Perelandra: Re-awakening the Spiritual Imagination

Perelandra is the first book I read by C. S. Lewis, and the encounter couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. I was a freshman in college, and I was wrestling mightily with all the usual questions so many Christians ponder: how could a good God create a world in which there is so much suffering and injustice? How could people be consigned to eternal damnation who had never heard the Gospel? Why should all of humanity be blighted by the disobedience of two humans thousands of years ago? Friends and family members gave me books and tracts to read on these topics, but I seldom found them helpful.

When I first picked up Perelandra, I knew the story had to do with interplanetary travel, so I was expecting a bit of “high brow” science fiction along the lines of H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. What I wasn’t expecting was a novel that would challenge me to re-imagine my faith, that would tackle head-on some of the very questions that I had been grappling with since my early teens. Instead of finding something to wile away a few idle hours, I had stumbled across a book that turned my world upside down (or, more accurately, turned it back right side up).

Perelandra is the second book of the “Space trilogy” (more accurately called the Ransom trilogy). In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet (which I read second), Lewis told the story of Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge professor who is abducted and carried off to Mars, where he learns the true story of what is actually going on in our corner of the cosmos. Unsuspecting reader that I was, I picked up Perelandra in hopes of a good adventure story, not expecting light fiction to have much to say about my faith. Lewis begins the second book of the trilogy with himself as a character, trekking out to a remote cottage to meet his friend Ransom.“Lewis” had been told all about Ransom’s adventures on Mars and suspected that his otherworldly friend was currently entertaining strange visitors here on earth. Like Ransom on his way to Mars, “Lewis” is terrified about the prospect of meeting some creature not of this world. Despite his precautions, “Lewis” does encounter a majestic, awe-inspiring column of light that speaks to him, a being that seems more like a “thinking mineral” than a creature of flesh and blood. When Ransom returns from a brief absence, he assures “Lewis” that this magnificent being is benign, a faithful servant of Maleldil. Referring to the rebel eldils on earth, Ransom quotes the verse from Ephesians about our having to wrestle with “spiritual wickedness in high places.” He goes on to explain that the New Testament Greek refers not to corrupt earthly leaders but to non-physical beings on a cosmic plane of existence.

At some point, it will flash into the mind of every reader: eldils are angels. Lewis has re-imagined for us what it might feel like to actually encounter an angel. If Lewis had depicted a heavenly messenger clad in radiant garments, its identity would be so recognizable as to be dismissible. The word “angel” has been so overused, it may suggest nothing more than a Halloween costume or cartoon character sitting on someone’s shoulder. Lewis intended for his fiction to re-energize his readers’ spiritual imaginations, to make God and angel and soul terms of genuine wonder and terror, to make the Christian life a moment-by-moment cosmic adventure, not a once-a-week religious obligation.

In Perelandra, Lewis tells the story of Ransom’s mission to Venus (Perelandra), his battle to preserve that world in its unfallen Edenic state. Apart from re-vivifying the reader’s sense of the cosmic drama in which we all play a part, the novel also contains a profound meditation on the nature of good and evil. It suggests that we all carry Adam and Eve around inside us, that we reach for the wrong fruit every day, that we too often try to assert a god-like control over our own lives. Ransom’s mission to preserve paradise is a success, and the story ends with his mystic vision of the Great Dance of creation, a cosmos full of dynamism and order that only seems “planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for.”

I recall finishing Perelandra late one night just as the college library was closing. Walking back to my dorm room, my mind started playing tricks on me. I gave every peculiar slant of light a second look, thinking, “Why that’s only the moonlight filtering through the trees—and yet for a moment . . .”

After Perelandra, I grabbed every book I could find with the name “C. S. Lewis” on the cover. I gobbled up the other two books of the Ransom trilogy, then started on the Narnia Chronicles. I read all seven chronicles in two weeks, then re-read all seven in the next two weeks. After that came Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles, in which I discovered the powerful intellect that accompanied Lewis’s robust imagination. Lewis spent most of his teens and twenties as a militant unbeliever, so when he returned to faith, he knew only too well what the hard questions are and how they can best be addressed. And he was not afraid to say, “I don’t know” about great questions that still contain a profound element of mystery.

Though I have now read all of Lewis’s books, most of them many times, I will never forget my first experience of the Ransom trilogy. Lewis said that when he encountered George MacDonald’s Phantastes as a teenager, that classic work of Christian fantasy provided a spiritual cleansing that “baptized his imagination.” Lewis’s books have performed the same service for me. And sometimes, like Lewis himself, I am apt to look up at twilight, see the evening star, and whisper in wonder, “Perelandra!”

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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).

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