The virtues of Lewis's Space Trilogy

I've been re-reading Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra this last month (I read That Hideous Strength for the first time last year), and the former especially brought to mind why I love Lewis so much. His novelistic shortcomings are more than apparent in these early works, so in the midst of noticing those, I asked myself: What is it about these books that makes them lovable? What are the virtues that Lewis the novelist brings to bear in them that raise them to more than pleasant diversions?

Here's a short list.

1. Lewis has a knack for making the metaphysical reality that Christians confess to be true inhabitable. He makes it seem like common sense—more, he makes it seem roomy. "This is the real world, refracted through fiction" is the refrain of all his writing, not least Ransom's adventures in space. Or: "It's probably not precisely this, but it's almost certainly very like this—only better and more wondrous."

2. Apart from the beautiful economy of his prose, perhaps Lewis's greatest strength across all the genres in which he wrote is the depth of his moral-spiritual psychology. He knows what makes us tick. Both at our most virtuous and our most vicious (more on the latter in a moment), his description of the motivations, intentions, pressures (petty and glorious), goals, indecisive failures, and temptations of the will is nonpareil. Better, it is utterly recognizable. And all too often it is deeply, shamefully convicting.

3. Lewis holds up a mirror to us—in this case, through the earnest observations of sinless alien species and their angelic rulers—and reveals our undeniable fallenness, both at the individual and at the civilizational level. (In this case, the theme of his fiction is "sin is real, it's inside of all of us, and you know it's true.") His extraterrestrial creatures are constantly dumbfounded by the everyday goings-on of earthlings, and that dumbfoundedness is a cue to the reader: why aren't you similarly bothered or surprised? Our fear of death, our denial of God, our fears of one another, our indefensible mistreatment of our neighbors, the quantity of time and energy we spend on worthless matters ... it is difficult to listen to Ransom's interlocutors without turning on yourself in the somber realization that you're implicated, indicted even, by their speech.

4. Continuing that theme, Lewis has no time for the insipid platitudes of technocratic modernity. The evil men whom Ransom battles are, in the end, hollowed out by the nihilism of cultural-scientific self-preservation, while lacking any guiding principles—not even the well-being of humanity as such—that might garner qualified praise as splendid vices. Knowledge for the sake of power for the sake of perpetuation of knowledge for the sake of power for the sake of ... until kingdom come. Lewis may be guilty of nostalgia at times, but he knows the problems of his day, not at the surface, but at the root; or rather, in the sickness of soul that drives soul-denying men to seek immortality at all costs. The narrative function of beauty in "the heavens" of "space" in the Trilogy drives this home: knowledge without wonder is finally the libido dominandi, now naked yet "clothed" in society's approbation. This is the enemy to be resisted to the end.

5. Lewis's Space Trilogy works also—as so many interplanetary stories do—as an allegory or metaphor for imperialism, and although Lewis was guilty of many of the biases and prejudices of his day, he knew that colonization and domination of other peoples and cultures was an offense against God and the fruit of original sin. Moreover, closer to his literary expertise, he knew the extent to which such domination is often an expression of ignorance and impotence, the exercise of force masking the insecurity of a fearful people. Culturally this expresses itself in a parochialism both of space and of time; Lewis termed the latter "chronological snobbery." Just as the European peoples thought themselves superior to peoples from other continents, so they (and others) thought (and think) themselves superior to people from the past. The two are related and inseparable: when Ransom listens to Oyarsa, part of his instruction consists of unlearning the modern prejudice against "difference," whether found across the sea or across the ages.

6. Finally, Lewis the theologian always emerges in dialogue between (say) his former self, Ransom, and his would-be present self, the unbent creatures of Malacandra or their eldila or Oyarsa himself. I long to read these stories with my children because those dialogues will themselves be occasions for them to hear ancient spiritual truths articulated in the clearest, freshest of ways. How odd: to hear the gospel lucidly spoken by being made strange on the lips of alien beings in a fictional novel. But when we find ourselves loving C. S. Lewis's novels, that's just one of the many reasons why we love them.


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