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Lewis, C(live) S(taples) 1898–1963
Born in Ireland, Lewis was an English novelist, essayist, critic, author of children's books, poet, and autobiographer. Although a distinguished medieval scholar, Lewis is known predominantly as a writer of fantasy literature. His conversion to Catholicism was perhaps the most important influence on his work, for...
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Lewis, C(live) S(taples) 1898–1963
Born in Ireland, Lewis was an English novelist, essayist, critic, author of children's books, poet, and autobiographer. Although a distinguished medieval scholar, Lewis is known predominantly as a writer of fantasy literature. His conversion to Catholicism was perhaps the most important influence on his work, for Christian humanism informs both his literary and critical output. The conflicts presented in his fiction are easily discernible as allegories of good and evil, and in his literary criticism he is concerned with the religious and moral content of a work of literature. Lewis was a traditionalist in his approach to both literature and life. He opposed the modern schools of literary interpretation in favor of explication free of biographical or psychological connotations. He also published under the pseudonyms of Clive Hamilton and Nat Whilk. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
Mr. C. S. Lewis [in The Allegory of Love] was moved to attack the personal heresy in modern criticism. The first essay in the elegant small book is his spirited, and to some extent salutary, denunciation of contemporary critics and readers who regard poetry as a means of contact with the poet's personality. So shocking does this seem to Mr. Lewis, that he has boldly taken up the extreme negative position: "… when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all." (p. 596)
No doubt a corrective was needed for the psychological-biographical school which, not content with using the biography to illuminate the work, rather lays the work under contribution to complete the portrait of the man, and makes the poet rather than his very title to consideration—his poetry—the proper end of enjoyment. But reduction of the poet to mere linguistic interpreter of the natural world to man could not, of course, go unchallenged. Mr. Lewis was fortunate enough to provoke a distinguished adversary, Dr. E.M.W. Tillyard … whose study of Milton he had cited as exemplifying the personal heresy. From this point the discussion becomes a controversy in due form [resulting in a collection of essays published jointly by Lewis and Tillyard entitled The Personal Heresy]. (pp. 596-97)
One follows [Mr. Lewis] with more confidence when he is attacking vulgar errors in the understanding of the function of poetry than when he is faced with the uncongenial necessity of substituting for these errors a true and plausible system of his own. Here he appears to suffer from what might be called "the Oxford orthodoxy". Though not incapable, as he has plainly demonstrated, of rigorous speculative thought, he here falls back to the gentlemanly level where all men of "polite imagination", in Addison's phrase, may follow him. Poetry, he says, takes for its subject matter anything that may be the subject of conversation, excepting only the attempt to prove (which is the province of science and philosophy) and the attempt to accomplish an immediate practical purpose [propaganda?]. Most poetry, indeed, tells stories. Poetry, like any other utterance, should be interesting; poetry, like any other utterance, should make us happier, wiser, or better. Surely this is no dangerous departure from the respectable Victorian tradition and surely it is not illuminating. (pp. 597-98)
It will seem, I imagine, to most contemporary critics that for the personal heresy Mr. Lewis has substituted one as ancient and at least as damned: the heresy of the separation of form from matter….
Mr. Lewis makes the appreciation of poetry too easy. In so far as the poet gives intelligible expression to the concrete reality of experience, he is bound, Mr. Lewis seems to say, to communicate that experience. We are all mute inglorious Miltons, inferior to the poet only in linguistic aptitude. Therefore when the poet tells us what it is like to meet an elm, whether the poet be Tennyson or Donne, we know what it is like to meet an elm. Naturally, on this view, there is no necessity for biographical or historical elucidation of poems. If poetry is by definition accessible, the critic as mediator between the poet and the common reader is superfluous. We are all equal before poetry. But the very disagreements which arise between Mr. Lewis and Dr. Tillyard as to the interpretation of poems called in as concrete illustrations belie this comfortable conclusion…. And Mr. Lewis is not without misgivings. He has been able to differentiate two kinds in the experience which poetry communicates to him: such experience as all men have had, and "a new and nameless sensation, or even a new sense, to enrich me with experience which nothing in my previous life had prepared me for". This surely raises important questions. (p. 598)
Ruth Z. Temple, "Pool of Bethsaida," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1939 by The University of the South), Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Autumn, 1939, pp. 596-99.
