Thursday, March 6, 2008

C. S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis
Recommended Age: 8+

In seven books, first published in seven consecutive years in the 1950s, British poet, literary critic, and Oxford don Clive Staples Lewis created a landmark in children's fantasy literature. An early landmark, to be sure, but one that still casts a long shadow!

From the beginning of the adventures of the Pevensie children - Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy - in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you will be enchanted by the magical land of Narnia: where there are satyrs and fauns, unicorns and centaurs, dwarfs and mermaids, giants and evil witches, many kinds of talking animals, and much more.

In seven adventures that canvas a wide area of this interesting world, and its entire history from Creation to the Last Trump, the Pevensies and other English children (like Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer) intervene at crucial points in Narnia's history. And never far off is the guiding presence of Narnia's recurring Christ figure, a mighty lion named Aslan.

The stories range from a Wizard of Oz-like uprising against an evil witch, a fairy-tale search for a missing prince, and an Arabian Nights-style tale of a runaway slave seeking his fortune abroad, to a Shakespearean tale of a prince and his usurper uncle going to war over a royal succession, a Homeric odyssey (by ship, of course) to the edge of the world, and a quite ahead-of-its-time science fiction story about visiting other universes.

Yet at the same time, Aslan teaches his friends lessons about faith, courage, obedience, and honesty. You see a redemptive sacrifice, a world's creation, a primeval temptation, and a Judgment Day. And in a clever way that somehow never spoils the sense of reality of his wonderful fantasy world, Lewis deals out pointed opinions about modern education, existentialist philosophy, and religious skepticism.

His language is beautiful. His sense of irony is breathtaking. Narnia and its surrounding countries are rich in imagery, full of memorable characters, and packed with exciting action. These are stories that children can read, or have read to them. And these are stories that adults can come back to time and time again.

It has been pointed out that there is another possible order in which you may choose to read these books. Rather than the order in which C. S. Lewis wrote and published them (in which order they are reviewed below), you can read them in chronological order of the events in the books, as follows:
  1. The Magicians's Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Warbrobe
  3. The Horse and His Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle
I am told this is the order Lewis said they should be read, but I would like to see evidence of that. In my opinion, this is like the issue of what order to read C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels in. You can either enjoy the way C. S. Lewis developed the concept, or you can experience the story of Narnia from its beginnings to its end. Personally, I feel strongly that you should read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first. The Magician's Nephew assumes that you already know Digory Kirke from his earlier appearance as the grown-up Professor, and that the world that Aslan creates toward the end of the book is already known to you. Sometimes an author has second thoughts, but sometimes his first thoughts were better. It's really up to you!

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This 1950 book is the first in the series of seven Chronicles of Narnia that fuse Christian spirituality with the world of British children's fantasy literature inherited from E. Nesbit. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are siblings sent away during the air-raids of World War II to stay in a vast country house with an eccentric old Professor, during their summer holidays. There first Lucy, then Edmund too, then all four children discover that a seemingly plain wardrobe in an otherwise unfurnished room is also, sometimes, a gateway into a magical kingdom called Narnia.

Isn't that simply the stuff that childhood fantasy is made of? On a rainy summer day, while exploring the house or perhaps playing hide-and-seek, you creep inside a great wardrobe full of coats that keeps going back and back and back... until suddenly you are standing in snow, in a strange forest on a wintry night, and meeting magical creatures like fauns, talking beavers, dwarves, centaurs, unicorns, giants, and nymphs.

Before they know what's hit them, the children are caught up in the battle between the evil White Witch, who wants to be Queen of Narnia, and the great Lion named Aslan, son of the Emperor Across the Sea. The Witch (whose name, for you trivia buffs, is Jadis) causes it to be winter all the time, but never Christmas, in Narnia, and between her wolfish Secret Police and her wand that turns people into stone, she rules the kingdom with a mailed fist.

But Aslan has returned from across the sea, heralded by Father Christmas himself, bringing springtime in his train. And the four human children - Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve - are destined to sit on thrones in the great palace of Cair Paravel, and to rule over Narnia in peace and justice. Getting to that point, however, involves a mixture of betrayal and redemption, sacrifice and resurrection, hard-fought battles and healing miracles.

