That Hideous Strength (1946) (hereafter abbreviated to THS) is the third in C. S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" begun with Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943). Unlike the other two books THS does not involve space travel but is set on Earth; moreover the protagonist of the first two books, Dr. Elwin Ransom, is a only a supporting character in THS. The title of the book refers to a couplet from the Dialog of the Scottish Renaissance poet Sir David Lyndsay:

  • The shadow of that hyddeous strength
  • Sax myle and more it is of length.

The couplet, which Lewis quotes in the epigraph of THS, describes the Tower of Babel; the human villains of the novel, like the builders of that tower, attempt to rival the power of God and in the end suffer a like fate.

The Story

The chief characters of THS are a recently married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow of Sociology at Bracton, a small college in the fictitious town of Edgestow; Jane is working up her doctoral thesis at the nearby college of Northumberland. As the story develops Mark Studdock is pulled into the orbit of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, the N.I.C.E., a vast quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation headquartered at Belbury that ostensibly is devoted to scientific research but whose real plans are far more malevolent. Opposing these plans in the town of St. Anne's on the Hill is a small "Company" of men gathered around its enigmatic Director, the last Pendragon of Logres in the line of Uther and Arthur, who is in fact Dr. Elwin Ransom returned from Perelandra; into this Company is drawn Jane Studdock.

The N.I.C.E. seeks to purchase a small parcel of land from Bracton College, called Bradgon Wood, for the stated purpose of constructing their permanent headquarters; in reality the leaders of the N.I.C.E., its Deputy Director John Wither and his colleague Augustus Frost, hope to find in Bradgon Wood the body of the ancient wizard Merlin, who has been in a sort of suspended animation for fifteen centuries. The fallen angels or "dark eldils" behind Wither and Frost hope to recruit Merlin to their side and exploit his powers of sorcery. Ransom and his circle, however, find Merlin first; discovering that he is a Christian man who acknowledges the authority of the Pendragon, Ransom commands Merlin to be the mortal vehicle through which the angels work to destroy the N.I.C.E. Mark escapes the destruction to rejoin Jane in St. Anne's at the end of the novel.

Themes and Motifs

As the reference to Babel in the title suggests, the chief theme of That Hideous Strength is the human attempt to break the bonds of mortality and achieve godhood. The conquest of space that is the focus of Out of the Silent Planet and the background to Perelandra takes second place in THS to the conquest of the natural world and of death. One of the chief scientists of the N.I.C.E., an Italian physiologist named Filostrato, experiments with severed human heads, striving to keep them alive and conscious through mechanical devices; he apparently succeeds with the head of a convicted and guillotined murderer, Francois Alcasan, but in fact Alcasan's head and Filostrato's work are only the tools that the diabolical "dark eldils" use secretly to control the N.I.C.E. Man's obsession with conquering Nature takes other, lesser forms in THS: the "liquidation" of backward social elements, eugenics, the destruction of the natural environment and the establishment of artificial and programmed communities are all part of the Institute's programme.

A second, related motif of THS is the perversion of thought; many of the characters embody or even parody philosophies which Lewis saw in his academic career. Deputy Director Wither of the N.I.C.E. has taken positivism, the belief that the experiences of the senses are the only legitimate basis for human thought, to such an extreme that he has withdrawn completely from the external world: "What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude and vulgar had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself." Augustus Frost has taken materialism, "objectivity" as he calls it, to its extreme and who now regards all human thoughts and emotions--even his own--as "chemical phenomena": "Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products....When you have attained real objectivity you will recognise, not some motives, but all motives as animal, subjective epiphenomena." Filostrato exhibits the most extreme form of disdain for the messiness and inefficiency of organic life and the consequent admiration for the inorganic and the mechanical.

Other motifs common to many of Lewis's writings appear in THS. For example, Mark's pursuing acceptance first into the "Progressive Element" in Bracton College and then into the N.I.C.E. is an instance of his obsession with the "Inner Ring" that Lewis describes in The Weight of Glory, the little group within a larger society, privy to secrets forbidden to those not in the Inner Ring. Mark is also another one of Lewis's childish grownups who, like Susan in The Last Battle, mistakes the vulgar pleasures of adult society--fast cars, hard liquor, coarse smoking-room humour--for maturity. Lewis's incorporation of classical paganism "baptised" in a Christian world, seen for example in Prince Caspian with the appearance of Dionysus, finds beautiful expression in the chapter "Descent of the Gods" in THS where the eldils who inspire Merlin are given their classical names: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.

Character Parallels

THS pits two insular societies against each other, one healthy, one diseased, and Lewis draws clear parallels between the two in the characters that make up each society. Each has a "head" who acts as a channel for supernatural powers: Merlin accepts his role as a vessel for the heavenly powers freely despite his fear, while Alcasan is merely a tool, forced against his will to become the mockery of a living organism through whom the dark eldils control the N.I.C.E. Each society has a Director: the wounded yet vigorous Ransom commands real authority, even over the beasts who inhabit his household at St. Anne's, while Wither of the N.I.C.E. is the shell of a man who keeps beasts caged but who in the end is destroyed by one of them. The parallels extend to even to minor characters. Among Ransom's fellowship at St. Anne's is Dr. Ironwood, whose austere femininity and force of character are parodied in Major "Fairy" Hardcastle, the police chief of the N.I.C.E. and a crude stereotype of the "butch" lesbian. Dr. Frost's pathological "objectivity" finds a more healthful analogue at St. Anne's in the person of Angus MacPhee, a hard-nosed sceptic (possibly modelled after Prof. W. T. Kirkpatrick, one of Lewis's mentors of his youth) and one of Ransom's oldest friends.