Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is the third in my Going to Mars Word by Word series and offers a fascinating view of Mars. First published in Britain in 1938 and in 1943, in the United States, this novel shows its age in some of the now out-dated language, writing style, and societal views. Its pacing is not like the action-packed novels of today, but if you persevere, the meat of the story yields imaginative delights and insights.
In this first book of Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also known as the Cosmic Trilogy), the protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is on a hiking trip in the English Midlands. Looking for lodging, Ransom arrives at the home of a Mr. Devine, whom Ransom realizes is a former schoolfellow whom he “cordially disliked.” His arrival interrupts Mr. Devine and friend, Mr. Weston, as they struggle to force a mentally handicapped young man into the wash house. Grudgingly, Weston agrees to release the young man and share a meal and drinks with Ransom. But the after meal whiskey and soda causes Ransom to lose consciousness. When he awakens, he slowly realizes that he’s in a spherical spaceship, a captive of Devine and Weston who plan to turn him over to the inhabitants of Malacandra as a sacrifice in exchange for gold.
As the story progresses Ransom escapes from Devine and Weston and he begins an exploration of the planet Mars, called Malacandra by its inhabitants. Ransom’s terror is eventually replaced by a sense of wonder and appreciation for its landscapes and inhabitants.
As Lewis describes it, Mars, aka Malacandra, is a delicious blend of color, texture and size. “His first impression was of a bright, pale world – a watercolor world out of a child’s paint box . . . .” The air was cold and thin, but breathable. The water of the lakes wasn’t blue in certain light, as it was on Earth, but really blue. Stirred by a faint breeze its waves were something like “turreted waves,” impossibly tall and narrow. Rose-colored, cloud-like mass of vegetation in the background looked like “the top of a gigantic red cauliflower.” There was a forest of purple vegetation “about twice the height of English Elms, but apparently soft and supple” with smooth stalks and nearly transparent leaves the size of lifeboats.
The hrossa (singular hross), are the first people of Malacandra that Ransom meets. They are six or seven feet tall and too thin for their height. “It was something like a penguin, something like an otter, something like a seal; the slenderness and flexibility of its body suggested a giant stoat.” Fishermen and farmers, they live in the lowlands. They are the poets, the storytellers of Malacandra. Ransom lives amongst them, learning their language and of the eldil, and the ruler of Malacandra, Oyarsa.
The eldil are almost invisible creatures of light. They are the messengers of Oyarsa and according the the hross, must be obeyed. The hrossa can see eldil and are surprised to discover that Ransom can only see a disturbance in light and hear the eldil whispers. When an eldil tells Ransom that Oyarsa has summoned him, the hrossa insist he be on his way.
The séroni (singular sorn), whom Ransom grew to fear while on the spaceship, are “spindly and flimsy things twice or three times the height of a man” with pale feathers and seven-fingered hands. They are peaceful and kindly, the scientists of the world. They live in the high country through which Ransom must pass as he travels to meet Oyarsa. It is a Sorn who supplies Ransom with an oxygen bottle and carries the human on his shoulder during the difficult part of Ransom’s journey to Meldilorn, the home of Oyarsa.
In Meldilorn, Ransom meets the third species of Malacandra, the pfifltriggi (singular pfifltrigg). The pfifltrigg’s face was hairless like a man’s, “pointed like a shrew’s, yellow and shabby-looking.” It was “much more insect-like or reptilian” than any other creature Ransom saw on the alien planet. These creatures are the builders, the technicians, miners, and the artists. What a sorn can think up, a pfifltrigg can build.
Finally, Ransom meets Oyarsa. Oyarsa is a being of light, an eldil, but older and wiser. The conversation between these two characters reveals the novel’s theme and a retelling of Lucifer’s rejection from heaven, his isolation on Earth (the silent planet), and how Lucifer ‘bent’ man. Ransom speaks for mankind and Oyarsa passes judgement.
I’m not going to reveal the judgement and ending of this novel. Instead, I hope you’ll read it.
Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis was a novelist, poet, scholar, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and a Christian apologist born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898. His love of fantasy literature was evident even as a young boy created an imaginary world, Boxen, where animals talked and had adventures. He was educated at Oxford where he became friends with another student, J. R.R. Tolkein. In 1917 Lewis left his studies to fight in World War I. He became a commissioned officer with the Sumerset Light Infantry and fought in France until he was injured in April 1918. After the war, he returned to his studies He became a member of the English faculty of Oxford. It was at Oxford that a group of writers, the Inklings, began weekly meetings. They met for more than thirty years. During their meetings, they would talk, ‘share a beverage,’ and discuss their work. Several of the writers in that group produced work that is well known today. Lewis became an internationally recognized writer and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in September 1947. Read more about Lewis at the C.S. Lewis Foundation and on Wikipedia.
Imaginative or Realistic?
I must confess I had a bias against Lewis due to what I viewed as the heavy-handed Christian metaphors and allegories he used in his writing. I chose this book as a representative of the decade in which it was written and because Lewis, as an author, has an impact on people even today. There are blatant metaphors and allegories in this novel, an expression of Lewis’ belief that much of the suffering on Earth is due to evil choices people make. Yet, there are also delightful and thoughtful passages and fascinating descriptions that create something like an impressionistic-style mental painting of Mars.
C.S. Lewis knew, even when he wrote Out of the Silent Planet, that Mars was not as he described it. Yet, he chose to create a painting in his reader’s mind rather than re-create reality as he knew it. For this reader it worked.
How about you? Do you prefer imaginative interpretations of Mars or realistic ones?
Next in this series: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury