When I was growing up back in the ‘70s, my Mom used to fret about cults and worried that my brother or I might get “sucked into” one.
Jane Studdock is also worried about getting “sucked into” the group from the Manor of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill, a small community opposed to a sinister conspiracy out to take over the government; but she’s come to trust her new friends the Dennisons, who are members of the St. Anne’s group. They’ve convinced her that her strange dreams truly are clairvoyant.
Jane’s husband, Mark wants to be “sucked in”. He’s always longed to be an insider, one of the “in crowd”, one of the people “in the know”. The National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (or the N.I.C.E.) seemed like a wonderful opportunity. The people at the Institute have tempted him with glimpses behind the curtain, “love bombed” him with flattery and drinks, and kept him off-balance by cutting him off from his previous acquaintances and alternating the promises and ego-boos with truly frightening threats of what might happen if he decided to leave. And he is getting in deeper.
Mark and Jane are each about to meet the respective heads of these organizations.
Lately, Jane’s dreams have included a disturbing man with a pointed beard and pince-nez glasses who seems to be observing her and taking notes. She doesn’t know it, but this man is Frost, one of the Inner Circle at the N.I.C.E, who wants to put her psychic visions to the Institute’s service. That is why they are so interested in recruiting her husband, so they can get at her. When Jane happens to see Frost in real life one day on the streets of Edgestow, she finally decides to return to St. Anne’s to meet with its Director.
The Director is actually Elwin Ransom, the hero of the previous two books in the trilogy. He has changed his name to Fisher-King at the request of an eccentric relative’s bequest, which has helped conceal his identity from the powers behind his enemies.
His previous journeys through Deep Heaven have changed him. He is no longer the fearful, self-doubting middle-aged academic whom Weston and Devine kidnapped in Out of the Silent Planet. He has gained understanding of cosmic mysteries, and he regularly converses with the eldila, entities without physical bodies as we know them, native to the depths of space who might easily, and have been, identified as gods or angels. His journey to the unfallen world of Perelandra has physically changed him as well; his brief stay in Paradise has rejuvenated him, giving him a youthful appearance and a sense of vitality.
It has also, like the Fisher-King of Arthurian legend, left him with an unhealing wound, which is an unending source of pain. This also brings to mind the prophecy made to the Serpent in Genesis:
"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Gen. 3:15 KJV)This is generally considered by Christians to be a prophecy of Christ, smiting Satan though taking a grievous wound. This is probably why I never made the connection before, but Lewis must have been thinking of it. Ransom, a descendant of Eve by virtue of being human, crushed the Tempter’s head when he killed the demonically-possessed Weston; but Weston bit him, rendering him hopelessly lame.
Jane is awed by the Director’s presence. He seems radiant and, well, kingly. And in a certain respect, he is a king. He is the Pendragon, a title going back to Arthurian times denoting the head of Logres, the spiritual core of Britain. These days Logres consists of less than a dozen people and a trained bear, but he still carries with him a sense of kingly awe, which is a reflection of the awe generated by the heavenly beings with whom he converses.
Lewis is scrupulously careful not to say that Jane falls in love with the Director, although his description sounds a lot like that. Her reaction is certainly not sexual; perhaps a profound admiration would be a better description. Upon meeting him, all Jane’s doubts about the group at St. Anne’s vanishes and she is willing to side with the Director. Which is why it frustrates her that he keeps on bringing her back to her husband.
The Director, you see, feels that Jane should not come to stay at St. Anne’s unless her husband is okay with it. Jane bridles at the thought of having to go to Mark for permission, but the Director insists that on something this important, husband and wife need to be on the same page. He claims these are rules his Masters would insist upon. The fact that Mark is currently with the N.I.C.E. complicates things, and the Director does not want a situation where Jane would be divided in loyalty between St. Anne’s and her husband. Jane doesn’t see how Mark’s opinions have anything to do with the matter and there follows a lengthy discussion on the subject of obedience and the proper relationship between Men and Women. Jane isn’t fully convinced, but she agrees to go home and ask Mark to leave the N.I.C.E.
She never gets the chance. As she disembarks from the train arriving in Edgestow, she finds herself caught up in the middle of the riot which the N.I.C.E. has engineered to fit in with their propaganda campaign. Trying to avoid the crush of the mob, she gets picked up by the N.I.C.E.’s private security force and ends up in a room being interviewed by Fairy Hardcastle.
