Friday, 4 May 2012

The Ransom Trilogy

The Pan Books omnibus edition of CS Lewis' science fiction trilogy is called The Cosmic Trilogy, an inappropriate title because the novels describe only local interplanetary journeys. In fact, the first novel addresses the appropriateness or otherwise of the term "cosmic":

"The dangers to be feared are not planetary but cosmic, or at least solar..." (1)

No doubt the intervention of the mysterious being Maleldil in Thulcandra, the "silent planet," Earth, is an event of cosmic significance. Indeed, we are shown how the event affects a newly inhabited world, Perelandra, Venus, and we are also told that its effects will be more widespread. However, curiously, Maleldil's opponents, the rebel eldila, are confined to Thulcandra so that the conflict with them is not cosmic in scope. We are not told what might occur elsewhere.

The Trilogy can be adequately described by reference either to its author, "CS Lewis' interplanetary trilogy" or to its central character, "the Ransom Trilogy."

Out Of The Silent Planet, 144 pages in the omnibus edition, has a very small cast of human characters:

Weston, Devine and Ransom travel to Malacandra, Mars;
before leaving Earth, they interact with a woman and her son, Harry;
on Mars, they meet members of three intelligent species and some extra-planetary beings, eldila;
back on Earth, Ransom corresponds with CS Lewis;
thus, there are six human characters.

Perelandra, (204 pages) has an even smaller cast:

Ransom and Weston travel independently to Perelandra, Venus;
before leaving Earth, Ransom converses with Lewis and with an eldil;
there are as yet only two Venerian human beings, the Perelandrian First Parents;
Ransom's other dealings on Venus are with a demon possessing Weston, with two other eldila and with Maleldil;
thus, there are only five human characters, two of them extraterrestrial.

That Hideous Strength, 405 pages, has an uncountable cast:

Jane Studdock
Mark Studdock
a first person narrator who is not named but who is consistent both with Lewis the author and with Lewis the first person narrator of five other works, including the previous Volumes of the Trilogy
Lord Feverstone, formerly Devine
James Busby
Canon Jewel
Mrs Dimble
Cecil Dimble
Ivy Maggs
Ivy's husband
John Wither
William Hingest
Professor Filostrato
Miss "Fairy" Hardcastle
Camilla Denniston
Grace Ironwood
Joe, a driver
an unknown couple
Mr Fisher-King/Ransom
Denniston, addressed as "Frank" by Camilla but as "Arthur" by Dimble
the tramp
Mr Bultitude, a bear
five planetary eldila
Captain O'Hara
Canon Storey
Merlinus Ambrosius
a demon speaking through Alcasan's guillotined but artificially preserved head
Father Doyle
Inspector Wrench
the terrestrial Venus and the hyper-cosmic Maleldil as encountered by Jane
Sid, a driver
Len, Sid's mate
a lorry driver
a kindly elderly landlady
the chilly man
the ticket collector 

I have cast the net as widely as possible. A few of the names listed here are mere names in the novel. Usually, however, we get at least a short insight into the character. In many cases, the characters are well-rounded and substantial. Is Richard Telford a character in the novel? He remains off-stage but is mentioned twice and described once.

Lewis as a writer and a Professor of Literature knew that authors must understand and control narrative points of view. If an entire novel is not written from a single point of view, then each Chapter or at least each section of a Chapter, each passage of continuous prose narrative between changes of scene, should have a single point of view. That Hideous Strength breaks some rules of points of view but in interesting ways. It contains:

several viewpoint characters;
one first person viewpoint character;
an imaginary observer;
a first person narrator of other passages in the novel;
an omniscient narrator of yet other passages in the novel.

I identify the first person viewpoint character with Lewis because he tells us:

"...I am Oxford-bred and very fond of Cambridge..." (2)

The opening and closing viewpoint character of the novel is Jane Studdock. The main continuing viewpoint character throughout the novel is Mark Studdock. In fact, the novel principally follows Mark's moral and  spiritual development. Temporary view point characters during the novel are Lewis, Ransom, Dimble, Frost, Wither, the tramp, Mr Maggs, Miss Hardcastle, Feverstone, Filostrato and Mr Bultitude. When Lewis is the viewpoint character, he narrates in the first person. However, a first person narrator, presumably also Lewis, sometimes imparts information about other characters. For example, of the fleeing tramp we are told:

