Wednesday, December 08, 2010

C. S. Lewis's Fiction for Adults

[This is a repost from a few years ago when the second Chronicles of Narnia movie came out. Since the third movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, opens up this week, I thought it would be appropriate to post it again. A few points are dated -- I mention Madeleine L’Engle’s death "last year" -- and I would add several more science-fiction authors who write on Christian themes to my list that I have since discovered (most notably Michael Flynn), but that’s about it.]

Since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film came out a few years ago, a lot of attention has been focused on C. S. Lewis and his children’s fiction, namely, the seven Chronicles of Narnia. With the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, opening up in the States this week (it won’t get to Belgium until July), I thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to his fictional works written for adults, which I appreciate much more. So below is a short summary of his adult fiction. Not included is his short story collection The Dark Tower and Other Stories, partially because there is a pretty silly looking controversy over whether it was really written by C. S. Lewis, but mostly because I’ve never read it.

The Pilgrim’s Regress
This was the first book about Christianity that C. S. Lewis wrote, not long after his he became a Christian. It takes its title and premise from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical story about the Christian life. The Pilgrim’s Regress deals largely with C. S. Lewis’s experiences as a non-Christian, traveling through various worldviews. It represents his journey from Christianity to atheism, from atheism to idealism, from idealism to pantheism, from pantheism to theism, and from theism back to Christianity (hence, a regress). It’s much harder to decipher than Bunyan’s, but every edition I’ve ever seen alleviates this by having a short blurb at the top of each page translating the imagery. The story is extremely rich, so I’ll just describe a few of the many characters and situations in it.

Lewis was raised a Christian, but abandoned it as a very young man. Similarly, the main character of The Pilgrim’s Regress, named John, is brought up in the land of Puritania, where he is brought to a Steward (a priest) and told about the Landlord (God). Here, Lewis brilliantly represents a child’s impression of Christianity, by having everyone put on a mask whenever they talk about the Landlord, and has John given a list of rules to obey -- "but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing". The Steward tells him that if he breaks any of the rules, the Landlord will put him in a black hole (hell). When John asks if there is any way to avoid the black hole if he’d already broken a rule, the Steward "sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable. However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext." I love this.

John has a vision of an island in the West, and so leaves home to pursue it. The island represents longing or sehnsucht, what Lewis later refers to as "joy" in his autobiography. The first person he encounters on his journey is Mr. Enlightenment, who greatly comforts John by telling him that there is no such person as the Landlord. When John asks him how he knows this for sure, Mr. Enlightenment exclaims, "Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!" I'm a big fan of science, so I really appreciate the way Lewis represents the alleged conflict between science and religion as pure bluster. In his nonfiction book, The Discarded Image, he goes into detail about some of the particular points of "conflict". Nevertheless, John believes (although does not follow) Mr. Enlightenment.

At one point, John is captured by the Spirit of the Age (Freudianism), and is thrown into a prison in the side of a hill. A nearby mountain turns out to be a giant who looks into the prison. The giant’s eyes have a property that whatever they look upon becomes transparent -- so when John looks at his fellow prisoners, he sees their brains and lungs and intestines, and basically, as just bundles of complexes. This is how Freudianism explains everything. When he looks down at himself, he sees his own organs. When John tries to argue, the jailer asks the other prisoners what argument is. One responds, it "is the attempted rationalization of the arguer’s desires". The jailer asks him how to respond to any argument proving the existence of the Landlord. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a Steward". Finally, the jailer asks him how to respond to any argument that two plus two equals four. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a mathematician".

John is rescued from the prison by a woman in armor, named Reason. She asks the giant three riddles, and when the giant can’t answer, she kills it. John leaves with her, but the other prisoners huddle together in a corner of the prison cell, wailing, "It is one more wish-fulfillment dream: it is one more wish-fulfillment dream". John quickly leaves Reason, though, when she points out to him that for many people disbelief in the Landlord is a wish-fulfillment dream.

John acquires a traveling companion named Vertue, but their journey is quickly halted by an unbridgeable canyon. The journey then becomes an attempt to try to find some way of crossing the canyon. They travel north, where they meet nihilism, and south, where they meet philosophy. Mother Kirk (Christianity) tells them that she can carry them across, but John doesn’t want anything to do with her.

