This is the third in C.S. Lewis’s Science Fiction trilogy but unlike the first two books which were set on Mars and Venice respectively, this book is set on Earth shortly after the book was written in 1945, in Edgestow – a Midland University town (possibly modelled on Durham). The protagonists are Jane and Mark, a young, recently married couple, who are not getting on very well. Jane is finishing her PhD but is fed up of being a mainly stay-at-home wife and Mark is a sociology lecturer. Mark is invited to go and work at new organisation moving to the town – the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). N.I.C.E’s role appears to be the promotion of scientific enquiry but it is becoming more and more politically powerful, buying up land, bringing in lots of staff, setting up its own very violent and unaccountable police force and eventually imposing martial law in the town. Mark is never clear what his role is supposed to be at N.I.C.E but is both attracted and repelled by what he finds out about the organisation while he is there.
Meanwhile Jane starts to have nightmares which turn out to be visions or premonitions. She is advised by friends to go and get help at the nearby manor house of St Anne’s where a community of people live. She gets involved somewhat sceptically, at least at first, with the community which is trying to prevent some great evil happening to the people of Earth. There she meets Dr. Elwin Ransom, the protagonist of the first two books in Lewis’ space trilogy. He has become the legitimate king or Pendragon of the nation of Logres, the heir of King Arthur and Director of the group living in the manor at St. Anne’s. Jane’s visions provide the community with valuable knowledge about the evil force which they realise is N.I.C.E..
It emerges, somewhat oddly given that N.I.C.E. is a scientific organisation that it is planning to awaken the sleeping Merlin to help it take over the Earth, then other planets and eventually the Universe! Merlin ends up at the manor of St Anne’s instead and works with the community to destroy N.I.C.E. Merlin pronounces the curse of Babel on the N.I.C.E. staff gathered for a banquet, causing the guests to speak gibberish, and he liberates the many animals on which the N.I.C.E. were experimenting. The bigger animals kill most of the N.I.C.E. staff. Earthquakes ruin the building as well as much of Edgestow but Merlin helps Mark escape and sends him to St. Anne’s to be reconciled with Jane.
Lewis acknowledged that this book was influenced by both the science fiction of Olaf Stapleton and the fantasy novels of his friend Charles Williams. This mixture of genres is very evident in That Hideous Strength which also includes Arthurian legend, Narnia – like talking animals and a lot of references to rather complex and these days, rather obscure theology and anti-science polemic. There is even some quite funny satire on academia in the mid Twentieth Century which is very reminiscent of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury.
Some scenes in the book, for instance when Mark first arrives at N.I.C.E. are very powerful and create a strong sense of evil. But others are much weaker and quite confusing. The ending is completely over the top and straight out of Narnia. George Orwell [i] in his review of the book says of the last scene, “The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.”
For me it doesn’t feel like a coherent whole. I also felt the characters were quite thin and not very likeable. Leonard Bacon[ii], criticised the character of Mark as uninteresting, noting that “it is hard to get excited about the vagaries of a young, insecure and ambitious academic figure whose main concern is to get into a inner circle, any inner circle”, This all leads to a rather mixed experience for the reader who also has to genre skip from scene to scene. Lewis doesn’t seem to feel very comfortable with pure science fiction or with writing a purely adult book as fantasy and Narnia-esque characters and events creep in. As Orwell went on to say
“One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways. The scientists are endeavouring, among other things, to get hold of the body of the ancient Celtic magician Merlin, who has been buried – not dead, but in a trance – for the last 1,500 years, in hopes of learning from him the secrets of pre-Christian magic.”
The book reminded more than anything of a Dr Who episode with its enigmatic, not-quite-human space traveller; its young woman assistant with second sight; the extra-terrestrial angels; the head kept alive by a machine; its modern day satire and humour; the fight between Good and Evil for the future of the world: its mixture of modern day, science fiction, fantasy, history and legend and the talking animals. Many of the scenes are very visual and extremely cinematic – especially the banquet scene. And it is totally over the top but not really very profound – at least, if like me you don’t get the theology!
All it needs is the Tardis!
[i] George Orwell, “THE SCIENTISTS TAKE OVER. Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945. Reprinted in The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), No. 2720 (first half), pp. 250–251
[ii] Leonard Bacon, “Confusion Goes to College”. The Saturday Review of Literature, May 25, 1946, pp. 13–14