In his space trilogy comprised of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis first orients the reader towards the Permanent Things/Natural Law/the Tao, then satirizes the modernity that campaigns against them. In the first two books, Ransom, a man from Earth, sojourns among unfallen, embodied, rational beings: the three species of ancient Mars, and the first woman of young Venus. Ransom’s resulting spiritual education compels him to see his own and mankind’s fallenness. The ultimate remedy is grace, but culture informed by Natural Law resists the downward spiral and makes decency possible. Having learned these things and having been freed from fearfulness, Ransom’s vocation becomes that of household head at St. Anne’s, a small fellowship on Earth, though he himself is a “man under authority.” In That Hideous Strength (1945), C.S. Lewis focuses on several other characters more than he does on Ransom. In the paragraphs that follow, I will elaborate upon how this last novel of the space trilogy continues Lewis’s satire against inhumane elements of modernity, as well as his presentation of the humane alternatives.
Opposed to the St. Anne’s household and genuine human interests is the satirically presented National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE) and its agenda, which includes the remaking of humanity by means of social and genetic engineering. It is materialistic and utopian.
Traditional civilization, represented by the handful of people gathered at St. Anne’s, explains the lesser by the greater (e.g., the phenomenal by the immaterial, the temporal by the eternal), while NICE, as an extrapolation of modernity, “explains” a thing by what is less meaningful and less conscious than itself (so, e.g., love is explained away as biology). Modernity is reductive while traditional thought is typological. When a sociologist, Mark Studdock, is recruited by NICE, he undergoes training that is intended to destroy the sentiments and associations that could have humanized him and made him receptive to the meaning of creation, and to replace them with NICE’s own commitments. When Mark’s wife, Jane, finds sanctuary at St. Anne’s, she is educated in a way that nourishes her as a human being.
Early on, Jane’s education includes her choice of books grounded in wholesome imagination, such as George MacDonald’s children’s tales, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Readers of Damascene Christensen’s biography of the Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose will recall that messed-up kids visiting the remote skete in northern California attended the Liturgy but also watched old Dickens movies. Mark’s training involves scrutiny of surrealistic art (e.g. a blasphemous Last Supper painting), participating in “transgressive” performance art, etc. “The world’s best culture, properly received, refines and develops the soul; today’s popular culture cripples and deforms the soul…..[T]he contemporary upbringing in schools emphasizes crudity, coldness, and inability to judge what is better and what is worse – total relativity, which only confuses a person and helps fit him into the world of apostasy” (Seraphim Rose, quoted in Christensen’s Not of This World ).
The St. Anne’s household is usually quiet, and wholesome solitude is available. This is not surprising to those who know Lewis’s canon, for he disliked the typical busybody educator/trainer “whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists, [so that if] an Augustine, a Traherne, or a Wordsworth should be born in the modern world, the leaders of a youth organization would soon cure him. If a really good home… existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be leveled against it. … We live in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship” (from Lewis’s essay “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory).
There is plenty of good talk at St. Anne’s. Jane is a doctoral student and is surprised to find that people outside her former milieu can be funny, sweet, shrewd, helpful, and sound-minded. Conversation may be pastoral and private, as when Jane and Ransom discuss her troubled marriage, or genial and amusing kitchen-talk. Always it is courteous. “Rudeness and disrespect are forms of iconoclasm, an assault upon God’s image in our fellow human beings” (“Christian Courtesy: Grace-Filled Manners,” in Doxa: A Quarterly Review Serving the Orthodox Church Summer 2003). Reading, writing, and speaking at St. Anne’s, whether merry or solemn, reflect the divine origin of language.
