The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Two Roads to Conversion: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

To understand That Hideous Strength well, it’s useful to read the essays collected in the short non-fiction book The Abolition of Man, where Lewis lays out the exact arguments and conclusions that make up the framework of his novel. It is, essentially, an examination of “value theory” and an argument in favor of the idea that there is such a thing as natural law. Lewis argues that there are things which have value not because of a subjective opinion that they do, but that there is an objective, true value to things. It is, in other words, an argument against moral subjectivism. (Lewis says that the beauty of a waterfall, for instance, can be objectively valuable, and that to try to deny this is ultimately to undermine the human capacity for morality.)

He doesn’t couch this in primarily Christian terms. In fact, the word he chooses to represent natural law is the “Tao” (from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching). He’s arguing for a universal underlying natural law that the “traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew” all come to, even though he admits it requires some “removal of contradictions” and “real development.”

So it’s no great surprise that there is a Christian minister high up in N.I.C.E. And of course Merlin, one of our heroes, is certainly not Christian in any modern understanding of the word. Lewis’ point is that the underlying moral truth of a Pagan (like Merlin) or Christian (like Ransom) are largely the same because they are connected to natural law. It is when humanity seeks to tame, destroy, or overcome Nature or deny that natural law exists that problems begin. And they are problems that will lead, eventually, to the destruction of all humanity: In fact, it will lead to seeing the destruction of humanity as a virtue.

All of which to say this: Lewis is very interested in the process by which our two protagonists (Mark and Jane) go from being people who have been educated in subjective morality, and wholeheartedly embrace it, to being people who reject the idea and see natural law and the order of the universe as something to enter into with joy. One of the most frustrating things about this book, I think, is that one can agree with Lewis in principle (i.e. that there is natural law or first principles or the Tao or whatever one might like to call it) and strenuously object to the things he chooses as his bedrock principles. No doubt he would have enjoyed such an argument.

In any case, I thought it would be interesting to look at the two major narratives about this transformation, which he’s couched (unfortunately in my opinion) in a married couple. Mark and Jane each come to their conversion in different, even opposite, ways, which is interesting enough. So let’s take a look, starting with Jane.

Jane is a “modern woman.” She’s married but cold toward her husband. She’s not planning to have children, because she needs to finish her graduate degree first (we’ll discover this is a great tragedy later; not much blame is left over for Mark, who is doing the exact same thing). She’s also a psychic and is having true dreams, visions of things to come and things that are of great importance for humanity. The bad guys over at N.I.C.E. are desperate to catch and control her (through her husband). She’s having dreams of two men with beards: one, the horrible severed head of a wife-killer, and the other a man with a golden beard who will turn out to be our old friend Ransom.

(There is a decent amount of discussion about beards in this book. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has our infernal adversary Screwtape state, “Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females—and there is more in that than you might suppose.” Pretty big talk from a guy who didn’t have a beard, but hey, he has a lot to say about marriage in this book, too, and that wasn’t something he had tried out yet, either.)

Through a series of events, Jane eventually finds herself with the good guys in the story, the people gathered at St. Anne’s. Everyone there is happily in the service of Ransom, also called “the Director” (though later he’ll reveal that he never called himself that, and in fact, never said he was the one in charge). There’s an almost cult-like devotion to the Director, and Jane finds it incredibly odd right up until the moment that she sees him.

The first things she notices is that “all the light in the room seemed to run towards the gold hair and the gold beard of the wounded man.” He had “fresh skin” so that she had thought him a boy for a moment but “no boy could have so full a beard” or “be so strong” (Beards! They matter!). There are several notations about how strong he is and how Jane notices: his hands. His arms. His shoulders. The room around him takes on the appearance of a throne room.

She used to hate beards (I hate to break this to you, but a great deal of Jane’s conversion has to do with the Objective Truth of Ransom’s lovely golden beard), but “that was because she had long since forgotten the imagined Arthur of her childhood—and the imagined Solomon too.” In other words, the “bright solar blend of king and lover and magician.” She begins to understand for the first time the word king, “with all its linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power.”

