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Thursday, 27 May 2021

C. S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet (3*)

Between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I read through most of the science fiction section in the local public library. It therefore puzzled me on reading The Chrysalids last month that I couldn’t remember it. Had I completely forgotten or is it one I missed? If I were to re-read something I know I did read at that age, then would I be reassured that my memory still works?

I know I read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I have always been prepared for the still awaited quiz question – What are the titles? Answer: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and Return to the Silent Planet. WRONG! The third one was That Hideous Strength. Well, that is not how I remember it.

I went to Faded Page and downloaded Out of the Silent Planet for Kindle. I also managed to find an image of the cover I think our library had.  

As I remembered, it is about a man called Ransom (my mother had a friend with the same surname) who is kidnapped and taken by two crooks to Mars (known as Malacandra) where he escapes and has various adventures. In particular, I was remember being struck by how he first misinterprets the appearance of an alien, and, later, how unusual human beings look when he first encounters them again.
…  it held the shell to its own middle and seemed to be pouring something… . Ransom thought with disgust that it was urinating into the shell. Then he realised that the protuberances on the creature’s belly were not genital organs at all; it was wearing … pouch-like objects, and it was adding a few drops of liquid from one of these to the water in the shell.
Almost exactly as I recall. Strange what you remember. Much later Ransom sees:
…  two creatures which he did not recognize. … They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, … bipeds, though the lower limbs were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were … almost square. They stumped along on heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance. Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realized he was looking at men.
You cannot say C. S. Lewis lacked imagination.

Other aspects came back as I read: the spherical space ship they travel in, that Malacandrans, like the plants and the mountains, tend to be tall and thin because of the lower gravity, that there is breathable air deep down in the canals but not on the higher plains, and that Ransom learns to speak Malacandran because he is a professor of language. Even after more than fifty years, I knew I had read it before. It reassures me that I cannot previously have read ‘The Chrysalids’.

What I did not recall is the moralistic and religious allegory. As a young teenager, I probably didn’t get it. Every planet is ruled an Oyarsa, a kind of space angel, which is ruled by an even higher being called Maledil. They all communicate with each other. However, the Oyarsa ruler of Thulcandra (the Earth) became silent aeons ago (the Silent Planet) and the planet has become a mystery to the others. The Malacandran Oyarsa is astonished to hear what Ransom  “... has to tell them about human history – of war, of slavery and prostitution.”
‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils.
‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself’ said Augray.
‘They cannot help it … there must be rule, but how can creatures rule themselves?

The villains who kidnap Ransom are of low moral fibre: one is after the gold that lies in abundance all over Malacandra and the other is a rogue scientist seeking to ensure the long term survival and dominance of the human race without any regard for others. They regard the three species of Malacadrans as primitives, whereas Ransom values their civilisation and appreciates their different but equal talents and qualities. The author being C. S. Lewis, theologian, Fellow at Oxford and Professor at Cambridge, these ideas all have academic and theological precedents which are a mystery to me. Out of the Silent University. 

It sounds like Thought for the Day on the BBC, but it’s an entertaining story. It does not entice me to re-read the other two, though.  


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

53 comments:

  1. I've never bothered to read any C.S. Lewis precisely because of his predilection for Christian moralizing.

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  2. I have read a biography of Lewis and some of his essays when I was studying philosophy of religion and also he frequently comes up in the lives of others I have read, particularly Betjeman and McNeice, neither of whom liked Lewis at all and Betjeman positively hated him and McNeice was positiviely hated by Lewis and I am pretty sure Lewis hated Betjeman. Betjeman never completed his degree because Lewis was his tutor and on failing a first year exam Betjeman needed his tutor's permission to resit and Lewis refused to give it. So Betjeman never went back to Oxford to complete his degree and never forgave Lewis. However in the biography Lewis comes across as quite a kindly man in his private life but altogether rather odd in other ways but with a distant father and a deceased mother and life as it was at boarding school perhaps it is forgiveable. I also have a friend who said his father was taught by Lewis and he had not a good word to say about him either. I have never read any of his books, but some of his essays on religion are very good.

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    1. Sounds an interesting biography because of the light it throws on the intellectual life of the 20th century. Not that I'll seek it out. I've known university staff who have such a high opinion of their own importance they close their minds to other viewpoints and take it out of students. Not what they are there for at all. Then, when other academics of similar temperament but differing views come along they all fall out with each other. It would be laughable but essentially it is bullying. One of the disputes I most enjoyed reading about is the Snow-Leavis two worlds stuff.

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    2. I enjoyed the short book of his collected essays/papers written while he was an undergraduate and attending something like the Cambridge Apostles but the equivalent at Oxford. I must seek out the book from the library if it ever gets back on the shelves after Covid. Some certainly contained hints of the supernatural.

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    3. I'm sure there is interesting stuff there, but sometimes this group of people sound too elitist and full of their own cleverness.

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  3. Although my younger sister consumed the Narnia stuff I have never read any CS Lewis. Between the ages you describe I think I was wasting my reading time in history and science books. I seem to have some predeliction for non-fiction. Not to say I don't enjoy a good novel, but I set a high bar on 'good'.

