My feelings are indeed mixed. On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.
Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe. In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham. Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in. N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day. Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…
Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood. Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood. Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels. The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.” And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.
So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew. What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E. Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas. He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress. Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.
The baddies are hugely entertaining too. Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage. There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more. Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining. At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.
What I found problematic are found in the following strands:
Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book. Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values. Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror. Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there. This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.
This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”
In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology. The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful. His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging. And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence. It’s nothing if not audacious.
Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.
To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.
“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.
A Grief Observed, written by C S Lewis in notebooks he found around his house as a way of trying to come to terms with or understand the agony of his bereavement of the loss of his wife Joy Davidman, is a piece of writing well known for its rawness and honesty, and also for it’s description of a process. Lewis moves from rage and disgust with God (describing Him variously as a cosmic bully, vivisectionist and sadist) to a realisation of the nonsense of this idea (ultimate bullies and sadists would not be able to create the wonderments of our creation) to a sense of the bigger picture of death, loss and Gods purposes that leads to Lewis being able to reconcile faith and loss.
One of the most admirable things about this little book is how it firmly rejects the easy answers, the cop outs. Lewis includes with these both the ideas of lost loved ones simply waiting for us on some farther shore, and the equally simple but unsatisfactory cop-out of loss and pain being the fruits of an evil god. There are no short-cuts through such human agony, and any attempt to package it away so we can pretend there is no pain to go through will only worsen things. Lewis has a gift for analogy that he uses to his usual excellent effect here, such as the one towards the end of the book that compares the bereavement as being in a dark place, that at the start may feel like a cellar or dungeon, but in time we may come to realise that our own preconceptions may have misled us, we hear a wind which suggests we may be in the dark countryside before the dawn. Or hear a friendly chuckle which suggests the presence of a friend in a darkened room. Lewis comes back to themes and ideas he has explored in other books; that our ideas of ‘reality’ are shaped by our immediate animal sensations, we cannot comprehend a fraction of what is going on in our own minds or bodies at any time, how much more the wider realms of world and God? In other words, we constantly confuse the little for the big picture.
Joy Davidman must have been a wonderful woman, and she shines through this book as a fierce intelligence and integrity, and it is these aspects that Lewis feels in touch with as his grief progresses. And this is a book not only about loss but also about human love. It describes a relationship that celebrates the raw individuality of the other, and how the two becoming one flesh does not mean that differences are lost or subsumed, but that rather those differences are celebrated by their union. In a passage that will upset the preconceptions many hold about Lewis, he mocks gender stereotypes, laughing at the idea that sensitivity is a female trait and chivalry and honour male ones. with Joy he found someone with which he could not pretend or hide behind ideas. And this is one of the many losses that he feels keenly.
Facing bereavement of one kind or another will come to us all if we continue to live. This books is an invaluable contribution to our struggle to understand this inescapable part of the human condition.
“Out of The Silent Planet” is a beautiful and haunting science fiction story first published in 1938. In the Preface Lewis admits a debt to H.G.Wells , most notably “First Men in the Moon,” and that is there in the adventure elements of the novel and in certain shapes of the narrative such as the departure from Earth and one of the travellers being set upon his interplanetary voyage completely unawares, as well as in the strangeness of man and alien race meeting.
But there are huge philosophical differences in the world-views of these writers. Lewis was of course writing informed by his Christianity, although to call it a “Christian novel” would be to do an injustice to its universal appeal, as Well’s novel, informed by his scientific humanism, also has universal appeal.
‘Ransom,’ the hero of the novel, a Professor of Philology from Cambridge, is on a walking tour when he is asked by a distressed woman to look up her son, now very late from his work, at a nearby mansion. At the mansion Ransom interrupts a struggle between a “simple” villager, the woman’s son, and two men, who appear to be trying to drag him somewhere. The man runs off and Ransom is invited the mansion belonging to the two men, one of whom he recognises as Cambridge peer called Devine. The other is wealthy industrialist called Weston. Under the guise of hospitality they drug Ransom who awakes on a space-ship on his way to ‘Malacandra,’ aka Mars. He learns he is to be given to an alien race called the Sorns and this understandably terrifies him. He escapes on the surface of the alien world and soon meets other inhabitants of Malacandra; the otter like Hross, the long and slender Sorns, and creatures of light called Eldil. Weston and Devine, who are there to variously strip Malacandra of its gold (there’s a lot) and colonise it in the name of progress, cause a violent death of one of Malacandra’s creatures and Ransom decides to go to the Sorn and give himself voluntarily to them to atone. There he meets the planet’s ruler, Oyarsa, and the outlines of a far bigger adventure begin to be understood. This is to be developed further in the next two instalments of the trilogy of which “Out of the Silent Planet” is the first.
