by Miss Elliot
“This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”
~C. S. Lewis, Preface, That Hideous Strength
I first read this book about three years ago- I received the three books in the planet trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) for my birthday. I did not like the books at first, but I’ve come to love That Hideous Strength over the years. This book is gripping, moving, and, sometimes, horrifying. It is about marriage and control and the word of God and technology and nature.
At the time this book was written, the prevailing philosophy in English schools of all levels was that all emotions were contemptible and should be done away with. Lewis realized the danger of this and wrote a set of lectures called The Abolition of Man. The idea was that the heart (the chest in Greek philosophy) and the appetite (the belly) were to be done away with and only the intellect (the head) would remain. Lewis knew that without the heart, the emotions, the sense of right and wrong, we would become cold and dead and reject God’s law.
C. S. Lewis wrote this book to present the ideas of The Abolition of Man in story form. The Abolition of Man was not well received: the man-in-the-street didn’t like it because it was too intellectual, and the intellectuals didn’t like it because of Lewis’s anti-humanist views. So he decided to write a modern-day fairy tale to demonstrate how the ideas of his contemporaries would lead, in the end, to the destruction of mankind.
The book centers around the marriage of Mark and Jane Studdock. They are a young couple who do not love each other- their reasons for marriage were frankly lustful, at least on one side. Jane is not willing to submit to Mark. She wants to be a modern woman, completely independent of anyone- including God (and her husband). Mark is not sensitive to Jane and is rather a social ‘climber’- part of his demise is from trying to be in the ‘in crowd’ and be a part of the special group. They do not intend to have children for many years yet- Jane’s ostensible reason is that she wants to finish her doctrinal thesis, but the truth is that she wants to have complete control over her own life. Children would be an invasion, in her mind.
The Studdocks live in an apartment in a small town called Edgestow. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College, and he has recently become a part of the Progressive Element. Jane has a dream one night of a man in a prison cell who is visited by a man who frightens him very badly. She sees a picture of the man in the prison cell the next morning in the newspaper. Later on, she has another dream that ends up being the truth. She is frightened, as anyone would be, and wants to get rid of the dreams.
Jane has come across her former professor, Dr. Dimble, and his wife. They ask her not to see a psychiatrist about her dreams, but to contact them, and they will tell her someone to see. Jane continues to have the dreams, and she decides to see the person the Dimbles tell her about. They send her to a mansion on a hill called St. Anne’s. But Miss Grace Ironwood doesn’t seem to treat her as a patient: Jane wants to get rid of the dreams, but Miss Ironwood tells her that Jane is a sort of seer, and if she tries to get rid of the dreams she will be badly frightened and it won’t work.
Meanwhile, Mark’s College has decided to sell a part of their property (including the well of Merlin, an ancient well said to date back to the time of King Arthur) to the N.I.C.E., the National Institution of Co-ordinated Experiments.
Mark becomes more and more involved with the N.I.C.E. He is drawn by the mysterious side of the Institution- things are being done that are important and he is part of the important society! One of his main goals, as aforesaid, is to get in the group, and he sacrifices his morals to gain acceptance.
Meanwhile, Jane becomes more and more involved with a different society- a society that doesn’t have a name, headed by a man named Ransom, or Mr. Fisher-King, who appears to be young and has a wound in his heel. Jane is forced to come to St. Anne’s because of an encounter with the N.I.C.E. police chief, Miss Hardcastle.
The N.I.C.E. is looking for Merlin- the Merlin of Arthurian legend- who is supposedly buried under the plot of land previously owned by Mark’s College. They managed to learn of Jane’s first dream, which included an old man being dug up from underground who was not dead. From that, the Institution believes that Merlin is under the College property. Ransom and his society have guessed this too, but they fear that Merlin will be on the side of the N.I.C.E.
Can Mark keep his job at the N.I.C.E.? What is his job supposed to be anyway? Will Jane learn to submit and give control of her life to God? Is Ransom’s society to be trusted? Which side is Merlin actually on? And above all, will Mark and Jane’s marriage survive?
This book is full of living, breathing characters- the Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E., Wither, who is a sort of chaotic mess covered by vagueness and…ah…”I do not wish to say such-and-such; still, it is inevitable, my dear Mr…ah…Studdock, that…” and so on- Frost, who is on the same level as Wither but is a hard, to-the-point man and who is in competition with Wither- Dr. Dimble, the kindly older man who was Jane’s professer and is now an important part of Ransom’s society- Ivy Maggs, a simple, kind woman whose husband is in jail for thievery- the Dennistons, an integral part of Ransom’s society- Miss Ironwood, a doctor- MacPhee, the cynical Irishman- Miss Hardcastle, a masculine policewoman- the tramp, with a taste for beer and toasted cheese- Merlin, the mysterious man of legend- Ransom, the equally mysterious leader of the St. Anne’s society- and, of course, Mark and Jane, a couple who do not love each other. And there are animals- Mr. Bultitude, a bear, Pinch, a cat, Baron Corvo, a jackdaw, and other strange inhabitants of St. Anne’s.
There is so much in this book that is important, including Mediaeval myth, Arthurian legend, discussions of love in marriage, submission, Nature vs. Technology, and so on. One of the points Lewis makes is that man does not control nature: man controls man using technology. (He actually articulates that idea through one of his characters on pg. 175.) Some people may think it strange that Lewis speaks of the planets as lowercase-g ‘gods’. This is not in opposition to the One True God- these celestial ‘gods’ are like angels or Narnian tree-spirits.
There is some more mature content in this book, including: discreet but plain discussions of intimacy in marriage; language; and violence (especially at the end there is a rather gruesome scene, involving shootings and crushings. Again, Lewis is discreet and does not describe the killings in detail, but I would not recommend this book for children under ten or eleven.).
One of the best things about this book is its presentation of the Normal, capital N, as opposed to the abnormal, the dark, the Crooked. And when one of the characters realizes which side is the right side and joins it, it is very refreshing (to say the least).
That Hideous Strength is a book well worth reading. It’s powerful and climactic. It weaves Medieval myth and Arthurian legend together. One of the blurbs on the back cover says, “Lewis, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century writer, forced those who listened to him and read his works to come to terms with their own philosophical presuppositions.” No more so than in That Hideous Strength.