The children grow up a lot, to say the least. And readers familiar with my four favorite storytellers of all time - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - will recognize a lot of this story as a thinly veiled retelling of their account. The result is a moving and exciting adventure that stands on its own feet, and at the same time, a brilliant attempt to put the Christian message in a form that makes its basic themes accessible to the modern generation. At least, this story draws its inspiration from biblical sources, with highly effective results.

On the other hand, the story doesn't come right out and say this, it doesn't ask anyone to make a religious commitment. It is, very simply, a good story, full of action and beautiful imagery and humor and sadness and suspense and creepy-crawlies and sometimes unflatteringly realistic portraits of its main characters. And it proves, as the best children's fantasies always do, that even little people can play a vital role in the big fight between good and evil. To put it simply, if you like anything from E. Nesbit to Susan Cooper, it will be right up your alley.

This classic has been repeatedly translated into films and, I hear, will soon be again. Better still, it is readily available in any bookstore, often in a "boxed set" with the six stories that follow it. I think the whole set is a safe bet, books that you will enjoy reading over and over, and that parents can readily share with their small children. But try The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first, and see for yourself!

UPDATE: This book has been adapted for the screen several times, but the most recent version - directed by Andrew Adamson as the first of a series of films - is on the same sensational level of filmmaking as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film cycle.

Prince Caspian

The second of the seven Chronicles of Narnia finds Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (the four children from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) a year older, and waiting for the train to school when they are suddenly pulled back into Narnia - where, amazingly, hundreds of years have passed in their absence.

A new race of men - the Telmarines - have conquered Narnia and driven its magical creatures and talking animals into hiding, and nearly to extinction. The magical land has been tamed, and its history has been systematically covered up. Cair Paravel stands in ruins, the Stone Table is covered up by a mound, the coastlands are covered by thick forests, and anyone who speaks of the Old Times is made to disappear.

The current Telmarine king is the evil Miraz, but the rightful heir is his nephew Caspian - who should be King Caspian the Tenth. Caspian's nurse and later his tutor bring him up believing in the stories of Old Narnia, in spite of Miraz's efforts to stamp out the memory. And when the queen finally gives birth to a son, Miraz has no further use for Prince Caspian and intends to do away with him. The young prince escapes into the wild, where he gathers an army of dwarves, talking beasts, centaurs, fauns, and a giant in hopes of taking back the throne.

But it turns out that holding off Miraz's armies is more than they can do... so the horn of the long-ago Kings and Queens of Old Narnia is blown, and the four children from our world begin another quest to save the land from an evil ruler and to put a "believer" on the throne.

Along the way, Aslan the Lion tests the faith of his followers... and though some score better than others, no one comes out without blemish. C. S. Lewis summarizes his traditionally Christian view of human nature - which, when all attempts at self-justification finally give way, has nothing left to do but say "I'm sorry" - by commenting (through Aslan) that to be a descendent of Adam and Eve is "both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest conqueror in earth." And for those who have eyes to see such things, there are still other correspondences to the Christian faith in this story.

But it is, above all, a wonderful story. And it draws not on biblical imagery, but on the magic of classical myth and legend. Bacchus is in this story, along with fat Silenus and his donkey, and the scantily-clad Maenads. There is a river god here, and gods and goddesses of the forest - Dryads, Hamadryads, and Sylvans. A Hag and a Wer-Wolf (sic) work their wiles, and the duel between the High King and Miraz combines elements of medieval chivalry with combats from the Iliad.

The intrigues of Miraz' counselors are nasty fun, and the picture of a Bulgy Bear sucking his paw will stick in your head. So will many of the wonderfully realized characters in this story, and their daring exploits, right down to Reepicheep the martial mouse. And the attack of the wood-gods will remind Lord of the Rings fans of the deeds of ents and huorns. (Tolkien and Lewis were close friends. Can it really be a coincidence that their stories share common elements like these?)

