The Praise of Perelandra

Excerpt from a chapel on the stories of C.S. Lewis, at Biola on Dec. 2, 2013.

I want to read to you a passage from the second book of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, from the book Perelandra. Though it’s from the final pages of the book, you don’t need any spoiler alert, and there’s no need to worry that I’m giving away the plot. Anything you could call a plot is long since over by this time, and all the characters have carried out all their significant actions. Yet the book keeps going on, and it goes on like this:

The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect until the peoples of the Low Worlds are gathered into it. We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made. Blessed be He!

Maybe I should set this up a little bit more. It happens on Venus, after the Venus version of Adam and Eve face temptation and conquer it. An earthling named Ransom is there, along with a regular Noah’s ark of Venusian wildlife, and a bunch of angels. But angels are called eldila or Oyarsas, and Venus is called Perelandra, and Adam and Eve are called Tor and Tinidril, and they’re very tall. And green. And naked. Everybody’s naked for pretty much the whole book, which is one reason I’m not hoping for a movie version.

There are seventeen chapters in Perelandra, and it’s in the seventeenth that all the characters gather in a mountain valley and have a kind of awards ceremony like the one at the end of the first Star Wars. But unlike that celebration, this one features a speech. I wish I could tell you what kind of speech, but Lewis isn’t very much help with that. He describes it as a series of speeches, though they might have happened all at the same time. He describes it as a conversation, but he can’t specify which words were spoken by whom. He describes it as a game, as the Great Game, but then immediately switches the title to the Great Dance. It fits into a few pages, but when it’s over it has apparently taken one whole year –a Venusian year, of course.

The main character, Ransom, has just come through a gruesome struggle, really grappling hand to hand with evil incarnate in a disgusting and dehumanizing form. Weston the Un-man is worse than a zombie or a vampire, even worse than a demon. Ransom has won, but he hasn’t got his equilibrium back yet, and just before this final passage he fills most of a page with a series of questions: “I am full of doubts and ignorance,” he confesses, and asks one question after another about the structure of the cosmos, the meaning of life, the point of it all.

Ransom’s questions are good ones, but they’re not really answered in any direct way. They’re not exactly ignored, but they are thoroughly recontextualized. The closest he gets to an answer is “we would not talk of it like that.” Take that, puny mortal: “We would not talk of it like that.”

Well, how would they talk of it? Like this:

‘Never did He make two things the same; never did He utter one word twice. After earths, not better earths but beasts; after beasts, not better beasts, but spirits. After a falling, not a recovery but a new creation. Out of the new creation, not a third but the mode of change itself is changed for ever. Blessed is He!’

And another said, ‘It is loaded with justice as a tree bows down with fruit. All is righteousness and there is no equality. Not as when stones lie side by side, but as when stones support and are supported in an arch, such is His order; rule and obedience, begetting and bearing, heat glancing down, life growing up.  Blessed be He!’

That’s how they talk. Ransom wants to know where the center of the universe is, and guess what? They would not talk of it like that. The spirit of a planet speaks:

‘Though men  or angels rule them, the worlds are for themselves. The waters you have not floated on, the fruit you have not plucked, the caves into which you have not descended and the fire through which your bodies cannot pass, do not await your coming to put on perfection, though they will obey you when you come. Times without number I have circled Arbol while you were not alive, and those times were not desert. Their own voice was in them, not merely a dreaming of the day when you should awake. They also were at the centre. Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come. No feet have walked, nor shall, on the ice of Glund; no eye looked up from beneath on the Ring of Lurga, and Iron-plain in Neruval is chaste and empty. Yet it is not for nothing that the gods walk ceaselessly around the fields of Arbol. Blessed be He!

I was probably about seventeen when I read this, and it blew me away. I read that paragraph and immediately got up and paced the room and sat back down and wrote a sonnet. A terrible, terrible, terrible sonnet, bristling with semi-colons and too many exclamation points and fancy words. I will never let you read that poem. I also drew some pictures and later on I dug a hole. But the point is, this strange conclusion to a science fiction story just knocked art out of me. It took all the things I was taking for granted and proposed them to me as things that could actually be believed, embraced with the whole self, counted on, explored, investigated.

I don’t know what you think your deepest needs are. When I was seventeen, I had lots of ideas about my deepest needs. But this story came along sideways and bumped me out of those ruts, bumped me right out of the center of my own story, and let me know that I wasn’t the most important thing in the world. I think I already kind of knew this –I had recently become a Christian, so I had some idea of what the most important thing in the world was. But here was an angel or a planet or a planet-angel telling me this: “You are not the voice that all things utter.”

“You are not the voice that all things utter.”

All through the Space Trilogy, whenever an angel appears to an earthbound creature, the angel looks like it’s standing at a funny tilt. When Ransom asks why, the angel answers, ““I am not here in the same way you are here.” Ransom figures out what’s happening:

The planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world  … was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind by the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun.

You see what’s happening here? An earthling is realizing his frame of reference is not the absolute frame of reference! Maybe not even the right one, though it’s an understandable one.

Somehow this message was easier to understand when it came from naked green people on an imaginary planet in a science fiction novel. I’m not sure why. It’s Lewis’ fictive sneak attack, I suppose. He probably says something just like this in Mere Christianity. But most of Mere Christianity was boring to me the first time I read it. I didn’t have a taste for theology yet. But it was Perelandra that met me where I was.

In  Perelandra, Lewis was able to loosen up a little bit and say things more wildly than he would let himself get away with in sober, prosaic essay-writing. He may even have spent the whole book setting up a structure in which he could be this exuberant, this giddy, this effusive and lavish with his praise. I think chapters 1 through 16 are an excuse to get to 17. 

How about one more piece of it:

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love. Blessed be He!

All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!

If I told you that a Christian novelist wrote a book about Adam and Eve in space, and that after the plot is resolved he devotes a whole chapter to the characters having a church service where they praise God, many of you would vomit. If I told you the chapter where they sang praises was the best chapter, you might be polite, but in your heart you’d question my literary judgment. But it’s the truth. Imagine that: every word of it is true.