Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

That Hideous Strength

C. S. Lewis



  ‘The Shadow of that hyddeous strength Sax myle and more it is of length.’

  SIR DAVID LINDSAY: from Ane Dialog (describing the Tower of Babel)


  I have called this a fairy-tale in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled by the first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment. If you ask why–intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals and planetary angels–I nevertheless begin with such hum-drum scenes and persons, I reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories. They were, indeed, more realistic and commonplace than Bracton College is to me: for many German peasants had actually met cruel stepmothers, whereas I have never, in any university, come across a college like Bracton. This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man. In the story, the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession. I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think fellows of colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own is the only profession I know well enough to write about. A very small university is imagined because that has certain conveniences for fiction. Edgestow has no resemblance, save for its smallness, to Durham–a university with which the only connection I have had was entirely pleasant.

  I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow.

  Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.

  The period of this story is vaguely ‘after the war’. It concludes the Trilogy of which Out of the Silent Planet was the first part, and Perelandra the second, but can be read on its own.


  Magdalen College,


  Christmas Eve, 1943.


  Sale of College Property

  ‘Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,’ said Jane Studdock to herself, ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’ She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind.

  Through the open door she could see the tiny kitchen of the flat and hear the loud, ungentle tick tick of the clock. She had just left the kitchen and knew how tidy it was. The breakfast things were washed up, the tea towels were hanging above the stove, and the floor was mopped. The beds were made and the rooms ‘done’. She had just returned from the only shopping she need do that day, and it was still a minute before eleven. Except for getting her own lunch and tea, there was nothing that had to be done till six o’clock, even supposing that Mark was really coming home for dinner. But there was a College Meeting today. Almost certainly Mark would ring up about teatime to say that the meeting was taking longer than he had expected and that he would have to dine in College. The hours before her were as empty as the flat. The sun shone and the clock ticked.

  ‘Mutual society, help, and comfort,’ said Jane bitterly. In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement. For some years before their marriage she had never seen so little of Mark as she had done in the last six months. Even when he was at home he hardly ever talked. He was always either sleepy or intellectually preoccupied. While they had been friends, and later when they were lovers, life itself had seemed too short for all they had to say to each other. But now…why had he married her? Was he still in love? If so, ‘being in love’ must mean totally different things to men and women. Was it the crude truth that all the endless talks which had seemed to her, before they were married, the very medium of love itself, had never been to him more than a preliminary?

  ‘Here I am, starting to waste another morning, mooning,’ said Jane to herself sharply. ‘I must do some work.’ By work she meant her doctorate thesis on Donne. She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet. Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker and her plan had been to lay great stress on Donne’s ‘triumphant vindication of the body’. She still believed that if she got out all her notebooks and editions and really sat down to the job, she could force herself back into her lost enthusiasm for the subject. But before she did so–perhaps in order to put off the moment of beginning –she turned over a newspaper which was lying on the table and glanced at a picture on the back page.

  The moment she saw the picture, she remembered her dream. She remembered not only the dream but the measureless time after she had crept out of bed and sat waiting for the first hint of morning, afraid to put on the light for fear Mark should wake up and fuss, yet feeling offended by the sound of his regular breathing. He was an excellent sleeper. Only one thing ever seemed able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long.

  The terror of this dream, like the terror of most dreams, evaporates in the telling, but it must be set down for the sake of what came afterwards.

  She had begun by dreaming simply of a face. It was a foreign-looking face, bearded and rather yellow, with a hooked nose. Its expression was frightening because it was frightened. The mouth sagged open and the eyes stared as she had seen other men’s eyes stare for a second or two when some sudden shock had occurred. But this face seemed to be meeting a shock that lasted for hours. Then gradually she became aware of more. The face belonged to a man who was sitting hunched up in one corner of a little square room with white-washed walls–waiting, she thought, for those who had him in their power, to come in and do something horrible to him. At last the door was opened and a rather good-looking man with a pointed grey beard came in. The prisoner seemed to recognise him as an old acquaintance, and they sat down together and began to talk. In all the dreams which Jane had hitherto dreamed, one either understood what the dream-people were saying or else one did not hear it. But in this dream–and that helped to make its extraordinary realism–the conversation was in French and Jane understood bits of it, but by no means all, just as she would have done in real life. The visitor was telling the prisoner something which he apparently intended him to regard as good news. And the prisoner at first looked up with a gleam of hope in his eye and said, ‘Tiens…ah…ça marche’; but then he wavered and changed his mind. The visitor continued in a low, fluent voice to press his point. He was a good-looking man in his rather cold way, but he wore pince-nez and these kept on catching the light so as to make his eyes invisible. This, combined with the almost unnatural perfection of his teeth, somehow gave Jane a disagreeable impression. And this was increased by the growing distress, and finally the terror, of the prisoner. She could not make out what it was that the visitor was proposing to him, but she did discover that the prisoner was under sentence of death. Whatever the visitor was offering him was something that frightened him more than that. At this point the dream abandon
ed all pretence to realism and became ordinary nightmare. The visitor, adjusting his pince-nez and still smiling his cold smile, seized the prisoner’s head between his two hands. He gave it a sharp turn–just as Jane had last summer seen men give a sharp turn to the helmet on a diver’s head. The visitor unscrewed the prisoner’s head and took it away. Then all became confused. The Head was still the centre of the dream but it was quite a different head now–a head with a flowing white beard all covered with earth. It belonged to an old man whom some people were digging up in a kind of churchyard–a sort of ancient British, druidical kind of man, in a long mantle. Jane didn’t mind this much at first because she thought it was a corpse. Then suddenly she noticed that this ancient thing was coming to life. ‘Look out!’ she cried in her dream. ‘He’s alive. Stop! Stop! You’re waking him.’ But they did not stop. The old, buried man sat up and began talking in something that sounded vaguely like Spanish. And this for some reason frightened Jane so badly that she woke up.

