C.S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy, And Why I’ll Never Finish It

Out of the Silent Planet by Martin McKiernan
“Out of the Silent Planet” by Martin McKiernan

I tried to approach C.S. Lewis with an open mind. I really tried. But when I reached the end of the second book of his Space Trilogy, I just could not go on. I put off writing this continuation of my Fantasy Literature series, because I thought I would first finish reading the series before I said something about it. But I cannot, so I decided to blog about the two first novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. I decided to stay objective and open-minded… and I think I have to admit that I failed.

So let me say up front what I had planned to hide beneath a layer of objective criticism: I am an atheist. Always have been, always will be. I wasn’t raised to believe in any kind of religion, and all of them seem very odd and peculiar to me to this day. I don’t mind religious people, as long as they’re not trying to convince or convert me. I consider myself a fairly nice and helpful person, and I try to be as tolerant as I can manage. But when I read Perelandra I felt just plain offended.

Of course I knew that C.S. Lewis was a Christian writer, an orthodox Anglican, to be precise. I researched him a little, but tried not to be too thorough, so as to read his novels with a somewhat unprepared mind. I never read the Narnia books. For all my interest in fantasy, they never particularly caught my eye, and while I did not extremely dislike the films, they didn’t encourage me to read the originals either.

But let’s start with Out of the Silent Planet, which was published in 1938. The first novel in the series tells the tale of Elwin Ransom, a philologist, who literally stumbles upon two men preparing to travel to Mars. A physics professor, Weston, and his associate Mr. Devine, built a steam-punk-like spaceship and kidnap Ransom, forcing him to go with them. After a tumultuous journey through space, they actually reach Mars, which they (and the natives there) call Malacandra.

The novel was heavily influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus, which I treated in my first article in this series. I thought it made sense to read Lewis next, to see how he developed the themes in Arcturus further. The novels seem a bit too sci-fi at first, but at a second glance, their style is much more fantastic than the plot suggests. The influence can be felt all throughout Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Simple visual themes, such as odd-coloured plants and strange animals come up immediately, and much of the texts is indeed an in-depth description of very fantastical landscapes. I liked that. Landscapes are good, although maybe a little boring, after a while. At least Lewis’ style is much, much more readable than Linday’s.

Out of the Silent Planet - The Hrossa (by Deimos-Remus)
The Hrossa – by Deimos-Remus @ DeviantArt

Ransom overhears Weston and Devine: they apparently plan to sacrifice him to the Sorn, the aliens on Malacandra. After the landing, he barely escapes the aliens and his captors, and flees into the wilderness. [Insert beautiful, yet lengthy descriptions.] Ransom meets another intelligent species and lives with them for a few weeks, learning their language. The Hrossa, who look somewhat like large otters ( no joke, see picture), live in jungle villages and are depicted as primitive, yet gentle farmers and poets. Ransom learns much about Malacandra from them: Apparently there are two other species living there, the giant-like Sorn and the Frog-like Pfifltrigg (seriously, what were you drinking, Lewis). The Sorn are supposed to be the intelligent ones, the star-readers, scientists and philosophers. The Pfifltrigg (!!), on the other hand, are miners and crafters, adept at digging gold from the ground and making beautiful things from it. Ransom now knows why Mr. Devine is in this – he obviously wants to exploit Malacandra’s gold, while Weston’s motivation for coming remains unclear at this point.

The story takes the typical tone of the native-conqueror-colonizer tone. Ransom must take on the role of protecting and warning the aliens from his corrupted fellow men. Sadly, one of his Hross friends is shot and killed by Weston, and Ransom is sent to the Oyarsa, some kind of divine being, to determine his fate. On his following journey, he actually meets one of the Sorn and realizes they are friendly and intelligent. One of them carries him across the surface of the planet, telling him of another species of flying people who originally lived there, but who are now extinct. The planet Malacandra, or Mars, is explained to be harmed and dying, hardly able to sustain life any more. The three races are forced to live in the deep, lush valleys that cross the surface, but the temperature is already dropping dangerously low – or, as Ransom might describe it, “a mild English winter”, whatever that really means. While the description of the planet is fantastical and compelling, his smart-ass, university professor posture, his clever literary allusions and his naive moral conviction began to get on my nerves pretty quickly. But you might have noticed that so far, I’ve been pretty okay with the book.

When Ransom meets the Oyarsa is when it gets “interesting”. This magical being is almost invisible, like the rest of his “people”, the eldila. He is, de facto, the ruler over Malacandra. He is comparable to Tolkien’s Valar, and his eldila are his Maia. The more obvious parallel, however, is of course Christian mythology. Oh, wait, did I say parallel? I meant EXACT LIKENESS.

The Oyarsa explains how things are in the universe – and we, along with Ransom, have to take his word for it. Every planet in the solar system has an Oyarsa – basically archangels, mysterious beings who exist differently in space and time. Lewis tries to give his universe a decidedly physical, technical, scientific spin: everything in it can be explained logically through a mixture of Christian belief made fact and physical properties. Earth, or Thulcandra, also had an Oyarsa, but he “fell” and took Earth with him. There was a battle, which left Mars scarred. After that, Ransom is told, Earth was cut off from the rest of the universe (“Deep Heaven”) and is basically under siege by the rest of the eldila now. Above the Oyarsa, there is Maledil – the name given to the Christian God. They speak of a battle between God and the “Bent One” – Lucifer – and that in the future, a new battle is coming to Earth to free it.

Ransom then reasons that all the bad things happening on Earth – the Second World War was around the corner, and you can tell it played a role in the conception of the novel – are easily traced back to the “Bent One” and his influence over people. One of the things I am uncomfortable with in Christian doctrine is this kind of blame-shifting back to the “Devil” or sinister forces like him. I would contest that humans are fundamentally responsible for their actions towards each other. That means I find murder all the more reprehensible because I cannot explain it away with some kind of “devilish” influence.

But that’s my personal opinion, my personal belief. It shouldn’t hinder me from enjoying a good sci-fi or fantasy story. I will always love Tolkien’s work, even though I have come to see it in a more critical light in recent years. I am aware he uses similar Catholic or religious undertones and themes in his work, but he keeps it all on a merely metaphorical level. He doesn’t come out and say, “this is how our Earth was made”; he merely implies the creation of a somewhat familiar, magical world. Since the world of The Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion and the Hobbit is once more removed from Tolkien’s original beliefs, elevated to a level of universal themes, I can relate to it today, without necessarily having to be a Christian believer or even religious at all.

Not so with C.S. Lewis. With the Space Trilogy, it’s all or nothing. From what I’ve read, even Narnia isn’t so blatant. The problem in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra isn’t the mythology itself – it’s the lack of literary imagination which pisses me off so much. Sure, he invented a few names, but other than that, this is the Bible retold.

PerelandraWhich brings me to the second novel, Perelandra, which was published in 1943. The first one ended with a horrible display of Weston and Devine, appearing as the cliche would-be colonizers, totally making apes of themselves. The Oyarsa allows them, on behalf of Ransom and his understanding, to return to Earth. In an epilogue, the first novel proposes that the entire tale is true, and was told to the narrator, who calls himself “Lewis”, by Ransom himself. I feel I need to mention at this point that Lewis (the narrator, not the author, mind you) admits to publishing the story with fake names – Ransom is supposedly just called Ransom because of his original purpose on Malacandra. Lewis says that he and Ransom decided to prepare the public for the coming celestial battle this way. A not uncommon literary trope, and I actually really liked the idea. However, in Perelandra, he sadly basically destroys all the good things I saw in Out of the Silent Planet and goes to full preacher mode. One of the things that annoyed me the most was the simple, tiny detail of Ransom’s name. In Perelandra, he claims that he has been prepared for this destiny, and that his name, passed on through the family history, has a deeper meaning, a more literal meaning. How is that possible if his name was just a fake pseudonym for the public in the first place?!

But anyway, back to Venus, or Perelandra: That is where the second novel takes place. Ransom, who is by now the “leader” of a small, elite group of people in the know about the universe, is sent on a mission to Venus by the Oyarsa of Mars. What this mission is, he has no idea. This can only mean one thing: lengthy, lengthy descriptions of landscape. Once again, I am torn: landscape descriptions are important in setting the mood, and Lewis certainly does that successfully. Venus comes across as the ideal paradise: a warm climate, golden skies and deep green seas is all Ransom experiences for a while, hopping from island to island and eating strange fruit that give him immeasurable pleasure. The planet Perelandra is therefore quite the opposite of Malacandra. It  consists of swelling oceans where Mars had sharp mountain ranges – well, let’s make this simple – every image drives home the point that Mars is male and Venus is female. In this vein, Lewis tries to incorporate ancient Greek and Roman mythology into the Christian story, tying it all into a neat little bundle. No matter how beautiful the planet is, it gets tiresome and predictable.

The Green Lady of Perelandra by liseychan
The Green Lady of Perelandra by liseychan

And what do you think – the first person he meets is a woman he will just call the Lady. Just as Maskull’s meeting with Joiwind in A Voyage to Arcturus, it is all very mystical and innocent. (I was just glad nobody sprouted any spontaneous tentacles.) The Lady, let’s not beat around the bush, is Lewis’ Eve. She wanders the islands and the sea in harmony with all the animals; she comes across as very wise, but at the same time she knows hardly anything about life. She seems to be in constant mental connection to God, Maledil, and keeps up a live commentary on what he “makes known to her”. Ransom tries to talk to her a great deal, to try and figure out what he’s doing on Perelandra.

At first glance, I can see what many people love about the book: it’s quite beautiful and mystical. But at times it seems the author was as much lost as Ransom is, because nothing happens. It takes a while before the Lady and he get actually up to doing something, but all in all, the novel is very much a thought process, a conversation, a mind model. It’s not a novel of doing, but of thinking and arguing. Up until this point, the most interesting thing I hoped for was that Ransom himself would trigger the Fall with his questions and nagging. It certainly seemed so at some point, since the Lady was constantly affirming how much she was learning about the world. But no, that would have been way too ambiguous and interesting.

Only when Weston arrives in his own spaceship does it become clear that we’re in for a classic show-down between Good and Evil. Weston and Ransom talk, and Weston shows to be very knowledgeable all of a sudden. He insists that he has changed, that he now fights on Ransom’s side. He makes complicated arguments about their common cause, but Ransom doesn’t buy it. Weston begins to behave stranger and stranger, and it becomes clear he is possessed by evil. Eventually, he fully becomes the Unman, Satan himself. Badass, right? Yes, actually, that was kind of cool.

After that, Ransom has to watch almost helplessly as Weston goes around desecrating nature, killing animals and slowly but surely persuading the Lady of his opinions. What he wants more than anything else, of course, is for her to break the law of Maledil. All of their following talk is this theme, repeated over and over, right down to the Lady making clothes for herself. The only interesting thing is the Devil himself. He is described as a cunning, intelligent smoothtalker, but as soon as the Lady sleeps, he turns into an “insolent schoolboy”, nagging Ransom and wearing him down. I was torn: Weston is too horrible to like, but he is still more interesting than poor Ransom, who sits around bemoaning his fate.

Eventually, Ransom has a little discussion with himself (or possibly the voice of Maledil) about what to do. He realizes he cannot stop the devil by outsmarting or outtalking his fancy rhetoric. He tries to escape his responsibility, tries to pretend that the Fall, when it happens, will not be his fault. After all, Maledil could have taken care of this himself, right? What follows is a long-winded theological discussion of responsibility. To a Christian reader, this might seem very inspiring and motivating. But if you reject the doctrine, it’s really hard to take this book seriously from now on. Especially because of the solution: Ransom decides he has to fight Weston, to break him physically.

