After writing a response to a question under another post, I realized it was too long for a comment. It probably is also too desultory for a post, but I offer it up here, with apologies, in the hopes of beginning a discussion thread on C. S. Lewis.
To provide some context, the question was whether it would be helpful to read the two prior books of Lewis’ space trilogy before reading That Hideous Strength. (I had previously recommended the book for its insight on the nature of conspiracies.)
From one point of view, yes, you would get more out of THS by first reading the other two books. It gives the back story and shows the evolution of the pivotal Ransom character. But from the point of view that I emphasize above [the conspiracy angle], no, you do not have to read the other two books. In this regard, it, like the others, can stand on its own.
But since you asked, the best book of the three is Perelandra. It is basically Paradise Lost in prose (and without the fall). The setting is one of the most powerful aspect of the novel, a pristine, pre-lapsarian Venus. Though its genre is fantasy, it is in many ways closer to myth.
As a variation of the Eden myth, Lewis explores many interesting questions: How could a good creature fall? What is the nature of temptation? How far can one contemplate doing what is evil without doing evil? Why, at a certain level, do rational answers to the tempter’s arguments somehow miss the point? For those who have not read the book, you will be surprised at how the hero finally “answers” the tempter’s arguments. Chances are you will reject it a first. But give it time. Upon further reflection the simplicity and power of it will begin to be intuited. As a work of literature it does not come near intensity and beauty of Milton’s almost perfect marriage of language and themes, but at many points Lewis proves to have more acute insights.
There are passages in the story that are as primal and striking as one will read anywhere. When the hero looks upon the sleeping Venusian Eve, unfallen and beautiful, he pines for the Mother of his own race. “Other things, other blessings, other glories, but never that. Never in all worlds, that.” Before I read these words, it never struck me how real and devastating this particular loss really is. (The deep affection that papists have for the venerated Mary becomes more easily understood on these lines. A mistake, yes, but one not without a degree of profundity.)
A weakness of Perelandra, though it is not as bad in this regard as THS, is that Lewis often gives the impression that he is using the story as a vehicle to transmit his insights on various topics (which are many) rather than letting story bring out these themes organically. The debate between the two main characters, for instance, sounds at times more like the give and take at the Socratic Society than an encounter between Man and Serpent in Paradise. As Wittgenstein might say, Lewis says rather than shows.
The other main failure of the book is the ending. Taken on its own merits it is not very good, but in the context of what went on before, it is a disaster. Not only is it much too long, but it tries to say too much. Lewis failed to understand one of the basic lessons of all good stories that have a happy endings: the happy ending is the ending. The good writer, when writing such a story, stops with the rescue, the victory, the restoration, or the wedding. “And they lived happily every after,” says all that is necessary. Austen knew well enough that lingering one moment beyond Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s mutual confession of love would have ruined an otherwise great story. (When browsing the literature section of a bookstore, I came across a novel about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s life after their nuptials. We are all, at one level, curious about how things went on. But beyond this natural curiosity what could possibly be added to the story by prying into their domestic life?)
And if telling about domestic happiness is a mistake, exploring the mysteries and joys of paradise is a gross one. Not only does it miss the point, but it attempts the impossible. The only result can be disappointment. “That’s it? All the struggle for that?” Even Dante could not give us a heaven of anything more than abstractions.
Scripture tells us much of the present evil age, little about hell, and even less about heaven. It was sufficient for our Lord to tell his friends, “in my father’s house there are many mansions.” This is not to say that we cannot speculate about the banal truths of heaven, but the joy and the glory of heaven is, as goes the cliche, beyond our highest imagination. We must be satisfied with tasting Joy not explaining it.
Though making a slightly different point, Wittgenstein once again strikes the right chord: “Within Christianity it’s as though God says to men: Don’t act a tragedy, that’s to say, don’t enact heaven and hell on earth. Heaven and hell are my affair.”
Getting back to Lewis, even with its deficiencies, Perelandra is still his best novel; better than the other two installments of the space trilogy and vastly better than the worst book he ever wrote, Till We Have Faces. Lewis is almost always worth reading. Even his novels. For his are some of the best mediocre novels ever written.