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    60: That Hideous Strength Is Nonfiction

    Pain and Passion, Part 11

    By Marianne Wright, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    May 24, 2023
    • Carl Youngblood

      (...continued) It is not possible to identify a certain historical tech level and say that this was the ideal state of humanity. We are always seeking greater mastery of our surroundings. Many people express understandable concern about potential dangers in new technology, but they have no qualms about wearing glasses, talking to someone on the phone, or riding a bicycle. These are all forms of technology, but they have become so commonplace that we no longer see them as novel or dangerous. Similarly, while we should be concerned about potential abuses of technology, we should not err in the opposite direction of assuming all technology is evil, or indulge the fantasy that returning to a state of nature is desirable or even possible. Most significant new technologies that humanity has adopted have made it impossible to return to our prior state. For example, the invention of modern fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process has allowed the population to increase by an order of magnitude. It would not be possible to return to the state of our planet prior to this invention without consigning 90% of the human population to starvation. The only way to overcome our trials is to work through them. We can’t go backwards. Rather than say that tech is causing us to leave our humanity behind, it’s more accurate to say that we have experienced many transitions that have changed humanity forever. Each of them was a one-way door. And this is bound to continue.

As religious people, we should also remember that God endorses the beneficial use technology. Jesus worked as a carpenter and used bread and wine (products of human manufacture) in the last supper. He also commanded his disciples to “heal the sick, and raise the dead” (Matt 10:8). Paul exhorted Christians to “lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,” and further claimed that it is faithless to pray over others without using the means at our disposal to help them (James 2:16).
Carl Youngblood Founding 
Member Christian Transhumanist Association

    • Carl Youngblood

      I'm grateful for Plough's willingness to explore these topics. However, I believe much of the characterizations of transhumanism here are inaccurate and incomplete, and several points made here seem to suffer from the naturalistic fallacy. Transhumanist goals vary widely, and they are often sincerely concerned about the potential for abuse and authoritarian applications of technology. In fact, because they spend so much time pondering the existential risks posed by new technology, many transhumanists are more aware than most people of what might go wrong. And many of them are the ones urging more caution in the race towards artificial general intelligence. While some transhumanists express a desire to overcome human limitations through technology, nearly all of them are emphatic that nobody should be forced to use such technology. And the enhancements that most of them are interested in have to do with eradicating disease and enhancing humanity, not necessarily transcending it. Most of them wish to improve the human condition. Humans have been seeking greater control over their environment since our earliest beginnings. The invention of controlled fire, clothing, and writing are types of technology that were introduced by early humans and not innate to their natural state. In this sense, technology is an essential part of what it means to be human. We are the only creature with such widespread use of tools. (continued...)

    • Linda Tshimika

      I guess I need to reread THS. I’ve read it probably three times, but since I read it first(almost 50 years ago!) just after reading Out Of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, it didn’t register with me emotionally like the other two. As I read your assessment of the book, I’m thinking about how many ways our 21st century culture is enmeshed with technology and AI. Since internet was down in my neighborhood after an act of sabotage, it brings that enmeshment home in a new way.

    About This Episode

    Marianne Wright discusses C. S. Lewis’s prescient science fiction novel. Peter Mommsen’s sister comes on the pod with Pete and Susannah to discuss That Hideous Strength, the third book in Lewis’s space trilogy, and its eerily accurate critiques of transhumanism.

    From questions of academic vocation to Arthurian legend to tame bears to head transplantation, this novel is a rich exploration of what it means to be human in the face of a conspiracy against the human. It’s also one of Susannah and Marianne’s favorite novels.

    The gang examines Lewis’s treatment of these themes, with many spoilers. They also solve, once and for all, the Jane Problem.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Peter Mommsen:

    Filostrato said, “In us, organic life has produced mind. It has done its work. After that, we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life like what you call the blue mold, all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it – by little and little, of course. Slowly we learn now. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body. Learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals. No longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.”

    “For the moment I speak only to inspire you. I speak that you may know what can be done, what shall be done here. This Institute, dio mio, it is for something better than housing and vaccinations and faster trains and curing the people of cancer. It is for the conquest of death – or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life, which sheltered the babyhood of mind, the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man free from nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by. Now, now, we kick her away. Of course, the power will be confined to a number, a small number of individual men, those who are selected for eternal life.”

    “And you mean,” said Mark, “it will then be extended to all men?” “No,” said Filostrato. “I mean, it will then be reduced to one man. You are not a fool, are you, my young friend? All that talk about the power of man over nature. Man in the abstract is only for the canaglia. You know as well as I do that man’s power over nature means the power of some men over other men with nature as the instrument.”

    And that rather chilling transhumanist quote, which I should have read with an Italian accent, is from That Hideous Strength, a novel by C. S. Lewis that he wrote and completed eighty years ago in the midst of World War II, in 1943. It was first published in 1945. And today we’re going to talk about That Hideous Strength as nonfiction. It’s so good to have Susannah and my sister Marianne with us today. Welcome, Marianne.

    Marianne Wright: Hi, Peter and Susannah.

    Peter Mommsen: Our resident C. S. Lewis expert.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, Marianne, every time I tweet about this, you kind of like are three steps ahead of me and thinking about – how many times have you read this book?

    Marianne Wright: I actually haven’t read it so many times. I probably read it back three or four times.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s not bad. I think I’ve probably read it about the same number.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I read it I think three times, twice a long time ago in college. And then once I started yesterday after kind of situating the kids post Easter, and I finished at 1:30 in the morning. So if I say anything foolish, that’s why. I kind of dreamed about it. But Susannah, before we get into it for our readers, our listeners, why are we talking about That Hideous Strength as nonfiction? There’s a few key issues that you and I were talking about before we started recording this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There are basically three issues that I think are interesting in this book that are also headline issues, as you might say.

    One is the question of bioethics and artificial intelligence and transhumanism, what it means to be human, what we do with science to overcome our humanity or to overcome the humanity of others. Then questions about our vocations as men and women and vocation in general really. And then a question about how Christians should conduct themselves in the world. And the question of – the sort of related question of political power.

    Peter Mommsen: Those are also so related, aren’t they? I mean …

    Susannah Black Roberts: They are. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Marianne claims to have only read this three or four times, but she quotes this book constantly, which is probably why we invited her on. I started thinking about it again back what, three, four years ago, when there was a lot of media coverage of a supposed head transplant. Where there was this idea, I believe primarily by a bunch of Chinese scientists that they were going to, or actually had, transplanted somebody’s head onto a different body. And that of course, figures pretty prominently in the book.

