Eve of Perelandra, by James Lewicki

awful perelandra coverI have complained of the cover art of C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet in my blog, “Worst Book Description Ever.” While I like some of the crazy science fiction art of the period, this cover of Perelandra on the right is painfully bad. Giant green bodied/pale faced naked aliens hovering above with wispy cloud right at their privates, while a nevernude Ransom stands defiantly against them in his superman pose. Really, super tight jean shorts? If these are the Adam and Eve of Perelandra, why does the Lord of that world have a spear? And look at Eve’s face: Does she look more like the innocent child-mother of a fresh new world, or the girl in high school who wouldn’t talk to you? If it is Mars and Venus, it explains the spear. But why is he green? And why Caucasian heads on green-hued bodies?

To their credit, they do keep in great shape. They must work out.

There is much to mock in this book cover, but it is challenging to imagine how we might capture the images of the Adam and Eve of Perelandra. They are green and naked, innocent and lordly, beautiful and yet not sexually alluring, implicated with their natural world yet gods in it. It was probably wise that, when they produced an opera of Perelandra, they used “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli (late 15th c.) for their main image.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1485While not all attempts to capture Perelandra have been successful, there is one artist who has made an attempt that I think is worth applauding. In the first edition of Horizon journal (May 1959), within an article by Edmund Fuller called, “The Christian Spaceman: C.S. Lewis,” there is also a painting by James Lewicki.

james lewicki_eve of perelandra_100It is very much a piece of the period, but you can tell that Lewicki had actually taken the time to read Perelandra. Though a tad too literal, Ransom is the Piebald Man, tanned on one side by his space voyage. He is naked and disoriented, caught on a floating island away from the only human he has yet seen. Lewicki has made an attempt to capture some of the vegetation, including the bubble trees–a “fruit” that provides refreshment and strength to Ransom in his visit to Venus. And there is the lady, a bit indistinct in the distance, but unashamed as she gathers flowers in her great, global garden.

If you still feel a little bit unsatisfied by the painting, you should know that Lewis predicted you would be.

She was standing a few yards away, motionless but not apparently disengaged—doing something with her mind, perhaps even with her muscles, that he did not understand. It was the first time he had looked steadily at her, himself unobserved, and she seemed more strange to him than before. There was no category in the terrestrial mind which would fit her. Opposites met in her and were fused in a fashion for which we have no images. One way of putting it would be to say that neither our sacred nor our profane art could make her portrait. Beautiful, naked, shameless, young—she was obviously a goddess: but then the face, the face so calm that it escaped insipidity by the very concentration of its mildness, the face that was like the sudden coldness and stillness of a church when we enter it from a hot street—that made her a Madonna. The alert, inner silence which looked out from those eyes overawed him; yet at any moment she might laugh like a child, or run like Artemis or dance like a Maenad. All this against the golden sky which looked as if it were only an arm’s length above her head (Perelandra ch. 5).

We see how it was, visually speaking, an impossible task. Still, I am grateful to James Lewicki for attempting–especially since so many have done it so badly.

Someone has recoloured and focussed the pieces, which I think enhances what we see–even if the colours are a bit brash (see the tiles below). As I have just finished rereading Perelandra, I found the painting helped me see the world of Perelandra in a subtly different way.

james lewicki ransom perelandrajames lewicki tinidril perelandra

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to Eve of Perelandra, by James Lewicki

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “And why Caucasian heads on green-hued bodies?” Maybe someone thought that’s what comes of sunbathing on Venus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Seriously, though, thank you for such an astonishing, interesting post!

      It seems to me that James Lewicki (other of whose works I have probably enjoyed without registering that they were his, or wondering who he was) has very interestingly attempted a Madonna-like ‘Perelandran Eve’ imagery. (It also seems to me there may be facial-structural features of his wife, Lillian Schalow Lewicki, judging by the snapshot on the jameslewicki.com website his daughter, Lisa Lewicki Hermanson, has started building). It also nicely brings out in its own way the affinity with Venus Anadyomene (and Botticelli’s depiction in particular: duh, how has this never properly struck me before about Perelandra?!). I wonder if the Lewises knew it (which seems likely) and what they thought about it? (Maybe an unpublished entry in W.H.L.’s diary will tell us, someday…)

      In this visual art context, that last sentence you quote – “against the golden sky which looked as if it were only an arm’s length above her head” – suddenly lights up for me as evoking the conventions of (Byzantine) ikons which continued into Italian ‘Proto-Renaissance painting’ (cf. Cimabue, Giotto, Duccio) and on down another couple centuries in the Sienese School: it looks like James Lewicki has nicely evoked this, too!

