|Synopsis||Following his adventures on Mars and Venus, Ransom has returned to Earth to finally challenge the enemy of humanity. With the help of two academics who find themselves uncomfortable with the state of the world, the forces of good in the Solar System begin their plan to save humanity!|
|Publisher||The Bodley Head|
We’ve reached the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy! For this reviewer, this has been the first reading of these three classic books, and the experience has been a revelation! Lewis brings his adoration of the divine and fear of post-modernist corruption to life in a haunting space opera set against the birth and death of entire worlds. With this final chapter, we return to Earth and finally see what the Bent One’s intentions over our species have been from the story’s start.
Spiritual Content: Significant and overt discussion of theology. Christian themes and reflections on the nature of human life.
Violence: No gratuitous violence. However, there are numerous grotesque moments of violent imagery: a living decapitated head, numerous people dying in stampedes and earthquakes, and other moments of death.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: No explicit sexual content depicted. Themes of marriage struggles. The desire for infidelity and love.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Other Negative Themes: Some dark moments involving horror, death, possession, and murder.
Positive Content: Themes of humanity, human nature, corruption, and salvation.
It’s taken me a while to get to the third book in The Space Trilogy, and anyone familiar with it would probably tell you why. That Hideous Strength is widely regarded as the black sheep of Lewis’s trilogy. It’s the most tangential, awkward, and least tonally consistent of the three novels. As such, I was not eager to jump into it and instead focused on other books for the past five months.
I finally took the leap these last two weeks. Much to my surprise, I was more than satisfied with the final product! The story was hardly a tedious slog; it is a very weird book that’s rooted in a brave desire to be weird. The book is about normal humans who suddenly find themselves in a world of Arthurian folklore, manifestations of Roman gods, sentient bears, overt references to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and massive Satanic conspiracies.
The ideas explored in the book are ones previously seeded throughout the first two novels. Out of the Silent Planet established the notion of Earth’s uniquely fallen state and that the rest of the populated universe is living in peace with a race of angelic beings, serving what is implicitly the Christian God. Perelandra moved the story to Venus and retold the Genesis creation myth with the caveat that the good guys won and began the slow process of building a new paradise in the image of God and unspoiled Man.
That Hideous Strength brings the story fully back to Earth to finally explore the depths of Earth’s corruption. Instead of focusing on the previous protagonist Ransom, we’re introduced to Mark and Jane Studdock. These two are a pair of progressive English academics going about their lives when a mysterious corporation called N.I.C.E. begins interfering with their lives. NICE is a progressive science company with ambitious goals that wants to hire Mark for unknown reasons. Just as Mark leaves town to start working for this company, Jane is beset by nightly visions that prompt her to see a therapist. As becomes clear, these visions show a dangerous threat that may yet consume the Earth and destroy humanity.
There is a lot going on thematically in That Hideous Strength, and at times it can feel a bit like a hodgepodge of misaligned and eccentric ideas. At times, supernatural elements and mythical characters jump into the story for seemingly no reason but quickly become important to the narrative. At times, though, it feels intrusive. In some ways, I suspect this is the point. The “Silent Planet” of Earth used to be a paradise, but it is now completely enraptured by the strength of the dark Eleldil. His aims seem to be to bleed Earth dry and eviscerate anything beautiful or human until he’s left only humanity’s worst impulses – egotism and pride.
Tonally, the elements work as a kind of mirror version of the previous novels. The book starts about as mundanely as humanly possible. A group of academics is arguing at an annual college budget meeting about whether to sell off a local forest on the college’s property to raise money. Quickly, though, these mundane events begin to unfurl and reveal the greater depths and impulses behind them.
If Perelandra was the story of what man could’ve been were it not for the fall, That Hideous Strength is about the full depth of man’s corruption and what it will take to overcome the fallen nature of man. They’re both fairy tales but told in light of the banality of life on Earth in comparison to the grand beauty of Deep Heaven. Earth, in this vision, is still littered with supernatural elements but they are fewer and farther between, thus they feel more intrusive when they appear.
But what of the Silent Planet? How does the Dark Eledil leave his mark on humanity?
Much of this arises in Lewis’ social critique of modernism, progressive scientism, and “strong man” ideologies of the early 20th century. The symbol of the book is literally a depiction of a powerful man wielding a lightning bolt, the power of Zeus. The story draws connections to the Christian story of the Tower of Babel and explores the multifarious ways in which humanity’s desire to be like a god brings about our undoing and brings power to the dark forces at work in this world.
In modern parlance, we have a number of words to describe these phenomena: Post-Modernism, Transcendentalism, Marxism, Scientism, etc. All of these concepts exist to convey the idea that objective morality is dead, God is dead, and the only thing worth pursuing is the improvement of man’s station in life through the sciences. While it’s clear Lewis was pro-science and pro-intellectualism, he clearly feared the ideologies of the 20th century that were eroding man’s sense of morality and meaning in the name of “progress.” He says as much in the prologue: “This is a tall story about Devilry, though it has behind it a serious point which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”
Fans of Lewis will remember that in that particular track is his polemic on the nature of objective value and proper education, he similarly rails against scientists and “men without chests” who seek knowledge without wisdom and subsequently train the young in their ideas. He fears the power a small group of scientists or “conditioners,” with a perfect understanding of nature and psychology, could have and how little their own understanding of their fallen natures could influence the whole of mankind.
