Friday, 4 May 2012

CS Lewis: Planetary Environments

Each volume of CS Lewis' Ransom Trilogy presents a fanciful account of another planet. Lewis' Malacandra, Perelandra and Sulva, nominally identical with Mars, Venus and the Moon, are imaginary worlds unlike their counterparts in the astronomical Solar System. All three are inhabited and humanly habitable. Malacandra has "canals."

Perelandra has oceans. Sulva has a troglodyte race to that extent reminiscent of the Wellsian Selenites. Malacandra and Perelandra are visited from Earth whereas Sulva is merely described by characters who remain on Earth. The lunar race that is great according to one account is cursed in the other. When Lewis tells us of a wondrous realm on the far side of the Moon invisible from Earth, he, of course, presents mythological, not scientifically based, fiction.

By contrast, in "Forms of Things Unknown," Lewis tries to imagine what the lunar surface might really be like. His character lands in a crater and ventures out in a spacesuit. The surface is "...rock, not dust (which disposed of one hypothesis)..." (1) There is of course no sound. The lack of atmosphere means that the light, whether directly from the sun or reflected from the rock, is dazzling. Shadows are " Indian ink..." (2) The lack of atmosphere prevents any sense of distance. The remote crater wall looks as if it could be touched. The peaks look small and the stars near - although Lewis does not also mention the relative closeness of the horizon due to the smaller size of the Moon.

Despite all this, I argue that "Forms of Things Unknown" can be read as consistent with the Ransom Trilogy. Jenkin transmits to Earth so he has landed on the near side of the Moon. He remains on the surface so does not see any troglodytes. It is stated in the third Ransom novel that the eradication of organic life from the surface has been a deliberate policy of the Great Race. In the concluding paragraph, Jenkin is surprised by the sudden appearance of a character from Greek mythology on the lunar surface but the story had begun with a quotation from Perelandra:

"...that what was myth in one world might always be fact in another." (3)

The mythological being kills Jenkin as it had killed the members of three previous expeditions, leaving High Command on Earth with no clue as to their fate. This is consistent with the idea in the Ransom Trilogy that Earth, the "Silent Planet," is besieged and that consequently travel beyond the lunar orbit has been banned. Weston was allowed to reach Mars and Venus but only because this served a greater purpose and Ransom tells Lewis that "...'Weston' has shut the door..." (4)

"Forms of Things Unknown," considered as a single fictional work, exists only to shock the reader with its surprise ending whereas relocating it into a broader narrative context necessitates an explanation for the manifestation of a myth on the Moon. However, the Ransom Trilogy, with Ares and Aphrodite respectively presiding over Malacandra and Perelandra, has more than enough mythological content for this purpose. Here, "Mars" means both the planet and the deity albeit within Lewis' imaginative classical-Christian context. Science and myth collide when lunar airlessness contradicts Jenkin's impression that an approaching figure has long, thick hairs blowing in the wind... 

Like HG Wells and ER Burroughs, CS Lewis presents, in several sometimes indirectly linked works, a Solar System where inhabited planets interact.

  (1) CS Lewis, "Forms of Things Unknown" IN Lewis, The Dark Tower and other stories, London, 1983, pp. 124-132, AT p. 129.
(2) ibid., p. 130.
(3) ibid., p. 124.
(4) CS Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, London, 1952, p. 187.


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