Again, this is just a small selection of the imagery of this book. Towards the end of it, John travels through the land of Luxuria which represents sexual promiscuity. A beautiful witch offers him wine from a cup, and when he refuses, tries to convince him to drink. I do not know whether this will be true of women as well, but every man who has ever struggled with sexual temptation (as opposed to those who simply give in to it) will recognize their struggle in this passage.

The Space Trilogy
I love science-fiction, but many stories in this genre that mention Christianity at all are explicitly hostile to it; at any rate, there is considerably less written from a Christian perspective than from non-Christian (and even anti-Christian) perspectives. I suspect this is nothing intrinsic to the genre itself, but is merely a reflection of the perception mentioned above that science and Christianity conflict with each other, and so we allegedly have to choose one or the other. It never ceases to amaze me that some people can have such amazing imaginations as SF authors demonstrate, but when it comes to Christianity they substitute bogus slogans, clich├ęs, and knee-jerk reactions for rationality.

Nevertheless, there are some Christian SF authors. Madeleine L’Engle (who died last year) wrote A Wrinkle in Time, the first of her Time Quintet series, although they’re really juvenile SF. Another is Jerry Pournelle, a C. S. Lewis fan, who wrote (with Larry Niven) an update of Inferno, Dante’s classic work of a journey through hell, with the added twist of the main character being a SF author -- in fact, he "lifted a good part of the philosophical stuffing" in this book from Lewis. Pournelle’s SF isn’t religious in nature, although you can sometimes see traces. He even mentions Lewis a couple of times in Footfall. Orson Scott Card is something of a theologically-liberal Mormon (I think), and he treats religion very respectfully in his books. In Xenocide, the third book of the original Ender series, Card has a Catholic missionary who essentially converts an entire alien race to Christianity. One of the main characters in the second Ender series is a Catholic nun who holds her own against skeptics. Christian authors I haven’t read (yet) include Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, John C. Wright, Susan Palwick, and several others. If you want to read more about Christianity in SF, I strongly recommend skipping over to Claw of the Conciliator, and reading his important posts listed on his sidebar, starting with this one. I also began to read two books called The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell (who converted from Catholicism to Judaism) which together make up a SF story about some Jesuits who encounter an alien race. I’ve decided not to go through them yet, because they deal with God leading people into abject failure and horror, and how such a person can ever trust God afterwards. My wife and I took a step of faith a few years ago, and until it’s resolved, I don’t think it would be good for my psychological health to read a fictional account of God leading people into abject failure and horror.

This is a rather long introduction into Lewis’s three SF books, which I think are his weakest writings (not so weak that they’re not worth reading though). They strike me as being "old-fashioned" SF, more in the vein of H. G. Wells than of Card or Pournelle. The main character is named Ransom, and I read somewhere that he’s modeled after one of C. S. Lewis’s best friends, J. R. R. Tolkien (I’ve also read somewhere that Treebeard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is modeled after Lewis). All three books address an issue that Lewis explores more fully in his non-fiction book The Abolition of Man: namely, that the reduction of humanity to mere matter, and the desire to conquer nature both lead to the destruction of humanity itself.

The first book is Out of the Silent Planet. Ransom is kidnapped by some men who have built a spaceship, and is taken to Mars, or Malacandra. They kidnap him because they think some of the natives want a human sacrifice. Once on Malacandra, Ransom escapes and lives for several months among some different natives. He discovers that the intelligent races on Malacandra are not fallen and sinful like human beings. Earth is the silent planet because the endil (roughly, angel) in charge of it has rebelled against God, and so none of the other endil know anything about the earth. Ransom is eventually discovered by the first set of natives, who didn’t want him for a sacrifice after all. One of the kidnappers, named Weston, is later hauled before a kind of "court" where he extols the glory of humanity and how it will conquer the universe. The setting makes this speech sound very silly.

