Worlds before Narnia – C S Lewis’s Heavens

GREG JINKERSON reminds us of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Beyond his still-popular works of Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) may be most familiar as creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, the classic children series published in the 1950s, and since filmed several times. But long before Aslan and the Pevensies debuted in the first Narnia story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis was the demiurge of other fantastic worlds formed with adult readers in mind.

His first published novel was the Bunyanesque bildungsroman The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), where the pilgrim John encounters people like Mr. Enlightenment and Mother Kirk, and Lewis gives an impression of how such abstractions shaped his early intellectual development and later Christian faith. In between the Pilgrim and the Lion, Lewis devoted a deal of the WWII years to writing his Space Trilogy, about a man drawn into a cosmic moral conflict that comes to a head on earth. The series is a more mature expression of the allegorical seeds planted in his first novel, and an anticipation of many themes from Narnia – the combat between good and evil animating human characters and their angelic counterparts, miraculous trips and oracular bulletins from distant lands, and “unattained ideals…in the history of Man.”1

As in his Chronicles, Lewis spins a fairy tale replete with haunted houses, necromancy, enchanted groves and bewitched familiars. The interplanetary saga begins in Out of the Silent Planet (1938) where the hero Elwin Ransom – a philologist and a character Lewis once called “a fancy portrait of a man I know, but not of me,”2 – is abducted to Mars by a megalomaniacal physicist, Weston, and his sidekick Devine. (Incidentally, Ransom’s history shows that Lewis inserted plenty of his own experiences into the don, along with several traits of his Oxford friend and fellow author J. R. R. Tolkien.) Ransom’s adventures continue in Perelandra (1943) set on Lewis’ conception of the planet Venus, and winds up back on earth in That Hideous Strength (1945).

As the first book opens, Ransom has embarked alone on a long walking tour of the English countryside with a backpack – reminiscent of Christian with his heavy burden as seen by the Dreamer in The Pilgrim’s Progress. With a sabbatical before him and few obligations beyond his pleasures, he has failed to notify anyone of his plans or whereabouts, and isn’t expected home by anyone for many months. This anonymity makes him a ripe Everyman for the adventures ahead.

One night, finding that the inn where he had planned to stay is no longer lodging odd pedestrians, he knocks at the door of a secluded cottage in hopes of a bed. Overhearing violent shouts, Ransom stumbles onto the scene of an attempted kidnapping, where two men are struggling to subdue a young boy. Ransom intervenes and rescues the boy, becoming an unwitting substitute in the partners’ abduction scheme:

“The three combatants fell suddenly apart, the boy blubbering. ‘May I ask,’ said the thicker and taller of the two men, ‘who the devil you may be and what you are doing here?’… ‘My name is Ransom, if that is what you mean. And…’ ‘By Jove,’ said the slender man, ‘not Ransom who used to be at Wedenshaw?’ ‘I was at school at Wedenshaw,’ said Ransom. ‘I thought I knew you as soon as you spoke,’ said the slender man. ‘I’m Devine.”3

The first speaker, Weston, is Ransom’s arch enemy throughout the series, an ingenious physicist who immediately calls upon the devil; Devine, in his more easygoing approach to mischief, calls upon Jove. The former plans to use his spacecraft to colonize the galaxy in a quest to preserve the human race; the latter wants to plunder planets for their riches. The friends are a devilish pair, but Ransom’s weariness and his familiarity with Devine are enough to lure him into sheltering with them.

After being drugged, Ransom awakes in a spaceship and is first terrified and later exhilarated to realize his captors are carrying him to Mars, where they have already done reconnaissance on a previous voyage. Although they believe themselves to be bringing Ransom there as a sacrifice to the rulers of that planet, we find “the stars in their courses were fighting against Weston.”4 The allusion to the Book of Judges is a sign that Weston’s efforts are the inadvertent means of Ransom’s apotheosis – in spite of himself, Weston is delivering his enemy into a position of honour he himself covets.

