top of page

The Turning Point in 'That Hideous Strength'

There is a point up to which C.S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength has been more or less a modern political thriller. But we eventually get to a part of the story which transforms everything: this moment not only alters the direction of motion in the plot but changes the genre of the novel. It is what happens, explicitly, when Jane enters the room where she is to meet Mr. Fisher-King, whom the readers already know is Ransom, the hero of the previous two novels in the series:

Jane looked; and instantly her world was unmade.

On a sofa before her, with one foot bandaged as if he had a wound, lay what appeared to be a boy, twenty years old.

On one of the long window-sills a tame jackdaw was walking up and down. The light of the fire with its weak reflection, and the light of the sun with its stronger reflection, contended on the ceiling. But all the light in the room seemed to run towards the gold hair and the gold beard of the wounded man.

At this fulcrum point in the story, Lewis separates out the strands of two worlds. The first is the ordinary, recognisable world which a contemporary reader readily recognises; the second is the glorious, hierarchical universe of the Epic.

The conversation between Jane and the Director touches on many things, for example, including the nature of marriage: Jane asserts that she doesn’t look upon marriage in the same way as Ransom, but his reply indicates that the modern, Ironic view of marriage as a contractual arrangement between partners isn’t what is important:

"Child," said the Director, "it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it."

"Someone said they were very old fashioned. But----"

"That was a joke. They are not old fashioned: but they are very, very old."

"They would never think of finding out first whether Mark and I believed in their ideas of marriage?"

"Well--no," said the Director with a curious smile. "No. Quite definitely they wouldn't think of doing that."

We are leaving the Ironic political thriller world with its complex intrigues and its modern focus on the psychological and the self, and entering the Epic world of real, tangible, external realities, the ‘Dantean’ universe. In this transcendent world, there are such beings as extra-planetary angels - Jane’s conversation with Ransom is brought to a close as one descends into the room to speak with him, though this doesn't become clear until later. Here also there is a kinship with animals like that in fairy tales: Ransom summons mice to clean up crumbs from his carpet, and has a ‘tame’ jackdaw. Later we meet Mr. Bultitude the bear. It is as though Lewis's later created world of Narnia is intruding into the novel.

Lewis, who has so far led us along through the viewpoints of his two protagonists, Mark and Jane Studdock, carefully examining the world from their perspectives, now sets about fracturing that perspective, for Jane at least. As she leaves St. Anne’s on the train, her normally introverted and self-conscious ‘inner world’ is split into four battling parts, the first three squabbling with each other in a way entirely new to her. But the fourth part is that part of Jane which has made the transcendence Lewis hopes to achieve in his readers. Note how in the following paragraph, Jane's attention starts off on the outer, objective world which has gained new significance:

Whatever she tried to think of led back to the Director himself and, in him, to joy. She saw from the windows of the train the outlined beams of sunlight pouring over stubble or burnished woods and felt that they were like the notes of a trumpet. Her eyes rested on the rabbits and cows as they flitted by and she embraced them in heart with merry, holiday love. She delighted in the occasional speech of the one wizened old man who shared her compartment and saw, as never before, the beauty of his shrewd and sunny old mind, sweet as a nut and English as a chalk down.

Then the subjective world, as represented by music, breaks down in the face of this beauty:

She reflected with surprise how long it was since music had played any part in her life, and resolved to listen to many chorales by Bach on the gramophone that evening. Or else--perhaps--she would read a great many Shakespeare sonnets. She rejoiced also in her hunger and thirst and decided that she would make herself buttered toast for tea--a great deal of buttered toast. And she rejoiced also in the consciousness of her own beauty; for she had the sensation-- it may have been false in fact, but it had nothing to do with vanity - that it was growing and expanding like a magic flower with every minute that passed.

The fact that, on leaving the train, she is caught up in riots and ends up in the hands of the N.I.C.E. police who torture her is pure craftsmanship on Lewis’s part: not only is the contrast eminently dramatic, it is necessary mechanically - having produced transcendence in one character, or one aspect of one character, he must now abruptly remove it, making its loss keenly felt by readers, and compelling them to reach for it through the remainder of the plot.

Now that the wise old man archetype has appeared in the form of Ransom and laid the groundwork of the author’s theme, producing in one of the protagonists a transcendence, the nature and pace of the plot alters. Jane’s meeting with Ransom is our own first meeting with him in this novel and marks, as we have seen, the turning point between the psychological, Ironic, ‘modern’ thriller and the external, Epic and Dantean world to which Lewis strives to introduce us.

