Thursday, June 30, 2011

The beauty of Perelandra

This post is part of the C.S. Lewis book club hosted at the Quiet Quill. I've also written up my thoughts on:
Out of the Silent Planet
A Grief Observed
Surprised by Joy

I've been trying to figure out how C.S. Lewis manages to immerse you so fully in a new world, as he does when you visit the planet Perelandra. 

I think I understand at least part of his excellent technique: it's not so much the details, but it's how he reveals them as a series of first impressions/discoveries which gradually get pieced together and then change as as the "big picture" is slowly, exquisitely revealed.

Ransom is the main character this book and the previous book, Out of the Silent Planet: a bemused British philologist (studier of languages). When he arrives on the Perelandra, a planet primarily of water, it is fascinating to see him cope with the aquatic world. I would love to tell about the ________ islands, but they are one of the neatest features of the world-building, so I use a blank as a form of enticement!

The theme of the book first appears to be a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, and the serpent's temptation - the differences being that it's a watery version of Eden, and that Ransom is present to warn Eve about the serpent's wiles. But the ending will reveal that the it's more than a retelling; as Ransom realizes at the end, God never tells the same story twice.

At first I had a hard time with this statement:
If he now failed [to keep Eve from the original sin], this world also would hereafter be redeemed. If he were not the ransom, another would be. Yet nothing was ever repeated. Not a second crucifixion; perhaps-who knows-not even a second Incarnation... some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility.
My first reaction was to think "how could be anything greater than Christ dying for us? How is there any greater love?" But I think the point Lewis is trying to make here is that we simply cannot fathom the glories of God, the limitlessness of His plans - "His understanding no one can fathom." (Isaiah 40:29).

I liked how the serpents in this story are actually good creatures - Satan is represented by a different creature altogether, but I tell you, he will seriously give you chills.

Another neat twist in this story is the Lady's (symbolic of Eve) responses to Satan's temptations. She has her own brand of fascinating logic, which at first appears childishly naive, but is innocent and wise enough to hold its own with the millenia of Satan's accumulated experience and cunning. Lewis must have brainstormed for YEARS to come up with the dialogue in this book. It's not clever; it's more than clever.
This excerpt is a glimpse into the Lady's different perspectives:
"I mean," said Ransom, "a night is not a very long time."
She thought again, and then spoke suddenly, her face lightening. "I see it now. You think times have lengths. A night is always a night whatever you do in it, as from this tree to that is always so many paces whether you take them quickly or slowly. I suppose that is true in a way. But the waves do not always come at equal distances. I see that you come from a wise world... if this is wise. I have never done it before, stepping out of life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?"

Here is a very interesting temptation that Ransom struggles with on Perelandra:

Looking at a fine cluster of the bubbles which hung above his head he thought how easy it would be to get up and plunge oneself through the whole lot of them and to feel, all at once, that magical refreshment multiplied tenfold. But he was restrained by the same sort of feeling which had restrained him from tasting a second gourd... this itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards... was it possibly the root of all evil? No: of course the love of money was called that. But money itself - perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defense against chance, a security for being able to have things over again, a means of arresting the unrolling of the film.

And a related quote:
Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be vulgarity - like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
There are some interesting discussions between Ransom and the Lady about the Eldil, the name used for angels. Apparently, the Lady has never encountered angels before. Ransom wonders why they do not appear on Perelandra, when they were the ruling beings on Malacandra (the planet he visits in the previous book).
"Eldila," said Ransom. "the great and ancient servants of Maleldil... whose bodies are made of light. Whom we can hardly see. Whom ought to be obeyed."
She mused for a moment and then spoke. "Sweetly and gently this time Maleldil makes me older. He shows me all the natures of these blessed creatures. But there is no obeying them now, not in this world. That is all the old order, Piebald, the far side of the wave that has rolled past us and will not come again. That very ancient world to which you journeyed was put under the eldila. In our own world also they ruled once; but not since our Beloved became a Man. In your world they linger still. But in our world, which is the first of worlds to wake after the great change, they have no power. There is nothing now between us and Him. They have grown less and we have increased. And now Maleldil puts into my mind that this is their glory and their joy. They received us - us things of the low world... weak and small beasts whom their lightest touch could destroy; and their glory was to cherish us and make us older till we were older than they - till they could fall at our feet. It is a joy we shall not have... but it is a joy beyond all. Not that it is better joy than ours. Every joy is beyond all others. The fruit we are eating is always the best fruit of all."
I also loved how when the two eldil prepare to show themselves as distinct figures to the Lady and her husband, they first try on a couple "appearances" to Ransom to see how they would be received by humans - first they appear as the winged cherubim, "a tornado of sheer monstrosities... darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggest snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void. The next appearance they tried was of wheels turning within wheels. Then at last they tried the image of man, but giants, and burning white like white-hot iron. (Ezekiel 1)

Here is a descriptive excerpt that startled me with the reversed perspective of sea above and mountains below: exquisite haze like vaporized amethyst and emerald and gold... the edge of this haze rose as he rose, and became at last the horizon of the sea, high lifted above the hills. And the sea grew ever larger and the mountains less, and the horozon of the sea rose and rose till all the lower mountains behind him seemed to be lying at the bottom of a great bowl of sea.
Such beautiful descriptions! It reminds me a little of the way Tolkien so lovingly described some of the beautiful places in Middle Earth. I also loved this summation of the beauty of the planet Perelandra (Venus) in comparison to Malacandra (Mars), its older sister:
Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, on the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago. A sailor's look... eyes that are impregnated with distance.

But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist.
I will finally end this long post with my most favorite quote of all from Perelandra. It includes a reference to Job 38: 1-7, which were the verses I read many years ago when God first opened my eyes to His truth.
Listening hard, he could hear nothing but the low murmurous noise of warm wind and gentle swell. The suggestion of music must have been from within. But as soon as he lay down again he felt assured that it was not. From without, most certainly from without, but not by the snse of hearing, festal revelry an dance and splendour poured into him - no sound, yet in such fashion that it could not be remembered or thought of except as music. It was like having a new sense. It was like being present when the morning stars sang together.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, you have done a wonderful job on this review. Well done!

    "It was like being present when all the morning stars sang together."

    That is also one of my favorite quotes. :)
    Blessings to you - Marsha