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Does the supernatural weaken THS?: a review by George Orwell

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Does the supernatural weaken THS?: a review by George Orwell

Postby rumzy » 12 Apr 2008, 03:49

George Orwell wrote:...it [THS] would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.


and also:

One could recommend this book ureservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways.


and finally:

He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance.


Mr. Orwell is obviously considering THS from a literary standpoint, so it is only from a literary standpoint that one can agree or disagree with him. What do you think? Does Lewis' inclusion of supernatural events weaken the plot? Are they, as Orwell says, not integral to the story? Does the supernatural keep "breaking in"?

You can read Orwell's full review here:
http://www.solcon.nl/arendsmilde/cslewis/reflections/e-orwellths.htm
So long, and thanks for all the fish.
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Postby rusmeister » 12 Apr 2008, 09:06

The whole point of the story, from authorial intent, is about the supernatural and how it plays out with the natural. If you eliminated it, you would have a different story; one no doubt satisfying to the atheist mindset but it would not be Lewis at all. Lewis, Chesterton, MacDonald, Tolkien and the Inklings were not at all for "art for art's sake". They believed in definitely communicating truths through art, even if they disagreed on questions like allegory. So Orwell's opinion is his - and is irrelevant to the thinking that formed the book. Now you can discuss whether the plot is weak as a whole (ie, whether it is good Christian literature or not), but not on whether "cutting out the supernatural" would make the plot "stronger".
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Postby Bill » 12 Apr 2008, 09:49

Unfortunately Eric is no longer around to argue his point.


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Postby Erekose » 12 Apr 2008, 21:37

Just my own "take" on THS.

When I read it, I noticed a certain "mirror" in the story line, (but NOT I hasten to add to the extent of Stanley's "chessboard" observations).

It seems to me that the "supernatural" balances the "supra-science" angles of the story line.

I suppose the "supernatural" element could be removed, but at what cost to the way the story is told?

THS by its nature HAS to have both sides of the.. erm.. story, because thats what it's about!

Hmm you know, wouldn't a strawberry ripple be better if it didn't have the strawberry ripple in it? (sarcasm)
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Postby Stanley Anderson » 12 Apr 2008, 21:58

Erekose wrote:When I read it, I noticed a certain "mirror" in the story line, (but NOT I hasten to add to the extent of Stanley's "chessboard" observations).


Just to add to that thought, by the way, we have been reading the Space Trilogy aloud with Gawain (we read it aloud when he was about seven and he enjoyed it then, but obviously can get more out of it now at 16) and we are in the middle of THS. And once again, as in every time I read THS, I'm even more stunned than before by the chessboard observations -- not just the characters, but the very paragraphs and conversations and events themselves almost seem to line up virtually every time. Of course it is my own personal opinion, but the parallels are so blatant to me now that I'm absolutely positive that Lewis wrote it this way intentionally (something I can't prove of course, but it seems so clear). I really should do some kind of paper on it, but really, at this point in our read aloud, there is so much -- again nearly down to the individual paragraphs -- that I could never find the time to document it all.

Hmm you know, wouldn't a strawberry ripple be better if it didn't have the strawberry ripple in it? (sarcasm)


Or as Lewis was fond of quoting from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

"I should like balls infinitely better," she replied, "if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball."


--Stanley
…on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a fair green country under a swift sunrise.
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Postby galion » 12 Apr 2008, 22:09

Well, not only was Orwell no sort of Christian, but in another context ("Beyond Personality") he had issues with Lewis and his "chummy little wireless talks". He pigeonholed him (to use Orwell's own terminology) with Ronald Knox and R.H. Benson as hopeless reactionaries.
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Postby rumzy » 14 Apr 2008, 18:18

I agree with everything said here so far. It doesn't make sense to me to say that the supernatural breaks into the story, because the whole thing is about the supernatural. I also completely disagreed with Orwell's classification of THS as "in essence...a crime story." In reading Lewis' essays about story telling, one finds that Lewis had no use for the kind of science fiction that took an earthly situation and simply transplanted it to somewhere like Mars or the far future. He never would have written a "crime story" embelished by aliens and demons.
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Postby repectabiggle » 14 Apr 2008, 20:25

I agree, rumzy. I would say that the whole novel is *about* the supernatural breaking in, so how could that ruin the novel? If a person doesn't like coffee, they shouldn't complain if they order a cappuccino and it tastes like coffee, right? :lol: :coffee:
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Postby Kanakaberaka » 27 Apr 2008, 20:21

Notice that Orwell says this about the N.I.C.E. -

His description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story.


This sounds to me uncomfortably close to the present Bush administration. :wink:
But that aside, George Orwell fails to see that these are merely outward symptoms of an even greater spiritual evil. Yes, it is a crime story. But Ransom's "detectives" are there to root out the cause of this evil. Not merely to solve a mystery. Lewis even warns his readers that THS is NOT simply an academic drama in the preface of the book.
so it goes...
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Postby Mornche Geddick » 15 May 2008, 11:46

I readily agree that THS is not Lewis's best book, there is too much of that "expository demon" for a start. All the same, how could Orwell get things so wrong? A lot could have been cut out. But the "supernatural" can't be cut out, because it is an essential part of the book's idea.

