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|That Hideous Strength
by C.S. Lewis
Published by John Lane, 1943
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Suggested by: Ross Pavlac
The last book in what is commonly known as C.S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy is set on Earth. The story is set in Edgestowe, a small university town. The university, and specifically Bracton College, is being drawn into the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, a group which is ostensibly set up to fund scientific research, but has a much darker agenda. That agenda includes buying Bragdon Wood from the College, not, as they claim, for the purpose of building a new headquarters, but because of what lies within the wood. Or, more precisely, who, for within the wood lies Merlin the magician, preserved down through the centuries in an enchanted sleep. The inner circle of the N.I.C.E. wants to combine Merlin's magical powers with materialist science, and remake society to suit their own ends. Meanwhile, nearby, a small company has gathered around Edwin Ransom, the protagonist from Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, who now goes by the name of Fisher-King.
One of the college dons, Mark Studdock, is drawn further and further within the circles of the conspiracy, until its full horrors are revealed. At the same time, his wife Jane is drawn to the small company. The battle-lines are drawn: if the N.I.C.E. has its way, human freedom will be a thing of the past. The question is whether Mark can be saved from the N.I.C.E., or whether he has been too deeply entangled in its web of evil. For it becomes clear that the confrontation is, in fact, between the forces of good, and the forces of evil. Even in the midst of the madness which surrounds him, Mark, although he been all but stripped of the ability to make moral judgements, still perceives that, if what the N.I.C.E. is up to is "wrong", then there must also be a "right".
As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else something he vaguely called the "Normal" apparently existed.... It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that, somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment. He was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience. He was choosing a side: the Normal. (p. 299)
This scene, in which Mark first begins to throw off the chains bound upon him by assorted appeals to his vices, is one of the most inspiring passages of fiction I have ever read.
In many ways, the thought in That Hideous Strength is similar to The Abolition of Man, Lewis' exploration of the implications of then-current educational theories, but the book also rings with themes which run through much of Lewis' writing, most notably his belief that submission, rather than equality, is the path to true freedom. This, the longest of the three books, is filled with more ideas than either of the others, and yet also has the most action. Greg Slade (February, 2005)
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