on 8 September 2015
It might be said the art of great storytelling lies in the creative use of language to immerse the reader into a new and strange world. Or perhaps the compelling communication of a truth or worldview via a rich layer cake of personalities, relationships, conflicts, and epiphanies in a specific time and place. Through the modern myth of Perelandra, CS Lewis achieves both – taking us to a literally new and strange planet through a narrative of the battle for the soul of its first inhabitants.
Typically, far from it being a frivolous sci-fi escapade, I found myself face to face with existential questions: What is it to be human? How is our autonomy and our self-awareness tied up with our brokenness? Does true freedom to do right only come when we accept our lack of control? In the world that Ransom explores, his bewilderment is equaled only by his awe, and the latter seems to temper the former as he relinquishes the need to understand in the pursuit of the need to discover the meaning of his presence in the story. A lesson for us all. The joy of fantasy in literature is I suppose the anticipation of the unexpected as one abandons the assumptions that this game will play out by the usual rules: as a result I couldn’t help but be utterly immersed in his inner journey as I experienced the discovery of the reality as he does, through glimpses of good, evil, hope and despair.
Since the book of Revelation (and countless Jewish prophets before that) recorded a vision of a world liberated from the suffering and self-destructiveness of mankind, and pictured a world restored that resembles but transcends beyond measure the status quo we inhabit, writers have imagined ‘heaven’ with diverse metaphors and imagery drawn from what is in front of us. But creation stories can also reveal much about what an uncorrupted creation and humanity might look like. Imagining what could have been is rewarding in a different way to wishing what could be: the purity of a world with no memory of brokenness is not one we can experience, but the portrayal of the verdancy, vitality and purity of the Eden of Perelandra is transfixing and precious. Whilst the drama of Ransom’s fight to prevent the fall of its first people dominates the narrative – and captures the heart as the possibility of a fall from such grace appears - the great reward of the story is in the spiritual wisdom of the first female. In her perfect relationship to Maleldil, the creator spirit, we find lived examples of humility and obedience, and it is in her apparently naïve philosophy of living in the present without reflection or introspection that we find a beautiful portrayal of innate surrender to the good creator and provider that sustains and blesses in abundance.
The setting is vividly described paradises on huge islands of floating vegetation that follow the dramatic and unpredictable ocean surface. This ‘unfixed’ nature is a wonderful meditation on experiencing the waves of life big and small, and the need to submit to the sovereignty of the One that sends them. Only by doing so can we healthily engage in the mandate ‘to be fruitful and multiply’ and taking responsibilities of one’s own in the new creation.
This is classic Lewis allegory shining light into our darkened souls!
Amusingly, after all the outrageous adventuring of two books worth of narrative, its only in the final, most intriguing, chapter that Ransom gets overwhelmed – as the big reveal takes place and the broader picture of Maleldil’s work in the universe is explained, he starts to despair that the salvation and restoration of his fallen world might be a bit of a sideshow, cosmically speaking, because all these other worlds seem to glorify the creator more in their perfection. Amusing for its self-centeredness amongst such glory and otherness. But then came my highlight. The poetry. My bias over prose is laid bare. I wasn’t sure if it was my soul or the author’s I sensed rising with excitement as metaphor is laid over metaphor through the medium of the eldila speeches. The ‘eldila’, spirit-like creatures that live in these non-fallen places very visibly and audibly, are used to convey some of the book’s most poetic reflections on the meaning of creation and the presence of God within it as the story reaches its crescendo. Their beauty bears re-reading.
As the purpose of the created universe is revealed to be ‘The Great Dance’, the gathered spirits reflect on its nature. Searching for a Christian parallel, at first I thought perhaps they were to display the relationship of the Holy Trinity. Then I felt like the speeches were describing that biblical mystery of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, much like the parables of Jesus. There is much in common with the gushing emotion of the Psalms. Ultimately though, and ironically for such an articulate writer as CS Lewis, these beautiful vignettes (and perhaps the book as a whole) attempt to put into words something that transcends language: the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, and not just with us but with everything else that may or may not be out there….
on 12 April 2014
These books are CS Lewis writing fiction without the constraints that he had for Narnia - that is that the audience were children. These books are intense, gruesome, glorious and spellbinding. All the Lewis imagination which is shown in the Narnia series is here pushed to extremes, and it is awesome.
on 13 December 2013
I read the last book 'That Hideous Strength' first, in an expurgated version that as I later realised had removed some of the more obviously Christian bits, as a schoolboy over 40 years ago. Don't really understand it but couldn't stop reading. Since them my wife and I have literally worn out 2 sets of the trilogy and are on our third, re-reading again and again over decades.
The middle book of the trilogy 'Perelandra' has a special place for me as I was going through some very bad stuff in my head once and this book came into my hands and really helped.
Each book can be read on its own but they are much better as a trilogy and read in order. They become less like ordinary sci fi and more theological as they move on. The first book 'Out of the Silent Planet' would probably appeal most to the 'regular' science fiction writer. Without giving too much away, the books are set on Mars, Venus and Earth and portray Mars and Venus as habitable. OK, we now know that isn't so, but they didn't then and given that we willingly suspend disbelief in any story of this kind, that's OK.
I freely admit that I write as a convinced Christian, as was C S Lewis, and yes the trilogy carries a Christian message. But it is definitely NOT propaganda or 'written to make you believe in Jesus' and many issues about the human condition are thoughtfully explored. C S Lewis wrote several essays about fantasy/fairy tales and clearly put his heart and thought into this trilogy. There are many layers of meaning which one keeps coming back to, definitely far more that a 'cowboys and Indians in space' space opera story.
Some critics have described these books as 'Narnia for adults'. I wouldn't put it like that, especially as I think the Narnia tales are great for adults too! But there is some truth in that.
Finally, feminists, liberals and other critics have attacked these tales for being sexist (especially 'That Hideous Strength'), for suggesting that some problems should be solved with violence, and for being anti-science. I don't think any of these criticisms hold water, besides which-if you can't float controversial or unfashionable ideas in a fairy tale (Lewis' own preferred term for this work) then where can you float them?
These are literally my favourite books in the whole world, and having just re-read the first 2 for the nth time am savouring the thought of re-reading That Hideous Strength, which Peter Hitchens agrees with me is Lewis' most important work. And that is saying something.
I could say more in praise of this trilogy but it would get boring unless I said enough to spoil the plot and that I won't do.
on 25 May 2015
This series of three books is both gripping and fascinating. The story progresses gradually then more rapidly as you move forwards in the narrative. Each book can be read alone and is brilliant even by itself, but put in sequence with the others forms part of an even greater whole. The adventures of Dr Ransom are really engaging, drawing you in to find out what happens, and really gripping so that you find yourself trying to squeeze extra minutes into your day, so as to find out what happens next. I certainly found myself staying up late into the night to finish the third book, which is a kind of summary and 'denouement' of the whole series. I last read this series some years ago and the story was so dramatic that I clearly and accurately remembered the main thrust of the story, although I had forgotten how beautiful and detailed the description was.
This is certainly one of the best three-volume series I have read and I shall read it again soon.
on 21 November 2013
If you're used to the way Lewis writes you'll have no trouble following the story. He manages to include philosophy and religion in a way that doesn't detract from the story and at times challanges the reader to think more deeply about their own beliefs. That being said the story itself is a good tale of man exploring the worlds that make up our solar system, along the lines of other late victorian sci fi writers, and what could posdibly be there. I've found it a good read and the type of book to be read several times with something different sparking thoughts each time.