I approached this book with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. I loved it so much the first time I read it as a teenager, could it possibly live up to my memories of it?
The answer is yes.
Perelandra (originally published in 1943), is the second book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, describing the further adventures of Ransom, which began in Out of The Silent Planet.
The book begins with Lewis going to Ransom’s house in response to a message and dealing with a strange compulsion to “turn back” along the way.
But he perseveres and once he arrives he discovers Ransom (and Oyarsa, the ruling angel — eldil— of Malcandra) needs his help in sending Ransom to Venus (called Perelandra) to forestall an attack of some sort orchestrated by Earth’s “bent” Oyarsa.
Lewis does so, and the rest of the story is told by Lewis in the form of an account of the affair from Ransom, related to Lewis after his return a little more than a year later.
Ransom discovers that Perelandra is a watery world, and that most of the “land” is composed of floating islands, which lie atop the swells of the sea, affording them a peculiar landscape which always shifts with the motion of the water. We are given the impression of a beautiful, mysterious world, full of pleasures so sharp Ransom can hardly bear them.
In Lewis’ writings he often explores his idea that “what is myth on one world is reality on another”. This comes into play when Ransom finds a dragon-like creature, and especially when he meets the Queen of Perelandra, who is a beautiful green woman, seemingly the living representation of the goddess Venus.
It quickly becomes apparent that this Lady is alone in the world but for her King, from whom she has become separated due to the islands upon which they were on being separated by the waves. It is also very quickly apparent to Ransom that this Lady is one untouched by the Fall – that she is as Eve once was before her corruption by Satan.
Ransom, who was half-expecting encountering some other sentient creatures as he found in Malacandra, is a little dismayed to discover that Perelandra is “newer” than Malacandra, and the events in our own world have ensured that such creatures will never be seen again. As the Lady says, “Since our Beloved became a man, how should Reason in any world take on another form? That is all over. Among times there is a time that turns a corner and everything this side of it is new. Times do no go backward.”
This little snippet of her speech will give you a sense of the conversations Ransom begins to have with the Queen. He is in turns flummoxed, challenged, and confused. She is utterly unique to him – and, he to her. As he speaks to her she grows delighted in becoming “older” by his introduction to her of concepts such as time. It begins to dawn on him that he must be careful in what he says to her, for who is he to teach this uncorrupted one the meaning of such things that we as humans wish we did not know, things such as pain, or death? Is this his task that he was sent there to do? As Lewis writes after an exchange in which Ransom tries to explain the meaning of regret:
Ransom wondered what he had done. It was suddenly borne in upon him that her purity and peace were not, as they had seemed, things settled and inevitable like the purity and peace of an animal – that they were alive and therefore breakable, a balance maintained by her mind and therefore, at least in theory, able to be lost.
During the course of their conversations Ransom discovers that there is indeed “fixed” land (non-islands) in Perelandra, but that Maledil (God) has forbidden the Lady and her King to sleep there overnight. In response to his desire to see it, the Queen takes him there. But before Ransom can discover any more, they are interrupted by the arrival of a space-ship and in it is Weston, the brilliant, arrogant physicist who was the originator of Ransom’s first voyage in space.
However the sun is going down and the Lady must leave the Fixed Land, so Ransom has time with Weston alone, to determine what he is doing on Perelandra. Weston begins to pontificate in his usual pompous way about his purpose, some kind of new theory about spreading spirituality among the planets, but is overcome by a strange fit as night falls.
In the morning the terrible truth becomes apparent – Weston has been overtaken by an evil spirit, his body merely the host for a demonic presence, the bridge by which one of the bent eldila has been transported to this uncorrupted planet.
And so begins the heart of the book: the temptation of this Eve by what Ransom calls the Un-man, for little of Weston is left in his shell of a body. The temptation is, of course, to do the one thing that Maledil has forbidden: to spend the night on the Fixed Land.
The Un-man and the Queen begin a conversation where Ransom is mainly kept silent, due to the creature’s ability to convince the Queen that it is Ransom who must not be listened to, that it is the Un-Man himself who will make the Lady “older”.
It is difficult to summarize this part of the book, and difficult to explain to you the fascinated horror with which I read it. Along with Ransom, we are given a glimpse into what, perhaps, it might have been like at the dawn of our own world. I remember the awe in which I read this the first time around, and I can say my appreciation for it has only grown. I, too, am “older” now, and the face of evil portrayed here is very more familiar to me than it was when I first read it.
The Un-Man, the demonic vessel, is a horrific creature. But this is no two-dimensional devil. The sheer banality, stupidity and yet cunning of evil is portrayed with skill. The unrelenting nature of the temptation is familiar to us who live here under Enemy siege, as it were. All through the day he cajoles, flatters, and urges the Queen to consider the value of going against Maledil’s will. And through the night, when the Lady is sleeping and Ransom tries to guard her, he torments Ransom by repeating over and over again, “Ransom” and when Ransom replies, “What?”, the reply is, “Nothing.” It nearly drives Ransom mad, until he steels himself by the thought that he would rather hear his own name over and over than that one word, “nothing”.
As the days pass Ransom tries to interject into the Un-man’s discourses with the Lady, but he is easily dismissed. And so the dawning realization comes to him that the only way to be rid of the Un-man is to kill him in a fight, however reluctant he is to engage the creature in combat. He is given the choice: to obey or not.
It is clear that Ransom is a Christ-figure in this book. For, as Maleldil Himself says to him, “My name is also Ransom.” And so, once he understands what is to be done and the risk to himself, Ransom has his own night of struggling with the task before him; the cup waiting to be taken. And then he endures the physical struggle against the creature, the pain and the difficulty of besting one who means to kill you.
I won’t tell you the ending, I urge you to read it for yourself. I can’t imagine you’d be sorry. This book is a beautiful, haunting reflection on temptation, evil, and sacrifice.
Coming next month: That Hideous Strength, book three in the Space Trilogy.
Have you read this book? Tell me your thoughts, I would love to hear them!