The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

A Short Detour: C.S. Lewis’ “The Shoddy Lands” and “Ministering Angels”

Seven months before The Last Battle was published, C.S. Lewis had a short story appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was called “The Shoddy Lands,” and—believe it or not—it and another short story are key pieces in understanding what exactly is happening with poor Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle. Our next article in the C.S. Lewis Reread is going to be about “the problem of Susan” so first, we need to take a little detour and explore these two stories.

In 1953, Lewis received a letter from a man named William Anthony Parker White. He was an author who wrote under the pen name Anthony Boucher, and he was also the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He asked Lewis if he’d be willing to submit a story to the magazine, and offered him a year’s free subscription regardless.

Lewis was still writing Narnia at the time. He would finish The Last Battle that year (though it wouldn’t be published until 1956), and was continuing work on The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy. He was also re-discovering his love of science fiction (or, as Lewis still called it at the time, scientifiction). He had been in correspondence with Arthur C. Clarke (Lewis enjoyed Childhood’s End) and found Ray Bradbury much to his liking. Indeed, he told Boucher that he enjoyed what he had read of Boucher’s work, as well.

Still, Lewis felt he didn’t have time to write a story for Boucher. He wrote back, “All my imagination at present is going into children’s stories. When that is done, I may try another fantasy for adults, but it wd. be too quiet and leisurely for your magazine.”

A few years later, however, he managed to fire off a story to Boucher, called “The Shoddy Lands” (see page 68 at the link if you’d like to read it). A couple years after that, Lewis wrote another, this one called “Ministering Angels.” Both of them touch on Lewis’s views on women, gender, and philosophy, and I have to be honest… I don’t particularly care for either of them. But that’s the whole point of this reread! Let’s get in there and see what we can find.

First, let’s lay to rest the question of whether “The Shoddy Lands” is sexist. I think we can agree that it is and set the topic aside. (I suspect Lewis would disagree and tell us that he likes women perfectly well, that it’s only certain kinds of women who give him trouble. But it’s not really the most important aspect of the story for our purposes.)

In the story, a curmudgeonly Oxford don invites a student up to his quarters, only to be disappointed to discover that the student has brought his fiancée, Peggy. While the don and his student have a lot in common, and the student and Peggy have a lot in common, the three of them have nothing to talk about together but the weather and the news. The don, quickly bored, finds himself staring at Peggy and then—through a mysterious metaphysical event—finds himself somehow in Peggy’s mind. (There is some hedging about this at the end of the story, and I think there are some other interpretations we could throw out to put the story in another light.)

In Peggy’s world, anything not specifically centered on her is “shoddy.” Trees are green blobs. People are indistinct unless she finds something of particular interest; some men have detailed faces, some women have clothes that are detailed. The only flowers that look like flowers are the kind that could be cut and put in a vase for her. Store windows are marvelously detailed. At the center of it all is a Gigantic Peggy—although more conventionally beautiful than Peggy herself—in a bikini at first, and later fully naked. The don is horrified by her body, partly because of her size, and partly because it seems artificial to him, and partly because (and I am not making this up) he really dislikes tan lines.

Toward the end of his time there, we hear two people “knocking” on the door of Peggy’s life. One is her fiancé, and the other is presumably God. The don awakes in his chambers, suddenly thankful for the details in the world around him, and apparently terrified of what might happen if someone were to enter his own mind.

Lewis’s point here is that Peggy has become focused on things of lesser importance. It’s not that flowers and bikinis and jewelry are wrong, it’s that they have become the definitional “things” of her reality. And it’s not that she sees herself wrongly overall—Lewis (ahem, I mean “the don”) recognizes her, after all. It’s that she had made her own self too large, and that she is overly focused on her body image, on her appearance, and on looking like a woman in a magazine. The don finds this “idealized” version of Peggy repulsive and even bemoans the fact that as Peggy seeks this idealized self, she must not even realize that she’s making herself into something that is less attractive, not more.

As a result, Peggy has put herself in the center of the world. The only things that interest her are centered on her, or tools she finds useful in some way—jewelry and flowers and her body. The only faces of men that interest her are those that look at her with appreciation. She hears but has not answered the requests of her fiancé to “let me in.” She hears but has not responded to God asking to be let in “before night falls.”

Lewis’s point here certainly appears to be that Peggy’s emphasis on these few things is actually getting in the way of what she most wants: a loving relationship with her fiancé. And, though she may not know it, it’s also a barrier between her and God. Note that the don, for his part, falls into very similar patterns as Peggy: He couldn’t care less about things like clothes and jewels and no doubt they would be unclear in his own mind. And he cares very little for people either, as is evidenced by the way he talks about Peggy and her fiancé. He cared about them purely to the degree he thought he was about to have an entertaining conversation. They weren’t people to him any more than he was in the imagined world of Peggy’s mind.

Peggy (and the don’s) issue is literally one of focus. They are preoccupied with trivialities, preventing them from true relationships, whether mundane or divine.

Keep this in mind when we talk about Susan in the next article.

Lewis had one other short story published while he was alive, “Ministering Angels.” This is from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well, the January 1958 issue.

In this story, a Mars mission made up completely of men is surprised to receive an unexpected rocket from Earth. In addition to the men who crew the rocket, there are two women… or, as Lewis calls them, the Thin Woman and the Fat Woman. The Thin Woman is a sort of stereotyped 1950s feminist (lacking in “femininity,” the sort of woman likely to “wear trousers” and speak endlessly about a new sexuality—all things mentioned in the story) and the Fat Woman is a worn-out sex worker in her seventies who is “infinitely female.”

