September 21, 2023

Perelandra: Paradise Preserved

by Ted Lewis, September 2023

“Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth

 scattered throughout other worlds as realities?”

Perelandra, the second novel in C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, is often associated with John Milton’s work, Paradise Lost. Both narratives involve a retelling of the Garden of Eden story, adding greater development to the nature of temptation. But in Perelandra, the pristine planet of Venus, the Eve figure manages to not ‘fall’ for the seductive arguments brought to her by the tempter Weston, a technocratic scientist from Earth.

As forecasted at the end of the first novel, Out of the Silent Planet (Earth), the hero Ransom learns from the celestial Oyarsa of Malacandra (Mars) that he may have further work to do. His adventures in Malacandra can be seen a sort of training ground for what he would do later. Ransom is faced with a number of situations that test his moral aptitude; in most cases he does well to trust his better intuitions and call forth his best bravery.

At the start of Perelandra, Ransom is already a transformed character, emboldened with spiritual powers that qualify him to be somewhat of a messianic figure on his next mission. Specifically, he is sent to Venus to ward off a possible ‘Fall’ as the planet Earth once underwent at the dawn of its own time. One could say he has to ‘live into’ his own name in order to fulfill his destined purpose. Fittingly, he returns to earth with an injured heel that never fully heals.

As the reader approaches Perelandra, it is helpful to distinguish three Lewises. First, we have Lewis, author of the Ransom Trilogy, plain and simple. Second, we have Lewis as a character in the early part of Perelandra. As a friend and confidant to Ransom, Lewis assists in sending Ransom off to Venus in a time capsule sent by the Oyarsa. After Ransom’s return, Lewis then serves as the author of the book about Ransom’s adventures on Venus based on interviews with him.

Thirdly, we can recognize the Lewis who shares the profile of the original Ransom, but can only dream of being heroic and virtuous as Ransom proves to be. We learn from the start of Silent Planet that Ransom is 35 to 40 years old, round shouldered, shabbily dressed (“which marks a member of the intelligentsia on a holiday”), and thus a college professor. All of this is Lewis himself (#1) at the time of writing. But Ransom is also a philologist which certainly points to his close Inklings friends, Barfield and Tolkien.

There is no need for a spoiler alert in this introduction. The protagonist Ransom succeeds in battle and lives up to his name, thus doing his part to save Perelandra from the fate of Earth’s genesis of bentness. What makes this book so fascinating is the depth and complexity that Lewis presents when it comes to the nature of temptation and evil, and the possibility of overcoming them.

While drawing on many ancient motifs, biblically and classically, Lewis recognized that what he was doing was quite challenging. How might a ‘Fall from Paradise’ be averted? In a letter to Sister Penelope (Nov. 1941), he wrote how his Eve character, the Green Lady, “has to combine characteristics which the Fall put poles apart – she’s got to be in some ways like a Pagan goddess and in other ways like the Blessed Virgin.” One of the most fascinating parts of her role is the way she processes information that is brand new to her mind.

As seen in the first novel, and certainly as fully developed in the final book, That Hideous Strength, the main conflict is sourced in an exaggerated scientism that threatens to overrule the rest of the Solar System imperialistically. “Man is nothing in himself,” says the positivist Weston. “The forward movement of Life… is everything.” On Venus, Weston himself turns into the Unman, having been possessed by a Satanic force that notches up the chances of beguiling the Green Lady. Ultimately, Ransom has to decide how to act as if he himself is an actor within a living myth.

Among the plotline of temptation and victory, Lewis reaches high literary heights with his descriptions of beauty on Perelandra. At times, the #2 Lewis admits how words are inadequate to portray the splendor which Ransom encountered. Carol and Philip Zaleski, co-authors of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, summed up a bit of this Venetian beauty.

This Paradise roofed by a golden sky is indeed a world to be sensed and tasted – a swooning landscape of islands floating on a sweet-water green-gold ocean, lush vegetation, bubble-trees that drench the body and soul, and great clusters of fruit that fall into the hand. (324)

Anyone interested in Lewis’ well-developed theories on the nature of human desire will find rich ore to mine in Perelandra. As Ransom finds himself refreshed almost ecstatically from his lush surroundings and edible plants, he also finds himself not needing to have things more than once. “The itch to have things over again… was it possibly the root of all evil?” Similarly, both Ransom and the Green Lady are completely naked, and yet there is not a hint of sexual arousal.

The final ending of the book – which for some is critiqued for being over-idealized – is itself an interesting study in gender and archetypes. In fact, one could almost say that Lewis is presenting a rather Platonic view of gender at the opposite end of the spectrum from where gender, now-a-days, is understood as a social construct. At any rate, the celestial Beings that rule benignly over Malacandra and Perelandra play a prominent role in the book’s denouement.

Reading Perelandra in order to bask in Lewis’ language of beauty and wonder is a rich treat unto itself. Reading the book to plumb the depths of temptation and evil, as Milton attempted, is another reason to dive in. I think there is a third reason that has specific relevance to our times. Reading it as a way to think about the authoritative role of science (or perhaps Scientism) in modern western society can spark some new considerations. 

Similar to what Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book, How Then Should We Live with respect to “Manipulation and the New Elite,” Lewis was very concerned about the way a scientifically-supported elite could possibly control world affairs with majorities acting in favorable compliance. His 1958 article in God in the Dock, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of a Welfare State,” shows his usage of terms such as “omnicompotent global technocracy.”  

Usually when we hear such things such as authoritarian control by elites we think of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. And certainly Lewis was very aware of the threats posed by such overt tyranny. But what primarily drove Lewis to present a counter-narrative of goodness in his Space Trilogy was the dominant progressivism he encountered in the university world of his day. 

Thomas Howard, in reviewing the Ransom stories in C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters, notes how western readers of Lewis are generally unwilling to see the marks of tyranny “in the sagging bureaucracies of liberal democracy.” Lewis was against any form of government that entrusted power to few hands. He also understood how governments could rely on ‘experts’ who influence news media and public relations.

What he distrusted in our own massively democratic era was the murderous petty-mindedness of bureaucrats, and the brutalizing effect of a society that has been “planned” according to modern scientific definitions of what humanness really is. (97)

If you are wondering to what degree our current times involve planned agendas by people who wield the most power, reading Lewis’ Space Trilogy can at least open up a topic that is front-and-center for many people today. At the same time, such a read provides a veiled Christian counter-narrative that reveals the indestructible Reality of what is true, good and beautiful.

Read articles and Readers Guides on other books in Lewis’ Space Trilogy:

Join us for a three-part discussion on C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. Led by C.S. Lewis enthusiast, Ted Lewis, this reading group will meet to discuss the book Thursdays, November 2, 9, and 16 from 4:00–5:30 pm at Melrose Station. Come for a great conversation over tasty treats.

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