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That Hideous Strength

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That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength
First edition cover
First edition cover
Author C. S. Lewis
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Space Trilogy
Genre Science fiction novel, dystopia[1]
Publisher The Bodley Head
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback and Paperback)
Pages 384 pp
Preceded by Perelandra

That Hideous Strength (subtitled A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups) is a 1945 novel by C. S. Lewis, the final book in Lewis's theological science fiction Space Trilogy. The events of this novel follow those of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra (also titled Voyage to Venus) and once again feature the philologist Elwin Ransom. Yet unlike the principal events of those two novels, the story takes place on Earth rather than in space or on other planets in the solar system. The story involves an ostensibly scientific institute, the N.I.C.E., which is a front for sinister supernatural forces.

The novel was heavily influenced by the writing of Lewis's friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams, and is markedly dystopian in style. In the book's preface Lewis acknowledges science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon and his work: "Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow."[2]

In the foreword, Lewis states that the novel's point is the same as that in his non-fiction work The Abolition of Man, which argues that there are natural laws and objective values, which education should teach children to recognise.

The novel's title is taken from a poem written by David Lyndsay in 1555, Ane Dialog betuix Experience and ane Courteour, also known as The Monarche. The couplet in question, "The shadow of that hyddeous strength, sax myle and more it is of length", refers to the Tower of Babel.[3]

Plot summary

The book, written during the final period of World War II, takes places at an undetermined year "after the end of the war".

Mark Studdock is a young academic who has just become a Senior Fellow in sociology at Bracton College in the University of Edgestow. The fellows of Bracton are debating the sale of a portion of college land to the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), whose staff already includes some college faculty. The sale is controversial since the land in question (Bragdon Wood) is an ancient woodland believed to be the resting place of Merlin. After the deal is struck, an N.I.C.E. insider called Lord Feverstone proposes a possible post for Mark at the Institute. (It is gradually revealed that Feverstone is the new title of Richard Devine, who accompanied Professor Weston on the trip to Mars in the first volume of the series, but not in the one to Venus in the second volume.)

Mark's wife Jane (a PhD student at the university) has suffered a peculiar nightmare involving a severed head. She meets Mrs. Dimble, the wife of one of her former tutors, who is being evicted due to sale of land to the N.I.C.E. When Jane talks about her dreams, Mrs. Dimble leads her to seek counsel from a Miss Ironwood who lives in the Manor in the nearby town of St. Anne's. An argument between Jane and Mark shows how their marriage is deteriorating.

Lord Feverstone introduces Mark to the N.I.C.E., where he becomes acquainted with the top brass at their headquarters at Belbury, near Edgestow. Here and throughout his time with them, Mark can never find out what his place in the organisation is; he has no office or duties and seems to be alternately in and out of favour. A scientist named Bill Hingest, who is resigning from the N.I.C.E., warns Mark to get out. Hingest is mysteriously murdered.

At the same time, Jane works up the courage to visit Miss Ironwood at St. Anne's. Miss Ironwood, who is dressed in black just as Jane had dreamed of her, is convinced that Jane's dreams are not psychological but visions of genuine events. Later, Jane is introduced to 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. He is in communication with the Oyéresu (singular "Oyarsa"), angelic beings who guide the planets of the Solar System and thus correspond to the Greek gods and goddesses. Earth has been in quarantine: its rebellious Oyarsa (who is the Devil) and his demons could not travel beyond the orbit of the Moon, and the other Oyéresu could not come to Earth.

Mark is finally given work: his main duty is to write pseudonymous newspaper articles supporting the N.I.C.E., including two for use after a riot they intend to provoke in Edgestow. The riot takes place as planned, allowing the N.I.C.E.'s private police force to take over the town. They arrest Jane, whom the N.I.C.E. are interested in (as revealed later) for her psychic abilities, which they fear will get into their opponents' hands. The head of the N.I.C.E. police, a woman known as "Fairy" Hardcastle, starts to torture Jane but is forced to release her when rioters turn in her direction.

