Friday, January 31, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 2: Perelandra by CS Lewis

As I read Perelandra for the manyeth time earlier this week, I was struck with its similarity to some of GK Chesterton's novels. For this is not primarily a story of plot or character, although both of those are fully present--and are tightly and even brilliantly written. But the most memorable thing is the setting and theme. Philosophical and religious argument forms most of the action of the book. And yet, such is Lewis's skill, at no point in the story does the book lose its anchoring in the physical world and float free into the boundless aether of intellect. No, the book keeps a fierce, almost a too-fierce grip on matter, worlds, bodies, and physical struggle. I cannot at this moment think of another book so simultaneously sensuous (I use the word according to its strict dictionary definition, meaning "relating to or affecting the senses") and intellectual. And science fiction--the imagining of some new world in space--doesn't get much more wildly inventive and staggeringly beautiful than this. Each book of the Space Trilogy is more ambitious in scope than the one before: Perelandra will stun you.

(Note: if you haven't read Book 1 of the Cosmic Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, be warned that this review may spoil some of the plot of the first book.)

In Perelandra, middle-aged academic Elwin Ransom returns to space, or Deep Heaven. Not as the unwilling guinea-pig of mad Darwinian scientist Dr Weston this time, but sent on a mission by the eldila, the intangible intelligences that inhabit and rule Deep Heaven and serve the even more powerful Being they call Maleldil. The planet known in Deep Heaven as Perelandra, and on Earth as Venus, is different to anything Ransom has seen before: a world of vast oceans under a golden roof, roamed by floating islands of exquisite beauty and lush fertility, inhabited by a menagerie of strange and lovely animals. And ruled over by an innocent, yet majestic figure: the Green Lady of Perelandra.

Ransom soon realises that he has met the unfallen Eve of a newly created world, separated at the present by an accident of wind and wave from her Adam. He is awed by her, but quickly realises how fragile her blissful and unfallen state might be. Maleldil has warned the King and Lady of Perelandra not to sleep on the Fixed Land, the few islands on the planet which are true land and do not float. This poses no hardship to the Lady--but then, plummeting out of Deep Heaven, another creature enters Perelandra. Dr Weston returns, but this time he talks about macrocosmic spirits and finishes by inviting what he calls "The Force" into him. When Weston awakes, he is no longer Weston. And, with sickened horror, Ransom finds himself witnessing a new temptation quickly ripening into a new Fall.

This was the first of the Cosmic Trilogy I read. Until then, I'd only read Lewis's Narnia books, and this book took some getting used to. (Granted, it's not as strange as The Dark Tower, another sequel to Out of the Silent Planet which Lewis began and quickly abandoned; that involved time travel, and I may review it another time.)

Perelandra, like Out of the Silent Planet, is another exercise in the science-fiction imagination. And like the previous book, this one includes theological with its scientific speculation. What would it be like to meet someone entirely unfallen? What would the fact of the Incarnation on Earth mean for new life on other planets?

There's a huge amount I could say about Perelandra, because the book is so dense. The setting, for example, is gloriously imagined and expressed, both in its strangeness and in its beauty. Read the description of the taste of the fruit on Perelandra, or the iridescent flying frogs, or the transparent caves that look like ice. As happened throughout the Space Trilogy, Lewis borrowed heavily from medieval-cosmological imagery in building his view of the planets, and this being the planet Venus is concerned with pleasure--of a pure and Edenic nature. And Lewis imagines it as no one else could have.

Then there is the intellectual side of the story. Needless to say, it is full of insights. Again, the reservations I noted in Out of the Silent Planet apply here. But these pale besides the good the book has to say. There are three things in particular I want to focus on--and that will mean practically ignoring half the book. But then, all I can do is gesture helplessly in its general direction.

First, there is a wonderful, wonderful chapter where Ransom begins to understand what he has been sent to Perelandra to do. I'll try not to spoil things too much: let me just say that it is horrible, and dangerous, and in some ways all his worst dreams come true. After pages of resistance, Ransom finally capitulates:
...[T]here had arisen before him, with perfect certitude, the knowledge that 'about this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible'. The same thing had happened now...The thing was neither more nor less dreadful than it had been before. The only difference was that he knew--almost as a historical proposition--that it was going to be done. He might beg, weep, or rebel--might curse or adore--sing like a martyr or blaspheme like a devil. It made not the slightest difference. ...You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had been delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical.
At which, of course, I gave a loud and hearty Calvinist "Amen!" For this explains it perfectly.

