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That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is a 1945 novel by C. S. Lewis, the final book in Lewis's theological science fiction Space Trilogy. The events of this novel follow those of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra (a.k.a. Voyage to Venus) and once again feature the philologist Elwin Ransom. Yet, unlike the principal events of those two novels, the story takes place on Earth rather than in space or on other planets in the solar system.

The novel was heavily influenced by the writing of Lewis's friend Charles Williams and is markedly dystopian in style.

Plot summary

This final novel in the "Space Trilogy" is set in post-war England in a small university town, in which the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (acronym "N.I.C.E."), a fictional scientific agency led by fallen eldila, attempts to alter the true nature of mankind through an exploitation of its members' pride and greed. The goal, if mankind continues down its current path, is the conquest of the last remaining piece of nature – human nature – making true man a lost memory. Dr. Ransom represents the watchful Christian, willing to do God's bidding in order to foil the N.I.C.E. The reawakened Merlin of the Arthurian legends, as a conduit of angelic power, shows that only through the divine can the battle against the forces of darkness end in victory for the light.

The story centers on the young university don Mark Studdock, a college fellow at a fictional university, and his wife, Jane. In the opening scene, Jane thinks about the difficulties that have sprung up between her and Mark since their marriage. A picture in the newspaper reminds her a disturbing dream of a beheaded criminal that seems to have been a clairvoyant view of a real guillotining. Mark is targeted for recruitment into the "inner circle" of researchers of the N.I.C.E. Instrumental in the recruitment is Devine, one of the villains of Out of the Silent Planet, now Lord Feverstone, an admired and influential fellow of Mark's college and an important figure in the N.I.C.E. Mark pridefully assumes that his recruitment is an invitation into a powerful and hidden elite, something that he has desired at every opportunity and now deserves. The N.I.C.E.'s true reason for recruiting him is to gain control of his wife and her clairvoyant dreams. However, Jane consults a community of eight people (including a friend of hers) who oppose the N.I.C.E.

This community, living at a house called St Anne's, is all that holds the hope of Logres, the 'true' England. It is nominally led by Ransom, who still suffers from the wound he received from Weston in his climactic fight on Venus. Ransom is now the "Pendragon", the inheritor of the role of King Arthur. His Masters are the true eldila or angels. Ransom and his followers accept Jane's hesitation to join them, and Ransom gives her advice based on his (or his Masters') Christian view of marriage, including discouraging her from opposing her husband.

The N.I.C.E. stages a riot in the town, before which Mark writes leading articles advocating increased powers for the N.I.C.E. police as a response. During the riot Jane is arrested by the N.I.C.E. police's director, Miss Hardcastle, and tortured, but they are caught up in the riot and the police have to release Jane. She makes her way to St. Anne's and commits herself to joining them.

Mark is shown the severed head of the criminal who Jane had dreamed of, now kept alive with artificial blood and capable of talking, indeed of being the true Head of the N.I.C.E. Jane dreams this scene and tells Ransom and the others about it. Eventually she undergoes a conversion to Christianity.

Mark shows some resistance to the N.I.C.E. They have murdered a scientist who left them, and now they frame Mark for the murder. He is confined to a cell and expects to be killed; as he now understands the evil of the N.I.C.E. and the disgusting qualities of its leaders, he determines to oppose them. However, he cannot defy them openly, so he cooperates with a plan to strip him of his humanity (or free him from his emotions) by surrounding him with meaninglessly broken patterns, showing him horrible and blasphemous sights (including surrealistic art), and forcing him to perform disgusting actions. They hope to prepare him for contact with the false eldila that animate the Head and control the institute.

