It would be no exaggeration to claim that C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra”—arguably the least read and least remembered part of his “Space Trilogy”—is nothing short of a masterpiece. In it, the author ably blends science fiction and theology, giving us a gripping thriller, steeped in thought, adventure, and myth.
In the second of the three books of C.S. Lewis’s brilliant Space Trilogy, Perelandra, our beloved Cambridge philologist and hero, Elwin Ransom, travels to Perelandra (Venus) and struggles to prevent a repetition of the Fall in the Garden of Eden as it had happened, tragically, in our world. What might have happened, after all, if either Eve or Adam had resisted the temptations of the devil? What might have happened had there been an advocate for God’s position in the great cosmic struggle for the soul?
“How v. kind of you to send me Mr Groom’s remarks on Perelandra,” Lewis wrote in a private letter. “I am always like other cats glad to be stroked (I take it one shows even more pride by not liking praise than by liking it) but this was specially welcome because that is miles and away my own favourite among my books and has had a very bad reception from reviewers. Despite the preface they all will take it as an ‘allegory’ and then blame me for not making it clear.” The book, it turns out, was one of Lewis’s favorites. “The one I enjoyed writing least was Screwtape: what I enjoyed most was Perelandra–but, you see, it all comes to nothing.”
Lewis loved that Perelandra was both science fiction (though a term not yet employed) and spiritual, reflecting, he thought, some of the greatest works of fantastic speculation ever written. He wanted, very badly, to be a writer in the same vein as Plato, Thomas More, and G.K. Chesterton. More recently, he wanted to emulate his writing hero, David Lindsay. “Voyage to Arcturus is not the parody of Perelandra but its father. It was published, a dead failure, about 25 years ago,” he confided to a friend, the poetess Ruth Pitter. “Now that the author is dead it is suddenly leaping into fame: but I’m one of the old guard who had a treasured second hand copy before anyone had heard of it.”
Perelandra begins with the author, C.S. Lewis, attempting to make his way to Ransom’s country home after being summoned. Unsure of his or Ransom’s purpose and plagued by demonic whisperings, Lewis hesitates, fearful of being duped and suffocated. “And I realized that I was afraid of two things—afraid that sooner or later I myself might meet an eldil, and afraid that I might get ‘drawn in,’ ” he admits. “I suppose everyone knows this fear of getting ‘drawn in’ the moment at which a man realizes that what had seemed mere speculations are on the point of landing him in the Communist Party or the Christian Church—the sense that a door has just slammed and left him on the inside.”
Bearing these various psychological and spiritual crosses, Lewis makes it to Ransom’s college only to find Ransom preparing for his journey to Venus via a small coffin. Ever humble, Ransom has a laugh at his own expense. “ ‘I know!’ said he with one of his singularly disarming smiles. ‘You are feeling the absurdity of it. Dr. Elwin Ransom setting out single-handed to combat powers and principalities. You may even be wondering if I’ve got megalomania.’ ” Yet, Ransom cautions, why not? Why would not God demand that ordinary Christians fight the powers and principalities, no matter how outmatched. All evil must be resisted, at every level. Interestingly enough, Lewis is not the only one of the Inklings present. While Ransom is a thinly-disguised Tolkien, Humphrey Havard and Owen Barfield appear as themselves.
When Ransom arrives on Perelandra, he finds a land young and voluptuous, but he finds that “words are slow” and fail to capture the world’s true and abiding beauty. Tellingly, when Ransom first hears thunder, he notes that “it is the laugh, rather than the roar, of heaven.” When he first eats, he finds the food so meaningful and rich that words, again, do the sensation injustice.
He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draft of this on Earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.
Not just the food was sacramental, but the very act of eating was as well. When Ransom foolishly tells a “white lie”—a half truth—it feels like “vomit” in his mouth, so pure and young is Perelandra.
As Ransom acclimates himself to the world, he finds that he has entered into mythology itself, in which there is not true line between what is factually true and what is poetically true. Encounter after encounter convinces him that he “was not following an adventure but of enacting a myth.” Toward the end of the novel, Ransom can finally put his numerous thoughts along this line ably and justly.
It comes, they told him, a long way round and through many stages. There is an environment of minds as well as of space. The universe is one—a spider’s web wherein each mind lives along every line, a vast whispering gallery where (save for the direct action of Maleldil) though no news travels unchanged yet no secret can be rigorously kept. In the mind of the fallen Archon under whom our planet groans, the memory of Deep Heaven and the gods with whom he once consorted is still alive. Nay, in the very matter of our world, the traces of the celestial commonwealth are not quite lost. Memory passes through the womb and hovers in the air. The Muse is a real thing. A faint breath, as Virgil says, reaches even the late generations. Our mythology is based on a solider reality than we dream: but it is also at an almost infinite distance from that base. And when they told him this, Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was—gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility. His cheeks burned on behalf of our race when he looked on the true Mars and Venus and remembered the follies that have been talked of them on Earth.
Distraught as to his purpose on Perelandra at first, Ransom arrogantly believes he might very well be the first man of a new race, a sort of Adam. Quickly, though, his Christian humility prevails, and he comes to realize that he has been brought to this world—to mix fact and myth—to convince the Eve of that world to resist the temptations of Satan, here in the possessed form of Professor Edward Weston, the “Un-man.”