Second, it is boundlessly fascinating to see the line of attack the Tempter takes in subverting the Green Lady. There are many different aspects to it, but the main aspect is that of fiction and the imagination. The Tempter tells a long string of stories, all about women:
The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal--they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out....At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea--the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world's weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do but needed to have done.
Meanwhile, a corresponding picture is built up of the other sex, "pitifully childish and complacently arrogant", "capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females." It is a wonderful depiction of the heresy of feminism.

But more than that, it is practically a handbook to how theme is embedded into story, and how it goes from story to imagination and from imagination to will. It demonstrates exactly how to interpret a feminist parable (of the kind that surrounds us on every side today) and shows the danger of it.
[The Green Lady] was still in her innocence. No evil intention had been formed in her mind. But if her will was uncorrupted, half her imagination was already filled with bright, poisonous shapes. 'This can't go on,' thought Ransom for the second time.
Any girl who loves to read would do well to read Perelandra carefully as a handbook to how to read stories and a cautionary tale against reading the wrong kind of story and making excuses for it. I'm sure it helped me.

Finally, I've already touched on the wonderful way Lewis keeps this story rooted in the physical. Again, I'm trying not to give too much away, because this is one of my favourite things about the climax of this book.
Hullo! What was this? He sat straight upright again, his heart beating wildly against his side. His thoughts had stumbled upon an idea from which they started back as a man starts back when he has touched a hot poker. But this time the idea was really too childish to entertain....It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle.
The idea that has struck Ransom seems, at the moment he thinks of it, outrageous. "No such crude, materialistic struggle could possibly be what Maleldil really intended."

I love that this book understands the physical aspect of spiritual warfare. I love that it sees physical life as an aspect of spiritual life. I love that it affirms and promotes real things, done with real hands and feet and other physical things such as fruit or animals or (branching out beyond what Lewis includes in this book) hammers and computers and legal documents and two-by-fours and...yes, even rifles and fighter planes, at the last tools of the Christian life. There is also a place in the book where Lewis mentions the sacred/secular, spirit/matter divide as something unnatural and present only in our world because of the evil of the Fall; something that can and should be overcome. Perelandra is, in a deep and implicit way, a book about incarnation: from The Incarnation, to incarnational living, to making Christ visible in our actions and Heaven visible on earth (although perhaps he does not go so far as this last one).

Two more quick things I love. One of the points of this book is to demolish the old romantic idea that the Devil is a gentleman, and it does that chillingly well. Another is that when Dr Weston arrives on Perelandra, his pseudo-scientific babble this time is not so much Darwinian as Joseph-Campbellian. It's one of the ironies of history that Weston speaks of a Star-Wars style, New-Agey Force which, when it is "with him", turns out to be pure evil. Yes--we had the answer to Star Wars in 1942. Thank you, CS Lewis.

Again, I must recommend John C Wright's review of Perelandra, which is written from the perspective of a science fiction author, though only if you've already read the book.


Unknown said...

Great review! I also found his chilling portrayal of the demonic (via Weston) gripping. I wonder, though, just how accurate it is? He speaks of the un-man as using reason as a tool when it suits. The un-man's abandonment of it in the scenes where he repeats "Ransom... Yes? Nothing..." captures it well. Is this the nature of the demonic? Perhaps, perhaps not. What sayeth Scripture? It is silent. Is Lewis' portrayal on this point then dangerous? (even if it makes for a great villainous character).

Suzannah said...

Oh, good question, Isaac. Perhaps there's a case to be made for understanding evil via witnessing its effects on humanity--was CS Lewis drawing on his experience of two world wars here? Or equally likely, he may have been giving his own interpretation of the Christian philosophies of evil and Satan that have been developed over the course of history--Augustine has a lengthy section on the devil in CITY OF GOD. It's been a few years since I read the book but it would be interesting to know what Lewis was drawing on there.

Glad you enjoyed the review!


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