That Hideous Strength by C S Lewis

The third book in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” is very different from the first two. Out of the Silent Planet was about a trip to Mars, Perelandra was about a trip to Venus, but That Hideous Strength (published in 1945) is set entirely on Earth. It’s subtitled “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, which makes me think of another book for adults that came out in the same year, also subtitled “A Fairy Story”: George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the things that surprised me while reading That Hideous Strength was how closely it comes, in its presentation of the aims and methods of the evil organisation the N.I.C.E., to Big Brother in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (which came out in 1949). (And Orwell actually reviewed That Hideous Strength, but I’ll come back to that.)

Another way to look at the three books of the Space Trilogy is that Out of the Silent Planet presents us with a world (Malacandra) where the key battle against evil was won long in the past; Perelandra presents us with a world at the moment that battle is fought; That Hideous Strength presents us with a world where the battle with evil was lost long ago. Earth, Tellus, Thulcandra — all names for the same place — is in the hands of the Bent One, Lewis’s version of Lucifer, and what we witness in this novel is the fight-back against his tightening grip.

Pan paperback. Art by Sax.

The novel starts by following two characters, Jane and Mark Studdock, a recently married, modern-minded couple whose marriage is already starting to show cracks. Mark is a sociologist, currently placed in Bracton College at the University of Edgestow, and has just managed to get himself accepted into the inner circle of the “Progressive Element” of the university. But along comes an invite (from Lord Feverstone, a.k.a. Devine from Out of the Silent Planet) to become part of an even more progressive element: the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, whose sinisterly unspecific name hides (behind a camouflage of almost Kafkan levels of bureaucratic obfuscation) a plan to transform humankind into “the most efficient animal” — in fact, the only animal, because this plan includes ridding us of all “our rivals on this planet”: insects, bacteria, animals, and plants. At the same time, the N.I.C.E. want to realise the Kingdom of God, but through entirely scientific means, to create a world where:

“The Son of Man — that is, Man himself, full grown — has power to judge the world — to distribute life without end, and punishment without end.”

Even death will be conquered. And, to literalise their idea of making this world (to them, the only world) the Kingdom of God, they are also creating their own God, or “the Head” as they call it, and which turns out to be just that: a human head, separated from its body, kept alive by a whole roomful of machinery. It is immortal, but, really, it is dead. And we know from Perelandra’s Un-Man that an undead body becomes, in Lewis’s universe, a mouthpiece for evil spirits, and most probably the evil spirit, the Bent One.

The N.I.C.E. believe their intention is entirely scientific, but they are simply serving the Bent One using different terms. (And the misuse of language to political ends — something that’s so important in Nineteen Eighty-Four — is clearly on display here, with the N.I.C.E.’s police being called its “Sanitary Executive”, and torture — which, of course, the Sanitary Executive employ — “Scientific examination”.)

Another Pan paperback, cover by S R Boldero

Meanwhile Jane, an academic herself but frustrated by her new role as a housewife, has been having a number of vivid but horrific dreams. She gets advice from a couple who lead her to a nearby house that becomes, as the N.I.C.E. takes over the city of Edgestow, a refuge for those prepared to resist this evil organisation. And it’s here, nine chapters into a 17-chapter novel, that we finally get our first hint of this book’s link to the previous two in the Space Trilogy, as we meet Ransom again. Only, this is a Ransom transformed. Known at first as Mr Fisher-King because of the unhealing foot-wound he received in the previous novel, he seems to have stopped ageing, grown a transplendent golden beard (it instantly reminds Jane of King Arthur), and has retained his links to the eldil. Jane’s prophetic dreams allow the mixed group that surrounds Ransom (including a friendly bear, Mr Bulstrode) to discover the N.I.C.E.’s plan, which involves using the power of Merlin — who’s not dead, but has been held suspended in a “parachronic state” since the 5th century — to achieve its evil ends.

I found That Hideous Strength a bit of a mixed novel. (It’s also about as long as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra combined.) It’s certainly not what you expect as the third in a trilogy that began with two interplanetary adventures (though its setting on Earth makes perfect sense). Its tone is very different, veering into absurdist satire in its depiction of the N.I.C.E.’s internal workings, and feeling at times like Kafka, like Orwell, and (with its inclusion of Arthurian myth in a modern setting) like Charles Williams’s occult thrillers, but at the same time, it’s never anything but C S Lewis.

The philosophy of the N.I.C.E. had already been addressed by Lewis in a non-fiction book, The Abolition of Man (three lectures on education, published in 1944), in which he projected what he saw as the modern trend of regarding our core human values as merely subjective judgements, into a future where morality has been replaced entirely by the whim of a manipulative elite. For Lewis, this “modern” tendency formed a sort of dark circle: first, the abandonment of God leading to the “Despair of objective truth”; then, “a concentration upon mere power” until power itself is deified; finally, “the old dream of Man as God”, and human whim replacing divine order.

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the N.I.C.E. aim to achieve this through, among other things, manipulating the press, the use of euphemistic terms for terrible deeds, and keeping even its own employees in a constant state of terror, as when the Deputy Director gives one of his subordinates advice on how to behave:

“On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action — anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours — might have consequences from which even I could not protect you.”

The key difference between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength is that Orwell only presents the horrible extreme of how things might be, while Lewis presents both what might go wrong and the thing that must, in his opinion, replace it. This means that Orwell was arguing for freedom, but Lewis, as in the other books of the Space Trilogy, is arguing for obedience.

