Apocalyptic Themes in "That Hideous Strength"

There’s no escaping the apocalypse. For all of us, there will be some “end of the world” experience: whether or not we live to see the cosmic end of all things, everyone must face the inevitable close of our earthly lives and our journeys into the beyond. This inescapable human reality is an interesting one to consider when reflecting upon C. S. Lewis, both as a Christian and as an artist.

The historical atmosphere during Lewis’s lifetime – the war-torn world around him – conjures up an image not unlike the events we imagine as constituting the “end times.”

The first of Lewis’s works to come to mind when mentioning the apocalypse may be The Last Battle, in which Lewis depicts the end of the world as it happened in his well-known and well-beloved imaginary realm of Narnia; however, the final novel of Lewis’s Space Trilogy also incorporates fundamentally apocalyptic images and themes. That Hideous Strength, set “vaguely ‘after the war’” (8)(note below), is a novel in which the characters must all face an apocalypse in their own lives.

In his 1984 essay, “Apocalypse: Theme and Variations,” M. H. Abrams explains that

Revelation (or in the Greek derivative, Apocalypse) is the concluding book of the biblical canon which presents, in the mode of symbolic visions, a series of events, even now beginning, which will culminate in the abrupt end of the present, evil world-order and its replacement by a regenerate mankind in a new and perfected condition of life. (343)(note below)

The biblical book of Revelation is about the destruction of the old world in order to make way for the new, perfected one. Revelation tells of “a new heaven and a new earth” and a “New Jerusalem” (21:1-2) that will come about for the faithful after the apocalyptic storm has passed. This aspect of Revelation – the destruction of one order and the rebirth of another – is certainly present in That Hideous Strength. Although the entire world’s end does not occur in the novel, its conclusion involves enough destruction, disarray, and violent death to suggest a parallel to the apocalypse: the town in which the story is set endures cataclysmic devastation, many of the “evil” characters lose the power of coherent speech, and several are killed and eaten by wild animals. Furthermore, staying in line with the Christian view of apocalypse, That Hideous Strength also ends with a promise for restoration and renewal.

That Hideous Strength, published in 1945, centers around Jane and Mark Studdock, a young couple who find themselves major players in the battle between good and evil waged by Dr. Elwin Ransom, the protagonist of the first two novels of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, who heads the “good” side of the battle, against the evil National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (ironically known as N.I.C.E.). Masking as a research organization, the Nazi-like N.I.C.E. conducts cruel experiments on animals (and, as it turns out, human beings), manipulates the press, brainwashes its members, and – ultimately – plans to wipe out human existence as it is currently known. The central executors of this plan are in contact with evil spiritual beings, essentially devils, who are animating the severed head of an executed criminal. Clearly, this organization is up to no good. Ransom, on the other hand, who appears in That Hideous Strength as a saintly character after his prior experiences in “deep space,” is equally clearly an instrument of goodness; he is in constant communication with the angelic beings, or “eldils,” who are faithful to Maleldil, Lewis’s representation of God in the story.

In considering That Hideous Strength as an apocalyptic novel, the unmistakably delineated sides to this battle mirror the war between “the great red dragon, […] that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” (12:9) and “[Christ,] the Lamb” (21:22) in Revelation. In That Hideous Strength, as in the Scripture, there is a real difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. As one of the “good” characters states, before he is killed by N.I.C.E. for trying to leave the organization, “there are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there’s never more than one” (70). Good and evil, in Revelation and in That Hideous Strength, are not essentially ambiguous or intermingled; good and evil are real, existing entities between which every person has to make a choice.

On the level of individual characters, however, the division between good and evil becomes much less black and white. In addressing the idea of individual characters discerning good and evil, it will be enlightening to refer to another of Abrams’ insights. Also in “Apocalypse: Theme and Variations,” he discusses a facet of apocalyptic literature he calls “the apocalypse within” and describes as a “spiritual, […] internalize[d] apocalypse” (353); he likens this internal apocalypse to conversion, saying that a “new heaven and a new earth” can come about “in the spirit of the individual convert” (353).

