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Friday, May 4, 2012

Introduction and Discussion Questions for our May 10th Meeting

That Hideous Strength

INTRODUCTION: “Tidies and fuglemen…………I sheel foor that we all – er- most steeply rebut……..Vood wooloo…Bot are you blammit?........Bundlemen, bundlemen……..Eh? Blotcher bulldoo?” I couldn’t resist beginning with some of the results of the curse of Babel on those esteemed masters of bureaucratic bull do-do, the leaders of NICE. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, ostensibly applied science for the greater good of all, but actually a front for sinister supernatural forces, the Macrobes.)

That Hideous Strength (THS), published in 1945, is the third and longest, book in CS Lewis’s space trilogy. Unlike Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, all the action takes place on planet earth. This time Ransom stays home and the planetary beings visit him- and also Merlin. As described by the author, THS is a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups. In the preface, he writes:”This is a tall story” about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man…the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary profession. I selected my own profession, not….because I think fellows of colleges more likely to be corrupted than anyone else, but because my own is the only profession I know well enough to write about.”

Lewis credits conversations with a scientific colleague for sparking one of the central ideas of the tale. This inspiration was later enhanced by the works of Olaf Stapledon. Lewis said that he admired Stapledon’s invention, though not his philosophy. The influence of Lewis’ friend, Charles Williams, is also evident- especially in the Arthurian elements.

Note: The first-time reader of THS may feel overwhelmed by the numerous elements and characters as well as the frequent back and forth from the two main characters and two main settings. Wikipedia has an 8 page article on THS which provides plot summary, context in Space Trilogy, and brief descriptions of the characters. Although I have read THS several times, I still found this helpful, despite a few minor errors.


1. One of the main points in The Abolition of Man is that modern education and philosophy tend to create “men without chests”, or people lacking in discernment, loyalty, the ability to distinguish between good/bad; straight/crooked; right/wrong, etc.; not having the courage of their convictions, nor even any fixed convictions. The story line in THS alternates between the different paths of Mark and Jane Studdock, who have had thoroughly modern educations and pride themselves on being progressive. In what ways do Mark and Jane illustrate the idea of “men without chests?”

2. THS has remained in print since its first publication (1945) and has many devotees who re-read it regularly, finding something new and thought-provoking in it each time. Others, like George Orwell (author of another modern classic, 1984), have found much to like in THS, and much to dislike. Below are some excerpts from a variety of reviews. Which statements would you endorse?

“a morality tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition, a modern day Tower of Babel, a warning that totalitarianism can take many forms….rather than a seamless whole …more the quality of patchwork…maybe it’s not great literature, but – I really liked it.
[it has] shrewdness about human nature and human institutions…and a wicked sense of humor.”
“ a clever attack on moral relativism.”
“I do find the whole Arthur and Merlin thing a rather disappointing way to end it.”
“quite different from the first two books, both better and worse … more down to earth in the two main characters and presents the temptation of Mark ….believably.”
“more timely today than when the book was published….a thrilling story that I enjoy more each time”
“the action is contrived, the characters one-dimensional, and the tone didactic”
“a realistic description of what eventually happens when people make technology their lord”
“Lewis at his satirical best- an uppercut landed to the jaw of secular, anti-family, “post-Christian” society”
“too many words, Clive, too many words”

3. “Matrimony” is the first word in THS, as Jane Studdock contemplates her own marriage- expectations, disappointments, frustrations. THS ends with Jane walking toward the lodge where her husband Mark waits for her. In between there is much talk about marriage and gender roles, hierarchy, duties, promises, obedience. What is your reaction to the “old-fashioned ideas” of the Director (Ransom/ Mr. Fisher-King) and his Masters? How does Jane react? Why did Jane, an avowed feminist, choose the poetry of John Donne as the subject of her thesis? (see Donne quote beginning ‘Hope not for minde in women…”p. 16)

4. Mark and Jane do eventually end up in the same place (at least for the night) after parallel, but quite different, journeys. In what ways do each of them under-go re-education? Is there genuine transformation and/or redemption?

5. What makes Mark so vulnerable to the lure of “that hideous strength?” How does he over-ride his own misgivings and fears? In contrast, Jane is initially repulsed by her own non-returnable “gift” of vision and the invitation to join the group (or company) at St. Anne’s. (p. 61-68, 112-17) What finally draws her in?

6. What leads Mark to try to escape from Belbury? (page 259 on)What happens next? What leads him to finally, irrevocably, rebel? What form does his rebellion take? What role does the tramp play in this? (page 259 on, especially 311-14)

7. One might say that Mark and Jane, for much of the book, inhabit different worlds. Mark is drawn into the inner circle of NICE, located at Belbury. Jane is drawn into the smaller and much nicer circle located at St. Anne’s. What are the differences between the two worlds (Belbury and St. Anne’s) in the following areas: (a) methods of maintaining order and securing obedience (b) ambiance / atmosphere (c)gardens (pages 61-62; 101-02) (d)leadership (e) view of death (p. 229-30, 233; for Filostrato’s extreme views,p. 174)) (f)the rooms in which new members are initiated (p. 142; 296-299) (g) clarity vs. confusion (h) honesty vs. dishonesty (i) free, informed choice vs. coercion

8. The tramp (whose clothes Merlin took) is presumed by the leaders of NICE at Belbury to be the real Merlin, fresh from Arthurian times after a LONG sleep. Why is Wither (the DD) so puzzled by the tramp? (p. 313-14) What is the tramp’s reaction to the Banquet at Belbury? (p. 343-45) Why does the real Merlin join forces with the group at St. Anne’s?

9. Ransom, the hero of the first two books in the trilogy, plays a smaller role in THS. Why is he also called Mr. Fisher-King or the Pendragon? What is Logres?

10. If one could ever pin down the leaders of NICE to definitions, how would they define: progressive element; diehards; sound men; experiment vs. experimental; red tape; remedial treatment; elasticity.

11. Do you have a favorite quote from THS? Favorite character? Favorite scene?

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