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That hideous strength

7 July 2007

In a post on Losing my religion Fr Stephen Freeman draws some lessons from C.S. Lewis’s That hideous strength and Charles Williams’s Descent into hell.

In That hideous strength a recently-married husband and wife with ordinary middle-class secular values are gradually drawn apart by many small choices they make. Mark Studdock, a lecturer at an English provincial university, is drawn by academic ambition into a situation that he finds it difficult to extricate himself from. C.S. Lewis, an academic himself, was very familiar with the temptations and the process, and so describes it very accurately. Mark’s wife Jane goes in the opposite direction — her choices gradually lead her in an ascent to heaven rather than Mark’s descent into hell. Eventually , in an application of Charles Williams’s notion of “substitution” (explained in Descent into hell) Jane helps to save Mark. I won’t say too much about that, in case anyone hasn’t read the book, as it would give away the plot.

Father Stephen describes, with the aid of St Maximus the Confessor’s notion of the “natural will”, how our own ascent into heaven or descent into hell is shaped by a myriad of small choices, similar to those made by Mark and Jane Studdock in That hideous strength.

This seems to link to the diagrams referred to by Nic Paton, in a comment on an earlier post here.

In Nic’s comment, and on the page with the diagrams themselves, two views are presented as alternatives. One stresses the importance of location, whether one is “in” or “out”. The other stresses the importance of orientation or direction — whether one is travelling “towards” or “away from”.

But I think Father Stephen’s post shows the importance of both. It is the small decisions that lead to, and indeed comprise the big decisions. But nevertheless, at some point a boundary is crossed, whether we are aware of it or not. At baptism there is first orientation (well, second, it is preceded by exorcism). We face the West and reject the devil. We turn (convert) to face the East (orientation) and accept Christ (“I believe in Him as King and God”), and then we are baptised, transferred from the “authority of darkness” to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. There can be no doubt that a boundary has been crossed. “For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory” (Ode 1 of Matins of Pascha).

Western Christians may know that Ode better in the paraphrase by J.M. Neale:

The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
From earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With hymns of victory

The very word Pascha/Passover implies a crossing of boundaries.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 July 2007 2:17 am

    Thank you for the good little summaries of these two profound works of fiction — fiction that transcends the genre in its expression of truth. I’ll reiterate here something I wrote over on Father Steven’s blog about the same two books: Isn’t it wonderful how CSL & CW both manage to describe the eternal importance of tiny choices, yet without slipping into legalism? They both understand and express a kind of spiritual existence, rather than a chain of deeds, as the foundation for their “true fiction.” Thanks for the reminder, and I hope to see you over on Iambic Admonit often!

  2. 9 July 2007 4:55 am


    Thanks for the comment.

    I recently commented on a posting on Orthodoxy and orthopraxy in which the writer seems to have confused orthopraxy with “works of the law”, implicitly if not explicitly. I think that reflects the legalism of much Western Christianity, at least in the evangelical Protestant camp. Williams and Lewis manage to avoid that, as far as I can see.

  3. Idetrorce permalink
    15 December 2007 3:21 pm

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  4. 17 December 2007 5:13 pm


    It would be more interesting if you said what it is you don’t agree with.


  1. Descent into hell — Coinherence and substitution « Notes from underground

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