Last month, I wrote about the first two books in C.S. Lewis’ “Cosmic Trilogy.” In those two works, Lewis captivated readers with tales of Dr. Elwin Ransom’s travel to other worlds, which cleverly encouraged reflection on man’s place in the cosmos. The final tale in this trilogy, however, is very different to the preceding books, taking place entirely on earth, and mainly focusing on characters other than Ransom. While this third book, entitled That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, still features the sci-fi elements and characters from the previous two outings, in some ways it feels more like a work of modern fantasy and less like science fiction.
That Hideous Strength is, well, an odd book. It mixes Christianity and paganism, modern university politics with Arthurian legend, demonology with questions of police brutality. It is perhaps because of this oddness that the novel has been dividing readers since its publication, with some saying it is a great disappointment and others saying it is Lewis’ best novel. While I concede that the book is at times a bit messy, it is messy precisely because it is full to bursting with ideas, characters, and magic that all stay with the reader long after he has set the book down. Today, however, I will limit myself to a single theme explored in the novel: community. But, before considering this theme, it will be useful to speak briefly about the novel as a whole.
Lewis’ novel of ideas
There are some novelists who craft their stories and only later begin to consider the personal and philosophical import of their works. Lewis is not one of those novelists. For him, the intellectual life has a unity to it. Lewis believed his academic labors, works of apologetics, and fiction all served the same purpose: helping man to be more fully human, which in turn meant being more fully devoted to the God who made us and calls us back to Him. This is quite obvious to any adult reader of Lewis’ children’s fiction, with its clear religious allegories, but this purpose shows itself differently in the final novel of Cosmic Trilogy.
That Hideous Strength begins by introducing readers to Jane and Mark Studdock, who live in the fictitious small English college town of Edgestow, where Mark works as a sociologist at the (also fictitious) Bracton College. They were only recently married, and they spend little time together, as Mark is kept so busy by college business. At the college, Mark has fallen under the spell of Curry, a member of the “progressive element” at the university. In time, Mark is accepted into this cabal of academic revolutionaries, effectively being promoted to leave the university in order to work for the secretive and powerful “National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments,” or “N.I.C.E.” for short. Meanwhile, as Mark is slowly brought into the inner ring of powerful progressives, Jane falls in with the Christian community of St. Anne’s. There, she meets Ransom (the protagonist of the first two novels in the trilogy) and learns that N.I.C.E., where her husband now works, is in fact part of a literal demonic plot for the domination of England and the world.
That Hideous Strength (1945).
That Hideous Strength is best understood as a novel of ideas. As Lewis interweaves the stories of Mark, Jane, Ransom, N.I.C.E., St. Anne’s, angels, demons, and Arthurian legend, he is not just playing with stories; he’s challenging readers to philosophically and theologically reflect on their place in the world. He wants his readers to re-examine our presumptions about everything from modern education and science to ‘the West’ and contraception. Recognizing this can help us understand why the novel has so divided readers. Some feel that the characters in the novel function as little more than cudgels for Lewis to communicate his medieval Christian worldview, while others (myself included) think that, while the novel is certainly not something that could have been written by a progressive, the medieval imagination that helped birth the book is part of its unique power. That Hideous Strength presents us with a story that lays bare many of the flaws of modernity and presents hints of solutions through the outworking of its cosmic opera.
In the novel’s preface, Lewis writes that this work “has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.” It would take us far too afield for me to fully summarize what is arguably Lewis’ greatest work of popular non-fiction, The Abolition of Man, but for anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of reading it, the short work is Lewis’ most powerful polemic against modern educational methods and the privileging of science (more often, scientism) above all other disciplines. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that contemporary schooling fails to instill in young people the desire for (or even belief in) truth, goodness, and beauty. This means, Lewis claims, that students are not only left without the formation necessary to perceive meaning in life, but are actively discouraged from so perceiving. Hence, they become “men without chests” whose hearts and minds lack real passion. People who have been educated in this way, then, lack defenses against moral degradation, which is then lamented by the very people who have championed “progressive” methods of education. As Lewis puts it, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
At the beginning of the novel, both Mark and Jane lack ‘chests.’ Though they are both gifted, intelligent, and hardworking, they have been convinced that their lives are not a great and meaningful quest, but something far less important. Over the course of the novel, we see Jane turn from living like a cog in a machine, formed by the assumptions and commitments of modernity, to someone far more humane: a fully alive woman who is part of a thriving community that supports her in her vocation. Meanwhile, Mark is falling ever more under the spell of power and modernity (though I won’t spoil the ending).
The inner ring
To contextualize Mark’s journey and understand its implications for thinking about what a healthy community looks like, we must understand an idea that preoccupied Lewis for decades. This idea is that of the perpetual temptation to yearn for membership in what Lewis calls the “inner ring.” This inner ring is a phenomenon so ubiquitous that we breathe it in like air, usually not even realizing it’s there.
Imagine that you are a first-year university student. You notice that some people are more popular than others, having many friends and even being talked about by many other students. Without even noticing it, you develop a longing to be a part of this group of powerful, popular students. In time, one of them befriends you, and you begin to wonder if you could be one of the group, the ‘in crowd.’ Soon, it becomes clear that you have joined the popular crowd, and for a moment you rejoice, thinking that your social anxieties are over.
