George Orwell v. C. S. Lewis: The Supernatural Keeps Breaking In


 

A longtime reader with the Latinate yet indecipherable name of Nostreculsus,  while discussing THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH by C.S. Lewis, writes:

 

George Orwell reviewed Mr. Lewis’ book, with great appreciation of the concept, which paralleled a book Mr. Orwell was preparing at the time. He notes, “There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. ” Orwell did not, however, like the ending.

 

Yes, the famous George Orwell did indeed review the famous C.S. Lewis, in a column titled “The Scientists Take Over” appearing in the Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945.  Available here.

 

While generally favorable, an unseemly bias is evident from the first line:

On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them. 

 

Orwell’s complaint about the ending betrays a blind spot most atheists and some Christians have concerning stories where the Supernatural comes onstage as a character or plot event: namely, Orwell thinks that if a god is on your side, victory is certain, and no drama exists.

 

Much the same complaint is leveled against superhero stories, namely, that nothing can hurt a Superman.

 

 

The idea seems sound at first. But consider: first, the oldest, deepest, and highest traditions of Western literature from the Bronze Age onward witnesses against the idea; and, second, a proper understanding of the role of the supernatural in drama refutes it.

 

What is the tradition?

 

All stories in the West come from two main fountainheads: (1) the Bible (2) Homer, Virgil, and other classical poets and playwrights. Gods appear in nearly every famous ancient story or epic one can name.

 

To say they lack drama is hogwash: they are the source of all models of how men in the West do drama.

 

Mr. Orwell goes on:

 

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 a part.

 

The works containing ghosts, magic, second sight, angels, mermaids which Mr. Orwell reluctantly allows might be worthwhile include Shakespeare (see Hamlet, Caesar, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Tempest) Homer and Virgil (Cassandra of Troy and the Sybil of Cumae have second sight) Dante and Milton (Angels) not to mention Wagner (Mermaids, and much what-not besides).

 

Considering that the central story up from which all the institutions, art, and psychology of Christendom grows concerns the miracles of incarnation, atonement and resurrection, and considering that any tale barren of at least some hint of atonement, forgiveness, salvation is thin soup indeed, fit only for children too young for meat, to dismiss stories with miracles is odd indeed.

 

 

Mr. Orwell here is dismissing the majority of drama, perhaps in preference for the odd and short-lived mutation of modern realism, a genre popular only among the intellectual class and only for a few decades.

 

Modern realism is a more or less deliberate effort to remove wonder and thunder from stories, removing heroism and villainy, and only tell of ordinary and uninspiring things happening to ordinary and uninspiring people.

 

It more or less came from the brains and pens of socialists, who wished to use story telling as a tool of social progress, to provoke public awareness about issues afflicting of Victorian factories, poorhouses, and orphanages.

 

The artificial popularity among intellectuals of ULYSSES by James Joyce should be seen in this light, as a deliberate attempt to imitate and delegitimize classical models of epic writing, swapping out stories of demigods and ancestral heroes fighting wars and founding cities in favor of nonstories of cuckolded ex-Jewish advertising agents wandering the streets of Dublin in a fit of glossolalia.

 

To be fair, Mr. Orwell’s review is generally favorable. He says “there is nothing outrageously improbable” about a conspiracy of mad scientists bent on the elimination of superfluous life and all liberty first on this globe, then throughout the universe.

 

He says: “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.”

 

Indeed, he generously allows that “One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level.

 

An interesting concession. What, praytell, does Mr. Orwell identify as the shortcoming? Let us read on:

 

Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways.”

 

Pardon me while I smother my guffaw of unseemly laughter in my pocket handkerchief. Since, in real life, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and does so in a rather confusing, undisciplined way (see, for example, the Flood of Noah, the Plagues of Egypt, the Resurrection, or the Battle of Armageddon) one wonders how a portrayal of disciplined and unconfusing supernaturalism would unfold?

 

I rather suspect a disciplined version of supernaturalism would be something like RPG-Lit, where the magic system and the mechanics of the various psychic or parapsychological effects can be told to the reader with the clarity of, for example, of the ballistic properties of fire-arms using in a modern thriller.

