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Fuseli The Nightmare hideous strength

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.

that hideous strength“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.

The republican Tacitus described the following mores and norms among the Germanic Tribes in his Germania:

The matrimonial bond is, nevertheless, strict and severe among them; nor is there anything in their manners more commendable than this…. This they consider as the firmest bond of union…. That the woman may not think herself excused from exertions of fortitude, or exempt from the casualties of war, she is admonished…. that she comes to her husband as a partner in toils and dangers; to suffer and to dare equally with him, in peace and in war…. [Further] To limit the increase of children, or put to death any of the later progeny is accounted infamous: and good habits have there more influence than good laws elsewhere.

The loss of the institution of the family over the last fifty or so years is a huge blow to the integrity of our civilization. Yet, it is not the blow that so many hysterical religious talking heads seem to think. The attack on marriage is not just an attack on the union of  “one man and one woman,” but a vicious attack against every intermediary institution—from the neighborhood associations, to the Knights of Columbus, to the local mom-and-pop stores, to the elementary schools, to our medical doctors. Indeed, the work and predictions of Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet, and Christopher Dawson have all come to pass.

For what it’s worth, I believe we are done as a civilization, though this does not lessen our duties to our families and our neighbors. If anything, such a collapse of society makes these relations all the more important. We cannot take good will… or even goodness… for granted any longer. The insane has become the normal, and the normal has become the ill.

american familyStill, as we’ve come—sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly—to realize just how dead marriage is as an institution, we’ve—in our confusion and bewilderment and shock—tried to assign blame, to find a scapegoat. There is none. The trouble is not the law, but the will and the attitude and the mores and the norms and the beliefs of all of us. The failure of marriage is a failure of will and of nerve, a failure of civilization. Still, we keeping hoping to assign blame. And, yet, what do we know?  We know that we—all of us as a civilization—have lost our will to maintain the institution of marriage. Frankly, over a period of a half century, we have lost our nerve.

When Alexis de Tocqueville explained in volume II of Democracy in America (1840) what “democratic despotism” would be, he wrote:

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

And, yet, there remains a glimmer of hope. Even against every niggling assault from without and within, marriage is still legal. We can marry, and we can have children.

I began with That Hideous Strength, a fairy tale about the meaning of marriage against the depredations of our age.

In the final paragraph of that book, our protagonist, Jane, realizes that though she has been married a year, she has not been married at all, for neither she nor her husband has ever given herself and himself fully to one another.  They have never surrendered their individual wills to become one flesh.  The will, rather than one, has remained two.

As the novel concludes, the Goddess Venus, the goddess of love, descends upon a small country cottage.

And Jane went out of the big house… into the liquid light and supernatural warmth of the garden and across the wet lawn… past the seesaw and the greenhouse and the piggeries, going down all the time, down to the lodge, descending the ladder of humility…. And she thought of children, and of pain and death. And now she was halfway to the lodge, and thought of Mark and of all his sufferings. When she came to the lodge she was surprised to see it all dark and the door shut. As she stood at the door with one hand on the latch, a new thought came to her.  How if Mark did not want her— not tonight, nor in that way, nor any time, nor in any way?  Then she noticed that the window, the bedroom window, was open. Clothes were piled on a chair inside the room so carelessly that they lay over the sill: the sleeve of a shirt— Mark’s shirt— even hung over down the outside wall. And in all this damp too. How exactly like Mark! Obviously it was high time she went in.

And, again, we Christians should be reminded—even the pagans (real or fictional) did better than we when it comes to the institution of marriage.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally presented at Hillsdale College on April 25, 2016.

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12 replies to this post
  1. “For what it’s worth, I believe we are done as a civilization….”

    Fine essay Mr. Birzer. I too have grown ever more pessimistic about our civilization. Unless a great outpouring of the Spirit turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers, I cannot see otherwise then your statement above. And this turning of the hearts will involve also the turning away from the totalitarian state and to the “small platoons” foremost of which is the family.

  2. I always find your essays thought provoking, Dr. Birzer. Thank you. Just a quick question: Where does C. S. Lewis call Burke the greatest Irishman who existed? I didn’t realize that C. S. Lewis held him in such esteem (although he obviously shared his values). I would love to read Lewis’s thoughts on Burke. Thanks.

    • Hey Nathan, there’s actually only one reference, and I’d need to double check. If I remember correctly, it’s just a reference to an Inkling discussion regarding the greatest figure of each of the peoples of Britain. They mentioned Burke as the greatest Irishman. It is either in Lewis’s collected letters or in Warnie’s diary. I’ll look. Thank you!

  3. You and CS Lewis are so spot on. I won’t say we are done as a civilization, though you may be right, but we certainly have a huge challenge before us. Marriage really is the corner pin of western civilization, and the past fifty years has been devastating to the institution of marriage, and therefore to western culture. I know sometimes divorce is necessary but somehow we have to make it harder for marriages to split apart. And of course this whole gay marriage and gender fluidity is even more crippling.

    • Agreed, Manny. Sometimes divorce is not only necessary but an actual good. But, when it becomes mere habit because of this or that difference, we’re in trouble. In our culture, it has become the default position–which is incredibly destablilizing over time.

  4. “For what it’s worth, I believe we are done as a civilization, though this does not lessen our duties to our families and our neighbors.”

    I guess I’m not this pessimistic. Or, to put it another way, I’m not expecting a “Mad Max” future any time soon.

  5. The longer I read, the more distressed I became.
    I shall have been married fifty-five years this October. The years have not been easy and my expectations have not been met. How much of that was my fault I do not know, because I am married to a man who is gentle and kind to a fault who would never point out my faults. Did I ever think of divorce? Oh, yes. But, I remember walking down the aisle of my Church on an overcast, cool, Friday, a 13th, and wondering if this was the right thing to do. It was, but only in hindsight.
    I truly wish that it were possible to guarantee newlyweds a happy ending, so they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not possible. Did I, as a parent, instill a fighting spirit in my children? I pray to God that He will take up the slack where I failed.
    Thank you for your article.

  6. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 70’s, and, aside from some of the music, I have almost no nostalgia for that era. America seemed to be in decline on all fronts, especially after Watergate and losing the war in Vietnam. And morals were in decline everywhere; if you were in high school it was considered “Cool” to use drugs and have sex, sexual morality being defined mainly by the feminists and the porno industry.

    So, compared to THAT, things are definitely better today.

  7. “The trouble is not the law, but the will and the attitude and the mores and the norms and the beliefs of all of us. The failure of marriage is a failure of will and of nerve, a failure of civilization.”

    I like what you have to say here about a failure of will and of nerve and am reminded of Chesterton’s essay on the making of rash vows, which ought to be required reading for everyone these days.

    I am wondering, though, if you might be giving less credit than is deserved toward the law, or rather, the changing of it. Often, it is the law which enables those who might be inclined toward “a failure of will and of nerve” to press on, press forward, keep the vows and the marriage with it. A while back I heard a piece on NPR (amazingly enough) discussing some of the unfortunate turn of events that came out of the no-fault divorce laws. It was framed in terms of feminism and women’s rights and that sort of thing; nevertheless, it was instructive. What was meant to be ostensibly a protection for women, enabling them to divorce a man when it was truly necessary, became the means of their own undoing, as men (and women) could more easily abandon their “rash vows.”

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