The second is Perelandra. A friendly endil transports Ransom to Venus, which is covered in water with many floating islands of vegetation. Ransom encounters a "woman" who is, essentially, the Eve of that planet. She and the Adam have been separated and are trying to find each other. However, they aren’t too stressed about it, since they are unfallen and trust God to take care of them. But then Weston takes his spaceship to Perelandra, where he reveals himself to be possessed. Weston -- now a rebellious spiritual entity -- tries to convince Eve why it would be best for her to break the laws that God has set for her, while Ransom tries to convince her otherwise. The tension here is overwhelming; when I read through this part of the book, I want to just step into the story and physically stop Weston from trying to tempt the woman. I’m also struck by the amazing contrast between the intelligence behind Weston’s attempts to convince the woman to rebel against God, and the sheer vacuity of his tauntings of Ransom when the woman’s not around. He just says, "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..." etc. until Ransom says, "What?" to which Weston replies "Nothing", then after a pause starts up again: "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..."

The third book is That Hideous Strength. This is generally considered the best of the three, but I like it the least. Ransom is not the main character in it, but still plays a significant role. The two main characters are a young married couple who aren’t as enamored of each other as they used to be. The man is a low-level professor who is offered a job at an institute, but he’s not sure exactly what they expect of him. This part of the book is long and -- to me -- tedious, and deals with the man’s desire to be a part of the right crowd. Unfortunately, the crowd in this instance intends to overthrow society and replace it with machines. To this end, they have made a horrific attempt at immortality, and intend to dig up Merlin the magician of English folklore to help them. Meanwhile, the man’s wife has begun having visions, and is eventually taken in by Ransom and his people (including, interestingly, an atheist), who are planning to do battle with the institute. Merlin shows up and things get funky. Towards the end, one of the antagonists illustrates the main theme behind the whole Trilogy:

Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so -- since he had been initiated -- he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men.

(I transcribed a larger part of this quote in this post, near the bottom).

The Screwtape Letters
This book is difficult to classify: it’s fiction, but not really a story. It purports to be a series of letters written by a senior demon in hell, named Screwtape, to his nephew demon, Wormwood, who is in charge of corrupting an individual human being. The letters consist of advice on how to best go about this.

Since it’s not really a story, it can’t really be summarized. Suffice it to say that it’s incredibly clever, hilarious, and painful. I, at least, recognize myself on every page. There’s an audio version of John Cleese reading excerpts from them which is, as my fellow Python fans can imagine, spectacular. I was going to avoid quoting from them, because I was afraid if I started, I wouldn’t be able to find a stopping point. But here’s one of my favorite passages from the first letter, before Wormwood’s "patient" becomes a Christian:

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don’t let him ask what he means by "real".

Here’s a passage from the second letter, which describes Wormwood’s "patient" going to a church. After this, I’ll close my book and put it back on the shelf:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. ... Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Lewis later appended the Letters with an essay entitled "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", in which Screwtape addresses a group of young tempters upon their graduation from training college. Most recent editions of the Letters will include it at the end, and it can also be found in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays and Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.

The Great Divorce.
The title is a response to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The theme is that some people in hell take a bus trip to heaven. The twist is that they don’t like it. It’s too real. When they disembark, they find that they are translucent -- "ghosts" -- and they don’t even have enough substantiality to bend the grass that they walk on, since it’s more solid than they are. Lewis uses this theme to explore deep theological questions about heaven and hell. How could God allow people to go to hell? How can anyone be happy in heaven if there is a hell?

The story is told in the first person. Each of the travelers is met by someone they know who tries to convince them to go deeper into heaven. C. S. Lewis is met by George MacDonald, the 19th century author whose writings played a large role in Lewis’s life. One man is met by a former employee who committed murder. This shocks him, and he refuses to take part in any heaven that would accept a murderer, while keeping a "decent chap" like himself outside. Another man is met by a former student. The man was apparently a theologian who denied the central tenets of Christianity, and insists that "God" would never "punish" him for his "honest opinions". He refuses to go further into heaven, because he has a paper to read next week at a theological society that they’ve organized in hell.

A woman refuses to go into heaven because her husband is in there, and she doesn’t want anything to do with him. But as she talks about it, she says she’d be willing to come if she was allowed to have full control over him. Another woman only wants to see her son who died in his youth. She’s told she will be able to see him (not allowed to, but able to) as soon as she learns to want God more than her son. She responds by saying she will have no part in a God who keeps a mother and son apart. Her son is hers, not God’s. "I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love". She says this when she’s within walking distance of Love himself.

