Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

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'C. S. Lewis Overflow
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, now in stores, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

Out of the Silent Planet, review notes

Several weeks ago I finished reading Volume 3 of Lewis's letters, but it will take another month or six weeks or so to complete writing up the notes on the remaining 400 pages in the volume. But for my continued reading, I returned to Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, volumes one and two of Lewis's "space trilogy" or science fiction novels, all featuring the same central character. I had read all of them about 20 years ago and reread most of the Lewis books in my library as part of my writing of the Everything Guide to Lewis and Narnia book and as part of my current project, a study of Lewis's theosis. That reading included the third and largest of the trilogy novels, That Hideous Strength, but Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra had disappeared from my library. So a few weeks ago I acquired copies of them at a used book store.

In Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, Cambridge University philologist Professor Elwin Ransom is hiking alone in the English countryside when, refused a room by the only inn on the evening portion of his tour, he knocks on the door of a farmhouse that he hopes can offer lodging or at least information on the next likely possibility of finding some. The house's occupants turn out to be "the world's greatest physicist," Westin, and a former schoolmate of Ranson's, Devine. Though Ransom and Devine were never friends, the latter welcomes him in and offers him a drink. But the drink is drugged and soon afterward Ransom awakes to find he is being held prisoner in a space ship manned by his kidnappers. He overhears the information that he is being taken to Mars—known in the Old Solar language as Malacandra—to serve as a human sacrifice in the hands of one of the planet's rational species (all three of which are called hnaus by Malacandrans), the sorns or seroni.

After escaping his captors once on the red planet, Ranson falls in with another species, the hrossa, and, using his skills as a philologist, learns their language, which turns out to be the pure form of "Old Solar." He learns that they have no sense of good and evil and can understand motives like those of Westin and Devine—who plan to mine the gold that's plentiful on Mars and use their planet for human colonization once Earth's resources begin running out—as "bent."

Lewis revealed in correspondence that he was inspired to try his hand at science fiction, after have been greatly impressed by H. G. Wells's First Men on the Moon and David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, and by statements he heard from students at Oxford that humanity's ultimate hope lies in space exploration. He saw this as the secular hope in competition to the Christian hope in resurrection and eternal life with God.

Ransom finds eventually that the seroni, though monstrous looking from human perspective, plan him no harm but have been commanded by their Oyarsa, the roler of their planet, to bring him one of the visitors from Earth for the sake of learning about this "silent" planet. Oyarsas are the Old Solar equivalent of the English "archangels," and (though this is never laid out in as many words in the novel) are to the other inhabited worlds what Satan or the Evil One is to Earth, their lords and the rulers of their "air." But unlike Earth, Malacandra and, as revealed in the second novel, Perelandra, are not fallen. Their Oyarsas serve Maleldil the Young, or God the Son, and His Father, the Creator of their worlds and all others. Earth has not been heard from in the other planets since the time Satan was assigned power over it and was confined to the space reaching only as far as the Earth's moon.

Lewis overturns the theme found in many other science fiction works, including Wells's, that an inhabited Mars would attack the earth when it became depleted, by sending Earthlings to Mars to conquer it and plunder its riches. Though Mars is closer to extinction in Lewis's trilogy than Earth, none of its rational species are hostile, having never been visited by the Fall (the entrance of sin into their world), which is the biblical, Judeo-Christian explanation for the existence of evil in our world and why bad things happen to innocent people as well as to evil ones.

Ransom explains the Earth and its inhabitants as best he can to Malacandra's Oyarsa. Westin and Devine are captured and taken to the planet's ruler for sentencing after they are charged with the murders of at least three hnaus or rational personages. The Oyarsa exiles them to return to Earth, even though they might not make it, and arranges for his eldils (angels of a lower rank) to accompany it and destroy their spaceship after its occupants leave it on earth. Though Ransom is given a choice of returning with his captors or staying in Malacandra, he chooses to return to his people on earth, even though the voyage may not succeed.

Themes from Lewis's nonfiction from years earlier, as well as ones that recur in his children's fantasy novels over a decade after the appearance of the space trilogy, are found throughout the science fiction works.