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Not many writers nowadays are on such terms of cordial insult with His Infernal Majesty as the ruddy Ulster-born … Mr. Clive Staples Lewis has shown himself to be in what is by now the most phenomenally popular household book of applied religion of the twentieth century, The Screwtape Letters. Not since another Oxford don chose to divest himself of his academic robes and slip down a rabbit-hole with Alice and the White Rabbit has the reading world been given such a divertissement by a race of spectacled savants….
For himself, [Mr. Lewis] has preferred to treat of [the devil] in these latter stages of degeneracy, when, like a certain Scottish thane, the forsworn recreant to a greater lord than Duncan has indeed grown old in evil and underneath the sinister mask the ravaged face begins to look faintly comic; but the button slips off both foils at times, as when, in Perelandra, Our Father Below decides to take a hand in the game; then Screwtape draws back, and the wrestling with Principalities and Powers begins. (p. 213)
[When] John left Puritania in Mr. Lewis' spiritual autobiography, The Pilgrim's Regress, he left John Calvin behind forever—more irrevocably, in fact, than many Catholic Irishmen manage to do; and the book then carries us to a Paradiso as well as to an Inferno. Mr. Lewis' fantasy or, if you prefer, vision of Paradise, here and in The Problem of Pain, is, in one fashion, like the Irish myth of Tir-n-an-Og, the Land of Youth and, in another, like some Platonic archetype of English hearth and nursery, a blend, almost, of Sunday's house in The Man Who Was Thursday and Barrie's nursery under the nightlights, where dog Nana keeps guard over the sleeping children. (pp. 213-14)
Mr. Lewis' teleology does not invoke the dour Calvinistic dogma of "you can't take it with you," but rather the exactly opposite doctrine of that sweet Scottish mystic, George Macdonald, his and Chesterton's "owne maister deere," who used to preach in sermon, poem and fantastic novel that you really can take it with you in the last analysis—all that counts, anyway, wife and child and candlelight and old cat purring on the hearth; toy theater and tavern; for man will remain man….
Mr. Lewis makes two other major demands upon our attention, the first of which, I am sure, needs no belaboring. He is the only truly popular champion of Orthodoxy….
But it would be a shame if his critical work and scholarly essays were confined to the lamp-lit circle of those dull persons who subscribe to English Studies and Modern Language Notes. Mr. Lewis' veins run blood, not ink; there is no mildew in his bones; nor mere jargon on his lips.
He has to his credit in The Allegory of Love,… the best critical treatment in English of Chaucer's psychological romance, Troilus and Criseyde; the finest book of general commentary I know of on Paradise Lost in A Preface to Paradise Lost; and, I will go bond, the most superb single essay consideration of the sweet Prince of Elsinore in Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem….
Even the non-professional reader, who has but slight concern with matters of prosody and literary history, will find much to delight him in these pages; and no enthusiast of Lewis, English scholar or not, can afford to overlook the humane scholarship, as excellent in its respective fields as Ker's or Chambers' in theirs, of this very humanistic, and therefore Catholic, don.
It is true, however, that there are two lobes to the Lewis brain, both working at once to produce a more than three-dimensional stereoscopic reality, but one coloring the field of vision more at one time, the other at another. This was also true of Chesterton, his great congener, in whom one could distinguish a rationalistic and a mystic lobe. In Lewis' instance both lobes turn at once on a pivot of wit; but there is a lobe of Swiftian fancy and a lobe of Dunsanyesque—the term is used to indicate kind, not degree—imagination, both crossing and criss-crossing in bewildering simultaneity, with Swift predominating in Screwtape and the Tir-n-an-Ogish Dunsany in Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet, where instead of Eighteenth Century efts and ouphs of fancy à la Voltaire or Alexander Pope we sight our crossbows for the great Albatross, the splendid Oyarsa of the imagination, who haunts the ringing crags of myth rather than the pleasant upland slopes of allegory.
