil comes into view, whom we have met before on Perelandra. As the plot thickens, one begins to discern clear signs of Screwtape. That crazy scene in the deputy director’s office which ends with the odd dance is full of expressions straight from Screwtape. In one sense, Lewis is covering ground he covered before. So what is different?
The incoherency of evil is the great theme, I think–and it plays off the illusion of an inner ring: which falls apart every time Mark thinks he’s reached it. One of the things Mark Studdock learns is the scoundrel he’s been always to pursue membership in the inner ring. That realization is well done. The book is about the diabolical aims of the abolition of man, and that’s also well depicted. Perhaps where the book lags is in the description of the opposite: Logres, the real community, full and even fuller humanity. Jane’s journey is one that goes from shallowness to depth, but I wonder if the journey is as convincing as Mark’s.
The scene in which Jane Studdock meets the director and Lewis says three times that her world was unmade is where it starts to fail. Wish he had worked more at making us feel it, rather than telling the experience. Why didn’t he try harder, having practiced something not unlike in previous books? Maybe he didn’t want to go into that too much on the right side of things. It seems to me that’s the scene at which this excellent book begins to fail a little, and it does not march forward the way it had up to that point.
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There is an atmosphere to these planet books that is hard to describe, but palpable. To me, it is strongest in the early parts of the first two books: there is a sense of mystery drawing one in, of very strange circumstances deepening beyond the control of the protagonist, and of rough, unscrupulous antagonists who bring great instant danger. That early sense of mysterious doings is a lot like the first chapters of Voyage to Arcturus. You will see it if you compare the first chapters of all three (though in Perelandra it is fading already). It doesn’t go that way with That Hideous Strength, and that’s because it is drawn out over the whole of the book. I wonder if that’s what makes THS something of a disappointment. It is written by Lewis, it deals with great stuff, it has diverse characters, it all fits together plausibly enough, there are memorable scenes for all of one’s life. I don’t know if there are subtler things I’m missing about his style or his storytelling, but that early strong pull into the novel and then the headlong opening of wonders and intrigues is not how THS goes. Sinking gradually is not like the shock of an immediate plunge.
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So those are two perhaps opposing theories. But perhaps not incompatible. I think the scene when Jane meets the director is inadequate. Was he rushed? Were there other circumstances? And as for what he’s doing in THS, it was the most obvious way to proceed if Mark’s understanding is the most important. But what if Jane’s were instead? Would it have been structured otherwise? Or what is probably more to the point, what if there were only one track of understanding to proceed along rather than two? Perhaps that’s it: two mitigate the effect.
You do have to admire his transitions from one to the other track. Perhaps the problem is not with him, but with me the reader. It isn’t that he’s doing something too complex for him to pull off, but something too complex for me to understand until I have grown enough to gather all the strands there are as I go along. I am amazed this time through how many parts there are to it: how many scenes, how many developments, how gradually we work toward what’s coming. And do you know what? When I went back over the scene where Jane’s world is all unmade, I found it harder to criticize.