Notes from the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3
Edited by Walter Hooper, Harper SanFrancisco, 2007, Part 13

The mission of these extensive notes is set out in the introduction of Part 1 of the notes for Volume 1, here.

C. S. Lewis
 portriat by Val Craig Murray1960

The first letter, to the Editor of the Times Educational Supplement, published on January 1 and reprinted on p 1120, advocates the acceptance of phonetic spelling or even individuality in allowable spellings. Surprisingly, as one of the towers of authority in the English language in his generation, Lewis appears to have been a forerunner of the latter-day advocates of ebonics.

To Chad Walsh, January 9, p 1122: "Joy is still quite well except for the lassitude and nausea produced by radio-therapy. Her courage and contentment are, most of the time, incredible."

To Vera Gebbert, January 17, p 1123: "I quite realise that it wd. be difficult to emulate H.B. Stowe's writing in the kitchen. But — we know what the books were like — do we know what the cooking was like? It may have been horrid."

To Sister Mary Celestine Keirns, February 1, p 1130: "Memo: Yeats was a Rosicrucian, an Occultist, and (in intention anyway) a magician. The idea of a pre-cosmic weibliches — 'the world's desire' — may have been to him serious." (Lewis met Yeats at least twice at Oxford when he was a young man and Yeats an aging one.)

A footnote on p 1133 notes that Lewis had recommended "The Infallibility of the Church" by George Salmon to a writer who had asked Lewis about Papal infallibility.

To Pauline Bannister, a reader who was objecting to the absence of Susan among the Friends of Narnia who went with Aslan into "real Narnia" in the end of The Last Battle, February 19, p 1136, after saying he could not write the book Pauline thought should follow this, "Why not try it yourself?"

To Mrs. Robert Manly, Febuary 25, p 1136: "But we must not strictly call them (morally) evil. Moral evil occurs when Rational Soul, able to control these things, refuses to do so."

Same, p 1137: "it is actual evil only when willed."

To Bernard Acworth, March 5, p 1137: "Did you know that your theory of a catastrophic shift in the angle between our axis and the ecliptic is closely paralleled in Milton? P Lost Bk X — or possibly IX. This on his view is one of the ways in which the change of conditions after the Fall cd. have been produced.

"Have you read this book by the Jesuit de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man) wh. is being praised to the skies? This is evolution run mad. He saves 'continuity' by saying that before there was life there was in matter what he calls 'pre-life.' Can you see any possible use in such language? Before you switched on the lights in the cellar there was (if you like to call it so) 'pre-light': but the English for that is 'darkness.' Then he goes on to the future and seems to me to be repeating Bergson (without the eloquence) and Shaw (without the wit). It ends up of course in something uncomfortably like Pantheism: his own Jesuits were quite right in forbidding him to publish any more books on the subject. This prohibition probably explains the succes fou he is having among our scientists — on the same principle whereby Pasternak's (really, v. second rate) novel owes its world-fame to the condemnation of the Russian government."

To Father Peter Milward, SJ, March 7, p 1138: "As an old lecturer may I give a bit of advice about preaching? The joints (we have finished point A: now for B or Here the digression ends) cannot be made too clear. Unless you seem to yourself to be exaggerating them almost absurdly they will escape 9/10 of your hearers. Also, slow, slow. If you want people to weep by the end, make them laugh in the beginning. I hope your priesthood will be blessed. I really agree with your maxim 'the greater the author the less he understands his own work.'"

To Arthur Greeves, March 12, p 1139: "P.S. Get a cat. They're more suitable to us old people than dogs, and a cat makes a house into a home."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, March 26, p 1141: "Things are not, or not much, worse with us, but life is very terrible. I sometimes feel I am mad to be taking Joy to Greece in her present condition, but her heart is set upon it. They give the condemned man what he likes for his last breakfast, I am told."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, April 19, p 1147: "We did get to Greece, and it was a wonderful success. Joy performed prodigies, climbing to the top of the Acropolis and getting as far as the Lion gate of Mycenae. She has (no wonder) come back v. exhausted and full of aches. But I wd. not have had her denied it. The condemned man is allowed his favourite breakfast even if it is indigestible. She was absolutely enraptured by what she saw. But pray for us: the sky grows v. dark.

