Merlin versus the vivisectionists, in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Th copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.
The cover of the copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts recap is L, and I’ve gone straight to Clive Staples Lewis. Along with much of the western world, as a child I was deeply into his Narnia stories. As I got older I found them less satisfying, because too many questions kept being thrown at me by the plots, the characters, and transparency of Lewis’s intentions. I don’t like being preached at, and his preachings were rather obvious. Then I found that he’d also written three science fiction novels, so I was straight into them. The first in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, is very H G Wells, but that was fine, I liked it. The second one, Perelandra, was much more mystical, philosophical, with less action, and an awful lot of talking: I didn’t like that so much. The third one, That Hideous Strength, was totally unlike the others, and strangely like a grown-up and far more complex version of the best of the Narnia books. And I loved it, and still do.

A fine early cover
A fine early cover

Decades later, I can now see that That Hideous Strength has quite a lot that I might not like. It is grossly patriarchal, very Christian, and uses a homosexual character in an annoyingly stereotyped way. On the plus side, it is very very angry about wanton vivisection. It mixes its literary influences shamelessly. It is also a terrific ‘university’ novel, an accurate portrait of academic obfuscation and petty interdepartmental plotting. Lewis worked in university departments all his life, and we can tell that he doesn’t like moral cowardice, intellectual dishonesty or unthinking modernisation for the sake of change. In That Hideous Strength he equates the advanced sociology of the NICE (more on that in a moment) with Nazi eugenics, which seems a bit steep until we remember that this novel was published in 1945, and that the existence of the extermination camps were first revealed to the world from 1944.

A rather less fine cover: good art, bonkers captions
A rather less fine cover: good art, annoying captions

There is a lot of anger in this book, aimed mainly at those who deny their true selves, and who act selfishly. The plot begins with scenes in the house of a young married couple, Jane and Mark Studdock. He is a lecturer in sociology at Bracton College (not a real place), and wants to get on. He is ingratiating, only too keen to be taken up by the ‘right’ people. He begins to be drawn into the progressive movement called NICE which will ultimately destroy the college for its own ends. Jane, who would prefer to be a college lecturer as well, is stuck at home playing housewife and trying to work on her PhD thesis. She has begun to have disturbing dreams, where she is effectively seeing the future, or the present, while she sleeps, and she goes for help to a doctor she’s been recommended to visit, near Bracton. There she meets Ransom, the man who, in the earlier novels of the trilogy, has travelled to Mars and Venus and has met the guardian spirits of the planets, and who is effectively God’s emissary for earth.

The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.
The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.

The religious element in That Hideous Strength is hard for non-believers to accept, because it requires an appreciation of a voluntary or involuntary religious surrender of will to a higher power. If you’ve experienced this, you probably have a better insight as to how Lewis handles this aspect of the novel. The rest of us can just accept it as part of the story. A further, Gothic or medievalised element in this novel is that, because of her dreams, Jane is now able to find out where Merlin (yes, that Merlin), has been sleeping all these centuries. She must lead her new friends to him before the NICE reach him first. Lewis writes a particularly good imagining of what such a man of magic and power from the Dark Ages might be like if he awoke in our effete and mechanised times: he is mistaken for a tramp, but he behaves like a warlord and a savage.

Mark, meanwhile, is frustrated and miserable by not having anything meaningful to do. He finds that a friend has been murdered after trying to leave the NICE, and by this terrifying threat he is persuaded, rather too easily, to write dishonest newspaper articles about a riot in the town that has yet to happen. He is blackmailed into staying at the NICE headquarters, where his bills are increasing weekly. In effect, he is a prisoner in an enchanted castle, while Jane is out leading a heroic quest. Mark is surrounded by very peculiar members of the NICE who all seem to be obsessed with a head. This is some kind of symbol, until he sees the head, which is indeed a human head, of an executed murderer, now reanimated and speaking, and giving orders.

Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?
Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?

At this point in the novel I am always reminded of the Lindsay Anderson film from the 1960s, O Lucky Man, which starred Malcolm MacDowall, because it too featured a horrible prison-house that practiced vivisection on animated heads, and had a similarly druggy, dream-like atmosphere. But Lewis’s novel is seriously Christian: Mark is only able to release himself from the spell of academic intimidation and fear because he refuses to stamp on a crucifix. He may be a sociologist with no proper education (Lewis clearly did not think sociology was a proper subject), but he has respect for a religious symbol of suffering. And so he escapes, trying to find his way to Jane. She is safe in Ransom’s house, being visited by planetary influences.

Cover art chosen by someone who hasn't read the book. Craters?
Cover art chosen by someone who hasn’t read the book.

This is the part of the novel I always liked best, where Lewis draws on his training as a medieval scholar, and uses the poetry of Spenser to evoke fantastical mystical happenings. When the spirit of Mercury descends upon earth, the magic of tongues and wit comes with it, and the people in the house find themselves indulging gloriously in eloquence and sparkling wordplay. When Venus approaches, the married couples are whispering together, the women waiting for their husbands are thinking fond thoughts, and even the animals are pairing off and going out into the garden. When Mars arrives, the kitchen is filled with bravery and courage, and the people are resolute in their commitment to the cause. And so it goes on. Merlin receives his orders from God, via the planetary spirits (this really is a confusion of spirituality), and the NICE are about to receive their doom, in a particularly bloody and violent way.

Fab 1950s cover.
Fab 1950s cover.

In between these episodes at the NICE and in Ransom’s manor, which are respectively the locations of evil and good, the town of Bracton is being infiltrated by thugs. There is an outbreak of petty crime, inexplicable fights in the streets, windows are broken, a woman is screaming, and before the town knows it a riot has broken out, being fought by people they don’t recognise. Jane is caught up in this and is taken prisoner by the NICE chief of police, a masculine woman called Fairy Hardcastle, who is a crude portrait of sadistic lesbianism. She tortures Jane for information about the manor, and Jane only escapes because the riot gets out of hand. This episode, and Fairy Hardcastle’s later anticipation of an evening’s entertainment in the cells with a new and fluffy female recruit to her forces, is chilling in its automatic assumption that ‘unnatural’ women are automatically bad.

Intrusive lettering, good background
Intrusive lettering, good background

All the women in this novel are to marry and breed, and their rightful place is with their husband. This part of the story has always been the hardest for me to understand, because I am a child of the sixties and was a feminist from my teenage years. I simply cannot comprehend how Lewis could assign authority and intellectual activity to one sex and child-rearing domesticity to another. I just have to assume that, since he attended an all-boys’ school, and lived in all-male colleges for all his adult years, even if he had an alleged long-term affair with the mother of a friend, Lewis knew nothing about women when he wrote this novel. He writes some female characters with respect, but always with the assumption of male authority over women as a God-given norm. Fairy Hardcastle is part of this belief, and it dates the novel badly.

However, despite that, That Hideous Strength is still a great novel. It is written with imagination and wit, with impressive scholarship worn lightly, and in the voice of an Oxford don who can talk to anyone at their own level.  Lewis’s anger at the wrong things in life is a challenge as well as endearing. He feels passionately about so many things in this novel. Reading the story is as invigorating as being in a gust of wind, even if we don’t agree with everything he says.




One thought on “Merlin versus the vivisectionists, in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

  1. The incomprehensible cover refers to a short passage when Ransom first meets Merlin. It’s the Moon; read Ransom’s answer to Merlin’s first question.


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