This is a post from 5 years ago that I still quite like. What interested Lewis about planets as a literary backdrop was not their physical properties but their mythical properties—both how they worked in classical and medieval mythology, and how they can help shape the mythology of contemporary culture. In “There is No Such Thing as Space,” I had already written about how Lewis was trying to challenge popular beliefs about the human’s place in the universe by substituting the idea of “High Heavens” for “Outer Space.” While he did not deny the scientific realities of the universe, he did critique the stories that people told based upon new and evolving science. I find it an elegant subversion.
In 2011, the Mars rover Opportunity, after seven years on the red planet with twin rover Spirit, captured stunning pictures of the planet’s surface. We’ve had contact with Mars for some time now, and this panoramic view of the sandy valleys of our nearest planet should put to rest any images of “Martians” that have crept into our popular imagination through SciFi writers and Hollywood Blockbusters. Mars is now being catalogued and explored—probed, if you will—for its economic benefits and intellectual delights.
For C.S. Lewis, whose first fantasy novel was situated on Mars, this scientific exactitude is also a loss. For Lewis, it wasn’t the chemical composition of the Solar System that was most important, but its mythic role in the human imagination.
In Out of the Silent Planet, our hero, Dr. Ransom, is kidnapped while on a walk through the English countryside and smuggled to Mars. As a captive, Ransom’s initial impression of the foreign ecosystem of Mars is almost entirely negative:
“the bright, still, sparkling, unintelligible landscape – with needling shapes of pale green, thousands of feet high, with sheets of dazzling blue sodawater, and acres of rose-red soapsuds” (44-45)
The complete and utter newness of the landscape and the violent nature of his own state also tint Ransom’s first view of the sapient creatures of the brightly-coloured planet.
“There seemed to be some paler and slenderer plants than he had noticed before amongst the purple ones: he hardly attended to them, for his eyes were busy searching the ground – so obsessed was he with the reptile fears and insect fears of modern imagining. It was the reflections of the new white objects in the water that sent his eyes back to them: long, streaky, white reflections motionless in the running water – four or five, no, to be precise, six of them. He looked up. Six white things were standing there. Spindly and flimsy things, twice or three times the height of a man. His first idea was that they were images of men, the work of savage artists; he had seen things like them in books of archaeology. But what could they be made of, and how could they stand? – so crazily thin and elongated in the leg, so top-heavily pouted in the chest, such stalky, flexible-looking distortions of earthly bipeds… like something seen in one of those comic mirrors. They were certainly not made of stone or metal, for now they seemed to sway a little as he watched; now with a shock that chased the blood from his cheeks he saw that they were alive, that they were moving, that they were coming at him. He had a momentary, scared glimpse of their faces, thin and unnaturally long, with long, drooping noses and drooping mouths of half-spectral, half-idiotic solemnity. Then he turned wildly to fly…” (45).
Ransom’s flight sets the tension of the story into full play. He escapes his captors—and the grotesque Martians he is so very afraid of—and flees into the wilderness. Away from pistols and aliens and the arrogant dreams of evil men, his view of Malacandra, as the locals called it, begins to change.
“As far as eye could reach he saw nothing but the stems of the great plants about him receding in the violet shade, and far overhead the multiple transparency of huge leaves filtering the sunshine to the solemn splendour of twilight in which he walked” (47).
Now, this is C.S. Lewis speaking, both as the narrator of the fictional universe of the book, but also Lewis the writer. In the Space Trilogy he gives extensive detail about landscapes and environments, all in his desire to capture the “atmosphere” of the story. Even in Narnia—much shorter, and tailored to children—he will disappear for a page or two into travel guide introductions of the scene. Much of Out of the Silent Planet is description of this extraterrestrial world, so I won’t detail all that Ransom experienced in Malacandra. But I will indulge in the moment where the beauty of the Malacandrian world begins to eclipse Ransom’s prejudices:
“He had one bad fright in the course of the morning, when, passing through a somewhat more open glade, he became aware first of a huge, yellow object, then of two, and then of an indefinite multitude coming towards him. Before he could fly he found himself in the midst of a herd of enormous pale furry creatures more like giraffes than anything else he could think of, except that they could and did raise themselves on their hind legs and even progress several paces in that position. They were slenderer, and very much higher, than giraffes, and were eating the leaves off the tops of the purple plants. They saw him and stared at him with their big liquid eyes, snorting in basso profondissimo, but had apparently no hostile intentions. Their appetite was voracious. In five minutes they had mutilated the tops of a few hundred ‘trees’ and admitted a new flood of sunlight into the forest. Then they passed on.
