Regular readers of my blog know that I am in the process of developing a course at my church on C. S. Lewis’s “Ransom Trilogy.” Although I’ve taught the third in the series a number of times, I’ve never attempted to cover all three, but I’m looking forward to helping tell Lewis’s tale to those who are unaware of it and who don’t know the underlying themes that Lewis explores.
The background that led to Lewis writing the trilogy began with a discussion he had with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. They agreed that the kinds of stories they liked were in short supply, so they decided to do something about it.
As Tolkien explained later, Lewis would write a space novel while Tolkien would attempt a “time-journey.” The latter didn’t happen, as Tolkien was far too taken up with his own creative world that eventually became The Lord of the Rings. Lewis, though, got right to work and produced Out of the Silent Planet.
I concluded that before leading the class into that first novel, it was important to provide some background on what passed for science fiction at the time Lewis embarked on his trilogy. A tremendous help in that endeavor came from one of the sources I am relying on, and specifically one chapter in that source. I always want to give credit where it is due:
Meyer’s chapter was exactly what I needed. He begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, then describes the works of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and David Lindsay as precursors and inspirations for Lewis. Not that Lewis wanted to carry out some kind of carbon copy of those authors; in fact, although he appreciated aspects of what they offered, he sought to take a different approach. In an essay called “On Science Fiction,” Lewis came up with five categories, or “sub-species,” that science fiction writers tended to fall into.
Lewis couldn’t see much value in this type of writing. In what way was it truly science fiction? It was merely placed in a different time with the story playing out in the usual way that any story would. That wasn’t his goal.
This sub-species was nothing more than an attempt to attract readers’ attention with some new-fangled technological gadgetry. It was technology driving a story, and even if the story was good, the shelf life of this approach might be short. As Lewis notes, even the most forward-looking ideas eventually come to pass. Rocket travel might fascinate readers in the early twentieth century, but they become rather mundane once man has stepped on the moon. Jules Verne is an example of this genre with his submarine in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
This third type was closer to what Lewis liked, primarily because he didn’t have the expertise to actually describe how one might travel to distant worlds. His spaceship in Out of the Silent Planet was merely a means to an end, and he didn’t try to explain how it worked. When he turned to Perelandra, he skipped the spaceship entirely and concocted a supernatural means—a coffin-like box—that whisked Ransom to the planet. Mission accomplished without having to go into boring details. Yet this wasn’t all he hoped to achieve with a science fiction novel.
While Lewis, as a Christian, might be interested in an eschatological novel, that wasn’t his primary goal. After all, Christians believe there is an ultimate destiny already planned for the end of this world. Further, he saw how false ideology might infect such an approach. As much as he admired some of H. G. Wells’s stories, he critiqued what he called “Wellsianity,” the belief that humans are not the final link in the chain of evolutionary life. Wells viewed current humanity as only a prototype for higher species to follow. Lewis couldn’t endorse nor espouse that philosophy.
Lewis loved unfamiliar territories, i.e., new worlds to explore. That is precisely what he did in the first two installments of the trilogy. He has Ransom fascinated with the different types of species that inhabit Malacandra/Mars. He learns that each species carries out its unique purpose under Maleldil/God, and there is no unjust competition among them. They are each appreciated for what they bring to the civilization. He also discovers that maybe the real monsters aren’t “out there”; maybe the real monsters are the ones who populate the Silent Planet [Earth].
When Ransom goes to Perelandra/Venus, he comes upon that planet’s Eve, and he must take on the responsibility to keep her from giving into temptation and falling into sin, which would ruin that planet in the same way that ours has been ruined. And even though That Hideous Strength takes place on earth, Lewis leads the reader into unfamiliar territories even in familiar places. Merlin in modern Britain?
These are the concepts I will begin the course with. We will then start our journey into Lewis’s unfamiliar territories after the foundations for understanding the journey have been laid.