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Perelandra: Fear of Knowledge
I do not consider myself a science fiction expert, but I do love the genre. I’ve seen the majority of Star Trek episodes and watch Joss Whedon’s Firelfy biannually. I’ve explored the books written by Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov beyond the Dune and Foundation series. I also enjoy the more technical writing of Greg Bear and Arthur C. Clarke. Quite recently, I’ve started bemoaning the fact that I don’t have enough shelf space to house my science fiction collection. All this to say that when it came time to decide what I was going to write about, my mind naturally turned towards science fiction. The themes of fear and knowledge coexist in many works of sci-fi. There is usually fear of the unknown and knowledge in the form of futuristic technology, or in exploring and understanding the universe. However, my mind kept giving me the phrase “fear of knowledge” and I knew exactly which work to write about.
C.S. Lewis, best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and his theological books, also wrote science fiction. His Space Trilogy consists of three novels: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. This series tends to get overlooked somewhere in between The Last Battle and Mere Christianity. The Space Trilogy carries all the wonder that Narnia does, but because it is written for a more adult audience, Lewis is able to weave some deeper issues into the plot that would pass right over the heads of children. Perelandra in particular seems to get short shrift, as the other two books in the series are superior in terms of plot and writing style. It is also not necessary to read the middle book to be able the follow the plot in That Hideous Strength. I’m not saying that Perelandra is somehow bad or unenjoyable; the plot just isn’t as brisk as the other two books of the trilogy. Its pace is much slower, and a greater amount of concentration is required to catch all the issues Lewis raises in it. However, just rereading the novel’s first page excites me. There’s just something about a book that starts with words like “eldila”, “Oyarsa” and “Deep Heaven” that tells you it’s going to be about something larger and grander than just a humdrum, everyday life.
The main character in Perelandra is the same from the first book, a man named Ransom. To give you a taste of the details Lewis put into these books, let me point out that the very fact Ransom carries such a name holds some very deep and far-reaching meanings, much of which leads to the final climax. In this book, Ransom finds himself sent to the planet Perelandra (Venus). Here, he finds himself in the middle of a parallel to a very old story, that of Adam and Eve. This story has already played out on Earth and is now unfolding anew on Perelandra with the first two human beings there. The counterpart to Eve is the Green Woman, or the Lady as she is more often referred to, while the roll of Adam is played by her husband, the King, who has been missing for a few days. The serpent is another man from Earth who has been possessed by what Lewis calls the “Dark Eldil” (Satan). This man, once called Weston, has become little more than a speaking creature and is referred to by Ransom as the Un-man. The part of the book I wish to focus on is the middle section, where we see the interaction between Ransom, the Un-man, and the Green Woman.
Ransom has been sent to teach the Lady, who is much like a pure innocent child. He is to tell her about life, death, obedience, and everything a child needs to know to prepare itself for the responsibilities of adulthood. The Un-man is on Perelandra to distort and twist Ransom’s teachings. Ransom’s task starts out just fine; the Lady responds to his teaching as a child would. For example, she does not understand death except that it means the absence of someone. Ransom is very cautious about the knowledge he imparts to her, fearing that he could give her too much and ruin her innocent purity.
Then the Un-man comes along. In one day, he is able to warp all of Ransom’s teachings into a mockery of knowledge. For instance, while Ransom had explained beauty as the physical attributes that a person naturally possesses simply by being a human, the Un-man twists the concept into vanity. It is here that Ransom starts to fear the knowledge that he is supposed to be giving to the Lady. He spends nights debating with himself. Is knowledge really a good thing when it can be subverted so easily? The Un-man starts to undo all of Ransom’s work. Whereas Ransom had told the Lady of the heroines of Earth, the Un-man tells her about more of them, but twists the tales so they emphasize the wrong actions that were taken rather than the greater good that emerged from those actions. By doing this, the Un-man is trying to persuade the Lady that to be a heroin is to do wrong.
Why would the Un-man want to destroy all the knowledge that Ransom is giving to the Lady? Much like Adam and Eve, the Green Woman and her husband have been given only one command they must follow: they may not live on the “Fixed Land”. Much of Perelandra is water and floating islands, so this command is not exactly a big problem. Ransom has already given the Lady the knowledge that most of Earth is fixed land and than there is no divine law against living on it, and she accepts it as the difference between the ways of two worlds. However, the Un-man tells her, much as the serpent tempts Eve, that the law is only in place to hold her back from becoming all that she could be. He tells her that, like the heroines of all the stories, she can break this one law and rise above and beyond what she is.
Ransom, already familiar with the story of Adam and Eve, fears what might happen to the paradise of Perelandra should the Lady choose to live on the Fixed Land. Ransom realizes this knowledge is what has been making him fear the Un-man. He awakens to the fact that, in spite of their close parallels, the stories do not have to play out the same. He, because of his own knowledge, can change it. This, along with the fear of what other twisted knowledge his adversary might be able to put into the Lady’s head, is what drives Ransom to a physical confrontation with the Un-man. Of course, more happens in the story after this, but I’ll leave it here.
Perelandra is not entirely about fear and knowledge; those are just two of the themes that Lewis chooses to touch upon. He also covers the concepts of demon possession, loyalty between a married couple, the correct use of power, rebellion and, of course, what life on Venus might be like. Each book in the Space Trilogy was written to stand alone, but if you take the time to read all of them and really think about what you’re reading, you’ll be amazed as you see the whole overarching story emerge.