This surprisingly insightful essay was written by a recent high school graduate as a college submission essay. Some of the ideas expressed may be of interest to fans of C. S. Lewis.
Why I Loved That Hideous Strength
By Orville E. Wright
That Hideous Strength is the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Planetary trilogy. It is about Mark and Jane Studdock, a couple who are having marital troubles. Jane has been having strange dreams that show her things, such as the great wizard Merlin awaking from his age long slumber. She ends up going to a place called St. Anne’s. Mark gets a job at the National Institute for Controlled Experiments, Or the N.I.C.E. Things are not as simple as they appear for the N.I.C.E. really works for an Eldila (angel) named Thulacondra (Lucifer). Apposed to them is St. Anne’s, a small group of normal people who want to save their world. They are located in an old mansion in the town of St. Anne’s England. Both groups are looking for Merlin, to get his power on their side.
The book is a novelization of Lewis’s essay, the Abolition of Man. The essay itself is about how many of the modern theories of man would lead to the death of our species. In That Hideous Strength, the N.I.C.E. want to bring the world to ruin. However, St. Anne’s does stop them in the end, thanks to the help of Merlin and the Eldila.
The book has a slow beginning. The part I will discuss is the end, when things really start happening. Merlin has infiltrated the N.I.C.E. disguised as a priest from Basque, a small valley that still only spoke in Latin at the time. The N.I.C.E. has mistakenly decided that a random hobo is really Merlin. Since the hobo will not talk to them, they ask Merlin to act as his translator. In the big dining room of the N.I.C.E., Merlin hits the place with the curse of Babble, leading all Hell to almost literally break loose.
I am going to focus on three characters, Deputy Director John Wither, Professor Augustus Frost, and Mark Studdock, and how they either died ironically, or survived the slaughter at the N.I.C.E.
In the Abolition of Man, Lewis discusses a type of man he calls “Men Without Chests,” or a man who thinks his emotions do not tell him anything about reality. They cannot understand beauty of any kind, nor can they even see themselves as anything other than either a ghost or an animal. Both Wither and Frost are Men Without Chest. The difference between them is where they stand.
Deputy Director John Wither is a nihilist. A nihilist is a man who believes that there is no such thing as an absolute truth, or that the truth can never be known. He is, specifically, a solipsist, a man who thinks that nothing outside of his one consciousness can be known. This means he is a man stuck in his own head. He denies nature, humanity, and morality. Using Lewis’s terminology, he is the man who thinks he is a ghost.
All this denying everything except himself makes Wither very drifty. When he talks, he never looks the person he is talking to in the eye. Also, he tends to ramble on and on and qualify everything he says. Here is a quote, “I assure you, Mr. Studdock, that you needn’t anticipate the slightest-er-the slightest difficulty on that point. There was never any idea of circumscribing your activities and your general influence on policy, much less your relation with your colleagues and what I might call in general the terms of reference under which you would be collaborating with us, without the fullest possible consideration of your own views and, indeed, your own advice. you will find us, Mr. Studdock, if I might express myself in that way, a very happy family.”
Wither is nigh-incomprehensible when he speaks. He also appears to have the ability to appear anywhere on the grounds of the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury. It is almost as if he is a ghost, or a demon.
To discuss his ironic death, for it is both he and Frost both get ironic deaths, I must tell you about Mr. Bultitude the bear.
In St. Anne’s, there are a lot of animals that live there. Ransom, the leader of the St. Anne’s people, keeps them around to make them smarter. Mr. Bultitude is one of these animals. He is a bear. Towards the end of the book, he is kidnapped by N.I.C.E. and then set free by Merlin.
Wither has just killed a man in an evil, demonic ritual, when Mr. Bultitude, now free and wandering around the N.I.C.E building, comes into the chamber. Mr. Bultitude is blinded with primal hunting rage, something that is not normal for him. So, when Mr. Bultitude sees Wither, he kills him, a fitting death for the Solipsist, to be killed by one of the most natural of nature’s killers, the bear.
