This is the second installment of C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength” lecture/transcript, the final section to a three-part sci-fi series. You can find Part 1 of this lecture/transcript here.
Ransom finally comes into the story at this point. (Recall Ransom from the first two books “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra.”)
Ransom is now being referred to as the fisher king which is connected to the Arthurian legend. Recall that in Book 2 “Perelandra” Ransom suffered a deep bite into his heel from Weston, who was possessed by the devil, and this wound never healed, it was always bleeding and is extremely painful.
In the Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded King or Maimed King, is the last in a long bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of the original story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of standing.
I personally do not know very much on this subject and will share an excerpt from Wikipedia for a general overview of an extremely complex historical and mythological subject that continues to carry a great deal of controversy:
“In some Welsh and Breton tales and poems that date from before the famous work by Geoffrey of Monouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore, sometimes associated with the Welsh otherworld Annwn.
Arthur is a central figure in the legends making up the Matter of Britain. The Matter of Britain is the body of medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain and Brittany and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. It was one of the three great Western story cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology.
The historical basis for King Arthur has been long debated by scholars. One school of thought, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), saw Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons some time in the late 5th to early 6th century.”
One point I would stress on the subject of the King Arthur legend, is that whether it partakes in truth or not, it is incredibly influential to the cultural identity of the British people, and is referred to as the Matter of Britain, and thus something we need to keep in mind.
It appears Lewis is favourable to this historical perspective of the King Arthur legend. That King Arthur had led the Welsh resistance against the invading Anglo-Saxons. Recall the conversation between Jane and Dr. Dimble in the previous installment:
Filostrato is one of the scientists at the N.I.C.E. institute and is describing in the excerpt below his philosophy as to the ultimate goal/purpose of what N.I.C.E. is working towards, which is very much along the lines of the H.G. Wells outlook that we discussed in Part 1 of this series on “The First Men in the Moon.” Filostrato thinks that the artificial world is a superior world where everything can be perfected and nothing ever dies.
There is one scene where Mark is looking at the Moon and reflecting how dead and absent of life it looks. Filostrato insists that there is indeed life on the Moon and goes on to describe a very Wellsian description of this “superior” life form on the Moon. Again, Lewis is clearly making another reference to H.G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon.”
We find out that Mark is going to be meeting “the Head” that very evening.
In the following scene, Reverend Straik (a militant Christian fanatic) and Filostrato the scientist (both working for N.I.C.E.) are preparing Mark for his encounter with “the Head”:
This new religion Straik and Filostrato are discussing, is the ascension of Man as God, either in direct embodiment or a creation, a product of Man. It is easy to at first just discount such ambitions as absurd and insane, however, once again the truth can be stranger than fiction, or in this case not that far off. What Lewis is describing here are the very ambitions of characters like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell who wrote about their desire to bring such a thing about. It is also what has created such products as Harari’s “hackable human” and Harari’s description of the new gospel in “modern science”:
Harari has also spoken about evolution by natural selection now being replaced by evolution by intelligent design, at the 2018 WEF. He furthers “Not by some ‘guy above the clouds’ but OUR intelligent design. And the intelligent design of OUR clouds, the IBM cloud, the Microsoft cloud. These are the new driving forces of evolution.” For more on this refer here.
Mark ends up meeting “the Head” which is quite literally a head…in fact, it is the head of Alcasan, which is attached to all these wires and is drooling and there is a voice that comes out of it. Filostrato, is supposed to be in charge of the sterility of the room containing the Head and all of the pumps, levers and dials they have as part of the set-up in order for the Head to “function.” They have to use artificial saliva so the Head can speak, etc. Filostrato believes that it is Alcasan who is speaking to them in this “superior” form of existence, this past death experience that holds this sort of mystical intelligence for Filostrato and Straik.
Mark is obviously very disturbed and creeped out by this, but he does not have a strong foundation and is still trying to get his bearings. His immediate reaction is not to try to leave because he also knows that he can’t really leave at this point anyway. He is in too far, they are probably going to kill him if he attempts to leave. There was already another member of N.I.C.E. who attempted to leave and was found murdered on his way back home.
Thus, Mark finds outs that one of the consequences of attempting to enter the innermost ring, is that you may not like what you find in their inner “sanctum” however, it is too late at that point to exit the ring. Mark realises that he has entered a sort of prison…willingly.
