Perelandra by C S Lewis

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.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

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.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

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.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

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.

Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis

First edition. Cover by Harold Jones.

Some time in the mid-to-late 1930s, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien agreed to each write an “excursionary ‘thriller’”, as Tolkien put it, with Tolkien attempting a story of time-travel and Lewis one of space-travel. Tolkien never finished his (what exists was eventually included in The Lost Road and Other Writings), whereas C S Lewis went on to write a whole trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (published in 1938).

Lewis later called it his “Space Trilogy” (it’s also known as the Ransom Trilogy, and the Cosmic Trilogy). One of its main inspirations was David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis first read some time between 1935 and 1938. Lindsay “is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction”, Lewis writes in his essay “On Stories”. Elsewhere, in a 1947 letter to Ruth Pitter, he says that it was from Lindsay he “first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures” (though he found Lindsay’s own outlook “so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic”).

That said, Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t display a great deal of explicit Arcturan influence (for that, you have to look to the second book, Perelandra) beyond the idea that a science fiction adventure needn’t simply pay homage to what Lewis felt was the purely scientific worldview, and could instead be used to present his own spiritual outlook.

The novel begins with philologist Dr Elwin Ransom, on a walking holiday somewhere in Britain, being kidnapped and taken to a planet he at first only knows as Malacandra. He is, it seems, to be a sacrifice to the creatures of that world, whom his human kidnappers want to appease so they can establish a base there, for mining gold and perhaps, in the future, colonisation. His kidnappers aren’t merely ruthless criminals, but a “great physicist” Dr Weston (who has “Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast”), and a schoolboy bully of a businessman, Devine. Of the two, Devine’s main motivator is greed (he just wants Malacandra’s gold), whereas Weston is more idealistic, though not in any good way. Weston is a believer in the Life Force, in human expansion and survival as an end itself. To him:

“Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation.”

Once they touch down, Ransom escapes as soon as he can, and for a while is caught in a state of terror. Fed on a diet of the day’s science fiction, he’s come to expect the inhabitants of any non-Earth planet to be reptilian or insect-like, “alien, cold… superhuman in power, subhuman in cruelty”, combining “monstrosity of form” with “ruthlessness of will”. But what he finds is that Malacandra — or Mars, as he learns it to be — is in fact a harmonious place, home to three intelligent races, the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi, and that none of these ever wanted him as a sacrifice. That idea was all down to Weston and Devine’s inability to understand the inhabitants of Malacandra in any way but their own imperialist prejudices.

1951 edition

Away from Weston and Devine, Ransom starts to learn the Malacandran language, and to appreciate Malacandran ways of life. The hrossa have a tribal, hunter-gatherer-style existence, and revere poetry above all other accomplishments. “They are our great speakers and singers,” Ransom is told. “They have more words and better.” The sorns are tall, intelligent and wise, and revere knowledge. The pfifltriggi are “the busy people” who excel in technical skill and making things. There’s a clear parallel between these three races and the three humans, with Ransom (a philologist) being equivalent to the word-loving hrossa; Weston (a scientist) equivalent to the knowledgeable sorns; and Devine (a businessman) equivalent to the “busy people”, the pfifltriggi. (You could also make a looser parallel with Tolkien’s humans, elves, and dwarves.) The difference is, of course, that the three Malacandran races not only live in harmony with one another, but with the cosmos at large.

Even before he reaches Malacandra, Ransom becomes aware of space as something other than the cold vacuum he’d been led to expect: “the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance…” It is, in fact, closer to his idea of heaven. And it turns out that, on every planet in the solar system except Earth, there’s a deep connection with the divine cosmic order. Maleldil (God) made it all, and placed one of his chief representatives (the Oyarsa) on each planet, who in turn are served by the invisible-to-us eldila (angels). Only on Thulcandra — Earth, known to the rest of the solar system as the “Silent Planet” — have we lost touch with this divine order, and that’s because our Oyarsa (presumably Lucifer) rebelled against Maleldil, and has since been known as “the Bent One”.