Mark is once again out of favour in the N.I.C.E., but after a conversation with an Italian scientist named Filostrato he is introduced to the true "Head" of the Institute. This turns out to be a literal head – that of a recently guillotined French scientist (as Jane dreamed) which has been restored to life by Filostrato's efforts.

From Jane's dreams that people were digging up the grave of a long-buried man and that the man had left, Ransom concludes that the N.I.C.E. is looking for the body of Merlin, who truly is buried in Bragdon Wood, though not dead but in a timeless state. Jane will guide members of the group to the place she dreamed of.

The N.I.C.E. bosses now try to strengthen their hold over Mark by showing him trumped-up evidence that he murdered Bill Hingest, but this serves only to bring his crisis to a head. He summons up the courage to leave Belbury, and returns to Edgestow in search of Jane. Here he meets Cecil Dimble (one of the St. Anne's community) who offers to help him. While Mark deliberates whether to trust Dimble he is found by police and arrested for Hingest's murder.

That night, during a heavy storm, both the company of St. Anne's and N.I.C.E. personnel are on the trail of Merlin, who has apparently revived. He has taken the clothes of a tramp through his powers of hypnosis and acquired a wild horse. He meets the company of St. Anne's but rides away. Members of the N.I.C.E. capture the tramp, believing him to be Merlin.

Mark, while contemplating his upcoming trial and execution, discovers that he has not been arrested by the real police, but by officials of the N.I.C.E., who he now guesses are the real murderers of Hingest. Much to his surprise he is told that he is to be initiated into the group's "inner ring" and begins a bizarre program of training intended to cultivate absolute objectivity by relegating emotion to the status of a "chemical phenomenon". He outwardly participates in these rituals (knowing that he will otherwise be killed) but inwardly begins to reject everything the N.I.C.E. stands for.

Merlin arrives at St. Anne's on his own. Ransom reveals that there are Satanic forces behind the N.I.C.E. and that Merlin is to be possessed by the Oyéresu; since the forces of darkness broke the lunar barrier in the earlier books, the heavenly beings can also cross the barrier and intervene in human affairs. Jane then has two mystical experiences; the first with the earth-bound counterpart of the Oyarsa of Venus, and the second with God. After discussions with Mrs. Dimble and the Director, she becomes a Christian.

Merlin, now possessed by the Oyéresu, disguises himself as a Basque priest and answers the N.I.C.E.'s advertisement for an interpreter of ancient languages. He interviews the tramp (who the N.I.C.E. still believe may be the real Merlin) and the two of them are brought to a banquet. There Merlin pronounces the curse of Babel upon the assembled N.I.C.E. leaders, causing all present 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 and eat the "Head".

Earthquakes ruin the building as well as much of Edgestow and kill Lord Feverstone, but Merlin helps Mark escape and sends him to St. Anne's.

The Oyarsa of Venus lingers at the Manor, as Ransom is now to be transported back to that planet. Mark arrives at St. Anne's, and a vision of Venus leads him into a bridal chamber that Jane has been preparing for him.

Context in Space Trilogy

Elwin Ransom, introduced in this story in Chapter 7, is the protagonist of the first two books in Lewis's space trilogy and his point of view dominates their narrative. Lord Feverstone (formerly Dick Devine) was a villain in the first novel who, along with Professor Weston, had abducted Ransom to Mars. When Feverstone speaks in That Hideous Strength of Weston having been murdered by "the opposition", he is speaking of Ransom having killed Weston on Venus in the second novel. The first two books fully explicate Lewis's mythology (based on a combination of the Bible and Elizabethan astrology)[4] according to which each planet of the solar system has a guiding angelic spirit that rules over it. This mythos is re-introduced gradually in this story, whose protagonists, the earthbound Mark and Jane Studdock, are unaware of these realities when the story opens.


