Thursday, March 03, 2016

“Drawn In” Again: On Re-Reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

With the February selection of the Notting Hill Napoleons (our book club of 24 years and counting) being C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, I decided it was an appropriate time to re-read all three novels in the author’s celebrated space travel series.  I not only enjoyed them very much but, as is almost always the case with re-reading good books, I understood more, appreciated more, and was freshly inspired.

It is hard to classify these three novels.  They are called, by various commentators, science fiction, fantasy stories, space travel, spiritual adventure, and allegorical Christian fiction.  But Lewis himself stresses that they are not allegory.  Rather, they are “fairy tales for grownups” (Lewis’ description) and, like the best of the ancient fairy tales, they have clear and relevant morals for the reader to glean.  Indeed, these books teach the same important things that Lewis does in his other works.  For instance, Lewis says of That Hideous Strength, “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”  And the careful reader gets it -- among the adventurous journeys, discoveries, and battles described in the novels, there are serious spiritual truths to be considered.

The first in the trilogy is Out of the Silent Planet (1938) which tells the story of an English philologist named Ransom who is kidnapped and taken by two evil scientists to Malacandra (Mars).  The plot of this short novel (only 160 pages) involves Ransom’s escape from his captors, his meeting with the planet’s natural inhabitants and the angelic beings that serve them, and his eventual return to Earth.  It’s a fun, exciting read but it is also replete with Lewis’ insightful observations about education, heaven, death, Eden, memory, poetry, the sanctity of life, progressivism, poetry, fear, duty, and much more.  Also, there are many very fascinating, revealing, and memorable lines and passages. It is, in all of these ways, classic C.S. Lewis.

Perelandra (1943) is the second novel in the series, tells of Ranson’s second space adventure.  This time he goes to Venus where he witnesses (and helps defeat) the temptation of the Green Woman by one of the wicked scientists first seen in Out of the Silent Planet.  That temptation process, striking in both its similarities sand its differences to Eve’s temptation by the serpent in Eden, is quite instructive.  I must confess that Perelandra is a bit too long in description for me.  Many pages, for example, are devoted to the watery nature of the planet, the fish-like creatures that live there, and Ransom’s laborious climb out of the depths to dry land.  Perhaps it was all too strange from what I know…or perhaps it’s merely because long descriptive passages are usually my least favorite thing in novels. So, chalk it up to my limitations. However, the climatic scenes in which Ransom must physically challenge the demon which has possessed Devine’s body are truly riveting and unforgettable.  And again, all along the way, the reader receives Lewis’ ideas on conversion, ego, academia, materialism, spiritual warfare, feminism, righteous hatred, mythology, and so on. This book is also short, 150 pages in my paperback copy.

That Hideous Strength (1945) concludes the trilogy but, in several ways, it is quite different than the other two novels. This third book is a terrestrial adventure played out entirely on Earth – no space ships, no alien creatures, no planets to describe.  Also, it is considerably longer than either of the other books -- 384 pages.  The fairy tale reaches not into the heavens for its other-worldly mystery this time round, but back into the past to Britain’s most famous mythology.  Most striking of the differences to me, however, are the all-too-realistic villains of the story: the materialist manipulators of the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). As cold-hearted as any wicked force imagined by Wells, Orwell, or Huxley, N.I.C.E. is an organization dedicated to marrying the powers of science and state, propaganda and violence, and ultimately even the dynamism of demons in their effort to re-make not only the world, but Man himself.

It is this novel that I have always found most interesting, most relevant, and the best written of the series.  After this last reading, I think so still.  The story is a thriller; the insights into modern culture are remarkably spot-on; and the spiritual development of the various characters present plenty for the reader to ponder.  The tension builds throughout the novel, erupting into an unforgettable spiritual battle that involves no less than Ransom, the ancient wizard Merlin, the arch-villains of N.I.C.E, a severed head taken over by a demon, ordinary Christians who are no less heroes for that, a couple undergoing a most unusual sanctification, and a menagerie of animals escaped from the experimental labs, including perhaps the most remarkable bear in modern fiction, Mr. Bultitude.  That Hideous Strength is an astounding read and one which deserves a much higher place than those written by the authors mentioned earlier.

To help encourage you to consider reading this impressive series by C.S. Lewis, I’ll post below just a few of my favorite lines and passages.  And I should also mention, the Notting Hill Napoleon discussion of That Hideous Strength was a particularly good one.

From Out of the Silent Planet:

“The last thing Ransom wanted was an adventure.”

“This is the second life, the other beginning.  Open, oh coloured world, without weight, without shore.  You are second and better; this was first and feeble.”

“The siege of Thulcandra may be near its end.  Great things are afoot.”

“The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes lives and befouls them from flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.”

“God can make good use of all that happens.  But the loss is real.”

“There are no coffins in Malacandra, no sextons, churchyards, or undertakers.  The valley is solemn at their departure, but I see no signs of passionate grief.  They do not doubt their immorality, and friends of the same generation are not torn apart.”

 From Perelandra:

“I suppose everyone knows this fear of getting ‘drawn in’ -- the moment at which a man realises that what had seemed mere speculations are on the point of landing him in the Communist Party or the Christian Church -- the sense that a door has just slammed and left him on the inside”

“When the Bible used that very expression about fighting with principalities and powers and depraved hypersomatic beings at great heights…it meant that quite ordinary people were to do the fighting.”

“Don’t imagine I’ve been selected to go to Perelandra because I’m anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards why any one was selected for any job.  And when one does, t is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.”

“Don’t you worship Him because He is true spirit?”
 “Good heavens, no!  We worship Him because He is wise and good.  There’s nothing specially fine about simply being a spirit.  The Devil is a spirit.”

“He had full opportunity to learn the falsity of the maxim that the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. Again and again subtle Mephistopheles with red cloak and rapier and a feather in his cap, or even a somber tragic Satan out of Paradise Lost, would have been a welcome release from the thing he was actually doomed to watch. It was not like dealing with a wicked politician at all: it was much like being set to guard an imbecile or a monkey or a very nasty child.”

“Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. There is a chattering part of the mind which continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest of places.”

“And as Maleldil Himself draws near, evil things in our world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas.  But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again. But can it be, Friend, that no rumor of all this is heard in Thulcandra?  Do your people think their Dark Lord will hold his prey forever?”

From That Hideous Strength:

“The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past. One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old free-lance science did; but what’s certain is that it can do more.”

“Man has got to take charge of Man.  That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest…Quite simple and obvious things, at first -- sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding.  Then real education, including pre-natal education.  By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense.  A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it.  Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first.  But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.”

“I happen to believe that you can’t study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” 

 “I suppose there are two views about everything,” said Mark.
 “Eh?  Two views?  There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer.  Then there’s never more than one.”

“His education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.  Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.  Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman.’  He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups,’ ‘elements,’ ‘classes’ and ‘populations: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

“It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.  His education had been neither scientific nor classical -- merely ‘Modern.’  The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him.  He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge…and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”

“I can offer you no security.  Don’t you understand?  There is no security for anyone now.  The battle has started.  I’m offering you a place on the right side.”

“The real causes of all the principal events are quite unknown to historians; that, indeed, is why history has not yet succeeded in becoming a science.”

“He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void….He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.  The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire.  The last moments before damnations are not often so dramatic.  Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him.  But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself.  Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction.”