Saturday, July 06, 2019

C. S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy

Introduction

Opening Passages: From Out of the Silent Planet:

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling with the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road. A violent yellow sunset was pouring through a rift in the clouds to westward, but straight ahead over the hills the sky was the colour of dark slate. Every tree and blade of grass was dripping, and the road shone like a river.... (p. 7)

From Perelandra:

As I left the railway station at Worchester and set out on the three-mile walk to Ransom's cottage, I reflected that no on eon that platform could possibly guess the truth about the man I was going to visit. The flat heath which spread out before me (for the village lies all behind and to the north of the station) looked an ordinary heath. The gloomy five-o'clock sky was such as you might see on any autumn afternoon. The few houses and the clumps of rd or yellowish trees were in no way remarkable. Who could imagine that a little farther on in that quiet landscape I should meet and shake by the hand a man who had lived and eaten and drunk in a world forty million miles distant from London, who had seen this Earth from where it looks like a mere point of green fire, and who had spoken face to face with a creature whose life began before our own planet was inhabitable? (p. 9)

From That Hideous Strength:

"Matrimony was ordained, thirdly," said Jane Studdock to herself, "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other." She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind. (p. 13)

Summary: Elwin Ransom, a philologist, by chance becomes involved in the schemes of Devine and Weston. Weston has invented a means by which it is possible to travel into space, to other planets; Weston is involved because he wants to expand the human race so that it will not go extinct, and Devine, his financier, because he wants to use this discovery for profit. Ransom is kidnapped and taken to Mars, known as Malacandra to the natives, as a sacrifice in exchange for being allowed to take Malacandran gold. While there he escapes and falls in with one group of natives, the hrossa. When Weston and Devine kill a hross, they are all brought to the ruler of Malacandra, Oyarsa, for their fate to be decided. Weston's making a fool of himself by trying to over-awe the natives never stops being funny, and is one of the best satires of colonialism that has ever been penned.

Some time after Ransom, Weston, and Devine barely manage to return, Lewis is going to visit Ransom; they had begun correspondence over a term in Bernardus Silvestris, Oyarses, and Lewis had eventually learned all of Ransom's adventure. However, Lewis quickly learns that new things are afoot: by violating the boundary of our besieged world, Thulcandra, ruled by an evil intelligence, Weston and Devine had made it possible for the intelligence governing the planets and Deep Heaven to shift their policies with regard to our planet. Ransom is being sent by them on a mission to Perelandra, that is, Venus, to prevent some serious evil from happening. When there he will have to adjust to the new planet, and will meet the Lady, a green-skinned woman who is the Eve of that world. Things will become more complicated when Weston arrives -- and something else with him. Weston is the new paradise's serpent, and Ransom will have to decide what to do in order to save Perelandra from the same fate as our world. One of the major themes of Perelandra is that our distinctions among fact, truth, and myth, are often very artifical, things we've imposed; we want to treat morality, for instance, as a purely spiritual thing of the heart, but while it is indeed spiritual and a matter of heart, it also needs fleshly garb -- to overspiritualize morality is to rob it of force and effectiveness. Some facts have a mythic tinge; some moral truths need a mythic garb; some myths and moral truths are such as to become fact. Ransom actually remarks on a related point to Lewis before he leaves; but it takes a strength of will to act on it when life, death, and the fate of the world are in balance.

In That Hideous Strength, we return to our world, the silent planet, at some point after the Second World War, where we meet Jane and Mark Studdock, a recently married couple in their early twenties whose marriage is already not doing very well. Jane has begun having worrying nightmares. Mark, a sociologist, is spending a lot of his time playing academic politics at the college for which he is a Junior Fellow, and doing so brings him into the circle of Lord Feverstone, a flashy, wealthy, and charming politician whose name, we later learn, is Richard Devine. Jane's nightmares will eventually bring her into contact with a group of people at St. Anne's, gathered around a man named Mr. Fisher-King who claims to have been to Mars and Venus, and the discovery that her nightmares are in fact visions of actual events. Mark's association will bring him to the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, the N.I.C.E., a supposedly scientific organization that, as Bill Hengist, a physical chemist who is murdered after he attempts to leave N.I.C.E., says, is more a political conspiracy than any kind of scientific organization. For the only actual experiments we find the N.I.C.E. doing are vivisection, experimental political projects, and the like. Jane and Mark will find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle, the N.I.C.E., with all of the legal power of Britain behind it, and St. Anne's, with nothing but legend on its side. That Hideous Strength is subtitled, "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown Ups", and the course of the fairy-tale depends greatly on these two finding a way to come back to each other.

