That Hideous Strength, the third book of the Ransom trilogy, is one of Lewis’s best-loved stories—and also one of his most fiercely criticized. It is a big book, more than twice as long as the two earlier books of the trilogy combined. Admirers of the story find there a literary cornucopia: a realistic study of a struggling marriage; a shrewd satire on college politics; a neo-Arthurian romance; or even an apocalyptic fantasy. The book’s detractors complain that it is overfull, an uneven mixture of disparate elements, with two many villains and too much violence.
Lewis describes That Hideous Strength in its preface as “a tall story about deviltry,” a topic he seemed to have on his mind a lot during the dark days of World War Two. In four consecutive books Lewis introduces hellish characters and hellish settings (imaginatively recast for modern readers) in order to explore the psychology of faith and doubt, of temptation and spiritual trial. In 1942 The Screwtape Letters appeared, featuring advice from a senior devil in the “lowerarchy” to a junior tempter. In 1943 came Perelandra, where Ransom spends half the story contending with a demonized corpse. In 1945 That Hideous Strength appeared, as well as The Great Divorce, a fantasy about denizens of hell who take an excursion to the outskirts of heaven, most finding reasons to prefer their nether abode.
That Hideous Strength begins realistically enough. Its central characters are Mark and Jane Studdock, a pair of trendy but shallow modern intellectuals in an empty marriage. As the story unfolds, they undertake opposite pilgrimages. After Jane meets Ransom and joins the community at St. Anne’s, she begins her arduous ascent of purification and self-understanding. Meanwhile, her husband Mark assumes he is climbing the organizational ladder at the National Institute of Coordinated Sciences (NICE), when he is actually descending into hell.
Several critics have noted the structural symmetries in That Hideous Strength by which the Studdocks’ opposite journeys are marked. Jane begins with feelings of lethargy and lack of commitment, either to her marriage or to her scholarship; Mark begins with a reckless commitment, a headlong plunge to fulfill his ambitions by the shortest route possible. Jane dreams realities and thinks they are illusions; Mark is deluded about the place he works just when he thinks he knows what is really going on. Jane takes a slow train to St. Anne’s to begin her journey of healing. Mark rushes to Belbury in a big, flashy car driven by the reckless Lord Feverstone (a suitably infernal name). Jane is filled with unspeakable joy when she first meets the head of St. Anne’s–the regal and mystical Ransom, returned from Perelandra. Mark is filled with unutterable horror and revulsion when he meets the “head” of N.I.C.E.–a decapitated head kept alive by the power of fallen spirits.
Like Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet, Jane discovers the truth little by little. As she is drawn into the Christian community at St. Anne’s, she learns first that she is not a neurotic but a clairvoyant, one with the power to dream realities. Then she learns, begrudgingly, that she has contributed to her failing marriage as much as her husband. Next she discovers that medieval notions are truer than she ever could have imagined, including a daunting encounter with Merlin the Magician and a “descent of the gods,” a war council of the planetary sovereigns known on earth as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Eventually Jane comes to understand, as Ransom had in the earlier books of the trilogy, that what she had dismissed as “religion” might actually be Reality.
Mark Studdock’s journey is much darker and more perilous. In fact, his increasing entanglement in the affairs of N.I.C.E. closely parallels Dante’s downward spiral through the circles of hell. In his homily “The Inner Ring,” Lewis warned about people who become scoundrels by degrees, making increasingly serious compromises of their integrity and values in order to make their way into an exclusive inner circle. Mark Studdock is quite clearly a victim of the inner-ring syndrome as he tries to gain acceptance at N.I.C.E. If Mark had known his Dante, he might have had second thoughts about the sequence of sinners he is getting to know at NICE. First he befriends schemers and opportunists; then he meets the carnal, the gluttonous, the greedy, the wrathful, and the violent. Finally, he descends to the lowest chamber, where he confronts heretics and traitors, and witnesses the naked evil behind all the masks of pomp and power. [For readers who may have missed the Dantesque undertones, Lewis inserts some actual lines from The Inferno: his narrator speaks of “souls who have lost the good of intellect” (Inferno 3, 18) and later comments, “So full of sleep are those who leave the right way” (1, 11-12).]
Mark Studdock finds his moral bearings just in time, and he escapes from the hellish Institute before it faces its final judgment. Despite all his compromises, Mark learns that there are such things as moral norms and that, whatever else he does, he will not sacrifice his wife to those at NICE who wish to exploit her gifts
Having almost literally been to hell and back, Mark’s gnawing ambition is replaced by a newfound humility. He feels unworthy of the wife he has been neglecting for the sake of his career, and wonders if she’ll even take him back. Fortunately, Jane Studdock has been undergoing spiritual healing at St. Anne’s, including the all-important lesson of forgiveness. So when Mark and Jane are reunited in a kind of honeymoon cottage, we feel assured that their marriage will be renewed. In a suitably medieval ending as only Lewis could contrive it, it is Venus herself who bids Mark to go in to his wife and who blesses their marriage bed.