Antagonists in 'That Hideous Strength'


In That Hideous Strength, Lewis, apart from using the psychological thriller as a basis for moving the reader over into the Epic world as we have seen in earlier articles, is also using many of the template features of a successful novel, including what an antagonist is and how he or she meets his or her downfall.

We can perhaps see this more clearly if we take a quick look at antagonists in other famous stories. In Star Wars, for example, the Emperor steals a galaxy from everyone else and develops a super-weapon to control it; in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine du Bergh threatens Elizabeth Bennett with ruin, believing that her nephew Darcy will spurn her; in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, the heartless Potter tries to crush George Bailey out of existence using the power of the whole town of Bedford Falls. We are so used to the actions and behaviour of antagonists that we pay little attention to them - they serve an almost coded purpose for us in stories. They highlight the plight of the protagonist. And by highlighting that plight, by being the construct who places the most pressure on the hero, they make the hero’s losses or risks greater and thus attract more reader attention to that central focus that we call the ‘protagonist’.

They not only provide contrast, they actively promote contrast. To be an effective antagonist, that character has to be directly connected in some way to the protagonist’s innermost needs, just as Sauron is linked to Frodo through the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, or Voldemort to Harry through his scar, or Vader is to Luke through fatherhood, or Morgana Le Fay is to Arthur through her sibling connection. Antagonists who don’t have a route straight into the heart of the hero are weaker, less interesting, less memorable.

In the case of That Hideous Strength, the N.I.C.E. have direct access to Jane’s mind - though we don’t really understand that until about halfway through the novel. And we witness how they seduce Mark into almost becoming one of them throughout the story.

Like any successful protagonist, an antagonist begins with an emptiness which craves to be filled. As readers are not privy to what this emptiness was for such constructs as Sauron, Morgoth, Palpatine, Baron Harkonnen, Lady Catherine du Bergh, Potter, or Smaug: these characters we have to accept are natively nasty. But in the case of Saruman, we can perhaps see that he has been confronted by the Dark Lord and has decided that the only solution is to become powerful himself -which also serves his hidden jealousies, flaws in his nature that go right back to his origins in Valinor.