That Hideous Strength is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, written in 1945. It seems a bit of a misnomer to say that it is part of the “space” trilogy, as the events of this book take place on Earth. There is some cross-over from the other books, though: Devine from the previous books is present in the book as Lord Feverstone, a politician, who is involved in the workings of Edgestow University, and eventually we find out that Ransom, the hero of the other books, is there as well.
My memory of this book from when I read it as a teenager was that it was a bit wordy, a bit complicated, but with the bonus addition of Merlin and Ransom. I liked it then, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the first two books. I would say that this is probably the consensus of most who read all three books. This one is a bit of an odd duck, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other two.
So, I delved in with some eagerness to see how it would strike me now. The book centres around the young married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a sociologist who is a Fellow (one of the governing council) of Bracton College (part of the University). Jane, his wife, is pursuing her doctorate thesis. As Lewis describes them, “Both were young, and if neither loved very much, each was still anxious to be admired.” Mark is a shallow young man, whose chief ambition in life is to get “in”. He is longing for acceptance into the Inner Circle, made up of the real “movers and shakers” among his peers at the University. At the book’s opening Mark has just found acceptance there, but of course it’s not enough – he immediately realizes there is another “set” to get into: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (shortened in Orwellian fashion to N.I.C.E., though this book was written pre-1984)), which is a scientific institute which is gradually taking over the University and the town it resides in, and which is later revealed to be a front for a sinister takeover of the human race by the bent eldil who are the masters of our planet.
Mark becomes more and more involved in the workings of N.I.C.E., wrestling with his conscience a time or two as those above him require to do one thing or another to be truly accepted, but generally happy to go along with whatever they ask just as long as he is able to stay “in” with those who are the real powers at the University. Jane is left further and further behind, until his superiors order him to bring her to the University. Mark has grown suspicious enough of their motives by this time to balk at this suggestion, and he can’t understand why they want Jane in the first place.
Jane, as it turns out, has been having adventures of her own while Mark is increasingly occupied with the goings on at the University. She is having strange dreams, which she discovers are visions of things that have happened or are about to happen. She comes into contact with a group of people who are gathering under the benign leadership of the Director, revealed to be Ransom. It is precisely because of this ability that the powers of N.I.C.E. want her, for she has the ability to find Merlin, buried centuries ago but waiting to be resurrected in order to orchestrate a new Britain. Ransom wants to find Merlin before N.I.C.E. does, and so he needs Jane’s assistance as well, but freely given, so he waits for her to make her choice.
Mark and Jane must both overcome their reluctance to see what is really going on, that the groups of people they are involved with have deeper motives for doing what they are doing than what seems apparent at first. Jane quickly comes to realize that Ransom can be trusted, and that the people who have gathered around him have been drawn together not by Ransom himself but by Maledil (God), to band together to stop the evil plans of N.I.C.E. It takes longer for Mark to understand that he has allowed himself to be used by thoroughly bad men (and women) who are involved in a very odd and frightening plan: to remake humanity into something quite different than what it is now.
I found myself quickly drawn in to the plot, despite the fact that there is not a lot of action at the beginning, It opens with the plans of N.I.C.E to buy Bragdon Wood, a small piece of property belonging to the University, in order to build their research centre there. This is presented as a long Council meeting, and it could be seen as being tedious to read. Except….I found it absolutely fascinating and actually quite chilling. The way in which N.I.C.E turned a normal, sleepy University town into their centre for the transformation of the human race was presented in masterful fashion by Lewis. The steps are all so reasonable and the people who at one point or another object to this or the other thing are portrayed as backwards, ignorant or ill-informed. So much so that, because I couldn’t remember the details of the book from the first time I read it, I found myself agreeing with some of the decisions and sharing the negative impressions of the objectors, until I realized what was going on.
Mark Studdock is not a very commendable person, with his obsession with being part of the “popular” crowd, but he is thoroughly human and very relatable. I see myself in him in too many ways to brush him off as stupid or naive. As Lewis writes,
It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical – merely “Modern”. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him.
The point that Lewis makes in this book about evil taking over gradually and with barely a whimper of protest is very relevant today, with our politically correct age, our press that is so often ideologically controlled, and where those who dare stand up against the “status quo” are dismissed as being backwards, ignorant, or ill informed.
I don’t remember this striking me in quite the same way when I read this first. I think that’s because I’m older now, and have seen this kind of thing in action a time or two. Which is why the beginning was so disturbing. How easily can evil triumph, when it is disguised under the name of Progress or Enlightenment or, dare I say, Political Correctness. A good example of this is where Mark is asked to write articles in the newspapers of events (riots, mainly) orchestrated by N.I.C.E. before they happen, so that they can put their own “spin” on it.
This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew it to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.
The end bogs down a bit in places. Lewis took a great deal of care in describing the visit of the “good” eldils to Ransom’s home when they gather to lend aide to the cause, and their subsequent effect on those in the house. The archetypes of Venus (Perelandra), Mars, etc are shown in their deepest, real, form, and Lewis explores how their presence would affect the smaller mortals in their proximity. I found it interesting but I suspect many a person would want to skim these parts.
There is a nice contrast in the book between the humans who cooperate with the bent eldila, who become more and more inhuman as the book goes along, with Mark and Jane, who both in different ways shake off their complacency and ignorance and embrace a belief in something beyond all they knew before, becoming more and more human as they do so.
This book I found much more intellectual than the other two. There are big ideas presented here, and the deeper truths perhaps harder to find, but present nonetheless. It’s a harder read than the sensuous, emotional Perelandra or the exciting space opera Out of the Silent Planet. But it has its rewards for the reader, too, perhaps all the more precious for being harder to find. The book is examining the possible consequences of a whole slew of political and philosophical streams of thought that were popular at the time of Lewis’ writing and still surface today in one form or another, including technocracy, managerial revolution, state-run social engineering, and more. It’s hard sledding at times, but it will certainly provide some fruit for the thoughtful reader. I found and excellent summary of how those ideologies are examined in the book here, if you are interested in further reading.
Even if you don’t delve too deeply into the social underpinnings of the novel, there is good food for thought to be found here. How often do I compromise my own standards in order to “fit in”? What group am I desperate to “belong” to? The big evil is easy to see, but how attuned am I to the smaller ways in which we as a society we are going off-track? Is there something in our society that is seen as “backwards, ignorant, or ill-informed”, which, on closer inspection, might be revealed to be the right way to do things after all?
I have my own answers to these questions. How about you?
Up next month: I am going to delve into some of Lewis’ non-fiction and tackle something I haven’t read before: The Abolition of Man, which I understand is in a sense the non-fiction form of the ideas presented in this book, so perhaps it’s a good follow-up. Although I am certain my brain will hurt a time or two as I read it! Read along with me? I’d love to tackle it with you!