Friday, July 10, 2009

Multiple Meanings of "That Hideous Strength"

As Shakespeare asked: What’s in a name?, so do I ask: what is the meaning of the title of C.S. Lewis’ final book in his space trilogy—That Hideous Strength? To what or to whom does it refer? Does it foreshadow an event or describe a program? And why is strength described as hideous rather than powerful or superhuman or some other kind of strength? I came up with two hypotheses, one of which was confirmed by a Lewis biographer. Discovering the reference Lewis used for the title then led me to look at the book from a new perspective, which I found enlightening and which added another dimension to the work.

The Power of Evil Men

My initial determination was that the hideous strength pertained to the scientific/quasi-governmental organization called N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). N.I.C.E. is run by evil men who seek power at any cost. They believe that since men are going to be ruled by other men, they might as well be the rulers themselves; they might as well be those individuals who shape society and determine its future.

The leaders of N.I.C.E. are manipulative; they project a benign attitude of caring for the general health and welfare of the people, while, in fact, they are plotting to destroy cities, eradicate certain classes of people, and change the form of human bodies. Not only is there a stealthy struggle between N.I.C.E. and the community or society at large, but there is an internal struggle within the ranks as ruthless office politics even result in murder. The story of That Hideous Strength is a case study in dictatorship—the evil that can be perpetrated on mankind, powerful evil and strength masquerading as humanitarian good. Since the book was written during World War II, it is easy to see the parallels between N.I.C.E. and the Nazi party.

The Insidious Tactics of Satan

The second interpretation of the title I came up with is that it applies to the masterminds behind N.I.C.E.—Satan and his devils who have had dominion over the earth since the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden. Since devils do not have corporeal bodies, their time on Earth is not ruled by an aging process. They have had millennia to hone their evil craft, centuries to develop tactics to ensnare the souls of men. This duration of power has certainly given them a hideous strength, and drawn countless individuals down to their level and away from God.

Of course Satan’s evil influence is behind the actions of the leaders of N.I.C.E., so perhaps this explanation simply reinforces the first hypothesis.

Lewis’ Source for the Title

I was fascinated when I read that Lewis took the title from a 1554 work written by Scottish poet Sir David Lyndsaay, “Ane Dialog betwixt Experience and ane Courteor,” better known as “The Monarchie.” The modernized line of inspiration reads:

“The shadow of that hideous strength, six miles and more it is of length”

The six-mile shadow refers to the shadow cast by the Tower of Babel recounted in Genesis 11:4-9. Lewis biographer Walter Hooper says “in Lewis’ novel [the shadow] is represented by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) at Belbury.” This confirms my first instincts about the title.

The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel is about the arrogance of the builders who thought that, by building a city with a tower that reached heaven, they would make a name for themselves and prevent their city from being scattered.

When God saw what they were doing and perceived their intentions, He knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people away from Him, not bring them closer. He also knew that when people are united in purpose, they wield a powerful force—which can be used for evil as well as good.

God knew that to save the people, He would have to break up the unified society. He therefore confused their tongues, causing them to speak different languages so they could not understand each other or work together on their common goal.

Another problem with the tower was that the people used brick instead of stone, and tar instead of mortar. They used “man-made” materials instead of more durable “God-made” materials. The people were building a monument to themselves, to call attention to their own abilities and achievements, rather than giving glory to God.

The Theme of Blocked Communication

The result of the confounding of tongues at the Tower of Babel was that communication was hindered. This theme of blocked communication runs throughout That Hideous Strength:

