by David C. DowningHaving already earned a reputation as a formidable literary scholar, C. S. Lewis scandalized his fellow Oxford dons in 1938 when he published a fantasy novel, Out of the Silent Planet. They would have been even more alarmed if they had noticed that he was writing what he called “theologized science fiction,” a fast-paced adventure story with profound spiritual overtones.
Out of the Silent Planet sprung from a conversation between C. S. Lewis and his great friend J. R. R. Tolkien. As Tolkien explained it, Lewis said to him one day, “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves.” The two went on to agree that Lewis would try his hand at a space-travel tale and Tolkien would do something with time-travel. Tolkien’s effort, “The Lost Road,” was never finished, but Lewis’s half of the bargain resulted in Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of the Ransom trilogy.
Lewis and Tolkien were finding too little of what they liked in stories because they preferred the traditional stories of their childhood and youth—myth, legend, epic, fantasy, and fairy tales. But they lived at the height of literary Modernism, an era when “difficult” writing was prized over accessible writing, when it was thought that literature should reflect the angst of contemporary times and be full of stylistic novelties. Ironically, these two literary outsiders continue to exert a tremendous influence on our culture while the “mainstream” novelists they disliked are not widely read outside of academic circles.
Out of the Silent Planet resembles an H. G. Wells novel in its plot, but it couldn’t be more anti-Wellsian in its themes. As a boy, Lewis had enjoyed stories by Wells (1866-1946), especially such classics as War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. But when Wells evolved from a science fiction writer to an amateur philosopher, Lewis lamented that Wells had “sold his birthright for a pot of message.” One can’t help but notice all the similarities in plot betweenOut of the Silent Planet and Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Both stories portray a fanatical physicist who builds a spaceship in his backyard, accompanied by a greedy businessman. Both depict earthlings as anxious about alien creatures until they discover it is they themselves who pose a danger to other species and other worlds.
Despite these similarities of plot, however, Lewis’s tale is emphatically anti-Wellsian in theme. Out of the Silent Planet offers a withering critique of what Lewis called “Evolutionism,” the notion, popularized by H. G. Wells, that humans needed to take control of the evolutionary process, to reach for divinity, soaring from planet to planet and star to star. Such visions may seem grandiose and quixotic to contemporary readers. But Lewis saw a real danger in this line of thought, a new version of the serpent’s temptation to Eve: “Ye shall become as gods.” Writing in 1938, Lewis correctly predicted that this master race mentality could easily justify all manner of atrocities against other species or against “inferior” members of the human species.
Apart from debunking Evolutionism, Lewis hoped that taking his readers on a voyage to another world would give them another perspective on this one. In the opening pages of the story, we meet Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist on a solitary walking tour. He is a tall, round-shouldered man, thirty-five to forty, with a certain shabbiness of dress that marks a university professor on holiday. One cannot help but notice how much this description fits Lewis himself, and the opening scene resembles an incident that happened to Lewis himself in his twenties. But the real adventure begins when Ransom stops in at an isolated country house being rented by Edward Weston, a noted scientist, and Dick Devine, a former schoolmate. Sensing something vaguely sinister about their intentions toward a simpleminded boy who works for them, Ransom nevertheless accepts a drink, discovering too late that he has been drugged. When he starts to come to, Ransom makes a feeble attempt to escape, but he is soon knocked unconscious again.
Awakening the next time in an eerie metal chamber, he realizes he is traveling in space and fears for his own sanity as he contemplates the idea of traveling so far from earth into the dark vastness that separates the worlds. But when he looks out the window, Ransom is not appalled but rather awed by the splendid scene spread before his eyes. He comes to realize that the modern concept of “Space,” suggesting a vast, cold, dead abyss between the planets, seems an almost blasphemous term to describe the “empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam.” Ransom concludes that “older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens--the heavens which declared the glory,” thus choosing the words of the Psalmist (Ps 19:1) over those of the scientist.
Having awakened to a whole new set of realities, Ransom begins a long pilgrimage that will continue in the next two books of the trilogy, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Once Ransom and his abductors land on Mars, his first surprise is to find a landscape of surpassing beauty. Later on, he will learn that the inhabitants of Mars, who call their world Malacandra, are not at all like the nightmarish visions of his imagination. There are three rational species on the planet, very different from each other but all benign and living in harmony.
Escaping from Weston and Devine, Ransom wanders on his own for awhile and then befriends human-sized otter-like creatures called hrossa, learning some of their speech. A pious man, he begins to wonder if he should undertake to instruct them in his faith. But they have their own well-defined convictions, and it is they who marvel at his ignorance. They explain that the Field of Arbol (the solar system) is ruled by Maleldil and that each world has its own Oyarsa, or planetary sovereign. However, on the third planet, the Oyarsa and some of his eldils rose up in rebellion against Maleldil, recognizing no authority but themselves. Led by the Bent Oyarsa, this world was now cut off from the others and thus called Thulcandra, “the Silent Planet.” It remains a battleground, though there are rumors in Deep Heaven of wondrous deeds performed by Maleldil to reclaim his lost world.
This is certainly the stuff of science fiction. But it is also a rough outline of the Christian creed, especially as it was embodied in the medieval picture of the cosmos. For Ransom, it is a revelation to discover that what he thought of as his “religion” is simply Reality. Lewis was quite amused that hardly any reviewers noticed any spiritual dimension to his fanciful tale. He wrote to a friend that “any amount of theology can be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance [popular fiction] without their knowing it.”
Readers have complained, correctly, that Lewis’s villains tend to be stick figures, embodiments of traits or philosophies that Lewis detested. But Lewis the critic would argue that this need not be considered a literary flaw. In an essay on Spenser, Lewis conceded that “the novel calls for characters with insides.” But he went on to list many other genres which do not require highly-psychologized characters, including several of his favorite forms—myths, folk tales and adventure stories. Lewis insisted that the highest purpose of such stories was to explore regions of “beauty, awe, or terror such as the actual world does not supply.” In another essay, “On Stories,” he concluded that “to construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds,’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”
Critics will continue to argue the literary merits of Out of the Silent Planet, especially the improbabilities of its plot and the simplicity of its villains. But this book, like Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, is best understood as a glimpse into the Otherworld of Lewis’s own spirit--a fascinating blend of cosmic voyage, theological homage, and spiritual pilgrimage.
David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Downing has written four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril, about the Ransom Trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert, about Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Region of Awe, about mysticism in C. S. Lewis, and Into the Wardrobe, a guide to the Narnia Chronicles. Downing’s latest book is Looking for the King, a historical novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends (lookingfortheking.com).