Literary Things: Perelandra

C.S. Lewis is one of the few treasures of 20th century popular Christian writing. It’s a shame there haven’t been more like him, but then again, most writers, regardless of faith, would be pretty hard pressed to match the man’s output. For his sheer volume of work and accessibility, Lewis is the go-to man for intelligent Christian discourse that won’t make your friends roll your eyes.

We tend to forget, though, that Lewis also had a good deal of respect in academia. This is a man who published multiple scholarly works, was tenured at Oxford and Cambridge, and was recognized as an expert in medieval and allegorical literature. His writing, both pre and post-conversion, was highly informed by an active imagination and a thorough indoctrination in classical Greek, Roman, and Norse texts. In fact, his conversion experience came about through conversations with fellow academians and reading a couple of good books (specifically Phantastes by George MacDonald).

So it’s interesting that over a seven year span, Lewis chose to meld both his Christian outlook and his considerable literary pedigree into something a little unconventional—a science fiction trilogy.

Lewis wrote three sci-fi books between 1938 and 1945—the height of the pulp sci-fi boom—with each book more ambitious than the one that preceded it.  And whenever I compare notes with folks about the trilogy, Perelandra, the second book in the series, comes up as the perennial favorite. I wouldn’t argue.

My experience with The Space Trilogy was a little unusual, admittedly. I worked backward, beginning with the final book, That Hideous Strength, in middle school, and got around to Out of the Silent Planet in early college. Both were good reads, and full of interesting ideas on the nature of man, spirituality, and God’s activity in the universe. But Perelandra—which is the in-story name for the planet Venus- takes these same tropes and ramps them up in an engaging and thrilling fashion. The read is entertaining, the stakes are high, and the payoff is mind-bendingly good.

Caveat: the beginning is a little slow. Ponderous, even. Lewis himself is the POV character in the first few chapters, taking his time to usher the reader from the world of the mundane into the realm of the fantastic. The point is to introduce Elwin Ransom, a (fictional) fellow professor and, somehow, God’s chosen representative regarding interstellar matters. The front matter concerns itself with recapping the events of Silent Planet—wherein Ransom was kidnapped and taken to Mars, only to foil a demonic plot to overthrow that world—and introducing the characters and reader to a scientifically-plausible version of angels.

However, once the angels teleport Ransom to Perelandra for a new divine mission, things get really interesting. And rollicking. In fact, one of the touch-points of the book is the number of jarring experiences Ransom has, even down to the environment surrounding him (Lewis, working  before the era of interplanetary probes, envisions Venus as a planet where islands are made of spongy plant-masses and the whole of the surface is a giant ocean.) There are brutal fisticuffs, imaginative bits of world-building, and an examination of the fall of man from a very unique perspective.

And our protagonist will eventually find himself in the unique position of being filled with holy divine rage so that he can beat the SNOT out of a satanically-possessed scientist-slash-astronaut (though, the guy is attempting to introduce original sin). Throw in naked green people, a giant what-the-heck monster from the pits of Venus, and the correlation between angels and Greek deities, and you’ve got a heady mix of ideas.

“Eve of Perelandra” by James Lewicki

In lesser hands, it wouldn’t cohese, but Lewis balances it all nicely. Each chapter builds logically on the next toward a conclusion that magnificently comments on God’s creativity in a way comparable only to Tolkien’s creation account in The Silmarillion.

The manifold ideas in here reward rereading. And the plus is, though the book is a middle installment in a trilogy, it is perfectly structured to stand on its own and thus is very accessible. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a little action and entertainment with a side of spiritual/mental edification.

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About Ben Humeniuk
Married to Christin, dad of two, follower of Christ. I'm an educator and a cartoonist. And I'm going to encourage us to understand.

4 Responses to Literary Things: Perelandra

  1. Robbie Jones says:

    I’m reading Perelandra right now. I love how Lewis uses his fictional scifi/fantasy works as a kind of Google Labs for theology and philosophy. It really helps to step outside of earth and even humanity as we know it when you’re trying to see things from God’s perspective.

    • Ben Humeniuk says:

      I like the Google Labs parallel– Absolutely! And sci-fi wasn’t exactly the most exalted genre out there at this point, so he was definitely playing with some cool concepts in a less obvious setting. What prompted you to pick it up?

  2. matt says:

    Great write up. I think I’ll add the space trilogy to my to-read list.

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