C.S. Lewis believed in a literal Satan. He believed in demons as living, actual beings who interacted with humanity. It was certainly common in his day that an educated person, even an educated Christian, might look at demons as a metaphor for human foibles and temptations, but Lewis had no patience for that point of view.
From Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
I know someone will ask me, “Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?” Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects, my answer is “Yes, I do.” I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better, I would say to that person, “Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.”
On the other hand, Lewis wasn’t surprised that the culture at large found the existence of the demonic laughable. He saw this as the natural strategy of demonic forces.
It is the people who are fully awake and trying hard to be good who would be most aware of the Devil. It is when you start arming against Hitler that you first realize your country is full of Nazi agents. Of course, they don’t want you to know they are there. In the same way, the Devil doesn’t want you to believe in the Devil. If devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anesthetic—to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them.
That’s from Answers to Questions on Christianity, in which he also states, “The more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it.”
Perelandra is a possession story, as surely and simply as The Exorcist is. Lewis sets his story on another planet, yes, and puts it against the backdrop of a cosmic spiritual war, but this story—much like The Silver Chair—is about “spiritual warfare.”
One of the most fascinating aspects for me as I was reading Perelandra is how similar the exorcism narrative is to the modern exorcism story. There’s someone “possessed,” there are creepy harbingers of the demon’s arrival, changed voices, a proclivity toward violence, an evil plan to corrupt an innocent, and a singular religious personage to stand between the demon and its intended victim(s). There are differences, as well. For instance, our possessed person is an adult who enters into his infernal bargain more-or-less with his eyes open, and Ransom’s eventual solution is less straight-out exorcism and more “exorcism plus murder.” (Lewis and Ransom wouldn’t express it this way, of course, but it’s pretty chilling that even in the climax of their battle, Ransom is not completely certain that Weston is no longer “present” in the body that Ransom is fighting.)
Keep in mind that William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist won’t be published until 1973, nearly thirty years after Perelandra. And keep in mind, too, that the Anglican church (Lewis’s church) had decidedly mixed feelings about exorcisms at this time; some thought of it as “Catholic superstition” and others had begun pushing for exorcism to be recognized denominationally…something that wouldn’t happen until the release of The Exorcist movie and a tragic exorcism that ended in a murder, which convinced the leadership of the church that some regulations and clarity were necessary. You can read about that particular exorcism—led by an Anglican and Methodist minister together—here on Wikipedia (content warning for some gruesome descriptions of extreme violence).
So, two things as we dig into Perelandra: One, for those who may only be aware from modern storytelling and horror films what an exorcism or demon possession is, I’ll give a brief introduction to that. And two, where did Lewis get his theology of exorcism?
Okay, first, what are demons? In most Christian theologies, they’re spirits. They’ve never been human, and never will be, and in most traditions they pre-existed the creation of humanity. They’re created (i.e., God made them) and they are, in the truest sense, immortal, because they are not and never have been mortal. When they are punished they are imprisoned, not destroyed, and even their ultimate punishment is being thrown into the lake of fire (what many of us call Hell) where they are imprisoned, not destroyed (with pretty much every point here there is some variation in different Christian sects, but these are the major points).
They are not as powerful as God (God made them, after all). Satan is not the opposite of God—Christianity is not at heart completely dualist—but a rebellious creation. In fact, it’s not God who throws Satan from heaven, but another angel named Michael. While angels (and demons?) may appear as humans, it’s merely that: appearance. They may well appear as other things, too. They don’t have bodies in the same sense that we do. They’re powerful beings and should be respected whether they’re in service to God (angels) or opposition to God (demons). Satan literally means “adversary” and he’s defined more or less by his opposition to God and his role as the “accuser” of humanity. Demons being in opposition to God means that they are constantly trying to undermine God’s work in the world, so they are always looking for a way to corrupt or destroy human beings and will use violence, lies, deceit, bribery, power, or whatever it takes to do so.