This latter charming qualification applies to The Pilgrim's Regress, in which Lewis, who, as a scholar, had found himself in reaction against today's contemptuous depreciation of that old-fashioned form, seems to have set out to prove he could write as good allegory as Bunyan. The resultant, half medieval, half seventeenth-century Puritan, reveals the Bedford Tinker's iron somewhat mitigated by the sweetly silver musical alloy of nursery rhyme, of Boys and girls come out to play, The moon is shining bright as day. Wisdom's wanton children gambol in the moonlight; the moon shines soft and clear on Mother Kirk's pool of Baptism; but it is still the familiar moon of earthly nurseries after the Fall. Malacandra and Perelandra gleam fair with the further radiance of Mars and Venus cleansed of the perilous stuff that Original Sin brought into our silent world, the pure planets of Chesterton's dream, freed of the incestuous associations of mortal legend….
I consider [the] Miltonic grandeur of conception [in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra] the greatest exercise of pure imagination in immediately contemporary literature…. (p. 214)
Charles A. Brady, "Introduction to Lewis," in America (© America Press, 1944; all rights reserved), Vol. LXXI, No. 8, May 27, 1944, pp. 213-14.
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The popular reputation of C. S. Lewis depends to a large extent upon his prominence as a modern day "apostle to the skeptics." His theological writings are designed for and directed toward skeptical laymen who have been, in Lewis's opinion, unduly influenced by nineteenth-century liberalism and scientism and so have left the Church for the greener pastures of "humane science." Lewis's theological writings are thus designed to woo mankind away from the laboratories and the secular reform movements back into the arms of the Church. In books such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles, Lewis is a propagandist; his cause is orthodoxy in religion and in morality; his methods are those of his enemies. At all times, he views the world from the vantage-point of the church steps.
Yet in order to provide a suitable literary vehicle for orthodox ideas, Lewis creates his own cosmic myth. Science fiction provides him with a method and a plot, the theology of the Church with a theme…. In Lewis's three novels—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—the earth becomes "Thulcandra," the "silent planet," cut off from the rest of the cosmos by the rebellion of Satan, the "Bent Eldil" (angel), and the subsequent fall of man. In the first novel, Elwin Ransom, the philologisthero of Lewis's cycle, is kidnaped by Edward Weston, a physicist, and so is accidentally involved in a trip to Mars. There he learns that the universe, apart from Earth, exists in harmony and peace, having a common language and a common interplanetary religion and government. In describing this theocratic arrangement Lewis seeks to translate the usual Christian terms into some sort of pseudo-scientific and mythical terms, without at the same time losing or distorting the basic Christian concepts with which he is working. Thus the two sets of terms involved can only approximate each other; the Martians, inhabiting as they do an unfallen world, cannot view Christianity from the same point of view as do fallen earth men. (p. 401)
Lewis's main aim in the creation of his silent planet myth is thus to create and maintain a metaphor which will serve to carry in fictional form the basic tenets of Christianity and present them from a non-Christian point of view without reference to the usual Christian symbols. This general method is graphically illustrated in Perelandra, the second novel of the trilogy. Ransom, summoned by Maleldil through the Oyarsa (tutelary eldil) of Mars, journeys to Perelandra (Venus). There he finds a young world, a Paradise. He meets the queen of that world, who tells him that Maleldil has forbidden that she and her husband sleep on a certain fixed island (most of Venus's islands are floating). Weston, the physicist, again appears, but it is immediately apparent that Satan has taken possession of Weston's body in an attempt to induce the queen to sleep on the forbidden island in order to bring about another Fall. The novel from this point on settles down into argumentation—Ransom, the emissary of Maleldil, seeks to preserve the queen's innocence; Weston, the devil incarnate, attempts to confound her with arguments glorifying the knowledge of evil.
It is apparent that Lewis is here expounding, from the point of view of his own cosmic myth, the doctrine of the fall of man. The theological problem, as Lewis sees it, centers upon the validity of that interpretation which sees the Fall as fortunate…. Lewis's conclusion would thus seem to be that the Fall on Earth was fortunate in that God, almost by definition, brings good out of evil. Yet had the Fall not occurred, some equally great good, forever lost to man, would have been revealed.