Lovers of adventure, fantasy, chivalry, and legend, take note, and consider adding Prince Caspian to your reading list. Or read the whole set! UPDATE: And you film fans, prepare for the Andrew Adamson film based on this book, coming to theatres in May.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Of the four Pevensie children - Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy - the elder two have already seen their last glimpse of Narnia. But for Edmund and Lucy, another adventure begins when they are pulled into a painting, along with their beastly cousin, Eustace Scrubb.

They find themselves in Narnia only three years after their last visit, joining King Caspian the Tenth on a voyage across the eastern sea, in search of seven lost Telmarine Lords, the land of Aslan, and the end of the world. Joined by able officers and sailors, as well as the valiant mouse Reepicheep, they have a variety of adventures in strange and perilous lands.

From the slave market of the Lone Islands, to the transforming magic of Dragon Island that changes Eustace for the better, to a land where dreams come true (and once you understand what that means, you can't get away from it fast enough) they go, guided in subtle ways by Aslan the Lion. They encounter a sea serpent, a wizard and an island of invisible people, an enchanted feast, a land whose name is changed from Goldwater to Deathwater, and an underwater kingdom. They see a magic book, a magic map, and a sea of sweet water covered with silver lilies. And finally, Aslan hints about who he is in "our world," and how there is a door into his country from all the worlds.

It's a journey full of magic, adventure, moral lessons, and the sometimes sobering reality of different personalities living together in close quarters for a long time. It is likely that you will both laugh and cry while reading this story. I especially liked the way Caspian took charge of things in the Lone Islands. And Reepicheep is simply unforgettable. None of the characters are flawless people, but that makes them so much more charming, and leaving them is like parting from good friends. And none of the settings or adventures are particularly realistic, but underneath the fantasy one senses a current of truth, a sense of a deeper meaning worth pondering.

The first sentence of the book is one of those absolutely perfect openers that one sees once in a thousand books (maybe a hundred, if you stick to really good books).

And by the way, you will see Eustace Scrubb again... UPDATE: And in 2010, you may also see a movie based on this book!

The Silver Chair

The fourth of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia gets its name from a magical piece of furniture seen only briefly, at the climax of the story. In it, Eustace Scrubb returns to Narnia with a fellow-sufferer at the tender mercies of Experiment House in England - a school bent on meddling with human nature, overrun with vile examples of it. Together Eustace and Jill Pole vanish into Aslan's Country, where the Lion Himself sends them on a quest to rescue a lost Narnian prince.

Given four signs to follow and a strange companion - a long-limbed, web-footed creature named Puddleglum - Jill and Eustace make their way to the frozen wastes of the north, and of course they mess everything up. They forget to look out for the signs, they get captured by man-eating giants, they escape into the clutches of an underground kingdom populated by weird gnomes and ruled by a Witch. The witch holds the prince under her power, and only by following Aslan's strange and risky commands can they save him and themselves.

Finally, they face the witch herself, who tries to enslave their minds with her magic and her guile. The result is a conversation similar to the debate between faith in the Bible and the enticing skepticism of modern thought. Judging from Lewis' past chronicles and their messages, this similarity is likely no accident.

Filled with heroes struggling with their faith, and finally emerging victorious over dark forces, it is nevertheless more than just a piece of religious fiction. The magic, the adventure, the scenery and characters, the creatures and dangers, and the final wry comeuppance for the Head of Experiment House, are delightful all around and can give pleasure to anyone who loves fantasy. And Harry Potter fans will find Lewis' description of Centaurs especially interesting. I quote in part...
A centaur has a man-stomach and a horse stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats and a bag of sugar. That's why it's such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the week-end. A very serious thing indeed.
There's much more where that came from, perhaps even hinting at the sources of J. K. Rowling's depiction of centaurs. Maybe the ones in the Forbidden Forest have relatives in Narnia?

