Though he lacked formal training as a theologian and did not claim that title for himself, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is rightly remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian writers. His works on theology—or, perhaps more properly, Christian philosophy—such as The Abolition of Man (1943) and Mere Christianity (1952) brought deep thinking about God, man, and man’s relationship to God and to one another to a level accessible to the lay reader. Lewis’s use of a conversational style in such works reminds me a bit of the way in which the great American Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) wrote in his works for lay readers, and with similar effect. Men and women not formally trained in theology were brought to a place where they, too, could begin to ponder their faith and its implications on a deeper level. This was a great benefit to the church as a whole.
Despite his great benefit, Lewis must be read with some care, as his views on certain areas of theology were not entirely orthodox. By training and profession Lewis was a professor of medieval literature, and this training is brought to bear particularly upon the last volume of the trilogy of novels I am presently considering. The Space Trilogy, written in the 1930s and 1940s, is an important and refreshing contribution to a genre in which Christians have not generally excelled (at least not in a manner which expressly reflects a Christian worldview): science fiction. These three novels are not allegorical in the way that The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956) is, but important Christian themes are at the forefront throughout, particularly that of the cosmic battle between good and evil which Scripture tells us is always taking place around us, and even in us and through us. Although less well-known than Narnia, in my opinion the Space Trilogy is more important, as instead of allegorizing individual conversion and Christian living we see a fictitious expression of that epic struggle between the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.
In the first novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), we meet Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist and the protagonist of the entire trilogy, who is kidnapped and taken to Mars by Edward Weston and Dick Devine, who believe that they must provide a human sacrifice to the inhabitants of Mars (or Malacandra, as the inhabitants of that world call it) in order to gain access to the planet and its natural resources. Ransom overhears his captors discussing this during the journey, and escapes not long after their arrival. He encounters three sentient species on Malacandra: hrossa, séroni, and pfiftriggi, each with differing physical characteristics and cultures, but with one important similarity: Malacandra has never experienced a Fall; the world and its inhabitants are entirely free from sin. Upon speaking with the Oyarsa, or angel, ruling over this planet, Ransom learns that there is regular communication between the angels of the different planets of the solar system with one exception: Thulcandra, or as we call it, Earth. The angel of that world is “bent,” a reference to Satan’s rebellion and his later leading man into sin, as well. Oyarsa is fascinated by Christ’s saving work on that world, something “into which angels long to look.” When Weston and Devine are captured, Ransom hardly recognizes them at first; after spending time with the sinless inhabitants of Malacandra, those sinful men even look distorted to Ransom’s eyes. After Ransom makes clear to Malacandra’s inhabitants that Weston and Devine’s plans are in no way benevolent or righteous, they are banished from that world. Ransom is given the option to remain, but opts to return to Earth with a promise of Oyarsa’s protection during the journey.
Perelandra (1943), known to us as Venus, is in an entirely different state of development, with sentient life having just been created there in the form of one male-female pair. Oyarsa sends Ransom there with a mission to prevent that pair from falling into sin. He arrives to find a fascinating topography: the world consists of floating islands which are constantly in motion save for one mountain, which remains fixed. The two sentient inhabitants of that world (Perelandra’s “Adam and Eve”) have but one directive from God: they are not to sleep on the Fixed Land (that world’s “forbidden fruit”). Shortly after Ransom’s arrival, Weston arrives in a spaceship, and after nearly or actually dying is obviously and dramatically possessed by the Devil himself, who sets about trying to tempt the woman into disobeying the prohibition of sleeping on the Fixed Land. Ransom knows that he must intervene, and fights with Satan/Weston even into the depths of Perelandra. He emerges victorious and raises a marker to memorialize Weston, who despite being a thoroughly ungodly individual was a man of tremendous scientific achievement. Having succeeded in preventing Perelandra’s Fall, he remains for some time to recuperate, though the wound from a bite on his heel never heals. He is then returned to Earth using the same type of miraculous conveyance that transported him to Venus.
That Hideous Strength (1945) is quite a departure from the other books. It takes place entirely on Earth and even in Britain, but the same cosmic forces that are at work in the other novels are here as well. As the novel opens the action is centered around Bracton College in the University of Edgestow, where Mark Studdock is a senior fellow in sociology. An organization called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is trying to convince the college to sell a portion of land to the organization. Interestingly, this land is said to be the final resting place of Merlin (from the Arthurian legends). Lord Feverstone, a N.I.C.E. insider, acts as if he is befriending Studdock and even offers him a position at N.I.C.E. Feverstone is later revealed to be the same Dick Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, just as we are beginning to understand just how devious this man and his organization are.
Meanwhile, Jane Studdock, Mark’s wife, is having terrible nightmares which are gradually revealed to be revelations of the devious activities inside N.I.C.E. She is rightly suspicious and does not like Mark’s increasing involvement with the organization, and their marriage begins to deteriorate. After seeking counsel from a friend, Jane encounters a group headed by Ransom, who by now is strangely youthful in appearance thanks to his rejuvenation on Perelandra yet has a depth and gravity that shows his true age and wisdom. He is in communication with the Oyéresu of the different planets and is later revealed to be the heir of the Pendragon line. This shows Lewis’s background as a medievalist, and also is important for later events in the novel.
N.I.C.E. is a powerful expression of the type of scientific technocracy which denies God, Christ, and in a real sense even humanity in order to gain greater control over man, nature, and society. At its deepest levels, N.I.C.E. is downright Satanic, and the reader understands that Lewis believed much of modernity to be Antichristian in the biblical sense. One of the organization’s objectives is to find and revive Merlin, hence its interest in that piece of land at Bracton College. Merlin is revived, but is not captured by N.I.C.E. Instead, he is revealed to have been a Christian, and joins with Ransom and his group to overthrow the institute’s plans. Humorously, the officials at N.I.C.E. encounter a tramp who they believe to be Merlin; the tramp plays along in order to keep being well-fed. Merlin eventually does come to N.I.C.E., empowered by the Oyéresu, and engineers through miraculous means the overthrow of that Satanic organization, which is then further destroyed by earthquakes which also kill Feverstone/Devine.
Mark Studdock gradually came to understand that N.I.C.E. was evil, and finally resisted and rejected it. Aided by Merlin, he is guided to the place where Jane has stayed with Ransom and his company, and finds a bridal chamber where the now Christian couple consummates their restored marriage. Ransom, meanwhile, prepares to return to Perelandra.
These brief summaries I have provided only scratch the surface, of course, but I hope they will whet your appetite to read this wonderful series of novels. Again, there is no allegory here, and That Hideous Strength does get a bit weird, but Lewis’s expression of that great battle between God and Satan though three exciting works of science fiction is truly ingenious, and difficult to put down. Those who object to the idea of life on Mars or Venus should remember that these novels were written before the age of space exploration which revealed the actual conditions on those worlds, and in any case the novels are fiction and should be enjoyed as such. Highly recommended.
I’ll be taking the month of December off from blogging in order to focus on some other projects and to simply enjoy some rest. God willing, I will return to writing in early to mid-January.