  • Mark and Jane have essentially ceased to really talk with each other. Their marriage is weak; each is unhappy and blames the other for their state of affairs. They head in different directions with their personal lives.
  • The people at N.I.C.E. project a caring, humanitarian, sociologically progressive image to the community, when in fact they are the exact opposite. They use propaganda on a regular basis to deceive the outside world.
  • N.I.C.E. controls the media, the primary means of communication. Their spin doctors completely change stories to benefit the secret mission of N.I.C.E.
  • N.I.C.E. is set up and run as an “organization” in which everybody is equal so all are equally insignificant. There is no real leadership, which results in constant infighting among members. Everyone talks in circles without ever taking a position, and never committing to anything definite. (This is in contrast to how the opposition is set up. St. Anne’s is organized like a “family” where there is a hierarchy, where all are equally vital in their positions and roles. St. Anne’s leader, Ransom, is a true Biblical patriarch whose members know their place and worth.)
  • At N.I.C.E., the people in charge are unable to find a member with the ability to speak ancient languages, so they are unable to communicate with the tramp whom they think is the reincarnated magician Merlin whose power they hope to employ in their nefarious efforts. The fact that they have to go outside for an interpreter opens the door for the real Merlin to infiltrate the organization and bring about its downfall.
  • During the banquet to honor the titular head of N.I.C.E., Merlin and the archangel from Mercury confound the tongues of all those present. This leads to the rapid destruction of the gathering and soon the entire society.


While the meaning of the title That Hideous Strength refers to the evil of the scientists at N.I.C.E., the reference to the Tower of Babel shines an entirely different light on the meaning of the book.

Babel—or more specifically poor communication—is a theme that runs throughout Lewis’ space trilogy. In all three books, the inability to communicate complicates the situations, which are resolved only when true communication occurs. I agree with Lewis that open, honest communication with our families, friends, neighbors, associates, leaders and most importantly with our God is critical to our happiness and well-being. Real communication is not easy and must be worked on continually; since people continually change and grow, the communication must also grow or the messages will no longer connect. The task of communicating is never-ending. As George Bernard Shaw said: "The problem with the illusion that it has been accomplished."

Communication takes at least two individuals--one to speak and one to listen. True communication is circular in nature; the listener must respond to the speaker to confirm that the message has been accurately received. The speaker then has the opportunity to agree or further explain the message. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen said: "The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words." Whether the response is verbal or non-verbal, this type of shared communication creates strong bonds between the individuals sharing information and ideas. It takes work.

As shown in That Hideous Strength, communication can be used for evil (like at N.I.C.E.) or for good (like at St. Anne's). Most individuals will never be in a position to wield such power or exhibit such strength over large groups of people as in the novel, but each of us has the power to uplift or hurt everyone with whom we come in contact. It is imperative that we recognize the power we do have and use it wisely in our interactions with all of God's children.


  1. Thanks for this.

    The shadow of the Tower of Babel shines a whole new light on That Hideous Strength.

    I've read all of Lewis' legitimate fiction works - and some attributed to Lewis but clearly not.

    I regard That Hideous Strength as his best novel, or at least tied with Till We Have Faces.

    The only problem I have with your piece is your inclusion of something by "biographer" Walter Hooper.

    If Hooper isn't widely regarded as a fraud by now, he should be. Hooper has continuously fabricated about his relationship with C.S. Lewis and anything published by him has to be at best suspect and at worst a hoax - starting with his biographies and culminating in The Dark Tower.

  2. When I first read THS, I actually assumed that it referenced, not N.I.C.E., but the powerful pull of the man on the crucifix, which seemed so inexplicable to the protagonist. It was 'Hideous', not from Lewis's perspective, but from Mark's, because it seemed to go against the standards of the world.

    I had read of the allusion to the Tower of Babel as the meaning of 'That Hideous Strength' before, but had clearly forgotten it. I had come to the notion that it was a reversal of the following passage from Philip Augustus; or, The brothers in arms by James George Payne Rainsford:

    "Cemeteries were closed, and the last fond commune between the living and the dead - that beautiful weakness that pours the heart out, even on the cold, unanswering grave - was struck from the solaces of existence."

    If 'that beautiful weakness' is compassion and the ability to mourn, then 'that hideous strength', I reasoned, would be what N.I.C.E. were trying for - a cold, scientific obliteration of humanity's ability for empathy.

    However, the Babel reference is pretty clear-cut, and likewise refers to N.I.C.E., this time as a modern Tower of Babel trying to usurp God through science (and in fact it's overtly referenced in the book where, at a dinner party, N.I.C.E. grandees find they are talking gibberish and cannot make themselves understood, mocking their pretensions).

  3. Thanks for this amazing and in depth look into this. Exactly what I was looking for. I started studying "That Hideous Strength" to help better inform me about the song of the same name by the rock band Thrice. This was awesome and helpful. P.s. Also LDS and a fan of C.S. Lewis.