The Space Trilogy

The Space Trilogy by C S Lewis

Yes Blog. Your virtual eyes do not deceive you and, if you are anything like me (which you unavoidably are) you will be utterly confounded and gobsmacked (a word Lewis would never have used) to discover that Lewis, the author of the Narnian series, had previously produced a series of three Science Fiction books during the period 1938 to 1944.

Believe me. Upon making this astounding discovery I felt as Galahad must have felt when his eyes fell upon the Holy Grail.  It was on a par with receiving an email from Camelot (can’t seem to escape the Arthurian) telling me I’d won the jackpot. I felt as the husband would feel, should the team on The Curse of Oak Island ever find its legendary treasures.  But many people had got there before me Blog. Whenever I Googled The Space Trilogy, statements such as: ‘Lewis’s celebrated Sci-fi works,’ or ‘Lewis’s classic trilogy’ popped up. ‘What!’ I’d squealed at my laptop. ‘I’ve never heard of it!’

I downloaded all three books to my Kindle. Book 1 is called Out of the Silent Planet (just the sort of haunting, mysterious title I go for.)  Attempting to accurately summarise these books would be a failed enterprise, as I read them so quickly and have forgotten who’s who and what’s what.  Reader, if you are at all interested, you can pop over to a literary blog I discovered a couple of days ago whilst searching for the trilogy. That blog is Books and Boots. It contains lengthy precis on each book in the trilogy (and precis on many, many other books too.)  I also discovered that its author must be of the same vintage as myself, being he tells us he completed an ‘old-fashioned’ English Lit degree, the one where you did Anglo-Saxon and middle-English – Oh, how I recall the obscure difficulties of both.  What I will do is relate how I felt whilst reading these books (overall an experience akin to dabbling in illicit drugs I should imagine.)    

Out of the Silent Planet began well enough. ‘Oh, this is just my kind of late Edwardian thing (actually 1938) I’d thought, as our hero Elwin Ransom, a philologist (only in a book written by an Oxford don could our hero’s superpower be a mastery of ancient languages) is found wandering about the English countryside in search of a place to stay……here I’ll pause to remind myself to conduct an awful lot of future research into Lewis and Tolkien and their time in The Inklings group. For this is a fascinating subject indeed. Without The Inklings, and without Lewis and Tolkien egging (a word they’d have most definitely used) each other on to write fantasy stories (with which to entertain their fellow Inklings at private readings) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings would not exist.  Pause a while to ponder the sometimes-miraculous moments of synchronicity within this chaotic universe.

The comforting old England feeling that book 1 stirred within me began to slowly evaporate as a series of events took place which left me reeling, which left me wondering if this could really be the bloke who’d created Narnia.  For in rapid mind-boggling succession our hero is:

