Monday, October 17, 2011

Resist the Temptation of the Beast: A Review of Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

Title: Perelandra
Author: C.S. Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Macmillan Co. (1944)
Pages: 238
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: Nonners from Ridiculous Reviews has gotten me hooked on C.S. Lewis, first by suggesting that I read The Screwtape Letters and then insisting that I check out the first book of his Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. This is the second book in that trilogy, which I intend to finish by the end of this year. Perelandra was obtained at my library.

About the Author: Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century and arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day. His major contributions in literary criticism, children's literature, fantasy literature, and popular theology brought him international renown and acclaim. He wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. His most distinguished and popular accomplishments include The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity. (taken from a much longer bio at HarperOne)

Synopsis: Written during the dark hours immediately before and during the Second World War, C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, of which Perelandra is the second volume, stands alongside such works as Albert Camus's The Plague and George Orwell's 1984 as a timely parable that has become timeless, beloved by succeeding generations as much for the sheer wonder of its storytelling as for the significance of the moral concerns. For the trilogy's central figure, C. S. Lewis created perhaps the most memorable character of his career, the brilliant, clear-eyed, and fiercely brave philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom. Appropriately, Lewis modeled Dr. Ransom after his dear friend J. R. R. Tolkien, for in the scope of its imaginative achievement and the totality of its vision of not one but two imaginary worlds, the Space Trilogy is rivaled in this century only by Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Readers who fall in love with Lewis's fantasy series The Chronicles of Namia as children unfailingly cherish his Space Trilogy as adults; it, too, brings to life strange and magical realms in which epic battles are fought between the forces of light and those of darkness. But in the many layers of its allegory, and the sophistication and piercing brilliance of its insights into the human condition, it occupies a place among the English language's most extraordinary works for any age, and for all time.

In Perelandra, Dr. Ransom is recruited by the denizens of Malacandra, befriended in Out of the Silent Planet, to rescue the edenic planet Perelandra and its peace-loving populace from a terrible threat: a malevolent being from another world who strives to create a new world order, and who must destroy an old and beautiful civilization to do so. (taken from GoodReads)

Review: While I obviously wrote a review of Out of the Silent Planet, I've found that, when I'm trying to actually talk to people about it, I'm never quite able to get at the heart of what I love about it. A friend of mine recently found the Space Trilogy at a used book store and while I was attempting to explain why he should read it, words actually failed me. Maybe I'm better at writing about books than I am at talking about them. Or maybe it's just that over time, as the book has settled into my brain, I've found so much to love about it that it all gets jumbled up on the way out.

With this undying adoration in mind, I turned to Perelandra, the second book in the trilogy. Once again Dr. Ransom travels from the safety of Earth to a far off planet--this time, Venus--and finds himself inextricably linked to what happens to the inhabitants of that world. I had been expecting another Out of the Silent Planet, with Ransom's humanity allowing him to connect with the Perelandrans and becoming a better man for it, and in some ways that was what I found. I was dismayed, however, by the fact that Perelandra was more of a treatise on temptation than it was a novel. Lewis' signature writing style--warm, sweeping, and highly imaginative--was present, but the book seemed to be more in line with The Screwtape Letters than with the first book in the trilogy.

I think The Screwtape Letters is a fantastic book and I would read it again in a heartbeat. That doesn't mean, however, that I enjoyed Perelandra. The book follows Ransom as he befriends one of only two sort-of human inhabitants on Venus. She is the Green Lady, the Eve of this world, and has become separated from her Adam (the King) due to the fact that most of the planet is water with a few floating islands and that Maledil (God) has forbidden either of them to live on the "fixed land." Soon after Ransom's initial encounter with her, Weston, one of the men who had kidnapped Ransom in the first novel, falls from the Perelandran sky in a space craft and begins trying to befriend the Green Lady as well. Ransom soon realizes that this is not Weston at all, but a demon, possibly even the Devil himself, using Weston's body in order to achieve his nefarious goal on that planet--to cause the Green Lady to disobey God, thereby leading once again to the Fall of Man.

