To write a blog-sized account of this story would never do it justice. Suffice it say that I consider That Hideous Strength one of the best novels I have ever read.
I sat down to read the third installment of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, expecting to enjoy an afternoon of relaxation, but I discovered something altogether else. While the first couple of chapters felt painstakingly slow, with copious descriptors, the plot picks up around the third chapter and takes the reader on something akin to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (for all you Disneyland fans.)
The first two books in this series, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, take place on other planets, namely Mars and Venus. However, That Hideous Strength is set in pastoral England amid the collegiate landscape of a fictional town called Edgestow.
The protagonist Mark Studdock teaches under a new fellowship at a small university. His deep-seated ambition for success and his overriding need for acceptance from superiors plummets Mark to desperation. He finds himself ensnared in a conspiracy with no possible way out. If he leaves the organization, ironically called N.I.C.E., they will kill him.
Mark remains so entangled with his new associates that he neglects his wife, Jane, who takes it upon herself to seek friendship elsewhere. She finds acceptance amongst a small group of believers. This group is led by none other than Dr. Ransom from the first two novels.
On the most basic level, this is a book about good versus evil. But it is so much more than that. Two predominate themes resonate throughout its pages. First, the crux of truth, real and absolute, is at stake. Second, the human motivation of acceptance is explored with deafening reality.
Mark’s crooked colleagues demand that he write a series of newspaper articles which put a positive spin on their actions within the community. Mark complies with their wishes, under threat of death, but he battles within himself. On the one hand, Mark knows that his articles twist the facts into falsely perceived notions. And he resents the fear tactics that the inner ring of cohorts uses on him. But on the other hand, he takes pride in the efficacy of his written work, and he derives a certain satisfaction from his admittance into this tightly knit circle of leaders.
Notably, Mark is the last man to speak with Professor Hingest who refuses to participate in the illegal affairs of this organization.
“Take my advice, Studdock,” he said . . . “You’ll do yourself no good by getting mixed up with the N.I.C.E. – and, by God, you’ll do nobody else any good either.”
“I suppose there are two views about everything,” said Mark.
“Eh? Two views? There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there’s never more than one. But it’s no affair of mine. Good night.” (70)
Hingest leaves the manor but never makes it home. The murder of Hingest haunts Mark as he becomes ever more entrenched by the crimes he commits. He wants out, but he doesn’t know how. Mark is at war within himself while his new “friends” declare a type of war on the local community.
Of course, the good side wins. But not without losses. In the end, Mark must confront the ugly truth.
“For he now thought that with all his life-long eagerness to reach an inner circle he had chosen the wrong circle.” (358)
I rarely read a book twice – only because there are so many great books I have yet to read. (The Bible being an obvious exception.) But I would read That Hideous Strength again because of the penultimate truths it exposes within the human heart and within the world we live in. There are forces of darkness that prey upon our goodwill. And as Lewis so aptly depicts in his book, many of the people on the “bad side,” were once good, or at least wanted to be.
We have a choice. And it’s a matter of life and eternal life that we make the right one. I will close with the words of Joshua when he spoke to the nation Israel: