In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.
Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.
The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.
And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)
But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:
“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”
Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)
I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)
A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.