Paperback version, art by Bernard Symancyk

It’s humankind’s exclusion from a directly experienced connection with this divine order that has led to our “human history — of war, slavery and prostitution”. In effect, Lewis has written a science fiction story in which mankind travels to the stars not to fight evil aliens (a generalisation presumably only true of some of the worst pulp SF of the time) but to learn of its own inherent evil.

(This also makes it the opposite of the sort of cosmic horror being written by Lovecraft. Lovecraft used science-fictional concepts to paint a picture of a universe so chaotic and indifferent to humankind as to be utterly malevolent; Lewis is saying that if only we could see beyond our blinkered view, we’d know the cosmos to be perfect, ordered, and benevolent. As long, that is, as we obey Maleldil. And why Lewis should call the God of his trilogy Maleldil — a name that, to me, screams “ancient evil” — and one of its villains Devine, I have no idea.)

The trouble — and I think this is often the thing with Lewis’s fantasy fiction, for me — is that, when making a philosophical or ethical point about our world, but setting it in a world he’s created, Lewis has already won the debate. Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he has Weston present the “Life Force” viewpoint directly to the Oyarsa of Mars, but Lewis makes what Weston says sound ridiculous because of Ransom having to translate it to Malacandran, whereupon it immediately sounds self-defeating and nonsensical. Not that I’d want to defend Weston at all, it’s just that Weston combines a belief in the survival of the human race with such an utter lack of feeling for his fellow human beings that you can’t say he truly represents the purely scientific worldview, only an extreme caricature of it. So, there’s no debate. If there is a benevolent Maleldil or God, there’s no need for Weston’s worldview, because there’s something better already available. But if you take out that certainty, and Weston’s psychopathic lack of empathy, you’d have a much more nuanced, and interesting, debate which Lewis avoids.

As science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was probably interesting in its day, as it tried to present its alien races from something of an anthropological (wrong word, I know) standpoint: as intelligent races to be understood as living beings, rather than mere invasion-fodder for a pulp adventure. But the years between then and now have seen the same thing done a lot better by other hands. There’s also not a great deal of story to this book (I prefer the second in the trilogy, Perelandra, which I’ll be writing about in the next Mewsings). Instead, Out of the Silent Planet stands out as a sort of curiosity, Lewis’s attempt at a corrective to the modern, purely scientific science fiction story, presenting the sort of cosmic order a medieval writer might have come up with, and owing more to Swift (Lewis’s pfifltriggi sound very Gulliver’s Travels to me) than to H G Wells (whom Lewis apologises to in his brief preface, for “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type”). Which makes it sound as though Lewis-the-enthusiastic-reader-of-stories was in conflict with Lewis-the-Christian-apologist from the start. And that perhaps most sums up my own reaction — I like the bits written by the “enthusiastic reader of stories”; less so the rest.

Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Feb 1942, Virgil Finlay cover

Citadel of Fear is one of the books listed in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, where it’s described as being the sort of thing you’d find playing as a late-night horror film, if only it had ever been filmed (it has “the authentic air of delirium fitted to midnight viewing”). It was first serialised in The Argosy in seven parts from September to October of 1918, and later revived in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, February 1942, with some gorgeous Virgil Finlay illustrations and cover art. It was only with its first paperback edition (in 1970) that its authorship was confirmed as not being (as the rumour had it) Abraham Merritt under a pseudonym, but Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884–1948), who had a brief flourishing of pulp output between 1917 and 1920. (She also has the distinction, thanks to her first short story, published in 1904, of being the first US female author of science fiction to do so under her own name. The pen-name “Francis Stevens” came later.)

