I was pretty nervous about re-reading Perelandra. The last time I read it, several decades ago, it was pretty firmly in the top three of Lewis’ novels for me, and I was concerned that after all these years I might discover some fatal flaw that would make the book less enjoyable, less interesting, or less fun. I’m glad to say that although there was a lot to process, and a lot of scenes I had no memory of whatsoever (there are a fair number of multi-page philosophical rambles), and although I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what exactly Lewis was saying about gender, overall I still enjoyed the book a great deal and, indeed, it’s still one of my favorites.
Perelandra was one of Lewis’ favorites of his own work, too. Multiple times throughout his life he suggested it was the best thing he had written (in his later days he’d sometimes push it to second after Till We Have Faces), and there is a lot about the novel that brings together Lewis’ particular interests, skills, and thoughts. It’s a theological book and a space adventure at the same time, and successfully does both things at once… it never feels like two books fighting with each other.
The book is dedicated to “some ladies at Wantage,” which is a reference to the Community of St. Mary the Virgin—an Anglican convent (Lewis was, of course, Anglican himself). After Out of the Silent Planet was published, one of the nuns—a woman named Sister Penelope—wrote to thank him for the book. Lewis was pleased by her letter, and a long correspondence and friendship began. Sister Penelope’s Mother Superior invited Lewis to come speak to the community in early 1942, when Lewis was just finishing up the manuscript for Perelandra.
In one of his letters to Sister Penelope, talking about Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis wrote, “You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about sixty reviews, only two showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but a private invention of my own! But if only there were someone with a richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”
If Lewis was being subtle in Out of the Silent Planet, he throws away any pretense of subtlety as he writes Perelandra. It is, unapologetically, a “Christian” story about the Fall of Humanity, about God’s plan for redemption of the universe, and about the future of creation. It’s not allegorical (or at least, so Lewis tells us), but a type of (Lewis’ preferred term here) “supposal.” So, in a letter to Mrs. Martha B. Hook, Lewis summed up the key starting place of Perelandra as, “Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully.”
Dr. Ransom (our main character from Out of the Silent Planet, a man fashioned in large part around Lewis’ fondness for his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) may take on many of the attributes and even the role of Jesus Christ in some sense in this book, but Lewis pushes back on the idea that he’s meant to be allegorical. Also from his letter to Mrs. Hook:
Again, Ransom (to some extent) plays the role of Christ not because he allegorically represents him (as Cupid represents falling in love) but because in reality every real Christian is really called upon in some measure to enact Christ. Of course Ransom does this rather more spectacularly than most. But that does not mean that he does it allegorically. It only means that fiction (at any rate my kind of fiction) chooses extreme cases…
On the other hand, Lewis can get a little coy about these things, and there are certainly some decisions Lewis makes in the narrative that appear to be (heavily!) symbolic rather than driven by the narrative or any supposal, and this is more true in Perelandra than in perhaps any other of Lewis’ books.
Some things to be watching for as you read, in preparation for the discussions to come:
- There are many, many, many references, allusions, and straight quotations from the Bible in this novel. We’ll do a full article pulling some of that out, because there are unremarked references throughout.
- Related to this, the story of Adam and Eve is leaned on heavily throughout, and if the story is unfamiliar, it might be worth your time to read it before diving into Perelandra. It’s just two chapters: Genesis 2 and 3.
- Mary’s “Magnificat” is also echoed, and if you’re interested in that particular scripture you can find it here.
- Angels and demons play heavily in the narrative as well. Interesting sidenote: Lewis toyed with the idea of suggesting that Dr. Ransom was the one who discovered (and translated!) The Screwtape Letters.
- Get ready, because in many ways Perelandra is an interstellar exorcism story. There are some interesting insights to be had by recognizing that the book is about demonic possession and exorcism.
- As always, there are plenty of literary allusions, but the most notable and important ones are Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and (yet again) Plato. There’s also a pretty heavy cribbing from French philosopher Henri Bergson.
- The themes about mythology and reality being intertwined or unified are consistent and there’s a lot Lewis is doing in the text to try to make that true and clear in the novel. It’s a theme worth paying attention to.
- We won’t talk about this at length anywhere, but I’m sure Lewis would be surprised by how the word “trans-sexual” has changed since he used it in this text!
- Pay attention to Weston’s arguments. Note which seem compelling and which aren’t, and to whom (i.e. you the reader, The Lady, and Ransom).
- “Abundant death” gave me chills, not going to lie.
- Predestination and freedom are addressed at length. In what sense is God aware of the future? Is fate a thing? Is each thing that crosses our path a good thing in some sense? Is that different in an unfallen world vs. a fallen one? Can we make “wrong” choices? (Lewis has pretty clear thoughts on all of these questions.)
- Before Weston is totally lost, he talks about his previous goal (i.e. the preservation of humanity among the stars), as discussed at great length in Out of the Silent Planet, and his thoughts seem to have changed. That’s worth noting as the narrative proceeds.
- The lengthy and almost dream-like descriptions of the planet itself and the planet’s ecology is not just worldbuilding. There are purposeful symbolic techniques at work here (note how often Lewis refers to heraldry in this book for a clue to get you started). Just be aware that those lengthy descriptions of the flora and fauna are done with mythological and thematic intention.
- Lewis talks about gender enough in this novel that some critics see it as a major theme of the book. It’s a fair point. If we do a full article on this (I’m still debating!), be sure to make distinction between who makes which assertions about gender as the novel progresses. There are, in fact, some conflicting ideas about gender in the book and it matters whether it’s Ransom or the Un-Man or the Lady making different assertions.
- I’m sure fans of this site will learn the name of the true King of Perelandra with some joy.
- Lastly, for Tolkien fans, there are a few sweet moments where Lewis-as-narrator talks about Ransom (i.e. Tolkien) and shares his thoughts about the man, as well as a few “Easter eggs” where Lewis has lifted things from the pre-published Lord of the Rings, most notably of course the angelic eldila.
As always, Lewis would be horrified if he thought for a moment that our critical adventures would distract us from the story itself. So if nothing else, be sure to relax and enjoy Dr. Ransom’s adventure to Venus. I’m looking forward to hearing your experiences and discussing it with you!