In our day many ingenious theories have been put forth as to the origin of language. But Dr. Pusey [an Oxford University professor of Hebrew] believed that the only one which does justice to what it is in itself and to its place in nature as a characteristic of man is the belief that it is an original gift of God; the counterpart of that other and greater gift of His, a self-questioning and immortal soul. Language is the life of the human soul, projected into the world of sound; it exhibits in all their strength and delicacy the processes by which the soul takes account of what passes without and within itself; in it may be studied the minute anatomy of the soul’s life – that inner world in which thought takes shape and conscience speaks, and the eternal issues are raised and developed to their final form. Therefore Dr. Pusey looked upon language with the deepest interest and reverence; he handled it as a sacred thing which could not be examined or guarded or employed too carefully; he thought no trouble too great in order to ascertain and express its exact shades of meaning…. (H. P. Liddon, 1884, in an essay on Edward Bouverie Pusey)
St. Anne’s is a household. There are no children there yet, but there will be; Camilla Denniston is pregnant. The members of the community raise some of their own food in gardens, a greenhouse, and a piggery. Everyone shares in the labor. They seem to enjoy it. The St. Anne’s fellowship is hospitable. Jane has found refuge there; so has Ivy Maggs, whose husband has been imprisoned for petty theft, and an elderly couple, the Dimbles. Indeed, a mistreated bear now has a home at St. Anne’s.
The Dimbles’ beloved village is victim of a “clearance” project of NICE. Fortunately, however, St. Anne's survives as a fine old house embodying, in its small way, the kind of place John Senior wrote about in The Restoration of Christian Culture:
There are still some [European] villages left where you can see direct, visible proof that the human race can live in harmony with nature on a human scale, decently in ‘glad poverty,’ not in destitution but with a snug, hard-working frugality …. [T]here is no inevitability in the suicide of civilization. If America had been governed by its farmers and craftsmen supplying their real needs and nothing more, as Jefferson hoped, not catering to lust and the agitated sloth which masquerades as lust, [and had been] obedient to the Christian religion and the rough philosophy of frontier common sense, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would be as beautiful as Assisi, Chartres and Salamanca.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis shows the recovery and renewal of home, coming about in the only way it generally can, one household at a time.
St. Anne’s is located in a relatively unspoiled part of England. Descriptive passages in the novel remind readers of Lewis’s loving accounts of rural walking tours in his published letters. The beautiful is abundant in nature, whether incarnated as little flowers and tiny insects like mobile jewels or as large phenomena such as rainbows and waterfalls. In nature, the ugly is generally restricted to the small (e.g., ticks) or is mixed with some delightful quality (e.g., the grotesque humor of a toad's complacent countenance) or is tucked away in darkness (e.g., the grotesque angler fish). Rotting dead animals are ugly, but in a natural setting they are usually hoovered clean by scavengers or hustled off to burrows, etc. The novel reminds us also of the beauty above us, with references to the constellation Orion, the star Sirius, etc. The Church Father Theodoret said that man stands erect, enabling him to observe the heavens. If one lives far enough from light pollution that one can observe it, one never wearies of the celestial display, as one would if the stars were displayed according to an obvious pattern. Rather, one perceives more of the night sky’s beauty as one learns the constellations and (of varying colors!) the stars and planets. Such watching of the sky nourishes the soul. In contrast, one of the ways Mark's NICE trainers try to degrade him spiritually is by snaring his attention with two patterns of dots, one painted on the ceiling, one painted on a tabletop. He can't help but look for correspondence, but the NICE designs cunningly tease and frustrate this effort. With respect to St. Anne’s, however, almost everyone helps to keep the place clean and pleasant. In this way, and in its proper register, the household reflects the good order of the heavens.
At NICE, Mark is frustrated repeatedly as he tries to allay his anxieties by talking with his supervisors and trainers and they respond with evasions, jargon, and intimidation. He feels more and more that he is trapped. But Jane is more and more free because of her life at St. Anne’s. The St. Anne’s household will appeal to the imaginations of traditionally minded readers today, and reading That Hideous Strength is something of an education in itself. And yes, there’s hope for Mark by the end of the novel.
Dale Nelson is associate professor of English at Mayville (ND) State University. His wife and he homeschooled their four children, now grown. He is author of articles for CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, Tolkien Studies, the newsletter Beyond Bree, Touchstone, and other periodicals, and of the entry in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (2006) on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary works that may have influenced Tolkien.