The happy fact of C. S. Lewis’s creation of long fictional works is that the more of them he wrote, the better he became as a novelist. This is not to say that with each book from Out of the Silent Planet to Till We Have Faces he measurably improved, but from the early Space Trilogy (1938-1945) through the Narnia tales (1950-1956) to his last novel, there is a clear change in Lewis’s conception of fiction. In the early books, characters exemplify definite sides in an ethical debate, and plot is the working out of victory for Lewis’s side. In the later books, however, character becomes the battleground of ambiguous values, and plot takes place more and more within the minds of the characters.
The Space Trilogy
The hero of the Space Trilogy, Cambridge don Elwin Ransom, is often less theprotagonist of novels than an embodiment of the Christian and intellectual virtues that Lewis recommended in his essays. Throughout the trilogy, Ransom represents Lewis’s ideal of the relentless intellectual, his learning solidly founded on respect for great ideas from earlier ages, who valiantly maintains his integrity despite the powerful temptations posed by modern materialism. In both Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra—Ransom’s journeys to Mars (Malacandra) and Venus (Perelandra), respectively—Ransom’s adversary is as clearly villainous as Ransom himself is heroic. The antagonist is Edward Weston, a brilliant physicist, who represents for Lewis that most insidious modern outgrowth of Renaissance humanism: the belief that the highest goal of humankind is to establish dominance over all forms of life in as many worlds as humans can conquer. This view, which Lewis saw as the root of the boundless ambition of political leaders Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Benito Mussolini, is exemplified in Weston’s misuse of technology to build a spacecraft that enables him to reach other planets so that he might make them colonies of Earth.
By moving the scene of this attempt away from Earth, Lewis can manipulate material reality so that the limitations of Weston’s philosophy become obvious and his actions ludicrous. Assuming the innate superiority of man over all other forms, and thus a perpetual state of war between man and nature, Weston fails to see the simplest, most significant facts of the new worlds he intends to conquer. As Ransom, the Christian student of myths and languages, easily perceives, the forces that rule Mars and Venus are both fully hospitable to humankind and infinitely more powerful. Thus, Weston shoots gentle creatures because they appear strange and, in a parody of the European explorers, tries to bribe with shiny trinkets the Oyarsa of Malacandra, who, as Ransom learns, is second only in power and wisdom to Maleldil, ruler of the universe. In contrast to Weston, Ransom—a far truer scientist than his opponent—befriends and learns the language of these extraterrestrials; hence, mysteries are opened to him. In Out of the Silent Planet, he learns that only Earth (Thulcandra), long under the dominance of the “bent eldil,” is deprived of clear knowledge of the Oyarsa and Maleldil; Thulcandrans believe themselves enlightened above all others, when in reality they are the most benighted. He learns also that the universe is in a state of becoming: that the creatures of old worlds, such as Malacandra, can no longer be endangered by such forces as those that guide Weston, but that newer worlds, such as Thulcandra, are still theaters of contending principles, while the youngest worlds, such as Perelandra, have yet to achieve spiritual identity.
This is vital knowledge for Ransom, who realizes, in the second book, that he has been given wisdom because he has also been given the responsibility of helping to bring about Maleldil’s reign on Perelandra, which places him in open confrontation with Weston, now clearly the mere instrument of the bent eldil. In a probing recapitulation of the temptation of Eve, Lewis has Ransom and Weston contend, somewhat in the mode of the medieval psychomachia, for the mind of Tinidril, the first woman of Perelandra. As the confoundingly subtle arguments of the Unman (the spirit that controls Weston) begin to conquer Tinidril, Ransom at last understands that he must physically fight, to the death, his adversary. Despite his slim chance of survival, Ransom attacks the Unman; he ultimately defeats him, though suffering wounds, incredible fatigue, and near despair. It is an epic battle, reminiscent of the Pearl-Poet’s fourteenth century manuscript Sir Gawain and the Green Knight andEdmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596); Ransom’s faith and courage in the fight prepare the reader for his apotheosis in the final chapters, wherein Lewis’s paradisiacally lush description of Perelandra takes on an almost beatific vividness and illumination.
In novelistic terms, Perelandra surpasses Out of the Silent Planet in its attention to the development of Ransom’s awareness of his role and his struggle to maintain his integrity in the face of fears and misleading appearances. Nevertheless, its extraterrestrial setting and its clearly demarcated hero and villain make Perelandra more an epic romance than a novel. This is not to prefer one book to the other, but it is to distinguish them both from the third part of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, which may be Lewis’s most interesting fiction, although not his most consistent. That Hideous Strength tries to harmonize heterogeneous elements of romance, epic, and novel. Following the novelist’s impulse, Lewis brings his setting back to Earth and localizes it in the sort of place he knew best, a venerable English college town, which he calls Edgestow. He also centers the reader’s interest on two authentic protagonists, Jane and Mark Studdock, whose story is their painful, humiliating, sometimes dangerous progress toward faith and self-awareness. They act bravely in the ultimate crisis, both risking torture and death, but they engage in nothing like the epic struggle of Ransom and the Unman.
Still, the events in which they engage are of epic magnitude, and in this thrust of the book Lewis returns to familiar fictional territory. The plot concerns a powerful conspiracy to turn Britain into a totalitarian state. This conspiracy is opposed most strenuously by a small underground directed by Elwin Ransom, now a heroic, almost godlike leader, whose powers are spiritual rather than physical. His main adversaries are men who, like Weston, call themselves scientists, but whose distinguishing traits are lust for power, deviousness, and cruelty. Having established a research institute called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), these men use the press, political infiltrators, and their own “police” to avoid, placate, or squash opposition to their Nazi-like program of “social planning.” Mark Studdock is one of the bright but indecisive minds easily co-opted by the N.I.C.E. Lewis shows convincingly how the leaders play on his ego and his fears of rejection in order to exploit his talent as a journalist. Conversely, Jane Studdock falls in with the resistance group; she weighs its values against those of her husband and gradually comes to see that whichever road she chooses will mean great danger for both of them. She chooses the resistance.
Had Lewis limited the book to the clash between political philosophies and its impact on two ordinary people, he would have had a conventional novel, but he wanted to portray this clash as occurring on a cosmic level, as a war between pure good and pure evil. Since the combatants in this novel are the human representatives of these supernatural forces, the reader necessarily finds himself once more in the realm of romance. Aware of his mixing of genres in That Hideous Strength, Lewis called the amalgam a fairy tale, arguing that his work fell into that long tradition in which supernatural events subsume the ordinary activities of realistic characters. What fairy tale means here is that when the N.I.C.E. performs such blatant works as the turning of rivers from their courses, the trapping of huge numbers of animals for vivisection, and the...
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