    Marianne Wright: We are going to try to do not too many spoilers, but it’s not the center.

    Peter Mommsen: This spoiler is unavoidable. There is a tran –

    Marianne Wright: Yes, this spoiler is out of …

    Peter Mommsen: There is a revivified or transplanted or still living head from a famous scientist who is guillotined for poisoning his wife. But that’s not really to the point. The point is C. S. Lewis eighty years ago was already imagining this head transplant thing, but whether or not head transplants ever do really become a thing, God forbid, the whole idea of it illuminates so much about what kind of goes by the name of transhumanism today, right? This idea that we can conquer our biological givenness as human beings, that we’re really just minds, that the brain itself if kept alive indefinitely, would be all that’s interesting about us. All that’s significant about a human being. Perhaps as Peter Thiel and others have been said to dream of, we could upload that brain onto a computer.

    Marianne Wright: Except this head transplant, what is speaking through this head is really not the person. So they haven’t revivified anything. They’ve actually crossed some kind of barrier and called down demons, which is actually the more important thing that happens in the book.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. So what does happen in the book? We should back up a bit. Where is this book happening?

    Susannah Black Roberts: We should back up.

    Peter Mommsen: And before we get into all that, let’s just bear in mind when this book is being written, right in the midst of World War II, the same year that Lewis is working on this book, Ayn Rand publishes The Fountainhead two years later. Animal Farm is published and Brave New World is published right in this same time period. Why people are thinking about this stuff is a question we should get into later, but what is C. S. Lewis putting together here? The background apparently was that he was thinking about this head transplant, head revivification thing for years.

    There’s correspondence from twenty years earlier in the ’20s, a German scientist apparently had first sort of theorized this possibility and that captured C. S. Lewis’ attention. Already back in the early ’20s he wanted to write a play or novel or something about it. So we meet that on the first page, we meet a woman called Jane who picks up a newspaper at the breakfast table and reads that a famous scientist has been guillotined. What then? Marianne, do you want to walk us through kind of the setup of the whole novel? Because we’re going to talk about it as nonfiction but first we have to get the fictional story in somewhere, might as well be now.

    Marianne Wright: So it actually starts as the story of a young married couple and they are kind of representatives of a lot of the problems of modernity in the way they approach their marriage and their life. And they’re pretty basic people and they have made a lot of mistakes already. But the husband is an academic and the college that he works for, the university he works for is in the process of being subsumed into some kind of national institute for improving everything. And so there’s a lot of nasty politicking and so forth that goes along, and he’s swept right up into that, and then eventually into this institute, which ends up being the organization that is doing the head reviving and the calling down of demons. Whereas his wife, through no special merit of her own, ends up with a group of people who are representing the opposite. And so they end up having a big showdown between the people who are interested in transhumanism and eradicating mankind in favor of pure knowledge.

    Peter Mommsen: Artificial man in pure …

    Marianne Wright: Artificial man versus a little group of people who are living in a country household and growing winter vegetables and just getting along with each other as people. And so they have this fantastic showdown in the end where the wicked people get kind of trampled by elephants and the tigers come and eat them and so forth. And then the book ends and the married couple gets a second run at it, and they’re back together and they’ve tried to hopefully learn their lessons. So in a way, it’s really a story about people trying to live as human beings, how to make families and societies in the face of the wicked temptations of power and really power I guess, is the main and science misused.

    Peter Mommsen: And the name of that couple is Mark, he’s the sociologist, notably. A sociologist who is easily turned aside and is tempted by N.I.C.E. is the acronym, the National Institute for something or other, N-I-C-E, and his wife Jane.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Coordinated Experiments, I think.

    Peter Mommsen: Coordinated Experiments, correct.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it’s very much the kind of RAND Corporation is the way that I think of it. As I’m sure one of the things in the back of Lewis’ mind, it’s this very kind of like 1950s-ish thing, and he was writing about it about ten years before such things would become really common in the Cold War. But this vision of a kind of nationalized scientific research institute that would apply science to social problems and to sorting everything out. And the vision is this kind of energetic attempt to take the approach of full mobilization for war against Hitler, and apply it to full mobilization for peace as it turns out against the entire British public. And that vision of kind of let’s just organize everyone, let’s just put everything –

    Peter Mommsen: The liquidation of anachronisms.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And we should also say that I believe Lewis was writing this at the same time as another book, a little much shorter book, a nonfiction book called The Abolition of Man, which should be read. He himself said that this was essentially a novelization of that much sort of shorter, essayistic, to-the-point discussion of questions of natural law and human nature and the sort of nature of the good and so on. And as we’ve sort of talked about here, the real vision, it shouldn’t be thought of as a left or right political vision.

    And obviously he’s pretty much pegged as right wing now, but he does not think of himself that way. And I think that understanding the book that way is to miss the point. He’s very aware of both communism and fascism, and he’s very aware of the problems of both capitalism – although we can talk about what I think he goes wrong with there later on – as well as socialism. This is not so much a political issue as an issue of what the good guys are fighting for in this book, is for humans to be humans as opposed to things.

    Peter Mommsen: In that sense, not dissimilar in certain ways from the lefty George Orwell, 1984, and I’ve had a great little quote from Orwell who actually reviewed the book when it came out in the Manchester Evening News. He said, “Plenty of people in our age entertained the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters. And we are in sight of the time when such dreams will be realizable.” Which is why we’re talking about it today, because I think Orwell was right. It’s just interesting that Orwell did not peg it immediately as a reactionary book, although there’s a big dose of Arthurian legend in there, too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Marianne Wright: I should just say the other two books that C. S. Lewis published during the early ’40s were Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, which are both books about the lies we tell ourselves and the sins that we commit through them. A lot of it is self-deception, and I think that comes through with a lot of the … I think especially Mark, the husband in the book, is very good at not really looking at his motives and then drifting into worse and worse things.

    Peter Mommsen: And that C. S. Lewis is great on the psychology of that, the psychology of not so bad people doing horrible things. There’s just so much in here that is so –

    Marianne Wright: Well, and it’s being led to do horrible things. So he gets during the course of what are in his mind his professional advancements, he gets involved with worse and worse people. And then at some point he actually commits a crime, and it describes how the moment when he’d kind of decided to cross that line just happened while the cocktails were being passed and everyone was having a merry time together. And that you can be seduced into being a much worse person than you should be by not having the moral principles to notice that moment and then turn back from it.