“This episode had an infinitely comforting effect on Ransom. The planet was not, as he had begun to fear, lifeless except for sorns [the first creatures he met]. Here was a very presentable sort of animal, an animal which man could probably tame, and whose food man could possibly share. If only it were possible to climb the ‘trees’! He was staring about him with some idea of attempting this feat, when he noticed that the devastation wrought by the leaf-eating animals had opened a vista overhead beyond the plant tops to a collection of the same greenish-white objects which he had seen across the lake at their first landing.
“This time they were much closer. They were enormously high, so that he had to throw back his head to see the top of them. They were something like pylons in shape, but solid; irregular in height and grouped in an apparently haphazard and disorderly fashion. Some ended in points that looked from where he stood as sharp as needles, while others, after narrowing towards the summit, expanded again into knobs or platforms that seemed to his terrestrial eyes ready to fall at any moment. He noticed that the sides were rougher and more seamed with fissures than he had realized at first, and between two of them he saw a motionless line of twisting blue brightness – obviously a distant fall of water. It was this which finally convinced him that the things, in spite of their improbable shape, were mountains; and with that discovery the mere oddity of the prospect was swallowed up in the fantastic sublime. Here, he understood, was the full statement of that perpendicular theme which beast and plant and earth all played on Malacandra – here in this riot of rock, leaping and surging skyward like solid jets from some rock fountain, and hanging by their own lightness in the air, so shaped, so elongated, that all terrestrial mountains must ever after seem to him to be mountains lying on their sides. He felt a lift and lightening at the heart” (52-53).
Even the most scientifically incurious reader will notice the stark contrast between the haunting red deserts of Mars and the vibrant valleys of Malacandra. We know that there is no complex life on Mars, and that the barren landscape is not interrupted by purple-tinged ecosystems of flora and fauna sliced into the earth. So would it be fair to say that Lewis was wrong about Mars in his science fiction?
To ask if Lewis, or any science fiction writer of his generation, was mistaken about science is to ask the wrong question, I think. It’s true that not much was known of extraterrestrial planets in 1937 when he was writing, but I do not think that is precisely the point. While Lewis seemed to have some care in not stretching the reader’s credibility about inhabitability—he wouldn’t put a civilization on Pluto, for example (see a letter to Chad Walsh, Dec 18, 1945)—he was not trying to predict what Mars was like, or even what it could be like with an atmosphere analogous to Earth’s. On Dec 28, 1938, he wrote to Roger Lancelyn Green, noting that:
“The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.”
Now, Lewis is aware of some general ideas of science. Malacandra has less gravity than Earth, so there is a perpendicular nature to the planet: the mountains and trees and hnau (sentient creatures) are all tall and out of balance to an Earthling’s eyes. Other aspects, like the use of solar rays for interplanetary flight, were mere inventions, a vehicle to cross millions of miles of space in a month or so–though in the 1960s other science fiction writers took this idea up again. C.S. Lewis was invested in creating plausible speculative worlds that had an internal consistency, but he never pretended that the physical basis of these worlds would stand the test of time. To two other writers he says,
“Obviously it was vague, because I’m no scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of it” (see “Unreal Estates” in Of Other Worlds, p. 87).
He goes on to call his science “pure mumbo jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me” (87). Lewis even admits, sheepishly I suppose, in a letter to Evelyn Underhill (Oct 29, 1938) that although he loved the idea, the luminosity which so encouraged Ransom on his space voyage would actually be deadly to humans.
What interested Lewis about planets as a literary backdrop was not their physical properties but their mythical properties—both how they worked in classical and medieval mythology, and how they can help shape the mythology of contemporary culture. In “There is No Such Thing as Space,” I write about how Lewis was trying to challenge popular beliefs about the human’s place in the universe by substituting the idea of “High Heavens” for “Outer Space.” While he did not deny the scientific realities of the universe, he did critique the stories that people told based upon new and evolving science.
This subversion of the founding narratives of Lewis’ contemporary culture was served by returning to medieval ideas about the planets. This idea is covered at length in Michael Ward’s The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia, but the idea is simply that the sun and moon and planets of our solar system had mythical properties—they were like characters in a story, heroes and heroines (and potentially villains) with personalities. We keep some of these characteristics in our calendar: March is Mars’ month; Saturday is Saturn’s day. But I think the storied reality has gotten lost.
