(Note: this post was inspired by a book discussion at Holy Name Cathedral in December 2018. Spoilers ahead.)
C.S. Lewis’s cosmic trilogy begins with Out of the Silent Planet, one of his earliest published works of fiction. Three men from Earth travel to Malacandra (Mars) on a spaceship. Devine is motivated by riches. Weston is interested in colonization. And the protagonist, Ransom, is forced by the others to come along to satisfy (what the other two perceive to be) a sacrificial demand from a Malacandrian overlord.
The book follows Ransom as he explores Malacandra and encounters its three races of rational creatures. Sorns are tall and thin and value scientific knowledge; hrossa are tall and furry and value the poetic; pfifltriggi are forest-dwellers who are artisans and craftsmen. They each have their own languages but also speak Malacandrian, a language understood by all.
Out of the Silent Planet is brief and its plot is straightforward. Scholars who discuss the cosmic trilogy rarely spend much time on it, typically preferring to devote more attention to the second and third books in the series. I agree with them in favoring the subsequent books. But the first book does have some memorable passages and ideas. And, as it comes so early in Lewis’ publishing career, we can find in it seeds of themes that would grow to pervade his later writing, especially his fiction.
Many of the noteworthy observations come from Lewis’ depiction of an unfallen world inhabited by three rational races. As Ransom encounters the hrossa and begins to learn their language, he slowly discovers that they do not suffer from the concupiscence of humanity. Ransom is surprised to find that, in this unfallen world, only the insane violate moral norms: “Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversions.”
Ransom moves from being mystified by the hrossa to realizing that the hrossa are straightforward and we are mysterious:
At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle…. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man?
Particularly surprising is the unfallen view of danger and death. The hrossa view the predatorial hnakra with thunderous excitement, rather than with mortal fear as we would. They are excited by the possibility of overcoming the hnakra. They are more spurred on to fight and win than they are deterred by the possibility of failure. The risk adds meaning and value to life:
The hnakra is our enemy, but he is also our beloved.
I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.
In contrast, humans are considered “wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it.” Ransom worries about the risks that the Malacandrians do not worry about. The unfallen see clearly the moral risks taken by the fallen, and the fallen see the physical risks undertaken without concern by the unfallen. The Oyarsa (the planet’s angelic guardian) tells Ransom: “The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.”
Focusing on one virtue to the detriment of the others makes one “bent”, and a bent person is more dangerous than a broken one. Devine is broken, only wanting wealth. Weston is bent. He thinks he’s doing good. The Oyarsa says Weston can therefore be rehabilitated, but also that he is more dangerous than Devine. A merely-bent person is more dangerous than a broken person. This is one strand of a frequently-expressed theme in Lewis’ writings: the most dangerous temptations are those that appear good (cf. The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, Till We Have Faces, inter alia).
The Oyarsa interrogates Weston: “He [i.e., the bent Oyarsa on Earth] has only bent you; but this Thin One [i.e., Devine] who sits on the ground he has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed. He is now only a talking animal and in my world he could do no more evil than an animal. If he were mine I would unmake his body, for the hnau in it is already dead. But if you were mine I would try to cure you. Tell me, Thick One, why did you come here?”
Weston responds with an explanation based on colonialist ideals, but he doesn’t speak the Malacandrian language. Ransom attempts to translate Weston’s defense, but this is difficult because Ransom has only learned the basics of the language during his brief time on Malacandra. The reader is treated to Weston’s refined version as well as Ransom’s translation, which is faithful but simplified and halting. In the process of translation, Weston’s speech is stripped of its sophistication and sounds absurd.
A theme throughout the cosmic trilogy is the idea that evil uses language to hide itself in flowery terms. But the young, simple, and innocent see through the nonsense. This idea reappears in Ransom’s inner monologues in the second book in the trilogy, Perelandra, and expands as a major theme in the third book, That Hideous Strength.
Earlier I mentioned that scholars don’t spend as much time on Out of the Silent Planet as its sequels. However, what is near-universally cited is the passage describing Ransom’s conversion from the concept of “space” to that of “the heavens” as his ship travels outside the Earth’s atmosphere:
But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory…
This realization takes place early in the story as Ransom is leaving Earth. By the end of the book, Ransom’s sense of the life of space is broadened further, as he learns that it is teeming with eldila (angel-like creatures). When he returns to Earth, he seeks to convert others to this way of thinking. Near the end of the book, Ransom and his collaborator, the unnamed narrator, state: “If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a changeover from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”
Lewis’s own “changeover” was driven by his discovery of the beauty, richness, and systematicity of the Medieval cosmos with its seven planetary bodies: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. He continued to pursue the ideas and ideals of the Medieval cosmos throughout his fiction and academic work. Perelandra and That Hideous Strength further explore the archetypes of the heavenly bodies and how they relate to cosmic masculinity and femininity, as well as to courage, war, music, and language. Each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia is infused with elements of one of the seven planetary bodies (cf. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia). Lewis’s final book, The Discarded Image, studies the centrality of the Medieval cosmological model in Medieval thought and its influence on their theology, science, and history. In its epilogue, he writes of the Medieval model: “Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.”
Lewis’ study of Medieval literature, in particular the Medieval cosmos, deeply affected him with its richness, order, and archetypal clarity. It was not because the Medieval cosmos was literally (scientifically) true, but because its structure and archetypes possessed and communicated truths. Through Medieval literary study he was elevated to the heavens and upon his return to Earth he, like Ransom and the unnamed, Lewis-like narrator of Out of the Silent Planet, sought to instill the same spirit in his readers.