When, some four months ago, Mr. Clive Staples Lewis' novel Out of the Silent Planet was published I decided, after reading it,to be a nice boy and keep quiet about it. But now a sequel by the title of Perlandra comes along, and now something has to be said about these two novels. And it is entirely Mr. Lewis' fault if this "something" turns out to be nasty.
These two novels are not the first of Mr. Lewis' literary endeavors. The book jacket of the first states that Mr. Lewis, who was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1898 and is since 1925 Tutor of Magdalen College, Oxford, England, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1936 with a book The Allegory of Love. I don't know this book, nor do I know his Screwtape Letters which are said to have been received with enthusiasm in this country. And after reading Perlandra I wonder whether I would like to find out about these two earlier works.
Out of the Silent Planet may be classified as a science fiction story. Its hero is one Dr. Ransom, a philologist of Cambridge, who unexpectedly encounters two old school friends during a hiking trip. These two, after ascertaining that nobody will look for him for quite some time, abduct and drug him and when he awakes he finds himself on board of a spaceship bound for Mars. It transpires that the two, of whom Dr. Weston is important, have been on Mars before, that they encountered an intelligent or semi-intelligent race which demands a human sacrifice before it lets them have their way on Mars (whatever that way may be). The hiking philologist is to be that sacrifice and accepting the error of the other two as fact he behaves rather foolishly at first.
However, he quickly comes to an understanding with the intelligent races on the rosy world of Malcandra (Mars). There are three, the seal like inhabitants of the canyons, representing literature and poetry, the tall and oddly semi-human Sorn of the highlands who represent scientific and abstract thought, and the small and hardly identified Pfpffltriggi, representing mechanical aptitude. Once having entered upon the road of symbolism the story, as a story, begins to deteriorate. Then two things happen to enliven it again. One is that the other two earthmen, mainly Dr. Weston, behave abominably. The other is that suddenly a fourth and invisible race makes its appearance, the elida. The elida, one quickly guesses, are really angels. There are ranks among them and the top for the planet is represented by Oyarsa, the archangel of Mars.
While the earthmen, except for the hero, of course, behave badly, the story builds up to a climax, the judgement passed upon them by the wise Oyarsa. But the speech of the wise Oyarsa is an awful letdown. It is, as Hitler's biographer Konrad Heiden has said of the Fuhrer, both "terrible and banal", one cannot help but feel that there was no need for a trip to Mars to hear philosophical discussions of that type. You can hear that anywhere, anytime, on earth, and it sounds much more bearable out of the mouths of mere humans.
The story ends with the earthmen brought back to earth by the powers of the eldila, the ship being destroyed by the same powers shortly after landing. The reader's reaction at the end of the book is a mixture of sweet and bitter tastes. Mr. Lewis has an almost unique ability for drawing word pictures of an alien landscape. Mars, in this book, is really alien, not just an arctic salt-desert (which it probably is). And Mr. Lewis has a most amazing choice of words, his style is wellnigh perfect, there is hardly a point where an editor could try to improve. But it hurts somewhat to see this literary splendor wasted on tiresome and inconclusive discussions.
In Perlandra these good points of the first novel are still there, having shrunk to a few scattered dozen pages. And all the bad points of the first are there too, with a vengeance. This time it is Venus, described as a planet consisting of ocean, fresh water ocean, only, with floating garden islands with delicious fruit, and only one (and incidently forbidden) Fixed Land. (Later on there is suddenly another fixed land which is not forbidden.) Dr. Ransom is brought thither by way of eldila magic in a glass coffin, for the express purpose of preventing the second downfall of Eve, the new Eve of the floating islands, temporarily without her King.
While Dr. Ransom still wonders about the new world into which he has been thrust a spaceship pops out of the golden sky, containing Dr. Weston, possessed by the Fallen Archangel. And then a hundred pages of intellectual seduction follow without any breathing space. Dr. Weston, to quote from the book directly, is "a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of scientifiction, in little interplanetary societies and rocketry clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area:"
But this Dr. Weston, the scientist, because he is a scientist, is also the vessel of the Devil. The trouble experienced by Mr. Lewis is this, that according to his own doctrine all future humanities must have human shape, because Christ assumed human shape. The other trouble experience by Mr. Lewis is that in all the discussions which go through the book, dripping transcendental nonsense as they crawl along, the Devil is usually right. And the solution is what one would expect of a philosopher: Dr. Ransom has to kill Dr. Weston with his bare hands, to destroy the vessel of the Evil. After which the archangels of Mars and Venus speak as no archangel should and Eve finds her King and the reign begins, hinting, curiously enough, that after the evil spirit of Earth has been subjugated, space would be thrown open to humanity. This is, at least, what is sounds like to me, any other reading of the same paragraphs is probably just as acceptable.
Mr. Lewis seems never to have seen a scientist in the flesh, else he would not ascribe to them the behavior of slave traders and those of politicians which have made a bad name for all politicians.
What he really describes is the behavior of a type which by now seems to be extinct, the behavior of the fanatical missionary who, like Eyraud on Easter Island, destroyed irreplacable material just because it was "heathen". What Mr. Lewis really needs is a great deal of factual knowledge, including a few courses in the principles of scientific method and scientific thinking. Because of this lack of his, Perlandra, in spite of it's still admirable style, and in spite of some intriguing scenes and landscapes, is a thoroughly bad book.
Data entry by Judy Bemis
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