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Angels, Demons, and Inklings

9 March 2019

That Hideous StrengthThat Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading That Hideous Strength again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, I think this is the eighth time, and each time I find something new.

Last time I read it I concentrated on one aspect of the story. That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.You can find plenty of other references to the book on this blog, and there are also several on my other blog Notes from Underground. So is there anything left to say about this book that I haven’t already said? Probably not, but I hope I will not be guilty of too much repetition if in this post I concentrate on the angelology and demonology of C.S. Lewis and, to a lesser extent, the other Inklings.

As in the earlier books of the series, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, That Hideous Strength features beings that Lewis calls eldils or eldila. He uses many terms for these creatures, but “eldil” appears to be one that he made up. The most usual theological term would be “angel”, but in That Hideous Strength Lewis has a conversation between Professor Cecil Dimble and his wife, discussing the difficulties they are likely to have when a revived Merlin joins their company:

“Well, about Merlin. Were there possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours? The earth itself was more like an animal. Mental processes were more like physical actions. And there were — well, Neutrals, knocking about.”
“You mean eldils — angels?”
“Well the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyeresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels. There used to be things on this earth pursuing their own business. They weren’t ministering spirits sent to help humanity, but neither were they enemies preying upon us… all the gods, elves, dwarfs, water people, fate, longaevi.”

The word angel means a messenger, and in Christian terminology angels are basically ministering spirits sent to help humanity. “Angel” was also used, in a wider sense, to refer to a whole class of beings whose role and functions were quite different.

In The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams Damaris Tighe reads a paper on The Eidola and the Angeli to a group- of people, and to introduce her subject she says:

You will all know that in the Middle Ages there were supposed to be various classes of angels, who were given different names–to be exact” (“and what is research if it is not exact?” she asked Mrs. Rockbotham, who nodded), “in descending order, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, princes, powers, archangels, angels. Now these hierarchized celsitudes are but the last traces in a less philosophical age of the ideas which Plato taught his disciples existed in the spiritual world. We may not believe in them as actually existent–either ideas or angels–but here we have what I may call two selected patterns of thought. Let us examine the likenesses between them; though first I should like to say a word on what the path was by which imaginations of the Greek seer became the white-robed beings invoked by the credulous piety of Christian Europe, and familiar to us in many paintings.

Archangel Michael

Leaving aside for the moment Damaris Tighe’s notion that the Christian idea of angels was merely a distorted development from Plato’s Ideas and Archetypes, she gives the list of nine kinds of spiritual creatures, which theologians such as Dionysius the (pseudo)Areopagite have ranked in order, with the Seraphim being closest to God, and the angels being closest to man. Therefore to call them all “angels”, as Professor Dimble said, does tend to beg the question. To refer to them all without begging the question, theologians refer to them as “the Bodiless Powers”, but perhaps Lewis found “Bodiless Powers” too cumbersome, and so he made up the word “eldil” to refer to them.

In That Hideous Strength Lewis uses several other terms to refer to them, or to particular classes of them. One that also appears in the passage cited above is Oyeresu. There are eldils that are in charge of planets, planetary rulers. But in Lewis’s understanding they are more than that. They are the spirits of the planets, and in a sense animate the planets. Another word he uses for them in this role is gods, and so the Oyeresu are the old Roman gods of the planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. And Mercury is mercurial, Venus is venereal, Mars is martial, Jupiter is jovial and Saturn is saturnine.

One could speculate about which level of the celestial hierarchy represents the Oyeresu — perhaps they are among the “Virtues”, but St John of Damascus gives the following list, and perhaps Dominions or Powers might be closer to the mark:

  1. Seraphim
  2. Cherubim
  3. Thrones
  4. Dominions
  5. Powers
  6. Authorities (Virtues)
  7. Rulers (Principalities)
  8. Archangels
  9. Angels

Bible translators haven’t always been consistent in their use of these terms. Colossians  1:13, for example, says that God has delivered us from the authority (exousia) of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. But if the Authorities are Virtues, then the darkness from which he has delivered us must be virtuous too.

Damaris Tighe (in The Place of the Lion) had watered down her paper for a more popular audience by substituting phrases like  “credulous piety” for “superstitious slavery”, but in talking about her thesis of how Platonic Ideas and Archetypes had been transformed into Christian angels she had shown herself to be something of an archetype of an ivory-tower academic.

Damaris Tighe had all the disdain of a modern academic for premodern (ie medieval) thought and culture, an attitude which in South Africa sometimes leads to calls for academia to be decolonised. And Lewis brings up another aspect of the modern mind when (through Dimble) describing Merlin’s premodernity — “The earth itself was more like an animal. Mental processes were more like physical actions.” Modern academics have their own terminology for describing this — animism. In this regard, Lewis is something of a medievalist, not just that he has studied medieval culture and literature, but that he tries to interpret these to moderns in such a way that they can see that by abandoning these things, modernity is missing something.