The Horse and His Boy

The fifth of the Chronicles of Narnia is a story that was mentioned in one of the earlier books, as taking place during the long reign of Kings Peter and Edmund and Queens Susan and Lucy (see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). It's the first story in the series that doesn't focus on a character from our world who is magically transported to Narnia.

Instead, it begins in the warlike, southern empire of Calormen, where skins are dark, swords are curved, and everyone is constantly hoping that the great and mighty Tisroc lives and reigns forever. There a little fair-skinned boy named Shasta has been raised by a fisherman named Arsheesh, until a cruel nobleman rides along and offers to buy Shasta as his slave. Just when Shasta is learning that Arsheesh is not really his father after all (he was found in a ship's boat that washed ashore), Shasta also learns that the nobleman's horse is a talking animal from Narnia. And together, Shasta and the horse Bree set about escaping for the magical lands of the north.

Soon they are joined by another talking horse named Hwin, and a runaway princess named Aravis. Together the four of them make their way to the great city of Tashbaan, where their adventure thickens. Before you know it, they are racing for the hill country of Archenland - hard on the borders of Narnia - to warn the free peoples of the North of a dastardly plot to invade and conquer.

Complete with an ancient hermit who sees things happening in his reflecting pool, a frustrated suitor who vows revenge on Queen Susan for refusing his hand in marriage, and a case of mistaken identity involving twins separated as infants, their adventure culminates in a great battle and a new future for our beloved runaways.

And of course Aslan is in the story, the sort of lion to whom Hwin the horse says, "I'd sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else." He teaches our main characters humility, courage, consideration for others, and a bit more self-motivating diligence. Plus he shows himself to be a guide to the lost and a gentle judge of both good and bad. Who do you suppose he is supposed to remind you of?

Full of humor and wit, packed with breathtaking action and admirable acts of courage, and colored by the fascinating portrait of the Calormene culture (which I think is supposed to be something between Byzantine and medieval Turk, with perhaps a touch of Hindu thrown in), it will leave bright images in your mind, and a satisfied feeling in your heart.

My favorite line: "Justice shall be mixed with mercy. You shall not always be an Ass."

The Magician's Nephew

The sixth of seven Chronicles of Narnia takes us back to the beginnings of it all. Here we see kindly old Professor Kirke (of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) as a little boy named Digory, staying with his strict Aunt Letty and his weird Uncle Andrew in a row house in London in the days of hansom cabs and Norfolk suits. His father is in India and his mother is seriously ill, and poor young Digory no longer has the country house to run around or the horse to ride.

So he consoles himself by making friends with a neighbor girl, Polly Plummer. And while the two of them are exploring a passage that connects the attics of their whole row of houses, they stumble into Uncle Andrew's secret study. And wouldn't you know, Uncle Andrew is an evil sorcerer who was just hoping two children would come along... to be guinea pigs in a dangerous experiment involving yellow rings and green rings, and a "wood between the worlds."

The first result is a dreadful adventure in a dying, and all but dead, world called Charn. This in turn results in the children bringing back to our world an evil witch-queen named Jadis (remember?), who intends to conquer our world and rule it with some of the same cruelty that destroyed her own. Finally the children, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a horse named Strawberry and a London cabby escape from a disorderly mob into the dark void of a new world about to be created...

Into Narnia. Here we see Aslan creating his world of talking beasts and magical creatures. And here, thanks to the folly of Digory Kirke, a world-destroying evil has been brought into Aslan's wonderful new creation. Jadis cannot be completely removed from Narnia for now... that is a task for later (but an earlier book!). For now, all that can be done is to take responsibility, face temptation, and make a sacrifice to ensure that Narnia will at least have a bright morning before the witch's long winter sets in.

Once again, Lewis has crafted a remarkable fantasy that also resonates with biblical concepts. And Aslan's prophecy at the end of this 1955 book touches themes that everyone in the post-World War world should take seriously - particularly, the dangers to a world where tyrants arise to destroy joy and freedom, and where men wield weapons that can wipe out all life in our world. Regardless of your religious commitments (or lack of them), it may do you good to consider Jadis with her proud, self-justifying, evil folly, and its results. But it can also help to know Someone whose presence means what Aslan's does to those who meet him...
If ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there, quite close, just around some corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well.
Uncle Andrew, the absurd magician of the story's title, also illustrates a lesson that you can take either in a religious context or as a practical moral: "Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."