Ransom’s group in this story are the good guys, the only seeming resistance against N.I.C.E., and are made up of a diversity of character types, a sort of group of misfits. Jane ends up having a dream depicting this scene of Mark encountering “the Head” with Filostrato and Straik. MacPhee, who is a member of the Ransom group remarks:
Again a clear reference to H.G. Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon” depicted in the right side image above, who was obsessed with size of head as emblematic of the level of intelligence.
Jane is also starting to have dreams of Merlin:
“Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result.” We have already discussed briefly what Élan vital is in association with emergent evolution (see previous installment). What Lewis is eluding to here (and which I will discuss further shortly) is that alongside the T.H. Huxley intervention into what would form the “modern sciences” under the new creed of Darwinism, was another current of thought seemingly opposing but not, situated in parapsychology, mysticism and the esoteric.
This is what Lewis is talking about in terms of these scientists of the “modern sciences” were supposed to reject the old world of religion mixed in with the sciences and were supposed to be very fact-based, very empirical, with data-sets etc. but then we began to yearn for the old again, we wanted to reach back for the old power and combine the two. And this is what the scientists at the N.I.C.E. institute are interested in.
As we are proceeding further into the innermost ring, we see how all of the players thus far, Lord Feverstone, the Fairie, Straik and Filostrato in what we later see was a false understanding of what was allowing the Head to “operate” all have their own ideologies governing their understanding of what they think they are ultimately working towards as a goal, which turns out not to be the goal they thought they were working towards.
However, Lewis also makes the very insightful point that if any of these players (such as Lord Feverstone, the Fairie, Straik or Filostrato) were confronted with the ultimate goal, “they would be like straw in fire.” They would not have the foundation to oppose whatever the ultimate goal was anyway, ideologically and morally, because they had already allowed themselves to no longer believe in a rational moral universe. They are no longer mentally situated in a universe with moral purpose, thus nothing ultimately could be too obscene in a universe with no moral purpose (for more on this refer here and here).
Straik knows a little more than Filostrato but it is ultimately Frost and Wither, who are the top scientists at N.I.C.E. and thus representative of the innermost ring.
In this scene Mark is having a conversation with Frost as to what is “the Head” (Wilkins is Filostrato’s assistant):
Again, very insightful commentary from Lewis considering where we are at today. Filostrato was under the view that the Head is Alcasan’s head which has somehow preserved his mind beyond death. Frost and Wither believe that Alcasan’s head is merely a conduit for the macrobes to be speaking to us, these above human organisms that are invisible but exude greater intelligence than Man. It turns out, according to Frost and Wither, these macrobes have been behind what has really been shaping history more than we realise. To such a point that our history needs to be rewritten because the real causes behind the principal events in history we have not understood because they have ultimately been shaped by these macrobes. And hence the need for the study of history to become a science. I would say that this sort of thinking is connected with Élan vital and emergent evolution in terms of how they think change occurs.
As for the last paragraph in the above excerpt “A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a dead-weight” this is almost verbatim to how Harari speaks and is a theme being pushed very heavily in the transhumanist currents right now.
Again, as already mentioned in the previous installment, this is reminiscent of James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution” (published in 1941) which goes over such a timeline for what is to be a technocratic revolution. James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution” had made a very large impression on those in the United States and Britain (before advocacy for fascism became a public faux-pas) with George Orwell himself writing a scathing criticism of Burnham’s monstrous (and fascist) vision for the future, titled “Second Thoughts on James Burnham.”
It is interesting how the timing of Burnham’s publication of his “The Managerial Revolution” was only four years before Lewis writing “That Hideous Strength.” Burnham is not the mastermind of this idea for a technocratic revolution but rather a conduit. Wells also spoke of the need for a technocratic revolution and Oswald Mosley publicly supported Wells’ vision for a scientific dictatorship (for more on this refer to my book “The Empire on Which the Black Sun Never Set”).
In this next scene we have Dr. Dimble, who is the expert in the Arthurian legend, he is talking about Merlin in the way that Lewis would like him to be representative of in this story:
[Goeteia is ancient Greek for sorcery.] What Lewis is saying here is that we have lost something with the development of modern science. It is not to say that all of modern science is bad, however, it is to see that during our time what has become the focus, what has become the priorities and the selected problems of society and their solutions, it’s all out-of-whack, it’s all really misdirected. We have lost our compass at this point. And C.S. Lewis is saying that in order to find our compass, in order to be more whole, because we have lost a part of ourselves as well, culturally and spiritually, is that we need to remember something that we have lost from the past and bring it forward with us.
Merlin is a representation of something that we have lost, but it’s not exactly Merlin that we want back either, it’s a representation of it but it has to come back in a different way. There needs to be a qualitative upshift of this thing that we have lost from the past according to Lewis.
