Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review - That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

Short review: All learning since the middle-ages is evil and the scientists are trying to destroy humanity. The good guys sit around and wait for magic to save them. Surprisingly, this works.

Jane and Mark Studdock
Separated at the start
By N.I.C.E.

Full review: That Hideous Strength is the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” and is also the best book in the series. This assessment is, however, damning with faint praise. As with the rest of the series, the book is mostly weak religious polemics coupled with a generous amount of misogyny. What places this book above the previous two installments in the series is that there is actually something of a story contained in its pages, and although the story is somewhat weak, it is still better than either the rambling travelogue of Out of the Silent Planet or the unadulterated tedium of Perelandra. As has become the pattern for Lewis thus far, his apologia in favor of his Christian faith are weakened by his apparent lack of understanding of the arguments of his ideological adversaries and his own inability to formulate a coherent reasoned argument on behalf of his chosen creed.

The central characters of the book are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young married couple living in the fictitious university town of Edgestow where Mark is a sociologist and a fellow at the fictitious college of Bracton. One oddity about the book is that despite the fact that Lewis attempts to make the Studdock's marriage a central element of the story, the reader never gets to see the Studdock's interact with one another. They open the book going their separate ways, and soon Mark is whisked away by Lord Feverstone, who happens to also be Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, to the headquarters of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., at Belbury which is the villainous organization that the heroes of the book have to save the world from. The N.I.C.E. is a confusing place for Mark, as the deputy director says he is to be hired, but the head of the sociology section has no knowledge of Mark's appointment and has no need for another sociologist. Mark bounces about the confusing place trying to figure out if he has in fact been hired and if so for what position and at what salary but is given a run-around every time he tries to figure out his status, and is eventually sternly warned that he is annoying important people at N.I.C.E. It seems that this sort of confusion about organizational structure is intended as a commentary on the disordered nature of modern thinking, but all it really does is make the N.I.C.E. seem like a fairly ineffectual villain. If the N.I.C.E. is this disorganized one has to wonder how they would be able to execute their purportedly nefarious plans.

Jane, on the other hand, putters around Edgestow for a while before going to St. Anne's and joining up with the somewhat ineffective assembly that the "Director", in the form of a wounded Elwin Ransom, has gathered around himself to oppose this supposedly existential threat to humanity. Much of the machinations of the villains rely upon attempting to manipulate Mark in order to secure Jane's services as a prophetic dreamer, the various bits of advice that Ransom, a confirmed bachelor, gives to Jane on how to repair her marriage, and Mark coming to realize that he really does love his wife, but by giving so very little attention to developing the relationship between the two characters, the reader ends up not caring very much whether they do actually reconcile or not. This problem does not seem to be confined to the Studdock's. Although there are only a handful of married couples in the book, they are either separated throughout the entire story or interact with one another only very briefly.

Although one might be able to make the argument that Lewis keeps Mark and Jane apart through the narrative in order to build up tension that is to be resolved by their dramatic reunion, the fact that none of the married couples seem to have a shared relationship that is presented with any kind of depth in the story makes one think that perhaps Lewis's experiences with women were so lacking that he simply didn't know how to write scenes involving a healthy relationship. Not only that, when the time comes for the emotional payoff at the end, Lewis has it take place entirely off stage, meaning that two people with a poorly developed relationship have a dramatic reunion out of sight, leaving the reader to simply not care about what is clearly, in Lewis' mind, one of the critical developments of his book. As I have noted elsewhere, it seems that the misogynistic sentiments that seem to ripple throughout Lewis' books were driven not by an active dislike for women, but instead by Lewis' limited contact with them, and a resulting lack of familiarity with actual women and lack of understanding of how men and women actually interact. All of the women who appear in the book are portrayed as petulant children, dutiful wives, matronly mothers, or awful harridans. Apparently, there are no other choices for women.

