Tuesday 9 December 2008

The Cosmic Trilogy- CS Lewis' Greatest Work

As you might expect, CS Lewis is a personal favorite author of mine.
It would be surprising if he wasn't. After all, he was Tolkien's closest friend, and Lord of the Rings is in my view, the greatest literary work of all time.

And in a sense of course, Lord of the Rings appeals to me in a deeper sense, I guess, because it is written, like this blog is, by a Catholic about the evils of power.

CS Lewis wasn't a Catholic. Though reading much of his theological writings you could be excused for thinking he was. The fact is, he was Belfast born and raised and I think his roots went too deep for him ever to finally accept what others had long realised (Tolkien himself says as much in his letters) that only a dislike of accepting the allegiance of the Pope really stood in the way of Lewis admitting that he wasn't a high Anglican, or even an Anglo-Catholic, he had waded right into the centre ground of Catholic thought.

I'm often pleasantly surprised to find how many people remember the Narnia stories from their youth and often ask 'Have you read the adult version?'
They look surprised. 'The adult version?'

Because that's what the Cosmic Trilogy is. Written first, and less well known. And much less allegorical.

It's an unusual trilogy in many respects. If you want a clear cut categorisation of where to put it, it's hard. It's usually classed as Science Fiction, but...
But it's quite hard to fit it in there neatly.

Especially because none of the books of the trilogy are quite like the others. They are linked by central themes and a central character, Dr Elwin Ransom (Modelled on JRR Tolkien, incidentally) and the two villains of the first book re-appear separately in the remaining two books, but each novel is set in radically different settings and has a radically different story to tell.

The best way I can describe the Trilogy is this. I would rarely recommend ANYTHING I'd read to EITHER of my parents. If I did, it would be my Mum. Because although a lot of what she reads is- nineteenth century novels- one of the few mother-son bonding things we do, is go to watch Shakespeare plays. It was her who introduced me to the Lord of the Rings in the first place, and there is a crossover in some of the things we find interesting, primarily, matters historical and mythological. We both rate highly Arthur Miller, Jules Verne and others that my Dad finds utterly tedious.

My Dad will read Kingsley Amis and PG Wodehouse. If it doesn't make him laugh, he doesn't read it.

Now, it didn't occur to me that the Cosmic Trilogy would appeal to either of them. Except that when they were storing my books for me during- a time I couldn't read them- they noticed it. And decided to read it.
And I notice they've got a copy themselves now. Both of them love it. As you might expect, my mother loves the second of the trilogy, which my Dad hates, and he loves the third, which she's not so keen on.

The first volume, Out of the Silent Planet, starts when Dr Ransom is kidnapped by the taciturn scientist Professor Weston and his charming, but ultimately fairly shallow business partner and schoolmate of Ransom's, Devine. He is then taken against his will to Mars, Weston being the first interplanetary traveller. So in Lewis' work, the first contact between human beings and our interplanetary neighbours, is made by the bad guys.
Quite why they kidnap Ransom, I'm not going to tell you- it only becomes apparent later on.
As does the reason Earth is called the Silent planet by the inhabitants of Mars.

If you read it, you'll see what I mean by it being the adult version of the Narnia stories. If you're familiar with Tolkien's Silmarillion, you'll also realise just how much more the two shared in terms of cosmological and mythological concepts than can be seen from the Narnia series.
It's more real and more direct. Narnia is somewhere wildly different, Malacandra- or Mars- is part of our universe. Aslan is obviously meant to be Jesus, there is no doubting, however in Out of the Silent Planet that the personage referred to as Maleldil (who is never seen, but clearly IS real), is Jesus.

There is an amazing scene where Weston makes a speech to Oyarsa (Who Oyarsa is, I'll leave you to find out), which Ransom has to translate.
Weston starts 'To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race'.
This translates as 'Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnau's food and- things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. He says that what he does now will make things very different to those of our people who are not yet born'.

The whole chapter is a work of art in it's own right.

Anyway, I won't spoil it for you further.

It's hard to tell you what the others are about, without spoiling the first, but if you're more theologically inclined, you'd like the second. Kate would like the second, I think. Ransom goes to Venus and finds it a new world. Literally.
On Venus is one man and one woman- the King and the Queen.
He finds the Queen straight away, only- she has lost the King.

Venus is largely an Ocean world, there are are fixed lands, but also floating islands. And the queen tells Ransom that Maleldil has told them they may go on the fixed lands by day, but not by night. Why?
She doesn't know.
A Commandment with no apparent reason.

And then, just as Ransom is realising he sees a parallel here, a bolt appears in the heavens, a silver sphere he has seen before shows up.
Yes, it's Weston.
And some of you may figure out where all this is going, but I'll leave you to read it for yourself.
It's the most religious of the three, because it's about original sin, but it certainly leads to the reader asking potent questions about faith and the meaning of faith.

The last of the three, That Hideous Strength, is set firmly back on Earth. The action is split between a University town somewhere in the Midlands, which curiously houses a University as old and prestigious as Oxford and Cambridge, and an organisation called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, which is some kind of post-war Orwellian Quango set up with vast reaching powers to pretty much do what it likes in the name of science.
The book is about what it's leaders are in fact doing, unbeknownst to anyone else. They have discovered an amazing secret. Macrobes. What are Macrobes?
Lifeforms as far above human life as microbes are below it- forces mankind never knew about but have always been active in human affairs. And those in the Inner Circle of the NICE are being guided by these Macrobes. That of course, is what an Atheist would call them.

