I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.
- The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
- The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
- The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
Each of the books has its genius, and the overarching story is compelling, thought-provoking and even prophetic at times. In addition to the character of Ransom, the stories are connected to each other by the reappearance of the first book’s two villains in the second and third books, and the ever-present Oyéresu, angelic beings who serve an even higher power, Meledil, who has refused to abandon Earth to the “bent Oyarsa” and who even became human long ago to save the Earthlings from this fallen spirit. Years ago, I read a book entitled The Angels and Their Mission; in listening to The Space Trilogy, I was struck by how closely the role of the Oyéresu adheres to beliefs about the role of angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Need more convincing that these books are worth the time? I’ll share one thing I loved about each…
In chapter 12 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is explaining to an extraterrestrial friend that, on Earth, people sometimes seek the pleasure of sexual relations for its own sake, independent of the goods of marriage, procreation and family and may seek sexual pleasure even if it means more children than a family can support. His friend cannot understand this; Ransom, for his part, cannot understand how his friend’s race can limit the pleasure of intimacy to a brief period in which they hope to have and raise a small number of offspring.
Ransom found this difficult. At last he said: ‘Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?’
‘A very great one, Hman. This is what we call love.’
‘If a thing is a pleasure, a hman wants it again. He might want the pleasure more often than the number of young that could be fed.’
It took Hyoi a long time to get the point.
‘You mean,’ he said slowly, ‘that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?’
‘But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand.’
‘But a dinner comes every day. This love, you say, comes only once while the hross lives?’
‘But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.’
‘But the pleasure he must be content only to remember?’
‘That is like saying “My food I must be content only to eat.”‘
‘I do not understand.’
‘A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.’
Beautiful…especially in this middle-age of life, in which our children are beginning to have children of their own, and Jodi and I begin to see changes in our own bodies and marriage.
In Chapter 9 of Perelandra, Ransom’s old nemesis tempts the Green Lady (the figure of Eve) to disobedience—to move from the floating islands on which she lives and is well provided for to the fixed lands upon which she is permitted to explore but must not even spend the night. The enemy claims that this is a command Maleldil (the Creator) made to be broken, so that she can claim her full stature as a settled, self-determined and mature person. Ransom (nicknamed Piebald by the Green Lady because his interplanetary journey has made his skin half pale and half sunburnt) counters with a short, crisp and clear argument rooted in love:
“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.”
“Oh, brave Piebald,” said the Green Lady, “this is the best you have said yet. This makes me older far: yet it does not feel like the oldness this other is giving me. Oh, how well I see it! We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will. And there could be no such way except a command like this. Out of our own will. It is like passing out through the world’s roof into Deep Heaven. All beyond is Love Himself. I knew there was joy in looking upon the Fixed Island and laying down all thought of ever living there, but I did not till now understand.”
I know what I would like to share from That Hideous Strength, but it would be a massive spoiler to do so. Suffice it to say, then, that beneath layers and levels of story, commentary and meaning is a profound teaching on marriage, and an extension of the Perelandra themes of love and obedience.
In Chapter 7, the female lead, a fiercely independent woman named Jane, is questioning her marriage to Mark, who has more or less abandoned her and all his friends to pursue his career. Ransom is speaking with her about marriage as though it is a deeper and more definite thing than an arrangement of mutual support or convenience, and her mind rebels at the old-fashioned notion.
“I don’t think I look on marriage quite as you do. It seems to me extraordinary that everything should hang on what Mark says . . . about something he doesn’t understand.”
“Child,” said the Director, “it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it.”
“Someone said they were very old fashioned. But——”
“That was a joke. They are not old fashioned: but they are very, very old.”
“They would never think of finding out first whether Mark and I believed in their ideas of marriage?”
“Well—no,” said the Director with a curious smile. “No. Quite definitely they wouldn’t think of doing that.”
“It was not his fault,” she said at last. “I suppose our marriage was just a mistake.”
The Director said nothing.
“What would you—what would the people you are talking of—say about a case like that?”
“I will tell you if you really want to know,” said the Director.
“Please,” said Jane reluctantly.
“They would say,” he answered, “that you do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience.”
Even in 1945, the writing on the wall was clear to Lewis that the understanding of marriage as a particular thing, a sign of God’s love and a sacrament, was waning and that the spiritual battle for humanity would be fought at the level of the family. Prophetic and brilliant.
C.S. Lewis is now the author of more of my favorite books than any other author, and is rapidly climbing the list of historical figures I would most love to have a meal with. He has the ability to write and share Truth with wit, wisdom, beauty and understanding in any genre. He inspires me to write, and to tremble at the thought. I hope he is a saint!