If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)
But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.
And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.
That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.
The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.
Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.
This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.
I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.
Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.
On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.
So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?
“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:
“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”
She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.
To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.
The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.
Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.
This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.
The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.
And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:
“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.”
“God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.”
“But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?”
“Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”
And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:
We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!
This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.
More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that
“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”
Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:
“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.”
And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:
“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
“It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.”
“And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”
Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))
The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:
The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.
Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. 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. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.
Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.
I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:
- Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
- N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
- Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.
The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.
I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.
On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.
Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & co. Merlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.
The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.
I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.
It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”
On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.
Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:
There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.
Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.
Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?
Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.
But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.
And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.
Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.
[Audio version of this post available below.]