My favorite part of this book is when the talking beasts are arguing over what to make of Uncle Andrew. I hope you read it and find your own favorite part to this funny, moving, suspenseful, and wonderful fantasy story.

The Last Battle

The aptly-named last title in the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia brings the wonderful adventures in that magic world to a heartbreaking and yet victorious close.

The beginning of the end comes when a lion-skin washes ashore and the wicked ape Shift conceives a plan, making use of the innocent donkey Puzzle to deceive the good folks of Narnia. Pretending that Aslan has returned, Shift sells Narnia to their Calormene enemies and afflicts the talking beasts and trees and other magical creatures of the land with slavery and deception.

Shift is the picture of cynical unbelief, exploiting the faith of those who believe in Aslan and blending it unnaturally with the Calormene god Tash (the difference between them being summarized in that Tash demands blood of his worshipers, while Aslan gave His blood for them). But Shift soon finds himself under the sway of cleverer and even more cynical villains, and soon the end of Narnia is at hand.

Not that some good people haven't done their best to fight back. The good young man who is the last King of Narnia - Tirian by name - stays true to Aslan along with his unicorn friend Jewel, and a few other Narnians. Coming to his aid from our world are Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, for whom only a year's time has passed though it has been centuries, as Narnia marks time, since last they visited. But these good people must fight an increasingly desperate battle with finally no hope but to die fighting.

All this is the heartbreaking part. Then comes the victory. After the heavens and the earth of the Narnian world are finally used up and the door is shut - and after Aslan judges the peoples of that world, separating those who hate him from those who love him - Tirian and Scrubb and Pole and the Pevensies and all good Narnians and friends of Narnia are reunited in the beautiful country that gets better and better as you go "farther up and farther in." And they begin the real story in the real world, of which what has gone before has only been "Shadowlands."

Where The Magician's Nephew depicted the creation of Narnia, The Last Battle brings us to the end of that world, and what comes after it. And at one point Lewis dares to be almost perfectly clear on whom Aslan represents in our world (note Queen Lucy's remark about the stable and what it contains). Without apologies, Lewis has simply translated Christian beliefs about the end times of our world - when the sides everyone takes in the last hopeless battle will reveal whom they are truly for - and what comes after death - into imagery and language that address the minds and hearts of young readers, fantasy-lovers, skeptics, and seekers after truth.

Some Christians may quibble a little at his explanation for how the Calormene youth named Emeth discovered that he had been seeking Aslan all his life, but the conclusion - "All find what they truly seek" - is inescapable. No allegory can ever be accurate to its true subject in all details. But here, at least, is a fitting end to the Narnian tales of fantasy, adventure, and spiritual growth: an end that can leave few dry eyes and unstirred hearts, and may even change the way you think, if (as might be) you read it simply to enjoy the fantasy.

This book won the 1956 Carnegie Medal, an annual British award that honors outstanding books for children and young adults.

Out of the Silent Planet
by C.S. Lewis
Recommended Age: 15+

The first book in C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" depicts a fictional world almost as thoroughly-realized as the Middle Earth of the author's good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien. What's more, it presents us with a hero who seems to be based on Tolkien himself. But the appeal for modern readers is the beginning of an odyssey full of adventure, beauty, danger, and cosmic significance - even a spiritual odyssey that resonates with Christian images and concepts.

In a way it is old-fashioned science-fiction, from the school of H. G. Wells (see the latter's The First Men in the Moon, from the turn of the 20th century, which merits a reference in this book), with views about the sort of life that might exist on Mars that later discoveries have put out of date. And yet in another way it is prophetic stuff, pointing out what would happen if people who hold views like those of Professor Weston steered the course of our future, at a point when such people dominated the "intelligentsia" of the Western World. (Intelligentsia is a word you'll learn as you read this book. It is, after all, sort of the grown-up's answer to The Narnia Chronicles.)