In The Screwtape Letters, he similarly refers to this class of people as “secular magicians” who conjure up immense works of magic without believing in the supernatural, thus unintentionally fostering the works of the devil who works through these men. He writes, “Man’s conquest of nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. The final stage [in the conquest] is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditional and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. The battle will then be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?” (Abolition of Man, Page 58)
These themes were alluded to briefly in Perelandra with the character of Weston and his attempted infiltration/colonization of the virgin planet. Weston’s belief was that man’s destiny was to spread itself across the entire universe to ensure its own survival at any cost and at the cost of any species that stood in his way. His efforts would have caused the Fall of Perelandra if Ransom hadn’t stopped him.
Ransom does eventually rejoin the story in Chapter 7 and stays with the plot until the end of the story, but he’s portrayed as a very different character here than in the previous two novels. His journeys to Mars and Venus have changed his entire spirituality and body to the point where he no longer ages and even has the ability to commune with God and the Angels at will.
The book even goes as far as to compare him to the Fisher King from the legendary quest for the Holy Grail. In legend, the Fisher King was a mortally wounded man and a keeper of the Holy Grail who could only be healed by the true Grail Knight (usually Percival or Galahad). That Hideous Strength recasts the role to emphasize his otherworldliness. He’s mentioned several times to be suffering intense pain due to a heel injury he sustained in battle with a possessed Weston, and can only relieve the pain should the story’s quest be resolved wherein he can return to Deep Heaven to live with other similarly eternal beings like Enoch and King Arthur.
While he’s on Earth, though, he’s become something of a surrogate spiritual leader and a king to his people. He hangs out with a surrogate family of weirdos and a semi-sentient bear (mind you harmless to humans) and stands as the only line of defense the world has against the rapidly encroaching conspiracies of the enemy that are finally coming to their fruition. The group lives together in a manor known as St. Anne’s and eagerly awaits word from Deep Heaven as to when and how they’re supposed to make their move against NICE, but find themselves persistently waiting with no clear answer.
It isn’t until Jane and Mark enter the narrative that the story starts to churn in the background. They’re important for a very simple reason within the narrative: That Hideous Strength is a conversion story.
The novel is about how these two pedestrian academics break through the dystopian will of the “Hideous Strength” and eventually contribute to the destruction of the Dark Eledil’s momentary control over the Earth. As we find out, Jane and Mark are two very different people living in a mostly loveless marriage and their roads to faith are very different.
Jane is a fiercely independent egalitarian woman and Mark is an admirer of power and prestige. Both are blinded by their willpower and pride to the signs around them that the world is going to heck in a handbasket and only start to consider a late conversion as the story ramps up and their worldviews are challenged.
Gavin Ortlund at Themelios summarizes the duality of their conversions beautifully: “Both become swept up in a supernatural community (one angelic, one demonic). Both meet the respective “Head” of their order, and the meeting produces a profound result (joy for Jane, horror and revulsion for Mark). Both face the prospect of death, and have a resulting religious and existential crisis (openness to the excitement of life for Jane, awareness of the boredom and insipidity of his life for Mark). Both have climactic experiences that produce multiple selves, all squabbling with each other. Seen in this light, the book’s contrapuntal oscillation between its two narratives, those of Jane and Mark, is simply one piece of a larger dialectic running throughout the book serving to contrast good vs. evil, Belbury vs. St. Anne’s, beauty vs. utility, Britain vs. Logres, and above all, a medieval vs. a modern view of the universe and our place within it.”
Readers may notice how deeply smitten I am with That Hideous Strength in comparison with the previous two novels.
Those books carried with them an element of adoration. They’re complete novels, but the challenges that face their main character aren’t as comprehensive and challenging. That Hideous Strength, beginning to end, is about the total reconstruction of a person’s understanding of the world. It charts its two characters in light of the events of the first novel and finally delivers upon the momentary salvation of the human race. While it’s clear the Dark Eledil still retains his power by the end of the story, the Earth is momentarily closer to the divine just as its two lead characters are.
While I can’t call it the best of the three novels, I can’t help but find it to be the most relatable and human novel of the three, as it doesn’t feel as alien and incomprehensible. Thus is the nature of the divine, though. To be fallen is to be corrupted, and to relate to corruption more than perfection.
+ Complex Themes About Modernity and the Sciences
+ Beautiful Conversion Story
+ Great Resolution for Ransom's Character Arc
- Awkward Structure and Execution
- Weird Tonal Shifts Between Dystopianism and Magical Elements
The Bottom Line
That Hideous Strength finishes off Lewis's Space Trilogy on a weird but deeply humanistic and Christian final note. While its' strange, it feels every bit as contemporary now as in 1945.