I… what? Wow, I thought Christianity was about peace and loving and turning the other cheek. But no, Ransom goes full on Old Testament on Weston and they engage in a wrestling match of literally biblical proportions. The Lady sleeps, and the two men have at each other like mad for weeks. Finally, Weston flees, and their fight continues first on the ocean, then in a cave. In the end, Ransom overpowers his opponent and throws him into a volcano. Yes, that is no exaggeration, that is what he does. Holy shit (pardon me), this novel constantly wavers between sleep-inducing and batshit crazy action stunts.

With the devil down, Ransom wanders the planet some more, recovers, and finally meets the Oyarsa of Venus, the King, with the Lady by his side. Lots of eldila, animals and spirits gather and celebrate the beginning of life on Perelandra, the perfect utopia, saved from the terrible Original Sin by Ransom. Hooray!

The End… oh wait, they’re still talking. What ruined Perelandra for me wasn’t the boring landscapes or the strange plot-less plot; it was the catechisms at the end. Seriously, Ransom spends the rest of the book asking all sorts of “doubt” questions of the Oyarsa, who answers them all in long, drawn-out sermons about life, the universe and everything. The obviousness of the biblical message leaves me stunned. There are so many ways C.S. Lewis could have gone with his imaginative landscapes, his strange names and languages, and even with his cosmology. But all he did was create a boring school book for religious folks that had some pretty images in it. 

By the end of Perelandra, I knew I couldn’t do it any more. Usually, it’s impossible for me to leave a series unfinished (after all, I made it through the last seasons of Smallville…), but the Space Trilogy will have to be a first. I just cannot muster the will and the motivation to read the third novel, That Hideous Strength. After enduring the endless catechisms, the endless preaching, I couldn’t care less what happened to Ransom or Mars, Venus and Earth. (I read that Ransom is not quite such a main character in the last novel, but that doesn’t change anything.)

The problem with Christian doctrine – in the way Lewis uses it – is that it leaves no room for doubt, ambiguity, and interpretation: all the things I look for in literature. There is a solution to everything, and in the end, all is well because it just has to be. Ransom didn’t really learn anything, he didn’t change, grow or develop. He is only a little surer of himself and of his beliefs. Lewis produced a friendly, safe, reassuring tale that has the power to underscore people with faith. For me, it leaves a lot to be desired.

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11 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy, And Why I’ll Never Finish It

  1. Your impression of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” is the same as the reaction I had to his Narnia books when I reread them as an adult. When you catch on to how literal his allegorical approach is, it’s hard to see his books as anything other than shallow proselytizing. There is still a lot there to enjoy (some of his Narnia books retain a whimsical charm), but ultimately they frustrate because they come across as petty and judgmental.

    You also nicely summed up why Tolkien’s own heavily Catholic “The Lord of the Rings” doesn’t have the same problems. It’s a bit like Lewis got caught up in the dogma of his faith, while Tolkien embraced his faith because it spoke to him about universal human truths.

    Anyway, I don’t get a chance to comment on other blogs as often as I’d like, so let me just say thank you for your comments on my own blog, and that I am very glad I stumbled across yours. Great stuff. Rest assured that I will continue reading.

    • I would assume that Lewis intended to get the Gosple out through his writings. He was just as you said “caught up” or as he would see it, passionate, but what value is there in a luke warm faith it perhaps it’s true. One lives according to one’s understanding of truth and seeking truth is a lifelong journey that does have a destination. We know via science that truth does exist. I find the series extremely thought provoking, leading us to ponder what life would look like if it weren’t tainted with sin.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comment, too! It’s so good to know, once in a while, that we’re not just shouting it out there into empty space, right? 🙂

    Good point, I never really thought about it that way that both authors have not only different styles but also different approaches to their faith, and I totally agree with you there. Interestingly, when reading fantasy it has come to my attention that many writers use it to work out their own faith or philosophy – e.g. Terry Goodkind, the objectivist, Pullman the atheist, LeGuin the Taoist… I guess the medium lends itself well for that.