Next is Professor Augustus Frost. He is a materialist, or a man who only believe in what he can see and denies the existence of the soul. He is the opposite of Wither, the solipsist. However, he is just as evil. He thinks his materialism makes him an objective judge of everything. He is the man who thinks he is an animal, despite being more intellectual than Wither.
Here is a quote that demonstrates Frost’s state of mind: “The judgement you are trying to make turns out on inspection to be simply an expression of emotion. Huxley himself could only express it by using nakedly emotive terms such as ‘gladiatorial’ or ‘ruthless.’ I am referring to the famous Romaneslecture. When the so-called struggle for existence is seen simply as an actuarial theorem we have, in Waddington’s words, ‘a concept as unemotional as a definite integral’ and the emotion disappears. With it disappears that preposterous idea of an external standard of value which the emotion produced.”
Frost and Wither hate each other. They had a bet going as to who could make someone completely evil first. Wither picked Lord Feverston, a minor character from the first book in Lewis’s Planetary series. Frost picked Mark Studdock
When Wither was training Studdock he put him in something called the Objective Room. This room was designed to look like a normal room, excepted everything was off. For example, there was a replica of the last supper painting with bugs in the corner, and the door frame did not make a right angle. It is revealed that Frost went into that room and came out a Materialist. After that he thought of the world as only what he could see, and he hated his own consciousness. However, his claim of objectivity was not true, as he was prejudice against anything that was not material If an angel appeared in front of him, he would not believe his own eyes.
How did Frost die? Simple, he was killed by evil spirits. They made him build a fire and burn himself to death. The Ironic part was that, at the last moment, it occurred to him that his consciousness which he hated so much, was the real him. This gave him a moment of free will. Unfortunately for him, he chose to die rather than expected that he was anything more than a material body.
Last, but not least, is Mark Studdock. For the majority of the book, he has been trying to get in to the inner circle of the N.I.C.E. He wants to be with the in crowd, the cool kids, or the people who are making things happen.
In the beginning of the book, Studdock is working at a college called Bracktion. There he works for a group of people who want to bring change to the place, called the Inner Circle. They are a group of Communists, as in Marxists, who are trying to make Bracton a much more important college by bringing the N.I.C.E. to the campus. After they succeed, Studdock is hired by the N.I.C.E.. He thinks that they admire him and his work, but their real reason is that they want to get Jane on their side.
When he arrives, the “Inner Circle of Belbury” starts integrating him into their midst. It goes well, until Wither asks Mark to bring Jane to them. This makes things more complicated. Since the beginning of the book, Mark and Jane Studdock have been drifting apart. So, when Wither ask Mark to bring her here, Mark refuses, on the grounds that she would not understand what he was doing there.
This angers Wither and the others, for they want Jane for her ability to see the future. So, they come up with the plan to start shunning Mark, in order to make him desperate enough to obey them. That only kind of works, for Mark really does not want Jane anywhere near the N.I.C.E. for a number of reasons.
During this time, Frost takes Mark under his wing. To try to make Mark truly one of them, Frost has him stay in the Objective Room mentioned above.
As Studdock spends more time in this room, he slowly comes to a conclusion. The room is designed to make people think of distortion as normal and the normal as somehow wrong. He also realizes that this room is why Wither and Frost see the world as they do. Studdock makes a decision. Instead of letting his judgment become distorted, he will hold to what he calls, “the normal.”
In Lewis’s essay, The Abolition of Man, “the Normal,” is called the Tao. It is the concept of an objective morality, the very idea Frost mocked in the quote. It is also the idea that things in nature demand a certain emotional reaction, which was the reason Frost mocked it. According to the Tao, if you have a different emotional reaction from the norm you are wrong, not just feeling some other equally valid alternative to what everyone else is feeling. It is the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Lewis claims that what he calls Tao is a truth that is as old as man, and it is ingrained into us even before we are born. This is what both The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength is about.