 

I have nothing against fantasy stories where the delimitations of the magic are clear. Indeed, a reader is right to insist on such a thing, since otherwise the magic acts as arbitrarily as a god lowered from the stage machinery. If used to solve the conflict of the drama, magic, or any other arbitrary imposition on the credulity, robs drama of force. If not used to solve the conflict when it could have been, the imposition is worse.

 

So I am a great believer in establishing what a magician can or cannot do, if his magic solves the conflict of the drama. If his magic, however, does not solve the drama, it is not a plot point, but rather becomes an article of setting, prop, mood or theme, and often is symbolic on more than one level.

 

In this case, Mr. Orwell is wrong on both levels.

 

On the first level that of RPG-Lit, the limitations of the Eldil and of Merlin in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH are mentioned in more than one scene, and the high price Merlin pays is intimated. Since the title of the book displays what symbolism the author intends for the N.I.C.E. (that it is the Tower of Babel) the divine punishment of the confusion of tongues is not only fitting but inevitable.

 

More to the point, in the clearest, most striking and most poetic way ever seen in literature, each separate villain is savaged and killed by the very philosophy he himself upholds in the place of uprooted religious belief — the materialist is turned into a materialist robot, for example, just as he always claimed to be, and the gassy nihilist becomes nothing, unable to feel even panic or terror at the instant of his own annihilation.

 

On the second level, the destruction of the N.I.C.E. is not the core of the plot, nor are the villains the main antagonist. The plot, if one recalls the opening chapter, concerns two character facing temptation and corruption. The first is the corruption of Jane Studdock my modern unfeminine notions of feminism, including the artificial sterility called contraception robbing both her of motherhood, and the world of a promised hero he son, now forever unborn, would have been. The second is the corruption of Mark Studdock, her husband, luring by his desire to be part of the “Inner Circle” or the “Progressive Set” into slowly abandoning all principles and decency.

 

The corruption of the College governing board, of the police, of the newspapers, and of the scientific community, is all of a thematic background, showing our heroine and hero do not suffer temptation alone.

 

The return of Jane and Mark, who are separated throughout the book, into the proper relationship of loving bridegroom and obedient bride, while tweaking the nose of corrupt modern sensibilities, is in fact the sole answer to the conundrum posed by the plot and theme of this kind. And, of course, Mark finds the only Inner Circle he need join is the circle of his family life, which he had been neglecting.

 

Mr. Orwell surrenders to fatuous absurdity in his closing paragraph:

 

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.

 

The drama of the human condition does not depend on any uncertainty about good being more good than evil. This is not a topic where anyone, aside from a modern intellectual, is capable of having any honest doubts about. God by definition is better than the Devil, even for those to whom these words are metaphorical rather than literal.

 

The only drama in any drama is whether or not, in the battlefield inside the human soul, a man surrenders to evil, and betrays himself, or resists, endures, prevails.

 

This spiritual battle, in adventure stories, takes shape in outward and physical conflict. Even in the most shallow action adventure story, the bad guys must offend some moral rule in order for the gun-battle or swordfight against them to be satisfactory: preferably by murdering the mother of the protagonist in chapter one.

 

Evil prevailing for a long time, as in George Orwell’s book where Big Brother is a boot to trample the human face forever, is unrealistic and meant to be: it is a terror tale, meant to caution the reader.

 

In real life, evil always destroys itself. The drama is whether and how good men can escape from the destruction to come.

 

 

The drama, in other words, is not on the struggle between God and Devil. God is omnipotent, and the Devil is a created underling who rebelled. The drama is whether the protagonist will be wise and strong enough to cleave to the winning side, despite pain and turmoil, despair and martyrdom.

 

In stories, men sometimes are allowed to prevail against evil without supernatural aid.

 

These stories are not realistic: we know full well what happens to the rich and powerful when they commit atrocious sins and flagrantly break the law: they live long and untroubled lives, enjoying much wealth and many concubines, to die peacefully in bed, be buried in marble tombs, and be praised by history books.

 

There are, perhaps, rare cases where some tyrant ends his evil life trembling on the gallows, but this very rarity is so remarkable that it becomes a matter for story in and of itself.

 

In real life, such events as the successful rebellion of the colonies against the world empire, or the erection of a new constitution ushering in an age of peace and justice, clearly happens only by the obvious grace and favor of heaven. To say otherwise is to scoff at statistics, likelihood, and common sense.

