The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Not an Adventure but a Myth: C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra

Ransom realizes soon after his arrival in Perelandra that he is not on an ordinary adventure: “If a naked man and a wise dragon were indeed the sole inhabitants of this floating paradise, then this also was fitting, for at that moment he had a sensation not of following an adventure but of enacting a myth.” The echoes of Eden, of the story of Jesus, are not a mistake in Ransom’s world, not even a coincidence. He’s in a Passion Play—the medieval drama in which the players tell the story of the life and death and resurrection of the Christ.

It’s not an allegory; Lewis bristled at those who suggested this interpretation.

But the symbolic weight of the world is surely heavy…even, as Lewis himself would suggest, “heraldic,” and there are many moments that are designed to echo something else (the eating of certain fruit that takes on an almost communion-like feeling of holiness, for example), and also moments designed to embody the voice which our mythology echoes. As he writes in Perelandra:

Our mythology is based on a solider reality than we dream: but it is also at an almost infinite distance from that base. And when they told him this, Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was—gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility. His cheeks burned on behalf of our race when he looked on the true Mars and Venus and remembered the follies that have been talked of them on Earth.

So is it meaningful that Ransom wrestles with the UnMan and crushes his head? Does it matter that Ransom is bitten on the heel and has a wound that weeps blood forever after? Is it important that it takes him three full days before he is “well” again and “ready for adventures.” Of course—all these things have been chosen with care. Lewis has been building to the last few chapters of the book, which is more or less an undisguised lecture on Lewis’s own cosmology.

When Ransom goes to enter the holy mountain there is rich symbolism in the lengthy descriptions of the geography (as, indeed, in all the descriptions of Venus throughout the book). Ransom “looks to see an angel with a flaming sword,” another Eden reference, and at the end of a long valley covered in “rose-red” lilies (a flower associated with death and resurrection; a color associated with life and not typical of lilies in our own world) finds—Ransom is not sure at first, is it an altar, a tomb? No…an empty coffin.

Ransom continues to the end of the book, learning more about the reality of the universe. An extremely interesting sidenote (I debated doing a full article on this, but I think we’ll wait to talk about gender at length when we reach That Hideous Strength or Till We Have Faces) is Ransom’s insights about sex and gender from seeing the two angels, Malacandra and Perelendra.

When the eldila attempt to appear to Ransom in forms approximating human (though thirty feet tall and burning so brightly he can scarcely look at them), he discovers that Malacandra is male and Perelandra is female. Their voices are identical. Their “bodies” lack any sexual characteristics (“either primary or secondary”). Gender, Ransom realizes, is a “more fundamental reality than sex.” He sees feminine and masculine as a binary, true, but one’s sex is merely a “faint and blurred reflection” of gender. Physical differences between the sexes like “reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.”

He realizes all at once that he’s looking on the incarnation of Earth myths, that Malacandra is warlike Mars, and Perelandra is Venus risen from the sea. They are the solid reality behind the dream, just as gender is a deeper reality behind sex.

Soon all the animals of the planet start arriving to greet the Queen and King. “A regular Noah’s ark” Ransom thinks, and then four singing beasts sing louder than all the others (almost certainly a reference to the four Evangelists in Christian theology, the authors of the gospels).

And then the King and Queen arrive. Ransom had recognized the Green Lady as royalty before, but now he falls at their feet. It’s interesting, Lewis was always interested in hierarchies. It’s one of his medievalisms. He thinks that often enough the problem in the world is that the hierarchies aren’t being correctly observed. A beast must serve humanity, the serf must bow before royalty, and the king bow his knee to God, and so on. Sometimes people see, for instance in this passage, that the Queen is beneath the King in the hierarchy and think that’s a comment on gender roles from Lewis, but I don’t think that’s true. The Queen is far above Ransom—the only other male hnau on the planet—and it’s clear that if Adam and Eve were standing here they would be the Queen and King’s peers, not Ransom’s. Perelandra is Malacandra’s peer, not subservient to him, and on Venus she is Oyarsa, not he. There are roles and authorities and relationships to be considered, and gender is not by itself a determinate…it must be taken into account with a lot of other things. (As you know from previous articles, I’m not saying Lewis wasn’t sexist. He surely was, in a variety of ways. But also, his views were complicated and changed over time, and I don’t think it does us any service to simplify them for the sake of vilifying them…they stand or fall well enough on their own.)