It's probably the more sinister of the three. Parts of it are very unsettling indeed. One thinks of Lewis as sometimes being a very naive and innocent man, this book is NOT. Certainly after reading this the first time, I wondered a little about how accurate the portrayal of him in Shadowlands was.

It is, of course, about the dangers of Mankind pushing into the unknown. Of waking forces it doesn't understand.

It has several supernatural elements, of course. I'll let you into one little secret- Merlin is woken up from his aeons long sleep.

It would appeal more to those who like thrillers or horror stories, I guess. Parts of it would definitely appeal to Stephen King fans.

It's a far cry from Narnia. But rich, both in mythology and theology. And a good bit of Science Fiction too.

Anyway, if you want something good to read, thought provoking, philosophical, entertaining, rich in language, culturally resonant, and you want something to keep you occupied for a while and leave a lasting impression in your mind, I thoroughly recommend you read this series.
It had a powerful impact on me fifteen years ago when I first read it, and I've read the whole series several times since.

And yes, one of those works which deeply affected my thinking in many ways. Not always because I agreed with it, but because it made me think.
It will do that.

Read it.
You'll agree.


Anonymous said...

You know what - after the holidays I will give these a try. I loved the Narnia books - I was younger but hey I still read stuff like this!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you have me interested now as well! Heading over to Amazon...

Anonymous said...

I read that series. I love science fiction and fantasy--the best is LOTR; I reread it once a year and still learn from it. When I first read CS Lewis's sci fi-I didn't know Ransom was Tolkein; I read it years later and found that out. I still haven't read any of Lewis's theological writings; I did read his book on grief--title unremembered, but I found Mere Christianity to be boring. I still like Narnia, but it was too Christian to be decent fantasy; the allegory was too obvious. His adult sci fi is much more subtle.

Anonymous said...

Hey I never really knew about these books! And I just completed an english unit this year which included The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe dissertation. I learnt a lot about CS Lewis...I really enjoyed it.

Will keep a look out, cheers.

Anonymous said...

I've read some Tolkien. Was never a fan. I reckon I'll read Lewis someday, just because his pop culture stock is going up.

Anonymous said...

Crushed, I borrowed and read these books from the library when I was a kid.

Maybe I was too young, but I didn’t really like them all that much. I guess I was old enough to figure, as I read through them, I was being preached at. There was an agenda. Though I didn’t put it quite like that to myself at the time.

Sorry, I don't want to put anyone else off as I know people love his stuff, but there it is. I wouldn’t read them again.

For me CS Lewis is another author Like Tolkein who had good ideas, but needs a co author.. (ducks and hides)^_^

Did you ever read Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock?

Anonymous said...

well since i've already mentioned, I'm in a reading phase right now, and once i go through all the books i've orderd (15... gulp) i'll add this one to my list. :)

Anonymous said...

Cat- These are most definitely for adults. Quite dark in places.

The Narnia stories are unique, I think. Silver Chair was the first read and it haunted me.

Fusion- You'll enjoy them I reckon. Just your cup of tea.

Enemy of the Republic- I've read and re-read that about ten times now. Greatest work of all time.

Have you read david Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus? Just finished that, loved it.

The Problem of Pain is one of his best theological works, though I find the Screwtape letters amusing.

I think the Narnia stories are probably amongst those children's stories which will never really age. But yes, his adult sci fi is what he SHOULD be remembered for.

Kate- You'll love Perelandra. I just KNOW it would appeal to you.

X-dell- One of the few areas where you and I disagree :)

Moggs- Oh Moggy! I actually thought you'd have liked these!

Obviously, there is an agenda. I guess most writers have an agenda of some kind. They voice their ideas through art.

I actually got them from the library first. I first heard about them through reading JRRT's Autobiography.

No, I'll have to look him up. What's the premise?

Crashie- Get reading!
Though... 15?

I don't really get much of a chance to read these days, wish I did...
But yes, i think they'd alleal to you. You have that quirky but quite spiritual openess to concepts.

I reckon it would be up your street.

Anonymous said...

Crushed, Sorry to dissapoint :-(

Mythago Wood is Ryhope Wood, a tiny remnant of ancient woodland, undisturbed since the last ice age, Holdstock places it in Herefordshire, England. The story is set in the period after WWII. With some back story/history.

It is only a small bit of woodland from the outside, but inside it is like Dr Who's Tardis, bigger, infinite? Maybe a bit like an event horizon.

The way time/space works inside the wood is different. In the wood are the mythic, creatures places times and people of the ages Distilled ideas absorbed somehow from the peoples living near such woods over the millennia. They are called Mythagos. Like a darker, adult neverland. Not Michael's, Captain Hook's. ^_^

The Mythagos can't come too far from the wood but can

The Huxley family have a home on the edge. As Children two brothers play in the sunny outskirts at the edge while their father investigates the wood. Later after the war one brother goes in search of the other who has gone missing in the wood....

Want to know more you will have to google it, or even read it ^_^.

...then there is Chase the Morning, by Michael Scott Rohan.

Or The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel. They made a really awful film of that, but I thought the book was really great.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fantastic read. Definitely will check it out as well.

Anonymous said...

this has been on my 'b' reading list for ages. I'm bumping it up to the 'A' list. Thanks for the recommendation.