  1. Drugged and beaten up by two dodgy old school mates (Weston and Devine), one a Physics professor (we’re never far from the intelligentsia in these books) the other a businessman, after Ransom breaks into their country estate looking for somewhere to get out of the rain.  He’s then abducted in their spaceship (!)  – conveniently parked up in the back yard – to be whisked away to the planet Malacandra (known to us as Mars.)  Let’s pause here and wonder at the fact that a country estate could serve as the launchpad for a spaceship, without all the rigmarole that goes on at NASA. Let alone how did that spaceship get built? 
  2. All three travel to Malacandra in the nude (here I admit to wondering if Lewis had been ‘on something’ whilst writing) because the massive, spherical spaceship (which somehow fit in the back yard remember) is either extremely hot; or it’s very cold, which occasionally necessitates that our chaps break out the jumpers – there’s not a space suit in sight.  The nudity is an ongoing theme in all three books.  Why, oh why? I would regularly inwardly moan.
  3. Before this psychedelic journey, Ransom had discovered that he is to be given over to the alien inhabitants (the Sorns) of Malacandra by his dastardly school mates (who have been to Malacandra before, like you or I would go on a jaunt to the local shops, or not, in these Covid times) as a sacrifice, so naturally plans an escape once they arrive.
  4. Once he escapes death by the Sorns, he meets a giant, talking, beaver-like alien called a Hross. Do we think the H is silent? I variously pronounced it H-ross, or just Ross in my own head, which meant it entirely lost its alien quality. And, besides this, Narnia anyone?   For, at this early point in the trilogy, a startling realisation dawned.  These books are nothing more than Narnia for grown-ups.  Call them the first drafts of Narnia-world without the kiddiwinks in mind. Call them Narnia through the LSD looking glass. Call them Narnia with all the religious stops pulled fully out.
  5. Ransom naturally learns the giant beaver’s language, being the super-philologist that he is, and realises that this alien is friendly, with a penchant for writing poetry no less, and quite a lot nicer than us humans.
  6. Ransom then travels about Malacandra (still in his birthday suit) which turns out to be a beautiful planet and full of life. There’s edible vegetation, drinkable lakes and vertical mountains, all in wondrous colours of rose pink, purples and blues. One assumes Science knew absolutely zilch about Mars in 1938.
  7. He eventually meets a Sorn in a cave, only to find that they never go in for sacrificing anyone and are a good deal more enlightened than Man.  The Sorns are immensely tall and thin, with long spindly arms and legs (an alien description which has been used many times since Lewis wrote this book.)  Here Ransom is enlightened in the ways of the universe, which happen to be very like the ways of Christianity.
  8. The book ends with a large council of aliens, including the third lot of aliens known as the pfiffltriggi – surely only pronounceable by a Cambridge philologist, never mind being completely hilarious. Here the human trio’s fate (Weston and Devine make an end of book appearance) is decided but not before they’re given a lecture on just how evil Earth (or Thulcandra, to the aliens) is.  Yes, Earth is known as the silent planet by all the aliens in the solar system. This is because Earth is viewed collectively as a bit rubbish;  as somewhere to be avoided at all costs; a sort of celestial no-go area. For Earth has become the home of the evil Eldil (basically Lucifer the supposed fallen angel.) A situation made possible by the Fall of Adam and Eve and, sooner or later, the evil Eldila (plural of Eldil) will bring about Earth’s destruction. After this good news, our three humans are bundled into their spaceship and sent back to Earth, not knowing if they’ll make it back alive.  Ransom thinks he’d rather stay with the friendly giant beavers and who can blame him.
  9. The book ends with a chapter in which we learn that Ransom is the fictitious name of one of Lewis’s mates, who’s been telling Lewis this story for posterity.  That this is not a story at all.  That all the madness actually happened.  One really can’t help wondering if Lewis had consumed one too many pints of his favourite beer, or gone over his 60 cigarettes a day habit, when he wrote the first of what was to become an increasingly looney trilogy.

I’ve left out so much here.  Where to begin with the explicit Christian theology that fills the book and which I found so annoying.  Lewis refers to space as ‘deep heaven.’  Whilst travelling in the impossible spaceship, Ransom has a ‘road to Damascus’ moment. He realises that space is not the empty, black void described by dastardly Science (one senses that Lewis abhorred evil Science for Weston, the Physics Prof, turns out to be the devil incarnate later on.)  No, space is in fact full of life; full of celestial light; full of invisible living forces (Eldila or Angels in Christian-speak) which hold him in a heavenly communion, almost too beautiful to bear. Ransom could stay in deep heaven forever. This amounts to a death wish.  Lewis, of course, finally made Ransom’s wish to live in everlasting wonder a quite horrible reality when he killed off the Narnian children, so they could stay in Narnia forever.  Why couldn’t Lewis see that planet Earth is the only beautiful, wondrous thing in the universe?  Because a) he believed in the Fall of Man b) had lived through two world wars c) believed that mankind was hellbent on self-destruction – that’s why.

Blog, you would think I’d had enough when I reached the end of book 1 but, no, I valiantly set forth on book 2, Perelandra.  Again, I would refer to Books and Boots for a full precis of this novel, as I can’t be bothered.  Here, Lewis’s Christian fundamentalism (for he appears to have believed in the absolute veracity of the Old Testament stories) really comes to the fore. This time Ransom travels to the planet Perelandra, otherwise known as Venus. And Lewis is the narrator of this story, calling in to see Ransom just before he jets off to Perelandra.  Ransom is now living in a blacked-out cottage, for we’ve hit the war years.  Again, I’ll pause here to note that actually I don’t blame Lewis at all for wanting to believe in heavenly, habitable planets that are far, far away.  Wouldn’t you, when you’d fought in the first world war, only to find another one breaking out just 20 years later. One which would feature Nazi concentration camps?

