I have been reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength for over thirty-five to forty years. I first read C.S. Lewis’ science-fiction trilogy, or space trilogy, as a college student, if I remember correctly. I enjoyed the first in the series, Out of the Silent Planet, as well as the second, Perelandra. The second is the favorite of many, but by far my favorite is That Hideous Strength (THS).
1. All of the quotations and page numbers in this article are from the following edition: C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Collier Books, 1965).
Perhaps the fact that I have spent my entire career in higher education gives THS a particularly meaningful and existential place in my heart. The novel takes place in the fictional English town of Edgestow, the home of a small college, Bracton College. I will not summarize the plot in detail here, except to say that a nefarious group, the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), wants to secure a part of the land of Bracton College, as a part of wicked and sinister goal. I will also not give plot spoilers here for those who have not read the book. But suffice to say, there is a band of persons, located at St. Anne’s, led by a man named Ransom, who is trying to thwart the goals of the N.I.C.E. The drama consists of human characters, as well as good and evil spiritual beings.
But running throughout the book—from literally the first page to the last—is the story of our two protagonists: Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a professor of sociology at Bracton, and Jane is still trying to gin up the desire and interest in finishing her own doctoral dissertation on John Donne. One of the central stories giving structure to THS is the story of Mark and Jane—their marriage, their own frailty and weaknesses, their misunderstandings of true love, their discovery of true love, and their ultimate reunion. In short, THS is—in the truest sense of the word—a romance. Indeed, Lewis himself, in the preface, calls THS a “fairy-tale.” Lewis was quite cognizant that THS was trying to make a “point,” and many of the points from his earlier The Abolition of Man are made in fictional form in THS. Indeed, there is even a section or two from The Abolition of Man which are included verbatim in THS.
In the novel, Jane has found her way to St. Anne’s-on-the-hill, which the reader soon learns is the headquarters for the opposition group headed up by Ransom against the nefarious N.I.C.E.. In speaking to friends at St. Anne’s, the question is raised whether Jane’s husband would “approve” of Jane’s association with the forces/compadres at St. Anne’s. Arthur Denniston, another member of the fellowship at St. Anne’s, asks Jane: “Would he object to your joining—putting yourself under the Head’s orders and making the promises and all that” (116)? The question takes Jane aback: “‘Would he object?’ asked Jane. ‘What on earth would it have to do with him?’” (116). Though Lewis does not launch into didactic treatment here, the main point seems clear: The forces of good at St. Anne’s are clearly working within a framework which encourages fundamental differences between men and women, and which also sees the husband-wife relationship not in fundamentally egalitarian terms (in contrast to Jane).
When Jane meets Ransom face-to-face, she is “unmade”: “For the first time in all those years she tasted the word King itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power” (143). In the ensuing discussion (much of it related to marriage) between Jane and Ransom, Jane at one point demurs from Ransoms’ views on marriage, saying she thinks differently about such things. Ransom’s response: “ ‘Child,’ said the Director, ‘it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it’” (the “Masters,” the reader will learn, are higher/angelic spiritual realities (p. 146).
In talking with Jane about “lost love” (between Mark and Jane), Ransom forthrightly says (summarizing the “Masters”): “‘They would say,’ he answered, ‘that you do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience’” (147). And, as the conversation develops, Jane comes to see that by relating to her husband in the way she ought—even including a kind of sanctified obedience—this proper relation to Mark is actually something being offered to Ransom (who here clearly seems to function as some sort of type or metaphor for Christ) (p. 152). As a wife relates properly to her husband, this is one way persons can honor God. That is, we honor and worship God—ultimately—when we relate to persons in the ways that Scripture calls us to relate.
In a discussion between Jane and Ransom toward the end of the book we see a particularly intriguing point. Jane has had a frightening vision of a woman—and the woman is like an archetype of the truly pagan woman. Ransom can say: “There’s no niche in the world for people that won’t be either Pagan or Christian” (315). And Jane has had a vision of the full development of paganism. As the conversation proceeds, Lewis writes: “Now the suspicion dawned upon her [i.e., upon Jane] that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent” (315). Then Jane reflects: “How if this invasion of her own being [by being married to Mark] from which she had recoiled, often in the very teeth of instinct, were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but rather the lower, the first, and the easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated—but in ever larger and more disturbing modes—on the highest levels of all?” (315).
Readers of Lewis should reflect on what Lewis is actually saying here. He seems to be saying something like the following. Rather than seeing the marriage relationship (particularly when seen as being constituted by things like male headship) as some sort of fundamentally unjust, or incongruous, or patriarchal problem to be overcome, what if the reality is quite different? What if God—as Father—always and forever relates to his children as, well, as a masculine authority—as Father? What if the husband-wife relationship of authority and submission (e.g., Ephesians 5:22–33) really is a reflection of the Christ-church relationship? What if there is something masculine “on the highest levels of all”? And Ransom then makes an important distinction between something being male and something being masculine: “The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly” (316). Jane’s response to Ransom is a gem: “’You mean I shall have to become a Christian?’ said Jane. ‘It looks like it,’ said the Director” (316).
This is perhaps the most clear and forthright passage in THS on fundamental issues of the masculine and the feminine, especially as these relate to God.
As the story reaches its zenith and conclusion, the women at St. Anne’s-on-the-hill are helping each other choose dresses for the return of their men—including the return of Mark to Jane (360–64). As the novel proceeds, love is clearly in the air as the angelic leader of Venus comes near to St. Anne’s. Even the animals are finding mates and scuttling off for some privacy. Lewis deftly presents a kind of appropriate and sanctified joining of those of the opposite sex.
As Mark approaches St. Anne’s (having escaped the N.I.C.E.) he laments his boorish and selfish past. He laments that he has not loved Jane as he ought. Jane, on the other hand, has slowly abandoned what is in fact her feminism. A special cottage has been prepared for Mark and Jane’s reunion. Both Mark and Jane are alike portrayed as a bit apprehensive, even nervous, about their reunion. But the story ends with Jane preparing to enter the cottage, where Mark awaits.
Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is simultaneously radical and traditional. It is radical in that it gets to the root of things (“radical” comes from the Latin “radix,” meaning “root”). Lewis, in a wonderful, fictional way, explores the “roots” of being male and female, even suggesting that God Himself is indeed masculine, but not male. But this “radical” view is the ground of a more traditional vision of things—a “traditional” view of male and female, and the corresponding understanding of marriage.
That Hideous Strength speaks to our age, and is excellent for any Christian seeking to understand the signs of the times. It is indeed part of a space trilogy, so in a sense is science fiction. But Lewis is right, it is also a “fairy tale”. But it is also a “romance” in the best sense of the word. While not subtle, neither is it bombastic. But for those with ears to hear, Lewis is offering prescient insights on what it means to be human, and especially on what it means to be male and female. We live in a world governed by the God of Holy Writ, and this God is a Father, a He. And genuine masculinity and femininity are a good and proper part of God’s world. There is indeed a hideous strength which would tempt us to gnash our teeth at the very nature of things. Lewis vividly and powerfully encourages readers to resist such a temptation and joyfully embrace what true masculine and femininity should look like under God.