Book Review: That Hideous Strength, by C S Lewis

That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis


This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. 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.

Mark Studdock is a young on-the-make sociologist, a professor at Bracton College, in an English town called Edgestow. He is is far more interested in university politics than in his research or teaching. and as a member of the “progressive element” at the college, he strongly supports Bracton selling a tract of property to a government-sponsored entity called NICE. The NICE is the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation,which Lewis describes as “the first fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world.”  What excites Mark most about the NICE is this:

The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past.  One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old freelance science did, but what’s certain is that it can do more.

Trigger Warning: There is something in this book to offend almost everybody.  It contains things that will offend technologists and believers in human progress…social scientists…feminists…academic administrators…bioscience researchers…and surely many other categories of people.  It will probably also offend some Christians, for the way in which Christian theology is mixed with non-Christian magic. By the standards now becoming current in American universities, this book, and even this book review, should be read by no one at all.  But for those who do not accept those standards…

The Basic Story. Mark has recently married Jane, a woman with strong literary interests and with vague plans for getting an advanced degree. She has recently started having disturbing, indeed terrifying, dreams, which suggest that she has a clairvoyant ability to see distant events in real time. Afraid that she is losing her mind, Jane seeks advice, and is told that her dreams are actually visions, they are very real, will not stop, and are of utmost importance:

“Young lady,” said Miss Ironwood, “You do not at all realize the seriousness of this matter. The things you have seen concern something compared with which the happiness, and even the life, of you and me, is of no importance.”

Miss Ironwood warns Jane that extremely evil people will seek to use her gift, and that she would do well–both for her own interests and those of the entire human race–to join the community of which Miss Ironwood is a part, located at a place called St Anne’s. Jane responds quite negatively to the invitation, afraid that membership in the St Anne’s group will limit her autonomy. She is not interested in the dreams’ meaning; she just wants them to go away.

Mark, on the other hand, responds enthusiastically when he is invited to take a position at the NICE, temporarily located at an old manor called Belbury.  One of the first people he meets there is the Head of the Institutional Police, a woman named Miss Hardcastle (picture Janet Napolitano), nicknamed the Fairy, who explains to Mark her theory of crime and punishment:

“Here in the Institute, we’re backing the crusade against Red Tape.”  Mark gathered that, for the Fairy, the police side of the Institute was the really important side…In general, they had already popularized in the press the idea that the Institute should be allowed to experiment pretty largely in the hope of discovering how far humane, remedial treatment could be substituted for the old notion of “retributive” or “vindictive” punishment…The Fairy pointed out that what had hampered every English police force up to date was precisely the idea of deserved punishment. For desert was always finite; you could do so much to the criminal and no more. Remedial treatment, on the other hand, need have no fixed limit; it could go on till it had effected a cure, and those who were carrying it out would decide when that was.  And if cure were humane and desirable, how much more prevention?  Soon anyone who had ever been in the hands of the police at all would come under the control of the NICE; in the end, every citizen.

Another person Mark meets in his first days at Belbury is the acclaimed chemist William Hingest…who has also come down to investigate the possibility of a job at Belbury, has decided against it, and strongly advises Mark to do likewise:

“I came down here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it’s something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I’m too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn’t be my choice.”

“You mean, I suppose, that the element of social planning doesn’t appeal to you? I can quite understand that it doesn’t fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but–“

“There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again…I happen to believe that you can’t study men, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything that makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors.”

Nevertheless, Mark decides to remain at Belbury, and is drawn ever-deeper into its activities–which, as only those in the innermost circles of that organization realize, are not only consistent with the goals of the 20th-century totalitarianisms, but go considerably beyond them.  The NICE seeks to establish a junction between the powers of modern science and those of ancient magic, accessing the latter by awakening the medieval wizard Merlin and using him for their purposes.  At the same time, Jane–despite her reservations–becomes increasingly involved  with the company at St Anne’s and is entranced with its leader, a Mr Fisher-King. (His name comes from the Wounded King in Arthurian legend.)  The St Anne’s group is aware of the truth about NICE and its ultimate goals, and exists for the primary purpose of opposing and, hopefully, destroying that organization.

I will not here describe the war between the forces of Belbury and those of St Anne’s (in order to avoid spoilers), but will instead comment on the characters of some of the protagonists and some philosophically-significant events in the novel, with appropriate excerpts. Hopefully this will be enough to give a sense of the worldview that Lewis is presenting in this book.