Fairy sees this as a golden opportunity and begins interrogating Jane to learn where she has been. When Jane is reluctant to co-operate, Fairy becomes more sadistic with her questioning and tortures her with the lit end of her cigar. But in transporting Jane across town, the police car breaks down in the middle of the still-ongoing riot and Jane is able to escape. A friendly bystander helps her back onto a train and she returns to St. Anne’s. Edgestow is no longer safe for her.
Mark is oblivious to all this. He hears about the riot after the fact and takes some pleasure that the propaganda he wrote for the N.I.C.E. seems to have been useful. In the wake of the riots, the public, swayed by the talking points the Institute had prepared before the riots even occurred, are now demanding that the N.I.C.E. take over the reins of local government.
He has met other members of the N.I.C.E. elite: Straik, the “mad parson” who is obsessed with the idea that the Institute will bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and Filostrato, a brilliant Italian scientist and a eunuch. Straik is intended to represent the modernist theology which ignores stuffy church doctrine and concentrates on social programs, but in his manner and speech, he is a full-barrel fire & brimstone Evangelical. Filostrato, I suppose, is what we would today call a Transhumanist. He looks forward to the day when man can overcome the limits of biology. I mentioned he was a eunuch, didn’t I?
In one conversation he goes into his philosophy, rhapsodizing on the ideal tree: an artificial one made of aluminum.
“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? … You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”His ideal world will someday do away with organic matter altogether. His vision recalls the passage in The War of the Worlds comparing Wells’s Martians to a hypothetical future human, where the brain has evolved much larger and more complex and all the other bodily organs have atrophied leaving only what is necessary to sustain the super-brain.
Filostrato takes Mark aside and tells him that he will be taken to see the Head. This confuses Mark, because he understood that Jules, the public face of the Institute, was unimportant. “You were mistaken … Our Head is no figurehead.”
He goes on to explain that his ideal of a pure, sterile world has already been achieved on the Moon. It is, he tells Mark, inhabited, but the technologically advanced natives have completely purified their world, all except for a small, stubborn patch of green on the far side held by savages. He has learned this from the Head himself. The Head is the one who commanded that Mark bring his wife to the N.I.C.E.’s headquarters in Belbury, and has ordered that Mark be brought before it.
Mark is confused. He still thinks Filostrato is talking about Jules.
“Do you mean really to join us, young man?” said Straik. “There is no turning back once you have set your hand to the plough. And there are no reservations. The Head has sent for you. Do you understand – the Head? You will look upon one who was killed and is still alive. The resurrection of Jesus in the Bible was a symbol: tonight, you shall see what it symbolized. This is real man at last, and it claims all our allegiance.”The Head on the N.I.C.E. is Alcasan, the French scientist recently executed for murder, whom Jane dreamed about and about whom the N.I.C.E. had Mark work on articles rehabilitating his reputation. Filostrato has managed to keep the Saracen’s Head alive, like Donovan’s Brain, and it has been giving the Institute its orders.
“What the devil are you talking about?” said Mark. The tension of his nerves distorted his voice into a hoarse blustering cry.
“My friend is quite right,” said Filostrato. “Our Head is the first of the New Men – the first that lives beyond animal life. As far as Nature is concerned, he is already dead: if Nature had her way his brain would now be mouldering in the grave. But he will speak to you within this hour, and – a word in your ear, my friend – you will obey his orders.”
We do not witness Mark’s interview with the Head directly; we hear Jane’s description of a dream she had in which she witnessed it. This makes our experience of the ghastly disembodied head less visceral, but manages to build the suspense of the scene better as she bit by bit describes what she sees.
This latest dream confirms that the malignant conspiracy the Director seeks to thwart is headquartered in Belbury, something he previously only suspected. It also confirms that Jane’s husband is deep inside the N.I.C.E., although perhaps not irredeemably deep. He seemed even more squicked by the Head in the dream than Jane did and passed out.
Jane is pretty much established in the community of St. Anne’s now. The group seems more like a commune than a secret organization. The Dennisons, she knows, are members. So is her old tutor Dr. Dimble and his wife, Mother Dimble. Like the Studdocks, the Dimbles are childless, but not by choice; yet Mrs. Dimble is a warm, motherly person and her husband’s many students over the years have become surrogate children to her. Jane is also surprised to see Ivy Maggs, the woman who used to do her cleaning once a week, in the house; and more surprised to see her acting, and treated, as an equal in the company. Jane’s modernist views seem to still have a bit of class-consciousness in them; or perhaps she didn't expect someone with such old-fashioned views of marriage as the Director to have such egalitarian views as to doing chores around the house.
