[Editor’s Note: See the commentary on the first book in the Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, here.]
As the second book of the Space Trilogy begins, C.S. Lewis himself arrives at the cottage of his friend Dr. Elwin Ransom. In the dark hall of the cottage, he finds—to his terror—the Oyarsa of Mars. In the shock of this vision, Lewis admits:
I felt sure that the creature was what we call “good,” but I wasn’t sure whether I liked “goodness” as much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?
Thus we are introduced to the dominant theme of Perelandra, a novel where Ransom is sent by order of Maleldil to Venus. Good and evil, it turns out, are not so clichéd as we like to comfortably think; for good can be deeply unpleasant, while evil can seem both unstoppable and even reasonable. Ransom’s fight against Satan himself for the soul of a new world and an alien Adam and Eve forces us to come to terms with how very pastoral the Father of Lies can be and how “brutish and backward” the soldiers of God must, at times, become.
Unlike his trip to Mars in the previous novel, Ransom’s mode of transportation to the planet Venus is a sort of coffin powered by angelic forces. He knows he has been sent to stop something on the planet, but what it is, he does not know. Perelandra, upon first inspection, appears to be a series of floating islands that move along giant waves of a freshwater ocean. Venus is an unfallen paradise peopled only by the Green Lady, who Ransom encounters on one such floating island, and her missing husband, the King. While the earthly Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge, this new pair have been forbidden to live on the Fixed Land.
Soon enough, Ransom discovers his adversary: Dr. Weston, the scientist who had kidnapped him and brought him to Mars, has also come to Venus. However, between these adventures, Weston has experienced a conversion from his atheism and arrives on Venus a confirmed believer in “spirituality.” His scientific prowess has prepared him, he claims, to become a fitting vessel to spread the Spirit. As Ransom voices his doubts, Weston exclaims: “Like all you religious people. You talk and talk about these things all your life, and the moment you meet the reality you get frightened.” This is only too true, but Ransom has cause to be quite frightened as Weston’s body is suddenly possessed by that same spirit, and he becomes the horrifying, corpse-like Un-man.
Here is the first difference between good and evil, and it is cold comfort for Ransom, who must face this Un-man: the devil does not respect the free will of his followers and, in possessing them, lends them his terrible powers. As he watches the Un-man eloquently attempt to convince the Green Lady to live on the Fixed Land, Ransom frets about how unfair it all is. Where is Maleldil in all of this? Why won’t he intervene? Why can’t there be a miracle to save them from the Father of Lies? By contrast, due to the deep respect God has for the free will of his creatures, all the miraculous intervention coming in this tempting of a second Eve is the unlikely and unpromising presence of Ransom himself.
And the fight is not fair. As Ransom struggles to explain to the Green Lady how the Un-man is bad, his argument is anticipated and turned against him. The problem with debating with evil is one which Christians have encountered time and again but which bears remembering: evil is not simply the opposite of good. It is good that has been bent and marred. Ransom’s arguments fail more times than they succeed because the Un-man uses mostly truth to support the deepest falsehoods. In admonishing her to break Maleldil’s commandment out of true piety, or out of unselfish regard for others, the Un-man should remind readers of certain pastoral and humanitarian calls to excuse sin in the name of charity, or to condone deeply damaging actions for the sake of “the weakest among us.”
The Green Lady ends her initial encounter with the Tempter by not taking his bait. Instead, she turns to praise Maleldil and his wisdom, and in doing so, all of creation sings about her. Ransom gets the sense that there has been a crisis averted and that perhaps all shall now be well. However, the Un-man becomes a nagging propagandist, patiently and persistently wearing the Lady and Ransom down. As the days of “dialoging” drag on, Ransom becomes aware of a quiet voice in his head insisting, “this cannot continue.”
It is in the Un-man’s best interest to keep the conversation going, so exhausting and bewildering and convincing as it has become. But, at a certain point, dialogue and debate with the Evil One and his instruments cannot go on. Human wills cannot be subjected to too much battery, especially those, like the Green Lady, who are young and impressionable.
Ransom attempts to squirm out of the fight in a way so very relatable. Fighting the good fight could not possibly be waged on any plane other than the spiritual! Or maybe it would be better for the Lady to fall…there is the tradition of the felix culpa, after all, and God can draw straight with crooked lines. Or maybe he can simply rely on the forgiveness of God after his inevitable failure to stop a foe that, after all, is too big for one man to face.
In other words, Ransom is like so many of us who, after talking about it all our lives, suddenly become paralyzed with fear when we encounter the moment of action because it is so dreadful and uncomfortable, so unpolite and painful to do what Christ insists we do. Can’t we just talk about it some more?
At last, Ransom attempts to reason with the inner voice that he cannot be called to take upon his shoulders such a Christological role. How arrogant—he pleads—to take upon himself the salvation of the world and to do literal battle against powers and principalities! But that is exactly what he—and we—are called upon to do, freely offering ourselves as an instrument in the hand of Christ.
And so, Ransom must literally wrestle with the devil, like John Vianney, grappling in brutal, physical combat. And like Christ himself, the other and greater ransom, Ransom must battle Satan in the darkness of the underworld and cast him into the fire. As Ransom hurls a stone to crush the head of the Un-man, he shouts, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here goes—I mean Amen!” Limping away from the fight, Ransom discovers a wound on his heel that will not heal: a stigmata to mark one who has battled past his fears and doubts to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
The dark reality of the Un-man is that, in bending truth, Satan ensnares his followers, depriving them of their individuality and humanity. In becoming the tool of Christ, Ransom gains greater freedom, maintaining his individuality and humanity. Meanwhile, the Lady and the King, reunited, learn the true reason for Maleldil’s command not to live on the Fixed Land: the free choice to humbly obey the Loved One is the true path to freedom.
As the new Adam and Eve are crowned king and queen of Perelandra by the eldila, they inherit authority and freedom that is vastly more divine than the bent promise of becoming like God. Ransom is reduced to tears at the sight of the King; as unfallen man, he is made wondrously in the image of Christ.
Fresh from his fight on Perelandra, the saintly Ransom is returned to this vale of tears to do further battle against the Bent One in That Hideous Strength—a novel eerily prophetic of the type of evil that has arisen in the twenty-first century.