"I have not been able to trace him further." (3)

At one point, this first person narrator invites the reader to imagine an observer placed high enough to see both a car carrying Mark and, later, a train carrying Jane from the town where they live. "...our imaginary observer..." has what we call a bird's eye, or god's eye, view of some English countryside. (4) An imaginary observer who saw not just at one place and time but at all places and times would be an omniscient observer and would thus share one attribute of the God in whom Lewis believed. Such an observer would have been promoted from a god's eye view to the God's eye view. The omniscient narrator who is present in much fiction and in some parts of this novel is presumably an omniscient observer who narrates some of what s/he observes.

Before leaving the first person narrator, Lewis, we can note that he sometimes adopts the first person plural, as when he refers to "...our imaginary observer...," thus getting the readers on his side. (4) When he refers to the British press as "...our papers...," he again identifies himself as one of us, a citizen who reads the same newspapers that we do. (4) The omniscient narrator would refer merely to "...the papers."

However, the omniscient narrator is also present and tells us things that the first person narrator could not have known: something that Curry thinks but immediately and permanently forgets; what Frost, Filostrato and Wither were thinking as they died. This narrator could have told us where the tramp went.

Mark confronts Dimble. Conventionally, their conversation should be described either from Mark's or from Dimble's viewpoint but not from both. However, the narrator of this passage tells us how they both felt. Dimble's effort not to hate Mark gives his face a fixed severity which Mark misinterprets as loathing.

"The whole of the rest of this conversation went on under this misunderstanding." (5)

The omniscient narrator would know this, of course, but Lewis might have learned it later by conferring with both men so we are not sure which narrator speaks here. The author has indeed complicated the viewpoint issue - as Isaac Asimov did at one point in the Foundation Trilogy when an "I" appeared unexpectedly in what had until then been the omniscient narrator's account of different modes of consciousness in the far future. In that case, one critic objected to the ambiguity in Asimov's narrative whereas I welcomed the extra layer of mystery presented by a narrator who, on the one hand, knew something about future mental powers but, on the other hand, admitted to the same level of ignorance as the readers about what it would be like to experience such powers.

There cannot be many parallels between works by CS Lewis and Ian Fleming. James Bond is Fleming's viewpoint character. However, one Fleming short story presents a bird's eye view of two converging figures crawling through long grass - towards a third party whom both intend to assassinate. This odd perspective is explained by the fact that three stories, including this one, were based on screen treatments for a proposed TV series.

Lewis the first person narrator came on stage on p. 136 of Out Of The Silent Planet, after Ransom had returned to Earth.

 "At this point, if I were guided by purely literary considerations, my story would end..." (6)


"This is where I come into the story." (6)

We learn that Lewis has fictionalized the names of "Ransom" and "Weston" in order to publish as fiction an account that a very few readers will recognize as the truth. The postscript is "...extracts from a letter written by the original of 'Dr Ransom' to the author..." (7) In one extract, 'Ransom' addresses Lewis by name.

At the beginning of Perelandra, the first person narrator visits Ransom and is again addressed by name. 

"The Dark Tower" features Ransom, MacPhee and, as a first person narrator, an "Oxford man" who dislikes the nick-name "Lu-Lu" and who "...had been mixed up with..." Ransom's strange adventure described " another book..." and is indeed referred to as "Mr Lewis." (8)

"The Shoddy Lands" has a first person narrator visited in his college rooms at Oxford by a former student. 

The Great Divorce has a first person narrator who admired George MacDonald and is clearly Lewis. Here the story overlaps with that told in Lewis' spiritual biography Surprised By Joy.

Thus, whereas first person narrators are not usually identical with their author, in this case they are.

(1) CS Lewis, Out Of The Silent Planet IN The Cosmic Trilogy, London, 1990, pp. 1-144 AT p. 138.
(2) CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength IN The Cosmic Trilogy, London, 1990, pp. 349-753 AT p. 359.
(3) ibid., p. 719.
(4) ibid., p. 395.
(5) ibid., p. 578.
(6) Out Of The Silent Planet, p. 136.
(7) ibid., p. 139.
(8) CS Lewis, "The Dark Tower" IN The Dark Tower and other stories, London, 1983. pp. 17-91 AT pp. 17, 22, 29, 39.           

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