Demon possession is something we see a few times in the Christian scriptures, and the basic idea is that one (or more) of these spirits enters into a human being and takes some level of control of them. That can include things like self-harm (one story in scripture has a demon throwing a child into a fire from a young age as well as causing seizures and muteness), violence toward others, and in one story a demon who inhabited an enslaved girl even gave oracles about the future (presumably with the intent to corrupt people with its words). There are other things, too, like being able to speak in languages the victims don’t know or in another voice, or the ability to do strange things to their bodies.
“Exorcism” is the process of “calling up” the spirit to forcibly remove it from its host. Over time that process became heavily ritualized in a variety of ways, but the basic idea of an exorcism is always the removal of the spirit, usually from a person (though places or animals can be exorcised as well). An important point here, too, is that human beings aren’t stronger than demons. They have no inherent ability to get rid of them. But Christians believe that they can have power over demons using authority given to them by God. Thus, in your favorite exorcism narratives, why a priest would say, “The power of Christ compels you!” The priest has no inherent power over a demon—it is God’s power “on loan” to the priest as a servant of God.
Where did Lewis get his theology of exorcism? This is less clear. The Anglican Church was in the middle of a long conversation about this topic when Lewis wrote this book. Starting in the mid-1800s with the rise of spiritualists, many local churches began to deal more seriously with this question. It was still a bit controversial by Lewis’s time, though there was an Anglican minister named Gilbert Shaw who was performing exorcisms in the UK and pushing for the church to adopt universal exorcism guidelines. Rev. Shaw was at St. Anne’s in London, and was well known to Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers. Of course, Lewis also had a number of close Catholic friends, and the Catholic ritual of exorcism was significantly clearer than the Anglican one at this time.
Now, to the narrative itself.
When Weston first arrives on Perelandra we’re told, “Something like a shooting star seemed to have streaked across the sky, far away on their left, and some seconds later an indeterminate noise reached their ears.” Not fully surprising, given he’s in a spaceship. The Lady says “Something has fallen out of Deep Heaven.” To the Christian theologian – especially given what’s coming next –this surely brings to mind some of the ways Satan is talked about being kicked out of heaven. He falls “like lightning” and is referred to as a “fallen angel.”
We see Weston again soon after. Every indication at first is that he is his old self.
Ransom assumes Weston is up to his old tricks. On Malacandra he wanted to enact a global genocide to make way for the human race, and he was only stopped by the power of the angelic eldila. He notes with some trepidation that he has yet to run across any eldila in Perelandra.
There are some strange changes in Weston as we get to know him better. One, he’s apparently fluent in Old Solar now, though the entire climax of the previous book was a long translated conversation. But somehow—even though he was on Earth the whole time—Weston has gained fluency in this alien language. Also, his entire purpose in life seems to have shifted. When last we saw him, humanity was everything. He would destroy all other intelligent life in the universe to give humanity a chance to extend its life a little longer. But now he says, “Man in himself is nothing.” He used to work for science, then humanity, but now it’s “Spirit.” But when Ransom pushes him on what Spirit means, Weston uses the same terms Ransom uses (“the Holy Spirit”) but means something vastly different: a powerful force, impersonal, that has chosen him and is guiding him on a new sort of quest.
Ransom is immediately concerned. “There are spirits and there are spirits, you know,” he says, and takes note of how Weston’s voice has seemed to change (!). He’s croaking now, and as the conversation continues Weston explains that he’s in service to a Force. It’s both God and Satan, just flip sides of the same thing. Demons are just angels who’ve found power in the world. Ransom, horrified, explains that this is the worst sort of mistake a man can make.
Weston has “surrendered” to this spirit. He will do whatever it tells him: Murder. Lie. Be a traitor to his own country. Weston, getting angry at Ransom, shouts, “I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely.”
Up until this point, Weston has been under the influence of an evil spirit. At this moment, when he gives permission to the spirit to take control, well… As Ransom notes, “horrible things began happening.” For a moment there is the old Weston and he shouts, “”Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—-” and then he has a series of convulsions and falls to the ground, tearing up the moss and even biting a bottle into pieces when Ransom tries to give him some brandy. Weston seems to be asleep, or in a coma or something, and Ransom leaves him.