It's not the only time Orwell didn't get the essential point of a work of art. In one of his essays "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool" he's defending Shakespeare against Tolstoy's vitriolic and quite unjust attack. But in the middle of it he says:
Orwell wrote:The subject of Lear is renunciation.
And I want to retort "Oh no it's not! It's dethronement! And it's also about loyalty. Apart from Lear himself, all the other characters are rated by their loyalty or lack of it. The heroes stick by Lear and Gloucester in their misfortune and even in spite of real injustice done to themselves. If you could see that, Eric, you'd know they belonged in the play.

Orwell is not here, but if he was I'd like to ask him how he would have reacted if a publisher had told him to cut the meeting in the barn and the lyric "Beasts of England" from his own masterpiece Animal Farm?
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Postby Coyote Goodfellow » 16 May 2008, 04:42

THS, much more than Lewis's other books, touches on the subject of class: Hengist as an aristocrat, Studdock lacking either peasant shrewdness or aristocratic pride, the tramp being--like an aristocrat, a man of leisure. The working class girl who treats her jailed boyfriend as if he had a weakness not a moral failing to be lectured about.

Given how important class was to Orwell, I wish he had written what he thought about those bits. Maybe he just thought the aristocratic perspective was irrelevant and doomed to disappearance. He does seem to want a story completely different from the one Lewis wrote--something more like what he himself wrote in 1984. And I agree with Mornche Geddick that the barn meeting and "Beasts of England..." in Animal Farm are intimations of transcendence of the same sort he seems to be missing the point about in other people's works.

Incidentally--does it occur to anyone as interesting that while THS was being written Orwell was writing propaganda for the BBC--including things he realized were lies--which has some paralells to what Mark Studdock is doing in THS.
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Postby blindlemonpie » 17 Jun 2008, 02:24

I think that the situation would be hopeless without the supernatural. It all seems utterly hopeless until the heavenly forces intervene. Such potent evil appears unstoppable by all earthly measures, but, when faced with the good, it is revealed to be flimsy and weak.
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Postby Dr. U » 29 Jul 2008, 03:57

My son recently lent me a book of letters written by Tolkien, which is fascinating stuff (if you're crazy like we are). Anyway JRRT wrote some letters to friends discussing THS, and his take on it. Very interesting. He felt Charles Williams had gotten to have too much influence on CSL by the 3rd book, and it took on the flavor of one of Williams' novels, and, in his opinion, ruined the trilogy. I don't have time right now, but I'll see if I can find the exact quote and post it here later.

If you've ever read some of CW's novels, Tolkien's criticism has merit. CW's novels tend to be very strange, gothic stories, with cross-overs across different epochs and places, including Hell, often taking place. The lead characters tend to be mostly British academics, too, who spend a great deal of time Discussing Ideas. Sort of Masterpiece Theater meets Stephen King.

However, even if there's some truth in the idea of Williams' influence on the novel, THS is, IMO, still better than any of CW's novels. I really enjoy re-reading THS every few years, and I'm not even sure I can put into words all the reasons why I like the book so much. Certainly, Lewis created some unforgettable characters, including Mark Studdock, Frost, Withers and, of course, Merlin from Arthurian England.

BTW, years after reading a number of Williams' novels, I encountered his non-fiction work, Descent of the Dove. It's about the history of the Holy Spirit at work in the whole church, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, across the whole world over the past 2,000 years. I found it outstanding and full of insights. I personally wish he had written more books like that and less quirky novels. DOD is definitely worth tracking down.
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Postby archenland_knight » 13 Nov 2008, 20:53

Dr. U wrote:Sort of Masterpiece Theater meets Stephen King.


:smile:

I meant to reply some time ago that when I first read THS, I had a similar impression of it. Only, I thought, "Frank Pereti meets Stephen King". Not Lewis' best work, imo, but still better than most of what passes for "literature" these days.

Strange that "Perelandra" may be my absolute favorite work of fiction, period. Maybe that's why I didn't like THS very much. I was hoping for something as wonderful as Perelandra, and that may simply have been too much to hope for.
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Postby Mornche Geddick » 22 Nov 2008, 11:48

I admire the CW novels, especially the later ones (Descent into Hell, All Hallow's Eve) They are difficult, but well worth the trouble and the influence on THS is unmistakable. The idea of the five Oyarses (Mercury through to Saturn) is similar to the ideas of the Archetypes in Place of the Lion and The Greater Trumps. But CW could do that sort of thing a lot better than Lewis.

1) CW introduces his supernatural entities as close to the start of the book as he can, and he makes sure the reader knows they are the centre of the plot. For example, in DiH Pauline's doppelganger is mentioned in the first chapter, only nineteen pages in and the rest of the chapter builds up to her climactic appearance. But Lewis is halfway through his book before we get any hints about the Oyarses.

2) CW doesn't waste pages on exposition and moralism, and the result is that his stories get moving a lot more quickly and his books are a lot shorter than THS.
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