The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Brazen Smuggler: Biblical Allusions in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra

“Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” C.S. Lewis felt that reviews of Out of the Silent Planet largely seemed to miss the Christian underpinnings of the novel. No doubt emboldened by this, he packed Perelandra as full of Christianity and allusions as he could. In fact, Perelandra has enough Bible verses for a few months of Sunday School, and Lewis seemed to give up on disguising what he was doing at all… He could have only made it more plain by giving us a character list that included things like “Maleldil = Jesus.” But that would have been too far even for Lewis.

One of the purposes of this series has been to unpack some of the Christian theology for those who don’t come from a religious background,  so we’re going to dive in to some of the specifically Christian allusions in Perelandra. (This book is packed with allusions of many kinds, including to H.G. Wells, Italian astronomy, Pope, Milton, Dante, etc. And of course Lewis saw all mythology as a sort of precursor to Christian theology, so it’s not surprising that he includes many, many references to Greek myth as well!)

Let’s start with the first direct quote from scripture in the book, as it’s also representative of a major theme of the novel. Ransom tells Lewis he’s headed to Venus to fight in a cosmic war. He laughs at Lewis’s baffled response. “You are feeling the absurdity of it. Dr. Elwin Ransom setting out single-handed to combat powers and principalities.” That’s a reference to Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ransom and Lewis go on to talk about this: It’s ordinary human beings against powerful spiritual beings. It’s “depraved hyper-somatic beings” wrestling against ordinary British lads.

Christians often call this “spiritual warfare.” This is a novel partly about demonic possession. We’ll probably do a full article about that. Ransom knows from the beginning that he, an embodied human man, will somehow be participating in a war happening in “the heavens” between creatures who have no bodies as we think of them. (In fact, when we finally see the eldila in a form somewhat accessible to human minds, they are burning wheels or possibly people who shine like white-hot iron, a definite allusion to the appearance of angels in Ezekiel 1.)

Ransom’s name is likewise a reference to a Christian doctrine, the idea that humanity can be “bought back” from evil and brought into God’s kingdom. It’s the name of a major theory of how God saves people (what is called “atonement,” a word which I find hilarious and delightful as it was invented in English specifically to translate the idea that humanity and God could come to be united with one another… i.e. that they could be “at one” with each other. At-one-ment. It’s a delightful neologism and I wish more theological words were so simple.)

In fact, Maleldil/Jesus speaks to Ransom directly, saying that he also is named Ransom. Ransom reflects on the fact that although linguistically his surname has no connection to the origin of the word “ransom” (his surname is from “Ranolf’s son”), still from eternity past Maleldil has planned for his name to resonate in this precise time in this precise place. For Ransom must become a sort of Christ for the (two) people of Perelandra.

This book frequently deals with predestination and freedom, a topic that has been of particular interest in Western Christianity for a number of centuries. Related, there’s also a lot of reflection on how myth works, and why, and what it means for the story of Earth’s fall and the coming of Maleldil as a human being to have another place in the galaxy where the story might go differently.

And yet there are many parts of Perelandra’s story that are the same as humanity’s story. Ransom will, like Christ, become a “ransom for many.” There are echoes between his story and Christ’s. In the story of Adam and Eve and Eden, after the first humans have eaten the forbidden fruit and God doles out the various punishments and curses, God tells the serpent that there will be “enmity” between the serpent and humanity, and then says something that in the Christian tradition is read as a prophecy of the future Christ: “He will crush your head, but you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

And so, the story of Ransom and Weston takes on various similarities to the story of Christ and the serpent (many Christians associate the serpent with Satan):

Christ crushes Satan’s head (figuratively) and Ransom crushes Weston’s (literally).

Satan strikes Christ’s heel, and Ransom gets a wound to his heel that never stops bleeding.

Satan and Weston both are thrown into a subterranean lake of fire.

Ransom wanders for a time in the underworld, which appears to be a reference to the theological idea that Christ spent three days after his death in some version of Hell before coming to life again.

There are more (many more): When Ransom kills Weston, he, strangely, ritualizes it, which we will talk about more when we talk about this story as a possession narrative: “ ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here goes—I mean Amen,’ said Ransom, and hurled the stone as hard as he could into the Un-man’s face.” A rather strange way to murder someone.

Weston (or, rather, the Un-man) appears not to just know the story of Christ, but to remember it. He quotes Christ’s words from the cross in “perfect Aramaic of the First Century. The Un-man was not quoting; it was remembering.” My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

There are references in the heraldic descriptions of the landscape, too. There’s a holy gorge, the lake of fire, the crystal water, the lilies (we talked about lilies back in this article about Reepicheep).

And there are a number of Bible verses quoted without reference. Here are a few that stuck out to me:

Lewis says that while Ransom is gone, folks in Britain have “raids and bad news and hopes deferred and all the earth became full of darkness and cruel habitations” as they deal with the war. There are two reference here, Proverbs 13:12 says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick” and Psalm 74:20 says “the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.”

When Ransom sees Weston’s spacecraft entering the atmosphere, the narrator tells us “Something like a shooting star seemed to have streaked across the sky,” a reference to the fall of Satan, described in Luke, perhaps, as lightning falling from heaven, or maybe to Revelation where we see a “great star that fell from Heaven” (note that the name of the star in Revelation is Wormwood… and it falls into the water of the world and poisons it).

Two more and we’ll wrap up.

When Ransom is trying to explain to the Lady about death (Weston says he has come to bring “abundant death,” a disgusting perversion of Christ’s offer of “abundant life”), he tells her that when Maleldil saw death, he wept. That’s a reference to the story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus. He falls ill and dies and when Jesus comes to the tomb he weeps. Of course, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life.

For those familiar even with just the Christmas traditions of Christianity, they may recognize the words of the Lady sounding a great deal like the words of mother Mary: “Only my spirit praises Maleldil who comes down from Deep Heaven into this lowness and will make me to be blessed by all the times that are rolling towards us. It is He who is strong and makes me strong and fills empty worlds with good creatures.”

And there are many more: references to the “morning stars singing together” and Pilate and the Christ who was slain “before the foundations of the world” and “those that conquer” and the Morning Star and on and on.

All of which to say, C.S. Lewis wasn’t hiding what he was talking about. He tells us about as plainly as he can without saying, “Maledil and Jesus are one and the same and I hope you know that.”

I know for a fact I didn’t get them all.

I’m curious about this, though, so please share in the comments: When you first read Perelandra, did all those Christian allusions distract you from the story? Did you notice them or not? Was it a distraction or something you enjoyed?

We’re going to take a short holiday break between this article and the next, so however you celebrate the holidays I hope you and yours are happy, safe, and blessed. See you next year!

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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