  • Mark Gainsby Studdock – Protagonist; sociologist, and ambitious to the point of obsession with reaching the "inner circle" of his social environment.
  • Jane Tudor Studdock – Protagonist; Mark's wife. Jane is supposedly writing a Ph.D. thesis on John Donne, but since her marriage she has become effectively a housewife. In the course of the book she discovers herself to be a clairvoyant.
  • vagabond tinker – mistaken by the N.I.C.E. for Merlinus Ambrosius when the latter steals his clothes and horse at his camp in Bragdon Wood.


The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is a scientific and social planning agency, furtively pursues its program of the exploitation of nature and the annihilation of humanity. The Institute is secretly inspired and directed by fallen eldila, whom they refer to as "Macrobes", superior beings. Their takeover of Edgestow and its surrounding area shows the manner in which they use human pride and greed to get what they want. After the N.I.C.E. would achieve its ends, the earth would only belong to the "Macrobes".

  • François Alcasan – "The Head", a French scientist executed for murder early in the book. His head is recovered by the N.I.C.E. and appears to be kept alive by the technology of man while actually having become a communication mechanism for the Macrobes.
  • John Wither – Long-winded bureaucrat, Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E. He is the true leader of the N.I.C.E. and a servant of the Macrobes. Long association with them has "withered" his mind, and his speech and thinking are characterized by vagueness and jargon. He hardly ever sleeps, but instead maintains a continual dreamy wakefulness that affords him the ability to maintain a shadowy, supernatural presence throughout the Institute.
  • Professor Augustus Frost – A psychologist and assistant to Wither, he is the only other N.I.C.E member who knows the true nature of the Head and of the Macrobes. He views emotions and values as mere chemical phenomena to be ignored as distractions from scientific inquiry. He is coldhearted and unemotional and he has an exact, precise manner of speech and thinking.
  • Miss/Major Hardcastle (a.k.a. "The Fairy") – The sadistic head of the N.I.C.E. Institutional Police and its female auxiliary, the "Waips". Torture is her favorite interrogation method, and she takes special, sexual pleasure in abusing female prisoners.
  • Dr. Filostrato – An obese Italian eunuch physiologist who has seemingly preserved Alcasan's head. He believes the Head to be truly Alcasan. His ultimate goal is to free humanity from the constraints of organic life.
  • Lord Feverstone (Dick Devine) – The politician, recently ennobled businessman, and nominal academic who lures Mark into the N.I.C.E. Feverstone was one of the two men who kidnapped Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet, and the person responsible for getting Mark Studdock his fellowship at Bracton. A classic sociopath, he is motivated in all circumstances by the perceived benefit to himself. Although he is aware of the Macrobes, having encountered their benign counterparts on Mars, he has no interest in them.
  • Reverend Straik – the "Mad Parson". He believes that any sort of power is a manifestation of God's will. Straik is ready to obliterate that "organisation of ordered Sin called Society." When Mark objects that he must not want to preserve Society because he believes in an afterlife, Straik objects that Jesus's real teaching was justice here and now. Emphasis on an afterlife has, he thinks, emasculated and sidetracked the real meaning of Jesus's teaching. This belief, along with other beliefs, makes him a suitable candidate for introduction to the Macrobes. Straik was "a good man once", but became deranged by the death of his daughter.
  • Horace Jules – A Cockney novelist, tabloid reporter, and pseudo-scientific journalist who has been appointed Director of the N.I.C.E. He studied science at the University of London, but clearly never advanced beyond an elementary level. He fondly imagines himself to be the actual leader of the N.I.C.E., but as he is not aware of its true nature he is easily manipulated by Wither and Frost. He has a strong anti-clerical bias and objects to Wither appointing "parsons" (such as Straik) to the Institute. He is in part a caricature of H.G. Wells,[5] whose book The Shape of Things to Come presented the systematic persecution of Christianity (and all other religions) by a future world government as a positive activity.
  • William (Bill) Hingest – A distinguished chemist who is recruited by the N.I.C.E. but soon decides to resign, since he was expecting N.I.C.E. to be about science, but found some kind of political conspiracy instead; he makes no secret of his disdain for the Institute. He is murdered by N.I.C.E. agents.