The main point to be made concerning the first two books of the trilogy is this: Lewis, using the literary methodology of the science-fiction writer, is attempting, as in his tracts dealing with Christian apologetics, to justify the ways of God to skeptical man by presenting the core of the Faith. He must, however, describe and define the theological tenets with which he is dealing from a point of view which, of necessity, cannot make use of the normal vocabulary of the Church. This is, of course, both a strength and a weakness. The old terms have the advantage of producing stock responses, which is one of the great advantages of literary allusion to known and accepted myth. Yet this calling forth of stock responses may have serious disadvantages in that it may repel the very people whom Lewis is trying hardest to attract. Thus it is that Lewis's seemingly non-Christian point of view in the novels is one of his chief sources of strength; it functions in the same way as does his sophisticated prose style in the popular theological books. In both cases, Lewis would seem to be working on the principle that the usual approach to Christianity is no longer effective, so that new and totally different terms must be found to express the old and, for Lewis, still valid doctrines.
In That Hideous Strength, the last of the novels, Lewis retains his general method in that he presents orthodox Christianity by means of non-Christian terms, but in this novel he shifts his emphasis away from the silent planet myth developed in the first two novels. The primary structure of that myth is still retained: Ransom, appearing as Mr. Fisher-King, is Lewis's hero; we have allusions to Weston, the physicist; the moon is Earth's battle perimeter. But the field of action shifts from Heaven to Earth. Evil takes the form of a sociological and scientific society whose professed aim is the amelioration of social and economic conditions by means of the creation of a cooperative state. Yet this society, ironically called the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), is in reality only a facade for the operations of Satan who is attempting to conquer the world by appealing to ideals of secular humanism, science, and material progress. (pp. 402-03)
Lewis in That Hideous Strength deliberately plays down the cosmic myth of the first two novels. The reason for such a decision seems obvious: Lewis's cosmic machinery cannot properly function in an "earth" story. He thus introduces another myth to take the place of the cosmic adventure story—the Arthurian. (p. 403)
What Lewis seems to see in the Arthurian myth is a metaphor which will at once fit within the overall scheme of the silent planet myth and at the same time reinforce his general plan by expressing it in another and more overtly literary set of terms. Thus, the Arthurian material in a sense can be said to exist within the silent planet myth and parallel to it.
It is evident that Lewis in emphasizing the eternal war between Logres, the Arthurian ideal, and Britain, the secular reality, is attempting to develop a symbol which will parallel roughly the war between good and evil forces, fallen and unfallen angels, on Earth, the silent planet. Just as in the other novels he had so carefully delineated the position of Earth as "enemy-held territory," so here is he expressing the same concept in Arthurian terms.
In the personage of Mr. Fisher-King, Lewis has portrayed a new and almost divine Ransom; he has become the Fisher King of the Grail story, the guardian of the Grail, and thus the head of the new Logres. Perhaps the most significant detail which Lewis uses in his description of Mr. Fisher-King is the bleeding foot, the result of Ransom's struggle with Weston-Satan in Perelandra. The wounded heel becomes a symbol of Mr. Fisher-King's heritage both as a keeper of the Grail and as a man among men. It is thus, by extension, a symbol of the waste land of modern society, land laid waste by the victory of the Bent Eldil and doomed until Logres captures Britain and the battle line of the moon's orbit is broken. The purposes of Logres and the dream of the eldila of Deep Heaven are thus identified through the symbol of the wounded Mr. Fisher-King, who is also the space traveler, Elwin Ransom.