The whole T.H. Huxley crew they like to play these games, including Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, controlled-opposition sort of games. One good example of this is Aldous and Julian Huxley, who were brothers, and appear to be representative of opposing schools of philosophy, with Julian Huxley as more of a “modern science” empirical bent whereas Aldous Huxley went more into the parapsychology, more into the supernatural. Both Aldous and Julian were heavily influenced by H.G. Wells. Aldous’ “Doors of Perception” was modelled off of H.G. Wells’ “Door in the Wall,” and Julian happened to be a collaborator of Wells in authoring the “Science of Life” as part of a trilogy of Wells’ “new Bible’“ series. (for more on this refer here and here.)
One of T.H. Huxley’s close associates on Darwinism, Alfred Russell Wallace, was among the new breed “scientifically” testing psychic powers, along with William Crookes, F. W. H. Myers and renown psychologist William James. Their efforts to develop rigorous tests of mediums, telepathy, and materializations led to the founding of the Society of Psychical Research, the Theosophical Society and their American branches.
One of the nine founding members of the Fabian Society was Frank Podmore, who was also an influential member of the Society for Psychical Research.
Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard were also very influenced by this and when they first arrived to the United States the first scheduled visit they made was to the California Parapsychology Foundation in San Diego (which also inspired the movie Ghostbusters) .
It is interesting that this is occurring during the so-called revolution of “modern science” where everything is supposed to be objective and empirical in its investigations, but you also have these currents of the supernatural which are almost immediately being brought into certain groupings that often overlap with each other such as Julian and Aldous Huxley – T.H. Huxley and Alfred Russell Wallace.
This phenomenon is very much what Lewis is describing in the above excerpt (from Dr. Dimble’s remarks).
We discover this was the purpose all along by the N.I.C.E. institute in purchasing the ancient Bragdon Wood, which is to uncover Merlin who has been apparently in a deep slumber for centuries. Both parties (the good and bad guys) are not sure which side Merlin once awaken will be on, and want to be the first ones to find him in order to get him on their side. They are not sure if Merlin will ultimately be on the side of the white magicians or the black magicians.
Merlin wakes up on his own and shows up to Ransom’s headquarters, which is pretty much a house, Ransom knowing the old Solar language (see Part 1 for the backstory to this) and Merlin immediately identifies Ransom as the true King of England (and not the present ruling British monarchy…ahem).
Cut back to scene at the N.I.C.E. institute, they also think that they have captured Merlin, however, it turns out to be a tramp that is refusing to speak to them. In a frenzied panic they try to find a translator and go so far as to put an ad in the newspaper.
Merlin logically applies for this position and is hired by the N.I.C.E. institute. When Merlin is brought to the tramp (whom the N.I.C.E. institute think is Merlin), Merlin puts the tramp into a trance and has him speak to him in a mysterious unidentified language. Merlin then proceeds to speak in Latin to Frost and Wither, supposedly translating what the fake Merlin is saying, with the entire scene being a charade.
Frost and Wither lose no time in organizing a dinner event at the N.I.C.E. institute to showcase their “Merlin.” We will finally be introduced to Mr. Jules at this dinner who is supposed to be the head of the institute, and I think it is a clear dig at H.G. Wells.
Lewis describes Mr. Jules as the following:
Other than writing books for the Ministry of Propaganda, H.G. Wells also did some dabbling as a journalist under the supervision of Lord Northcliffe, the owner of “The Times” and the “Daily Mail” (the largest circulating newspaper in the early 20th century), among other newspapers.
Mr. Jules makes the first speech during the dinner event and eventually those listening to Jules begin to realise that Jules is in fact speaking with a string of nonsensical words.
Wither attempts to intervene on Jules’s disastrous speech and smooth things over, only to see that the dinner guests are also looking at him with puzzled looks. Here is an excerpt of the hilarious scene:
It turns out Merlin has casted a spell on the entire dinner group where nobody can understand the other person, they are all speaking nonsense to one another (though it makes sense what they are saying from their perspective). This is in reference to the Tower of Babel curse, which has now been released onto the N.I.C.E. institute.
I have up until this point not filled you in on one of the characters on the “good guys” side which is a bear that has been residing with Ransom and his misfit friends, named Mr. Bultitude. Long story short, Mr. Bultitude also ends up at the N.I.C.E. institute overlapping Merlin’s arrival (they came separately) and the bear, Mr. Bultitude, is able to free all the animals that have been kept caged and have been experimented on by N.I.C.E.