  That was the dream–no worse, if also no better, than many another nightmare. But it was not the mere memory of a nightmare that made the sitting room of the flat swim before Jane’s eyes and caused her to sit down quickly for fear she should fall. The trouble was elsewhere. There, on the back page of the newspaper, was the Head she had seen in the nightmare: the first head (if there had been two of them)–the head of the Prisoner. With extreme reluctance, she took up the paper. EXECUTION OF ALCASAN was the headline, and beneath it SCIENTIST BLUEBEARD GOES TO GUILLOTINE. She remembered having vaguely followed the case. Alcasan was a distinguished radiologist in a neighbouring country–an Arab by descent, they said–who had cut short an otherwise brilliant career by poisoning his wife. So that was the origin of her dream. She must have looked at this photo in the paper–the man certainly had a very unpleasant face–before going to bed. But no: that couldn’t be it. It was this morning’s paper. But, of course, there must have been some earlier picture which she had seen and forgotten–probably weeks ago when the trial began. It was silly to have let it give her such a turn. And now for Donne. Let’s see, where were we? The ambiguous passage at the end of Love’s Alchymie,

  Hope not for minde in women; at their best

  Sweetnesse and wit, they are but Mummy possest.

  ‘Hope not for mind in women.’ Did any man really want mind in women? But that wasn’t the point. ‘I must get back my power of concentrating,’ said Jane; and then, ‘was there a previous picture of Alcasan? Supposing…’

  Five minutes later she swept all her books away, went to the mirror, put on her hat, and went out. She was not quite sure where she was going. Anywhere, to be out of that room, that flat, that whole house.

  Mark, himself, meanwhile, was walking down to Bracton College, and thinking of a very different matter. He did not notice at all the morning beauty of the little street that led him from the sandy hillside suburb where he and Jane lived down into the central and academic part of Edgestow.

  Though I am Oxford-bred and very fond of Cambridge, I think that Edgestow is more beautiful than either. For one thing it is so small. No maker of cars or sausages or marmalades has yet come to industrialise the country town which is the setting of the University, and the University itself is tiny. Apart from Bracton and from the nineteenth-century women’s college beyond the railway, there are only two colleges: Northumberland which stands below Bracton on the river Wynd, and Duke’s opposite the Abbey. Bracton takes no undergraduates. It was founded in 1300 for the support of ten learned men whose duties were to pray for the soul of Henry de Bracton and to study the laws of England. The number of Fellows has gradually increased to forty, of whom only six (apart from the Bacon Professor) now study Law and of whom none, perhaps, prays for the soul of Bracton. Mark Studdock was himself a Sociologist and had been elected to a fellowship in that subject five years ago. He was beginning to find his feet. If he had felt any doubt on that point (which he did not) it would have been laid to rest when he found himself meeting Curry just outside the Post Office and seen how natural Curry found it that they should walk to College together and discuss the agenda for the meeting. Curry was the Sub-Warden of Bracton.

  ‘Yes,’ said Curry, ‘it will take the hell of a time. Probably go on after dinner. We shall have all the obstructionists wasting time as hard as they can. But luckily that’s the worst they can do.’

  You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun ‘we’. So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called ‘Curry and his gang’ with awe and with little understanding, and making at College meetings short, nervous speeches which never influenced the course of events. Now he was inside and ‘Curry and his gang’ had become ‘we’ or ‘the Progressive Element in College’. It had all happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.

  ‘You think it’ll go through, then?’ said Studdock.