This is a common kind of experience, but Lewis’ insight is that the desire for belonging, for being in the group, goes farther. Once you have gained access to the in crowd, you begin to realize that even at the best parties there exists a more rarified element, a group within the group—those who sit above even the ‘popular’ people. You dream of being a part of this inner ring, never quite satisfied with your own friends. But then even if you make it into that rarified group, there is yet another group of only a few people who constitute yet another inner ring. In his essay entitled “The Inner Ring,” Lewis writes that “as long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”
Man cannot conquer the inner ring by merely becoming a part of it. Entering the inner ring is a Sisyphean task—the moment you think you are ‘inside,’ you realize there is another, further ring, and your desire grows. The desire for membership in the inner ring, while appearing as a quest for community, is in reality community’s abnegation. As long as you are longing to be a part of the smaller, more powerful group of people, you fail to really encounter those around you in their full humanity. Lewis warns, “Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.” This desire for inclusion, for intimacy, for power, can be sated only by relinquishing such earthly longings and aiming instead at God.
But in The Hideous Strength, no one is there to warn Mark Studdock in the way that Lewis warns us. From the beginning of the novel, he is lured in by the dream of membership in the inner ring. Early in the story, Curry, a member of his university’s inner ring speaks with Mark of the plans “we” have, implicitly including Studdock in this “we.” Lewis’ description of Mark’s interior response is helpful for understanding the temptation of inner ring:
You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun ‘we.’ So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called ‘Curry and his gang’ with awe and with little understanding, and making at College meetings short, nervous speeches which never influenced the course of events. Now he was inside, and ‘Curry and his gang’ had become ‘we’ or ‘the progressive element in College.’ It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.
Mark is slowly ensnared by the desire to belong to the inner ring of selective, powerful people who believe that they—perhaps they alone—really understand what’s going on in the university, the nation, and even the world.
Alongside his quest for membership in the inner ring is Mark’s continued malformation as a man without a chest. The thought-leaders of N.I.C.E. are constantly pushing Mark to think more and more of human persons as basically malleable beings over which N.I.C.E.—and, by extension, Mark—has the ability (and maybe even duty) to exert power. The world should not be run by the foolish people who live out their lives in the English countryside; it must be run only by Mark and N.I.C.E., that is, those who have understanding gained through credentialism. As he continues progressing up this ladder, he becomes more and more disconnected with the concrete humanity of the people over whom he holds power, isolating him from true community.
The Christian open ring
But what of Mark’s wife, Jane? I mentioned earlier that while Mark is falling into this trap, Jane is growing closer and closer to what we might today call an ‘intentional community’ of Christians. Is this not its own inner ring?
Jane, like Mark, is not a particularly religious person at the start of the novel, and their marriage is a basically worldly arrangement. The two of them live together, but Mark is away for work nearly all the time, pursuing the inner ring. There is very little transcendence in her life outside of some experiences of poetry, experiences that she is attempting to turn into mere academic research in the form of her doctoral thesis. To make all these matters worse, the couple has been contracepting to avoid becoming parents, and this means that Jane spends her days alone in their home with little social interaction and no promise of being joined by little ones who might help to connect her with the beauty of the world.
Thankfully, Jane knows a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Dimble, who are thoughtful people with a Christian joy in the world and loving affection for Jane. Mr. and Mrs. Dimble, it might be said, are the only people in Jane’s life who are still ‘men with chests,’ people who have cultivated a love for the world as a gift from God, and who believe that their experiences of reality matter in profound, existential ways. Before the novel begins, Jane has fallen somewhat out of touch with the Dimbles, but they reach out to her and slowly but surely connect her with a group of Christians called “St. Anne’s.” This community is based at a country manor, and it is run by Ransom, the protagonist of the first two novels in the Cosmic Trilogy. Now called “the Pendragon,” Ransom is preparing the group for the spiritual warfare that has been building over the course of the trilogy, which will pit the demonic hosts against the spiritual powers of the West.
But let us return to the question of the inner ring: is this Christian group falling into the trap of elitism and power mongering? Most people have encountered Christian groups and conservative organizations that fall to the same temptations as the group that seduces Mark. The promise of the Christian message is a Truth that can, in principle, never be known by mere reason. These can easily be twisted into the way of thinking that Lewis detailed in “The Inner Ring.”
St. Anne’s, however, avoids this way of thinking. Though it is a small group of broadly like-minded people, it is, crucially, a group that is open, that shares the joys of life with newcomers like Jane. This does not mean that people who oppose the purpose of the organization can join, but that anyone who wishes to serve God in the great battle is welcomed as a fellow-soldier. This is the healthy openness that every Christian group should attempt to incarnate, and that every conservative organization should work to embody as well.
The promise of the Christian life is a joyful one, and so too, as I have argued elsewhere, conservatism is a life-giving and joyful disposition to the world. Perhaps this is why Christianity and conservatism, while distinct, are often found together, working symbiotically, in the same person or organization. This joy ought to impact every action taken by the Christian, as it does the actions of the St. Anne’s group. But beyond that, Christianity tells us that our ultimate end is union with God in the communion of saints. No one is barred from this union with God, and all are invited. The ‘ring’ of saints in Heaven rejoices, not in its exclusivity, but its universality as children of God. Those from every nation are called to this loving worship, and the joy of the life to come ought to be prefigured in the way Christians live out their faith in community in this life.
This truth about the ultimate end of man is the reason why we must do all we can to avoid becoming men without chests, and why we must fight for truly humane education, community, and politics. Our hearts are not simply the result of mindless processes. They are the core of our being, and, as another great Christian writer noted long before Lewis, our heart is restless until it rests in the Lord.
That Hideous Strength is unquestionably a strange novel. But in that strangeness readers find a beautiful—and entertaining—story that delights and challenges in equal measure. In a world that often feels increasingly enthralled by sycophantic devotion to the inner ring, it can only refresh us to read a story that confronts such dangers while still being an ultimately hopeful work that enjoins us to place our hearts in the love of God and the world He has made through membership in life-giving community.