One man has a lizard on his shoulder who whispers things to him (representing lust). He is met by someone who offers to kill the lizard.

"Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did."
"It is not so."
"Why, you’re hurting me now."
"I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you."

The meeting that just devastates me though, is two ghosts who are met by one of the most glorious beings in heaven. The glorious being was a nobody on earth, just a poor woman. The two ghosts are the remains of a single person who used to be her husband. They are a thin man, and a hunched dwarf on a chain. Upon closer examination, however, we discover that the dwarf ghost is actually holding the chain, and the thin one is shackled. The thin ghost is a seedy actor, a tragedian, who answers whenever the woman speaks to the dwarf. Basically, the man is a phony; he responds to every situation by acting, by striking a pose. He has been doing it so long that he has separated into two entities, which are dependent on each other. The reason this devastates me is that it hits a little too close to home.

The dwarf ghost spent his entire life making himself suffer in order to manipulate people into doing what he wanted out of pity. The glorious being who was his wife tells him that he can let go of the chain. He doesn’t have to continue manipulating people anymore, for the simple reason that it’s impossible to do so in heaven. No matter what he does, he won’t make anyone feel bad. He can be free of his self-imposed misery, because his reason for so imposing himself no longer exists: he can’t affect (or perhaps infect) others with his misery. But the ghost has been doing this for so long, he doesn’t know what it would mean to let go of the chain. "I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy".

Again, I think this book is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Till We Have Faces
This is C. S. Lewis’s masterpiece. He thought it was the best thing he ever wrote. It’s basically the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. If you don’t know that story, there are spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. As The Pilgrim’s Regress, this book is extremely rich, so there will be, by necessity, much of significance that I’ll have to leave out in this summary. Orual, or Maia, is the sister in question; she is the oldest daughter of the king of Glome. She says she is writing the book as an accusation against the gods.

Orual discovers early in life that she is extremely ugly. Her father, a tyrant, buys a Greek slave (named the Fox, who represents rationality) to teach her and her sister. Eventually, the king remarries, and fathers another daughter, Psyche. Orual loves Psyche and her life becomes meaningful because of it. Psyche grows up and the people of the kingdom think she is a goddess because she is so beautiful. But then the kingdom falls on very hard times, and the people say she must be sacrificed for daring to present herself as a goddess. The priest of the kingdom’s pagan temple confronts the king with this, and he -- once he realizes that the people don’t want to sacrifice him -- agrees. They will take Psyche up to the mountain where the god, or Shadowbrute, lives and chain her to a pole. The god (they believe) will then consume her, but this is simultaneously thought of as a kind of marriage as well. Psyche is not depressed by her state, and considers it an honorable thing to die for a god; and who knows? Maybe she will be married to him. Orual, however, is devastated. There is very little love in her life, either to give or receive, and the large portion of it is to and from Psyche. She tries to stop it, but collapses, and is delirious for several days.

After Orual has recovered, she begins to train at sword fighting with Bardia, the captain of the guard. But just in case you think there might have been some sexual tension here, remember, Orual is ugly. After their first lesson, "one of the other soldiers (I suppose he had had a sight of what we were doing) came into the passage and said something to Bardia. Bardia replied, I couldn’t hear what. Then he spoke louder: ‘Why, yes, it’s a pity about her face. But she’s a brave girl and honest. If a man was blind and she weren’t the King’s daughter, she’d make him a good wife.’ And that is the nearest thing to a love-speech that was ever made me."

Eventually, she and Bardia decide to go up to the mountain to retrieve Psyche’s bones and give them a proper burial. But there is nothing at the pole where the priest had chained her, and it’s forbidden to go beyond it. She decides to go beyond it anyway, and immediately finds herself in a kind of hidden valley with a little stream, and on the other side of the stream is Psyche staring back at her with a surprised look on her face. They embrace and weep. Psyche tells Orual that she is indeed married to the god of the mountain, and that she lives in a beautiful palace with invisible servants who give her everything she wants. But when Orual asks to see the palace, Psyche looks at her in shock: they are already in it. Orual can’t see it. The wine is just water, the bountiful food is just berries, the marble pillars are just trees. When Orual asks about her husband, Psyche explains that he only comes to her at night, in the dark, and so she has never seen him; in fact, she’s forbidden from seeing him. Orual takes all of this to mean that Psyche has lost her mind.