Ransom’s mode of transport to Perelandra, organised by the Eldila and Maledil himself (God to me and you) is a coffin.  Yes, he’s transported to Venus in a narrow, shining white, coffin-like box, again completely starkers and with his eyes bandaged against the sun. His eyes bandaged!  As if a bit of cloth would protect against anything in outer space (sorry, Deep Heaven.)  Of course, this can be nothing but a fantastical version of death and funerals and is disquieting to say the least.  Ransom arrives at Perelandra, gets out of his coffin and finds he’s in paradise.  Couldn’t be a clearer comparison to the Christian idea of Heavenly life after death.

Perelandra is a world of water.   Ransom swims about in this great ocean and, at one point, espies a mountain in the distance, only to find it’s a giant wave which engulfs him.  I felt a tingle of recognition. Did Christopher Nolan read this book?  Surely that scene in Interstellar where they mistake a giant wave for a mountain, whilst parked up on an all-water planet, must have been nicked from Lewis’s imagination. There’s one other person on Perelandra.  A naked green woman. Again, did Star Trek’s infamous green woman originate with Lewis?  It becomes clear that this woman is another Eve, referred to as The Lady. She is innocent, childlike, always questioning. Ransom and the Lady meet, both gaily wandering about starkers (which at least ensures they probably won’t make a mainstream film of this) and it also becomes clear that he’s been sent to Perelandra to save it from a ‘Fall’, like the one that befell Earth when Eve tasted the forbidden fruit.

On Perelandra everything tastes like the nectar of the Gods. Ransom wallows, still in the buff, in the delight of it all. So, now I began to ‘get’ the constant weird nudity. Adam and Eve, the first humans (Lewis believed this was so) were naked until Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and then mankind went to pot. Surprising that an educated bloke like Lewis, who clearly valued his own education and knowledge, would so readily accept the Christian view that knowledge is a Sin.

Other things to note about Perelandra is that Lewis appears to have invented The Force, as in Star Wars.  I kid you not. The goodness in this paradise is referenced as the Force. There’s also a lot of magical ‘dust’ hanging about all over Perelandra; golden and sparkling. Now, I know Philip Pullman thinks Lewis’s fiction is crap (and you can’t really blame him in this instance) but this mention of dust took me back to the Dark Materials saga, Pullman’s own trilogy (which I did not enjoy in the slightest and nearly gave up on.) It’s interesting to note here that both Lewis’s and Pullman’s trilogies are re-workings of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Can I be bothered to read Paradise Lost? I think not.  After the madness of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, it was time for book 3, That Hideous Strength, and what a change in gear this book is.

That Hideous Strength is set in the present day (for Lewis) on planet Earth. I enjoyed this book the most. I sped through it and, at times, felt like I was reading Stephen King, particularly with regard to his novel The Institute.  The story takes place towards the end of World War II and concerns a very young couple (early twenties) who haven’t been married long and already feel disillusioned with married life.  The psychology of the breakdown of this marriage is done exceptionally well by Lewis. As are the characterisations of the university dons and their departmental politics and back biting.  I’m burbling on without explaining anything but then this post is already a meandering mess (bit like the space trilogy.)

That Hideous Strength features an institute in rural Britain called the NICE, which is anything but nice (nice play on words.) Yet again, Lewis foretells future events – do we not now have a N.I.C.E. of our own?  Lewis’s NICE stand for National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments and is an evil place indeed.  Mark, our young, disillusioned husband is a uni sociologist who is eager to get a post at the NICE to further his career and will do anything to get that post.  His wife, Jane, is worrying about losing her sense of self, and her career, as she is now labelled a ‘housewife’ – proving that nothing changes and, more importantly, that one can’t justifiably accuse Lewis of misogyny as he writes about Jane with understanding.  Both Mark and Jane are atheists. We then find out that Jane is a ‘Seer’ as she regularly has dreams of events that are really happening.  And then the true madness begins. A madness which tops even that of the first two books.