The hierarchy of the universe has changed in a strange and significant and pre-ordained way. The highest being in the universe, the top of the hierarchy, Maleldil, became a hnau. Not even a king, just a lowly commoner. He was killed, and came back to life, and returned to his rightful place. And because he was in the form of a hnau, all hnau have the potential to be holy now—and not simply holy, but directly connected to him in the hierarchy of things. So the King and Queen will no longer have an Oyarsa for their planet (in fact, they’ve never met theirs…Perelandra has been a silent partner in the planet all this time). They will be in direct connection to Maleldil, and all things within the planetary sphere now are under their authority, including even the angels. The King is now Tor-Oyarsa-Perelendri: Tor (which is his proper name) Oyarsa (the planetary ruler—a role that only angels have held, until this point) Perelendri (of Venus).

We quickly learn that Adam and Eve paid a great price to learn the nature of Good and Evil: they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and disobeyed Maleldil. But when the King and Queen triumphed by refusing to do the same (or rather, to sleep on the fixed islands overnight), Maleldil gave them the knowledge of Good and Evil freely. It had never been the plan to keep anyone in ignorance, but rather to walk them to knowledge without either breaking the hierarchy through disobedience or breaking the relationship with shame. In fact, they are now allowed to stay on the island—what was forbidden is now given with joy.

And what does this mean for humanity, twisted by their own evil? What will happen to them now that there is an unbroken and elevated world so close to our own? Well, Tor says that in years to come, after his own children have filled Perelandra, they will come to Earth. Not to colonize it, but to cleanse it. All evil will be washed away, and Thulcandra will be restored to its proper place in the universe, like Perelandra.

And how is that Ransom came to play such a large role in this? How can it be that this new society cares so much for the “Low Planets” that are broken and tainted with evil? Those questions are foreign to the King and Queen. Maleldil is at the center of all things (not just the center of the universe), which means that:

Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre. It is not as in a city of the Darkened World where they say that each must live for all. In His city all things are made for each. When He died in the Wounded World He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, He would have done no less. Each thing, from the single grain of Dust to the strongest eldil, is the end and the final cause of all creation and the mirror in which the beam of His brightness comes to rest and so returns to Him. Blessed be He!

Maleldil’s sacrifice on Earth wasn’t for “humanity” or even for all the hnau, it was for each individual in creation, whether human or eldil or something else. It was for Ransom as much as for me, for Perelandra as much as for you. And Maleldil does all these things because they please him—“All things are by Him and for Him.”

And all of this is Lewis doing exactly what he wanted to do most, crafting an adventure story that was little more than an excuse to talk about the things that he loved most: philosophy and theology, and the true underpinnings of the world. It’s interesting in many ways. This book and The Screwtape Letters both have a lot to do with demonic strategies to bring harm to the hnau of the universe, and fight against Maleldil. But in Screwtape we get only the viewpoint of the demonic. In Perelandra we get the first victory, the resetting of the world to the way it was meant to be. Lewis wrote once to a friend that of all his books, “The one I enjoyed writing least was Screwtape: what I enjoyed most was Perelandra–.”

There is a lot more to say about Perelandra. I think I could write another three or four articles. But our good Queen Tinidril has told us that one should not eat more fruit than one needs, or try to swim to distant waves instead of accepting the waves that come to us. So I think we should reflect on this book for a bit, and then move on to That Hideous Strength.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a bit nervous coming in to Perelandra, because I loved it so much as a kid, and I worried it might be a different book as an adult. It was. But it’s a sweet book in many ways, and beautiful in a different way as an adult than it was as a child. I’m glad I re-read it, and found that I mostly loved it, just in a different way. It’s still toward the top of my favorite Lewis books.

But how to leave this story behind? Maybe we’ll follow the example of Tor and Tinidril, who packed Ransom into his coffin-shaped spacecraft with fragrant flowers while speaking these words, which I share now with you: “Farewell till we three pass out of the dimensions of time. Speak of us always to Maleldil as we speak always of you. The splendour, the love, and the strength be upon you.”

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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