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