The identification of Ransom / Fisher-King with the Pendragon can also be said to extend the implications of Lewis's theme. Lewis thinks of Arthurian Britain as the ideal secular civilization awaiting a reconciliation with its religious counterpart. Lewis is thus able to join the Grail (Mr. Fisher-King) with the ideal kingdom (the Pendragon) with Deep Heaven (Ransom the voyager). The menage of Mr. Fisher-King thus comes to represent a microcosm of the Arthurian court, the true remnant of Logres. Lewis dwells on the idyllic and co-operative aspects of this civilization in order to provide a contrast with the secular civilization (if it can be called that) represented by the Belbury headquarters of N.I.C.E. (pp. 403-04)
Lewis's introduction of Merlin is the last of his interpolations of Arthurian materials. Merlin is, in a sense, the key figure in the novel. Both sides desire the "mantle of Merlin," the supernatural power which the great magician represents. What Lewis finds in Merlin is a figure, half-mythical and half-real (in terms of Lewis's imposed theory of history which claims that the story of Arthur is historical fact), whom he can use as an active force of good and whom he can ally naturally with the Arthurian myth and artificially with the cosmic myth. (p. 404)
Lewis's general use of myth, along with his statements concerning the nature of myth, would seem to point to a unified concept of the place of myth in literature: Myth itself represents an ultimate and absolute reality; myth in literature represents a reflection of that central reality, capable of conveying the meaning and, to some extent, the power implicit in the myth itself. Lewis thus implies that myth functions in literature as a suggestive archetype to which ordinary fictional situations may be referred by allusion. In this way, myth lends its own total meaning and inherent power to the fictional situation….
In That Hideous Strength Lewis's theme is not a theological dogma, but a moral dilemma. Lewis is here opposing the sanctity and morality of Mr. Fisher-King, who symbolizes the whole weight of an ordered and Christian society, and the chaotic and turbulent secularism of the N.I.C.E. The war between these forces, and thus, in terms of the silent planet myth, between the angels and devils who direct them, is reflected in the inward struggles of a young couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, to choose sides in the great battle, and it is their personal struggles which become the real subject of the last novel. But these personal struggles have no meaning except as they are interpreted against the background of the mythical structure which gives reality and force to their deliberations. That Hideous Strength represents Lewis's most complex and impressive use of myth in fiction. Here he uses myth to give force and meaning to a modern story of conversion, by placing that conversion against a backdrop of myth which presents the problems of the two young people as manifestations of a universal and cosmic struggle. (p. 405)
Charles Moorman, "Space Ship and Grail: The Myths of C. S. Lewis," in College English (copyright © 1957 by the National Council of Teachers of English), Vol. 18, No. 8, May, 1957, pp. 401-05.
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The driving motif of Till We Have Faces is the development of the soul, a motif explored allegorically in one of Lewis' earliest works, The Pilgrim's Regress. Here Lewis has recast the familiar myth of Cupid and Psyche, possibly attracted initially to the enchanting symbolism of the butterfly frequently associated with Psyche. Transformed from a creature of the earth to a creature of the air, from a creature that gropes in the darkness to a creature that flutters in the light, the butterfly seems to encapsulate the glory of the resurrection in which fallen man is transformed from a creature of dust to a spirit received in God's radiant glory. (p. 498)
The novel is a tale of transition in character, but more than this it is a tale of pursuit of a vision…. (p. 500)
The philosophic cast to the novel is stronger than in any other of Lewis' work. In fact, it would not be far afield to point out the remarkable parallels between the three sisters of the court and the Platonic view of the tripartite soul. Orual, the eldest sister, is a convincing portrait of the philosopher-king,… one whose life was governed by reason and whose center of soul physiologically rested in the head. Psyche fits the Platonic description of the spirited person of courage and impulsive daring whose center of soul rested in the chest or heart. Plato foresaw this kind of person constituting the guardian, or warrior, class, the person who will uphold and guard the state at whatever cost, which clearly does not apply to Psyche. Yet, one should recall the dire schooling Plato prescribed (train them like dogs, he said) to form the guardian thus. The natural virtue of this class, the natural trait of soul which Psyche does share, is spontaneous belief and unfaltering courage in pursuit of that belief. Redival represents the appetitive soul, whimsical, sensual, uncontrollable, whose center of soul rests in the lower regions of the body.
