The Nature of Evil in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra

There are two things characteristically associated with C.S. Lewis: his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and his significant written contribution to Christianity. Slightly less well know is Lewis’s trilogy of science fiction novels: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Of course, most science fiction is not exactly scientifically accurate, and Lewis’ trilogy is certainly no exception, but nor is it intended to be. As Lewis states in Mere Christianity, “Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave… But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes–something of a different kind–this is not a scientific question” (22). These questions beyond the scientific are what Lewis is most interested in, and as such, his science fiction novels deal extensively with them.

Asking questions beyond the scientific inevitably (at least for Lewis) leads to questions concerning faith. In the Space Trilogy, as Charles Moorman aptly notes, “Science fiction presents [Lewis] with a method and a plot, the theology of the Church with a theme,” (401). In the second book of his space trilogy, Perelandra, one of the major themes that Lewis explores is the nature of evil, which is understandable when considering that Perelandra is essentially a new telling of the temptation of Eve — in this case, Tinidril — in Eden. Lewis establishes an observable set of laws on Perelandra that govern how the planet works, and then within this world, the character of Weston, or the Un-man, seeks to corrupt these natural laws, while Ransom does all he can to protect them. This brings out three key qualities of the nature of evil: it is an entity that turns away from the given good, fixates on a specific narrative, and utilizes individuals to the point of loss of individual identity.

The first quality of evil that stands in opposition to Perelandrian principles hangs on choice: the choice to reject the “gift given” and cling to the “gift expected” instead, to use the metaphor of Tinidril, the primary native character of Perelandra. In the moment of using this metaphor, Tinidril is understanding the nature of choice, the choice between good and the so-called wrong good. An evil heart, Tinidril reasons, would be one “which clung to the good it had first thought of and turned the good which was given it into no good” (69). In plainer terms, to cling to the wrong good terms is to insist on one’s own way, to be unpliable and rigid. Weston is an example of this, which is made immediately apparent when he arrives on Perelandra. Rather than accepting the ways of this new land, like the fact that “no one wears clothes here,” Weston insists on wearing clothes (87). He cannot conceive of a way to accept the freedom and shamelessness of being naked in this world, so he clings to his expectations instead, wearing clothes. Weston’s clothes in themselves are not bad, but the choice to wear them is a deliberate turning away from the good ways ordained for Perelandra. This tendency of Weston to move away from the gift given, his “bent” towards the gift expected, is partly what makes him so compatible a host for evil. The concept of wearing clothes is one thing that the Un-man tries to tempt Tinidril with as well. Here again it is not the clothes themselves that are bad (even though the Un-man has likely killed to create them), but rather the choice associated with the clothes, the choice whether or not to be dramatically conscious of the external self – to take appearance into one’s own hands rather than submitting to the will of Maleldil.

james-lewicki-ransom-perelandra
“Ransom” by James Lewicki

Much of Lewis’ exploration of evil on Perelandra is linguistic in nature. Near the beginning of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the character of Ransom comments that many aspects of the planet Venus are difficult to describe, not because they are vague, but because they are “too definite for language” (Lewis 33). Perhaps the imperfect, fallen nature of earth language is inadequate to describe the pure, unfallen nature of Perelandra. But it follows that the one thing earth language should be definite enough for is describing the evil that comes to Perelandra in the form of Weston, or the Un-man. For Lewis, language was something that has devolved over the course of time. Like his contemporary Owen Barfield, Lewis considered language as something which originally did not distinguish between metaphor and reality. Just as myth and truth could be compatible, “Language expressed what was immediately perceived; there was neither a place nor a need for metaphorical thought” (Bond 13). On earth, language has become corrupt and scattered, must be pieced together, must use pictures and rhetoric to communicate an idea. But on Perelandra, Lewis creates a world where there are no such boundaries. Ransom realizes this concerning nothing other than his own name. He would never have thought to connect his name with anything other than the etymological history, as anything else would have seemed a mere pun; but on Perelandra, “he perceived that what was, to human philologists, a mere accidental resemblance of two sounds, was in truth no accident. The whole distinction between things accidental and things designed, like the distinction between fact and myth, was purely terrestrial” (Lewis 135).