Women, it seems, were strange beasts in Lewis’ mind, and while he might have conceded that they were human, it seems that he was inclined to regard them as never being fully adult. Nowhere is this more apparent in That Hideous Strength than in the character of Jane Studdock, who Lewis treats as some odd combination of a wayward child and a recalcitrant brood mare. When the story opens we are told that Jane is pursuing graduate studies of her own, presumably intent on following her husband into academia. But almost immediately the narrative (and Jane herself) dismisses her aspirations as being both dissatisfying and childish. Jane wanders through the opening chapters more or less bewildered and confused until she encounters Ransom, whereupon she is informed that her mental anguish would be ameliorated if she simply submitted herself to the authority of her husband. In other words, a fully grown woman capable enough to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree is advised by an unmarried male character in a book written by an unmarried man that her best course of action is to be obedient to her husband. To reinforce this point, when Jane states that she would like to take the Director’s side and join his motley crew at St. Anne’s Ransom instructs her that he is not inclined to accept her unless she first gets permission from her husband even though Mark has already gone to Belbury and more or less joined the enemy. In effect, all of the other characters treat Jane as more or less an extension of Mark – even the forces of evil that represent the modernity that Jane has supposedly been misled by only recruit her husband Mark because they presume that if he is on their side then Jane will surely follow.

And Jane is critically important to both sides of the conflict in the book because she has prophetic dreams, the disturbing nature of which are the source of her disquietude at the start of the book. Apparently it would be a disastrous turn of events for N.I.C.E. to get hold of Jane and use her dream visions to their advantage. Since Jane’s dreams seem mostly to convey information that N.I.C.E. already knows, this seems to be a dubious proposition, but even so, it makes Ransom’s refusal to allow Jane to join with St. Anne’s until after she is captured and tortured by the N.I.C.E. security chief “Fairy” Hardcastle (revealing Hardcastle's sadistic and apparently Sapphic tendencies) seem shortsighted and foolish. Eventually Jane does join with Ransom’s merry little band despite not obtaining Mark’s permission first and proceeds have incredibly cryptic dreams that tell Ransom that the N.I.C.E. is doing exactly what he thought they were doing: Buying property from Bracton College so they can dig up an ancient grove of trees and try to locate the buried but not dead body of Merlin.

But this reveals the weakest element of the book, which is the idiotic resolution to the plot. All of the misogynistic and anti-reason messages contained in the story would possibly be excusable if Lewis had provided a moderately interesting story. But the ostensible heroes are more or less superfluous to the plot: Ransom has gathered about him a collection of faithful followers, but they don't actually do anything at all except wait around until Merlin shows up. Ransom does send a cadre of his followers out to try to find Merlin, but they prove to be wholly incapable of completing this task and Merlin arrives on Ransom's doorstep on his own and identifies the philologist as the "Pendragon", heir to the authority of King Arthur and rightful ruler of Logres, which is more or less "magical" Britain. Once Merlin has submitted himself to Ransom's authority, the two of them sit around waiting until the eldils of the heavens arrive to endow Merlin with their powers and send him out to do battle with the supposedly terrible forces of the N.I.C.E. Once Merlin has gone off to fulfill his destiny, the women of Ransom's merry band play dress up (because women always want to play dress up) and then everyone has a nice dinner. In short, despite everyone being told that they have a critical role to play in saving the world, what really happens is that Lewis pulls out a literal deus ex machina ending by having a magic man from the past show up and destroy the evildoers with the powers of angels. In the end, N.I.C.E. isn't defeated by reason, or courage, or any kind of human response, but instead because God decided to arrange things so he could smite them into oblivion. Instead of a call to action or an argument for faith, Lewis basically says that one should sit around doing not much of anything until divine intervention saves the day.