Another thing this story challenges - I promise, I'll tell you in a bit about what happens in it - is the basic theme that runs through most literature about man's first contact with beings from another world. Take the movie Independence Day, for instance. Or Battlefield Earth. Or Signs, etc., etc. These stories typify the idea that if aliens came to Earth, they would destroy us and take the planet for themselves. This book proposes that if we were the visitors, we would do the same thing. It challenges us to examine human nature and see whether it is something that really ought to be turned loose on other worlds, just as it challenges us to view what lies between the worlds as Heaven rather than Space.

Dr. Elwin Ransom is our hero. Later in the trilogy you will find out just how appropriate his name is. For now, it is enough to know that he is a philologist (a student of the science of language), and he is on one of those cross-country walking tours which only a Britsh native can explain. He has no family, no one knows where he is, and he isn't expected anywhere; so he turns out to be the ideal victim for kidnappers.

One of the kidnappers is Ransom's old school acquaintance, Devine, who is in it for the money. The other is Weston, a physicist with a headful of modernist philosophy, who wants to plant the flag of man's manifest destiny on another planet. That planet, we later find out, is Mars. But to the people who live on it, it is Malecandra. And against his will, Devine and Weston take Ransom there. On the way there Ransom learns he is to be sacrificed to the gods of whatever savage creatures live on the planet. So as soon as possible after landing, Ransom runs away in terror.

Soon Ransom falls in with a village of giant otterlike creatures called hrossa who teach him their language and customs. He lives with them and learns to love their way of life. But a tragedy, set in motion by Devine and Weston, sends him on a journey in which he meets two other races of hnau or intelligent beings: the sorns who are like really tall people, and the pfiffltriggi who are like giant frogs, only really handy with tools. Finally Ransom comes before the Oyarsa - who is like the Genius of Mars (in the classic sense of an intelligence that represents the life of the whole world). He learns that the Oyarsa and the invisible eldil-who I suppose are like angels-fill all the Heavens and protect the worlds and the lives on them, under the command of an even greater being called Maleldil.

But Earth is the "silent planet," whose own Oyarsa rebelled long ago, and after a war in the heavens was cast down and confined to Earth's atmosphere. Since then none of the other Oyarsas have heard a peep out of Earth, until now. Earth's genius is bent, so most everything that comes out of earth's atmosphere is either bent or broken. The results, when such people come to Malecandra, could be horrid. So the story ends with Ransom, Devine, and Weston giving an account of themselves before Oyarsa, and their fate being decided. But as the last chapter points out, the men's return to Earth is not the end of the story by a far cry.

Prepare to be stunned by the beauty and excitement of this story, with its wealth of detail about the life that, in Lewis' fertile imagination, might have lived on Mars. Prepare for a parable laced with references to Christianity-filtered through Lewis' idiosyncratic doctrinal leanings (such as theistic evolution and postmillennialism - if you really want to know about them, drop me a line and I'll try to explain). These things do not make this book a religious tract, but like many a great science fiction yarn they challenge your assumptions; only in this rare case, from a point of view that does not reject the existence of God. Prepare for a moving experience that shows the vanity of much that calls itself "science" and/or "fiction" - but one that is thoroughly entertaining and convincing on its own account.

But also prepare to have all the classic sci-fi/fantasy assumptions shaken to their foundation. Written in on the eve of World War II and set only a few years after World War I, this story challenges the prevailing philosophies of its time: modernism, existentialism, even fascism, which were really quite fashionable before the Hitler and his allies showed the world exactly what they led to. Boiled down to the nitty-gritty, this philosophy is approximately what Quirrell said to Harry in Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone: "There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those weak to seek it." It is also the philosophy espoused by Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew. And in a real world that has cut itself loose from moral moorings based on belief in God, you will hear more and more people saying the same thing, in total seriousness. So this book remains a parable for our time.