This high view of language on Perelandra becomes important regarding the second principle that evil challenges in the book: the commandment not to dwell on the fixed land. The command is simple – as simple as the command to not eat a fruit – but Lewis’ word choice is significant and speaks to a much more fundamental issue. First, the word dwell has connotations of not only habitation, but also thinking or pondering. One of the Un-man’s temptations is to convince Tinidril that although it is forbidden to live there, she is not forbidden to think about living there – she is not forbidden to dwell on dwelling. Tinidril’s reply to this temptation is to say “I am wondering…whether all the people of your world have the habit of talking about the same thing more than once. I have said already that we are forbidden to dwell on the Fixed Land. Why do you not either talk of something else or stop talking?” (103). In the world of Perelandra, there is no need for dwelling or permanence; it is a foreign concept to Tinidril, and she does not understand the Un-man’s need to turn away from the given good. Steven Price notes that “The tension between the lady’s choice to remain upon the undulating ocean, for which she was created, or to live upon the forbidden Fixed Land, is symbolic of the human choice between freedom and life with their fluid, chaotic, changeableness, and slavery and death with their unchanging security” (Price 38). Tinidril, though perhaps subconsciously, understands that the command not to dwell on the Fixed Land means both not to live on it and not to think on it, with no need for distinction between physical and mental dwelling. Tinidril thinks in metaphors of movement, of waves that rise and fall and of beasts that come and go – essentially, of whatever Maleldil chooses to send or take away in the moment. The Un-man thinks in opposite terms; its reasoning is rigid and repetitive, refusing to be swayed or moved by any suggestion of a given good and dwelling only on its preconceived notion of elevated want.

Here Lewis introduces his next bit of clever wordplay, the use of the word fixed in relation to evil. The Fixed Land being forbidden is not simply a literal commandment; fixation in essence is to be avoided on Perelandra, emphasizing the fact that the Un-man’s fixation on one thing is indeed evil. In every conversation he brings up the same topic, and he does so relentlessly, never breaking from pursuing his target. When the Un-man speaks, “[o]ne got the impression of a force that cleverly kept the pupils of those eyes fixed in a suitable direction while the mouth talked” (122). Lewis purposefully uses the word fixed to describe the eyes of the Un-man. They are not malicious or greedy or sinister or any of the usual words with which one might describe evilness on earth, but rather they are fixed; they do not stray from their singular purpose. Though Weston seems rather puppet-like at this moment in the story, his initial conversation with Ransom suggests that fixation is a trait of his as well, for even though Ransom argues with him, “the scientist pursued his fixed idea” (89). This is yet another reason that makes Weston such a perfect host for the evil that comes to dwell in him. Both are so fixated on their idea or goal that they will use any and every means they need to in order to make it happen. The Un-man utilizes will, reason, speech, intelligence and poetry as means to an end, just as Weston considers the “utility of the human race” (89). The unyielding determination of evil in Perelandra is fundamentally opposed to the pliability and submission to Maleldil that rules the rest of Perelandra’s inhabitants.

james-lewicki-tinidril-perelandra
“Tinidril” by James Lewicki

Finally, where Perelandra’s natural law provides unique pleasures and experiences for each inhabitant, evil stands out in sharp contrast with its utilitarian approach that culminates in the utter loss of individual pleasure or experience. The end goal of Tinidril’s temptation is not that she fall into sin, but that she fall into the sinner, that she become a mere extension of Satan himself and be absorbed into his essence, like Weston. As Ransom finally understands when he is no longer able to distinguish between Weston and the Un-man, damned men “were melted down into their master… The question whether Satan, or one whom Satan has digested, is acting on any given occasion has in the long run no clear significance” (173). This passage emphasizes the lack of distinction between Satan and a person bound for hell; evil, which tempts by urging people to live for themselves alone, actually results in complete loss of individuality. Part of Tinidril’s pleasure and role on Perelandra is to rule over the creatures of that world, connecting with them and loving them as good and faithful servants. But if she were to be absorbed into evil, molded in the image the Un-man intended for her, “Her fall would mean not only estrangement from Maleldil and His messengers, but, equally important, alienation from the natural world, and the loss of the special bond of sympathy and understanding that exists between the Lady and the animals” (Chapman 14). Tinidril would in many ways cease to become an inhabitant of Perelandra, and become instead yet another inhabitant of earth, the fallen world that belongs to Satan.