The difference being that the madness in this book is truly frightening. There were paragraphs which I actually hesitated to read. It turns out the NICE is a sort of British version of a Nazi concentration camp, all hidden behind English politesse and company politics. Mark is completely unaware of this until the end of the book. This is because he chooses to ignore his feelings of distaste and fear at what’s going on around him, in favour of getting into the topmost inner circle at the NICE (a sort of parallel with what probably happened to some Nazis.)  Pitted against the NICE, we have our old, looney friend Ransom, holed up in a country Manor, drawing together a small band of good people who will help him destroy the NICE.  This merry band consists of Jane (the Seer), a professor and his wife, an atheist Scotsman, a ‘simple,’ working class cleaner, a bear (yes, a bear), a jackdaw, a cat and, eventually, Merlin turns up (yes that Merlin) who, by the by, has been buried under a bit of Mark’s university for 1500 years, and still that’s nowhere near as mad as it gets.

Ransom (now known as the Director) remains hidden away in an intensely beautiful room in his Manor, which transforms the feelings of anyone who enters it. Although Ransom is in his forties, he looks no more than twenty, due to his constant space travel. He is now resplendent with long blond hair and a long golden beard, and with an unearthly quality about him that continually radiates golden beams. This is our first introduction to Aslan, even if Lewis himself didn’t know it. He also has a continually bleeding foot, acquired on Perelandra, which won’t heal, clearly referencing the crucifixion. Ransom has become Jesus.

At NICE everyone continually refers to the Head, who runs the whole thing. Most of the staff never get to meet the Head, except Mark, who then discovers that the Head is just that – a head, as in the decapitated head of some unfortunate bloke, hooked up to a blood supply which keeps it alive, and through which the evil Eldil issues its orders. I found (in the midst of the horror) this play on words hilarious.

There’s a sadistic butch woman who’s head of the NICE police, who are anything but. Think storm troopers. Think goose stepping Nazis.  She’s fat. Dresses in black. Sits down by swinging one leg over the arm of a chair (in a skirt, just so we really get the picture) and keeps an army of pretty young girls about her. She likes to go in for torture. There’s one horrible bit where she burns Jane with cigarette ends.  Everyone who works at NICE is scared for their lives, but also too scared to leave because if you make a run for it, the lesbian (never stated but definitely assumed) has you murdered.

Anyway, the whole thing ends with an almighty bust up at a grand NICE dinner, when Merlin enters centre stage and mayhem ensues. The NICE also carries out vivisection, on the side, and Merlin frees all these poor animals, some in a terrible state as Lewis makes clear, and the animals rush into the dining room and maul most of the guests to death. The finale is an elephant (elephant?) triumphantly trampling many people into a splodgy mess.

Oh, I can’t take it anymore and this post is far too long.  I do want to end with two passages from That Hideous Strength which seem to me to reek of Narnia.  The first is when the bear becomes curious to see what is behind a wall at the end of the Manor garden.

I think there was a sense in the bear’s mind – one could call it a picture – of endless green lands beyond the wall, and hives innumerable, and bees the size of sparrows and waiting there, or else walking, trickling, oozing to meet one, something or someone stickier, sweeter, more golden than honey itself.

Substitute wardrobe for wall and the something, someone for Aslan and you’ve got Narnia.

The second passage is:

That same afternoon Mother Dimble and the three girls were upstairs in the big room which occupied nearly the whole top floor of one wing of the Manor, and which the Director called the Wardrobe. If you had glanced in, you would have thought for one moment that they were not in a room at all but in some kind of forest….’

Thank the God that Lewis worshipped, that Lewis turned his hand to children’s literature to write the Narnian series. Those seven books included quite a lot of the Christian/pagan jumbled madness that fills his space trilogy, but somehow Narnia rose above it all to become a thing of genuine beauty and magic (whatever Pullman thinks.)

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