As Plato's philosophy turned on the crucial distinction between reason and belief, so too does Lewis' theology, albeit with markedly different answers. These answers lie at the heart of the novel. Plato, of course, had little use for doxa, or knowledge based upon what one "believed" to be true—that is, not revealed by reason but apprehended existentially. These "opinions" Plato considered to be deceptive and bound in what only seems to be true. Instead, he argued that true knowledge arises only from reason, that only mental processes grant certain truth as they gain access by recollection and mathematical study to the eternal world of the forms.
In a sense, the Western world has never recovered from Platonism, for many still wish to argue that faith is absurd and that only reason (or "scientific method" to adopt the post-Enlightenment term) gives certain knowledge. Lewis' wish is not simply to reverse this popular notion, but to define the function and limit of reason and belief in Christian epistemology. For Lewis reason is a guide, but not the goal; never an end in itself, it can nonetheless lead to an end that is achieved finally by belief. (p. 501)
The error that Lewis believes modern man has committed was to assume that reason is the exclusive organ of truth. Notice that Psyche begins at one point to call Orual—the philosopher-king—Maia, which means the way of illusion. Reason as self-sufficient means of obtaining knowledge is ultimately illusory, for it limits man to the boundaries of his own mind. Reason, to rephrase Kant, must be seen within the limits of belief.
The Fox, cast as rationalist philosopher, thus plays a crucial role. For much of the novel he is always at hand to adroitly "explain away" mysteries that lie beyond process. Dreams, illusions, heightened emotions—the glimpses into spiritual reality are anything for him but the truth. Yet, the Fox's system fails to hold, even for the Fox. It precludes the tears that too often fall down his cheeks. It counts his often searing emotions as puerile poppycock. It leaves no room for the songs and festivities that fill the Fox with uneasy joy. In short, it is a system that denies life; it is the skeleton abhorring the flesh and viscera that grant being….
The Fox [however, is no] facile arbiter of value and truth. He is seeking, by his own innate means of reason, to discern certain verities in life. It is significant that the Fox is selected as a guide for Orual through the Deadlands, for by reason he sees many things clearly. One mistakes Lewis' epistemology if he sees it as exorcising reason altogether as some malevolent demon preying upon faith. Reason does grant us conveyance down the path of belief; it just doesn't take us far enough.
Perhaps Lewis' most precise statement concerning reason and imagination … [is that] "reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning." Imagination reaches beyond the grasp of reason to seize the meaning of "what is," or fact. Its method is mythic, or the use of allegory or symbolism to reach "after some transcendental reality which the forms of discursive thought cannot contain." Belief consists of assent to the meaning disclosed through imagination. (p. 502)
Psyche does act impulsively, wildly, on her belief. By a leap of faith she seizes the spiritual reality. Perhaps for that reason, Psyche often seems more Christlike, more spiritual than human, in the novel. Although her anguish in mortal life is real and agonizing, her quest for the spiritual god is almost heroic. (pp. 504-05)
Orual is inescapably a part of [the] world of clouded belief and distorted reason, and no act of her own can lift the clouds nor clear the mind….
Orual's spiritual sight operates on two levels, the pragmatic reality and increasing experience of the transcendent meaning of reality. Her own pragmatic vision begins to show to her the reality that she attempts not to see. (p. 506)
[In] her vision Orual comes to the understanding that all the angry words of her writings, the bitter acrimony, the blazing ire, break down in abject terror at the realization that the gods are real and the mysteries of their will can never be fathomed by man. All of man's reason and will are in the presence of divine wisdom but a babbling wind. Man has no voice, no face to present before the gods. (p. 507)
Through [a] gesture of ultimate love, [Psyche's] descent into hell whereby man is redeemed, man is truly transformed. By this act he receives the face by which he can behold the gods face to face, the face [which] can only be bestowed by the One who has borne all the anguish. It is this act of Christ to which the myth points, for this act transforms the Orual in us to the Psyche …, the fallen man to redeemed man. (p. 508)
John H. Timmerman, "The Epistemology of C. S. Lewis: Reason and Belief in 'Till We Have Faces'," in Religion in Life (copyright © 1977 by Abingdon Press), Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 497-508.