…Whilst also arguing against obedience. The N.I.C.E., after all, demands obedience (“Your line is to do whatever you’re told and above all not to bother the old man,” as Mark is instructed). But when Jane sees Ransom, she’s told that lack of obedience is why her marriage to Mark is failing. It would be easy to deliberately misunderstand Lewis, particularly when he has Ransom say, “No one has ever told you that obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity,” which sounds like it’s heading into John Norman/Gor territory, but Ransom says he’s not talking about obedience to Mark. The trouble is, he doesn’t really say what the obedience is to. (I assume it’s to the marriage, with both Mark and Jane subordinating themselves to that, but Lewis doesn’t actually say so.) “Obedience” seems to have become, throughout this series, a magic word for Lewis, not so much a thing you do, as a state you’re in. He means, of course, obedience to Maleldil — God — and makes it clear this isn’t a strict obedience to an exact course of action, but something more pliable, and fitted to each individual, or at least every culture:

“Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue… The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.”

But Lewis never gets into the nitty-gritty of how, as an individual, you tell the difference between obedience to Maleldil and obedience to the Bent One. (As readers, it’s easy, because we can see behind the scenes to what they’re trying to do. One is clearly evil, one is clearly good. But it’s less easy for the characters.) Because, obedience surely means putting what you’re told to do above your own idea of what you should do. If what you’re told to do aligns with your conscience, then no obedience is necessary. It only becomes obedience when you have to overcome yourself in order to obey. And we don’t ever get a representation of that inner struggle. Jane has to be convinced to join Ransom and co., but only because she doesn’t want to accept that her dreams are prophetic (because that, to her modern mind, makes her worry she might be mentally unbalanced). It’s the reality of the supernatural she has difficulty accepting, not what’s good and what’s bad. In Mark we get a far more convincing portrait of a man being led astray (“For he now thought that with all his life-long eagerness to reach an inner circle he had chosen the wrong circle”). Mark’s involvement with the N.I.C.E. comes in small, deliberately deceptive steps — too small and unexplained for him to realise what he’s doing till it’s too late. As readers we can see he’s doing wrong from the start, because the author lets us know. But for Mark, somewhat weak-willed, un-idealistic, and wanting to get on in the world, it’s harder. And this, surely, is the point: many people fell into line with pre-War fascism in a similar way. So, what we need is a way to know what to do, from Mark’s point of view, as a weak, muddled, peer-pressured human. But we don’t get that. So, it seems to me, neither Mark’s corruption nor Jane’s correction really gets to the core of how to tell right from wrong.

As I say, it’s easy for readers to tell right from wrong in That Hideous Strength, because the right is supernaturally good, and the wrong is supernaturally evil. And this was Orwell’s point in his review of the book, where he says that “it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out”, as, in actuality, the “whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid”.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, cover by Pauline Baynes

Lewis was, of course, writing a fantasy, but fantasy works better from a clear vision than a rational argument. And I can’t help feeling what he was doing in That Hideous Strength he went on to do better in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There, we have the White Witch’s rule of Narnia (like the N.I.C.E.’s take-over of Britain) opposed by Aslan (whose golden mane recalls Ransom’s “gold hair” and “gold beard”), as well as the corruption of Edmund (paralleling Mark’s corruption in That Hideous Strength), the recourse to “Old Magic” (Merlin in That Hideous Strength, “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time” in Lion) and both novels even end with a lot of recently-freed animals running about. By throwing out the more explicitly philosophical parts of That Hideous Strength, that first Narnia book gains a lot in power and clarity. Story is more convincing than even the most rational argument, and symbols (the Lion, the Witch, the sacrifice and so on) have much more power to convince than abstract ideas. I don’t feel Lewis ever lets go of things enough, he’s always subtly telling me what to think. But by doing so less explicitly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he at least makes it more accessible, and a better read.

I get the feeling that, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis was ready to move on from his Space Trilogy setting but perhaps hadn’t worked out where to go. Narnia, though, was beginning to show itself. This is from the final chapter of That Hideous Strength:

“That same afternoon Mother Dimble and the three girls were upstairs in the big room which occupied nearly the whole top floor of one wing at the Manor, and which the Director called the Wardrobe. If you had glanced in, you would have thought for one moment that they were not in a room at all but in some kind of forest…”

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London recounts Orwell’s time spent as a low-paid plongeur (dishwasher and hotel dogsbody) in Paris, and a tramp in London. This wasn’t some sort of literary adventure or self-test, but a time in which the young Eric Arthur Blair was searching for some sort of direction in his life, and fell upon genuine hard times. This was his first published book, and concern about how it might be received, and how its publication might affect his family, led to his using the pseudonym George Orwell.

There are some interesting insights into the life of poverty, as in this, early on: “You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

Or the fact that poverty “annihilates the future”: “Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that.”

Orwell relates his own experiences and describes some of the other characters he meets in his time in the two cities. Occasionally he takes a chapter out to draw some conclusions, which make interesting reading, such as his asking why the work of a plongeur is at all necessary — he exists to slave away so that others may have the illusion of luxury, and why is that necessary? Or to point out that tramps are tramps simply because the law in England (at the time — I’m not sure about it now) forces them to move on after a few days, or be charged with vagrancy, thus creating an artificial situation.

I felt Orwell could have been more self-revelatory. What did it really feel like to be living such a life? At other times I was slightly shocked by his cultural snobbery, as in this passage: “But I imagine that the customers at the Hotel X. were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English — no French — and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet a la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce… Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”

But what comes through is Orwell’s intelligence as applied to poverty as a social, rather than an individual, problem. He points out that the poor aren’t poor because they’re lazy, and that in fact unemployment is a greater burden on them than on the state, because of its sheer life-destroying boredom. There isn’t enough of that sort of thing in the book — certainly, few practical solutions are suggested — but what there is implies the basis of an interesting rethinking of the situations he finds himself in, looking at them practically, and asking those basic questions it’s so easy to forget to ask when something has been as it is for so long.