Men Without Chests: C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength”

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy, is often noted for being rather different than the first two. It is longer by far, it is set entirely on Earth, and Elwin Ransom is not the main character. But in fact the novel continues exploring many of the themes and ideas already set up, and indeed expanding them just as in the second book.

A glance at the various publication dates shows that the series was written in the throes of World War II, from its earliest horizons to its final waning days (the third book was published just a week after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). So it comes as relatively little surprise that the series takes on the overtones of war, particularly That Hideous Strength. At the heart is the spiritual conflict between God and the devil, put into the terms of the cosmological mythology created by Lewis. In Perelandra this looked like an attempt to contaminate yet another world; in That Hideous Strength, Earth itself is now the battleground.

The enemy comes in a human guise. The National Institute for Co-Ordinated Experiments (the N.I.C.E., as it’s ironically dubbed) at first seems like a sinister manifestation of the ‘scientism’ embodied in the first book by the character of Weston. Their brand of imperialism is geared towards the modernization and technologization of the human species; in a word, progress. Mark Studdock, a newly-minted Fellow at the fictional Bracton College, is drawn into the N.I.C.E. by his long-held deep desire to be included, valued, and loved by some kind of inner circle. The closer he gets to the centre of the Institute, however, the less he finds he likes it. Mark’s wife Jane is also an academic, working on a thesis she has very little enthusiasm for and troubled by strange dreams that seem to envision things happening far away. She finds herself being drawn into a very different inner circle, one headquartered at a country manor called St. Anne’s—and led by Ransom himself in opposition to the N.I.C.E., an organization which is not in fact run by scientists, but by occultists who have allied themselves with the dark eldila; their true goal is not so much human progress, but human immortality for an elite few to be gained by destroying virtually everything that makes us human.

This plot introduction, of course, does no justice whatsoever to either the plot or its themes. Lewis links it explicitly to his earlier book The Abolition of Man, his defense of objective value, natural law, and moral judgment in a world that increasingly wants to do away with them. But the book also grows and develops the cosmic mythos Lewis began building in Out of the Silent Planet, interweaving it with Arthurian legend. Ransom is now the Pendragon, essentially the successor to King Arthur, leading a kind of ongoing war against the demonic forces which are now manifested in the N.I.C.E. The theme of finding courage and virtue in the face of such conflict has run through the whole Cosmic Trilogy, and it finds its ultimate chivalric expression here. It is subtitled, after all, “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”.

The power, the “hideous strength”, that virtue battles with in this book is the antimaterialist, gnostic notion that all such things as emotion, sensation, the very experience of the body itself that encompasses our human condition are what keep us from ultimate wisdom and power. But if we shed all that makes us human, what will be left to hold wisdom? The N.I.C.E. wish to make, for those they deem worthy at least, what Lewis called “men without chests”—and quite literally, as it turns out. In a certain way, what the imperialist Weston preached in Out of the Silent Planet, the survival of the human race, is something like what Ransom and St. Anne’s are themselves fighting for; in a different way and for different reasons, but their battle is most certainly against the annihilation of humanity.

With the modern world entertaining more and more the idea of ‘transhumanism’, that we can not only determine for ourselves the course of our evolution, but that that evolution will move us somehow beyond the body…Lewis’ emphatic reply, written over seven decades ago, seems hardly old-fashioned at all.

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