A clearer image of this paradox is bound up in the word “acting,” a concept familiar on earth but foreign on Perelandra (173). The Un-man relentlessly tells Tinidril endless stories of great earth women who risked much and were then successfully vindicated. As this story continues to be told, Ransom notes that Tinidril’s face gains traces and expressions like those of a “tragedy queen,” a lead actress in a dramatic play (127). The Un-man’s temptation provides a framework into which Tinidril can move and act of her own will, apart from the will of Maleldil. However, what is made to seem like a step towards free will and individuality is really a step towards captivity and loss of self. While there is undoubtedly an element of truth in the Weston’s stories, they “do not mirror the innocent nature of Perelandra, but rather nature as it has been corrupted on earth. So they produce in the Green Lady the capacity to imagine herself something that she is not, a tragic hero” (Walker 34). In Maleldil’s plan for Perelandra, Tinidril has a brand new role that is unconfined to a fallen earthly genre such as tragedy or a character trope such as the tragic hero. The Un-man hopes to ingrain this concept into her mind in the hope that “because she imagines herself so, she will act to reproduce on Perelandra the tragedy of the Fall” (34). But though such a tragedy is indeed well-known and great on earth, it is not good. Tinidril would not become better by assuming the Un-man’s narrative; rather, she would be come lesser, a mere copy of the pattern he continuously repeats to her. As Hyles points out concerning Lewis’ portrayal of mythical worlds, “It is, then, the inherent nature of evil to, even though it gives semblances of beauty and truth and happiness, be less than what can come from good” (11). As Ransom finally understands after seeing Tinidril try on the clothes the Un-man made for her, “[the Un-man] was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play” (Lewis 139). On Perelandra, to act for oneself is to act for Satan in his play: to be puppetized, utilized, and in the end, utterly absorbed.

The nature of evil on Perelandra is a many-layered corruption of the planet’s natural law, where each new layer is an intensification of the previous one, spiraling downwards into oblivion. The first layer is simply a turning away from the gift given to the gift expected, a difference that seems small in the grand scheme of things. It is a mere turning from one good to another, different good. The second layer is like the first but more intense – the direct disobeying of a commandment through fixation on the forbidden, which is a mental rather than physical action. The third layer adds yet more intensity as it encourages a full stepping outside of the will of Maleldil, and, simultaneously, a full stepping into the will – and essence – of Satan. For Lewis, evil does not come from or spawn within Perelandra, but rather arrives on it as a separate entity. It is not so much that people do evil on Perelandra, but more that evil does them, absorbing them into itself with the lure of freedom. Ultimately, Lewis is able to use the unique natural laws of Perelandra to portray a thought-provoking conception of the nature of evil.

 

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Works Cited

Bond, Brian C. “The Unity of Word: Language in C.S. Lewis’ Trilogy.” Mythlore, vol. 2, no. 4 (8), 1972, pp. 13-15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26808331. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

Chapman, Ed. “Toward A Sacramental Ecology: Technology, Nature and Transcendence in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy.” Mythlore, vol. 3, no. 4 (12), 1976, pp. 10-17. JSTOR,  www.jstor.org/stable/26809889. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

Hyles, Vernon. “On the Nature of Evil: The Cosmic Myths of Lewis, Tolkien & Williams.” Mythlore, vol. 13, no. 4 (50), 1987, pp. 9-17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26812051. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

Lewis, C.S. Perelandra. New York: Macmillan, 1979. Print.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HarperOne, 2001. Pg. 22

Moorman, Charles. “Spaceship and Grail: The Myths of C.S. Lewis.” College English, vol. 18, no. 8, 1957, pp. 401-405. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/372109. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

Price, Steven. “Freedom and nature in Perelandra.” Mythlore, vol. 8, no. 3 (29), 1981, pp. 38-42. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26810041. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

Walker, Jeanne Murray. “Science Fiction: A Commentary on Itself as Lies.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 1978, pp. 29-37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3194330. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

 

 

 

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