Here you not only hear words like Quirrell's coming out of a Weston's mouth, but in a brilliant "speaking through an interpreter" scene you hear what those words translate to when you examine what they are actually saying - you have a chance to think about what it would be like to have such ideas used against you - and finally, you see what the verdict on them will be if, after all, we have a Judge who cares.

It would be a perfect book if Lewis had left well alone and ended the book at the last chapter, rather than adding a long and tiresome postscript. I think he wanted to use up the fascinating details of the world he had invented, but that hadn't gotten into the book. Really, the postscript adds nothing except to muffle the impact of the end of the book, though there are two more books in the trilogy. Read the postscript, if you are interested in "more about Malecandra" - as one might read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Or don't read it, if like me, you simply enjoyed the story and want to remember it in its perfection.

But whatever you do, I advise against reading a Scribner Classics Edition unless it has been corrected since 1996, because I have never seen such an inept job of book editing/typesetting. This goes for the whole trilogy. So sue me, Simon and Schuster, owner of Scribner Classics, but you brought it on yourselves. A bad imprint can really distract you from the enjoyment of a good book.

Perelandra
by C.S. Lewis
Recommended Age: 16+

In Out of the Silent Planet, we first became acquainted with Dr. Elwin Ransom, a British philologist who, on the eve of World War II, gets swept into an interplanetary adventure. The Voldemort-like physicist Weston kidnaps him and takes him to Mars, a.k.a. Malecandra, to be a human sacrifice. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Weston's philosophy would make the entire human race one big, pulsating, hydra-headed Voldemort, willing to trade in the lives of other creatures to prolong its own existence, and to spoil innocent worlds in a futile race against eternity. Perhaps in this light, J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis are not so far apart, in depicting a diseased, amoral flight from death as nearly the ultimate evil.

But not quite the ultimate evil. In the second book of the Space Trilogy, the Ultimate Evil - the Bent One, the "fairest and fallen" prince of our world - makes his appearance. Ransom is summoned to Venus, a.k.a. Perelandra, to head off an attempt by the ancient Serpent to tempt yet another Eve. This time the First Couple are green people living on a planet covered with oceans and roofed with clouds, carpeted with floating islands and (here and there) a forbidden, fixed island. And the Tempter, who now possesses Weston's body, has arrived in another spaceship to tempt the mother of all Perelandra to do what Maleldil (i.e., God) has forbidden.

Of course things are different now that God has become a man and died to redeem one race that succumbed to the Tempter's voice. But one of the differences is, unfortunately, that Ransom is the only one who can stop the Tempter from wearing down the young Queen's resistance. The difficulty Ransom has with this responsibility brings to mind the sufferings of another man who has been called Ransom.

More clearly and directly than perhaps any of Lewis' fictional works, this story interprets the message of the Christian faith in a way that makes it vivid and convincing to the modern reader. Which is not to say that it's light reading. It is heavy with philosophy, loaded with cerebral disputations between Ransom and the "Un-man" he is pitted against (not to mention the Queen's arresting way of looking at things). It builds up to a long ecstatic passage that comes across as equal parts philosophical treatise, psalm of praise, and the classic scene in a mystery story where the elusive truth is finally revealed. And there are vast stretches in which feelings, sensory impressions, and conversations are described but in which nothing happens.

But then again, there is the dreadful suspense of what will come of this second Temptation, and what it will tell us about the First. And there is the terrifying hand-to-hand combat between Ransom and Weston. And there is the beauty and wonder of yet another thoroughly imagined fictional world (which is nicer to imagine than what more recent space probes have told us Venus is really like). And there is the emotional wallop of the story's end. Plus there are mer-people, fish you can ride, singing animals, dragons, trees that blow bubbles, giant insects, drums in the deep, and powerful encounters with eldila (angels) and the presence of Maleldil himself. And though Lewis has avowed that the story is fictional, his own appearance as a character in it is profoundly disturbing.