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      • Yes, I thought there was a Boticelli nod, though I hadn’t thought about his wife.
        You have a point how many of our visual artists have gone nameless for as long as the woodcut (except famous ones), and at least since colour book printing in the 40s.
        I wonder if the Byzantine’s had an advantage, David, in that they were not restricted by realism. They were icons, images, not reflections.

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          That’s a very interesting matter to ponder – visual realism and its alternatives (if that’s not a silly way to put it) – also in terms of visualization related to textual description, suggestion, evocation, etc.

          Somewhat tangentially, there is a wonderful book on the development and conventions of early Christian art by a Dutch scholar various of whose works were translated into English, Frits (Frederik G.L.) van der Meer, but I don’t think (alas!) this one ever yet has been (though a German translation appeared in 1982). Perhaps a later book of his which was translated into English, as Early Christian Art (and first published in 1967 by Faber & Faber and the University of Chicago Press) gives at least some taste of the same analysis. (The earlier, fuller book, from 1949, Christus’ Oudste Gewaad: Over der oorspronkelijkheid der Oud-Christelijke Kunst [something like ‘Christ’s Oldest Vesture: On the originality of Early Christian Art’] interestingly refers to Lewis’s Allegory of Love – a glimpse (I suspect) of the established international reputation of the scholar Lewis at a date when his fictional and apologetic works were (I think) just starting to appear in translation: see, for example, Arend Smilde’s ‘C.S. Lewis in Dutch’ at lewisiana.nl .)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for this, and a reference I have never heard of.
            I really know nothing about art, or art criticism. But I have been using Marc Chagall to help me teach this week. He has a way of moving past realism without superceding it. He reminds me greatly of what the Byzantines might have created if Picasso was their neaby neighbour.

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  2. L.A. Smith says:

    I like the painting! Definitely Venus-like, but I agree the painter has has captured the scene from Perelandra nicely. That first cover, though….oy vey!! Bizarre.

    Like

  3. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I have a framed copy of the Lewicki painting from _Horizon_ tear-sheets, but I didn’t know about the tiles or any other printings. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Going on quite a tangent in speaking of impressive and mysterious green… ‘persons’, I’ve never yet caught up with your “Christmas at the South Pole”. There have been a lot of editions of Tolkien’s Father Christmas letters since then, but has there been a lot of discussion, as well (and has anyone been keeping track of it, especially)? (I’m reading a paper next week at the conference in Leiden, partly about Father Christmas and “we were both called Nicholas after the Saint”, and would like to pay some more attention to the letters after that… Though Brenton must feel free to kill this comment, if it seems too outrageously off-topic!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kevin Ott says:

    Wow. Some truly awful covers here. No wonder Lewis was uncomfortable about anyone trying to make a movie out of the Narnia books during his lifetime. It’s because he saw the kind of covers they were making for his books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      What a great observation – thank you! (I remember various comments by him about how reviewers get things wrong about his books, and also his very mixed positive and negative reaction to Disney’s Snow White, which might feed into such uncomfortable feelings from other directions, too, but this must really have hit him in the face! ‘Authorized’ publications, with (I suppose) zero authorial input as to what’s slapped on the ‘finished product’!)

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      • kevinott843 says:

        So true about Snow White! I still think it’s a little surreal in a way that we have his opinion on record about a Disney movie. I know Snow White is old but it creates a strange link between our modern world (in which almost every major cinematic brand is now owned by Disney) and Lewis’s world.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin, I hadn’t thought of what Lewis thought about the American covers–we don’t have all his correspondence with publishers.
      We should also note that it may have had some cultural cache that I can’t see now, looking back. In this one case, I doubt it.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I found myself wondering about the direction of Ransom’s gaze, in that book cover (“world of the new temptation”: ‘keep your eyes rivetted on her navel, old man,’ said Ransom to himself…) – though if I saw a real copy of the book, with the cover full-size, I can imagine it might be clear he’s looking at her eye-to-eye…

    It also somehow got me thinking about the contrast of that cover illustration (as well as the content of the books) with Swift’s account of Gulliver’s trip to Brobdingnag… (Phew, looking again, to contrast mentally the scale of figures with each other with what Swift seems to describe, got me suddenly thinking this might be more like the scale of Frodo to Galadriel and Celeborn – which might invite to a more substantially interesting comparison and contrast between Galadriel and Tinidril…)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of comparing Tolkien, this whole attention to visualization, and I can only suppose the deliberate unfilmableness of it on Lewis’s part, it struck me as interesting to compare Tolkien’s remarks on drama and dramatizations (versus the powers of imagination) in On Fairy-stories – and to wonder if Lewis might in fact have had it (among other things – maybe including similar discussions with Tolkien) in mind, in writing the book.