"I can't begin to describe Greece. Attica is hauntingly beautiful and Rhodes is an earthly paradise — all orange and lemon orchards and wild flowers and vines and olives, and the mountains of Asia on the horizon. And lovely, cheap wines. I've eaten squid and octopus!"

To Audrey Sutherland, April 28, p 1148, he writes about ancient people not having a hope of eternal life, and Christ as being the creator (not the teacher) of "a glorious after life."

Same: "What pleased me enormously in your letter was the bit about Till We Have Faces, for I think it far and away my best book but it has, with the critics and the public, been my one great failure: an absolute 'flop.' No one seems to have the slightest idea what I'm getting at in it."

To Jocelyn Gibb, May 9, p 1151: "Greece was wonderful. We badly need a word meaning 'the-exact-opposite-of-a-disappointment.' Appointment won't do!"

To Cicil Harwood, May 13, p 1152: "Attica, even more than Athens, overwhelmed us both. But Rhodes is the real earthly paradise. In its beautiful crusader city we drank Malvoisie vl Malmsey and did not fail to toast the D. of Clarence."

To Chad Walsh, May 23, p 1154: "I had some ado to prevent Joy (and myself) from relapsing into Paganism in Attica! At Daphni it was hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer. But somehow one didn't feel it wd. have been very wrong — wd. have only been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis. We witnessed a beautiful Christian village ceremony in Rhodes and hardly felt a discrepancy. Greek priests impress one very favourably at sight — much more so than most Protestant or R.C. clergy. And the peasants all refuse tips."

To Delmar Banner, May 27, p 1154: "I'm glad you liked the book [The Four Loves]. I quite agree with you about Homosexuals: to make the thing criminal cures nothing and only creates a blackmailers' paradise. Anyway, what business is it of the State? But I couldn't well have had a digression on that [in a chapter of his book]. One is fighting on two fronts: a. For the persecuted Homo. against snoopers and busybodies. b. For ordinary people against the widespread freemasonry of the highbrow Homos who dominate so much of the world of criticism and won't be v. nice to you unless you are in their set."

To Patricia Mackey, June 8, p 1157-8, he explains that in Narnia Aslan repreents, but does not "symbolize," the Son of God, and lays out other representations.

To Vera Gebbert, June 8, p 1160: "I have not entirely given up hope that a day may come when I shall be able to sample your guestroom, but not yet, or in the foreseeable future." Gebbert had not moved to Maine.

To the Rev. Peter Bide, the dear friend who conducted his and Joy's marriage and prayed for her miraculous remission from cancer, a letter of condolence on the priest's wife contracting the same disease, June 14, p 1161: "I know your faith will stand firm."

Same: Patripassianism = modalism, the teaching that God came (or comes) into the world in three distinct modes, rather than as three distinct persons.

Same, p 1162: "Thanks for the enclosure. Even now such things give me pleasure: I can still play with my toys. Don't be ashamed to play with yours if you have any. The less miserable we succeed in being the more we can do for them.

"Eating is a great stand-by! But, drat it, they've put me on a diet."

To Sir Henry Willink, June 17, p 1164-65: "The moral problem comes down to the question 'Is it probable that the inclusion of these passages will lead anyone to commit an immoral act which he would not have committed if we had suppressed them?' Now of course this question is strictly unanswerable. No one can foresee the odd result that any words may have on this or that individual. We ourselves in youth have been both corrupted and edified by books in which our elders could have foreseen neither edification nor corruption. But to suggest that in a soeity where the most potent aphrodisiacs are daily put forward by the advertisers, the newspapers, and the films, any perceptible increment of lechery will be caused by printing a few, obscure, and widely separated passages in a very long and expensive book, seems to me unrealistic or even hypocritical.

"A very severe moralist might argue that it is not enough to be unable to foresee harm; that we ought, before we act, to be able to foresee with certainty an absence of harm. But this, as you see, would prove too much. It is really an argument against doing, or not doing, any action whatsoever. For they all go on having consequences, mostly unforeseeable, to the world's end.