Each book marks a stage in Ransom’s understanding of the Heavens – Lewis’ preferred term for outer space – and of the influence of extra-terrestrial creatures, many of whom become his friends. He meets for example angels, or eldila as they are known outside earth. The eldila are somewhat local to each planet and are ruled by archangels, or Oyeresu. The Oyarsa of Malacandra (Mars to earthlings) teaches Ransom that the solar system is an open field of angelic communication with just one Bermuda Triangle issuing no messages: the silent planet Thulcandra (Earth). In fact, the eldila of our planet have become sinister creatures. Upon meeting the Oyarsa, Ransom asks,

“Then you knew of our journey before we left Thulcandra?’

‘No. Thulcandra is the world we do not know. It alone is outside the heaven, and no message comes from it.’

Ransom was silent, but Oyarsa answered his unspoken questions.

It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world — he was brighter and greater than I — and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent.5

In this accounting of Lucifer, Lewis invokes the medieval cosmology wherein “daemons are…creatures of a middle nature between gods and men – like Milton’s ‘Middle spirits’”6, and throws new light on the Fall of earthly life. “Through these intermediaries, and through them alone, we mortals have any intercourse with the gods.”7 Having lost contact with Earth, Oyarsa sent for a human ambassador to visit Malacandra and effect a rapprochement.

Ransom also encounters the native species of Malacandra: the seal-like hrossa, including a Friday to Ransom’s Crusoe named Hyoi – the amphibious pfifltriggi, artisans of the planet – and sorns, the mandarins of Malacandra. His odyssey even affords a glimpse of “the original of the Cyclops, a giant in a cave and a shepherd.”8 While on the planet, Ransom uses his philological training to master their universal language (which he terms Old Solar). All told, what had begun as a tour of England stretches light years afield before circling back to a thrilling and hectic voyage home.

Ransom’s gleanings in Malacandra are, naturally, not merely academic. By the time of Perelandra, Ransom has been communicating for several years with the Oyarsa about a new mission: stopping the Fall and its attendant curse from being inflicted upon Venus. Weston’s defeat on Mars has hardly discouraged his urge to rule new worlds, and he sets his sights on Perelandra as a consolation.

This second journey to a neighbouring planet has an uplifting effect upon Ransom, bringing him hitherto unknown sensations and even open new senses. His first breakfast on Perelandra is nothing short of psychedelic:

“The smells in the forest were beyond all that he had ever conceived. To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel.”9

On Perelandra, and elsewhere in the heavens, Ransom’s body and soul meld in a peaceful anticipation of what might come; his desires awaken no fear about whether they will be fulfilled, for they are intrinsically pleasant. Indeed, fruit is a kind of superfluity:

“He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight…It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant.”10  

This is more a sacrament than a meal, and binds Ransom beatifically in a kind of symbiotic nourishment with the vegetation. The unspoiled environment of Perelandra yields up a world eminently edible and edifying.

Ransom also encounters the Venusian Eve, Tinidril, whom he must protect from Weston’s attempt to involve her in a second Fall on Perelandra. This Ransom successfully averts, and his beatific vision is fulfilled when Tinidril is safely united with the king of Perelandra.

In That Hideous Strength, Ransom joins the angelic ranks back on earth for a climactic battle in an English university town against a deranged cabal of academic and scientific elites in league with their own Satanic allies. One of these is Lord Feverstone, a nom de guerre for Devine from the first adventure. The final volume’s primary theme, which Lewis lays out persuasively in his essay “The Abolition of Man” as a companion to the novel, is a caution against a naïve programme of inhumane central planning which he feared would accompany advanced Scientism in world governments.

Ransom again plays a heroic part in the action, but this time he shares the stage with new allies—the sociologist Mark Studdock and his wife Jane, along with a reincarnation of the Arthurian Merlin and a menagerie of benevolent animals. Despite the worst efforts of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) to impose a technocratic police state upon England, Ransom’s forces of good and the whole host of heaven fight and stop them.