    Peter Mommsen: So a little couple of things we should say up front, this counter to N.I.C.E., to the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, is in fact an outpost of Arthurian England. So the kind of “true England” in Lewis’ view, and we’ll no doubt be discussing the role of Arthurian legend, a love of Lewis’ all his life. In the book there’s also the title itself, That Hideous Strength, the epigraph of the book kind of points to where that comes from.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So that is, I think the epigraph is from David Lyndsay, not the David Lindsay who wrote A Voyage to Arcturus, which is sort of favorite science fiction novel of Lewis’ that Lewis liked that was written I think in the ’20s, but another David Lyndsay. And the epigraph is “The shadow of that hyddeous strength/Sax myle and more it is of length,” and it’s a reference to the Tower of Babel. So this is very much like a vision of technological society that is seeking to do what technological society starting with the Tower of Babel has always done, which is to reach heaven on our own terms without being subject to God’s rule and without being who we are in the cosmic order, but trying to be someone else in the cosmic order, i.e. to make ourselves gods.

    And that is the sort of TL;DR version of what Lewis thinks transhumanism is all about. And one of the really fascinating things to me is just we’re doing this podcast in a moment when artificial intelligence and ChatGPT and all of these sort of computerized versions of consciousness, according to their proponents and what they actually are is, probably … more will be revealed. These are things that are in the news now.

    And the vision of attempting to both take human beings, take each of each individual person and make ourselves immortal in some way, and also to create human-ish things that will be immortal and that aren’t biological and that aren’t subject to the limits of biology but are sort of pure machine and pure information that is such, it seems very modern, but Lewis points to it not being very modern at all. This is a very old dream. And the nature of that dream, I think that nightmare is what he’s really examining here.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, shall we go through those hot button points that you mentioned at the beginning, Susannah?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sure.

    Peter Mommsen: Perhaps one by one. The first is one to bioethics we’ve already gotten into and of course, the quote I read at the beginning points to it, this idea that we will conquer organic life, which is the same thing as death according to Filostrato, who is this Italian genius scientist who is helping to tend the guillotined head at the N.I.C.E. headquarters, and believes that by developing this technology, he’s figured out a way to ensure immortality for the chosen few, as it turns out.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And the idea of physically removing like the actual physical head, I’m sure that if Lewis had been another ten years along in history when he was writing this, he would’ve come across the idea of uploading a mind. It’s not about the physical head, it’s about the mind and making the mind into something that’s not tethered to organic life.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, in fact the head itself is altered, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s a deliberate … The brain of this mind is fed to grow it to superhuman proportions. In fact, they have to remove the top of the skull to allow the brain to bubble out. In a way that’s symbolic but kind of similar to the superhuman mental powers that are ascribed to artificial intelligence now by both their proponents and critics.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And the vision of what you want to do with this is – it’s a little bit unclear. It’s a little bit unclear what it is that the ambition is. And that vagueness of ambition has actually been a feature of this batch of humans throughout. This is the third of C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. And in the first one, Weston, who’s the sort of villain of that book, had this ambition for humans to travel to space, and also to evolve into more excellent versions of humanity or post humanity. And that kind of, we’re not exactly sure what we want, but we want to be everywhere and be different, but it’ll still be us, but we’re after something more. We’re after kind of immortality, omnipresence and intelligence.

    Marianne Wright: Well, I think there’s a suggestion that just pure intelligence has some kind of value of its own, that just to do what? But that everything is just going to be reduced to these heads, and organic life will be gone and it’ll be pure mind that will be left in the end. To what end, as you say, it really doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Peter Mommsen: Mark actually has this conversation with the people at the top of the N.I.C.E. hierarchy about just this, where he asked, “Is it right to be doing what we’re doing?” And they essentially answer, “Well, we can.” So therefore just as you know, any organism in evolution thrives and outcompetes others because it can, so we too, since we are now able to do this, we should.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And that’s actually Weston in the first book has this one line where he says “the might, or if you will, the right of humans to do this is obvious.” So there’s an equation there of might and right. And again, we got back to the … and antithesis of this, which for all those fans of the musical Camelot, I’m really sorry.

    Marianne Wright: Actually no, so that’s straight out of The Once and Future King. So this is a huge thing, this was the other book that I read and reread probably about the same time in high school when I was reading this book, that might is not right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So there are all these antitheses that are set up between St. Anne’s and Belbury, which are the two … so Belbury is the location of the N.I.C.E., and St. Anne’s is this kind of Arthurian court made up of a couple of elderly people. And then the new Pendragon, spoilers, and Jane and her old cleaning lady, her former cleaning lady who’s not old, she’s Jane’s age in fact, and a couple of others, this kind of Arthurian court, which is the core of the real England as Lewis hypothesizes, it is set up as the exact opposition of Belbury because it’s the real thing. And Belbury is, the N.I.C.E. is, on every point, a parody and wicked version.

    And what you really begin to get is that evil doesn’t have any creative power. There’s nothing new. There’s only sort of subverted or inverted or grasped after goodness. And so one example of that I think is actually this sort of vision of immaterial intelligence. So humans, there’s nothing bad about immaterial intelligence. God, before the incarnation, was an immaterial intelligence. Angels are immaterial intelligences. And to get in touch with that immaterial realm is actually part of our destiny as human beings, but not on our own terms.

    And actually with the incarnation and with sort of the ultimate vision that God’s been carrying out in history, there’s this unification of heaven and earth, of the immaterial, the spiritual, and earthly realms, which is basically the spiritual coming down to the earthly rather than the earthly being abolished and taken up exclusively into the spiritual, which is a fascinating contrast between the two.

    Marianne Wright: I see St. Anne’s, it never really occurred to me as an Arthurian court. To me it’s just an extended household of people. And I think this is one of the thing that people love about this book is you just have this really randomly assorted household of people who are there because they’re decent people, and they’ve kind of conglomerated there. And then they end up being kind of the last stand before the powers of evil. I think it also influenced what … so a few years ago I read through C. S. Lewis’s collected correspondence, which I was working on a book project about George MacDonald, so I wanted to find out everything C. S. Lewis had said about him.

    So I read through his letters of which there are many, and so his other main major correspondent at this time, or one of his major correspondents at this time was an Anglican nun called Sister Penelope Lawson who lived at a convent pretty close to Oxford, and he visited there a few times. And I think that there is an aspect of that monastic life as well that’s reflected in this vision of this kind of withdrawn household, the walled garden and so forth, that is held up as the kind of ideal human society. And some of the people in there are profound scholars and deep thinking, wise people and some of them are simple people who are there because they’re trying their best to be good and they all get to be part of this society.

