That Hideous Strength: A Prophecy for Our Times

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[Editor’s Note: See the commentary on the first two books in the Space Trilogy here and here.]

The final novel of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, brings to a crescendo the themes at work in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. While reading the book in its intended context provides a richer experience, Lewis wrote this final novel so that it could stand alone. For those of us attempting to weather the unsettling global upheavals in the twenty-first century, That Hideous Strength is vital reading to understand the network of connections in the cosmic battle in which we find ourselves. 

While the previous novels follow the extra-terrestrial adventures of Dr. Elwin Ransom, most of That Hideous Strength alternates between Jane Studdock and her new husband, Mark, on the planet Earth. This is only fitting: Perelandra ends with man and woman triumphant over Satan and in perfect harmony with each other, nature, and God. But back on Earth, Jane and Mark stand for fallen Adam and Eve: newly wedded and yet grossly out of harmony with each other, out of step with nature, and coldly dismissive of God and anything approaching the supernatural. They are Adam and Eve as modern man and woman, not aware of how lost they are, yet deeply unhappy.

Mark Studdock’s story arc leads him one vague step at a time into the employment of the N.I.C.E., a quasi-governmental science, sociology, and research society. This institute is perhaps Lewis’ greatest articulation of the ways in which Satan works in the modern era, for the N.I.C.E. is comprised of very familiar faces: politicians, clergy, scientists, newspapermen, even its own police force (this last run by “Fairy” Hardcastle and the jackboot of lesbianism). It is what we now refer to as the Deep State, its satellites, and stooges. Swiftly, Mark ends up an accomplice to an authoritarian, inhuman program he does not truly comprehend:

But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.

As Mark attempts to pierce the inner circle of the institute, he discovers that each higher clique of elites smugly assumes its “real” goals. Planned riots, scripted news stories, corruptly installed officials, checks and balances bypassed as so much “red tape,” declared states of emergencies: the tools of the N.I.C.E. might have come across as unlikely scenarios to Lewis’ original readers. To a reader who has suffered through 2020, 2021, and 2022, it reads like current events. Particularly painful is the sanitation work of the institute, hell-bent upon improving “health” at the expense of much of what makes life livable and dignified.

By contrast, Jane, Mark’s wife, finds herself plagued by uncanny dreams alone in their flat. Worrying that it is a psychological disorder, she confides in the motherly wife of an old professor. Dr. and Mother Dimble respond in a shocking way: they recommend she visit a specialist named Miss Ironwood. Miss Ironwood not only assures Jane that she is not mentally ill, but she also asserts that her dreams are prophetic visions of things actually occurring. The Dimbles and Miss Ironwood invite Jane to join them in a small company formed around a mysterious figure going by the name of “Mr. Fisher-King”—a name taken from the legends of King Arthur.

This company, Jane learns, believes that it has been receiving guidance from spiritual beings who have commanded them to stay vigilant in the face of an impending threat to humanity. At first, Jane’s modern sensibilities cause her to coldly dismiss this as cultish, backward, and absurd. Visions, cosmic battles between good and evil, and the like should be kept in made-up stories where they belong. And yet Jane is quickly confronted with evidence about the truth of her dreams that she cannot satisfactorily dismiss. 

Thus, Jane meets Ransom, “Mr. Fisher-King,” “the Director,” or, most significantly, “the Pendragon,” and finds not only that she, unwilling though she be, is a seer, but that she is a key player in an Arthurian myth that involves Merlin himself come back from the grave to do battle against secular modernism. The mythic side, under Ransom’s careful, Christian guidance, stands ready to do whatever battle it is called upon against the forces of occultic scientism and a New World Order embodied by the N.I.C.E.

Lewis deliberately contrasts the two sides: the N.I.C.E. wields the overwhelming financial, legal, and police power of the state, and the mainstream media has ensured that normal citizens trust it as an important and benevolent aspect of modern society. You and I have met and probably worked with many of its members—we may even eat Christmas dinner with a few of them. Many of them do their work efficiently and professionally, believing that the goals of the program are to the benefit of humanity. As for its elites—well, the institute’s mysterious and revolting Head might remind you of a few current heads of state. Ransom’s little group, by contrast, is composed entirely of people with no worldly power and a pet bear named Mr. Bultitude.

While most of Ransom’s unlikely company are not, when the showdown occurs, called upon to do anything significant at all, That Hideous Strength is not a book about culture war pacifists who simply remain faithful in their own little circle, hidden away from the world. Ransom, after all, still bears the bloody wound from his own battle with Satan in the form of the Un-man on Perelandra. Rather, the lesson Lewis wishes to impart to those of us who stand with Ransom is to be ever vigilant, ready for whatever task God calls us to do. 

The most important actions taken by the mythic side are everyday braveries: Mother Dimble risking Jane’s scorn, Miss Ironwood standing for the truth despite its unscientific feel, Dr. Dimble risking his career in loyalty to a higher cause. By contrast, Mark and his fellow N.I.C.E. initiates are hardly storybook villains—they are motivated by very human, everyday desires to be well-liked, successful, and professional.

Importantly for us, while the N.I.C.E.—our era’s Sodom and Gomorrah—meets a fiery and bloody fate, Lewis is more interested in showing the arc of redemption for modern Adam and modern Eve. Jane and Mark spend most of the novel physically apart from each other, and yet they creep ever closer to that original harmony between man and woman. When Mark is suddenly confronted with the horrifying reality of the N.I.C.E., it is his relationship to the absent Jane that stirs his nobler instincts and allows him to discover both his manhood and his humanity. 

Similarly, while Jane joins Ransom’s company for very mixed motives, she, too, must confront her modern feminist desire to keep herself unencumbered by relationships and marriage, struggling bitterly for equality. When at last the two reunite, they are not unfallen Adam and Eve but Adam and Eve repentant and willing at last to attempt the intended path of obedience, love, and self-giving.

That Hideous Strength parses out the major issues and strategies in our ongoing war for the soul of the modern era, serving both to orient and console us as we, too, take a stand against the N.I.C.E. in whatever packaging it presents itself to us. In reading the novel, the reader is invited to strip off the abstractions, limitations, and assumptions that keep us trapped and vulnerable moderns and embrace, instead, the wider, wilder, more vigorous ways of being that mark the supernatural and mythic world that lives on around us.

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Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age.

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