For Lewis, though, the mythic realities of the stars of heaven was the main thing. I am not certain (as Ward is) that it was the primary shaping feature of Narnia, but it certainly shaped the literary landscape of the Ransom Trilogy. Malacandra (Mars), Perelandra (Venus), Thulcandra (Earth), Sulva (the Moon), and Arbol (the Sun) each play roles in the story that are meant to evoke for the reader something of their mythic properties.
Lewis was not alone in this kind of project. English classical composer Gustav Holst created a highly popular orchestral suite called “The Planets” (see the Mars movement Youtube clip below, capturing the theme that I suspect influenced the Star Wars Imperial March). Incidentally, there were seven movements, matching the seven celestial bodies in the Medieval solar system (and the seven books of Narnia, according to Ward). In a letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves on Boxing Day, 1945, he confessed that he was “deeply moved” by Holst’s work. A month later, Lewis wrote to Sr. Penelope, one of his spiritual mentors and literary friends, contrasting his own reinvention of the solar system with Holst’s. He commends the work, but says:
“his characters are rather different from mine, I think. Wasn’t his Mars brutal and ferocious?–in mine I tried to get the good element in the martial spirit, the discipline and freedom from anxiety. On Jupiter I am closer to him: but I think his is more ‘jovial’ in the modern sense of the word. The folk tune on which he bases it is not regal enough for my conception. But of course there is a general similarity because we’re both following the medieval astrologers. His is, anyway, a rich and marvellous work.”
Lewis’ poetry is celestially inspired, and he goes into detail about the planetary scheme in his literary criticism, such as in the essay “The Heavens” in The Discarded Image. I think it is possible that in Out of the Silent Planet Lewis initially made some attempt at scientific credibility—at least to convince himself—but in his second space book, he lets loose the sails of mythology and gets lost in the creative ecosystem that is Perelandra. Lewis’ task as a storyteller is bigger than scientific cohesion: he is reshaping cultural mythology. The medieval understanding of the solar system was the richest source he could find to retell Man’s story.
In a real sense, though, I believe that Lewis had to go to outer space—all the “real estate” of Earth had been explored, so he had to turn to “Unreal Estates.” He spoke about this specifically in his essay, “On Science Fiction”:
“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or other stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand. As the area of knowledge spreads, you need to go further afield: like a man moving his house further and further out into the country as the new building estates catch him up. Thus in Grimm’s Marchen, stories told by peasants in wooded country, you need only walk an hour’s journey into the next forest to find a home for your witch or ogre” (Of Other Worlds, p. 67-68).
Now that the forests are filled with housing developments and carefully categorized Betula papyrifera (what we used to call Paper Birches), the fantasy writer is left to unexplored worlds. To tell this kind of story, Lewis says,
“the pseudo-scientific apparatus is to be taken simply as a ‘machine’ in the sense which that word bore for the Neo-Classical critics. The most superficial appearance of plausibility – the merest sop to our critical intellect – will do. I am inclined to think that frankly supernatural methods are best. I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus. Nor need the strange worlds, when we get there, be at all strictly tied to scientific probabilities. It is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness that matters. When I myself put canals on Mars I believe I already knew that better telescopes had dissipated that old optical delusion. The point was that they were part of the Martian myth as it already existed in the common mind.”
Lewis’ social critique, specifically that Westerners have a weak cultural mythology, uses a methodology entirely suited to the task, namely a strong cultural mythology. It isn’t that Lewis would argue that housing developments were bad (though he hated the loss of wilderness to suburbia) or that Paper Birches have no scientific uses as Betula papyrifera. It is that forests are more than future housing plots: they are places of great mystery and wonder where the faerie world can instigate a reshaping of the destiny of humanity. And Betula papyrifera are more than their botanical designation: they can warm hands in late night conversations, or shade the wandering pilgrim, or be the paper (see the Latin name) for ancient poets to scratch out their lines. I think when you’ve walked hand in hand along the shoreline with someone who has stolen your heart you can never call that place “just a beach” ever again. It is true that sand and water are chemicals and minerals, but to say they are “just that” is the weak mythology of the scientific age.
So, with Lewis, we explore space, or find new worlds—not to escape our Homo sapien daily lives, but to teach us what it means to be human. No matter what we happen to find on Mars, for humans to be human—or hnau—it must also be Malacandra, just like it isn’t just Mars Rover 3.1624f, but “Opportunity.” After all, if these things don’t have deep cultural, human meaning, what are we exploring Mars for in the first place?