on 8 October 2012
C. S. Lewis's series for adults (sadly, there are only three of these, not seven like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA) combine the several elements that make of this phenomenal writer: scholar and literary critic, story teller, Christian, myth-maker, and several others. Even his friendship with Tolkien comes into play on this one.
Just like NARNIA, Lewis approaches the cosmos with a Christian mindset. Lewis wanted to give the general public, in the "guise of romance", an essentially Christian world in an imaginative universe. Lewis invokes much of his skills as a scholar by adopting a medieval mindset throughout the entire trilogy. Lewis the social commentator, which we must often encounter in his nonfiction, shows up here in THS.
Before I continue, I should address this perceptual problem the term "Space Trilogy" perpetuates. The term "Science Fiction" is rather a misnomer for this trilogy. While C. S. Lewis invokes science fiction, only the first novel OSP is a true (in the conventional sense) science fiction work. PERELANDRA and THS, while dealing with SF themes, are not really as such.
The first book, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, is the most SF of the three, and also the least satisfactory. The story is excellent, with Lewis using medieval influences to develop a Christian world view in a science fiction setting. Tolkien said in one of his letters (its in LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN, one of the early ones), it is simply not long enough. It is a nice story of Ransom being kidnaped and then dealing with the Martian landscape. Yes, some of the science is dated but Lewis is more concerned with other themes to worry about "scientific credibility." Although some have said the characterization is flat, for those thirsty for SF this is the best of the three.
The second book, PERELANDRA, is something of a homage to one of Lewis's favorite, John Milton. It's a beautiful book, and raises the question of what exactly would happen if Adam and Eve had not fallen. Ransom is stripped, both physically and symbolically, having to rely on Maleldil (Jesus) to help him. And this time, instead of being kidnapped Maleldil sends Ransom there. Lewis does away with the problem of spaceships, having just angles take his protagonist there. The descriptions of the floating islands and Ransom's experience on Perelandra in the first section of the book before he meets The Green Lady, along with the ending section of THE LAST BATTLE from Narnia where they are in heaven, to me is the most beautiful passages that ever came from Lewis's pen. One fault that this novel does have it the ending seems to be rather preachy, but otherwise this is a first class novel, and for many readers this will be one of Lewis's most spiritually rewarding novels. Only in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS does he deal so accurately and directly and with such psychologically insight on the problems of temptation and accountability.
The third book, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is longer that the first two combined. In Sayer's biography (I think it's Sayer - if not its in the Green-Hooper biography) a statement is made that THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a Charles Williams novel written by C. S. Lewis, and having reading some Williams I now see why they say that. Tolkien felt William's influence spoiled it, with too much Arthurian mythology incorporated into it. I'm personally not a big fan of King Arthur stories, but this does give me a broader appreciation for them. Many readers may wonder why both sides have such an intense desire to obtain Merlin. Lewis assumes too much knowledge of the reader here. According to legend Merlin is an incubus, a child without a father. This book can be the most difficult of the three (although its still highly readable), because so much is going on, and it has been harshly criticized for the amount of material Lewis tried (unsuccessfully, some would argue) to cover in voicing his own social concerns. Another topic that concerns critics is Lewis's use of violence in THS. Lewis was invoking Dante throughout, but the real problem, as Downing says in PLANETS IN PERIL, that the transition between the modern satirical novel and that of mythology occurs to quickly here. Another fault THS has is the flat villains who can only be bad, and on the good side some of the characters have the same fault. Ransom never seems fully realised as a character as he did in the previous two novels. Ransom becomes much more idealised, whereas in the two previous books Ransom was just like the average sincere Christian man, with struggles and faults. Now, he is the leader and seems to be beyond reproach. After citing these faults, please do not come to the conclusion I do not like THS; far from that actually. This is my personal favorite of the three, despite the faults, and among my top top three that I most often return too of Lewis's fiction. You will notice I have given it much more space than the previous two novels in this review.
All in all, a good series by a great writer. Too bad C. S. Lewis doesn't have more fiction for adults than this and TILL WE HAVE FACES (although, of course, GREAT DIVORCE and PILGRIM'S REGRESS count too). All three are very well written. As far as THE DARK TOWER goes, ignore it is badly written Lewis imitation. Read Kathryn Linskoog's* LIGHT IN THE SHADOWLANDS: PROTECTNG THE REAL C. S. LEWIS, which is a revision of THE C. S. LEWIS HOAX. It casts everything concerning Walter Hooper in doubt, including that unfinished fourth Ransom novel. But that's a whole other review.
*She wrote the first book on the Narnia series, talking about the Christianity and theology of the series. C. S. Lewis read it himself and praised it highly. In fact, it was published even before THE LAST BATTLE found its way into the light of the book store. I haven't read it yet. It's THE LION OF JUDAH IN NEVER-NEVER LAND: THE THELOGY OF C. S. LEWIS IN HIS FANTASYS FOR CHILDREN