Christian Doctrine is never far from the surface in Lewis’s writings, and Perelandra is, I think, the most overtly religious of his Space Trilogy. It imagines the planet Venus, or Perelandra in the Old Solar tongue, as an unfallen Paradise, a second Eden. Dr. Elwin Ransom has been sent to Perelandra by the Oyarsa of Malacandra, the angelic spirit which rules the planet Mars, in order to foil an attack on that planet by the Dark Archon of Tellus. Ransom has met Perelandra’s equivalent of Eve; and where there’s Eve, you just know a Serpent is going to show up.
Weston, the belligerent physicist from Out of the Silent Planet, has rebuilt his spaceship and has now arrived on Venus. When we saw him last he was a pompous materialist, a caricature of the Late-Victorian Scientist, much like Professor Challenger from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, only without the more endearing foibles. Since then, Weston has had what one might call a religious experience. He has come to believe in a Higher Power; in fact, he claims that he has been in contact with this Power. But the Power he now believes in is not what Ransom would exactly call God.
“How far does it go? Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?”I’ve always found this a significant exchange. The old Weston, caricature though he was, still possessed a certain code of morality. He embarked on his original trip to Mars not for wealth (unlike his avaricious partner Devine) or even fame, but rather to benefit humanity. Although he was willing to hand Ransom over to the (supposedly) blood-thirsty sorns, he felt some scruples about it – not because of any qualms about murder, but because he felt that an educated man like Ransom was more valuable than a common illiterate plebe. Even Oyarsa, in passing judgment upon the Earthmen, perceived that Weston was not “broken” like Devine, an amoral creature driven by solely by greed, but merely “bent”; possessing at least some sense of ethics.
“Or sell England to the Germans?”
“Or to print lies as serious research in a scientific periodical?”
“God help you!: said Ransom.
But now he has renounced what moral code he previously had. Ransom’s questions in that passage are an ironic escalation in seriousness. Most of us would consider murder a greater crime than lying, but the old Weston, the scientific materialist, regarded Science – real Science, not the fuzzy humanities crap that Ransom studied – as a Supreme Calling. That he would now gladly murder an acquaintance is unsurprising; that he would betray his country more disturbing, (keep in mind, this novel was written during the Second World War); but that he would debase his own profession by peddling falsehood in journals dedicated to the discovery of scientific Truth shows how far he has fallen.
Ransom desperately tries to find some point of common ground in order to persuade Weston to see reason, but this only makes Weston angry. He replies with a rant that to me recalls some of the teachings of Ayn Rand. I don’t know if Lewis read any Rand; he was more likely referencing the popular view of Nietzsche, but I’m not familiar enough with him to say for sure.
“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely . . . .”Weston gets his wish. At this terrible blasphemy, his body convulses and he becomes possessed by his Higher Power, the Bent Oyarsa of Earth. Lewis never directly identifies this being as Satan, but that’s who it is, and now he sets out to corrupt this world’s Eve as he did the one on ours.
Maleldil, the Ruling Entity of the Cosmos, (spoiler alert: Maleldil is really Aslan), has given the first Man and Woman of Perelandra only one command. You might remember that in Eden it was something about trees and fruit. In this case the command involves the Fixed Land. Most of the islands of Perelandra are floating masses of dense vegetation, but there are solid islands in the great planet-wide ocean. The Man and the Woman are permitted to visit the Fixed Lands, but not to settle and stay there.
Why? It seems pretty arbitrary to Ransom too; but since that is Maleldil’s command, Weston devotes his energies to persuading The Green Lady, this world’s Eve, to defy the command and spend a night on the Fixed Land. Ransom finds himself at a disadvantage. He can’t very well tell her that Weston is Bad or Evil or even Untrustworthy because the Lady has no frame of reference to understand what these things mean. And, she greatly desires to gain wisdom, to “grow older” as she puts it. Ransom must marshal the best counter-arguments he can.
This debate, which Lewis tells us continues off and on over the course of several days, forms the core of the novel; and in it, Lewis recasts just about every argument ever made on the subjects of Disobedience and Free Will. Ransom frequently finds himself in over his head. Fortunately, the Green Lady has a short attention span and tends to get bored when Weston and Ransom’s wrangling get too academic. Well, that’s probably unfair. The fact is that the World is so wonderful and new to the Lady that Theology is really low on her priority list of things to explore and discover.
It is when the Lady wanders off and leaves Ransom and Weston alone that the horror begins. Many critics have held that John Milton, when writing Paradise Lost was “of the Devil’s camp without knowing it.” Milton’s Lucifer is suave and charismatic and compelling, much more interesting that the stiff, uptight angels. Lewis disagrees, and portrays the Tempter here as someone who can be intelligent and charming when it suits him, but who regards these qualities merely as tools.
When he’s alone with Ransom, he doesn’t bother with philosophical sophistries or cunning persuasion; he doesn’t even bother with human posture. The personality he had displayed before goes off like a light switch, and although Ransom can’t put his finger on exactly what is wrong, Weston no longer seems human at all. He says nothing to Ransom except to simply call his name from time to time, and when Ransom replies, the Un-Man, (as Ransom now thinks of him), simply says: “Nothing.” The Un-Man does that all night – unlike Ransom, it doesn’t need to sleep. “Ransom… Ransom …” “What the Hell do you want?” “Nothing.”