The power of that vision makes her forget all her grudges (she is largely a woman defined by her anger up until this moment) and then she is “flushed” and “confused to find that she had been staring rudely. Her “world was unmade; she knew that. Anything might happen now.”

That’s how it happens, for Jane. She sees the King, and her whole world is remade. This isn’t a giant surprise if you’ve read Perelandra. Ransom’s experience of seeing Tor at his coronation is similar (as are many of his interactions with Tinidril). If there is inherent, objective value in a waterfall, then how much more in a human being? And how much more again in royalty? And imagine how much more again in a great king, like Arthur the Fisher King, or the King of Kings who he represents, Maleldil Himself.

In any case, Jane finds herself “soft and chastened.” She is “shaken” and “shaking.” Jane “hoped intensely that she was not going to cry, or be unable to speak, or do anything silly. For her world was unmade: anything might happen now. If only the conversation were over so that she could get out of that room without disgrace, and go away, not for good, but for a long time.” Her world is upended. She has seen the truth of the world, and nothing can take that from her now.

There is another interesting moment soon after this, where Lewis tells us that there are “four Janes” as she processes what has happened to her. First, there’s the Jane living in the moment of meeting Ransom, and delighting in “every word and every look.” She has been, “shaken out of the modest little outfit of contemporary ideas which had hitherto made her portion of wisdom, and swept away on the flood-tide of an experience which she did not understand and could not control.”

The second Jane was the old Jane. That Jane was disgusted by the first Jane and was very much seeking to control what could not be controlled. She looks in judgment on the surrender and abandonment that the new Jane is experiencing. The second Jane thought that the first, by so fully entering into Ransom’s world just by seeing him and hearing his voice, had given up anything that made her a “grown-up, integrated, intelligent person” and had instead become something degraded, “vulgar, uncivilised.”

The third Jane was a “moral Jane” risen from “some unknown region of grace or heredity” which told her that the feelings she was having for the Fisher King were feelings she should also have for her husband. Ransom had told her to be “nice” to Mark and even to seek his permission to join the forces of Good. (Lewis’ point here is absolutely that Jane’s embrace of the natural value of things is the wellspring of a new moral sense… recognizing the truth of natural law creates a new, even alien, moral sense.)

The fourth Jane is the “supreme Jane” who is the new, true Jane. She is “simply in the state of joy.” In the illumination of her memory of the Director, she sees the whole world differently. Even “rabbits and cows” she sees from the train, “she embraced them in heart with merry, holiday love.” She suddenly wants to listen to Bach. She finds old men dear and interesting. She’s happy to be thirsty and hungry and plans to eat some buttered toast and really enjoy it. She even sees herself differently, appreciating her own beauty not out of vanity but because she sees the inherent value in herself… and how her beauty brings joy to the people around her, too.

So Jane’s journey is a simple one. Her eyes are opened to the great truths of the world. And seeing those truths, she is transformed. It’s not some great work of knowledge, not anything anyone says to her (not really), not the Gospel, not the Bible or anything other than a straight experience of truth and the Divine (Ransom becomes very surely a stand-in for God/Jesus in this novel in moments like these).

This isn’t her full conversion. There’s more to come as she interacts with various dangers along the way and ultimately in another conversation with Ransom (and yes, there is mention of beards again…the bearded bull and golden lion were offensive to the old Jane because she was offended by masculinity). I may leave this bit alone in case we do an article about gender in this novel, because here Ransom makes the provocative statement that “What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it”—and that may need some unpacking.

Jane’s husband also has a conversion moment, which has a nearly identical effect but comes from the opposite experience. He doesn’t meet some representative of the Divine lounging on a dais and showing him how lovely mice are; he is instead brought into the inner circle of the “Macrobes” which are, we know immediately, the demonic spirits that are giving directions to the corrupted men of N.I.C.E.

