Many commentators have pointed out – correctly – that current “progressive” trends are reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984.” The parallels include manipulation of the English language, rewriting of history, suppression of dissent, and the omnipresence of administrative central government.
In addition to which, there are the lightning-swift changes in the party line: For example, behavior traditionally deemed morally wrong or perverted suddenly becomes a theme for celebration. You’re a bigot if you don’t change instantly!
Orwell wasn’t the only mid-20th century British writer to forecast those trends. Another was C.S. Lewis—particularly in his brilliant dystopia “That Hideous Strength.”
Lewis is best known for his works of popular Christian theology and for the allegorical fantasies for children called the “Chronicles of Narnia.”
On the other hand, “That Hideous Strength” is subtitled “A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups.” It isn’t entirely a fairy tale, but the subtitle’s warning is appropriate: This book has some disturbing content, and it certainly isn’t for children.
“That Hideous Strength” is the third in Lewis’s science fiction space trilogy. The action in the first, “Out of the Silent Planet,” takes place mostly on Mars. (Yes, you get to meet real Martians!) The second is “Perelandra,” which centers on Venus. In “That Hideous Strength,” the action is entirely on Earth—although beings from higher (and lower) regions also participate.
The phrase “that hideous strength” derives from a 1555 poem by the Scottish writer David Lyndsay. The term “strength” denoted a fortress or stronghold. In the poem, the hideous strength is the Tower of Babel. In Lewis’s book, it’s the massive, modernistic headquarters of the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.
“N.I.C.E.,” for short.
‘Progressives’ Then and Now
The authoritarians who control most major American institutions today aren’t the first to claim the label “progressive.” Italian fascists, German National Socialists (Nazis), communists, and other socialists all appropriated the same label. And like today’s “progressives,” they tarred advocates of freedom and tradition as reactionaries.
“That Hideous Strength” was published in 1945. In that year, the free world, newly victorious over one kind of “progressive” tyranny, came face-to-face with another. Lewis’s book applies to both kinds.
“That Hideous Strength” has no single protagonist. The nearest thing is Mark Studdock, a young instructor at Bracton College. Lewis located this fictional institution in a (likewise fictional) idyllic English college town. Lewis modeled the college and the town somewhat on Oxford and Cambridge, but Bracton is much smaller. On its grounds is an ancient forest, wherein there are reputed to lie the remains of the Dark Age English magician, Merlin.
Unfortunately, Bracton College has been invaded by the self-styled “progressive element”—a group of academics very much like many I encountered during my university years: obsessed with process and intellectual fads, driven by lust to destroy, mouthing circumlocutions in place of plain speech, and enlisting “community” in the service of political power.
Bracton’s progressive element is enthusiastic to learn that N.I.C.E. has selected their town for its new headquarters. N.I.C.E., after all, is the national leader in experimenting with the raw material of humanity. N.I.C.E. will show how to fashion mankind into the automatons who populate progressive fantasy.
Mark Studdock is only modestly talented, but is ambitious and unencumbered by firm religious beliefs. He also has a strong desire to fit in with the right sort. Hence, he’s seduced by the progressives—almost, but not entirely, for there’s a slight extenuation in his character. This is Mark’s love for his wife, Jane, and his admiration for what he thinks she represents. Ultimately, this becomes the entry point for his salvation.
Throughout the book, present trends resound backward. I mentioned Lewis’s devastating portrayal of the academic type so common in campus life. There’s also the familiar manipulation of language and the desire to conform.
Then there’s Lewis’s depiction of the soulless administrative apparatus. Lewis doesn’t tell us that England has lost its democratic form of government, but if it hasn’t, then only the form remains. Because N.I.C.E. imposes what it wants with impunity.
Just as our “progressive” mobs destroy and vandalize historical monuments, N.I.C.E. levels the ancient forest on the Bracton College grounds, replacing it with a sterile and sinister pile. The placid old town is swamped by vulgarian bullies slinging four-letter words. You’ll encounter their analogues today in any “progressive”-run city. (Lewis thinly disguises the words, but you know what they are.)
Orwell’s “1984” depicts a world in which, except for periodic hate sessions, sensuality is suppressed. I think Lewis’s depiction is more accurate: In “That Hideous Strength,” the objective is discarded in favor of the subjective. Beauty and balance yield to the ugly and perverted. To condition Mark for their purposes, N.I.C.E. operatives place him in a distorted room:
“[T]he room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely so but sufficiently to produce dislike. … The point of the arch was not in the centre; the whole thing was lop-sided. Once again, the error was not gross. The thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind even after the deception had been unmasked. … He had a look at the pictures. … There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair … you could almost feel that hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea …. And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium?
“Long ago Mark had read somewhere of ’things of that extreme evil which seems innocent to the uninitiate,’ and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.”
Mark (and the reader) finally learn that behind the pretensions of “progressivism” lurks Satan. For a Christian of Lewis’s stripe, there’s a literal Satan. But one need not believe in a literal Satan to appreciate the point: Just remind yourself that, “If there were a Satan, he would be just like N.I.C.E.”
At one level, “That Hideous Strength” is a gripping and instructive story with a viscerally rewarding finish. On another, it’s a work of speculative theology.
Lewis was a scholar who taught both at Cambridge and at Oxford. If you have an academic background (or if you recently attended college), you will chuckle at how he characterizes the “progressive” mediocrities that have undermined universities that are supposed to convey “truth and tradition” and perverted them into institutions that act quite differently.
Lewis’s vast learning produced a myriad of historical and literary allusions. You don’t need to recognize them to appreciate the story. But recognizing some or all of them makes reading the book richer and more fun. For a guide, I recommend Arend Smilde’s “Quotations and Allusions in C. S. Lewis, ‘That Hideous Strength.’”