St. Anne's

  • Dr. Elwin Ransom (also known as "the Pendragon" and "the Director") – A former Cambridge don who heads the community at St. Anne's. He alone communicates with the benevolent eldila, whom he met during his earlier voyages to Malacandra and Perelandra (Mars and Venus). He has changed his surname to Fisher-King and has a wound in his foot, received on Venus, that will not heal till he returns there. His heavenly experiences have made him a kingly figure among his small band of followers, and he attributes his following to a divine Power, presumably Maleldil (Jesus Christ).
  • Grace Ironwood – The seemingly stern but kind psychologist and doctor who helps Jane interpret her dreams. Her name is probably inspired by the Járnviðr ("Iron-Wood") of Norse mythology, its bleak connotations ameliorated by the Christian name "Grace".
  • Dr. Cecil Dimble – Another academic, an old friend of Ransom, and close adviser on matters of Arthurian scholarship and pre-Norman Britain. He is fond of Jane Studdock, who was once his student, and feels guilty that he dislikes her husband Mark.
  • Margaret "Mother" Dimble – The wife of Cecil Dimble. The Dimbles have no children, much to their sadness, but have compensated by their kindness to students. She is very maternal, and shows fondness towards Cecil's male and female students alike.
  • Ivy Maggs – Formerly a part-time maid for Jane Studdock; now driven out of the town by the N.I.C.E. and living at St. Anne's. Jane is puzzled at first by her status as an equal at the house. Ivy's husband, Tom, is in prison for petty theft.
  • Merlinus Ambrosius – The wizard Merlin, awakened and returned to serve the Pendragon and save England. Receives the powers of the Oyéresu. He has been in a deep sleep since the time of King Arthur, and both sides initially believe he will join the N.I.C.E. His appearance at St. Anne's comes as a surprise.
  • Andrew MacPhee – A scientist, skeptic, and rationalist, who is a close friend of Dr. Ransom and joins him at St. Anne's. Though not religious, he is deeply influenced by his Presbyterian family background. His uncle was a high official in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, and, allowing for the differences in religious profession, was equally skeptical. He is mentioned parenthetically in Perelandra, and he appears in The Dark Tower. MacPhee, like Ransom, was an officer in the First World War. MacPhee desires to fight the N.I.C.E. with human powers. He is an argumentative character who claims to have no opinions, merely stating facts and illustrating implications. His position in the establishment is to be skeptical, testing every hypothesis and Jane's dreams; however, the awakened Merlin believes MacPhee to be Ransom's "fool" (jester), because MacPhee is "obstructive and rather rude...yet never gets sat on". The character may have been based on William T. Kirkpatrick, former headmaster of Lurgan College and an admired tutor of the young Lewis.
  • Mr. Bultitude – Last of the seven bears of Logres, who escaped from a zoo and was tamed by Ransom, who has regained man's legendary authority over the beasts. He is captured by the N.I.C.E., escapes, and destroys the Head.
  • Arthur Denniston – An academic at Edgestow and a former friend of Mark Studdock from student days. He and Mark were rival candidates for a fellowship at Bracton College, which Mark won through the influence of Lord Feverstone. They drifted apart before Jane entered the picture and Studdock became obsessed with reaching the "inner circle" at Bracton.
  • Camilla Denniston - The wife of Arthur Denniston, very tall and beautiful. She is the first person Jane meets at St. Anne's.


The main human antagonists of That Hideous Strength believe in scientific materialism, that is, that nothing exists apart from physical matter and energy. They also believe, somewhat like the early Gnostics, that the human body is frail and corrupted. Like modern transhumanists, they believe that humanity can be perfected by migrating out of its body of flesh and blood and into a machine. Lewis portrays the results of these ideas in a highly dystopian manner.