Rounding out the commune are Grace Ironwood, whom Jane met on her first visit to St. Anne’s, a doctor who considers the Director’s health to be her primary responsibility; Angus MacPhee, an argumentative Ulsterman (not a Scotsman, thank you) who is an old friend of the Director’s and an arch-skeptic who provided the role of Devil’s Advocate; and Mr. Bultitude, a bear who just sort of wandered in one day and became a member of the family. (St. Anne’s has become a sort of second Eden, with animals and humans living in harmony, thanks to the Director’s influence; another side-effect of his brief sojourn in Paradise).
MacPhee is an affectionate parody of Lewis’s old tutor William T. Kirkpatrick, “The Great Knock”, who instilled in Lewis a rigorous appreciation for Logic when he was a young man. Kirkpatrick appears in as the jolly Professor Kirke in the Narnia books, as well as the crotchety and skeptical dwarf Trumpkin. In That Hideous Strength, MacPhee is played largely for laughs, but Lewis obviously has a great deal of affection for him. He is on the side of the Angels, even if he insists on observing that there is no verifiable proof that angels exist. The Director values him as an old friend, and also as an unblinkingly honest man who helps keep the group grounded in reality even when dealing with extraplanetary entities.
“He’ll be about our best man if we’re going to be defeated,” the Director says. “You couldn’t have a better man at your side in a losing battle. What he’ll do if we win, I can’t imagine.”
Jane’s dreams have also given the Director important clues as to the N.I.C.E.’s goals. She has dreamed about a man with a long beard sleeping underground. Bragdon Wood, the piece of property bought by the Institute from Bracton college, has long had legendary associations with the stories of King Arthur, especially of the wizard Merlin. A powerful wizard would be a valuable tool for the forces behind the N.I.C.E., especially considering the legends that Merlin was the offspring of a mortal woman and a demon.
Meanwhile, Mark has recovered from his revolting and terrifying interview with the Head. The pressure on him has become even greater to bring his wife to Belbury. He tries writing a letter to her, but has trouble drafting it. On one level, he is so terrified, he’d be willing to do anything. But then he wonders if they will force Jane to look upon the Head as well, and this he can’t stomach either. Fairy Hardcastle visits him and hints that his wife might have some hereditary mental problems. She claims that Jane has been making false accusations of being tortured by the N.I.C.E. security. (This is some butt-covering on the Fairy’s part; Wither had been very displeased with the way she handled Jane’s arrest during the riot).
Wither calls Mark in for another dressing down. He tells Mark that his billfold, lost several days ago when he first came to Belbury, was found next to the murdered body of William Hingest. Mark realizes it must have been planted there; but he also realizes that now they have an irrevocable hold over him. Since the billfold is in the hands of N.I.C.E. security and not the regular police, he has nothing to worry about. But he is to bring his wife to Belbury. Immediately.
Mark decides to flee. He tried to do this once before, but the sudden sight of Wither strolling the grounds cowed him. This time, he is determined. Once again, he sees Wither, although the latter seems not to notice him. Mark charges the man and passes right through him. Was it only Mark’s imagination? Or can Wither actually send phantom projections of himself to wander the corridors of the Institute? Mark doesn’t care, he just wants to get back home.
Arriving in Edgestow, he finds it mostly deserted. Much of the population has been displaced, and the remainder are like citizens living under the occupation of an invading force; the N.I.C.E. He goes back to his home, but Jane isn't there; nor has she been for some days. He guesses that she might be staying with the Dimbles, so he goes to the nearby woman’s college where Dr. Dimble teaches to confront him.
The interview does not go anything like he expects. Dimble refuses to tell Mark where Jane is. “I have no permission to tell you. She is not in my house nor under my protection. She is well and happy and safe. If you still have the slightest regards for her happiness you will make no attempt to get in touch with her.” Dimble tells Mark about Jane’s arrest by N.I.C.E. security and pointedly says that since these are Mark’s friends who did this, he has no reason to trust Mark.
All Mark’s self-righteous bluster fails him. He pleads to see his wife and claims that he’ll leave the Institute. Dimble softens a bit. If Mark will come with him right away, Dimble will take him to safety; but it must be now. Mark’s old indecision comes back and he hesitates. He asks for an hour to think about it.
Leaving Dimble’s office, Mark doesn't even get an hour. As he arrives at his lodgings, he is accosted by policemen who arrest him for the murder of William Hingest.
NEXT: Merlin awakes! But who will get to him first? The Descent of the Gods; and maybe I’ll finish this!