Fact-checking Lewis

Re-reading C.S. Lewis is always something of a trip for me, since I started reading him at such an early age; too early, in fact, to understand up to half the words he used. I remember reading his list of titles to impress one of my younger siblings, pronouncing “Nephew” like “Nep-ew,” and deciding that a Nep-ew must be like a magician’s assistant. I was 6 or 7 at the time. Perhaps I was an uncommonly pedantic 6-year-old, to be so taken with something I only partially understood, but you must remember: at 6, everything that seems worthwhile and interesting is a bit beyond your reach. I was rarely daunted by the fact that I didn’t completely understand something yet.

I just finished That Hideous Strength again, and with the experience gained in the past 23 years find myself adding my own caveats to the writing. Hmm, you’re off here; I can’t blame you, given your upbringing, but I will allow myself the luxury of contradicting you. Or Really? Do Oxford dons not fact-check?

For example, Jane on some points is a solid character, but her reluctance to show emotion to her husband on the grounds that she’s a modern/academic/intellectual is a bit cliché. It’s just what a man who has never seen a woman like this intimately might imagine. Often, it’s exactly this type who is the most willing to jump into primeval mode and jump at any offered solace from the long-unwilling male in her life, ravenously, even illogically. If you enjoy Donne, there’s a good chance the phrase “nevermore be chaste, except you ravish me” sums up your attitude. You may take a grim view of romance, but it’s still romantic (not aseptic). The “eroticism of humility” is just what she is probably dying for; she wants to be wanted. She wants to be enjoyed for more than just that, but precisely because she is intelligent and lyrical, she enjoys the application of this poetry more even than its creation. Women are usually more practical in this way than men. Men may actually be satisfied with theoretical love, kept warm by the scrawl of their own handwriting, but women of Jane’s nature never are, and they have little reason to pretend to be in the confines of their own homes. This sort of woman probably would say pointedly, as Jane says “I’m used to being alone; do what you like.” But after a shared evening of forgetting how lonely she is, she is more than likely to say it, if she says it at all, with a quaver in her voice, hopefully; pleadingly; seductively. The snarky off-putting comeback line is delivered when the man is already determined to do what he likes anyway, is already leaving, and it’s said as a reproach and to show that she isn’t quite dead yet.

The reader could easily get the impression from reading the book that Lewis preferred traditional gender roles in which women did the dishes and men did important things, but I don’t think this is particularly true. It’s really a more sympathetic picture he paints of Jane, alone at home with the dishes, while Mark is off trying to further himself by entangling himself in idiocy. At St. Anne’s-on-the hill (the good place), the company trades the menial tasks; men do the cooking and cleaning one day, women the next. At Belbury (the bad place), all is masculinized in the worst way; it’s a boys’ club built on what men are typically supposed to be good at: science, charismatic politics, brutality. Beauty, characterized as feminine throughout the book, is rooted out as being beside the point, and when Mark thinks of Jane and realizes how absurd she would find the place, it gives him pause.

However, Lewis tends to be a bit sloppy at times. He tosses in the “cut off her head for not having conceived her predestined child” remark offhandedly, but that God’s centuries-long efforts should have been frustrated by lack of sexual contact and/or use of contraceptives (one isn’t sure which) so easily, and without any malice on the part of the unwitting participants, seems poor writing. On a more academic note, Merlin speaks of “Middle Earth,” which Lewis got from Tolkien, but “Middle Earth,” though it was a phrase in vogue roughly around Merlin’s time, was a Germanic/Saxon phrase, not, indeed, a Celtic one (as far as I know, anyway, and data on ancient Celtic language is lacking). And it referred largely to Saxon England. As Merlin is supposed to have hated the Saxons, it seems unlikely that he should choose this phrase except as an indication that Lewis borrowed ideas from various people and applied them without strict examination. More on his allusions, many impressive and some problematic, may be found here.

4 thoughts on “Fact-checking Lewis

  1. It’s been awhile since I’ve read here and I enjoy your writing as ever.

    Your sentiment I quite agree with: “you’re wrong here but I can’t blame you…”

    I appreciate the nuance with which you see Jane and St Anne’s and the NICE and gender. Fairy Hardcastle fits with your analysis as she is powerful in the NICE but must of course be very masculine (Mark writhes at her handshake: the grip of a stoker…)

    Anyway, I’ve no idea if Dons do fact check. I never got the impression from Lewis that he would though. He was rather too sure of his ability to bluff and argue. Still he gets bits of the female psyche right I think. Orual struck rather close to home more than once.

  2. Thanks. And I agree… Lewis bluffs. Charmingly, usually. Still, Orual is my favorite of his female characters, along with Lucy. But Lucy was a child. Orual’s complexities may come partially from the fact that she is an imperfect narrator, and thus Lewis spent more time developing her. She is a stand-in for the human race, and perhaps Lewis thought of humanity in general as more feminine… or masculine-feminine; Orual is a queen, after all.

  3. That may be it. Maybe he wrote Orual as human first and woman second. Maybe she resonates mostly because of her humanity. Lewis does mention in That Hideous Strength that what is above and beyond us is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. Perhaps it is time for a theorist to posit Lewis’s gender-progressiveness for advancing the idea that the human race is fundamentally feminine…

    Have you read Dorothy Sayers’s “Are Women Human”. Good stuff and you may especially appreciate it in light of your last few meditations on gender and intelligence.

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