When I first read That Hideous Strength I was bored by its slow and uneventful pace: it lacks the brevity of Out of the Silent Planet and poetic depth of Perelandra. Or so I thought. This second reading brought out so much more. Though I would still rank it third out of the trilogy, it neverthless ranks higher than other works in general. This is why rereading is so important: it’s not just finishing a book; it’s being immersed in a new world.
A disagreeable couple, Mark and Jane stand as dubious protagonists of That Hideous Strength. Mark in particular is pathetic: wanting to be part of some inner circle since age ten. His unmet insecurity leads him to mingle with some dangerous people at the ironically named NICE (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments), or an elusive organization with national-level, bloated funding. Jane is, however, particular in a different sense: she is a seer, or someone who receives visions of current or near-future events. This supernatural gift-curse makes her an invaluable asset to either the good or the evil side. And poor Mark is lured by NICE, thinking that his academic accomplishments got him a foot in the door to be part of an exclusive inner circle when in reality they just want him for his seer wife.
Not much is known about NICE except their ridiculous funding and outlandish promises of fixing corrupt humanity. The government sanctioned NICE to test correctional experiments on criminals as part of restoring them to society. While this already sounds horrible, that’s only PR stuff. Their true goal is simpler and more devious: the full exploitation and eradication of matter. It is post-industrial revolution gnosticism. They want to terraform nature into a concrete jungle, abandon decaying bodies to put heads in vats, and desensitize emotions so that pure reason can reign. This, they believe, is the necessary step to humanity’s evolution and eternal success.
Unlike the prior two in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength is more “earthy” in the literal sense: none of the events happen outside the third rock from the sun. The mood is also more ominous. A dystopian fog clouds the story. It warns of exploiting nature and humanity’s destructive obsession with progress. While most real-life discussions about human progress dance around the topic of exploiting mother earth, Lewis jumps to the heart of the matter: all matter must be totally exploited. Perhaps, at the time, Lewis took an extreme position for shock effect, but 60 years later the extreme seems uncomfortably close to reality. What is the cost of such human progress? What are the gains? Who or what can stop such destruction in the name of progress?
In That Hideous Strength a ragtag group of two elderly couples, a wife with an imprisoned husband, a skeptic, a therapist, Jane, and the man who claims to have traversed the Deep Heavens—Ransom—dare to take a stance against NICE. What can they do against a secretive organization with bloated funding? By themselves, really not much, and Ransom knows it. But with Deep Heavens on their side, things are not so settled and the future still unsure. In the meantime, until divine aid comes, they eagerly wait and do the small tasks they are told. When Deep Heavens descend—or more accurately when planetary masters (Oyarsas) run with earth’s orbit, for these spirits do not occupy space like bodies do—then they’ll take action.
The gods’ descent is probably my favorite part in the book: the way Lewis paints this scene is vivid and sensuous. Words fail when Viritrilbia the spirit who rules Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, and is head messenger heralds down; charity and love burn like fire when Perelandra the spirit who rules Venus graces the room; valor courses through when Malacandra who rules Mars storms down; solemnity falls heavy when Lurga who rules Saturn with deep wisdom alights; finally, power and laughter both weightier and lighter than all previous planets combined fill bodies when Glund who reigns Jupiter strides in. But do not be fooled: none of these, not even Glund, match their matchless Maker: Maleldil. “So little did [men of old] dream by how many degrees the stair even of created being rises above [Glund].” While the gap between, say, Viritrilbia and Glund is immense, it pales in comparison unto insignificance between Glund and Maleldil—there are an infinite degree of stairs. Lewis’s imaginative scope of the hosts of heaven or counsel of angels figured here as planetary spirits or eldila is captivating.
Finishing That Hideous Strength takes more effort than the previous two combined, in my opinion. It’s certainly different. But any Lewis fan should read for themselves this dystopian novel that even George Orwell thought exceptionally perceptive at the time.