In another, disturbing passage, Ransom comes across a small, mutilated frog-like creature. He realizes that the Un-Man has done this, and has left a trail of maimed amphibians all along the beach. He’s mutilating frogs for no real reason at all – not even for fun. He’s just doing it – literally – for the Hell of it. Ransom attempts to put the creature out of its misery, but the poor thing proves dreadfully hard to kill and he winds up torturing it even more in his efforts to end its suffering.
This, Lewis says, is the nature of Evil. It’s not the grand, tragic Lucifer defying Heaven in blank verse; it is a bratty little kid doing petty, pointless, mean stuff just to be annoying.
As the daytime debates with Weston drag on, Lewis finds himself despairing. The Lady has not succumbed to the Tempter’s persuasive arguments –yet. But can she hold out forever? Can Ransom hold out running interference and trying to counter Westons’s arguments? Is it fair that Ransom alone bear the responsibility of battling the Prince of Darkness?
Does this battle solely exist on a moral, philosophical plane? What if an elephant had stepped on the Serpent in the Garden of Eden? Is Ransom expected to take on Weston physically? Ransom at first rejects this idea, but as he argues with himself and second-guesses himself through the night he keeps coming back to it. His own experiences during the First World War were so different from his boyhood notions of battle that he has a dubious opinion of his own courage. “When did I ever win a fight in my life?” On top of that, he is a middle-aged, sedentary academic, hardly up to punching out Satan.
Then again, so is Weston.
As he argues with himself a Voice comes to him in the night, telling him “It is not for nothing you were named Ransom.” This boggles him. He’s a philologist and he knows the derivation of his name, (it’s “Ranolf’s Son” and has nothing to do with the English word "ransom”) The thought that all of this, even a thing as trivial as his name, is a part of something which had been foreseen and planned for centuries or more in advance gives him a deeper sense of the gravity of the whole situation. The Voice adds “My name also is Ransom.”
Ransom makes the decision and steels himself to act. The Tempter can only continue his campaign as long as it has the use of Weston’s body. So Ransom must kill Weston.
I always found this direction a peculiar one, that I’m not entirely comfortable with. But keep in mind, Lewis wrote this novel during World War Two, in which British soldiers really were physically taking arms to battle the Forces of Evil, which probably had a profound influence on his thinking. In any case, Ransom confronts the Un-Man. When he realizes that Ransom seriously means to harm him, the Un-Man flees.
There follows an epic chase and running barttle which takes the two across the ocean to the Fixed Land. At one point, Weston’s own personality comes to the surface – or is it only another mind-game by the Un-Man? Ransom cannot tell – and gibbers nihilistic despair about the nature of reality. It gives a glimpse of Lewis’s view of damnation; not the horrific tortures of Dante, but a loss of self. Lewis’s Hell is a diabolical melting pot in which individuals lose their identities to merge with their Master. In a similar way, in his book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has a demon describe the souls of the damned as delicacies to be devoured.
Finally, deep in a cavern beneath the Fixed Land, Ransom and the Un-Man have their final confrontation. Ransom bashes his Enemy’s face in with a rock: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, here goes – I mean, Amen.”
Now that it’s dead, Weston’s body no longer seems inhuman. The evil force animating it is gone. Ransom casts the body into a volcanic crevice to bury it and then, feeling an obligation to commemorate the passing of what once had been a great man, he carves a memorial inscription. “That was a tomfool thing to do,” he admits when he has finished it, “But there ought to be some record.”
Ransom emerges from the caverns and meets the Oyarsa of Malacandra and his Perelandrian equivalent. Here we get another of Lewis’s idée fixes: that gender is something that transcends biology. Although the eldila are angelic beings without sex in the biological sense, they nevertheless have qualities, the one of masculinity and the other of femininity. This also comes out of his theme that the ancient legends of gods and goddesses are kind of racial memories of the Cosmic Order: The god Mars is an echo of the Oyarsa of Malacandra; the goddess Venus an echo of Perelandra.
He also meets again the Green Lady, who has finally been reunited with the King, this world’s Adam. Whereas on Malacandra, the sentient races are subordinate to a ruling Oyarsa, on this world rulership is being handed over to the King and the Queen – as should have happened on Earth had things not gone wrong. The King, whose name is Tor, comes off not nearly as interesting as the Lady, but then again we see very little of him. It does strike Ransom as somewhat unfair that she had to resist temptation and he didn’t have to do anything, but Tor had his own struggles. In a secret place, he was shown what was happening with his Lady. It occurs to me that perhaps Tor’s temptation was to intervene in his Lady’s temptation and prevent her from deciding on her own, but Lewis does not specifically say this.
Ransom witnesses the great ceremony crowning Tor and Tindril the King and Queen of their world. It is only now that Ransom notices that his heel is bleeding where Weston bit it during their battle. But it is now time for him to return home. Another white casket-like box has been prepared for him in which he will be carried back to Earth.
At their parting, Tindril unconsciously echoes what Weston said during his brief moment of lucidity during the earlier battle. He said life was like a rind one was sinking through, and past that rind was oblivion. The Lady also compares life to the thick rind of a fruit, but beyond that skin lies sweetness.
With that, and with the blessings of the King, Ransom is carried off back to his home.
NEXT: We visit the strangest planet of all, Earth, which lies under the shadow of That Hideous Strength. Have a NICE day!