Citadel of Fear begins as a lost-race novel and ends as a mad scientist tale, with a rather slow-moving weird mystery in between. At the start, our hero Colin O’Hara, “a stalwart young Irishman… who even at twenty excelled most men in strength and stamina” and his older, greedier, and somewhat more useless companion Archer Kennedy, stumble out of a South American desert into a secluded, lush region that proves to be the home of a lost people, “the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs”, still living as they did in the old days. There’s conflict within the city, as the sects of the various gods vie for power, barely kept in check by the powerful Guardians of the Hills. It’s also a region in which the old gods, including Quetzalcoatl and Nacoc-Yaotl (the “maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could”), take a very much more active interest than dead gods normally do. After being captured, escaping, falling into a lake of burning light and being rescued by a Tlapallan princess, then in turn rescuing her, Colin O’Hara is thrown back out into the desert. Just as the story seemed to be setting itself up for an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style “hero tips the balance in fantastic city’s internal power struggles” narrative, that part of the story is over.

Fifteen years later in America, Colin O’Hara is visiting his newly-married sister, Cliona. When she’s attacked one night by a mysterious creature, Colin begins an investigation that will lead him to the house of the reclusive Chester Reed, who claims to be raising unusual animals for “scientific stock”. It’s no surprise to the reader when Chester Reed turns out to be O’Hara’s old travelling companion, Archer Kennedy, whose greed for gold back in Tlapallan led to his encounter with something that may have been more than a mere statue of the dark god Nacoc-Yaotl. That god’s powers include the ability to reduce life to a sort of essential jelly, from which it can be reshaped into whatever horrors the reshaper requires. And this reshaper, it turns out, requires some pretty weird horrors.

Stevens’s writing can be quite poetic at moments, as with this early description of the desert where O’Hara and Kennedy are lost:

“As liquid iron cools, withdrawn from the fire, so the desert cooled with the setting of the sun, its furnace. Intolerable whiteness became purple mystery, overhung by a vault of soft and tender blue, that deepened, darkened, became set with a million flashing jewels.”

But she also has a relish for a darker sort of weirdness:

“Between the granite pillars, fungoids and some kind of whitish vegetation like pale rushes grew thickly, but though those fungoids and rushes had a strangeness of their own, it was not the vegetable growth alone which made Reed’s marsh peculiar. Its entire space was acrawl with living forms that for repulsiveness could only be compared to a resurgence from their graves of creatures dead and half-decayed.”

Despite being the action hero of this story, Colin O’Hara ends up in the position usually fulfilled, in this era, by the sort of helpless heroine you’d find on the cover of so many “weird menace” pulps: he’s the one who gets captured and tied up by the evil scientist/mad sorcerer and saved from a fate worse than death (though not that fate worse than death — he’s to be turned into “a homogeneous, jelly-like mass” fit for reshaping into something unpleasant and frightening) by the efforts of the two women in the story (one of them corralling her menfolk to do the necessary fighting). He redeems himself by following this up with some solid fisticuff-work, but all the same, there’s a feeling that Francis Stevens was doing some subtle undermining of the gender clichés of the time.

I felt that the fantastic lost-city beginning ended a bit too soon — I don’t remember there ever being a proper explanation for that weird lake of fiery water, or a proper resolution of those internal power battles. And when we skip forward fifteen years, the plot really slows down for the middle third of the novel, until we return to the “Citadel of Fear” (Chester Reed’s mansion, though he actually calls it his “Fortress of Fear”) to find out what’s really happening in the bowels of that dark mansion. Even then, the ending felt a bit strung out, making me wonder if Gertrude Barrows Bennett (who was, after all, writing to support herself and her daughter) wasn’t simply looking to increase her wordage, and hence her paycheque.

But Citadel of Fear, in its moments of fantasy, does get genuinely dark and weird, as wonderfully represented by Virgil Finlay’s illustrations to the Famous Fantastic Mysteries reprint. Pity it didn’t ever get a filmed version, though I can’t help feeling, if it had, that nothing short of modern digital effects could have equalled Stevens’s inventions of weird monsters and, in Tlapallan, beautiful sights:

“It was a huge, mothlike insect, fully ten inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and the glowing came from its luminous body, in color pale amethyst, coldly afire within. The broad wings, transparent as the globular walls of a bubble, refracted the creature’s own radiance in a network of shimmering color.”

I’ve added an ebook of Citadel of Fear to my free ebooks page.