Now, I have no problem with the premise of this novel. The idea is fascinating and I rather liked the Green Lady. I think she has a point when she insinuates that it is knowledge and not time that makes you older. I also think that this is a book that could have been done well had it not devolved into the three main characters sitting around talking the entire time. Lewis is a masterful writer and his ideas about philosophy and theology are usually well-reasoned--even if I don't agree with them, I enjoy reading what he has to say. But Out of the Silent Planet was a novel with a plot and it was exciting. Perelandra, while beautifully-written, was more an exploration of an idea than a novel.

Towards the end of the book, things did begin to pick up. I won't give anything away, but there are a few chapters that had me wondering what was going to happen next. These chapters soon gave way, however, to more of the same plodding narrative that I had come to associate with this book. To add insult to injury, the book's final chapter basically spiraled into a paean that lasted for way too long and that made me wonder whether or not Lewis had decided that the book was just a few pages too short and that he needed filler.

One thing that I did love about this book was how refreshingly unique everything was. Like Malacandra, everything about Perelandra was so different from anything I ever could have imagined and yet Lewis excels at description so I had no trouble picturing it all in my head. The thing that I've come to like most about Lewis' works is how fully they transport me to the worlds depicted within them. Perelandra is the rule in this respect, rather than an exception. While it took me a few chapters to get into the setting of the book--mostly because of the way the narration was delivered by someone outside of the story, which was distracting from time to time--once I was in, I was in. Perelandra became as real to me as Malacandra did and it was every bit as hauntingly beautiful.

As much as I would like to rate this book as highly as I've rated other Lewis books, I just can't. I wanted more doing and less saying. I missed the hnau of the first book (Lewis' characters might say that I was a backward-looking person and that I didn't appreciate the new because I was too attached to the old), as well as the feeling of inclusion that I had reading Out of the Silent Planet. Whereas that novel didn't bash you over the head with religiosity, Perelandra not only did, but did it with a sledgehammer. Gone was the universality that I had associated with Maledil and with the themes of the previous book. This one makes no bones about being a decidedly Christian narrative, which wouldn't be an issue if it weren't that it is so markedly different from the first novel. There is, of course, a reason for this--Malacandra represents the old ways of the universe, whereas Perelandra represents the new. The new, for Lewis, is Christianity.

There was a lot to like about this book, but there was even more that I disliked. I'm looking forward to reading That Hideous Strength, the last book in the trilogy, but I know that, when I do read it, I'll be going into it with a much more guarded approach. With two vastly different narratives preceding it, who knows what I'll find within its pages.

I'm giving Perelandra 3 out of 5 Gabriels.

Favorite Quote:
Ransom: How far does it go? Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?
Weston: Yes.
Ransom: Or to sell England to the Germans?
Weston: Yes.
Ransom: Or to print lies as serious research in a scientific periodical?
Weston: Yes.
Ransom: God help you! (p. 96-97)

I just love how Ransom seems to have his priorities a little mixed up.


PS: The title of this review was taken from lyrics to a 2Pac song. I've never heard it before, but a quick thank you to Google to finding a pretty fitting set of lyrics from the query "songs about temptation."


  1. I remember adoring this book, far more so than the other two so if you found this one a slight disappointment when compared with the first, you'll probably adore the third. I can still vividly remember direct scenes I read of this book, even now which is about 25 years since I read it. I remember very little of the first and barely anything of the last, although I remember enough to know why I liked the first and disliked the third.

    After 25 years, there aren't many books I can recall with such detail and appreciation.

  2. There were a lot of parts of the book that I liked but overall I was disappointed with it. I'm looking forward to reading the last one and I will always recommend this series to people. Maybe I just need to read it again later on, but for now it'll remain my least favorite Lewis book.

    I'm glad you loved it, though. I like it when people disagree with me on here. It makes for way better discussions when people don't just say, "Great review! I totally agree." :)