Perelandra // C.S. Lewis.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the first time I read Perelandra I did not enjoy it. I would like to fully recant my previous sentiment with wholehearted repentance: Perelandra is a brilliant stroke of theological rumination. I think before I was on the heels of Out of the Silent Planet‘s more adventurous narrative that I was dismayed by long stretches of what seemed like circular philosophical discourse. But Perelandra is its own luminance, and the philosophical discourse transformed into an exciting, existential face-off between pure evil and good-in-training.

Ransom embarks on another, his last, interstellar space mission. He is chosen not because Ransom is particularly a remarkable person. It’s simply because he knows Old Solar, the ancient language of the planets beyond Thulcundra, the silent planet, earth. Sometimes, or often, the most remarkable missions are taken by the most unseeming people. Ransom tells Lewis: “Don’t image I’ve been selected to go to Perelandra because I’m anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.” In stark contrast with Ransom’s unremarkable status is how epic, even ambitious, his mission. Ransom is tasked, in short, to prevent a second Fall on the younger planet Perelandra, or Venus. At the time of his sending, however, he does not yet know the scale following his simple obedience.

By the time Ransom lands on Perelandra the planet is still bubbling with creative activities: floating islands are carried by waves, save one fixed land. Ransom rides one of these floating islands (from the descriptions, it seems more like standing on top of a waterbed than a large freight boat) until he happens upon a Lady in a neighboring island. She frolics gracefully with her luminous, bare green skin. He makes contact. Her speech is light and her presence affable with an aura of innocence, much like child-likeness. Still quite unsure what Ransom is to do, they talk about each other’s home: most particular is Maleldil’s prohibition for the Lady to spend the night on the singular fixed land.

Then arrives Weston. His steps and speech are more off-setting than usual. After an odd chat about the human spirit with Ransom, Weston stalks the Lady not with sexual appetite but certainly a lust to corrupt. Weston wants the Lady to spend the night on the fixed land and thereby break Maleldil’s prohibition.

From this point in the book the next third is devoted to some intense dialogue. Weston, who is later discovered to be merely a possessed body by the fallen eldila of earth, wants to corrupt the Lady by luring her to embrace complete autonomy from Maleldil. Ransom tirelessly tries to defend Maleldil and His mysterious ways. The Lady wavers back and forth, sometimes being drained by Weston’s words and other times rejuvenated by Ransom’s—-and sometimes she just tells them to be quiet as she goes to sleep. This portion is chock-full of brilliant sayings; yes, even some of Weston’s are insightful, much how The Screwtape Letters are. Below are some of my favorite lines:

“To walk out of His will is to walk into nowhere.” // Lady
“Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” // Ransom
“We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will. And there could be no such way except a command like this. Out of our own will.” // Lady

A personal favorite is chapter 11, Ransom’s internal voyage of discovering the intense melding of freedom and predestination, of what we ought to do and what God does, of what it means to be God’s viceroy. There are rare moments when a person realizes that some divine destiny is inevitable. The realization is almost overwhelming to the point that questioning free choice is moot. In fact, they meld into obedience.

From here the story takes an awesome turn. I’ll let curious readers read for themselves.


There are two themes I want to touch on further. First is feminism. I’m not sure what Lewis’s position is—-I figure it’s still quite conservative by our standards—-but some of the reasoning Weston voiced sounds awfully like what feminism would say: women should live autonomously, no need to listen to (male) authority figures, pursue her own beauty, live confidently, etc. I don’t think Lewis is as flat as to say feminism and her arguments are evil by putting them on the Weston’s lips. But maybe Lewis is alarmed or uncomfortable with how divisive and isolating some feminist voices could be. Take how Ransom fumbled over words in response to Weston: often times he agreed with Weston’s diagnosis—-the world have grievously silenced women—-but disagreed with some of his prescription—-namely, becoming a wholly separate individual.

The second is this idea of how “the same wave never came twice.” It comes early in Ransom’s interaction with the Lady after observing some floating islands pass by. The idea lingers in the background, much like how a wave comes and goes. At first I had no idea where Lewis was going with this. Things clicked, however, when I came upon Isaiah 43:18-19:

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Often Ransom felt stuck while arguing with Weston. He kept remembering what happened on earth and imagined how things could have gone differently. But what if God is doing a new thing? I mean, floating islands, green skins, and dragons (yes, there are dragons on Perelandra) sound awfully different than earth. The old paradigms of Thulcundra do not fit nicely on Perelandra. A new thing is scary because it’s uncharted territory, but God still goes with us—springing life out of deserts.

  1. I tried to get through this myself a couple years ago but my taste in SF leans more toward the speculative, Ballardian variety. Perelandra struck me as more fantasy than science fiction, (partly a result of the hopelessly dated cosmology) but your analysis has made me want to revisit it. Thanks for the review!

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    1. Honestly, I was just as surprised, and maybe that’s why I liked Perelandra on the second read so much—it was a pleasant surprise! Let me know what you think after you revisit it! Also, “Ballardian”—that’s a new term. Which Sci-Fi would you recommend? Ender series is what initially got me hooked.

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  2. Ballardian as in relating to or evoking the works of J. G. Ballard. Like “Pinteresque” (another favorite of mine). His most famous – or infamous- novel is ostensibly Crash, part of his disaster trilogy along with Concrete Island and High Rise. I honestly haven’t read that much SF but I did like Ballard’s short stories though some were a little bleak.

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