That Hideous Strength

This week I have been listening to C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which may be my second favorite of his books, after Till We Have Faces. It starts off a bit slowly, and its perhaps not as quotable as Lewis’ other works, but in its last 1/5 or so everything comes together and the plot becomes extremely exciting.

My overall favorite thing about the book is the characterization. There’s Mark, whose desire for the “inner circle” will make him do anything, including very nearly destroy himself and make a fool of himself in the process. And then there’s Jane, who is proud and independent and detests any kind of feminine submission or neediness. I love the way Lewis describes how each of these characters, in their different ways, comes to see their folly and is redeemed. Especially Mark – you almost feel physical relief when he comes to his senses at the end of the book. Its also interesting to “listen in” on the conversations between the various good characters, especially the conversations between MacPhee the rationalist and Ransom or Dimble. Lewis is a master at stating profound ideas succinctly, and he does it through dialogue as well as non-fiction.

But best of all are the bad guys, the upper members of the N.I.C.E. They are the kinds of characters who are simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. There’s Wither, always vague, always distant, always polite, and yet – how do you describe him? There is some deep malice always simmering just beneath the surface. I love how he constantly interrupts his (already convoluted) sentences with expressions like – “you will understand I am speaking only semi-officially, of course” – and, “I am thinking of your interests here – it would be inexpressibly painful to me to cause you any discomfort whatsoever.” He is so polite and deferential – and all the while acting as the head of the organization seeking to destroy humanity. Hilarious!

Then there’s Frost, whose icy objectivity and opposition to all “chemical phenomena” have pushed him outside even his own reason, to the point where he obeys the devils involved with the N.I.C.E. unconditionally and resents that he even has a consciousness to be aware of this. There’s Straik, the lapsed parson who (re)interprets all biblical prophecies and events in terms of the N.I.C.E.’s agenda, Fairy Hardcastle, the sadistic head of the N.I.C.E. police, Filostrato, the hugely fat Italian scientist who wants to “cleanse” earth of all vegetation, and on and on it goes. I’d love to learn more about where he got the inspiration for all these characters. They show how terrible evil is – and yet, in another way, they also kind of make fun of evil.

Here is a particularly chilling passage which reveals the demonic center of the N.I.C.E. It begins at the tail end of a conversation between Frost and Whither about how to treat Mark, who is at this stage in the plot their prisoner:

Either Frost or Whither – it was difficult to say which – had been gradually moving his chair, so that by this time the two men sat with their knees almost touching.

“Of course,” said Wither, “nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity. You will not suspect me of under-rating that aspect of our orders. Any fresh individual brought into that unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction to – ah – all concerned. I desire the closest possible bond. I would welcome an interpenetration of personalities so close, so irrevocable, that it almost transcends individuality. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive – to absorb – to assimilate this young man.”

They were now sitting so close together that their faces almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Frost’s pince-nez caught the light so that they made his eyes invisible: only his mouth, smiling but not relaxed in the smile, revealed his expression. Wither’s mouth was open, the lower lip hanging down, his eyes wet, his whole body hunched and collapsed in his chair as if the strength had gone out of it. A stranger would have thought he had been drinking. Then his shoulders twitched and gradually he began to laugh. And Frost did not laugh, but his smile grew moment by moment brighter and also colder, and he stretched out his hand and patted his colleague on the shoulder. Suddenly in that silent room there was a crash. Who’s Who had fallen off the table, swept onto the floor as, with sudden swift convulsive movement, the two men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape. And as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, but then louder and louder, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter.

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