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 as such - 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, we are not privy to what this emptiness originally 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.
Darth Vader, as we later discover, was once Anakin Skywalker. His trauma included the loss of his mother, leaving a gaping void in his life. The choice he makes to serve the Sith is based on the extreme pressure arising from that void as well as his own impulsive nature. Heathcliff’s passion for Cathy and the apparently intransigent class differences which stand between him and ever having her in Wuthering Heights lead him to a course of anti-social behaviour which he then carries on giving life to even when Cathy has gone beyond his reach. Miss Havisham, abandoned at the altar as a bride, is an even clearer example of an antagonist who ‘freezes’ at that exact moment of emptiness and despair and then modifies their behaviour to make that moment live forever.
Their choices were of some use to them at that past moment: somehow, they asserted a decision and it apparently got them through their inner void. The decision was wrong, and on some level they all know it was wrong -but instead of confronting that and going back and reliving that extreme situation -and so becoming, in effect, protagonists- antagonists hold on to their choice and give it force and power, growing into monsters in the process.
This gets to the point where they create machines, weapons, entire lifestyles or realms, to justify their own mis-choice. The antagonists whose inner choices we don’t glimpse, as well as the ones whose choices we do, all do this: Sauron devises his Ring, Palpatine manufactures not one but two Death Stars, Narnia’s White Witch freezes the land into a Hundred Year Winter, Smaug gathers and broods upon his treasure, Miss Havisham cultivates hatred in Estella’s heart, turning her into a living weapon. The antagonist can’t bear something, and so he or she retreats into a frozen world which they must grip harder and harder to keep it real, contriving larger and more potent weapons to prevent things from changing. They must; they feel they have no option. Not to conquer the world and hold it still is to admit that they were wrong in the first place and have their whole universe collapse about them.
The antagonist is trapped in the middle of the web that they have spun. The machine or empire that they create to handle the world for them is the thing which hampers their ability to handle the world. It becomes, in fact, their primary weakness. N.I.C.E. is just such a construction: a rambling edifice of darkness, powered by the invisible 'Macrobes' - Lewis's ingenious term for what used to be called demons- but spreading out like a cancer, held together by fear and confusion, as Mark gradually finds out.
Sauron is brought down through his Ring; the Death Stars are destroyed and Palpatine with them. Antagonists can’t see beyond the thing in which they put the most faith -thus the White Witch can’t envision anything outside her Deep Magic, and Lady Catherine du Bergh can’t imagine anything existing outside her rigid conception of society. Within N.I.C.E., it is inconceivable that Merlin, the purveyor of an ancient and outwardly dark or wild magic, could align himself with the forces of Good. This fundamental ignorance is the organisation's undoing.
This ignorance was the antagonist's perfect solution at the time, but once the protagonist arrives, with his or her refusal to accept that solution, the antagonist's ultimate flaw becomes devastatingly apparent.
The protagonist, you might say, is a failed antagonist. Instead of adopting a fixed solution to his or her innermost void, heroes and heroines of Epics see things through, embracing their own inner voids and saving their worlds from the monsters in the process. In doing so they of course captivate us - just as the antagonist's unwillingness to do so fascinates us in a different way.
For much more about fiction, see my book How Stories Really Work.