The Cosmic World of CS Lewis, the other Inkling
CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy comprises three science fiction novels for adults, Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus (Perelandra) and That Hideous Strength, written and published between 1938 and 1945.
Its hero – if the Cosmic Trilogy can be said to have a hero at all – is Elwin Ransom, an introspective middle-aged scholar, in some respects perhaps the alter ego of Lewis himself. When we meet him first, in Out of the Silent Planet, he is enjoying a rambling holiday in the countryside of his native England. He falls into the clutches of two unscrupulous villains, the brilliant scientist Weston and his associate Devine, who happened to go to the same school as Ransom himself. The two kidnap Ransom and take him to Mars, where they plan to hand him over to the Sorns, one of the three species of intelligent Martians. Ransom escapes. He discovers that the friendly Martians are ruled by angel-like beings called eldila. Indeed, all the planets are so ruled, except Earth, which has been shut off for centuries from cosmic society.
In Voyage to Venus, the eldila transport Ransom to Venus where, in a parallel of the biblical Garden of Eden, he becomes witness to a rerun of the Adam-Eve story. He must confront and destroy Weston, who has been possessed by a demon and is trying to bring chaos to the realm of the benign Perelandra, the ruling eldil of the planet.
That Hideous Strength combines elements of the first two stories with the Arthurian legends of Dark Age Britain. A sinister scientific corporation, the NICE, is plotting to take over Earth and entices a young, naiive university fellow, Mark Studdock, into its inner circle. Through Mark, they hope to gain access to the mind of his psychic wife Jane. However, Jane is rescued by friends of Ransom. With Ransom leading, this group plans a counter attack on NICE with the help of a resurrected Merlin and a menagerie of animals, including a domesticated bear by the name of Mr Bultitude.
All three books have the stamp of Lewis’s scholarship in their meticulous use of language. Modern readers may shy away from his style, because Lewis “tells” a lot and does not “show” much. His universal narrator jumps unconstrained from character to character with a frequency that is sometimes bewildering. There is too that occasional moment when Lewis, the theologian, seems to have mounted his soapbox to preach sin and redemption. However, we cannot question his imagination or his storytelling ability. In any case, “showing not telling” is much overrated; humans had been telling stories for thousands of years before someone, somewhere decided that telling wasn’t good enough.
That said, the three novels have different textures and different emphases:
Out of the Silent Planet relies on descriptive prose and although we know the Mars the author describes does not exist, he almost convinces us that it does. We are curious about the canals, about the three species of intelligent life and, most of all, we wait expectantly to discover just what precisely these eldila are.
When we get to Perelandra, some of that expectancy has gone. We know what the eldila are capable of, which gives us expectation of a different kind. But it is unfulfilled. Lewis treats us to a lot of dialogue that is philosophic, and reminiscent of his apologetic non-fiction. Venus becomes an allegorical battleground, although Lewis denies is his prologue that the work is allegory.
By contrast with both, That Hideous Strength is set on Earth and is – so it seems to me – satire. The comedic element is strong and it has to be. The plot allows no opportunity to suspend disbelief.
The Lewis of the Cosmic Trilogy is not the Lewis of Narnia. His brilliance as a writer for young people does not extend to his adult fiction. Out of the Silent Planet is a great story. The other two disappointed me. Lewis is not Tolkein and I find it difficult to forgive him for that.