    Peter Mommsen: So while we’re on the transhumanism piece and we’re reading this book as nonfiction, which isn’t fair, because if you haven’t read this, or even if you read it a long time ago, like I only had until yesterday, you should pick it up because it’s just a great read. It’s a great novel, as a novel. What other points that are kind of relevant to our discussions about artificial intelligence and transhumanism and bioethics in general does C. S. Lewis look forward to from eighty years ago? What about our current movement can this book help us think better about these things?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think something that might belong under that heading is actually the attitude towards the land and towards animals, which kind of seems tangential, but it’s pretty much baked in there and I think it’s very closely related. So there’s this wonderful, very intensely beautiful description of a little garden with a sort of forest area with a holy well at the center, which that area is taken over by the N.I.C.E. and dug up and everything, all the walls of the gardens are pulled down and everything just becomes mud. And so there’s a kind of destruction of old growth forest. There’s a destruction of kind of manmade plus natural gardens within gardens landscape that was remarkably beautiful.

    And then there’s also this massive vivisection lab that is part of the N.I.C.E., and then there’s this household at St. Anne’s, which is very landscape-y and very English and very kind of tucked away and they are growing vegetables and there’s a little homestead. And the relationship between Ransom, who’s the King Arthur figure, the lord of the household and the animals is remarkable for being … it’s a vision of the power of a man over the animals, but a totally different kind of power than the power that you get by vivisecting a creature.

    Peter Mommsen: Dominion truly understood. So Genesis, the early chapters of Genesis with humankind being responsible for, responsibility for the natural world and especially for the animals, that kind of stewardship, that lordship over the animal realm being done in the right way in a kind of loving and respectful way that actually allows for communication with the bear and the jackdaw, and the mice.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So that’s another one of those antitheses I think that you can see between the two that I think falls under the transhumanist or bioethics discussion.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I did have to think about it because of the recent enthusiasm over the last eighteen months or so for vat-grown meat that we’re not going to subject animals to farming anymore. And in fact, we should abolish farming and especially abolish regenerative farming because it’s the thing even more to a certain degree than the horrors of industrial meat production that kind of stand in the way of us. I don’t know, just getting ourselves out of this cycle of eating brutes and weeds that Filostrato talks about, and instead scientifically in big technical laboratories producing the protein we need to get through life.

    Marianne Wright: Now the other thing I would come under the heading of bioethics of course, is there’s the quote Pete read at the beginning, learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation. And that’s one of the themes in the book – the desire by the people at the N.I.C.E. institute to generate babies divorced from marriage and divorced from sex, similar to Brave New World lab-grown infants. And there’s been horrifying pictures of that I’ve seen circulating on social media, people’s ideas of how that could look in real life.

    Peter Mommsen: I thought it was just interesting as a side note that the genesis of a lot of these ideas is in the German Research University of the ’20s and ’30s. So everything from this idea of head transplants to invasive surgery, but also particularly in the area of reproduction, they all sort of were bred in this very eugenic type of climate that was prevalent in the Germany Research University in the ’20s and ’30s.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, so that’s actually probably a pretty good transition to one of the topics that we wanted to flag about this, which is the book’s discussion of marriage and sex, which is one of the things that Lewis gets a lot of flack for. I think it’s probably safe to say about this book, but I don’t think he deserves the flack. I mean, I think he deserves some flack for some things, but I don’t actually think that he is the monster of sexism that he has presented us in criticisms of this book.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, to get it out of the way, what’s the case against Lewis? Lewis as sexist reactionary?

    One piece of it is essentially in the end. I mean, this is not a spoiler, but at the end, Jane, the wife returns to her husband, and the first thing she notices is that his shirt has been thrown over a chair and out the window where it’s getting damp. And the way that she begins her new life is by cleaning up after her slovenly husband, something that probably happens in my house.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And this is sort of in contrast to what she had thought was her job in the world or was what she wanted to do, which was to finish her doctoral dissertation on John Donne. And yes, it is very, very easy to read this as Lewis saying men should be scholars, women should be wives. And combined with the fact that Jane and Mark, they’ve been married for six months at the beginning of the book, and she’s not pregnant because they’ve been contracepting. And one part of their sort of sanctification or their repentance, their transformation is that they are not going to be doing that anymore.

    And so the vision of all right, women should not be scholars, they should just be wives and mothers, and that is something that is extremely irritating to people. I don’t think that that’s a fair reading of what Lewis thought about women or of Jane in general, because I think that Jane’s problem and Mark’s problem are actually the same problem. And that’s inflected through male and female versions, but it’s not fundamentally a different problem. I could make my case, but does anyone have anything else to add about the case against Lewis?

    Marianne Wright: I agree with you. I’ve always struggled to figure out how this one scene at the end of the book with the wet shirt should kind of throw the whole thing into disrepute you have in this book. Well, in the first place, Jane, although neither half of the couple is that great as a human being, I mean, she’s a little better than he is. So it’s not like he spends the whole time throwing her under the bus. And the thing with the dissertation she’s trying to write is that she’s a bad scholar. It’s not that she’s a woman, it’s just like it’s really not her thing, and she’s writing a boring paper that nobody needs.

    To go back again, just maybe special pleading, but his friendship with this nun, Penelope Lawson who was a scholar of classical texts, and he got in touch with her because she asked him to write the introduction to her translation of Athenasius On the Incarnation, which is this famous essay, I’ve forgotten which one it is, on reading old books. So he knew, and of course, in Oxford he knew as well many women scholars and the idea that just because she was a woman, she wasn’t going to be respected for her mind to me doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Peter Mommsen: But there is something in the book that is bound to disturb a certain kind of gender theorist, because Lewis does insist that there are male and female vocations, that there is a masculine and feminine. And that you, me, individuals need to align ourselves with what we’re made to be.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And the way that I think that is this is best understood is a question of nature and vocation. So in his vision, we all have natures as humans and as men and women. And then we all have a kind of vocation to live out those natures in various ways. And that actually is related a bit to the vocation in the more traditional sense, like what is your job? And the problem with Jane and Mark, they both have the same general problem, which is that they have this intense desire to be taken seriously and to be thought of as adults. And that is related to what they want their work to be. And what they want their work to be is not in fact what their actual vocations are.

    So it’s not totally clear what Mark’s actual vocation is because I don’t think that Lewis would really approve of him being even an academic sociologist because I don’t think he likes sociology. But it’s certainly not the case that Mark’s vocation is doing a kind of irritating political conspiracy to oppress the entire world and throw all of his linguistic ability – he’s a good writer, which is the one thing that he’s good at – throw his linguistic ability behind kind of bamboozling and lying through the press, to the British public.