This is why Frost and Wither are so evil. As Lewis explains in the essay, when someone leaves the Tao, there is nowhere else to stand. Without traditional value, they just go with whatever nature says they should do, and nature is not always our friend.
When Studdock is in the Objective Room, he also looks back at his life and realizes where he went wrong. In his pursuit of friendship, he made his world into a barren wasteland. It is because of this realization that he decides to leave the N.I.C.E. and go back to his wife. It is that moment, when his will to resist is at its strongest, that Frost walks in to see if he has given up.
It is around this time that the N.I.C.E. find the Hobo I previously mentioned and mistake him for Merlin. Since they think Studdock is one of them, he is assigned to watch the Hobo.
When Frost or Wither is around, the hobo will not talk. This is because Frost and Wither speak to the poor guy in Latin. So, the hobo ends up thinking that Frost and wither are both foreigners and just goes along with them to get the comfort, food, and clean clothing, etc., they offered him. However, the hobo does talk to Studdock. He becomes the first person that Mark can call a true friend, despite not knowing much about the hobo.
The hobo himself is quite the character. He rarely says more than a sentence or two at a time. Here is a typical quote: “You ha’nt got such a thing as a bit of baccy about you? Ah?”
When he reveals to Studdoch that he can talk, it is a great sigh of trust. Thus, Studdock and the hobo form their own “Inner Circle” against the rest of the N.I.C.E.
Now, how does Mark ultimately escape the destruction of the N.I.C.E.? To explain that, we must talk about Merlin.
For most of the book, getting to Merlin is the main goal of both sides. The N.I.C.E. want his magic powers, so they can combine it with their modern science to be able to conquer the world. St. Anne’s wants Merlin to prevent the N.I.C.E. from getting him. Near the end, he awakes and goes willingly to St. Anne’s, looking for the King of Britain, Ransom.
Ransom is the main character of the first two books in the series. He is a language professor from Cambridge, not the real King of Britain. He is, however, a saint. He was sainted on Venues, called Perelandra by the locals, after saving the Adam and Eve of that planet. He is now taking the place of Author from the myths.
When Merlin meets Ransom, Ransom tasked him to go to the N.I.C.E. and destroy it, with the help of the Eldila from all the planets, excepted earth,of course, since the Eldila of Earth is Thulacondra.
Merlin then goes to the N.I.C.E. to pretend to be a translator for the Merlin they found—the hobo. When he gets there, he finds Mr. Studdock. Merlin recognizes that Mark is not fully evil. To prevent him from getting caught up in the destruction of the N.I.C.E., Merlin cast a spell on Mark that makes him run away from Belbury.
So, Mark escapes with his life and goes straight to St. Anne’s. When he gets there, Mark worries about whether Jane will accept him back in to her life. Meanwhile, Jane worries the same thing about Mark.
Before we move on, let me say something about else Merlin.
When Merlin first sees Ransom, the leader of St. Anne’s, he assumes that Ransom is a servant, since he is not dressed in fine gold and satin. Merlin also has no idea what to make of Andrew MacPhee, a skeptic at St. Anne’s, and randomly prophecies that Mr. Bultitude will do the greatest act in Britain since some bear that no one in St. Anne’s had ever heard of. The point Lewis is making is this; people of the past have a different idea of how the world works and what would happen in the future then we do.
In the past, everyone thought that the Messiah would be a warlord, not a carpenter’s son turned rabbi. In the middle ages, if a woman wanted to talk to another, they had to talk to the person directly or have some guy carry a letter to the person. No one at that time ever thought about the existence of an IPhone. No one thought about the existence of the telephone. No matter how many science fiction writers tried, none of them predicted the Internet. No matter how hard anyone looks at the future, the real future will not be what you expected.