These freed animals end up in the dinning room and they basically…attack and eat most of the people trapped in this dinning hall. But Wither and Frost manage to escape during this bloody frenzy as well as Lord Feverstone. I think Lewis’ choice for most of the membership of N.I.C.E. to be eliminated in the dinning room massacre is symbolic of what he would later say in his “Abolition of Man” where Man’s ultimate conquest of Nature, turns out to be Nature’s conquest over Man in its final conclusion. What Lewis is referring to here as Man’s ultimate conquest of Nature, he is particularly referring to the transhumanists, who wish to replace God as the new Creators on Earth and to govern the evolution of Life (as Harari himself admitted to in an earlier quote). I discuss this further here.
Frost and Wither discover that the translator they had hired was in fact Merlin. The following excerpt share the philosophy of Wither as he is confronted with the reality that his mission is doomed to failure, that he has a moment to reflect and renounce his ways and despite being aware of this impending doom, chooses destruction over salvation:
Wither ends up bumping into Filostrato and Straik who also manage to escape the bloody dinning room massacre. Filostrato is ushered into the room with the Head by Straik and Wither. Filostrato is freaking out since Straik and Wither ignored all the sanitary and sterilisation protocols before entering the room with the Head. Filostrato thinks their actions have compromised the Head and it will no longer be able to work having its environment contaminated and the levers, dials, pumps etc. not set-up properly. Filostrato is thus surprised and horrified when the Head is able to speak to them.
Filostrato was not an initiate to the “macrobes” like Straik and Wither, and thought he had made the Head work through “science.” Straik and Wither proceed to strip naked and force Filostrato to also strip down.
They happen to have a guillotine in the sterilization room and Filostrato is promptly decapitated by Straik and Wither. Straik and Wither resume bobbing up and down chanting “Ouroborindra!” and then it occurs to them that the Head will probably ask for another sacrificial head and they start battling it out with one another. Wither succeeds in murdering Straik but he is unable to remove his head.
After Wither murders Straik he picks up the head of Filostrato and offers it to the Head and sees something move in the adjoining room where he had left Straik’s body. Wither sees that it is a great bear and that it has risen on its hind legs with a gaping mouth, his eyes flaming his forepaws spread out as if for an embrace. Wither thinks to himself, “Was this what Straik had become?” He knew (though even now he could not attend to it) that he was on the very frontier of a world where such things could happen.
This is Lewis having a bit of fun showcasing the absurdity of a philosophy that rejects all Truth and thinks one can move beyond “Reality,” that if carried out in its most extreme form, one could justify such conclusions. That logically Wither could explain such a phenomenon occurring with him on the frontier of such a world where reality as we know it is turned upside down upon its head, no pun intended…
However, the bear is not Straik transmogrified but rather Mr. Bultitude, who promptly eats the puzzled Wither. Again, symbolic of Lewis’ lesson in “The Abolition of Man,” where Man’s ultimate conquest of Nature, turns out to be Nature’s conquest over Man in its final conclusion.
We find out that it is indeed not the macrobes that have been allowing the Head to speak, but rather the Dark Eldils (eldils were discussed in Part 1) which you could say are dark spirits or demonic forces governed by Satan himself.
Recall in the first book, Lewis sets this whole stage up where Earth is referred to as the “silent planet,” and has been taken over by a bad Oyarsa aka Satan (every planet has its own Oyarsa). Thus, Earth, the silent planet, is no longer in communion with the other planets who are governed by good Oyarsas. Earth is thus under a sort of siege-like situation under this bad Oyarsa.
Thus, these scientists who all had their different theories as to what they were embarking on in the new frontiers of science…were in fact in the service of the Devil…as Lewis frames it in this story.
Cut to scene with Frost who has also recently escaped from the dinning room massacre, the following is his philosophical outlook:
While all of this is occurring you have earthquakes and floods, a sort of divine intervention is taking place.
Lord Feverstone, who also managed to survive the dinning room massacre is able to get into a car, the only one remaining, and drives away. It turns out Merlin is in the backseat, likely because he does not know how to drive, and begins to control Feverstone to drive the car where he wants it to go (it took Feverstone a few moments to understand what was going on). Having reached his destination in the middle of a field, Merlin proceeds to get out of the car and meets his horse and promptly gallops off.
Feverstone, who crashed the car as a consequence of this, gets out of the car and is walking down the road back to Edgestow. However, there are nothing but cars headed in the opposite direction, fleeing from the town since it is absolute mayhem. Feverstone ends up reaching the town just in time for the whole thing to collapse into a sinkhole and Feverstone is sucked down into the depths with it.