    And it’s also not the case that Jane should be a Donne scholar because she’s not a very good one. And both of them want to be doing these things. They want to be doing their kind of fake work because it seems to me that their problem is that neither of them have grown up properly. They both have this kind of desire to be seen as grownups, but it’s the kind of desire that you have when you’re fourteen and you really want people to take you seriously, and it’s not an actual adult vision of what being an adult is.

    And for both of them they kind of have to do the same thing, which is learn how to be an adult man and woman in real relationship to each other and to God and to other people. And in real relationship to the work that they’re meant to be doing in the world, as opposed to this kind of desire for a kind of “I want to be taken seriously, I want to be part of the big things that are going on, I don’t want to be just doing academic work, I don’t want to be cooking and cleaning for my husband” because they’re both … “I want to be on the inside of something.”

    Marianne Wright: What happens in the book is the people who are actually inside of doing something are just the people who are living in a household together, just being human beings together – that’s actually the great calling that ends up winning over this big well organized institute.

    Peter Mommsen: I do have, on this subject, words from C. S. Lewis himself defending himself against this charge right from the time he wrote the book. Shortly afterwards, some friends of his, Daphne and Cecil Harwood complained about Jane’s not being a very original thinker in the book and he replied to them, this is September 1945,

    Regarding Jane, she wasn’t meant to illustrate the problem of the married woman and her own career in general. Rather the problem of everyone who follows an imagined vocation at the expense of a real one. Perhaps I should have emphasized more the fact that her thesis on Donne was all derivative bilge. If I’d been tackling the problem, which Cecil thinks I had in mind, of course, that’ve taken a woman capable of making a real contribution to literature, which Jane wasn’t.

    And actually, interestingly enough, in an earlier version of the book, Jane was meant to be a biochemist. Also not a very good biochemist, presumably. C. S. Lewis felt he just couldn’t carry it out. He didn’t know enough about biochemistry to make her research interest convincing, whereas he felt on safer ground making fun of her doctoral thesis on Donne. She wanted to write about Donne’s “triumphant vindication of the body,” ironically enough. So where is Atlantis though? So there is this task that everyone has, this true vocation that everyone has, which Marianne just referenced, is kind of in building this community right at St. Anne’s on the hill where everyone is playing their role, they’re literally growing cabbages and taking care of some animals.

    But Jane and Mark also have a very specific vocation, which is actually just to be parents. So from my point of view, by today’s standards, C. S. Lewis’ portrayal of Jane could be read as being a put down. But it’s actually Mark who’s really the target every bit as much as her. Just as Jane has sacrificed her vocation of motherhood in pursuit of this supposedly serious career, Mark in spades, has sacrificed his vocation as a father or his potential vocation as a father in pursuit of something much more ignoble than Jane. There’s something a lot worse about screwing up the whole world than writing a bad doctoral thesis on Donne.

    Marianne Wright: And there’s a false masculinity about how he goes about it, always wanting to curry favor with men that he sees as more powerful or who are farther advanced into this circle that he wants to break into. But it’s very tied up with his status, which is kind of a much worse pastiche of being a man than maybe Jane is of being a woman.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And it should be said, I mean, there are two other points here in Lewis’ favor, which is that the actual work of the household at St. Anne’s, the kitchen, making the meals the men and the women swap off from day to day. Apparently, Lewis thought that men and women couldn’t really work together that well at cooking things, but they can work perfectly well in turns. So it’s not just that the women are there to serve the man at St. Anne’s.

    And the actual work that they’re doing is deeply frustrating to MacPhee, who is one of the funniest characters. He’s this kind of atheistic Scotsman who really is not so sure about any of the supernatural stuff and doesn’t believe in God, at least not initially. But he is very much on the side of literally the angels, whether or not he realizes it because he has a deep kind of honesty. And his sort of frustration with the work of St. Anne’s is that it’s not direct enough. You can see him, he’s the kind of person who might be interested in going to Belbury if he thought it was doing something very practical for the good.

    And there’s this that kind of leads us to the third big, I guess talking point or headlining kind of issue that I think the book addresses really well, which is the question of political power or the way that Christians should go in the world. And the kind of methods that they should use to aim at the good, and the way that you can actually, the methods that you use can kind of dictate the direction that you go in. You can’t really use the methods of the devil essentially to pursue God’s ends.

    Peter Mommsen: So Christians shouldn’t use the methods of the devil in pursuing their political ends. So how should Christians pursue the political good according to Lewis?

    Marianne Wright: At least, I mean in this book they really don’t do much. They literally just live together and kind of wait for their moment to come.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And there is a reference, there’s a character here who is very clearly based on G. K. Chesterton called Denniston who’s a distributist. And there is a very kind of, the politics of a single household as creating good politics for the entire world. And in the fact that you can’t try to make over people from the outside. You can’t tinker with a society even with the best intentions to fix it through political or technological power. There’s no technique of being politically well ruled.

    And I think one clue to what good politics would look like or good power is just that it’s very undemocratic. It’s not undemocratic in the kind of vaguely communistic, overbearing way that Belbury operates or the N.I.C.E. operates. But it is undemocratic in the sense of the order between people and doing your best sort of to show up for the role that you have in the world is the root of all good political order I think, in this vision. And to a certain degree I think Lewis would think that you have to, at least the way that it’s presented in the novel is you kind of have to leave the big picture stuff to God and show up for your own job. And there is a big picture political stuff going on, but it’s probably not your business, it’s the business of various principalities and powers. And the good ones are under God’s direction as you are so you should show up for your job.

    Marianne Wright: Well, it’s undemocratic for sure, but then it’s also very clearly not … so there’s this exchange between Jane and an older woman who’s kind of her confidant in the house and they’re talking about Ivy, who’s the servant woman. And Jane’s kind of raising her eyebrows that Ivy’s even there and what’s she doing here? And the older woman’s like, “You never were goose enough to think that you were spiritually superior to her, did you?” Which Jane probably, in fact, did. But this idea that everyone has their different station, but the calling is ultimately the same and we’re not on a higher level because we’re writing a thesis on Donne rather than cleaning the house.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s a beautiful conversation, if I could just read from the book, where Jane has a conversation with Ransom, the director, the Pendragon, the head of this household, about equality. She’s talking actually about her relationship to her husband, but he generalizes it more widely. I found this striking, and I’d be interested to hear both of your thoughts on this.

    “Equality!” said the director, “we must talk of that some other time. Yes, we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed because we are fallen just as we must all wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath for the clothes ripening for the day when shall need them no longer. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.”

