I recently re-read That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, and enjoyed it so much. One of my favorite things about this book is the creativity Lewis used in making the characters in leadership of the N.I.C.E. – Wither, Miss Hardcastle, Frost, Straik, Filostrato, Feverstone, etc. – anyone who has read the book knows what I mean. Here are two of my favorite scenes in the book. The first is a phone conversation that showcases the character of John Wither, the Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E. Somewhat random, but I like it because it shows his character so well. The second occurs towards the end of the book when all the bad guys are getting destroyed. It shows the destruction of Frost, the member of the N.I.C.E. who pursued pure objectivity. There is so much insight into the nature of evil in these passages, and so much literary craft, that I don’t even know what to say introduce them. The second one especially still sends shivers up my spine to read it.
The Deputy Director hardly ever slept. When it became absolutely necessary for him to do so, be took a drug, but the necessity was rare, for the mode of consciousness he experienced at most hours of day or night had long ceased to be exactly like what other men call waking. He had learned to withdraw most of his consciousness from the task of living, to conduct business, even, with only a quarter of his mind. Colours, tastes, smells, and tactual sensations no doubt bombarded bis physical senses in the normal manner: they did not now reach his ego. The manner and outward atttitude to men which he had adopted half a century ago were now an organisation which functioned almost independently like a gramophone and to which he could hand over his whole routine of interviews and committees. While the brain and lips carried on this work, and built up day by day for those around him the vague and formidable personality which they knew so well, his inmost self was free to pursue its own life. That detachrnent of the spirit, not only from the senses, but even from the reason, which has been the goal of some mystics, was now his.
Hence he was still, in a sense, awake-that is, he was certainly not sleeping – an hour after Frost had left him to visit Mark in his cell. Anyone who had looked into the study during that hour would have seen him sitting motionless at his table, with bowed head and folded hands. But his eyes were not shut. The face had no expression; the real man was far away suffering, enjoying, or inflicting whatever such souls do suffer, enjoy or inflict when the cord that binds them to the natural order is stretched out to its utmost but not yet snapped. When the telephone rang at his elbow he took up the receiver without a start.
“Speaking,” be said.
“This is Stone, Sir,” came a voice. “We have found the chamber.”
“It was empty, Sir.”
“I see. Well, no doubt your action (speaking quite without prejudice) could be interpreted along those lines. You made it quite clear that this-ah-Personage – when found, was to he treated with the greatest deference and – if you won’t misunderstand me – caution?”
“Oh yes, Sir.”
“Well, Mr. Stone, I am, on the whole, and with certain inevitable reservations, moderately satisfied with your conduct of this affair. I believe that I may be able to present it in a favourable light to those of my colleagues whose good will you have, unfortunately, not been able to retain. If you can bring it to a successful conclusion you would very much strengthen your position. If not … it is inexpressibly painful to me that there should be these tensions and mutual recriminations among us. But you quite understand me, my dear boy. If ouly I could persuade – say Miss Hardcastle and Mr. Studdock to share my appreciation of your very real qualities, you would need to have no apprehensions about your career or – ah – your security.”
“But what do you want me to do, Sir?”
“My dear young friend, the golden rule is very simple. There are only two errors which would be fatal to one placed in the peculiar situation which certain parts of your previous conduct have unfortunately created for you. On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action – anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours – naught have consequences from which even I could not protect you. But as long as you keep quite clear of these two extremes, there is no reason (speaking unofficially) why you should not be perfectly safe.”
Then, without waiting for Mr. Stone to reply, he hung up the receiver and rang his bell.
Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so – since he had been initiated – he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men. But never, until this evening, had he been quite so vividly aware that the body and its movements were the only reality, that the self which seemed to watch the body leaving the dining room and setting out for the chamber of the Head, was a nonentity. How infuriating that the body should have power thus to project a phantom self!
Thus the Frost whose existence Frost denied watched his body go into the ante-room, watched it pull up sharply at the sight of a naked and bloodied corpse. The chemical reaction called shock occurred. Frost stopped, turned the body over, and recognised Straik. A moment later his flashing pince-nez and pointed beard looked into the room of the Head itself. He hardly noticed that Wither and Filostrato lay there dead. His attention was fixed by something more serious. The bracket where the Head ought to have been was empty: the metal ring twisted, the rubber tubes tangled and broken. Then he noticed a head on the floor; stooped and examined it. It was Filostrato’s. Of Alcasan’s bead he found no trace, unless some mess of broken bones beside Filostrato’s were it.
Still not asking what he would do or why, Frost went to the garage. The whole place was silent and empty; the snow was thick on the ground by this. He came up with as many petrol tins as he could carry. He piled all the inflammables he could think of together in the Objective Room. Then he locked himself in by locking the outer door of the ante-room. Whatever it was that dictated his actions then compelled him to push the key into the speaking tube which communicated with the passage. When he had pushed it as far in as his fingers could reach, he took a pencil from his pocket and pushed with that. Presently he heard the clink of the key falling on the passage floor outside. That tiresome illusion, his consciousness, was screaming to protest; his body, even had he wished, had no power to attend to those screams. Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, 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.