Reading THS this time around, I was very much struck by how accurate the depiction of academic politics is. As a satire on modern intellectual life, it is hard to beat, and the fundamental root of the disease -- a regard for neither nature, nor the value of a human person, nor reason, insofar as these things are tied up with each other -- is, I think, as accurate today as it was then. When nature, people, and reason are merely to be used to persuade, manipulate, or dominate, power over these things, not truth or goodness, becomes the only thing treated as valuable. And the tactics -- trying to defeat people by passive-aggressive, and sometimes aggressive, undercutting rather than honest fight -- are not unknown today, as well. And of course, the inevitable end of it all: from those who despise the Word of God, the word of man will also be taken away. Those who dare use reason as merely a means will eventually find themselves without it; those who dare use people as mere means will eventually find themselves used and thrown away; those who dare use nature as mere means will eventually find nature sweeping them out of existence. It's a point that could be taken to sum up the entire trilogy.

I also read The Tortured Planet, which, as I noted, was an early abridged version of THS for the American market. As an abridgement it was quite good, no doubt because it was abridged by Lewis himself. It's a very quick read, and, indeed, one of the reasons to prefer THS to TTP is that TTP moves far too quickly. THS is much longer than the other two books in the trilogy, but what a reading of TTP really conveys is that the greater length is necessary for pacing the story. In TTP, events crowd in, one after the other, scenery goes by in a blur, and the characterization becomes less distinct because none of it is developed at leisure. When you read writing advice, the impression is often given that conciseness makes things more vivid, that cutting things down makes the images sharper, but this is never actually true unless the things you are cutting out are themselves vague expressions and fluff that conveys no ideas. In all other situations conciseness makes things more vague, less definite, less vivid. In TTP we don't get as many vivid descriptions of scenery, nor do we follow the thought processes of people except when absolutely necessary, which makes both the scene and the secondary characters have less to contribute to the story. And something that I especially noted is that you can distinguish all the major characters easily by their speech patterns in THS; this stops being the case in TTP, even though all Lewis is doing is cutting things out. Most of the characters start sounding the same. Even Wither, whose vague and rambling speech patterns are a key part of his character, sounds only slightly more diffuse and absentminded than anyone else. THS is a good argument that sometimes a more leisurely route gives the more powerful story. THS is a work of very high-quality; TTP is an enjoyable science fantasy thriller that can quickly be read. And the only difference is that the latter cuts about a third of the former.

Here is a sample so that those who have no access to The Tortured Planet can have a sense of the difference:

That Hideous Strength The Tortured Planet

"Bless my soul!" said Wither. "How very right of you! I had almost forgotten, my dear lady, how tired you must be, and how very valuable your time is. We must try to save you for that particular kind of work in which you have shown yourself indispensable. You must not allow us to impose on your good nature. There is a lot of duller and more routine work which it is only reasonable that you should be spared." He got up and held the door open for her.
"Bless my soul!" said Wither. "How very right of you! I had almost forgotten, my dear lady, how tired you must be, and how very valuable your time is." He got up and held the door open for her.

"You don't think," said she, " that I ought to let the boys have just a little go at Studdock? I mean it seems so absurd to have all this trouble about getting an address."

"You don't think," said she," that I ought to let the boys have just a little go at Studdock?"

And suddenly, as Wither stood with his hand on the door-handle, courtly, patient, and smiling, the whole expression faded out of his face. The pale lips, open wide enough to show his gums, the white curly head, the pouchy eyes, ceased to make up any single expression. Miss Hardcastle had the feeling that a mere mask of skin and flesh was staring at her. A moment later and she was gone. (pp. 238-239)

And suddenly, as Wither stood with his hand on the door-handle, the whole expression faded out of his face. Miss Hardcastle had the feeling that a mere mask of skin and flesh was staring at her. A moment later she was gone. (p. 145)

Favorite Passages: From Out of the Silent Planet:

They were even more interested in what he had to tell them of the aquatic animal with snapping jaws which he had fled from in their own world and even in their own handramit. It was a hnakra, they all agreed. They were intensely excited. There had not been a hnakra in the valley for many years. The youth of the hrossa got out their weapons--primitive harpoons with points of bone--and the very cubs began playing at hnakra-hunting in the shallows.... (p. 170)

From Perelandra:

...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.... (p. 201)

From That Hideous Strength:

... Ransom gripped the side of his sofa; Merlin grasped his own knees and set his teeth. A rod of coloured light, whose clour no man can name or picture, darted between them: no more to see than that, but seeing was the least part of their experience. Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this actually happened. But it did not matter: for all the fragments--needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts--went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many words in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun, Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth. (pp. 321-322)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended. Each book is very different in character, but each is an excellent work of its kind. If there's only one that you read, in general, it should be Perelandra, but both of the others are well worth reading as well.

****

C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, Collier (New York: 1965).
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, Collier (New York: 1965).
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, Collier (New York: 1965).
C. S. Lewis, The Tortured Planet, Avon (New York: 1946).

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