After their victory, one of Ransom’s cohort makes a speech about what Ransom learned during his time on the prelapsarian Perelandra about the history of England:

“It all began,” he said,

when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it – it will do as well as another. And then gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting…Something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney – and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.11

Although certain critics have found the series to verge on the didactic – the science fiction author Brian Aldiss said as much in a friendly way12, and Lewis’ own Oxford colleague, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it in a far more strident mode in a review of That Hideous Strength13 – Lewis for his part disagreed. In discussing the plot of Perelandra, and Aldiss’ suggestion that Lewis had set out to write it in order to make a moral point, Lewis gave an emphatic disavowal while laying out his approach to story making:

Yes everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong…the story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral…the story itself should force its moral upon [the writer]. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.14


  1. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1938; p. 75
  2. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis, edited with a Preface by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1966; in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 78
  3. Out of the Silent Planet, p. 14
  4. Ibid., p. 127
  5. Ibid., pp. 119-120
  6. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964; p. 40
  7. Ibid., pp. 40-41
  8. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1944; p. 40
  9. Ibid., p. 37
  10. Ibid. p. 37
  11. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, 1946, pp.368-369
  12. “Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories” in Unreal Estates, p. 87
  13. Ibid. in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 74, where Lewis mentions Haldane’s complaint that Lewis’ characters “are like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left”
  14. Ibid. in “Unreal Estates”, p. 87

A. E. W. Mason – moral courage and martial virtue

GREG JINKERSON pays tribute to an influential exponent of the British imperial ideal

In his lifetime, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (1865-1948) had a reputation as a globetrotting man of action who could turn forays in politics, theater and war into popular and gripping novels. If that had been the sum of his achievement, it would have been no mean feat. A page-turner as a means of escape shouldn’t be despised out of hand, and is far too rare in fiction. And Mason is indeed an entertainer. But his stories are too sermonic to have been conceived as penny dreadfuls. And even if genre appeal was the basis of much of Mason’s popularity, a look at the books themselves, and at the life, reveals something deeper – a writer who could use popular formats to paint a late Victorian picture of manly virtue.

Although best-known today as the author of The Four Feathers (1902), a seven-times filmed story of then-recent British engagement in the Sudan campaign, he wrote 30 novels in a busy 60-year career, alongside several plays, three historical works and numerous short stories for magazines. 

Spanning mystery, thrillers and historical romance, and selling well in each, Mason had clear affinities with authors he admired from a generation earlier like Doyle, Kipling or Haggard – men who had mined exotic career locales for fictional settings and themes to build up imperial verdicts. As for more recent comparisons, he would appear to have few cousins, either political or moral. Current purveyors of swashbuckling or military adventures, like Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy, do not give the reader any lasting moral treasure to carry away.

Born in Camberwell, London, England in 1865, Mason developed an early love for reading, especially adventure stories, as well as for Dickens. Dickens’ painstaking approach would have a large influence on Mason’s own approach to novel writing.

There is not a book of Dickens which does not show that the story was designed to its end before it was written…I think you will hardly analyze any permanent book of imaginative literature and find much trace of the boasted system of sitting down with a pen and a fair sheet of paper, and just letting things go (1)

Mason attended Trinity College at Oxford at the same time as fellow future authors Arthur Quiller-Couch (his roommate at university, nicknamed ‘Q’) and Anthony Hope (author of The Prisoner of Zenda and other novels). Q was something of a mentor to Mason, encouraging him to write as he was embarking on his own first novel.

As an author, Mason was extremely famous in his lifetime, and handsomely paid for his prolific output – at the time of his death in 1948, he was earning from five to six thousand pounds a year from his writings (2). But whether his books were his main claim to fame can be debated, for he had an impressively varied career filled with achievements and travels. There was hardly any profession or hobby that could add glamour and sparkle to a man’s image as the beau ideal in which he didn’t dabble, and in many cases flourish – politics, cricket, historical studies, soldiering, espionage, and exploration.