The servants of the Macrobes describe in loving detail the great virtue that they are working toward: galactic genocide. They would very much like to kill most if not all living things, and they work hard to present this to Mark in such a way that he’ll see it as a good—if not noble—undertaking. He’s locked up in a cell and forced through a variety of things, including a long philosophical argument with Frost.

In fact, Mark realizes quickly that Frost’s arguments are ones that Mark himself has used and believes. But seeing the ultimate destination of those arguments (the eradication of all organic life in the service of the Macrobes) makes him sick:

The knowledge that his own assumptions led to Frost’s position combined with what he saw in Frost’s face and what he had experienced in this very cell, effected a complete conversion. All the philosophers and evangelists in the world might not have done the job so neatly.

Frost explains that, “That whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, aesthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed.” Any underlying values, any “universal” idea of truth, beauty, goodness (or recognition of falsehoods, ugliness, evil) must be scrubbed from one’s mind so that one can become pure mind…“objective.” The great irony, of course, that to become objective, one must reject objectivity, and to become “free” in the world of N.I.C.E. one must create a person who is completely submissive to the Macrobes (one of the arguments of the book being that human beings eventually must submit either to the natural rulership of God, or embrace being dominated by evil spirits… there is not an in-between, in the end).

What finally breaks through to Mark is when Frost leads him to a room of horrors designed to break Mark’s last remaining attachments to natural law. There are irregular, horrible dots painted on the ceiling and table such that there is an appearance of a pattern but no discernible, actual pattern.

Then there were paintings of open mouths full of hair, or a man with corkscrews instead of arms. But Mark starts to notice something strange: many of the paintings are perversions of Christian religious art. There’s the Last Supper, but with beetles. There’s Jesus and Lazarus, but with someone else between them. And why, if there is no natural law, are they so focused on these particular stories?

Mark realizes that “To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity—the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes.” He knew that next would come “eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities.”

He begins to wonder why there is so much work to be done to rid someone of the feeling that there is something called “Normal.” Why must he be shut up in a room away from nature and sunlight? Why are they purposely feeding him food that is nourishing but flavorless. And so his conversion begins: “As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight.” He realizes that Normal is “something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with” and it’s all mixed up with Jane “and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that, somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment.”

Again, Lewis takes this moment of recognizing the underlying value of things and directly ties it to the moral sense: “He was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience.” The moral action is what immediately follows: he rejects the Macrobes and chooses the “Normal.”

Lewis’ own conversion has aspects of both these stories… though his public writings emphasize very much the experiences that are more similar to Jane’s than like Mark’s. He wrote often of a feeling that he was being pursued by God, and that when the moment came he couldn’t fight it any longer. He simply became a new person who saw the world a new way.

And what of the fact that—even though Lewis makes a rather large and noisy deal of saying that people need not be Christian to find the natural law—Jane and Mark very much become Christian by the end of the novel? Well, the answer is simple enough. Lewis believed that the path toward truth ended in experiencing the Divine Being, and he believed Jesus to be the fulness of that Divine Being. It’s not something he was embarrassed about or tried to disguise in his work.

But Mark’s final scene is not with Ransom, it is with a goddess in Maleldil’s service, who leads Mark through shining light and sweet smells and bright fires to wait for the objectively beautiful and valuable Jane. He had thought her cold before, and sees now that she had been rather something laudable: patient. He finds that he loves her.

And Jane’s final scene is moving from the Christ-figure of Ransom through the beauties of Nature to find a “sacrificial ceremony” of moving into a new sort of relationship with the objectively valuable Mark.

And while there is a great deal to dissect and argue about and consider and critique when it comes to Lewis’ views on gender and marriage, I find a great deal of beauty in this: that the transformation of both Mark and Jane leads them to see the greatest reflection of the Divine in other human beings…to see the beauty and value in one another as human beings, made in the image of Maleldil.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.



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