  ‘Sure to,’ said Curry. ‘We’ve got the Warden, and the Bursar, and all the chemical and bio-chemical people for a start. I’ve tackled Pelham and Ted and they’re sound. I’ve made Sancho believe that he sees the point and that he’s in favour of it. Bill the Blizzard will probably do something pretty devastating but he’s bound to side with us if it comes to a vote. Besides, I haven’t yet told you. Dick’s going to be there. He came up in time for dinner last night and got busy at once.’

  Studdock’s mind darted hither and thither in search of some safe way to conceal the fact that he did not know who Dick was. In the nick of time he remembered a very obscure colleague whose Christian name was Richard.

  ‘Telford?’ said Studdock in a puzzled voice. He knew very well that Telford could not be the Dick that Curry meant and therefore threw a slightly whimsical and ironical tone into his question.

  ‘Good Lord! Telford!!’ said Curry with a laugh. ‘No. I mean Lord Feverstone–Dick Devine as he used to be.’

  ‘I was a little baffled by the idea of Telford,’ said Studdock, joining in the laugh. ‘I’m glad Feverstone is coming. I’ve never met him, you know.’

  ‘Oh, but you must,’ said Curry. ‘Look here, come and dine in my rooms tonight. I’ve asked him.’

  ‘I should like to very much,’ said Studdock quite truly. And then, after a pause, ‘By the way, I suppose Feverstone’s own position is quite secure?’

  ‘How do you mean?’ asked Curry.

  ‘Well, there was some talk, if you remember, as to whether someone who was away quite so much could go on holding a fellowship.’

  ‘Oh, you mean Glossop and all that ramp. Nothing will come of that. Didn’t you think it absolute blah?’

  ‘As between ourselves, yes. But I confess if I were put up to explain in public exactly why a man who is nearly always in London should go on being a Fellow of Bracton, I shouldn’t find it altogether easy. The real reasons are the sort that Watson would call imponderables.’

  ‘I don’t agree. I shouldn’t have the least objection to explaining the real reasons in public. Isn’t it important for a college like this to have influential connections with the outer world? It’s not in the least impossible that Dick will be in the next Cabinet. Even already Dick in London has been a damn sight more use to the College than Glossop and half a dozen others of that sort have been by sitting here all their lives.’

  ‘Yes. Of course, that’s the real point. It would be a little difficult to put in that form at a College meeting, though!’

  ‘There’s one thing,’ said Curry in a slightly less intimate tone, ‘that perhaps you ought to know about Dick.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘He got you your fellowship.’

  Mark was silent. He did not like things which reminded him that he had once been not only outside the Progressive Element but even outside the College. He did not always like Curry either. His pleasure in being with him was not that sort of pleasure.

  ‘Yes,’ said Curry. ‘Denniston was your
chief rival. Between ourselves, a good many people liked his papers better than yours. It was Dick who insisted all through that you were the sort of man we really wanted. He went around to Duke’s and ferreted out all about you. He took the line that the one thing to consider is the type of man we need, and be damned to paper qualifications. And I must say he turned out to be right.’

  ‘Very kind of you,’ said Studdock, with a little mock bow. He was surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. It was an old rule at Bracton, as presumably in most colleges, that one never mentioned in the presence of a man the circumstances of his own election, and Studdock had not realised till now that this also was one of the traditions the Progressive Element was prepared to scrap. It had also never occurred to him that his own election had depended on anything but the excellence of his work in the fellowship examination: still less that it had been so narrow a thing. He was so accustomed to his position by now that this thought gave him the same curious sensation which a man has when he discovers that his father once very nearly married a different woman.

  ‘Yes,’ continued Curry, pursuing another train of thought. ‘One sees now that Denniston would never have done. Most emphatically not. A brilliant man at that time, of course, but he seems to have gone quite off the rails since then with all his Distributivism and what not. They tell me he’s likely to end up in a monastery.’

  ‘He’s no fool, all the same,’ said Studdock.

  ‘I’m glad you’re going to meet Dick,’ said Curry. ‘We haven’t time now, but there’s one thing about him I wanted to discuss with you.’

  Studdock looked enquiringly at him.

  ‘James and I and one or two others,’ said Curry in a somewhat lower voice, ‘have been thinking he ought to be the new Warden. But here we are.’

  ‘It’s not yet twelve,’ said Studdock. ‘What about popping into the Bristol for a drink?’

  Into the Bristol they accordingly went. It would not have been easy to preserve the atmosphere in which the Progressive Element operated without a good many of these little courtesies. This weighed harder on Studdock than on Curry who was unmarried and had a Sub-Warden’s stipend. But the Bristol was a very pleasant place. Studdock brought a double whiskey for his companion and half a pint of beer for himself.

  The only time I was a guest at Bracton I persuaded my host to let me into the Wood and leave me there alone for an hour. He apologised for locking me in.