Burnishing the bohemian side of that ideal, he won much campus fame appearing in student productions at Trinity. After finishing at Oxford in 1888, his first professional job was with a touring company of actors performing in both staged dramas and comedies. It was about this time he first became a published author, issuing a play called Blanche de Maletroit (1894) based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. He went on to write a number of plays which won him some notice, and earned him some money, on the London stage. Soon enough, that early literary bent which had shown itself at Oxford with Quiller-Couch, Hope and others, led to Mason’s first book, A Romance of Wastdale, in 1895.

In both his professional and literary work, Mason cast a vision of knightly virtue which transcended his own day and retains its appeal seventy years on. In 1906 he was elected Liberal MP for Coventry as part of that year’s “Liberal Landslide” to the Campbell-Bannerman government. Mason served only a single term before retiring from parliament in the next election. During World War I he served with the Manchester Regiment and was promoted Captain, and later joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry. At the end of the war, Mason was involved in counter-espionage work for the British government in both Spain and Mexico. He was offered a knighthood in 1937, but declined the honor.

Much of his popularity and sales arose, no doubt, from his strong command of genre and power to draw milieu without becoming bogged down in historical material. From the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 in The Courtship of Morrice Buckler (1896) to the Mahdi uprising in Sudan in The Four Feathers, Mason could conjure just enough military detail or local color to provide solid scaffolding for the imagination. Yet for all that, settings and genre were incidental to the deeper vision of chivalry he wished to cast in his novels and countless short stories. The plots depend much more upon psychological drama than on their historical backgrounds.

For The Four Feathers, Mason was inspired indirectly by the Anglo-Sudan War of the 1880s and 90s, but more directly by a hunting expedition in the Sudan just two years after Kitchener’s decisive victory over the self-appointed Mahdi Abdullah al-Khalifa and his forces at Omdurman in 1898. Mason’s deft research and eye for detail are abundantly clear throughout the novel. In an early scene, just in passing at a dinner party, we overhear an old war story as told by the hero’s father, General Feversham. The occasion is an annual reunion of old veterans, and the anecdote teems with the kind of historical detail Mason ladled onto scenes as an entrée to the story’s dominating idea:

Lord Wilmington. One of the best names in England, if you please. Did you ever see his house in Warwickshire? Every inch of the ground you would think would have a voice to bid him play the man, if only in remembrance of his fathers…. It seemed incredible and mere camp rumour, but the rumour grew. If it was whispered at the Alma, it was spoken aloud at Inkermann, it was shouted at Balaclava. Before Sebastopol the hideous thing was proved

General Feversham is the reader’s compass, orienting us first in England, and by degrees narrowing the focus. Lord Wilmington would presumably have been a relative of his namesake the Prime Minister, a worthy voice indeed to urge patriotism. If that voice weren’t loud enough, the whisperings of his “house in Warwickshire” suggest Shakespeare, who was born there, would also “bid him play the man.”

Having deftly indexed Wilmington’s national pedigree, Mason launches the story far afield with a list of four places. They are all Crimean locales, and situate the story in that campaign. But more than that, their recitation paints a picture of developing horror, the mortifying change which a rumor of Wilmington’s cowardice undergoes as it flies from town to town and grows to settled fact, spreading throughout the theatre of war. The geography is as may be. Mason’s focus is the dominating idea of cowardice, and the fear which a young boy might feel about finding cowardice in himself.