As a Christian I highly recommend this book, which I think provides a powerful alternative to the His Dark Materials concept of what happened in the Garden of Eden. As a science fiction book containing an original Psalm it rivals A Wind in the Door. Still other concepts of the Christian faith will become clear to seekers and skeptics who bear with Lewis' intensely challenging narration. But even if you set aside the apologetic aspects of the book, it is fascinating to experience a rare sci-fi/fantasy adventure that proceeds from a Christian worldview - an adventure that can fascinate solely on the merits of its sci-fi/fantasy elements - and that integrates the concepts of "myth," "truth," and "fact" into a mindblowing whole.

EDIT: I never completed my review of the third book in this "Space Trilogy," titled That Hideous Strength, even though it has been some 4 years since I started reading it. Partly this is because I went through a serious crisis while I was reading the book, and picking up the book I was reading at that time brings back painful memories; and partly it was because it was simply longer, harder, more discouraging, and more just-plain-tedious than the first two books.

I had read the whole book before, though, so I can tell you that it takes place entirely on earth, and that it has to do with the return of Merlin; a demonic conspiracy involving a government agency and a small, private college; a young couple whose marriage is torn apart by these goings-on; and a wounded Dr. Ransom's gradual transfiguration into a figure similar to the resurrected Christ. I was never such a C. S. Lewis fanatic that I felt compelled to like this book; it is, in my firm opinion, much inferior to the other two books in this trilogy, but in its agonizingly deliberate way it does dramatize the author's views about the apocalpytic evil of our age, and the divine redemption that is nevertheless breaking into it.

Till We Have Faces
by C. S. Lewis
Recommended age: 12+

I know a Christian man who raised his sons forbidding them to own or read books about magic, mythology, or science fiction. He was so strict about it that when one of his sons (who rather liked sci-fi and fantasy) went out of town for the summer, he raided the boy’s bedroom and threw out all his books. The same son later turned down a dying uncle’s offer to inherit a large library of imaginative fiction, because he knew his father wouldn’t let him keep it in the house. And it may be the same son again who, later in life, would only read non-fiction because he had developed an aversion to any book that wasn’t “true.”

When I heard this story, I was filled with sorrow; not least because I think some “non-fiction” is less true than a lot of fiction. But I think C. S. Lewis could convey better than I can some of my reasons for feeling sorry. That great defender of the Christian faith in an age of sovereign reason and godless intellectualism was also an avid reader, writer, and interpreter of myth, tales of magic, and science fiction. He seemed to think that such tales are far from leading young readers away from Christianity, and even farther from filling their heads with nonsense. Indeed, they are vital for young people - especially the more intelligent ones. They teach the difference between right and wrong, the cycles of nature, the relationships between creatures and between the creature and the Creator. Without them, a child may grow into quite an intellectual, with a head full of knowledge, but a heart empty of concepts of transcendence; a spirit unable to imagine anything mysterious or hidden; a soul unable to believe and, quite possibly, a mind unable to wrap itself around duties that put the needs of others ahead of its own.

Lewis’ tales of magic include the world famous Chronicles of Narnia; his science fiction consists of the mind-blowing Space Trilogy; and among his other books is the stand-alone novel Till We Have Faces, which is a retelling of an ancient myth: the Cupid-Psyche myth, to be exact. This heartfelt, moving novelization is set in an ancient culture that worshipped gods embodied in images of stone but existing independently of their images (remind you of the Dalemark Quartet?).

The basic story-line has a beautiful bride who is given to a loving husband...whose face she is not allowed to see. Her curiosity, spurred on by the jealousy of her sister, brings about a heartbreaking calamity that may spoil the couple’s happiness forever. Unless... unless their love is redeemed by sacrifice...

Part memoir, part deathbed confession to a god both savagely like and mercifully unlike the idols the sister has served, Till We Have Faces explores the destroying power of jealousy, the healing power of forgiveness, and the equally destroying and healing powers of love. It is an uncompromising portrait of human nature in its struggle with God (or gods, as the case may be), and will give readers of any religion a great deal to think about. And apparently C. S. Lewis never considered "thinking" a bad thing--even for Christians!

1 comment:

monster paperbag said...

truly, a timeless classic.