But what makes the story even weaker is that the N.I.C.E. doesn't seem to be all that effective or evil of a villain. Despite repeated admonishments about the horrible nature of the N.I.C.E., the only large scale "evils" that the organization seems to actually do are manipulating the news, buying and then tearing down a copse of trees, and arranging for a riot to break out in Edgestow. On a smaller scale, the N.I.C.E. more nefariously murders a scientist who wants to leave the organization and imprisons Mark. Even though there are clearly nasty acts, they aren't any more villainous than those performed by a run of the mill organized crime gang. As a result, it is difficult to see the N.I.C.E. as some sort of looming threat to humanity itself. There are a myriad of hints and dire warnings that the N.I.C.E. is up to far worse activities, but even the one thing that is supposedly truly evil – reanimating the head of their dead leader Alsacan – seems fairly trivial, especially when it is revealed that Alsacan as not actually been reanimated. This act seems to be little more than misusing a cadaver, and certainly not as horrific as Mark makes it out to be when he is confronted by the sight. Later, Lewis reveals that the real evil in the action results from the fact that the animating force is actually "macrobes" or evil eldil. But this removes the evil from being the work of men to being the result of supernatural influence. Despite Lewis' repeated railings against any field of academic study of more recent vintage than the 13th century, by making all of it the influence of otherworldly macrobes, Lewis effectively removes human agency from the equation. The plot of That Hideous Strength ends up being benign supernatural forces lining up to destroy malicious supernatural forces with the various human characters taking the part of pawns or bystanders. It is clear that Lewis desperately wants to convince the reader that the N.I.C.E. is a looming threat that will transform England into a dystopian nightmare, but the Keystone Kops nature of the organization coupled with the relatively bland nature of the evil deeds attributed to them makes this attempted characterization simply fall flat.

As the book winds its way through its poorly thought out plot to its unsatisfying conclusion, Lewis has to throw in a number of jabs at his ideological opponents and an additional helping of misogyny to go with them. Lewis tries to include criticism of various non-Christian philosophical positions, but ends up revealing that he simply doesn't understand the arguments advanced by their proponents. For example, the character of Frost adheres to the nondualistic view of the mind, an argument that holds that the human mind is entirely a product of the brain. But Lewis mutates this into a denial of the existence of the mind and writes frost as merely wandering about as his body does things. In the book, Frost is well-aware that he has a mind, but he has his mind merely observe as his body "instinctively" wanders about doing things on its own. But this sort of characterization of the philosophical position doesn't even rise to the level of being a straw-man and just makes Lewis look ill-informed and makes his counterarguments look ridiculous. Alongside this sort of ham-fisted attempts to make ideological points, Lewis adds some ham-fisted misogyny, most notably in the form of N.I.C.E. security chief "Fairy" Hardcastle who is portrayed as a heavyset, crude, and overtly sexual (and possibly bisexual) woman, and therefore she is sadistic and evil. The clear message sent by Lewis' characterization of women in the book is that unless a woman fits into the category of subservient baby-maker, she has gone astray and must be herded back into the fold or condemned to damnation.

Even the emotional payoff at the end of the story is poorly executed. When Mark does get free of the clutches of the N.I.C.E. having learned his lesson about foolish ambition and rekindled his love for his spouse, one would expect him to head straight for Jane. Instead he stops off at an inn near Jane and has himself a nice breakfast, spends the day reading the entirety of Curdie, and then tucks in for a nap. For a man who has been separated from his wife for some weeks and who is desperate to reconnect with her, this seems like an odd course of action. At the other end of the equation, Jane is instructed by Ransom to go to her husband and in the future "have babies instead of dreams". The overt message here is for Jane to cease having prophetic dreams, but the underlying message appears to be that Jane should give up her ambitions of academic accomplishment and take up the proper role of a woman as a dutiful wife and brood mare. At the very end, it is Jane who has to do the work and walk into the inn room where her husband has gone to sleep, at which point the book ends just before the emotional scene in which the couple are reunited. And at this point, both this book and the entire Space Trilogy mercifully come to an end. Unless one is interested in a deus ex machina plot laden with terribly weak theological arguments, spiced up with a screed against learning and reason, and topped off with a generous coating of misogyny, then That Hideous Strength is a book to be avoided.

Previous book in the series: Perelandra

1946 Hugo Award Nominees
2003 Prometheus Award Nominees
2008 Prometheus Award Nominees

C.S. Lewis     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. C.S. Lewis was definitely out of step with the canons of political correctness.

    Some of us regard that as a strength rather than a hideous weakness.

    I invite you to read C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: Science and Magic, Spirit and Matter, and the Figure of Merlin for my own take.

  2. @Jonathan Hayward: Lewis' portrayal of Jane Studdock in is much more than being "out of step with the canons of political correctness". Lewis infantilizes Jane for much of the book, subsumes her identity as a human into her husband, and generally portrays her as less than fully human or fully adult.

    Pretending that this is somehow bravely standing up to "political correctness" is simply silly.