Mark Studdock. His character is largely defined by his strong desire to be a member of the Inner Circle, whatever that inner circle may be in a particular context.  The passage at the start of this review where Mark agrees to engage in criminal activity on Belbury’s behalf is proceeded by this:

After a few evenings Mark ventured to walk into the library on his own; a little uncertain of his reception, yet afraid that if he did not soon assert his right to the entree this modesty might damage him. He knew that the error in either direction is equally fatal.

It was a success. Before he had closed the door behind him all had turned with welcoming faces and Filostrato had said “Ecco ” and the Fairy, “Here’s the very man.” A glow of pleasure passed over Mark’s whole body.

That “glow of pleasure” at being accepted by the Belbury’s Inner Circle (what Mark then thinks is Belbury’s Inner Circle) is strong enough to overcome any moral qualms on Mark’s part about the actions he is being requested to perform.  Lewis has written a great deal elsewhere about the lust for the Inner Circle, which in his view never leads to satisfaction but only to a longing for membership in another, still-more-inner circle. In That Hideous Strength, there are concentric Inner Circles at Belbury, which Mark does penetrate–and each is more sinister than the last.


Jane Studdock is a key character in THS, and the state of the Studdocks’ marriage is an important part of the story.  When we first meet the pair, that state is not good.  Mark pays little attention to Jane, being focused almost exclusively on his career in academic politics.  Jane is bored, and Lewis strongly implies that she is also sexually “frigid,” to use the old term.  Her lack of sexual interest in Mark is portrayed as not only a function of his lack of day-to-day attentiveness, but as having deeper roots:

To avoid entanglements and interferences had long been one of her first principles.  Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought “but I must keep my own life” had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind.  Some resentment against love itself, and therefore against Mark, for thus invading her life, remained…this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child–or not for a long time yet. 

Mark notes that whenever Jane is temporarily loses “a certain indefinable defensiveness,” as she does after one of her terrifying dreams, the next day there are always “inexplicable quarrels.”  And when the Director of the company at St Anne’s tells her that Gender is not only a physical quality but a spiritual one, she is appalled:

Now the suspicion dawned upon her that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent.  How if this invasion of her own being in marriage from which she had recoiled, often in the very teeth of instinct, were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism…

These attributes of Jane’s personality are meant to embody, in Lewis’s worldview, the specifically female incarnation of the Hideous Strength (the phrase is from a poem about the Tower of Babel)–the desire for absolute domination and control over all aspects of life. This is not, however, the only aspect of her character. When facing the prospect of his own imminent death, Mark reflects:

Well … it was lucky for Jane. She seemed to him, as he now thought of her, to have in herself deep wells and knee-deep meadows of happiness, rivers of freshness, enchanted gardens of leisure, which he could not enter but could have spoiled. She was one of those other people-like Pearson, like Denniston, like the Dimbles-who could enjoy things for their own sake.

Education, Art, and Symbolism.  When Mark is confronted with the above-mentioned situation, which is not only life-or-death for him, but may also have great consequences for the entire human race, the extensive education that he has received is of little use to him:

It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical–merely “Modern”. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.

As part of his journey into the innermost circles of the NICE, Mark is required to undergo training in “objectivity…a process intended to kill all “specifically human” reactions in a man.  First, he is put in a chilly and ill-shapen room which creates a sense of disorientation; on the walls is modern art of a non-beautiful, disturbing, and vaguely nihilistic kind.  (I will spare you a description of these extremely unpleasant objects.)

Later, Mark’s instructor comes into the Objective Room and throws a large crucifix–an extremely detailed representation of the Crucifixion–on the floor. (It is important to note that Mark is not at this time a Christian, nor had he ever been.) Professor Frost then instructs Mark to step on the crucifix and insult it in other ways.

Mark himself was surprised at the emotions he was undergoing. He did not regard the image with anything at all like a religious feeling…To insult even a carved image of such agony seemed an abominable act. But it was not the only source…

“Pray make haste,” said Frost.

The quiet urgency of the voice and the fact that he had so often obeyed it before, almost conquered him. He was on the verge of obeying and getting the whole silly business over, when the defencelessness of the figure deterred him. The feeling was a very illogical one. Not because its hands were nailed and helpless, but because they were only made of wood and therefore even more helpless, because the thing, for all its realism, was inanimate and could not in any way hit back, he paused. The unretaliating face of a doll-one of Myrtle’s dolls-which he had pulled to pieces in boyhood had affected him in the same way, and the memory, even now, was tender to the touch.

“What are you waiting for, Mr. Studdock?” said Frost.

Mark was well aware of the rising danger. Obviously, if he disobeyed, his last chance of getting out of Belbury alive might be gone. Even of getting out of this room. The smothering sensation once again attacked him. He was himself, he felt, as helpless as the wooden Christ. As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way-neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days…

“Do you intend to go on with the training or not?” said Frost.