When she talks to the Fox about all of this, he also believes that Psyche has lost her mind, and thinks that her "husband" is a mountain man, a vagabond, an outlaw, who "rescued" her and is now taking advantage of her insanity. This so infuriates Orual that she decides, without the Fox’s counsel, to go back to the mountain and prove to Psyche that her husband is not who she thinks he is.

Her plan is to use Psyche’s love for her, by telling her that she’ll kill herself unless she agrees to look at her husband once he’s asleep. She stabs herself through the arm to prove to Psyche that she’s serious about it, and then gives Psyche a lamp and an urn to cover the light. Psyche very reluctantly agrees to do this. Orual goes back across the stream and waits to see what happens. Late at night, she sees the light from the lamp appear and move a little, then stay in one place for a long time. Then suddenly there is a great roar -- "It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things." -- and the sound of weeping. A huge storm immediately broke out, and a bolt of lightning flashed right in front of Orual. But it didn’t go away: the lightning bolt stayed in front of her: and "in the center of the light was something like a man". The god of the mountain was real, and he was beautiful, and she had just compelled Psyche to betray him.

Though this light stood motionless, my glimpse of the face was as swift as a true flash of lightning. I could not bear it for longer. Not my eyes only, but my heart and blood and very brain were too weak for that. A monster -- the Shadowbrute that I and all Glome had imagined -- would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore. And I think anger (what men call anger) would have been more supportable than the passionless and measureless rejection with which it looked upon me. Though my body crouched where I could almost have touched his feet, his eyes seemed to send me from him to an endless distance. He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot change the past. But is this true? He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself. You, who read my book, judge. Was it so? Or, at least, had it been so in the very past, before this god changed the past? And if they can indeed change the past, why do they never do so in mercy?

The thunder had ceased, I think, the moment the still light came. There was great silence when the god spoke to me. And as there was no anger (what men call anger) in his face, so there was none in his voice. It was unmoved and sweet; like a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man.

"Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche."

The voice and the light both ended together as if one knife had cut them short. Then, in the silence, I heard again the noise of the weeping.

I never heard weeping like that before or after, not from a child, nor a man wounded in the palm, nor a tortured man, nor a girl dragged off to slavery from a taken city. If you heard the woman you most hate in the world weep so, you would go to comfort her. You would fight your way through fire and spears to reach her. And I knew who wept, and what had been done to her, and who had done it.

This breaks my heart every time I read it.

This isn’t the end of the story at all, but this is all of it that I’ll relate here. Again, this book is rich. The title refers to a common theme in Lewis’s writings, that the earth and our lives are just shadows of reality (this is the imagery behind the title of the movie Shadowlands, about Lewis). In this book, the idea is that we demand to see God face to face; but how can we till we have faces? I’ve read through it a few times, and I’m not at all confident that I’m understanding the imagery; but despite this, I still recognize that I’ve come into contact with something deeply profound. Orual and Psyche clearly represent two different parts of the human being, but I’m not sure exactly what: perhaps Orual is the physical side and Psyche is the spiritual; perhaps Orual is the mortal side and Psyche the immortal; perhaps Orual is the person we are and Psyche is the person we want to be. The point being that the Orual side betrays the Psyche side, but will eventually be redeemed, glorified, and transformed into the Psyche side. More than that, I don’t know. Read it for yourself.

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3 comments:

The Singular Observer said...

Till we have faces is an incredible book. It captured me early, and I've never been freed...

I also love the Planetary trilogy: The Hrossa.
Ransom... Ransom ... Ransom...
And that visit by the Oyarsa's of the Field of Arbol remains one of my favourite readings.

The Pilgrim's Regress is also a book I frequently refer back too.

Suburbanbanshee said...

I've never heard anyone say That Hideous Strength is the best of the Space Trilogy. That Hideous Book is what I've heard it called. It's got a lot of interesting things in it, some wonderful observations too; but it doesn't really gel.

steve said...

Cordwainer Smith is another Christian SF writer.