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In the orderly cosmos of his Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet , Perelandra , That Hideous Strength ), Lewis repeatedly presents his characters (both terrestrial and celestial) speaking and acting in accordance with a system of propriety which literary theorists label decorum…. [Lewis uses various] examples of generic variety and propriety to demonstrate both the plenitude of being that fills Maleldil's (Christ's) fertile universe and the cosmic harmony by which this proliferation is ordered. Several times in the trilogy he presents pageants in which countless exotic animals, different races of hnau (rational beings), and eldila (angels) arrange themselves into patterns which seem intrinsic to their natures. (pp. 118-19)
The Renaissance, the period of specialization for Lewis the critic, generated much interest in decorum among literary theorists who tried to systematize the rules of propriety…. Despite disagreements on details, most theorists agreed that epic and tragedy should portray the nobility of kings and heroes, that pastoral should sing of shepherds and nymphs in a Golden World, and that satire and farce should expose the vice and folly of low-life characters such as servants, sailors, and hostlers. In his Space Trilogy Lewis follows a similar system of decorum in order to characterize the three planets (Mars, Venus, and Earth) which form the settings of the novels….
Malacandra [the setting for Out of the Silent Planet] is Mars, an undeniably martial and epic world. Hardship and struggle were imposed upon its hnau early when the surface of the planet was ruined by a blow from the Bent Eldil (Satan) in his rebellion against Maleldil. Now its people labor for food, shelter, and knowledge in caverns beneath the barren surface of a planet they know is old and will soon die. Yet they accept the death of their planet and death in general with heroic fortitude, seeing it as the final glorious moment which completes life. (p. 119)
Perelandra [the setting for Perelandra] is Venus, an undeniably pastoral and lyric world. Whereas Malacandra is old and dying, Perelandra is young and, when Ransom arrives, its King and Queen await "the morning" of their birth into the unfallen life of glory which was lost by Adam and Eve…. Protected from the sun's harsh rays, safely insulated from the conflicts of inter-planetary politics, and flowing in the rhythm of the divine will, the planet is a Golden World of prelapsarian bliss created for the joy of its two inhabitants. (p. 120)
As the reader travels with Ransom into Deep Heaven, he too is introduced to worlds where myth comes true and where what are merely artificial constructs to delineate kinds of poetry on earth become living realities in the heroic world of Mars and the pastoral world of Venus. Through identification with Ransom, the reader tastes what, Lewis seems to believe, is almost impossible in the modern world: pure epic and pure lyric experiences. (p. 122)
On earth, however, the reader is not encouraged to immerse himself in the experience of the planet because Thulcandra is a sinful world under the rule of the Bent Eldil, Satan. To characterize earth, therefore, Lewis uses a genre that necessitates an emotional distance foreign to epic, pastoral, and lyric—satire…. It is precisely this distance that allows the reader to experience the response to wickedness that is proper in a universe governed by an omnipotent and beneficent God—laughter. From the perspective of divine providence (or from the glimpse of that perspective man can attain), it is easy to see that "the Devil is an ass."
On fallen earth, however, surrounded by the effects of Satan's attempts to subvert God's providence, it is difficult to maintain the distance necessary to laugh at evil. When a good man feels the power of Satan at work, his usual response is terror…. In the universe of the trilogy, only earth is terrifying, not outer space which is filled with the radiant light and life of Maleldil. The gothic novel is thus an earthly genre, and the reader shares its terror when Lewis immerses him in the works of the Devil, which from a cosmic perspective always appear ludicrous.
With this understanding of proper (laughter) and partial (terror) responses to evil on the silent planet, we turn to the third novel of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, which is set on Earth. Ransom, now the leader of a godly remnant at St. Anne's on the Hill, wages a covert war against the hellish N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), in which the resurrected Merlin is a secret weapon…. [Lewis] gives the reader a normative stance outside worldly wickedness, the godly community at St. Anne's on the Hill [and] the reader is assured of the emotional distance necessary to laugh at the meaningless bureaucratic jargon of the N.I.C.E., the petty squabbles for power in the "inner circle," and the obsequiousness of Wither and Frost, the N.I.C.E. deputy directors, who roll out the red carpet for a tippling hobo they believe to be the resurrected Merlin. When the real Merlin calls down the curse of Babel upon the N.I.C.E., satire again becomes farce as those who have sold their souls to the Devil are forced to babble jibberish only slightly more outlandish than the "bureaucratese" they have been spouting all along…. As their tongues are confounded, all Hell (literally) breaks loose: experimental animals seek bloody revenge, "the Head" demands new sacrificial victims, and the Satanic Wither and Frost complete the self-destruction their names imply.