The women (one of the characters calls them the “horrors”) have come to Mars because the new psychology has assured everyone that the men can’t survive three years in space without sex. They’ve been sent to service the men. The men, by and large, are horrified. The Captain is married and wants desperately to be back with his wife. The meteorologist thinks of himself as “the Monk,” and is on Mars because he thinks of it as a new sort of hermitage.

The story wraps as some of the Mars mission, grossed out at the thought of sharing the Mars base with these two women for six months, steal the rocket and return home early. The “Monk” sits and reflects on the Fat Woman and how maybe God has sent her there so he can help her, and also so that he can learn to “love more”—by which he means being kind to this woman, not that he should have sex with her.

So. That’s a story, I guess.

Reading this story definitely feels like a grotesquery. It’s a “What are you doing, C.S. Lewis?” kind of moment. It’s not a good story, and it’s full of weird stereotypes, unkind moments, and unpleasant philosophies.

Which, it turns out, is largely Lewis’s point.

This isn’t a short story at all.

The characters aren’t characters.

The sexism is, in this case, deliberate.

“Ministering Angels” is an argument. It’s a satire poking fun at another work. It’s meant to be grotesque, and it’s actually a critique of a certain point of view about human sexuality and space travel. In fact, it’s a fictional response to a controversial article published a couple years before.

The article was called “The Day After We Land on Mars,” and it was written by Robert Richardson. Richardson was an astronomer who also wrote science fiction under the pen name of Philip Latham. Richardson originally wrote the article for The Saturday Review, and then expanded on it for The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Much of the article is about what it would be like to colonize Mars. Then, at the end, he gets into sex. His basic argument (simplified) goes something like this: Of course we can only have men on Mars, because all the scientists and whatever are men. But men need sex or everything will fall apart, because without sex they’ll fight and destroy each other, and we’ll waste billions of dollars. So the only solution is to radically change our sexual mores as a culture, and send some “nice girls” to have sex with them and “relieve tension” and “promote morale.”

After the article was published in The Saturday Review, Richardson expanded the article to answer some of his critics who had said things like, “Uh, maybe they’ll just masturbate?” and also, “Men can have sex with each other, you know” to which he answered, essentially, “I think we’d all prefer to have some nice girls come have sex with us,” along with a dubious argument about Maasai culture. He also assured everyone that part of what he meant by changing our sexual mores included seeing the nice girls as still nice girls after they had sex with the Mars crew.

There was predictable outrage at Richardson’s article. In fact, science fiction authors Poul Anderson and Miriam Allen deFord each wrote excoriating essays in reply, both of which were included in the May, 1956 issue, which you can read here.

Anderson points out that you could, for instance, send equal teams of men and women scientists. Or send married couples. Or use drugs to lessen sex drives. Or just expect men to deal with it, as they often have done while exploring Earth and throughout history.

But if you want ten minutes of joy, read deFord’s response. She starts out with, “I am going to tell Dr. Robert S. Richardson a secret. Women are not walking sex organs. They are human beings. They are people, just like men.” She then proceeds, at length, to systematically demolish his article with the kind of precise rage and perfect reason that is a delight to behold. And she ends with the words “extraterrestrial bordello,” which made me laugh out loud.

This is the context of “Ministering Angels.” It’s not a story, it’s an argument—a response to Richardson’s article.

So, why is Lewis’s Mars base completely inhabited by men? Because that’s how Richardson set it up in his article. Why are these two women sent to Mars to have sex with the men? Because that’s what Richardson told us was the solution to men needing sex.

The characters aren’t characters, they’re arguments.

The Monk is Lewis arguing, “there are some men who may seek Mars as a place of solitude and won’t want sex.” The Captain is Lewis arguing, “There are men who will be in committed relationships and desire to stay committed, even over the course of years.” Then there’s the question of what kind of woman would want to go to Mars to live on rations and sleep with strangers. These two women are Lewis’s answer to that question. The Thin Woman is a “true believer” in Richardson’s philosophy, and the Fat Woman is a sex worker, we’re told, who can no longer find clients on Earth. The Thin Woman becomes the personification of Richardson’s article and—although one crew member attempts to have sex with her—she can provide only a strange and unsatisfying sort of comfort that’s more about Richardson and less about comfort or pleasure.

Some men won’t want or need sex, he’s telling us. And those who may want it might discover they don’t want the kind of women who could be convinced to go. One of the few named characters is clearly meant as a dig at the author—Dickson rather than Richardson—and the argument appears to be “I don’t think you actually want what you’re arguing for” as Dickson ultimately chooses to leave rather than stay on Mars with Richardson’s solution.

The women are purposely not named to throw Richardson’s commodification of women as sexual objects into sharp relief. There is only one woman named in the story, the Captain’s wife, Clare, who he misses for a variety of reasons, only one of which is sex. She’s a human being, while Thin Woman and Fat Woman are merely functions of Richardson’s misogynistic “new morality.” So the grotesque sexism in the story is, in some sense, the point of the story. It’s intended as a critique, a mirror to and deconstruction of the original essay.

Lewis does briefly attempt to humanize these women, despite the roles they play in these two stories. At the end of “Ministering Angels,” the Monk reflects on the Fat Woman and does not see her as a horror or (only) someone to be fixed. He feels compassion for her and sees within her an “utterly different loveliness” than one created by sexual desire, something he feels determined to direct her toward, because he sees that she is ignorant of her own loveliness as a person, not as a sex object.

Lewis’s propensity for letting his characters become arguments or philosophical stand-ins will be important as we return to The Last Battle. That’s happening with Susan Pevensie, too. With this in mind, we’ll take a much closer look at Susan in two weeks!

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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