Dated in its scientific elements it may be, but “Out of the Silent Planet” is as much as a timeless classic as the Narnia stories, of which it shares its imaginative re-telling of the Christian worldview.
This should not deter the most cynical and hardened atheist or agnostic reader, as long as they love great writing and stories, told with imaginative verve. Regular readers of Lewis will be familiar with some of his ideas contained in his essays and other work; the idea that there is a spiritual duality, an “enemy” as Lewis often calls it. That our spiritual sickness and great evils arise from the false idolatry of certain ideas, small pieces of a larger picture that we mistake for the whole act itself, and as a result these small ideas become twisted (or ‘bent’ as is described in the novel). So bodily survival is a necessary imperative but when we are prepared to decimate other races, species and lands to preserve the life of our own race and species evil occurs, because we fear and misunderstand death. We see physical reality as an end in itself and not symptomatic or part of something larger. Devine in this story represents humanity’s greed in his lust for Malacandra’s gold, but as Oyarsa says, this is the lesser evil, almost at the level of the animal, next to the evil of Weston which has larger spiritual and cosmological implications. Weston represents the utter pride of humanity in itself, and of the crudest and bluntest and most weapon like understanding of evolutionary science. His is almost the evil of Lucifer before the fall. Weston’s worldview and those he represents, is the desire to be God.
Again I apologise if I am putting you off the novel. If you are a lover of science fiction or old adventure stories, I urge you to read this. The theological implications underpin but do not intrude. This is a novel that nourishes as much as it entertains, which is a pretty fair description of the best of Lewis’s writing.
Fern-seed and Elephants is a short collection of essays of C.S. Lewis in which he vigorously defends orthodox Christianity against a range of challenges in secular and modern thought, including the ravages of various stains of liberal theology to which he objected. His gift is to make clear that which has been made needlessly abstracted, rescuing from needless obfuscation.
The essays are taken from previously published addresses, sermons and periodical pieces from 1945-1959.
‘Membership’ looks at what it means to belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, organically as art of a whole, as opposed to a unit as part of a collective. He brings out how the individual, with all that makes it unique, finds its fullest expression when part of this larger organic community. In accepting with humility ones place in an ordained hierarchy and larger scheme of thing, one becomes for the first time fully and gloriously alive, truly realising the self. It’s a wonderful paradox.
‘Learning in War-time’ meets head on the kind of existential problem that studying, and learning an academic discipline may have brought in a time of national and international crisis here hearth and home is threatened. Is such learning in this context futile and selfish? Not at all, Lewis replies, reminding his hearers (this was originally preached) and readers that we always at all points of history are learning whilst acing he greatest existential challenge of all; one’s own mortality. The fact that this has never made learning futile gives own pause and puts ‘learning in war-time’ in its proper context.
‘On Forgiveness’ neatly draws out the difference between asking God forgiveness and merely asking Him to excuse our behaviour. Lewis rescues forgiveness from being merely a nice idea to reinstating it as the supremely uncompromising, massive and redeeming challenge it undoubtedly is.
In ‘Historicism’ Lewis asks to be excused from the train of thought that purports to understand history as a symphonic whole, with a full grasp of the underlying causes and effects. He sensibly points out that fully grasping everything that happens in the world in the present at any given moment is impossible, or even our own lives, with their exponential complexities. So how then can we hope to look into the past and read it with absolute confidence, declaring that we understand the forces that have shaped our past?
‘The World’s Last Night’ is Lewis’s own “An Inconvenient Truth.” Modern theological thinking may seek to explain away end-time teaching in the Gospels, he says, but it remains and is unambiguous. The curtain will come down, suddenly, and prediction is impossible. Lewis rightly decries those who have tried to nail it down to a date and time as foolish and way off the mark. It is meant to be unknown. Our modern comforts and tendency to rationality balk at the idea of God suddenly invading Creation again, but Lewis tells us that, like the above on Forgiveness, that is the clear teaching and really there are no ifs and buts.
‘Religion and Rocketry’ debunks the notion that other life in the universe challenges basic Christian theological assumptions. To challenge our own redemption and primacy to God, we need to know, are these alien races sentient as we are? Have they had their own ‘fall’ from grace? If so does their redemption have to copy ours? The hypotheses that seek to form a challenge to Christianity collapse under their own weight.
