That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

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