    “I almost thought that was just what it was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.” “You were mistaken,” said he gravely. “That is the last place where they’re equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes, that is very well. Equality guards life. It doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food. You might as well try to warm yourself with a blue book.”

    So no equality in souls according to Lewis.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think that’s actually the bit that I remember most clearly from my first reading. That’s the bit that hit me hardest when I read it the first time because I had never read anything else like it, and I love it as well.

    Marianne Wright: So yeah, that’s straight out of George MacDonald. So this idea as, I mean, I won’t repeat it, but yes.

    Peter Mommsen: And of course it’s a deeply, deeply Christian idea actually. So Christianity, the New Testament speaks very much of equality that we’re all one in Christ, members of one body. That in Christ there is no male, no female, no Jew, and Gentile. Jesus though also speaks of some being great in the Kingdom of God. And I guess the catch and the very important catch is that those who are great in the Kingdom of God versus those who are small are not who we think they are.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, there’s inversion. There’s a way in which sort of playing out your role in a kind of social order in Lewis’ vision can be an echo of that kind of heavenly kingdom. So in marriage, or – he was very much a monarchist – in sort of loyalty to the king at that point in 1943 and later to the queen. But at the same time, there’s no guarantee that the king or the queen is going to be a high ranking person in the kingdom of heaven. And I’m trying to remember, I think Marianne, do you remember there was something in The Great Divorce where there’s a woman who’s very clearly in this vision of heaven.

    Marianne Wright: So I forget the name, but there’s this beautiful scene where this great lady is approaching and she’s just splendid beyond description, and she turns out to have been a humble woman from East London who took care of all the neighborhood cats and people. And that she’s one of the greatest queens in heaven.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And this is, to a certain degree, biblical. There’s the line, “Stars differ from one another in glory.” There’s rank among the angels, and there’s rank among, to a certain degree, at least degrees of holiness or degrees of ability to reflect God’s glory in heaven. And who knows how that works. It certainly does not reflect the social order here, but there’s also kind of love of a fairly trad social order that Lewis does have, and that is a kind of tension that I think he recognizes and that Christians have always recognized. You can love, have a kind of suspicion as well as love for a social order here. It’s never the final word, but it can sort of reflect the final word if you do right.

    Peter Mommsen: So I guess one thing that Lewis’ book has to say about how should Christians promote the common good, to use that lingo, is to live your vocation, live out your vocation. And very precisely in a negative sense, not to do what N.I.C.E. does, which is to seize the political moment and attempt to force through a vision of the perfect society. There is actually a character in the book who kind of reminds me of an Anabaptist. He wants to immanentize the eschaton, and he wants to use technology to do so.

    He wants to achieve the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, the kingdom to come now using technological means. He’s a kind of crazy guy called Straik, maybe not the most effectively drawn character in the book, but he definitely is fully Christian inflected. I mean he’s quoting the Bible every direction in the service of political power. And interestingly enough, he’s portrayed as being particularly vulnerable to the temptations of what do turn out to be demons.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Precisely because his sin is not the sins of the flesh. He’s pure pride and doesn’t realize it in a certain way. He’s pure self-righteousness. And he’s actually, I wonder whether is it now the time that we can turn to the question of what did Lewis get wrong?

    Peter Mommsen: You two did a pretty good job of absolving him of the most obvious objection, which is the sexism one. So you seem to have agreed that he is hereby acquitted and nobody should raise that ever again.

    Marianne Wright: Well, nobody should. It’s so boring. So here’s a man who is writing in the 1940s and his way of talking about the relationship between men and women is different from how it is in 2023. And well, it’s just so boring to talk about it. So that’s on the one hand that. Yeah, that’s basically it. Like you could also read a book that was written eighty years ago and just say, “Wow, look at that, something old.” And I would say the same about this whole, which I see is the next thing on the list here, this Logres versus Britain thing, that the true England and this kind of romanticization of a national soul. I read that and it just gets a quiet smile for me. It’s something you wrote about in your book, but it’s really not very real and let’s not try to base our system around this technique that you kind of use to write about this society here.

    Peter Mommsen: OK, well I’m not sure I agree on that one. We should get into that, and we should explain first what’s going on. So C. S. Lewis opposes the Britain, the modern technological Britain represented by the N.I.C.E. to Logres, the sort of semi-mythical Arthurian real England that’s underneath. And he has this beautiful passage, which I love too, where he says, “The England of Sidney,” right, Sir Phillip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet, “is opposed to the England of Cecil Rhodes,” the racist, grasping, commercialized, and vulgar colonialist. That both these things are true about England, but one is this truer England that lies beneath. So far so good. And he, and it must be said right, he says the same about France, the same about China. There is a kind of true version of each of these countries.

    Since we’re talking about this is nonfiction though I do think this is one place where in my mind C. S. Lewis is a little one-sided or is not fully representing a Christian view of these things. Because for him and the way the book is set up, the emphasis is so strongly on one’s vocation within the national community in which one is born. That national identity looms extremely large for him. So it reminds me of the last book of the Narnia series, again, a passage I love. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it, where there is this sort of fictionalized eschatology that they have kind of come to the true eternal world.

    And each of the countries is a peninsula going out from this kingdom of God, essentially. One is the true England and there’s a true France and a true Ireland and a true Brazil. But it does seem just that image, it works fine in fiction. But if we’re talking about this is nonfiction, I have a problem with it because I’m not sure that giving that kind of metaphysical centrality to the calling of the different nations is kind of justified. And I just had to think for myself, I’m a dual citizen of two countries. Which peninsula am I on?

    Marianne Wright: I think the fact that he’s writing during a major war might have informed that a little, but back to what I was saying before, this is where I actually, yes, I think he over eggs it, but I think an aspect of this book actually being fiction is that, you know, you have this little conceit that you’re kind of working with how seriously he actually took it. I don’t know, but similarly to this scene where he has the planetary angels come down and so forth. Some things are flights of fancy that are part of a novel. But I mean, if we want to be talking about this as nonfiction, then yes, I agree that it does go a little bit too far. And as Pete said, we’re all from families that started in many different places. And as Saint Paul says, we don’t have a continuing city here on earth. And so he’s …

    Peter Mommsen: He’s an Anglican is what he is. Is that he is convinced of the special English way.

    Marianne Wright: That was all leading up to this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I feel attacked. I feel personally attacked.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, no, you should. As well you should. There’s a specific national expression of the faith and that’s not really Christian.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, and I mean the thing that I had actually noticed in this read, so I guess I do want to push back a little bit. So I do think that the question of, oh, well he’s being a little bit reactionary in terms of gender. I don’t actually think – he’s being a little bit reactionary in terms of gender, but not that reactionary. I think he’s getting at something real.

