Top critical review
8 people found this helpful
Better than I thought it would be
on 31 January 2009
Maybe it's one of those roads you take when you're younger, but I never read CS Lewis as a kid. Instead I was a 12-year-old Tolkien nerd. Later on, when I started taking literature seriously and lost the remnants of my Christianity, I read a bit about Tolkien and Lewis's friendship and decided that I preferred Tolkien, who kept his religion out of his books except in the most subtle and recondite of ways. I had no desire to read what I imagined would be Christian propaganda diguised as fiction. I read some of Lewis's academic works on English literature and found them learned and often stimulating. His essay on Kipling, reprinted in "Selected Literary Essays", is a brilliant analysis of why Kipling was so great and also why his work is so ultimately stifling.
As a late-30s adult with a small daughter, I decided that I'd better brush up on my children's classics so I finally got round to reading "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" a few weeks ago. All I can say is that I assume it's a lot more riveting if you read it aged 10. I preferred "Out of the Silent Planet", which is not for kids and which is generally less jolly-hockey-sticks and more ominous.
To someone who's read a lot of science fiction over the years, this is fairly entry-level stuff. Man goes to alien world where the aliens turn out to be wiser and kinder than humans - well, there's a trope I haven't heard of before. The description of Mars (it's called Malacandra in the book) is vivid, but from a scientific point of view, preposterous. The real point is Lewis's cosmology, which just like the Narnia books is Christian theology described in terms of aliens and mysterious beings rather than angels and demons. It's not really all that intrusive if like me you don't believe in that stuff, but some more passionate non-believers may find it irritating.
The best part of the book is the bit where the hero Ransom and the aliens that he's befriended meet the hero's malevolent human kidnappers, the megalomaniac scientist Weston and Weston's avaricious sidekick Devine. The reason why this scene is so good is that you can see Lewis doing what he liked to do best - attack something. Weston delivers what he intends to be a powerful speech about the human need to expand and colonise the universe, which Ransom translates into the aliens' language. Because Weston's speech is phrased mostly in windy abstractions such as "technology" and "power" and "Life", which the aliens' speech can't support, it comes across as ludicrous: Weston proclaims that humankind's greater technology and mastery of the air and sea entitles us to conquer races who lack such technology, and Ransom translates it as "Because we can carry many heavy things faster than you can, we are allowed to kill you." It's a fine bit of knockabout satire, but Weston is made to be an easy target.
There are two other books in Lewis's trilogy: "That Hideous Strength", which is said to be the best one but which I haven't read, and "Perelandra" which is said to be the worst one, and which I have just started. So far it's not looking good.
CS Lewis reminds me of something TS Eliot wrote about John Donne. I forget the exact wording, but the gist of it was that Donne had a strong and passionate temperament which in his case expressed itself by means of his religion, and that this, to Eliot, meant that religion just happened to be the occasion for Donne to express what was on his mind, whereas a genuinely religious writer like Lancelot Andrewes had the true believer's mind - it was impossible to imagine Andrewes without his religion, whereas you could imagine Donne as an atheist. He would have been more gloomy, but he would have been fundamentally the same man. I think that something like this is true of Lewis. If he had been born in the Ukraine he might have become a senior member of the Communist Party - a brilliant, awkward and argumentative man who would have ended up being killed by Stalin for being too intelligent. He was, by nature, a disputant and a writer of polemic and satire. His Christianity strikes me as something that he wanted to argue about, not something that he was able to contemplate. I may be an atheist, but it doesn't mean that I lack spirituality; in any case, I can't imagine Lewis bringing me back into the fold.
Lewis fans will want to read everything by their hero, and why not. Nearly everything he wrote is interesting, if not always convincing. But readers who cut their SF teeth on Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson etc. will probably wonder what the fuss is about.