    • Sorry you didn’t “get” the Space Trilogy. I, a confirmed agnostic, made its acquaintaintance through a confirmed atheist who happens to be a connoisseur of fantasy and science fiction. Both of us agree that these three books are among our all-time favorites, and feel that what you call the “proselytizing” to be largely absent. Interesting that Goodkind can be informed by “objectivism” (if this is in the Ayn Rand sense, I know that’s a few hours I can devote to something else) and LeGuin can be informed by Taoism, and it’s okay, but Lewis making no bones that he is informed by Christianity brings on the sneers. Tolkien can be forgiven, as lumpen as his prose is, because he has contrived such an attractive array of landscapes and archetypes that he can be forgiven his Catholicism. The fact is that Lewis is a hundred times the writer Tolkien is, and that if Lewis had been given the opportunity to edit “The Lord of the Rings,” it would be a great piece of literature. Tolkien does have his moments of soaring drama amid all the turgidity, and Lewis, with his flaws, demonstrates rare and generous humanity. Very few writers are without flaws. At one point in my youth, I used to pause at the Space Trilogy paperbacks, pick one up, see something like “Christian allegory” (which they most assuredly are not) on the jacket, groan, and put them back. I will forever be grateful that a large-spirited atheist mentor wised me up. I might wish the same for you.

      • Hello there and thanks for your comment. I don’t think that it has something to do with “getting” a novel. I don’t understand either why you’re wishing I had picked them up, since I clearly have 😉

        Interesting that you mention Goodkind – I read all the Sword of Truth novels at least twice, and I am still very frustrated with the horrible turn the series took after a while. It had the same combination of problems as the Space Trilogy in my mind: the doctrine annoyed me and the way it was delivered annoyed me even more (e.g. lengthy, lengthy speeches!).

        LeGuin, on the other hand, is one of my favourite authors. I think the Earthsea novels are a great example how a writer can learn and evolve their views during their carreers. If you read some of her own commentary on the development of Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea to Tehanu, you will see that she has re-evaluated her views on spirituality and gender stereotypes.

        Finally I can only repeat what I said in my article (good god, that’s over a year ago now..): It’s not the doctrine, it’s the way Lewis used it in an uncreative way. And keep in mind that liking or disliking a novel is largely a question of personal taste; all I do here really is give reasons for my personal taste. 🙂

  3. I found the third book of the trilogy quite different from the first two. It was much darker feeling and had a lot about King Arthur. You might give it a try after all.

  4. Please read book three. It’s totally different than the first two. Yes, the first few chapters have some slow development with lots of detail but then once the action begins it’s non-stop and almost reads like a modern novel.

  5. Jerry Pournelle called “That Hideous Strength” the most perfect SF novel every written. It is very different from the first two, but it is still Lewis at the pen. I started it but couldn’t finish when I was 16, it was too creepy. I did finally read it in my mid-20s. And a couple more times since.

  6. I want to say hear, hear to the recent commenters recommending That Hideous Strength. Your criticisms of the plots of the first two books are spot on in my opinion although I like the philosophizing. The third book has a very engaging plot and excellent characterization.

  7. You seem to have been misinformed about That Hideous Strength – Ransom is in it, and plays a major part – (though he’s not the main protagonist).
    Frankly, I was following you until you mentioned “rejecting” the doctrine – correct me if I am wrong – atheists don’t “reject” they simply don’t believe! Your refusal to finish the series and your review of the first two seem more like anti-theism to me, than atheism.

  8. I hear you. Can’t recommend the third book enough, though. Far outshines the others. I think both in this series and the narnia series Lewis was doing some pretty ground-breaking things in the christian realm. There are christians even today who refuse to believe that aliens can possibly exist(I’m a christian, and I think aliens exist). C.S. Lewis was asking the christian world, ‘what if?’ and more importantly, ‘why the fuck not?’.

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