 

In real life, only very small evils indeed can be overcome by the weak hands, confused brains, and black hearts of Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. We are not a race known for our uprightness.

 

Justice is not natural to this world, and is as rare as a unicorn. This is why we humans write fairy stories about justice triumphing. If such events ever happened in newspapers, we would just read newspapers.

 

In real life, as in deep stories, the answer to supernatural corruption is supernatural purgation.

 

Despite Mr. Orwell’s misgivings, any naturalistic resolution of the plot, such as if Ransom had hired a group of Pinkerton detectives to break into the meetingroom of the scientific institute and gunned down the director and scientists with .45 automatics, would have been silly and stupid in the extreme.

 

Likewise if Merlin, upon his eerie resurrection and emergence into the modern world, had organized letter-writing campaigns, or stood for public office, or urged newsmen to report the truth.

 

The whole point of the story is that fallen angels from outer space, working through their human agents and worshippers, have gained control of all these organs.

 

Indeed, it is this book where Ransom describes the state of the modern newspaper in these words: They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.

 

It is unclear what Mr. Orwell would recommend. Since the central plot conflict of the second third of the book is the hunt for Merlin the Magician, and the attempt to gain control of his magic powers, if magic is not used against the scientific diabolists and their black magic, neither plot nor character has purpose. If magic is used, since the villains control hellish magic, the counter must be heavenly magic, that is, a miracle.

 

Magic of the less divine sort, as is found in D&D or superhero comics, will not do. The X-Men with their non-supernatural superpowers would not have been able to prevail against the Dark Eldil: neither the eye-blasts of Cyclopes nor the unbreakable claws of Wolverine can hurt the Devil, nor would the mind reading powers of Professor X necessarily prevail. Only divine intervention works in such a case.

 

As I said above,  even in a story with miracles, the miracles must be portrayed in a real way, just as they are in life, undisciplined and unclear and breaking in unexpectedly. Just so must real temptation, real corruption and real salvation be portrayed in a real way.

 

If you are bold enough to have Aslan come onstage as a character, it would be unwise and unartistic to portray him as a tame lion.

 

In real life, as in the fairy tale for grownups of C.S. Lewis, the press is an engine to deceive the people; the scientific community, once paying lip service to scientific objectivity, is now a grant-seeking arm of the establishment political machine; and, to judge from the hints and rumors of satanic rituals, orgies and drug-parties among our ruling elite, the ruling class has bowed the knee to the “macrobes” and the Bent Eldil now no less than the ancient Philistines, Carthaginians, or Aztecs.

 

In real life, a religious revival and a purge to sweep away these pagan corruptions is the sole feasible solution.

 

In a fairy tale, it is only proper to represent such an invisible miracle of the spirit with some open and outward wonder, such as what smites the proud and hideous stronghold of Babel in its modern science-worshipping manifestation in this book.

 

Considering the central role political correctness plays in real life in the erection of our own totalitarian science-worshipping Towers of Babel currented strangling all public institutions, the curse of the confusion of tongues on those who believe and preach that words have no innate truth to them is more than fitting.

 

Mr. Orwell is not simply wrong, he is dead wrong, to imagine that removing or underplaying the act of divine wrath smiting the evildoers at the climax of Mr. Lewis’ tale of wonder would improve or clarify rather than ruin or falsify the whole theme and point of the work.

 

Mr. Orwell’s error is so enormous and lopsided, that it calls into question his objectivity. I venture to say that were he not a close-minded partisan loyal to the worldly secularism of his cult, he would see the artistic merit of the work of Lewis, and judge it by its proper standard.

 

Please excuse me while I retire to giggle without dignity over the idea of supernatural miracles, signs and wonders, and mighty works of the Lord being chided for their confusing and undisciplined nature. It will take me a moment to recover my composure.

 

 

Originally published here.


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John C. Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title. He has published short fiction in Asimov’s Science Fiction in F&SF in Absolute Magnitude and elsewhere. His novel Orphans of Chaos was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2005. His novel Somewhither won the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. In 2015, he made history by being nominated for six Hugo Awards in one year, more than any other author. Read more of his work at scifiwright.com or pick up one of his novels here.

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