Both Ransom and the N.I.C.E. know that Merlin is buried in suspended animation on land that the N.I.C.E. has recently bought from Mark's college (with Mark's connivance). The N.I.C.E. is seeking him with an intention and expectation to make malevolent use of his magic. But now that Weston and Devine have traveled through space in the previous two volumes and thus broken God's law against contact between the heavens and Earth, Ransom plans to call down the Oyéresu or angels that rule the planets (whose characters are conceived according to astrology). He must use a mortal as a conduit for their power; modern people are unsuitable, so he wants to recruit Merlin, an older and more ambiguous agent, who has previously dealt with supernatural powers. Merlin awakes and, partly by stealing a tramp's clothes, eludes both the N.I.C.E.'s and the St. Anne's community's attempts to greet him on waking, but somehow presents himself at St. Anne's, where Ransom has stayed because of his injured foot.

Ransom's encounter with Merlin reverses his role from the earlier book Perelandra, wherein a Divine Voice spoke to Ransom and ordered him to engage in battle with the demonic Weston, overcoming his various arguments. In this book, it is Ransom who orders the reluctant Merlin to do battle with the Satanic N.I.C.E., and who thrusts aside all of Merlin's counter-arguments until the wizard consents to take up the mission.

The leaders of the N.I.C.E. have comically mistaken the tramp for Merlin, a mistake the tramp takes advantage of, pretending not to understand English. Merlin infiltrates the N.I.C.E. by pretending to be able to interpret between the tramp and N.I.C.E. He accompanies the supposed Merlin to an Institute banquet, where he locks the doors, visits those present with the confusion of tongues, and releases the Institute's experimental animals (a tiger, an elephant, a wolf and others) into the hall. A few of the leaders of N.I.C.E. find a way out of the hall; the false eldila take advantage of their subjugation by forcing them to sacrifice themselves to the Head. A bear that had lived at St. Anne's, Mr. Bultitude, finishes off the Head. Merlin helps Mark and the tramp escape and directs Mark to St. Anne's, then destroys the town with an earthquake, the innocent people having left for various reasons. Feverstone dies in the earthquake.

Merlin has spent himself and is presumably no longer among the living, but the members of St. Anne's celebrate their victory. Ransom will be taken to Perelandra or Venus to be healed, and though the other angels have left, St. Anne's remains under the influence of Venus, the angel of love. A new Pendragon will replace Ransom. The reader is left to surmise who it is, as instead of showing Ransom's last moments on earth, the last scene shows Jane going to a cottage adjoining St. Anne's, where the exhausted Mark is waiting undressed in bed. In the last sentence she decides to go in to him.

Characters in "That Hideous Strength"

  • Mark Gainsby Studdock — Protagonist; sociologist, and ambitious to the point of obsession with reaching the "inner circle" of the social environment to which he has been grant preliminary admittance.
  • Jane Tudor Studdock — Protagonist; wife of Mark, and clairvoyant dream-seer.

The N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments)

  • Francois Alcasan — "The Head", a French scientist executed for murder early in the book. His head is recovered by the N.I.C.E. and appears to be kept alive by the technology of man while having become a communication mechanism for the "Macrobes", the fallen eldila.
  • John Wither — Long-winded bureaucrat and "Deputy Director" of the N.I.C.E. He is the true leader of the N.I.C.E., and a servant of the Macrobes. Long-term association with the Macrobes has "withered" his mind, and his speech and thinking are characterized by vagueness and euphemism. He does not engage in a normal sleep cycle, but maintains a continual dreamy wakefulness that affords him the ability to maintain a shadowy, supernatural presence throughout the Institute.
  • Professor Frost — A psychologist and assistant to Wither, he is the only other N.I.C.E member who knows the true nature of the Head, and of the Macrobes. He views emotions and values as mere chemical phenomena, to be ignored as a distraction from scientific inquiry. He is coldhearted and unemotional and he has an exact, precise manner of speech and thinking.
  • Miss/Major Hardcastle (a.k.a "The Fairy") — The sadistic head of the N.I.C.E. Institutional Police and its female auxiliary, the "Waips". Torture is her favorite interrogation method, and she takes special pleasure in abusing female prisoners.
  • Dr. Filostrato — An Italian physiologist, who has seemingly preserved Alcasan's head. He does not understand the Head's nature and believes it to be truly Alcasan. His ultimate goal is to free humanity from the constraints of organic life.
  • Lord Feverstone (Dick Devine) — The politician and recently ennobled businessman who lures Mark into the N.I.C.E. Feverstone was one of the two men who kidnapped Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet. A classic sociopath, he is motivated in all circumstances by the perceived benefit to himself. Although he is aware of the Macrobes, he has no interest in them.
  • Reverend Straik — "The Mad Parson". He believes that any sort of power is a manifestation of God's will. This belief, along with other beliefs, makes him a suitable candidate for introduction to the Macrobes. "He was a good man once", but became deranged by the death of his daughter.
  • Horace Jules — A novelist and scientific journalist who has been appointed the nominal Director of the N.I.C.E. His minimal understanding of science allows him to be unaware of the true nature of the Institute. He has a strong anti-clerical bias, and objects to Wither appointing "parsons" (such as Straik) to the Institute.