When he sees him next, Weston is someone or something else. He’s engaged in deep, theological conversations with the Lady trying to convince her to disobey Maleldil. He doesn’t seem to sleep anymore. And he’s been tearing the local fauna to bits, torturing them and leaving half-mangled “frog” bodies all over the place. Weston now had an “expressionless mouth, the unwinking stare of the eyes, something heavy and inorganic in the very folds of the cheek.” Ransom decides that Weston can no longer be a man, but that now “Weston’s body was kept, walking and undecaying, in Perelandra by some wholly different kind of life, and that Weston himself was gone.”
Ransom knows at once that Weston is possessed. Is it Satan himself or some lesser demon? He doesn’t know and it doesn’t matter. We no longer read of Weston, but of “Weston’s body.” Weston’s body sways. Weston’s shape speaks. Weston’s form turns to look at the Lady. He’s “corpse like” and although he acts in ways that may seem insane, Ransom says over and over that he looks more “dead than mad.” He begins to think of the thing that was once Weston as “the Un-man.”
The Un-man does strange things. When Ransom tries to sleep it sits nearby, saying Ransom’s names hundreds of times until Ransom snaps and asks what it wants. “Nothing.”
Ransom becomes convinced that there is nothing left of Weston himself, there is only a “odour of decay.” Weston had been slowly poisoned, manipulated, corrupted and ultimately consumed. And now that same spirit is trying to get a hold of Ransom and the Lady.
The evil spirit works hard to corrupt the Lady. He tries to introduce vanity. Fear. He even praises death as something to be sought. He has come, after all, to bring “abundant death.”
Ransom fears he is losing. And the one way he can remove the spirit’s foothold in Perelandra is to destroy its vehicle… Weston’s body. (This is not, by the way, the norm in exorcism stories or ritual. Exorcism is designed to save the soul, not destroy the body. The idea is to remove the evil spirit, give the person control of themselves again, and then bring them into relationship with Christ and thus safety from such spirits.)
Ransom chases the Un-man with the intention of destroying the body it’s inhabiting. There’s a skirmish, and Ransom wonders again if there might be some flicker of Weston still in there. He chases it into the ocean, and while they are stranded away from shore, it appears that Weston surfaces again. He appears to have no memory of the Un-man’s control. He doesn’t remember that he spoke Aramaic earlier (which was Jesus’s day-to-day language).
Weston seems scared at first, but then launches into another philosophical argument that sounds very like the Un-man, including some thoughts about how death is the core truth of the world, and even bringing up spiritualism (which you’ll remember is what started drawing the Anglican church back into the business of exorcisms). Ransom shouts to him, “All that stuff you’ve been talking is lunacy. Say a child’s prayer if you can’t say a man’s. Repent your sins. Take my hand.” If it’s really Weston, Ransom’s showing him the way out. If he can just move into relationship with God, the spirit will have no power over him.
But of course Weston isn’t about to do that.
And so they have their final confrontation. The Un-man’s leg is broken, and its jaw is hanging loose and it looks like a corpse. Ransom is almost certain the whole earlier interaction, when he thought Weston was talking to him, was a ruse. The Un-man is getting into his head. Ransom advances on the Un-man and shouts, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here goes—I mean Amen,” and crushes in its head with a rock.
I’m still wrestling through that bit, to be honest. On the one hand, this is Lewis making sure to connect his Genesis narrative into what’s happening here. The prophecy says that Eve’s descendant will crush the serpent’s head and the serpent will strike his heel (many Christians read this as a reference to Jesus’s death on the cross). So of course, here in Perelandra, Ransom needs to literally crush the Bent One’s head, and he needs to get an actual wound to his heel (which he does). But exorcism isn’t meant to destroy the body… It’s universally considered a failed exorcism when that happens.
Then again, I suppose the exorcism in this particular case is not only an exorcism of a spirit from a person, but from a place. After this moment Perelandra is free of evil spirits, and is able to go on to become what it was meant to be.
Lewis doesn’t talk about this sort of thing often in his non-fiction. Perhaps because, as he says in Screwtape, “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors.” But as Lewis makes clear in Perelandra, such spirits are real, they are intelligent, they are canny, and they mean you harm. And it is only through the power of Maleldil that one can be triumphant over them.