These last events are, however, not farcical. In the final scene at Belbury, the N.I.C.E. headquarters, the reader is granted a disturbing double perspective. Because the reader watches humans like himself chanting the nonsense of Devil worship and being slaughtered by wild beasts, he feels the terror all sinful mortals must feel in the presence of Satanic anarchy and divine justice. But, because the reader has been encouraged to grant his allegiance to St. Anne's Christian community, he can laugh as Ransom's pet bear, Mr. Bultitude, smacks his lips over a chance to get at "the Head" and as Merlin forces Lord Feverstone (Devine) to drive over the old Roman road to Edgestow. In other words, this scene elicits the reader's sense of kinship with all fallen men, thereby producing the horror appropriate to a gothic novel; but because the reader has emotionally joined the redeemed community at St. Anne's, the scene also elicits the reader's sense of distance from these fools who have damned themselves, thereby producing the laughter appropriate to satire and farce.
St. Anne's, while providing the reader with a stance from which to view the vice and folly of damned Belbury, has a characteristic genre of its own—medieval romance. (pp. 122-25)
[The] genre itself is appropriate to characterize the group at St. Anne's because medieval romance so often portrays a quest for the ideal in an all-too-real world. As Arthur hoped to create Logres in the chaos of Britain, as Perceval and Lancelot sought the Holy Grail despite their repeated sins and failures, as Gawain tried and failed to resist the tempting offers of his host's wife, so the remnant at St. Anne's strives to keep Christianity alive in a fallen world of hellish bureaucracies. Medieval romance is indeed the appropriate genre to mediate between immersion in the sinful world, which produces terror, and distance from it, which produces laughter. (p. 125)
Now that we have surveyed Lewis's system of decorum and seen what genres are appropriate to Mars (epic), Venus (pastoral and lyric), fallen man (gothic novel, satire, and farce) and redeemed man (medieval romance), we are ready to see how, in the radiant light of the genre appropriate to the cosmic harmony, all these genres are both partial and central. (pp. 125-26)
If all these responses are partial, what genre leads the reader to the fullest response to the cosmic harmony? We glimpse it in the pageant scenes that conclude each of the three novels of the trilogy. The chant of the hrossa at Hyoi's funeral, the song of rejoicing which all Perelandra sings, and the dancing of the elephants on the lawn at St. Anne's introduce the reader to a universe whose characteristic genre is Divine Comedy. (p. 126)
In the festive conclusions to all three novels, the reader sees that Lewis's cosmos is ordered and loved by the same smiling God whom Dante tries to describe in his beatific vision…. Like Dante, who experiences, then rises beyond the horror and farce of the infernal depths, the struggle required to climb the purgatorial mount, and even the joy of the earthly paradise at the summit in order to gaze on the fullness of God, so the reader of the Space Trilogy makes a similar pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of (if not to gaze upon) the cosmic (and comic) harmony.
The genres that form Lewis's system of interplanetary decorum are not, however, arranged in a rigid hierarchy like the genera dicendi proposed by Renaissance theorists. Each genre performs its function in each planet, and all merge in the harmony and rejoicing of a dance, the characteristic ending of comedy…. Paradoxically, each planet's genre is both central and subordinate to the Divine Comedy. Although on earth we may seem doomed to experience only the horror and farce of the modern world, even that, says Lewis, is a significant movement in the decorous Dance before God's throne. (pp. 127-28)
A. K. Nardo, "Decorum in the Fields of Arbol: Interplanetary Genres in C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy," in Extrapolation (copyright 1971 by Thomas D. Clareson), Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 118-28.