    Marianne Wright: Well, no, I agree. I just don’t think we need to necessarily apologize for somebody being reactionary to the standards of today. I’m extremely reactionary. I’m not going to apologize for it. Go on, go on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But the question of national natures I think it’s a bridge farther than the question of the nature of me as a woman or something like that. The nature of me as an American woman, or I guess I’m about to get dual citizenship myself. So as an American and an English woman, that is sort of bringing ontology where I don’t think it belongs. I think that there is a vision that I think is true and there’s a beauty there, but I don’t think we’re very good at figuring out how to deal with it. I don’t think we should ignore it. I do love the existence of different national cultures and different expressions of the human thing as kind of filtered through different linguistic traditions and nations and countries. And I would hate to live in a world where there was just one monoculture.

    And I do think that realizing that Lewis was writing this in the face of a German empire or an incipient German empire that was going to make all of Europe, and possibly beyond that, into one flat monoculture or into a sort of master culture and a bunch of slave cultures shouldn’t be overlooked. I think there is a kind of preservation of national individuality that was reflected even in, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to national self-determination, which was something that in the face of Nazism was held to be a preservation of cultural dignity of everyone, not just of the Reich.

    So I think that is there in the background, and I think it’s a real and a good thing. And I also do think that there is such a thing as Englishness and I’m sitting here in the Midlands and there is a reality to this. I just think we’re really, we don’t quite know what to do with it. And I think we don’t always need to figure that out. We certainly don’t need to make a political program out of it because that tends to go quite badly.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, well, and I can live with that. And as you know, I have a soft spot for the German romantics. And weirdly enough, a lot of the language about Germany’s historical destiny came from a time in the early 1800s when there wasn’t a Germany, when it was occupied territory by Napoleonic armies. And in that context, the idea of a specific German destiny in history was emancipatory, anti-imperial. Well I think imperial is almost the wrong word. It was a very idealistic sense that this people who’s been living in this country with their ordinary ways do not deserve to just be overrun by all powerful people who erase national ways.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Nationalizing the army.

    Peter Mommsen: And so that I can go with. But I guess what it boils down to me is yet we need to find a way of putting that in its right place. And it certainly isn’t on the level of the calling of Mark to be a good man and a good father and a good husband or of Jane to do likewise as his wife. They don’t have a similar calling, or at least it’s not on the same level to be a good English man and a good English woman.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There is something that I noticed on this read-through that I read before, which is a good sort of corrective or pushback, and I think sort of fleshes out Lewis’s vision, because he was an orthodox Christian. He didn’t believe in a sort of religious national destiny in a kind of deeply flaky way. Which is that the whole of St. Anne’s was funded and set up by Ransom’s married sister who lived in India, who had been a kind of friend of this figure, who’s an Indian Christian mystic called – the word is the Sura. And I had sort of skipped over that part when I’d read it initially. But having done a little mini biography of Sadhu Sundar Singh, who was an Indian Christian mystic, who, exactly as the story did, sort of vanished mysteriously a couple years before Lewis was writing this …

    Peter Mommsen: And who had visited Europe.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And who had visited Europe, this is clearly a reference to this guy in the book just as Denniston is a reference to Chesterton. And that vision of a global conspiracy of God’s people inflected through national traditions, but certainly not bounded by those national traditions, actually makes a lot more sense to me. Or at least is a good corrective to the kind of national destiny vision of Britain and Logres.

    Peter Mommsen: So I have one other thing that falls under this heading of what did Lewis get wrong. I’m not even sure he got it wrong, but it’s sort of an absence, and that is capitalism. So in the little section I read a few minutes ago where he talks about equality, Ransom seems to be just fine with a pretty extreme form of social democracy, equality of income he mentions. Certainly equality of political rights. And Lewis was, in many ways, prescient and prophetic. In the midst of World War II, he saw the danger of the totalizing power of this state allied with big business. That after the war, when this sort of total war machine no longer had battles of fight, it would be turned to other purposes.

    So he kind of foresaw the military industrial complex or whatever kind of complex you want to diagnose in our society today of this sort of totalizing union of force and economic power. That said, there’s a weird kind of absence in the economic side of this new community that’s being born. Now they’re all living together and sharing together and eating the same meals and doing the same work. So you could say that’s not really a fair criticism, but it’s something that’s not really built out. C. S. Lewis doesn’t really go too deep into the economic underpinnings of why some humans suffer and some seem to get through life so easily.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And he also doesn’t go into, which was the striking absence for me, the psychology of consumerism, and the way in which that could be this desire to shop essentially and to choose to shop for stuff, to shop for identity, to shop to make ourselves in various ways. And that’s kind of the wrong way to put it, but just like the consumer society.

    Peter Mommsen: Create our identity through our consumption.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The consumeristic approach to identity that is really so central to the way that we get screwed up, basically. That didn’t seem to be on his horizon. And I kind of feel like probably with 1943, you don’t have any jam or butter. So it’s not something that you’re really experiencing.

    Peter Mommsen: We’re probably being deeply unfair here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, we are.

    Peter Mommsen: But that is an aspect of today’s technological world that is not fully prophesied, you could say, in C. S. Lewis’s book, the dominance of the need to turn people into consumers.

    Marianne Wright: Well, again, I think that’s just one of the things that the book isn’t really about. And like Susannah had said, this was in wartime so I mean, everything was going into the war effort. And there is actually a shopping scene, Susannah, where she goes out and buys a hat because she’s trying to comfort herself. And that’s one of the female …

    Peter Mommsen: But that’s a good thing. That’s a good scene. That was good shopping, good consumerism.

    Susannah Black Roberts: She’s exercising her feminine nature, much to her own annoyance.