St. Anne's

  • Dr. Elwin Ransom — sometimes called The "Pendragon" or "Mr. Fisher-King". He alone communicates with the benevolent eldila. Back from Perelandra, Ransom is a kingly figure among his small band of followers, and is usually referred to as the Director. Ransom attributes his following to a divine Power, presumably Maleldil.
  • Grace Ironwood — The seemingly stern psychologist and doctor who helps Jane interpret her dreams.
  • Dr. Cecil Dimble — Another don, an old friend of Ransom, and close advisor on matters of Arthurian scholarship and pre-Norman Britain.
  • "Mother" Dimble — Mrs. Dimble; She and Mr. Dimble have no children, much to their sadness, but have compensated by their kindness to students. Very maternal.
  • Ivy Maggs — Formerly a part-time domestic servant for Jane Studdock; now driven out of the town by the N.I.C.E. and living at St. Anne's. Jane is puzzled at first by her status as an equal at the house. Ivy's husband is in prison for petty theft.
  • Merlinus Ambrosius — The wizard Merlin, awoken and returned to serve the Pendragon and save England. Receives the powers of the eldila. He has been in a deep sleep since the time of King Arthur, and both sides initially believe he will join the N.I.C.E. His appearance at St. Anne's comes as a surprise.
  • Mr. MacPhee — A scientist, skeptic, and rationalist, and close friend of Dr. Ransom. He is mentioned parenthetically in Perelandra. MacPhee, like Ransom, was an officer in the First World War. MacPhee desires to fight the N.I.C.E. with human powers. An argumentative character who claims to have no opinions, merely stating facts and illustrating implications. His position in the establishment is to be skeptical, testing every hypothesis and Jane's dreams; however, the awoken Merlin believes MacPhee to be Ransom's "fool" (i.e. jester), because MacPhee is "obstructive and rather rude...yet never gets sat on". The character may have been based on William T. Kirkpatrick, former headmaster of Lurgan College and an admired tutor of the young Lewis.
  • Mr. Bultitude — Last of the seven bears of Logres, who escaped from a zoo and was tamed by Ransom, who has regained man's legendary authority over the beasts.
  • Arthur and Camilla Denniston - Arthur is an academic at Edgestow and an old University friend of Mark Studdock's, before Studdock began to be obsessed with reaching the "inner circle" at Bracton College. His wife, Camilla, is described as very tall, and she is the first person Jane meets when visiting St. Anne's for the first time.

Orwell's review

Some two years before writing his own Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell reviewed That Hideous Strength for the Manchester Evening News commenting: "Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters [i.e. the N.I.C.E. scientists], and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realizable . It is noteworthy that the review was written in the direct aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are referred to in the text.

However, the atheist Orwell argued that Lewis's book "would have been a stronger without the supernatural elements". Particularly, Orwell objected to the ending in which N.I.C.E. is overthrown by divine intervention: "[Lewis] 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. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid".


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