"I am therefore in favour of printing the whole, unexpurgated, Pepys." (Pepys diary, the prize possession of Magdalene College, Cambridge, had never been published unexpurgated.)

To the Rev. Peter Bide, July 14, p 1169: "Joy died at 10 o'clock last night in the Radcliffe....

"I'd like to meet. Perhaps I cd. come up to town some day when you are in town and take you to lunch at the Athenaeum. For I am — oh God that I were not — very free now. One doesn't realise in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy one must be tied. God bless all three of us."

A note on p 1172 includes the epitaph on Joy's plaque in the crematorium, the poem, "Lenten Lands," which the editor reports "he wrote for his wife."

To Gracia Fay Bouwman, July 19, p 1169, an explanation of his intentions in The Problem of Pain.

To Vera Gebbert, August 5, p 1177: "I can't write more. One of the indirect results of Joy's dath is that I have thousands of things to do which I didn't do before. And, to make matters worse, my brother is away on his holidays so I miss his secretarial help. Perhaps being maddeningly busy is the best thing for me — anyway I am. This is one of those things which make the tragedies of real life so very unlike those of the stage."

To Helmut Kuhn, August 16, p 1178: "any Christian work is implicitly a critique of any age."

To Father Richard Ginder, August 18, p 1178: "It annoys me when parents who read nothing but the newspapers themselves — i.e. nothing but lies, libels, poppycock, propaganda, and pornography — complain of their children reading the Comics! Upon my soul I think the children's diet is healthier than their parents'."

Fr. Ginder was the editor Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic national weekly newspaper with its offices in Newcastle, Pennsylvania.

To Arthur Greeves, August 30, p 1182: "Douglas — the younger boy — is, as always, an absolute brick, and a very bright spot in my life."

Same: "I've brought myself down from 13 stone to just under 11." "Stone," as used here, is the British term for measuring human weight. One stone = 14 pounds. So Lewis had lost 28 pounds and was down to 154 pounds.

A note on p 1182 refers to Lewis's writing about his grieving process in letters after Joy's death in July, and also his undertaking almost immediately to write A Grief Observed, his journal of the grieving process. Writes editor Hooper: "he followed the advice he had given Arthur Greeves many years ago: 'Start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills.'"

To Mrs. Ray Garrett, September 12, p 1183: "We must not bother about thrills at all. Do the present duty — bear the pain — enjoy the present pleasure — and leave emotions and 'experiences' to look after themselves. That's the programme, isn't it?"

To Roger Lancelyn Green, September 15, p 1184: "Oh Hell! What a trial I am to you both! If Warnie really came home on the 23rd — and if he did not come home so drunk as to have to be put straight into a nursing home — I could and wd. with delight come to you on the 24th. But neither is really at all probable. And of course I can't leave this house with no grown-up in charge."

To the Rev. Peter Bide, September 20, p 1185: "I have just come in from saying my morning prayers in the wood, including as always one for 'Peter and Margy and Joy and me,' and found your letter." The letter told him of "Margy's" death on September 17.

To Father Frederick Joseph Adelmann, SJ, September 21, p 1186: "P.S. How right your Society was to shut up de Chardin! Can you explain the enormous boosts now being given to all that Bergsonian-Shavian-pantheistic-biolatrous waffle?"

A note on p 1185 reports that Lewis had finished the manuscript for A Grief Observed by September 21, just over two months after Joy's death.

To Sheldon Vanauken, September 23, p 1187: "My great recent discovery is that when I mourn Joy least I feel nearest to her. Passionate sorrow cuts us off from the dead (there are ballads and folk-tales wh. hint this). Do you think that much of the traditional ritual of mourning had, unconsciously, that very purpose? For of course the primitive mind is v. anxious to keep them away.

"Like you, I can't imagine real Eros coming twice. I still feel married to Joy."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, September 24, p 1188, "As to how I take sorrow, the answer is 'In nearly all the possible ways. Because, as you probably know, it isn't a state but a process. It keeps on changing — like a winding road with quite a new landscape at each bend. Two curious discoveries I have made. The moments at which you call most desperately and clamorously to God for help are precisely those when you seem to get none. And the moments at which I feel nearest to Joy are precisely those when I mourn her least. Very queer. In both cases a clamorous need seems to shut one off from the thing needed. No one ever told me this. It is almost like 'Don't knock and it shall be opened to you.' I must think it over.