The villain of That Hideous Strength is the N.I.C.E., which is imbued with the spirit of modernity. But Lewis does not simply write off modernity as the invention of the Devil (who is, of course, the Bent Oyarsa, the Oyarsa of Thulcandra, the Silent Planet). He balances the abomination of NICE with the character of McPhee, who represents the good aspect of modernity and the value of the scientific method. But modernity, as represented by NICE, comes up with another name for eldila — macrobes.

It was a sometime modern theologian, Harvey Cox, who in his book The Secular City, attacked the animism of people like Lewis (without naming names), when he wrote, “We should oppose the romantic restoration of the sprites of the forest. It may seem pleasant at first to reinstate the leprechauns, but — as Hitler made all too clear — once the Valkyries return, they will seek a bloodthirsty revenge on those who banished them.” And that is, in a sense, what happened to NICE.

Other Christian theologians of the 1960s were, like Cox, also trying to “demythologise” the gospel because, it seemed to many of them, it did not make sense to “modern man”. Lewis and his fellow Inklings, by contrast, were trying remythologise it in such a way that it could make sense to modern men,.

Though Lewis was not really trying to reinstate the leprechauns; he recognised that they belonged to a different world. But one of his concerns in his novels was to show the rationality of what moderns tended to regard as “credulous piety” at best, or “superstitious slavery” at worst. Merlin represents the irruption of the premodern into the modern. His almost instinctive reaction in the presence of the eldila is to worship them, but Ransom holds him back, for all their difference and awesomeness, they are fellow creatures with us. They are gods, but they are not the “Great King above all gods”. .

Lewis, we can say, is not only an animist, he is a polytheist. That’s another concept that gives moderns the heebie jeebies. Christianity has been described as a “monotheistic religion”, therefore Christianity must conform to some kind of Platonic conceptual Idea of “monotheism”. But why should it? To insist that it should conform to such an idea is actually to set up the idea as a little Oyarsa, a ruler, an archon, a prince, a principality.

At some point in the late Middle Ages, possibly under the influence of scholasticism, there was a conceptual shift. Before then the primary distinction was between Creator and creature. God was on one side of the line, and angels and men were on the other. Angels, eldils, bodiless powers, gods, macrobes, call them what you will, were fellow creatures with us, and therefore on our side of the line. But when the change came, the line was made between “natural” and “supernatural”, and so we were on one side of the line and God and the gods were on the other,.

C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien all shy away from the term “angels”, though they do write about them. Williams goes so far as to call them angelicals, but they are more than that. Tolkien devises his own names, Valar, Maiar and the like. One group of Maiar that appeared on earth to help its inhabitants were the Istari, who were called by the hobbits “wizards”. That brings its own problems, especially since the appearance of the Harry Potter books, which have reinforced the perception that witches are female and that the male equivalent is a “wizard”. But really a witch is one thing (and witches can be male or female), and wizards are another. The characteristic of wizards was to be wise; the characteristic of witches was to be bent, like the Oyarsa of Thulcandra.

One of the web sites I frequent, probably too much, is Quora, where people ask any questions they like, and others, who know the answers, or think they do, try to answer them. Seeing the kind of questions people ask can in some way give one a handle on modern culture. And quite a lot of the questions are about the effect that the discovery of alien races from elsewhere in space would have on religion.

C.S. Lewis has answered that pretty conclusively in his science fiction books, which are written to be consistent with Christian mythology. Yet almost invariably the questioners seem to assume that discovery of or interaction with aliens from otherwhere in the universe would be damaging to the human race, to human religion in general, and to Christianity in particular. What never seems to occur to them is what Lewis said — that the danger goes the other way. Earth is the “silent planet”, earth is the danger to the rest of the universe. The question is not whether we can survive them, but whether they can survive contact with us, because we are the ones who have been contaminated. .

But what strikes me about reading the Inklings is how they manage to keep everything they write about angels, gods, eldils, bodiless powers, macrobes or whatever you want to call them, consistent with Christian mythology. The moderns who question such things, or question Christian creation myths, are generally ignorant of mythology. Many believe that Genesis 1 has the only account of creation. Some are aware that there is a different take on it in Genesis 2, and yet are unaware that the Genesis 1 version is a demythologised version of a Babylonian story. But even fewer are aware that Lewis’s version (in The Magician’s Nephew) and Tolkien’s version (in the Ainulindale of The Silmarillion are based on the creation account in Job 38, where the gods helped God create the earth, and both these versions are quite consistent with the Christian myth.

In the words of an English paraphrase of a Greek hymn:

Then when the earth was first poised in mid-space
Then when the planets first sped on their race
Then when was ended their six days’ employ
Then all the Sons of God shouted for joy.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 March 2019 3:45 pm

    I hugely enjoyed this post.

  2. 10 March 2019 12:43 am

    A big write-up that I’ll come back to when go through the book again. Well done!


  1. The Paranormal in literature and popular culture | Khanya

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