I will end this retelling of Lewis’ tale with this final scene where Dr. Dimble discusses the two Britains:
What Lewis is saying are that there are two opposing identities of Britain. Clearly, Britain is a nation of poets, there is a good history of Britain but there is also, not just the history of empire in Britain but there is something else which Lewis is critical of and is showcased in this story.
Lewis is making the point that every country, or civilisational culture, has their own haunting, has their own struggle between this better and worse identity. In our day in age, you could say that a lot of the worse components of our civilisations have taken a driver’s seat.
In Matt’s series “The Clash of the Two Americas,” that is what he is precisely referring to as well, the United States has been struggling as well with these two different identities.
Lewis also makes the point in this story that Nature has become something dead to us, but not just Nature, but the world that we live in, the Universe that we live in has become a dead thing to us, or as discussed in Part 1, the Universe has become a void, emptiness, blackness. Something menacing, something hostile, which for most of our human civilisation was referred to as the Heavens and it was not regarded as something dead.
C.S. Lewis is basically, by bringing Merlin into this story, is trying to invite people, especially the British people in this case, to rejoin something of their lost culture that they have forgotten and he encourages other cultures to do the same.
I think that it has now become clear why Lewis decided to name the last part of his sci-fi trilogy as “That Hideous Strength.”
It may at first seem like such a line that discourages the making of a tower that reaches the Heavens is ultimately critical of science, of industry. Is it wrong to want to advance and push our limits? I would say, no, it isn’t wrong. However, it is wrong when we try to replace the laws of Creation, when we try to replace Natural Law, when we try to make Man a God, that desires to change the constitution of Life on Earth for whatever reason they think is supposed to be a better thing, rather than us being more akin to an identity as stewards, as caretakers.
Lewis is not against science, which he makes clear in his essay series on this same subject, the last titled “The Abolition of Man” which I discuss here and here, and it is not to say that we should never go out into the Heavens, or into other galaxies, but we have to be ready, we have to be worthy of that kind of responsibility. If you are doing it for the wrong reasons and you are seeking out that kind of power and influence for the wrong reasons than you don’t deserve it.
In this story it does end with a divine intervention, with the floods, earthquakes and sinkhole, but it is not the end of days as Lewis makes the point and we went through in Part 2 “Perelandra”. Rather Earth had failed to begin, and now it can finally begin, now that this “hideous strength” has been destroyed.
Lastly, I will share an excerpt from Lewis’ lecture “The Inner Ring” since it was a core theme in “That Hideous Strength”:
Lewis, I believe, has accurately identified the source of what lies behind almost all forms of corruption, this endless gradation of compromises upon one’s morals.
I think this is also the message of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well, and probably is in reference to this idea of “the one ring to rule them all,” that is, the one inner ring to rule all other inner rings and that true friendship and solidarity will prove itself superior in its endeavours and capabilities.
Mark does end up opposing the lure of the innermost ring, I didn’t have enough time to go through this. But summarily, Mark realises that his entire life he did nothing but compromise in hopes of entering the inner ring, he sacrificed friendships, certain ambitions, and loves for things that he wasn’t happy to do but thought it was necessary in order to gain entry into these inner rings. In the end Mark had lost all of those things for nothing, for something that he ultimately detested. And this is what Lewis is referencing here “the quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”
I think that if people even just take this as the takeaway lesson, this philosophy that the Universe we live in is not dead, or some black void but full of Life and goodness, which is how Lewis ends Book 1, if he succeeds in this endeavour he is content. I think the Inner Ring lesson is something Lewis would also be happy with as a takeaway lesson for Book 3. If the average person were to just take that as the lesson, society would not be able to go along the track where a N.I.C.E. institute could be justified.
We should not partake in something that we know is a destructive thing and we should have the courage to face the consequences including the threat of banishment from such inner rings, including career-wise I might add. Ultimately, there is always an alternative that doesn’t require such moral compromises and the alternative is most certainly better as Lewis makes the point.
I think Lewis and Tolkien probably had a lot of people who sought to recruit them to their own inner rings, and I think Lewis and Tolkien did a fairly good job in staying true to themselves and understanding that true friendship is the only inner ring one should ever seek (as well as truth to your craft!).
Cynthia Chung is the President of the Rising Tide Foundation and author of the book “The Empire on Which the Black Sun Never Set,” consider supporting her work by making a donation and subscribing to her substack page Through A Glass Darkly