‘The Efficacy of Prayer’ looks at petitionary prayer and the challenges that are posed if it is answered, or unanswered. Lewis rightly points out that we can ask for things in prayer and are obliged to do so, but we are praying with humility to a supreme power and intelligence who knows what we need before we ask and knows what can and can’t be granted. And yet still we are obliged to pray. Why? Lewis draws out the dance between free-will and omnipotence. We ask because that is relationship. Asking helps to redeem and transform. And even Jesus Christ did not find a particular prayer answered in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Finally the titular ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’ looks at the tendency of some theological and academic thought of not seeing the wood for the trees. In other words, in seeking to find elaborate truths between the lines of the Gospels, the stark simple truths those lines tell are missed. And the assumptions on which such critical reductionist thinking draws are too vast to be borne. To say with confidence that such and such a teaching of Christ is a backward projection of the Church is to say with confidence that you can read the book of the past as with ‘Historicism’ above.
My little synopsis of the essays above are just that, highly reductionist summaries, and I urge you to read these complex, intelligent and yet clear as spring water essays in their fullness.
This collection of essays on Christian thought, life and apologetics contains a brief Preface by Walter Hooper, who outlines how the essays express the antithesis of modernist or ‘broad’ theology. He also lists the original source of each essay. As well as being originally published in newspapers and periodicals, some were introductions or prefaces to other books, for example his essay on ‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ was his preface to J.B. Phillips ‘Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles.’ His essay on ‘Vivisection’ appeared first as a pamphlet from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (1947).
Reading these essays is as refreshing as breathing the fresh sea air. Lewis gently provokes and stimulates us to really think through some of the most challenging issues for the individual and for society as a whole. He has a knack for an allusion or metaphor that clarifies rather than obscures. He is intensely serious and does not shirk from outlining how some behaviours and strains of thought could (and do) have a devastating effect on all our welfare. And yet the tone of these essays is not oppressive or ‘preachy.’ Rather you feel a good friend is talking to you, engaging and entertaining you, whilst discussing issues and their view of them out of an absolute concern for your well-being.
So to the essays: ‘Bulverism’ outlines the paradox in contemporary thought, then and now, of skipping the proof of error or diagnosis of disease, before proposing the cure.
‘First and Second Things’ warns of making secondary things e.g. a love of the arts, and end in themselves.
‘On the Reading of Old Books’ urges the reader not to be afraid of older works, in that they provide the valuable foundation to much thought and have stood the test of time.
‘Horrid Red Things’ outlines the difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘imagining,’ how they inform each other and what happens when they are confused. For example, how myths and mythic archetypes serve as short-hand for complex, multi-layered concepts and truths.
‘Work and Prayer’ is an exploration of the efficacy of prayer.
‘Two Lectures’ looks at opposing views of evolution: does life come down from something bigger or develop from something smaller? Does the acorn come from the Oak or the Oak from the acorn?
‘Meditation in a Tool-shed’ is a warning against over-conceptualising and analysing things before you have looked at their most direct message or gift to you.
‘The Sermon and the Lunch’ looks at the challenge of family life; how it is not a panacea, it’s another front-line where we have to work hard to be principled and behave well, nourished, not absolved or excused by, love. Personally I would single out this essay as especially helpful to anyone who has thought that things at home would all be better if only their own self, and only their own self, were a better person. The essay is a tonic against the delusion that families are designed to be a harmonious refuge and any discord is a huge sin that probably springs from a fault in the self. Good and proper thinking and behaviour will help, but the domestic utopia is not a realistic expectation.
‘The Transmission of Christianity’ looks at religious education, and makes the point that it’s a generational issue. No amount of state or syllabus control will help if the teachers have been brought up by and are rooted in secular thinking.
‘The Decline in Religion’ looks at how most ‘religion’ was historically only forced observance or societal routine. Once that goes, all that’s revealed are real believers; so no decline, only a clarification as to who was really ‘there’ in the first place.
‘Vivisection’ is an excellent and passionate attack on the dire results of what happens when we objectify life.
‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ puts clarity over poetry, and makes the point that the original Greek of the New Testament was pragmatic and functional as opposed to grand and high flown language.
‘Some Thoughts’ explores why we should bother to do good works in the world if we believe in eternity.
‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ explores the danger of abandoning concepts like ‘deserts’ and ‘punishment’ in favour of seeing all criminal behaviour in need of a ‘cure.’ Lewis doesn’t jettison rehabilitative approaches, but passionately argues that they need to lie in a punitive framework that gives people the dignity of deserving justice.
‘Xmas or Christmas’ explores the absurdities of the commercial ‘Xmas’ in the style of a piece by Herodotus.
‘Revival or Decay’ looks at the sustainability of roots of the (then) contemporary revival, and again, whether reported ‘decay’ really is that, or just a clarification of who really believes once a lot of the going through the motions of societal expectations drop away.
‘Before We Can Communicate’ looks at the different class uses of language (see also ‘Learning in Wartime’ in ‘God in the Dock’), and how they can be used in worship.
This is a varied and nourishing collection, helpful, challenging ad entertaining reading.