Lewis here is clearly asserting that symbolism is very important; that the reverence or at least respect which can attach to certain objects is an essential aspect of humanity and not an irrational holdover.

Science and Technology.  Lewis signals respect for pure science and its practitioners–the chemist William Hingest (an atheist, by the way) is portrayed as one of the very few to leave Belbury with his honor intact.  Concerning applied science–technology–the novel is quite negative; technology is portrayed as being primarily a vehicle for obtaining power at the expense of others.  Lord Feverstone, the man who recruited Mark into the NICE, explains to him that:

Man has got to take charge of Man.  That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest…You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of…(what is needed are) quite simple and obvious things, at first–sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of unfit races…selective breeding. Then real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense.  A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly; whatever he or his parents try to do about it.

Elsewhere (in his “Reply to Professor Haldane”), Lewis said:

Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’.

In that document, Lewis seems to be saying that the problem is not with technology but with its abuse by power-seekers. But in “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis went further than this and argued explicitly that technology–power over nature–is really and essentially about power over other men:

What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propoganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence… I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be.

Religion. Lewis writes, unsurprisingly, from a Christian perspective–quite subtly at first, and much more explicitly later in the book.  He clearly believes the erosion of Christian belief to be a root cause, likely the root cause, of the kinds of dysfunctions he identifies throughout the book.  On the other hand, he shows a certain respect for the polytheistic religions, which he believes preferable to atheistic or agnostic modernism…as when he says  “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical–merely “Modern”.  And he has Mr Fisher-King, the Director of the St Anne’s anti-Belbury group, say to Jane:

I’m afraid there’s no niche in the world for people that won’t be either Pagan or Christian. 

Lewis is at pains to present Christianity in a way that is not conventionally “churchy”…

The vision of the universe which (Jane) had begun to see in the last few minutes had a curiously stormy quality about it. It was bright, darting, and overpowering…And mxsed with this was the sense that she had been manoeuvered into a false position. It ought to have been she who was saying these things to the Christians. Hers ought to have been the vivid, perilous world brought against their grey formalised one; hers the quick, vital movements and theirs the stained glass attitudes. That was the antithesis she was used to. This time, in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.

Some Concluding Excerpts and Thoughts.  When NICE moves onto the land which it has purchased from Bracton College, people with houses there are evicted summarily, with no access to the courts–“For the moment, we have shut up the house and Cecil has been at Rumbold, the solicitor’s, to see if we can at least have it sealed and left alone until we’ve got our things out of it. Rumbold doesn’t seem to know where he is. He keeps on saying the N.I.C.E. are in a very peculiar position legally.” (emphasis added) NICE has imported thousands of workmen, many of them very bad actors, and there is constant violence against the people of Edgestow

There were increasing complaints of threatening and disorderly behaviour on the part of the N.I.C.E. workmen. But these complaints never appeared in the papers. Those who had actually seen ugly incidents were surprised to read in the Telegraph that the new Institute was settling down very comfortably in Edgestow and the most cordial relations developing between it and the natives. Those who had not seen them but only heard of them, finding nothing in the Telegraph, dismissed the stories as rumours or exaggerations. Those who had seen them  wrote letters to it, but it did not print their letters.

In America today–perhaps in Britain as well–the idea of there being pseudo-governmental institutions which are “in a very peculiar position legally” and cannot effectively be challenged in the courts, and of newspapers which will not print facts inconvenient to those organizations, surely does not seem as outlandish as it once would have.

Earlier in the novel, Miss Hardcastle has explained to Mark how easy it is to manipulate the newspapers and their readership. When Mark objects that this is surely not the case with those papers having educated readers, she responds:

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

Okay, I’ll stop here.  Apologies for the long review, but my objective was both to encourage people to read the book and also to provide for a broader group a fairly comprehensive sketch of the thought-provoking ideas it contains.

Amazon purchase link: That Hideous Strength, Kindle edition

12 thoughts on “Book Review: That Hideous Strength, by C S Lewis”

  1. Thanks, David. There are aspects of Lewis’ *style* in his fiction that I’m not terrribly keen on, but you’ve brought us the meat to chew on, and I for one am grateful.

  2. I reread and reviewed the book after 30 years in 2011.

    And that Miss Hardcastle quote is one of my all-time favorites.

    I find tha many of the objections to this book boil down to “But I wanted a somewhat different book.” That’s not necessarily foolish, because it allows us all to ask “well, what did I want, then?” But is shows how difficult it sometimes is to read a book solely on its own terms.

