A New Theology: C.S. Lewis’ “Perelandra”

With the first book in his Cosmic Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis seems to have tried to invent a new Christian mythology—or as he once put it, “smuggle theology” into readers’ minds under the guise of science fiction. For the second book, theology is no longer hidden; it comes right to the foreground and grows right before our eyes.

Elwin Ransom once again sets out an interplanetary adventure, but this time he goes willingly to Venus; or Perelandra as it is known in the book. For what reason he does not at first know, but the eldila (angels) tell him he is needed. On arriving he finds a world almost completely covered by ocean, where islands of vegetation float; a world that has just recently “awoken” into life, and the only two rational beings have been separated. Ransom meets the Woman—this world’s Eve—but when the Enemy lands shortly after, he finally discovers that his calling is to prevent the Fall that happened on our planet from happening on this.

I began to realize partway through this re-reading that Lewis ended up writing a book that tries to expand theology beyond the parameters we normally think within. For example, when Ransom wonders why the people of Perelandra have a human form, the conclusion reached is that the Incarnation of Christ on Earth has affected the whole cosmos; intelligent, rational life conforms to the image of its Creator, and so the Perelandrians who have but recently come alive look like Christ—which is to say, the human form. Lewis also has no qualms about assuming the facts of evolution in a book that is essentially about Eden, which may shock certain readers accustomed to seeing these as antithetical concepts.

The story ends up being a very ‘interior’ one. Ransom is alone for large stretches with nothing but his own thoughts and reactions. One chapter is taken up almost entirely with his inner dialogue about his high calling and the nature of his task: to be God’s representative for the Woman in the debate that will determine the fate of a world.

The suggestion was, he argued, himself diabolical—a temptation to fatuous pride, to megalomania. He was horrified when the darkness simply flung back this argument in his face, almost impatiently. And then—he wondered how it had escaped him till now—he was forced to perceive that his own coming to Perelandra was at least as much of a marvel as the Enemy’s. That miracle on the right side, which he had demanded, had in fact occurred. He himself was the miracle.

Ultimately, Perelandra invites us to consider not simply doctrines of good and evil, or notions of humanity’s calling, but rather the Great Dance of the universe itself. The book culminates in a kind of liturgy, reminiscent of some early church creed or hymn, that stretches to the very depths and heights of what is possible in theology. Lewis shows off some of his poetic skill, showing us the remarkable scenery on the intellectual roads he’s travelling. It makes this second installment not just a high point of the Cosmic Trilogy, but of Lewis’ entire ouevre.

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