Conversion is also crucial in the book of Revelation. The first section of Revelation contains a set of seven letters in which God, through the voice of John, calls out for his people to “repent” (1:5; 2:5). In order to enter into communion with the Lamb, and to escape the clutches of the red dragon, God’s people must undergo a change of heart; the evil within themselves must be destroyed in order to make way for the New Jerusalem of Christ living within their souls. An internal apocalypse is, then, a personal battle between good and evil upon the ground of an individual soul, followed by a choice to embrace the good and overcome the evil.

In That Hideous Strength, the characters go through internal apocalypses that parallel the physical apocalyptic events happening around them. As I said, things become a lot less black and white when looking at these personal battles between good and evil. But that statement needs to be qualified somewhat. It is the process of the battle that becomes less black and white; in the arena of individual human actions in the novel, it is not always obvious where a character will end up – on the good side or the bad. However, there is still an ultimate choice between good and evil that remains clear. One of N.I.C.E.’s main executives, named Frost, demonstrates in his final moments that ultimate, apocalyptic battle within his soul. The designs of N.I.C.E. have failed, many of his colleagues have met horrific deaths, destruction lies all around, and Frost:

walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone. (355-6)

This grim passage echoes the terror of the apocalypse, a terror that comes when an individual fails to repent. According to Lewis, and according to Revelation, loss of the soul’s life inexpressibly outweighs loss of the body’s, for when the soul is lost there will be no New Jerusalem to follow. Frost is given a chance to repent, to choose the good – but he refuses it. His internal apocalypse cannot be completed, for he rejects the final opportunity to embrace the good, and he is therefore doomed to eternal destruction with no new heaven or earth to come in the future.

Jane and Mark Studdock, however, although each travels a very different pathway, both experience internal conversions that lead them to become “new” people by the novel’s end. Mark’s pathway leads him right into the mouth of the beast – into the inner circles of N.I.C.E.– whereas Jane’s journey brings her into contact with Ransom and his colleagues; both of them, through their radically distinct paths, are able to face the red dragon within themselves and come out on the side of good. In their case, the fulfillment of their conversions and the renewal of their lives involves a rejuvenation of their marriage, which had been failing at the beginning of the story.

That Hideous Strength is, in many ways, a story about marriage. The first word of the novel is “marriage,” spoken by Jane as she reflects on the miseries of her newlywed state of being. After their apocalyptic experiences, however, Jane and Mark meet again in the “marriage chamber” (377) that awaits them in a “place of sweet smells and bright fires, with food and wine and a rich bed” (380). After long separation, and with their individual selves renewed, they are finally able to truly love one another.

Revelation, too, is a story about marriage. The final book of the Bible tells of the “marriage of the Lamb” (19:7) to the New Jerusalem, who comes “down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). Once the destruction is over, those who have chosen the good can share in the wedding feast of the Lamb and the New Jerusalem. In That Hideous Strength, Jane and Mark experience mental and physical devastations, but these devastations ultimately lead to a promise of hope for the future. Just after the world around them has crumbled into apocalyptic disarray, Jane and Mark experience a renewal of love that heralds the true end of the apocalypse: the dawn of a new day. In this novel, as he often does, Lewis takes a fundamentally human issue – the concerns, expectations, and images associated with the end of the world – and offers an enlightening perspective of the matter through the lens of fiction.(note below)

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Marisa White’s research interests lie mainly in the area of 20th Century British Christian literature, especially Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy L. Sayers, David Jones, Charles Williams, and Graham Greene.

Notes
1. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 1973).

2. M. H. Abrams, “Apocalypse: Theme and Variations,” The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, ed. C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984) 342-68.

3. I feel remiss in ending here, since there is so much more to be said about apocalyptic themes in this novel – Jane’s visions, Merlin’s “resurrection,” the references to the tower of Babel – and a more thorough analysis of the issues I have already brought up. However, I hope you will pursue the topic more fully, if you so desire.

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