  3. I read this book as a teenager, and have been amazed and horrified in recent years at Lewis’ prescience.

    All three of the Space Trilogy books are interesting, but this one is downright spooky.

    One thing I hadn’t realized until just today is how early this series was published: before any of the Narnia books, or Mere Christianity, or most of what most people think of when considering Lewis’ published works.

  4. Like many Brits, Lewis was strongly influenced by his time at school, which in his case was far from a positive experience…his observations in this environment clearly contributed to his thoughts on the lust for the Inner Ring.

    In his reply to a critique of THS by Professor Haldane (a Marxist and a scientist), Lewis said:

    “The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is
that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of
the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and
the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most 
members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to
 win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too
 bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in
the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who ne eds to
 care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by 
cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? This
lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons
why I cannot share Professor Haldanes exaltation at the banishment
 of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have
 already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it 
was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If 
Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But
where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his 
place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to
 keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all
 men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in
the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion 
insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the
state of society is such that money is the passport to all these
prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But
when the passport changes, the desires will remain.”

    The above passage, written in 1946, is highly relevant to American politics in 2014.

    (The “sixth of our planet’s surface” from which “Mammon has been cleared off” was, of course. the Soviet Union)

  5. One may also gain much by comparing/contrasting Lewis with the two dystopian novels most high school students are still forced to read: Brave New World, and 1984. Huxley and Orwell both found socialism entrancing. Then they saw where it would go. They became, uh, disenchanted. Their novels declared their evaluation. In one the state controls with carrots (soma, orgy-porgy), in the other with sticks (ever watching police). In each the state’s presented goal is security, welfare, peace.

    Lewis outdid them. Their analysis missed (avoided!) the dimension Lewis found absolutely central: man is a spiritual being. The state thinks of itself as god.

    Significant that Lewis is not presented to those students I mentioned above. Trigger warning, indeed!

  6. Haven’t read it in decades, but I remember liking it so much, I read it twice in the course of a few years. I had read that it was the weakest of the trilogy, yet I enjoyed it better than the other two. As Assistant Village Idiot notes above, the negative reaction to the book may have come from a feeling of wanting a different book.

  7. Meant to mention that the book is part of a trilogy; however, it stands by itself very well, indeed, I haven’t read the other 2 books of the series.

  8. I had read that it was the weakest of the trilogy

    I wonder what misguided individual said that? By far the strongest and most compelling of the three.

  9. It’s the one I re-read the most often of the trilogy. The portrayal of Mark’s desperation to enter the inner ring is compelling. I had a boss who was in many ways very like Withers. There’s a terrific scene in which Mark’s moral sense begins to wake up, and Lewis describes how he suddenly has the approval of his own conscience, which is a heady brew. The manipulation of the press is spot on. The whole story of the N.I.C.E. is as prescient as anything in Orwell, Huxley, or Rand.

    It’s a much more naturalistic novel than other of Lewis’s others, at least at the beginning. The first two volumes of the trilogy were out-and-out fantasy/scifi. This one is set in a milieu that Lewis knew intimately. Maybe scifi enthusiasts want more scifi, and ordinary novel readers don’t like the transformation into supernatural morality tale.

    Lewis’s weakest spot is in taking the P.O.V. of a female character, but even there he doesn’t do so badly, all things considered. Jane may be condescended to a bit more than necessary, but she’s not a stick figure, an accessory, or a reward. That’s one advantage of considering people’s souls as the most important thing about them.

  10. POV of the female character…Lewis didn’t get married until 1956 (this book was published in 1945), OTOH he had a very long-duration relationship with Jane King Moore, mother of his friend Paddy, who was killed in WWI. She was 45 when Lewis was 18, and it has been generally considered that this was a platonic relationship, though some biographers think differently.

    Other than the above, most of his friendships were male, so his experience with women other than at a distance was, at the time he wrote this book, probably pretty limited.

  11. “That’s one advantage of considering people’s souls as the most important thing about them.”

    Truer words were never spoken typed.

    I think my lifelong love for Lewis and his works stems from his uncompromising position — which has become almost dangerously radical in our time — that each and every person is supremely, transcendentally, important as an individual, that this is a natural and inevitable property of humanity.

    That’s why he was so widely popular in his time, and why he is so controversial now.

  12. each and every person is supremely, transcendentally, important as an individual,

    Wonder where he got that?

    Lewis himself talks about his huge debt to George Macdonald… anyone ever read Macdonald’s chapter in Unspoken Sermons on Revelation 2.17 (“a new name”)? Way beyond sublime in presenting the notion that God Cares For Every Individual Person, not just the “mass of humanity”.

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