Most of the General’s guests hang on every detail of his reminiscence of camp life, but two of his listeners are penetrating far further into the interior of Wilmington’s ordeal: the General’s son Harry Feversham, whose birthday is being celebrated at the gathering, and the General’s friend Lieutenant Sutch. As the General’s story concludes,

…there was only one in all that company who sat perfectly still in the silence which followed upon the story. That one was the boy Harry Feversham. He sat with his hands now clenched upon his knees and leaning forward a little across the table toward the surgeon, his cheeks white as paper, his eyes burning, and burning with ferocity. He had the look of a dangerous animal in the trap. His body was gathered, his muscles taut. Sutch had a fear that the lad meant to leap across the table and strike with all his strength in the savagery of despair. He had indeed reached out a restraining hand when General Feversham’s matter-of-fact voice intervened, and the boy’s attitude suddenly relaxed

Harry, whose father entirely misunderstands his son’s cast of mind, finds a kindred spirit in Sutch. Having reached his appointed curfew, Harry leaves the party well past midnight. Passing through a gallery of ancestral portraits, Harry is frozen with guilt and foreboding by their seemingly interrogating faces. Concerned for the boy, Sutch follows him out discreetly. Recognizing Harry’s nascent imaginative powers, as well as his potential for physical courage, he longs to assure him that acting in spite of fear is a more impressive feat than never experiencing fear at all.

[The portraits] were men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship – lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature…men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid – all of them, in a word, first-class fighting men, but not one of them a first-class soldier. But Harry Feversham plainly saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible. He stood before them in the attitude of a criminal before his judges, reading his condemnation in their cold unchanging eyes

There is Sutch’s (and Mason’s) dominating idea: the distinction between a first-class fighting man, stupid and near-animalistic in his conduct, and a first-class soldier, who carries the gifts of imagination, delicacy and intellect. These gifts Sutch has carried into battle, and he knows them also as burdens. His hope for Harry, expressed in an offer of friendship, is that the boy would overcome the burden of imagination and transform it into courage.

Mason’s trip to the Sudan included a visit to the notorious military prison near Omdurman, the House of Stone, which became a typical canvas for one of the book’s most memorable scenes. Harry, having earlier in the book resigned a commission in Egypt that should have been his conventional path to family glory, has since lost most social connections. Three army friends and his fiancée Ethne have sent him four white feathers, signifying his condemnation for cowardice. But gradually, through a series of daring actions proving vast physical courage and mental toughness, Harry redeems himself and wins back their respect.

It is within the House of Stone prison that Harry passes one of these tests of courage. Harry has heard that his friend Trench is a prisoner inside it. After a day of grueling labor, every prisoner toward evening is shoved into the house with little regard for comfort or safety. The size and conditions of the prison are such that men are routinely trampled nightly. Witnessing these horrors night after night, Trench lives in fear of a similar demise.

All of this Harry learns from outside the camp. Despite the danger, he willingly enters the camp as a prisoner for the express purpose of providing his friend Trench with hope and companionship. Their encounter in the House of Stone demonstrates the triumph of Harry’s imagination over his fears, and his graduation from coward to first-class soldier.

Back!” he cried violently, “back, or I strike!” – and, as he wrestled to lift his arm above his head that he might strike the better, he heard the man who had been flung against him incoherently babbling English.

“Don’t fall,” cried Trench, and he caught his fellow-captive by the arm. “Ibrahim, help! God, if he were to fall!” and while the crowd swayed again and the shrill cries and curses rose again, deafening the ears, piercing the brain, Trench supported his companion, and bending down his head caught again after so many months the accent of his own tongue. And the sound of it civilised him like the friendship of a woman

Here was Mason’s gift: to penetrate the fog of war, and bring forth the heartbeat of humanity and friendship behind the rubble of jingoism. Harry resigned his commission, but became a soldier. Mason declined a knighthood, but played the man in every field of endeavour.

Author’s Notes

  1. A.E.W. Mason, “A Few Words on Fiction,” in A.E.W. Mason: Appreciations (New York: George H. Doran Company, no date), p20
  2. Roger Lancelyn Green, A.E.W. Mason (London: Max Parrish, 1952), p89