Lewis can now safely expose us to the 'core vacuum' of the novel, the life-or-death, make-break crisis or conflict which is what the story ir all about. It is now made explicitly apparent that the enemy - as the N.I.C.E. is now shown to be - have been able to probe Jane’s mind in a quite ‘un-Ironic’ way - in other words, using supernatural means, not belonging in a typical Ironic thriller. Jane’s psychic ability is no longer subject to doubts, but is a clear and real power; and it becomes apparent that Mark, far from being a valuable player in the N.I.C.E.’s strategy as we have been led to believe up to this point, has been acquired by the enemy only so that Jane herself, with her supernatural visions, might be brought over to their side. This is a complete ‘flip’ of viewpoints: we had been intently following Mark as our chief protagonist, but now find that the interest should have been with Jane all along.

Compared with Jane's encounter with the Director of the Company at St. Anne’s, in the enemy camp Miss Hardcastle’s approach to the Head of the N.I.C.E. (whom we have not yet seen) is outlined in opposite terms:

"You are to go in at once," said Filostrato, "as soon as you have made yourselves ready."

"Stop! Half a moment," said Miss Hardcastle suddenly.

"What is it? Be quick, please," said Filostrato.

"I'm going to be sick."

"You cannot be sick here. Go back. I will give you some X54 at once."

"It's all right now," said Miss Hardcastle. "It was only momentary. It'd take more than this to upset me."

"Silence, please," said the Italian. "Do not attempt to open the second door until my assistant has shut the first one behind you. Do not speak more than you can help. Do not even say yes when you are given an order. The Head will assume your obedience. Do not make sudden movements, do not get too close, do not shout, and, above all, do not argue. Now!"

Even here, we are not given a glimpse of the horror that even Hardcastle feared. With deft craftsmanship, Lewis shows us Jane, safely rescued and ensconced at St. Anne’s, getting to know the company there, even while Mark, oblivious of the real nature of what is happening, feels that he is becoming part of the ‘Inner Ring’ at Belbury. The switching between viewpoints and the change of genre signified by the meeting with Ransom means that we as readers are now explicitly privy to more than Mark is as a character and can see his actions and conversations in the light of dramatic irony:

Wither had thawed in a most encouraging manner. At the end of the conversation he had taken Mark aside, spoken vaguely but paternally of the great work he was doing, and finally asked after his wife. The D.D. hoped there was no truth in the rumour which had reached him that she was suffering from--er--some nervous disorder. "Who the devil has been telling him that?" thought Mark. "Because," said Wither, "it had occurred to me, in view of the great pressure of work which rests on you at present and the difficulty, therefore, of your being at home as much as we should all (for your sake) wish, that in your case the Institute might be induced . . . I am speaking in a quite informal way . . . that we should all be delighted to welcome Mrs. Studdock here."

Mark’s eventual meeting with the Head of the N.I.C.E. could not be more different from Jane’s talk with the Director at St. Anne’s. As pointed out, we never quite got into the room when Miss Harcastle was admitted; even now, the event is so horrific that it can only be reported at second-hand through a dream-vision that Jane has of it - she has seen that what the N.I.C.E. call a ‘Head’ is in fact the disembodied head of the executed criminal Alcasan:

“Well, quite suddenly, like when an engine is started, there came a puff of air out of its mouth, with a hard dry rasping sound. And then there came another, and it settled down into a sort of rhythm--huff, huff, huff--like an imitation of breathing. Then came a most horrible thing: the mouth began to dribble. I know it sounds silly but in a way I felt sorry for it, because it had no hands and couldn't wipe its mouth. It seems a small thing compared with all the rest but that is how I felt. Then it began working its mouth about and even licking its lips. It was like someone getting a machine into working order. To see it doing that just as if it was alive, and at the same time dribbling over the beard which was all stiff and dead looking. . . . Then three people came into the room, all dressed up in white, with masks on, walking as carefully as cats on the top of a wall. One was a great fat man, and another was lanky and boney. The third . . ." here Jane paused involuntarily. "The third . . . I think it was Mark . . . I mean my husband.”

While crafting the novel with these contrasts, Lewis is careful use language skilfully too: in the aftermath of Mark’s visit to Alcasan’s ‘Head’, words are used to create in us a sense of disorientation and peril as seen here (italics mine):

Mark woke next morning to the consciousness that his head ached all over, but specially at the back. He remembered that he had fallen--that was how he had hurt his head--fallen in that other room, with Filostrato and Straik . . . and then, as one of the poets says, he "discovered in his mind an inflammation swollen and deformed, his memory." Oh, but impossible, not to be accepted for a moment: it had been a nightmare, it must be shoved away, it would vanish away now that he was fully awake. It was an absurdity. Once in delirium he had seen the front part of a horse, by itself, with no body or hind legs, running across a lawn, had felt it ridiculous at the very moment of seeing it, but not the less horrible for that. This was an absurdity of the same sort.