    Peter Mommsen: But even there, shopping for a hat, I mean, that’s something that her Victorian grandmother would’ve done. It’s not consumerist in a kind of mid-twentieth century sense.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So I have a question. So one other sort of thing that I think we should talk about is other than things that Lewis didn’t get right, are there ways in which this doesn’t work as a novel? First of all, I do want to say it is one of my favorite novels. I love this novel. I do not think it’s a perfect novel. And I wondered whether you guys had any critiques. Pete, you had an interesting one from earlier today.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, I’m more interested in what Marianne has to say.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, Marianne, what do you …

    Marianne Wright: I would probably say about the same. It’s the novel I really love. Is it a perfect novel? No. I think it was written pretty quickly. It seems like to me, I think he’s a little self-indulgent about some things in ways that don’t actually bother me. But is it like just asking? No, not really, but in a way, to me, it’s a book that’s a wonderful, it’s a great book, not because it’s a great piece of literature, but because it says great things about human beings and how they should live. I think you can criticize it as a literary work pretty easily. Is it a book I always enjoy when I pick it up and reread? Absolutely. My big criticism of it is whoever publishes it every single time, the cover art is just so bad and so if somebody could fix that that would be great.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh. It really is and it’s never been good.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s probably the worst thing about the novel is the covers that people have put on it. The thing that Lewis was criticized for by reviewers from the start was that the allegory in the book is on the heavy-handed side. Which is interesting because Lewis, in his book on sixteenth-century English literature is pretty damning about allegory … she loves it. And the characters of Mark and Jane are, I think, very subtly drawn and very memorable.

    So if the measure of a great book is that there are things that stick in your mind and you never forget, it’s absolutely a great book. The good characters are a bit like the good characters in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which Lewis also loved, just a little bit more boring than the bad characters. And that maybe is just a fact of fiction that, goodness, is so hard to convey.

    Marianne Wright: Well, I think they’re boring in a good way. I love the scene where Jane goes out with this other young couple, Arthur Denniston and his wife, and they go and have a little picnic in the woods. And it’s just such a comfortable, homey scene of people being together. And in opposition, you get these horrific people at the N.I.C.E. and there’s these really horrible scenes as Mark is trying to push his way into the inner circle. And they’re leading him on and using fear, and eventually they get him, he’s compromised himself and they’re holding the death penalty over his head and stuff and just really claustrophobically frightening. So I think the kind of boringness of the good scenes is a really welcome antidote of the evil people.

    Peter Mommsen: I actually did look forward to the boring, good scenes, and maybe the problem that we’re talking about is not a literary problem, but actually just a fact of life. And we run into that in editing Plough magazine, that when you’re writing about good people doing good things, it is really hard to do that in a way that is as compelling as writing about a horrible thing that’s happening somewhere.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, OK, so I am going to disagree because I think that there’s something that Jane runs into, which I think is kind of emblematic of this. So at one point when she’s really realizing that she is in quite bad danger, she might actually die, she has this moment of realization that all of this stuff, that all of the kind of golden Arthurian world that she’s been invited into might actually just be the same thing as Mother Dimble saying her prayers, which is a kind of boring, churchy thing that has always turned her off. And I actually think that there’s this kind of dual level of the good people, the good household, where on the one level it’s very ordinary and very cozy and very British and sweet and family-ish, and a kind of wholesome, intense wholesomeness as a contrast to Belbury.

    And I love that because I’m a sucker for wholesome British things or English things I should say. But at the same time, there is this kind of undercurrent of deep supernatural mystery to it. And the overlay of that kind of supernatural mystery with the deeply ordinary kind of buttered toast and tea Englishness is – I find that fascinating. I don’t think it’s boring at all, and I find it more interesting than Belbury which seems to me to be just kind of Fellini but nightmarish. And it’s such a turnoff kind of, that, yeah, it’s fascinating to witness in a way, but it doesn’t draw you in. It’s deeply repulsive. And the mystery at the heart of goodness is actually, I think, portrayed pretty darn well in the household at St. Anne’s.

    Marianne Wright: So there’s this scene at the end right before the big showdown, and the St. Anne’s household is sitting together, and they realize death could be imminent because there’re these horrendous forces that have been unleashed. And they look around their circle and each one realizes “I could die with these,” in a positive sense. “I would be happy to go down with these people around me.” And they say “each one felt lucky to be there.” And I think that’s the core of it, that you can come to a place where you are in this ordinary household and community.

    And yet your purpose, the shared purpose of fighting for the truest and goodest things, is what holds you together. And when push comes to shove, you’d be happy to go down with those people around you. And if you want to know why I love that, that’s why I love this book. And I read that as probably a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old, and you’re like, I need to find that group and I need to find that purpose so that when push comes to shove, you do have that group of people around you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Same.

    Marianne Wright: I mean, if we’re going to do favorite lines, my other favorite line is where Mark Studdock is confronted by one of the members of the household, and he’s kind of given a choice. You know, you either go all the way with the wicked people or you come over to our side. And at that point he’s not ready to, and he’s kind of prevaricating and saying choices. And he’s told, “Listen, you have no choice, and there’s things here with which the life or happiness of you and me are completely immaterial, things that are so much more important than you and me. And yet we’re allowed to be part of this struggle. And which side are you going to come down on?” So that’s another exchange, which I took with me from my first reading.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The other criticism that people often make is that there’s something a little bit one dimensional about some of the good characters, although not all of them. And I think that an aspect of that is I don’t actually think one dimensional is the right way to think about it. What they are is they’re archetypes, and they’re very explicitly archetypes in one of the later scenes. These are people who are – their role here is to live out these … Mother Dimble is a kind of not mother goddess figure because this is a completely Christian book, but she’s motherhood. She’s not just a person, she’s also motherhood. And Camilla is kind of like wifehood to a certain degree.

    And all of these different aspects of humanity, slightly Jungian way, which sometimes I don’t think is done well, but I think Lewis does it very well. These are people who are real people in the novel, but they’re living out vocations of a kind of archetypal calling, which is, that’s kind of the appeal of the King Arthur stories as well. This is why we love King Arthur. This is why there’s a lot of this in Medieval and Renaissance English literature. And I think that Lewis was tapping very much into that. And it’s a different kind of a thing than deeply imagined psychological novelizing Dostoyevsky or something like that. But Mark and Jane, as you said, Peter, they are really finely drawn. And part of the reason that they’re more complicated is that they’re in progress. They’re both double-minded.

    And the evil people in the N.I.C.E., they’re quite far along in becoming their worst selves. They’re pretty disintegrated as human creatures. There’s not much to them other than evil. And kind of showing the, I guess, the banality of evil is one way to think about it. I think that’s something that Lewis does really well in the Space Trilogy in general, especially in Perelandra actually, which again, everyone should read all of these books. But I think that there is something deeply banal about the N.I.C.E. as well, and the good people, the people in St. Anne’s, other than Jane, and to a certain degree MacPhee – they’re pretty far along in becoming themselves as well. So they’re very solid. And that means that Mark and Jane, they’re the ones where the drama is playing out, the drama of human becoming and human choice. And I just think it’s a really well-done book exploring what it looks like to choose whether or not to be human.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By MarianneWright Marianne Wright

    Marianne Wright, a member of the Bruderhof, lives in southeastern New York with her husband and five children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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