Friday Book Pick: Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
This book merits a genre of its own. I would call it “theological science fiction” somewhat heavier on theology than science. Perelandra, the second of C.S. Lewis’ famed space trilogy, can be read on its own, or as the second of an excellent series of three. For those of you thinking, “sci-fi just isn’t my thing,” this may be the book to broaden your reading horizon. Perelandra is a portal to another world, a world that springs from not only a vivid, highly educated and informed imagination, but also, and importantly, from a Christian imagination, for the author was a disciple of Jesus (a convert to Christianity) and a thinker, and thankfully, also a writer.
In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis creates, with remarkable believability, an interplanetary adventure. The protagonist, philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom, is transported from Earth to Venus (Perelandra) by created beings called eldila that neither “breathe nor breed,” which we would classify as angels. The world in which Dr. Ransom finds himself is younger than Earth. It is new—in fact, Ransom is a witness to its birth, so to speak—and furthermore, it is unfallen.
Awakening in an altogether different atmosphere, Ransom is now under skies of pure, flat gold, “like the background of a medieval picture,” of which the ocean is a gleaming, golden reflection, with golden layers swirling with greens deepening into blues. Allow me to warn you that early on you will likely pine for an illustrated edition of Perelandra. Vincent van Gogh would have been the perfect candidate for the job, but he died 8 years before C.S. Lewis was born. If you have ever seen van Gogh’s Wheatfields with Cypresses, you will need no convincing that the Dutch impressionist would have been the one to have made Perelandra’s oceans ebb and flow, and its unworn, red mountains point victoriously to the heavens of unearthly golden gleam.
C.S. Lewis, with only paper for canvas and words for paint, brings us with awe-filled wonder to a vivid experience of the birth of a world, shimmering in newness of life: full of swimming things, flying, crawling and climbing things, and most wondrously of all, the first parents of an unfallen race. Dr. Ransom lands in paradise. And everything about his initial experience is charged with pleasure without pain — entirely free of guilt or shame. Lewis brings us face-to-face with innocence and purity, and he also brings us face-to-face with living malice—evil personified.
The “Eve” of Perelandra is innocent, integrated and free. She is both strong, the master of her own perfect body, and beautifully natural in thought, word and deed. She is entirely without pretense and she is unadorned by any extraneous, masking thing. She is honest and forthright with no manipulation or slightest shade of deceit. She is without shame, for she is without sin. She is full of wonder and possesses the seeds of wisdom. Furthermore, she is in personal, interior communion with her creator—Maleldil—who makes truth available to her directly. “‘How do you know that?” asked Ransom in amazement.
‘Maleldil is telling me,’ answered the woman.”
It does not take long for Ransom to discover the reason he has been brought to this new world: it is to prevent the horror that happened on our own world when Eve listened to the Tempter and followed his suggestion to distrust and to disobey. It is as if the whole book rises out of the question: “What if…?”
“What if Eve had not listened to the Tempter?”
“What if the enemy had been defeated in the beginning?”
“What if our first parents had remained in paradise?”
“What if Adam and Eve had been able to grow, unaltered by sin, into what God intended them to be?”
C. S. Lewis, by allowing his Christian imagination soar, brings us to a broadened reality: a world that allows for both empirical knowledge and supernatural grace, a world that allows the laws of nature and the laws of God. Imagination, adventure, suspense and drama, coexist in this book, animated by eternal theological truths. Through the lens of a beautiful, unsullied world and an unfallen woman and man, there is matter for much pondering. It may be too late for van Gogh to try his hand at the scenic vistas of Perelandra, but our own God-given imagination will be provoked to illustrate this unforgettable tale, sparking fresh new ideas that might even carry you into prayer.
Mother Clare, CFR