For Mark too, though, the subtleties of an Ironic life full of intellectual and political niceties have evaporated. He now realises that he must get Jane to Belbury to save his own life.

All his anxieties about being in the inner ring or getting a job had shrunk into insignificance. It was a question of life or death. They would kill him if he annoyed them; perhaps behead him . . . oh God, if only they would really kill that monstrous little lump of torture, that lump with a face, which they kept there talking on its steel bracket. All the minor fears at Belbury--for he knew now that all except the leaders were always afraid--were only emanations from that central fear. He must get Jane; he wasn't fighting against that now.

Lewis is explicit about the failings of the education system which had created Mark’s thinking - ‘It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical--merely “Modern."

As we have now moved out of the world of an Irony and into that of an Epic, it is Ransom who makes clear that what we formerly might have considered to be the forces of chaos or luck, the basis of an Ironic novel, are actually those of Providence, the foundation of any Epic:

"I am the Director," said Ransom, smiling. "Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyéresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me--as the very animals in this house first came to it.

This active Providence means that, whereas N.I.C.E. is kept together through fear and force, the Company is held together through obedience to a higher benign power:

You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us--sucked us into itself, if you like. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household."

In line with this move to the Epic genre, we further discover that the central reason for the N.I.C.E. wanting to acquire Bragdon Wood is that it is the resting place of the figure known as Merlin in Arthurian legend. What we have seen as the ‘development of science’ has in fact been the work of supernatural forces all along.

Mark, escaping from Belbury temporarily, experiences the same kind of ‘split personality’ that Jane did on leaving St. Anne’s, but with a different emphasis:

From now onwards till the moment of final decision should meet him, the different men in him appeared with startling rapidity and each seemed very complete while it lasted. Thus, skidding violently from one side to the other, his youth approached the moment at which he would begin to be a person.

Things are no longer political, intellectual or abstract, as in an Ironic setting, but real and life-threatening, as in an Epic. Mark, seeking Jane and finding Dimble, is given the plain facts:

”I can offer you no security. Don't you understand? There is no security for anyone now. The battle has started. I'm offering you a place on the right side. I don't know which will win."

Mark’s response is to react based on the psychological upbringing he has had:

He wanted to be perfectly safe and yet also very nonchalant and daring--to be admired for manly honesty among the Dimbles and yet also for realism and knowingness at Belbury--to have two more large whiskies and also to think everything out very clearly and collectedly. And it was beginning to rain and his head had begun to ache again. Damn the whole thing! Damn, damn! Why had he such a rotten heredity? Why had his education been so ineffective? Why was the system of society so irrational? Why was his luck so bad?

Later, though, accused of the murder of Hingest and threatened with hanging, Mark’s inner psychological world is inverted and he begins to undergo the same kind of transformation as Jane, though much more tentative:

In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been "the system" or "an inferiority complex" due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His "scientific" outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, without even having to think of it, that it was he himself--nothing else in the whole universe--that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.

When Frost visits Mark in his cell and explains the very modern theory that our ‘reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. Social relations are chemical relations’ we are, through Mark’s tentative conversion, and the change of genre that has occurred in the novel, able to see through it; similarly, the battle that Mark faces has become less intellectual and more physical, like Ransom’s battle on Venus:

The straight fight, after the long series of diplomatic failures, was tonic. He might lose the straight fight. But at least it was now his side against theirs. And he could talk of "his side" now. Already he was with Jane and with all she symbolised. Indeed, it was he who was in the front line: Jane was almost a non-combatant.

But Mark’s inner struggle has become an outer one: he knows, even as evil strives to possess him, that the force of it is external to himself, in the cell with him. And so it is with the rest of the novel: Lewis, having made the shift, affords himself time to extrapolate on what he thinks is happening in history, culture and science, through the voices of the St. Anne’s Company:

“Evolution means species getting less and less like one another. Minds get more and more spiritual, matter more and more material. Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart."

For more about fiction, please see my book How Stories Really Work


Join the Inner Circle Writers' Group on Facebook

The Inner Circle Writers' Group is all about fiction: what it is all about, how it works, helping you to write and publish it. You can keep up to date with live contributions from members, upload your own fiction, enter competitions and so on:
Tag Cloud
bottom of page