"My youngest stepson is the greatest comfort to me."

To Father Peter Milward SJ, September 26, p 1189: "First, about the Grail. I think it important to keep on remembering that a question can be v. interesting without being answerable and one of my main efforts as a teacher has been to train people to say those (apparently difficult) words 'We don't know.' We haven't even got anything that can be quite accurately called 'the Grail legend.' We have a number of romances which introduce the Grail and are not consistent with one another. No theory as to the ultimate origin is more than speculation. The desire to make that origin either Pagan or (less commonly) heretical is clearly widespread, but I think it springs from psychological causes not from any evidence."

To John H. McCallus, September 30, p 1192: "How well Chaucer advised us 'Flee fro the Presse'!"

In a letter to Jocelyn Gibb, p 1194, he reports having "removed some Americanisms from the Toast — put in for the American reader." Screwtape Proposes A Toast was originally written for the Saturday Evening Post.

To Father Quinlan, October 9, p 1195: "Yes — 'little Flower' is a dreadful name to inflict on any decent girl, let alone a saint. What harm we have done ourselves by all this saccharine sentiment! The worst of all is those feminine angels in 19th. century stained glass: as if creatures stronger and more ancient than man were consumptive schoolgirls!"

To Jocelyn Gibb, October 9, p 1196: "I wd. like the dedication to Tolkien so placed that it clearly dedicates not this whole book (wh. I never saw) but only the S. Letters."

A note on p 1201 notes that in medieval usage "clerk" meant "scholar."

To Robin Anstey, November 2, p 1206: "S.F. [science fiction] — however bad most of it is — is now the chief vehicle for 'thoughts that wander up and down eternity.' How trivial, by comparison, are most of the issues presented by our 'serious' novelists!"

A note on p 1209 reports, in referring to Robert Lee Wolff's The Golden Key: A Study of the Major Fiction of George MacDonald, 1961: "In 'An Enduring Friendship,' Remembering C.S. Lewis, p. 217, [Jane] Douglass said: 'This lengthy Freudian study of another of those works seeking to destroy the reputation of an author long dead...Professor Wolff's underlying purpose is to attack Christianity and his references to C.S. Lewis are extremely disagreeable."

To Meredith Lee, December 6, p 1213: "Why did I become a writer? Chiefly, I think, because my clumsiness of fingers prevented me from making things in any other way. See my Surprised by Joy, chapter 1."

Same, p 1214: "I have, as usual, dozens of 'plans' for books, but I don't know which, if any, of these will come off. Very often a book of mine gets written when I'm tidying a drawer and come across notes for a plan rejected by me years ago, and now suddenly realise I can do it after all. This, you see, makes predictions rather difficult!" This may have been the process for Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, but I wonder if it pertained to any other of Lewis's books.

Same: "I enjoy writing fiction more than writing anything else. Wouldn't anyone?"

In a letter to Jocelyn Gibb, p 1214, he addresses him (now) as "Jock."

To Roger Lancelyn Green, December 10, p 1215: "Could anyone but an Englishman have conceived a Latin version of a children's book in such extremely advanced Latin that only an adult could possibly read it? I like that absurdity."

To Belle and Edward A. Allen, December 10, p 1216: "So you have the Christmas racket do you? Well, you have all our sympathies, for here it has got to such a point that by the time the real festival takes place one is often too jaded to enjoy it. . . . We couldn't agree more with you about the madness of the atomic bomb, but what can one do? The Labour folk over here claim that 'unilateral disarmament' is the solution, but this seems to me simply an invitation to the Russians to go ahead with world conquest."

To Jill Freud, December 22, p 1218: "Warnie and I are such old fogies now that neither of us is clear as to what a 'commercial' is; are you one of the people who interrupts the programme to explain that all sensible house-wives use FOAM, DAZ or whatnot?"

—Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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