Through intense and numerous conversations between the Eve of Perelandra, the Un-man, and Ransom, Lewis explores such critical themes as the nature of humanity, the nature of justice, the nature of equality, and the import of choice. Indeed, free will and destiny hover over the entire book.
Theologically, Lewis makes the fascinating point that angels have served (or, are currently serving) their allotted purpose, something separate and, perhaps, less than that of future humanoids, such as those that take control of Perelandra. The Incarnation on Earth, it seems, affects the entire cosmos. Explaining this to a reviewer for the Jesuit magazine, America, Lewis wrote: “The only point I think you are slightly wrong on is that you use the Martian society too boldly as a guide to what Perelandra wd. become later on,” he noted, referring to the sentient species of the first book of the Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. “But there is no real parallel. The Incarnation has come in between,” Lewis continued. As such, “Malacandra belongs to the old order in wh. planetary creatures were subjected to the angels: but the angels kneel before Tor. There is no limit to the future glories of the world wh., needing no redemption itself, yet profits by the Incarnation.” In Perelandra, the Eve of that world explains:
That is all the old order, Piebald, the far side of the wave that has rolled past us and will not come again. That very ancient world to which you journeyed was put under the eldila. In your own world also they ruled once: but not since our Beloved became a Man. In your world they linger still. But in our world, which is the first of worlds to wake after the great change, they have no power. There is nothing now between us and Him. They have grown less and we have increased. And now Maleldil puts it into my mind that this is their glory and their joy. They received us—us things of the low worlds, who breed and breathe—as weak and small beasts whom their lightest touch could destroy, and their glory was to cherish us and make us older till we were older than they—till they could fall at our feet.
As a Christian Humanist, Lewis, in this passage, has made one of his most important contributions to 20th century thought, a deep and abiding understanding of the Incarnation as the central event of eternity in time.
Lewis wrote the conclusion to match the tempo and tone of Richard Wagner’s Ring opera. “You just missed tapping my whole Norse complex–Old Icelandic, Wagner’s Ring and (again) Morris,” he admitted to an American reviewer, a professor at a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. “The Wagner is important: you will see, if you look, how operatic the whole building up of the climax is in Perelandra. Milton I think you possibly over-rate: it is difficult to distinguish him from Dante & St Augustine. (Tinidril [the Perelandran Eve] at her second appearance owes something to Matilda at the end of Purgatorio).”
It would be no exaggeration to claim that Lewis’s Perelandra—arguably the least read and least remembered part of his Space Trilogy—is nothing short of a masterpiece. In it, as Lewis himself had hoped, the author ably blends science fiction and theology, giving us a gripping thriller, steeped in thought, adventure, and myth. Ransom is, at once, noble and humble, a Christian scholar and gentleman. At one point, as he is trying to keep his own sanity in the long twilight struggle against evil, he finds himself fondly remembering the greats of western civilization as he descends into Lewis’s version of Hell. “He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound laws which he had composed as a freshman.”
Further, Lewis makes several references to the soldiers back on Earth, fighting in the second World War.
“Come,” said Ransom at last, “there’s no good taking it like that. Hang it all, you’d not be much better off if you were on Earth. You remember they’re having a war there. The Germans may be bombing London to bits at this moment!” Then seeing the creature still crying, he added, “Buck up, Weston. It’s only death, all said and done. We should have to die some day, you know. We shan’t lack water, and hunger—without thirst—isn’t too bad. As for drowning—well, a bayonet wound, or cancer, would be worse.”
Lewis understands that they, too, are fighting the long twilight struggle against evil.
In a strange twist of history, Lewis’s Space Trilogy attracted the attention and wrath of another great science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. “I wish to disagree, somewhat violently,” Clarke began a letter to Lewis after reading Perelandra. Contrary to Lewis, Clarke wished and desired human society to spread to the stars. Unlike Lewis who feared that man would spread his own pride and sin, Clarke believed that man would grow out of his youthful pride and mature while encountering the universe. “On any cosmic standard the human race must be very young an primitive and even if its warlike instincts persist it could do little damage to civilizations whose histories must be longer than our geological periods,” he wrote.
Lewis, not surprisingly, held his ground. “A race devoted to the increase of its own forces and technology with complete indifference to either does seem to me a cancer of the universe.”
A cancer, indeed.
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 CSL to Delmar Banner, January 7, 1944.
 CSL to Roy W. Harrington, January 19, 1948.
 CSL to Ruth Pitter, January 4, 1947.
 Lewis, Perelandra (1943; New York: Scribner, 1996), 10.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 21.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 33.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 34.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 37.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 61.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 42.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 172-173.
 CSL to Victor Hamm, August 11, 1945.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 71.
 CSL to Charles Brady, October 24, 1944.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 148.
 Lewis, Perelandra, 141.
 Arthur C. Clarke to CSL, December 1943, in Ryder W. Miller, ed., From Narnia to a Space Odyssey (New York: iBooks, 2003), 37.
 CSL to Clarke, December 7, 1943.
The featured image is “Allegory of the Planets and Continents” (1752) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.