When I first read The Abolition of Man, I was fourteen or fifteen. I loved it so much that I asked my dad to read it to me as a bedtime story. I did this because I loved talking about the philosophy of it. To me, it represents the many fun conversations I had with my dad and my younger brother. As such, it, and the other books of its kind, hold a special place in my heart. it is because of these kinds of stories and essays that i love philosophy so much.
I thought it was better to talk about the Novelization of it, That Hideous Strength, because it would be more fun to write about. It is easier to explain an analogy, or story, then another man’s explanation of something.
The Abolition of Man is about the logical conclusions that many, if not all, modern philosophies come to, if their conclusions are logically derived. Namely, that they try to reinvent morality when, according to Lewis, it was never invented. According to Lewis, morality was a gift or a law given to us by God, and we had no involvement in its creation.
This is demonstrated very well in That Hideous Strength in the forms of the personnel at the N.I.C.E. and both of the Studdock’s.
Wither shows one of the two ends of these philosophies, the dishonest end. As mentioned before, the philosophy he represents is moral relativism, or solipsism. If there is no such thing as morality, which is what this philosophy says, then we can make no judgment of any kind other than that of an opinion. This is why Wither never says anything without a clarification statement before it, and why even though he talks for so long, he can’t say anything definitive or he could be called out as a hypocrite.
The end this philosophy leads to is this, that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so, as Hamlet put it so poetically. So, if someone picks on the poor, that’s only bad if you decide it is–an idea that is obviously ridiculous. If it concept is true, no one can get anything done, for hard work as a virtue is a nonexistent idea. So, to get what they want done, the Withers of the world simply try to convince the people they teach that whatever they decide is good, is good. This is how we end up with baby murder as a Constitutional right, and racism as a virtue, so the Withers of the world can sleep around and gain power from the madness.
On the other side of the horse, we have Frost and the materialist idea of morality; cling to science! The logic here goes: since science has done such amazing things for humanity, it, rather than the Tao,must be the able to get us to a morality.
The problem with this logic, other than it not being logic, is twofold. First, science in only concerned with the material world, while morality is a metaphysical concept or an idea. There is no thought in the material world, so the Frosts of the world come to the conclusion that no idea is real. They must be are meat robots with no free will. The problem with this idea is that we have the power to change our minds, while no computer ever built has the power to reprogram itself.
The second problem with the idea is that, if science did concern itself with the spirit world, there is still only one Tao. All they would find is the very thing they say is not there. That is what Mark Studdock discovered when he found out about the “Normal.”
Speaking of Studdock, what philosophy does he represent? He does not represent any philosophy. He represents the man who decides to help the Frost and Withers of the world. He is the poor sap taken in by these philosophies, as is, at first, Jane.
As I said earlier, Jane and Mark are fighting at the beginning of the book. Jane is also dissatisfied with her life. She is a modern, working woman who has decided to not have kids and is lonely because of it. The reason this is happening according to the story is that, despite being husband and wife, neither Jane nor Mark are willing to love and serve each other.
When you are married, you promise to love and serve for a long as you both shall live. This means that you do have to serve each other. To serve is not the same thing as to be enslaved. According to Lewis, it means that the woman must be self-sacrificing and do as the husband says. It also means that the husband has to listen to his wife and accept how she runs the house. When you serve each other, you are a team, not master and slave. This is what Mark and Jane had to learn.
It is because of the philosophies of Frost and Wither that Mark and Jane are not happy in their marriage. According to Lewis’s philosophy, you can only have true marriage in the Tao.
There is one last thing I will say about the book, it answers this important question: why do we need morality?
Morality is a set of laws to guide human actions. It is that voice in the back of our head that tells us to be kind to the poor or that tells us to sign up for the military and defend our country. So, morality tells people how to act, what reactions we should have to something, what to do about it.
If it did not exist, men would have no way to distinguish any act. You also can’t be happy without it, for happiness requires a state of existence that you cannot have if there are no standards.
That is what this book taught me and why I love it so much