“Perelandra” is the second novel in C.S>Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In the first, “Out of the Silent Planet, ” Dr Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, travelled to Mars kidnapped by a Dr Weston for his own nefarious and mistaken purposes, to colonise Mars and use Dr Ransom as a propitiatory sacrifice. Weston is humbled and defeated and Ransom returns to Earth literally on the side of the angels, an important part in Maledil’s (God’s) cosmic project.
In this second book, the narrator, called “Lewis” in a pleasing conceit, travels to his friend Ransom’s house as summoned, encounters an angelic “Eldil,”, and on Ransom’s further instruction seals Ransom up in a coffin like object which whisks its’ occupant to the titular planet (which is in fact Venus).
So straight-away you have to forget what we now know about Venus as super-hot uninhabitable Hell, and enter Lewis’s imaginative conception of an unspoilt sea-world paradise, with floating islands and one forbidden ‘fixed’ land. It’s not hard to do as this book is so good, the writing so rich and involving, and it’s all held together by the integrity of Lewis’s world-view.
Ransom arrives on Perelandra adrift on its’ sea, under a golden sky, and grabs hold of a floating island, an organic entity that sustain a diverse and bountiful eco-system, full of lush plant, animal and bird life. Because, in Lewis’s story, it is un-fallen, untainted by evil, it is not characterised by a red in tooth and claw predatory fight for survival, but mutual, peaceful, dependence and co-operation. On one of these islands Ransom meets “the Lady,” a figure of love, intelligence and enquiry, who is bewildered by Ransom’s thought processes and eager to know more about him. The Lady is obviously very close to Maledil. She has been looking for her companion, a man, from whom she has been separated. But then something falls from the sky, and it’s Weston’s spaceship. Weston himself is not sure why he is there, but is propounding a new philosophy, a vague belief tin some kind of God, a vacuous belief in which anything can fit. And unfortunately for Weston it does. Weston is possessed by a demonic entity, here called the “Un-man, ” and from that point forward is damned and no more. The Un-man strives to seduce the Lady away from the ways of Maledil through arguments that seek to put her above God, through the choice of going to the fixed land, forbidden to her and the man. It’s an attempt at another Fall of mankind on another world, again using arguments of pride and the need to separate from God to grow. Ransom must stop this attempt through any means necessary, be it argument or physical force. The conflict is the central drama of the book. Will the world fall to darkness, or will, with Ransom’s help, Maledil’s work drive forwards on its best path to fulfilment without a catastrophe of death and ruin?
The book succeeds on different levels, as a science fiction thriller and a work of propitious imagination, of world-building, of an epic fantasy clash between good and evil, and of theological and philosophical argument, on such huge topics as the conflict between good and evil, spiritual warfare, separation from God, the nature of evil, how other intelligent life on alien worlds does not negate the Christian world-view of the centrality of humanity on this one, and a lot more. It is intensely readable and enriching. Some may be frustrated by character’s breaking off from what they are doing to engage in deep philosophical debate, but what they discuss is so wrapped up in what is going on, it wasn’t a problem for this reader.
In tone this is a darker work than the previous one, as it confronts more head on the reality of evil. And in its depiction of demonic possession, it can be frightening and horrifying. The Un-man is a creature as frightening as anything contemporary horror has given us. It has the almost casual obscenity of Pazuzu from the film “The Exorcist,” more sadistic playground bully than Milton’s tragic-heroic figure from “Paradise Lost.” It can seem frightening plausible and seductive in its arguments, before wandering off to torture small animals! The book’s depiction of damnation of Weston also raises a shiver of horror, as the ghost of Weston, a pitiable scrap occasionally allowed to re-occupy his shell of a body, describes the torments of being disembodied and melted down into the infernal presence.
Ransom must fight the Un-Man physically, and Ransom’s dread before the combat, the spiritual resources he finds to bear it after a torturous internal dialogue with his own doubt and fear, is also compelling reading. The fight itself is a prolonged violent struggle that is also stronger stuff than anything in the previous book (and in any other of Lewis’s fiction that I can remember) and is a page turning tour-de-force.
Ransom and his foe are literally cast into the depths before the denouement, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say it is an intense read, conjuring up massive imaginative conceits and visions with epic cosmological, philosophical and theological argument.
An amazing read, one I won’t forget, with much that I found helpful.