That Hideous Strength is a complex book. It’s not merely one story-line that carries through the work: there are many such lines, along with many themes that C. S. Lewis wanted to implant in his readers’ minds. One such theme is the lure of the “inner ring.”
Mark Studdock, the academic who longs for acceptance into what he considers the “real” power group in his college and at the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments—the N.I.C.E.—is a prime example of how this longing can go terribly wrong.
What I seek to do as I teach the Ransom Trilogy at my church this fall is not just tell the stories—although that would be significant enough—but to explore those themes that are incorporated into the stories. So when I get to That Hideous Strength, I will take some time to explain the inner ring concept; this will lay a foundation for better appreciation for the story.
At about the same time as Lewis was writing this novel, he also wrote an essay called “The Inner Ring,” and it clearly sets out the problem.
Lewis, I believe, is correct that this desire is present in nearly all of us. We don’t want to be “outside.” Just think of your time on the playground as a child. Recall, perhaps, that you were sometimes the last one to be chosen to be on a team. Yes, I do have those memories, and so, I presume, do many of you reading this right now. As we get older, we don’t worry about that particular snubbing, but it pops up again in other situations: job, club, social network, etc.
Inner rings come in different types. They aren’t all the same. Political people want to climb the ladder and be considered one of the elite. They want to be part of that inner ring. Poor people seek acceptance as they strive to become wealthier—that, they think, will make them happy to be part of that group. Yet Lewis shows another side:
As long as we are the ones “in the know,” we can look upon others who are outside of our little, special group as somehow inferior. This is the pride factor rising up, which Lewis of course in Mere Christianity defines as the greatest sin, the root of all others.
He is careful, though, to acknowledge that we do seek to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, those with whom we can easily discourse. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. For instance, I am part of an Inklings group in my area where we get together on a regular basis to discuss literature, music, movies, theology, or whatever is on our minds that particular day. While we enjoy the fellowship of like minds, we don’t exclude anyone who is interested in wanting to join us. There is no “elite” concept as its cornerstone for existence. As always, it’s not the external that is the main problem, but what is in the heart.
As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider an outsider you will remain.
He then points to the ultimate disappointment:
You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed.
You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last.
In the novel, Mark Studdock finally comes to that realization, but he is nearly destroyed (figuratively and literally) by his incorporation into a demonic ring. Being “in” is not always what it promises to be.
Although a novel is a work of fiction, it can reveal truths that play out in the real world. Lewis masterfully reveals the danger of the lure of the inner ring in That Hideous Strength.