Comments on Lewis’s Perelandra

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.

10 thoughts on “Comments on Lewis’s Perelandra

  1. Perelandra’s best part was the temptation of Eve. Lewis’ understanding of the many different ways and wiles of Satan here is reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters, but is more profound, because he’s dealing with the temptation of an unfallen creature. I especially like the part where Eve obtains self-consciousness upon suddenly seeing her own reflection for the first time, and fancies herself a noble, heroic figure. That’s when her trouble really begins.

  2. I want to give an interpretation of the sentence, “For his are some of the best mediocre novels ever written.” Let’s say there are 100 great novels, and the mediocre ones start at 101. Then even if Lewis’ novels start at #101, I might still put some of them on the top-10 list to read. In other words, there are two axes here, one having to do with literary craft, the other with worthwhileness broadly speaking.

  3. Could we have the names of some of those great novels for us who don’t read a lot of novels? I would love to peruse some of them. Maybe some of Charles Williams? Any more recent than Lewis?

  4. I agree with Jim…I’d love to see your list of “top ten novels to read” and/or “top 100 greatest novels” or something like that.

    On a side note…I often hear Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov being placed near the top – do you think it lives up to its reputation?

  5. Jim –

    Well, my list of greats does not line up with the list of most others. I think little of James, Flaubert, and Kafka, for example. Conrad is, at times, interesting, but, over all, tedious (on the purely literary side, he has no feel for the English language). Dickens has his moments (Copperfield is the best of the ones I have read), but his sentimentality becomes grating. The same is true of Trollope, though to a lesser degree.

    I have not read Proust or Nabakov, but since most intellectuals like them, I assume their works are garbage. I have read some Joyce and, though the intellectuals like him also, I have not come to a firm conclusion. While I don’t really care for him, I often get the feeling that there is something really there, but just can’t put my finger on it. This sense of missing something may just be a byproduct of my education.

    As for the Americans, besides my dislike of James, I can take Hawthorne in small doses, I don’t care for Melville, and have not read enough Faulkner to give an opinion (my colleague assures me that he is worth reading). Twain is my favorite despite his smugness.

    I have not reached a verdict on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I suspect that their themes are too ambitious for the novel. The nuance and complexities that the novel makes possible at the same time dilutes the energy and focus necessary to handle the great themes. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are philosophical and natural tragedians, but writing in a genre that was meant for neither philosophy nor tragedy. (The essay best suits the former, while poetry and drama, especially opera, are for the latter.)

    Austen is nearly perfect. Her novels are filled with prosaic wisdom, wit, charm. Her plots are tight and her characters fully comprehensible.

    Lewis points out that Austen is essentially untragic. Her moral world is at once demanding and undemanding. It is demanding in terms of requiring all to discharge their duties fully.  At the same time, these duties are not onerous. Moreover, her worldview envisages no great sacrifices or joys. Happiness is achievable, almost by formula, but joy is something completely alien to her world. Heroism is neither necessary nor desired.

    If this is meant as a criticism, I don’t believe it is a fair one. It assumes that the novel must rise to the level of tragedy or, at the least, potentially lead to tragedy. This is mistaken. As I suggested above, the novel is essentially untragic.

    Yet I do see what Lewis is getting at. I would summarize the criticism this way. Austen is great at what she does, but what she does is not great.

    Anything by Thackeray is good.

    I like Stevenson and to a lesser degree, Scott. The story is what is primary in both.

    Tolkien is one of my favorites. One of the great achievements of Tolkien is that the great themes emerge from his writing without him ever working them over. Tolkien’s works (the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) are really fairy tales put in the form of novels. He is the only one who has managed to pull this off successfully.

    At bottom, the novel is very limited vehicle. The best novelists are those who work within its limits.

  6. Well, like Charlie Brown, as they looked up at the clouds, “I was going to say I saw a duckie and a birdie, but I changed my mind.”

    My criterion for good literature is becoming simpler the older I get: if it is fun to read, and true to human nature, and offers something to think about, then it is good.

    I think sub-culture-appropriate criteria are also in order. There are great books for girls, and great books for boys.

    With that in mind, I would suggest — anything by the Agrarians. In this class should also be included Wendell Berry, e.g. The Memory of Old Jack. Especially for boys/men, start with The Long Night by Andrew Nelson Lytle.

    I don’t know why, but Les Miserables by Victor Hugo affects me deeply.

    I’m having a lot of fun reading Larry Woiwode, who is kind of a northern agrarian. Will report back anon.

    There were some beauties in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

    My favorite George MacDonald so far is The Maiden’s Bequest. I knew a MacDonald afficianado who said his books were ruined by the modernization/editing. I haven’t been able to pursue that line.

    Faulkner: for comedy, start with As I Lay Dying; for tragedy, Absolam, Absolam.

  7. I’m a sucker for sluthing – I can dive into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and not submerge for quite some time. If you havent read any Sherlock Holmes before start with A Study in Scarlet.

  8. First, M -I believe you meant ‘sleuthing’.

    I liked much of this article, but I found TWHF to be both verrry long, and brilliant, so I’d have to disagree with the pan on TWHF. Also, it’s been waaaay too long since reading the trio of space novels from Jack, but I still remember the thrill I got, when the line, ‘And why do you think I named you “Ransom” is iterated.

    But something else has dawned on me recently: it is that, WHEN we read some books, is also part of the fascination of WHY they are great- sometimes we are not yet MATURE enough for them, or need to have lived a while, before we can REALLY appreciate their childlike POV.

    Because I am homeschooling grade school age kids, my tastes lately are running to children’s books – and most of them are disgusting, that have been printed in the last fifty years, that is. One that is EVIL (in that it posits a meaningless universe, and allows a main character to die senselessly, is ‘Bridge to Terabithia’- which, or course, is now a movie. Arrrrgh.

    A set of books that are much like Lewis’ in their childlike view of the world are the “Green Knowe” books, which I found delightful.
    Also, the ‘Cricket in Times Square’ series. We haven’t gotten to Hawthorne or any of the more ‘mature’ writers, but some of the novels I have recently read certainly were ‘keepers’ with me:

  9. TJH – I’d love to hear your thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s work. Are you familiar with his novels?

    In particular, I’m eager to get your take on Blood Meridian ( and/or Suttree ( I think you would find them quite interesting.

    McCarthy is often said to be America’s greatest living author – a worthy disciple of Faulkner and Hemingway. I’m beginning to agree.

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