Smuggling Theology: Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy
Sister Penelope, a winsome, lifelong correspondent of C. S. Lewis, had written to him about the provenance of his first space travel adventure, Out of the Silent Planet, a volume remarkably full of theological insight. He replied whimsically: “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” (C. S. Lewis, 9 August 1939, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis.)
“Romance” was Lewis’s catch-all term for the genre most congenial to the science fiction and fairy tale genre he and J. R. R. Tolkien hoped to reinvent for a 20th Century audience—an audience they felt was too easily subverted by rampant literary naturalism and modern scientism. For Lewis, as for Tolkien, such stories of derring-do, daunting quests, vistas populated by fantastic yet credible characters accomplished what mere philosophical argument could not. Their narratives proffered central themes that simultaneously uplifted the spirit while challenging the conventional wisdom, our “disenchantment,” of the present age, pushing readers toward the true reality now made visible.
Mythopoeia was the label for this reinvigorated art of re-enchantment—“the sub-creation” of secondary, alternate worlds that could host readers’ escapes, not from reality, but to reality, a return to the story of civilization and a destiny hidden from them. In other words, they coveted books that provided a literary portal to another world, an authentic Neverland where justice reigns and the good, the true, and the beautiful are honored and celebrated. This act of modern missionary myth-making, inspired freshly invented mythographies of time, place, and character: Tolkien’s Middle-earth is nostalgic England, England now and forever; Charles Williams, a fellow Inkling, contributed Arthur’s lost Logres; Lewis’s Perelandra emerges as Eden unveiled, unspoiled, unfallen, unexplored, now reintroduced. They treated the category of myth as one irreducible to legendary tales told with dubious authority; instead it is a medium for restoring mythopoeia as a means of authoring grand overarching narratives that create the reason to be, and to become, for all members of the village, polis, nation touched by its encompassing themes, images, characters, and plot lines.
When Lewis speaks to Sister Penelope of “smuggling” theology into the minds of an audience, deceitful as it sounds, he is not confessing a breach of ethics, but, rather, revealing a strategy for embedding important content that would otherwise be ignored. In his vocation as a science fiction novelist and Christian apologist, Lewis preferred, with utmost integrity, a more straightforward approach, preparing his readers, announcing, narrating his premises as much as possible, so that they could follow, if they wished, his reasoning. Lewis was not trying to trick his readers, but to reach them, even at the popular level where he was writing, albeit suffused with deeper-level meaning.
Perhaps if they saw and heard the message, meeting the grand narrative in a different setting, within a different genre, like science fiction or the fairy tale, they could be “surprised by joy” in the same way Lewis himself was when he returned to faith as an adult. Thus, in science fiction, Lewis himself had discovered a worthy vehicle for reinvigorating and reinserting relevant discussion of Christian ideals and the biblical worldview into popular discourse. Later in his letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis underscored the inability of hail-fellow, well-met literary reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet, even to recognize the biblical source of his themes:
You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about 60 reviews, only 2 showed any knowledge that my idea of a fall of the bent One was anything but a private invention of my own? (C. S. Lewis, 9 August 1939, in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis)
Lewis had with premeditated insight adopted this emerging popular genre as a means for defeating what he called, via Owen Barfield, the “chronological snobbery” of his age, the presumption that truth was merely a function of the calendar, the last said, the best said. Au contraire. He would add in his response to Sister Penelope that it was emerging as an essential genre to combat what he saw as a growing menace among the intelligentsia of his time who were taking the “dream of interplanetary colonization quite seriously, and the realization that thousands of people, in one form or another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human species for the whole meaning of the universe – that a ‘scientific’ hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity.” (Lewis, Collected Letters, vol. 2, 263.)
While Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet depicted space exploration as an endeavor that would yield the discovery of superior species of sentient beings who could teach earthlings how to live more abundantly and morally in the cosmos, and Perelandra presented an unfallen Eve and Adam in New Eden (Venus) choosing to thwart an attack on their primordial innocence, the third volume of Lewis’s trilogy, That Hideous Strength, offered the warning to humankind that science practiced without ethical and historical context, untouched by revelation, becomes mere scientism, individual personhood sacrificed on the altar of preservation of the species, and a threat not just to Earth but to the cosmos at large.
Thus Lewis sought to create new myths that could serve as an “alternate histories,” winsome, redemptive, inclusive tales whose worldview would restore personal dignity and a promised destiny to those with ears to hear, and eyes to see. A history alternate to what? Simply put, alternatives to the false histories all about them written in the rise of a dehumanizing and disenchanting determinism that reduces men, women, children, even whole civilizations to instincts, impulses, genetics, environment: “cosmic accidents” whose dreams and visions nevertheless point them to longings they cannot account for in starkly “scientific” terms.
Even today, nearly 75 years after their first appearance, Lewis’s cosmic trilogy still has the power to provoke and persuade readers far removed from the specific historical circumstances Sister Penelope originally wrote him about.