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.