Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Perelandra (Voyage to Venus)

by C. S. Lewis
originally published by John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943
206 pages

Last month, we saw parallels between C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet and Gulliver's Travels. Given that Lewis was a professor of English literature, it's not surprising that the second book in his space trilogy Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) also links up to a famous literary work: John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost.

Perelandra raises the two questions that all Christians think of when reading Genesis 3 or Paradise Lost: How might the fall have been prevented, and why allow temptation into the world in the first place? To explore these questions, Lewis takes Ransom to Venus this time rather than Malacandra, and on a mission rather than in a kidnapping.

Milton's poem focuses most on two characters in his (much elaborated) account of the fall into sin: Satan and Eve. Lewis does the same. Satan is the ultimate personification of pride, just as Weston (whom we met in the earlier novel) personifies the pride inherent in Enlightenment rationalism - the belief that man's unaided reason can solve all problems. He uses what he believes is his superior reason to bring the Eve of Perelandra - who is simply called the Queen - a Venusian version of feminism. The Queen of Perelandra lives on one of the floating islands of the planet (which are masterfully described by Lewis), and Weston seeks to get her to wonder why on Venus she shouldn't take control of her own life, and enter the forbidden Fixed Land.

The debate that follows, with both Weston and Ransom both trying to convince the Queen of their respective viewpoints, is, if anything, weighted in favor of Weston's feminism, since the majority of the history and literature of Western culture that Weston drags in can be seen as either the degradation or the exaltation of women. Either way, women in our culture have been given plenty of reason to feel either aggrieved or superior. Ransom, on the other hand, can only appeal to his and our imperfect grasp of what God intends for creation, for man, and for woman. Ransom does not see how he can win in a contest where his opponent can use any lie he chooses and Ransom can only use the little relevant truth he understands.  Is his debating skill enough to confront the persistent temptation that Weston brings to Perelandra? If not, what else can Ransom do to defend the truth?

The beauty and insight of the truth (as far as Lewis, and Ransom, see it) of God's intention for creation, for man, for woman, and for the angels without the intrusion of sin makes Lewis's novel more than just suspenseful; it also rises in the end to the epic skill of Milton's poem.

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