The Family versus That Hideous Strength
by Bradley J. Birzer
C.S. Lewis’ best novel, That Hideous Strength (1945), is a story first and foremost about marriage. As Lewis properly understood it, marriage is our first and most important institution in resisting evil as well as the ever-looming and hovering chaos of our modern and post-modern whirligig we call “Western society.”
“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock [our protagonist in That Hideous Strength] 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.It’s worth emphasizing here that for Lewis, marriage is not just for procreation, but, importantly, for mutual help and friendship. Jane’s words are taken directly from the Book of Common Prayer.
The profound Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke—whom Lewis considered the greatest Irishman to have existed—put it equally well in his second work against the French Revolutionaries:
The awful author of our being is the author of our place in the order of existence; and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactick, not according to our will, but according to his, he has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us. We have obligations [that] arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice. On the contrary, the force of all the pacts which we enter into with any particular person or number of persons amongst mankind, depends upon those prior obligations. In some cases the subordinate relations are voluntary, in others they are necessary—but the duties are all compulsive. When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not matter of choice. They are dictated by the nature of the situation. Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world.When the director of the forces against That Hideous Strength in Lewis’s modern fantasy, resurrects Merlin, the ancient Druid responds in horror to Jane.
“Sir, you have in your house the falsest lady of any at this time alive.” The Director answer him in the same language: “Sir, you are mistaken. She is doubtless like all of us a sinner; but the woman is chaste.” “Sir,” said Merlin, “it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years.”
Free will exists, of course, but in true Augustinian fashion, Lewis hints, it exists only to pervert the good. The choices the Studdocks made might very well change the entire course of history.
“Be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren… For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.”
It’s a hard lesson for those of us who think so fondly of Christianity and the Christian tradition to know that even the barbarian pagans knew more and practiced marriage better than we. And, yet, if we are to believe the recorders of the ancient West, they most certainly did.