In contrast, Lewis portrays reality in the book as supporting essential Christian beliefs, such as the inherent sinfulness of humanity, the impossibility of humans perfecting themselves apart from God, the essential goodness of the physical body (though currently corrupted by sin), the omnipotence of God against the limited powers of evil, and the existence of angels and demons. Within this Christian framework, Lewis also incorporates Roman mythological figures into the hierarchy of angelic beings who serve God, as well as elements of the legend of King Arthur, which according to the book derive from true stories of human interaction with angels and demons. In this way, Lewis essentially presents an integration of Christian, Roman, and British conceptions of reality, true to his identity as a British Christian student of antiquity.

In chapter 12 Ransom makes a passing reference to Owen Barfield's "ancient unities" when discussing the feelings of the bear "Mr Bultitude".


Some two years before writing Manchester Evening News commenting: "Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters [the N.I.C.E. scientists], and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realizable".[6] The review was written shortly after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which it refers to.

However, Orwell argued that Lewis's book "would have been stronger without the supernatural elements". Particularly, Orwell objected to the ending in which N.I.C.E. is overthrown by divine intervention: "[Lewis] is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict, one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid".

Leonard Bacon, reviewing That Hideous Strength, described the book as "a ghastly but in many places a magnificent nightmare". He criticised the character of Studdock 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", but praised the plotting of the book: "The hunt of Ransome's remnant for the real Merlin while the villains capture the false one is as vivid as a passage in Stevenson." Although Bacon regarded the book as somewhat inferior to its two predecessors, he concluded: "This is just the sort of thing that pleases Mr. Lewis's admirers. And they are right to admire him. Win, lose or draw—and the reviewer doesn't think that this book is wholly victorious—Mr. Lewis adds energy to systems he comes in contact with".[7]

Floyd C. Gale wrote that the book "bears the authentic stamp of its creator's awesome imagination".[8]

In popular culture

Publication history

  • 1945, UK, The Bodley Head, N/A, Pub date ? December 1945, hardback (first edition)
  • 1946, USA Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, NY
  • 1996, USA Scribner Classics
  • 1996, USA, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-83367-0, pub date 28 October 1996, hardback
  • 1996, USA, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-82385-3, pub date 1 June 1996, paperback
  • 2012, USA, HarperCollins, ISBN 9780062196941, Publication date, April 2012, electronic book.
  • 1946 Paperback edition abridged by the author published in the USA under the title The Tortured Planet by MacMillan and under its original title in Britain by PAN books.


  1. ^ Tom Moylan, Raffaella Baccolini (2003). Dark horizons: science fiction and the dystopian imagination. Taylor and Francis Books.  
  2. ^ That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, C. S. Lewis, Simon and Schuster, 1996, ISBN 0-684-83367-0, ISBN 978-0-684-83367-5, 384 pages, pp. 7-8
  3. ^ Lyndsay's Middle Scots usage of strength was in the now archaic meaning of "fortress, stronghold", see also OED s.v. strength, n.: "10.a. A stronghold, fastness, fortress. Now arch. or Hist., chiefly with reference to Scotland."
  4. ^ The origins of Lewis's mythology are most thoroughly explored in the book Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, although this work is mainly concerned with the Narnia series. Many readers of Lewis's nonfiction study of Elizabethan cosmology, The Discarded Image, have inferred that this is the source of much of the mythos of the space trilogy.
  5. ^ gives a very detailed analysis of this.
  6. ^ "The Scientist Takes Over", review of C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945) by George Orwell, Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945, reprinted as No. 2720 (first half) in The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), pp. 250–251.
  7. ^ Leonard Bacon, "Confusion Goes to College". The Saturday Review of Literature, May 25, 1946, pp. 13–14.
  8. ^ Gale, Floyd C. (1959-04). "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf". Galaxy. pp. 143–146. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  9. ^ The passage in 2007 book is an expansion of Dyson's 2002 review of John Polkinghorne's The God of Hope and the End of the World (Yale University Press, 2002), which mentions Lewis but not this book or its N.I.C.E. organization.

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