Review by Val H., picking up some points about changing attitudes to religion in the recent post Religion in the middle-brow novels by margaretbennett72.
I am not sure how old I was – not very, anyway – when I first read C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), but it has remained vivid. Lucy pushing her way through the fur coats, emerging in ice-bound Narnia and meeting a faun under a lamp-post in the middle of a wood. I can feel the fur brushing my face and see the bright light shining on the crisp snow. The White Witch made a frightening villain and Lucy and the rest were like the children I liked from many other books. But then came Aslan the lion, in some strange way resembling – representing? – Christ. I remember wondering if I was the first to notice. It made me uneasy then and, like others, I have viewed the Narnia books uneasily ever since, while admiring Lewis’ imagination.
So I came to Out of the Silent Planet cautiously. With reason. This is Narnia for the grown-ups, displaying all that wonderful imagination but again proselytising.
It is the first in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, re-telling parts of the Christian story. Out of the Silent Planet is about mankind’s moral decline through Lucifer’s fall; Perelandra (1943) is a version of Eden; and That Hideous Strength (1945) is about redeeming Earth. This is classic science fiction in the sense of using other worlds to explore serious issues in our own, and Lewis was apparently tickled to find that most reviewers failed to notice his theme. He wrote:
‘What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men … and an essay in J.B.S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of wh[ich] seemed to take the idea of such [space] travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook wh[ich] I try to pillory in Weston [see below]. I like the whole interplanetary ideas as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) p[oin]t of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side.’ (Collected Letters, II, 236f.)
Note the phrase ‘the opposite side’.
The novel tells how an academic, Elwin Ransom, is kidnapped and taken by spaceship to a planet called Malacandra (better known to us as Mars). There he meets three races: the otter-like and imaginative hrossa; the immensely tall, scientifically minded séroni; and the pfifltriggi, craftsmen with the bodies of frogs. They live in accord and plenty, worshipping Maleldil, in common with the inhabitants of other planets in the solar system. Discussing this with Oyarsa, Malacandra’s spirit guardian, Ransom is conscious of the contrast with Earth, where humans are always in conflict, especially when he realises that his kidnappers want to conquer Malacandra for its abundant resources. Earth, it turns out, is the ‘silent planet’, out-of-bounds because its Oyarsa chose evil over good.
Earth’s rejection of Maleldil is the heart of the book. The kidnapping, the harmony of Malacandra and Man’s plan to despoil it all illustrate it, as does the confrontation between Oyarsa and Weston, one of the kidnappers. Weston is a scientist convinced of Man’s superiority and with no time for the metaphysical. His is the ‘desperately immoral outlook’ Lewis is trying to combat. Weston justifies his plans by saying:
‘Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.’ (chapter 20, Kindle edition)
To make sure we get the point, Lewis has Ransom translate this literally into the Malacandrian language:
‘Because of all this [i.e. achievements on Earth]…it would not be the act of a bent hnau [an evil individual] if our people killed all your people.’ (chapter 20, Kindle edition)
Lewis is right to find this repellent but for many people today it must not only recall imperial adventures but also sit ill that religion is presented as the only path.
Lewis is so intent on this message that the book suffers. The narrative is flat, despite the promising material of space flight, kidnapping, aliens etc. The characters, including Ransom and Weston, are thin. Ransom, apparently based on Lewis’ friend, J R R Tolkien, does little more than react to events and Weston is a comic baddy.
But the depiction of Malacandra and its inhabitants is worthy of Narnia. Here is plant life:
‘The purple mass looked for a moment like a plump of organ-pipes, then like a stack of rolls of cloth set up on end, then like a forest of gigantic umbrellas blown inside out. It was in faint motion. Suddenly his eyes mastered the object. The purple stuff was vegetation: more precisely, it was vegetables, vegetables about twice the height of English elms, but apparently soft and flimsy. The stalks – one could hardly call them trunks – rose smooth and round, and surprisingly thin, for about forty feet: above that, the huge plants open into a sheaf-like development, not of branches but of leaves, leaves as large as lifeboats and nearly transparent.’ (chapter 7, Kindle edition)
Perhaps inevitably, Out of the Silent Planet has dated. We have real space flight and we know more about the universe. We have grown so accustomed to science fiction and fantasy since 1938 that Out of the Silent Planet is as the first typewriter to the laptop I am using now. And then there’s the message. There will be many people who accept, but I suspect many more in our mostly secular society who reject it. This may be the main reason for this version of Narnia looking its age.