    As to ‘aspects of unfilmableness’, it strikes me how woefully little I know of the work of the British Board of Film Censors up to and including the appearance of Perelandra, with reference to what (depiction of) nakedness was allowed. Was, for example, Tarzan of the Apes (1918) shown in the UK as in the US,with the naked Gordon Griffith as the young Tarzan (if memory serves me correctly)? And what of documentary and travel films and newsreel footage, e.g., where other cultures were concerned? Lewis, much later (1961) discusses Ovid as “the real pornographer”, with further reference to how he tends to handle “a real pornographic passage, by which I mean one clearly intended to act as an aphrodisiac on the reader”. In Perelandra, Lewis must write so as to eliminate or minimize even unintentional ‘aphrodisiacal’ effects – while thematizing all Weston’s nastiness on the subject – and presumably thinks what may be achievable by words would be impossible in film (where some sorts of ‘giggle-factor’ would be equally a danger with the ‘aphrodisiacal’).

    At some point in the 1940s, Williams was thinking about writing a book on films (perhaps partly in the context of his son having already become such a film buff, if he had by whenever this was?) – but I can’t remember when and haven’t tried to look it up in my papers. But the memory of it in this context has got me wondering about how much the Inklings may have discussed film, and particular films, from time to time.

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    • How did your talk at Leiden go?
      What did Lewis have in mind? That’s the question, isn’t it? He is imagistic, and yet the choice of nudity was certain to cut off any film project, which would have suited him fine. Any adaptations he had seen were poor (in his view). I think opera is the only movement media that could incorporate it as a film as we suspend our doubts in opera, moving in on pathos and movement and sound.
      Did Lewis have a very clear thought on pornography–wasn’t he mostly trying to be inversive, “that sexy book isn’t sexy because it is too gynecological.” That sort of thing.
      I didn’t know about the Williams book on film. Wow.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Well, thanks! And I thoroughly enjoyed all six other ones I heard, though it was hard to choose between parallel sessions (my wife enjoyed a different three, in the afternoon – but we both inescapably missed nine others) – happily, one of the organizers publicly suggested that all papers would be published!

        I’d agree Lewis was “mostly trying to be inversive” in that 1961 essay, but thinking about the pornographic is also a feature of An Experiment in Criticism both with respect to the spectator’s possible “use of pictures” (including paintings by Tintoretto and “Kirchner” (I assume, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) as well as “photographs”: pp. 18, 20) and to intentionally pornographic writing – again, including Ovid, as sole named author (pp. 107, 126). And, there is also his attention to what he presents, in The Allegory of Love (1936), as Spenser’s treatment in The Faerie Queene of “what would now be called skeptophilia” (pp. 331-33). (Decades later, this attention became the subject of some striking controversy, transcribed recently by Arend Smilde in his comprehensive look at “Lewis in The Spectator” at Lewisiana.nl) So, I think Lewis was generally trying to think clearly about pornography, and always with an attempt to discern authorial intention and readerly experience (and possible ‘(mis)use’).

        I have not attempted to comb the detailed Wade listings online to see if any cinematic fragments by Williams survive – I never encountered any (and don’t remember whether the way he talked about it indicated one thing or the other about whether it was a purely future possibility or something he was trying his hand at already a bit). But I can’t help thinking it would have been fascinating!

        Opera – Donald Swann certainly did more than think about it as a possibility, but I don’t know the details of how he thought to stage his Perelandra! (I remember the damned in body-stockings in a 1970s live performance of Boito’s Mefistofele – and cf. the initiation sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s film of his stage production of Mozart’s Magic Flute (1975) – and also a poor, topless soprano in the bath in a 1970s live performance of an opera about Susannah – I suppose, Carlisle Floyd’s – and, finally, some absurd topless symbolic figures in a well-sung and played but idiotically staged live performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio in the 1980s. My impressions of (apparent) operatic nakedness on the basis of this small sample are decidedly mixed!)

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        • This is a good correction, David. I reread “Experiment in Criticism” this week partly to help me respond more fully. But I think you captured it well.
          I’m glad your talk went well! I find having to chose which session to go to at conferences notoriously difficult.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A couple other comparisons (or juxtapositions or whatever), in the context of description, visualization, illustration, and so on. Anthony Burgess has, somewhere, an interesting little discussion (in the context of the works – I think, especially the later ones – of James Joyce) about writing that readily evoke visualization, and writing that pays – and gets you paying – more attention to words as words, etc.

    And there is a fascinating edition in the latest Journal of Inklings Studies of an early fairy-tale by Chesterton which he both wrote and illustrated in an interrelated way (with the illustrations worked out ahead of the text they will surround, at least some of the time).

    Liked by 1 person

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