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    1. I stopped reading anything after 15. When I started again it was always non-fiction. Only recently have I read more novels.

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  4. I've never got far with Lewis. Classist, racist and sexist. Aside from that a nice bloke I expect. Judging from the reaction to Betjeman, also homophobic. Life too short!

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    1. Possibly he thought he was right about everything. Closed academic circles. This book arose out of a discussion with Tolkein. Groupthink.

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  5. I have never been a space fiction fan either - sorry.

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    1. I would describe it more of a fantasy than SF. I am not really a fan of these kinds of fantasy worlds.

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  6. I admire how you have been re-reading some of the books you read in your youth. I would imagine you would get a different and deeper meaning from many of them now compared to when you first read them. I've always admired those with a good imagination and yes, you can definitely say C. S. Lewis had that!

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    1. Certainly imaginative but not particularly riveting. I haven't read any of the Chronicles of Narnia which are supposedly similar but for children. I think I tried once but put it down quite quickly.

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  7. Can postmodern readers ever forgive C.S. Lewis?
    *Racist* as well as *sexist*.
    Buggeration, the chap was even some kind of (gulp) Christian.
    And he thought Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet, and not that other fellow, Edward De Vere.
    He wrote haunting novels like Out Of The Silent Planet.
    Un-postmodern children still love the Narnia stories, until they grow up and the feminists put them straight.
    Wonder what the old fellow would make of Crop Circles?
    Or Barack Obama's strange remark about Aliens, *There's some things I just can't tell you* ?
    Haggerty

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    1. If C. S. Lewis was right then Maledil has had enough and is coming after our Oyarsa. You'd better start behaving yourself.

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    2. Oh, I forgot. Lewis was also *homophobic*.
      Unlike pagan Rome, he thought buggery rather unhygienic.
      Haggerty

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    3. Am I the only one to wish they had not just read that?

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  8. What did I say that was hateful?
    Judeo-Christianity gave us marriage and the way to love children.
    We got no moral decency from pagan Rome or Babylon.
    Queen Victoria asked her prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, how we know that God exists.
    The Duke, a man of few words, said: *The Jews, Ma'am.*
    It was the right answer.
    C.S. Lewis would have agreed.
    Haggerty

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    1. Medical men use the same imagery.
      Haggerty

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    2. Do you always have to have the last word?

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    3. As my late elder brother used to say, *Are you through?*
      He was an atheist who began to believe in the existence of the Devil. But then he lived in Los Angeles for 30 years.
      *Maybe the Devil after all exists/This is a damn strange world.*
      From a poem by John Berryman.
      Haggerty

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  9. My favorite by far of this trilogy is This Hideous Strength; it seems to closely describe the dark side of the world we live in today, with heroes needed and arising. I have read many of his nonfiction Christian books and admire his brilliant mind and deep faith.

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    1. Perhaps my memory of it as 'Return to the Silent Planet' is because it is set mainly on earth.
      Despite any failings Lewis might have had, or in retrospect be judged to have had, he still had a lot of sensible things to say. Many if not most of our morals arise out of the Christian beliefs that used to be held by more, and there are great dangers in losing them.

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  10. Re Haggerty’s reference to Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington (who was not a prime minister, by the way), I have long thought that the conversation occurred between Louis XVI and Blaise Pascal, and that the exact quote (translated from the French) was “the Jew, Your Majesty, the Jew”.

    I could be wrong, of course.

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    1. Oops, Wellington served twice as prime minister.

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    2. Though never to Queen Victoria.

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    3. Doesn't Mr. Google clarify who said what?

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    4. Erratum.
      I should have said Queen Victoria asked the FORMER Prime Minister. The Duke was Tory P.M. from 1828-1830 and again for a few months in 1834.
      Victoria did not ascend the throne until 1837, Wellington was still alive, and he died in 1852. The conversation about faith was said to have taken place while Victoria was dining with the General, whom she highly esteemed.
      Blaise Pascal knew only too well that our knowledge of the living God (as he liked to say) came from Judaism.
      Christians treated Jews like shit, but that is another story, and we will have to answer for it on the terrible day of judgment.
      Haggerty

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  11. Well I read the trilogy of Chronicles of Narnia and loved Aslan as a child, and will keep the story intact without disseminating it. It seems to me that writers write from their own personal backgrounds and then we come along and judge them, slightly unfair. I loved Betjeman for his light hearted frivolous poetry, Tolkien for the ability to write a very long saga. Gave up reading their biographies, 'The Inklings' title reminds us that they sat down and wrote imaginatively, though I have never read the SF Lewis books.

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    1. It's too easy to criticise people from the past using current ideas. Sensibilities were different. Vocabulary was different. It's often better just to read these things for what they are. I love Betjeman both for what he wrote and for what he was. The short films he made were also wonderful.

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    2. I enjoy Betjeman too. He did much to bring our attention to beautiful buildings in a state of neglect.
      Jane Bown's photo of him for The Observer is wonderful.
      Betjeman seems to have been fairly idle at Oxford and Lewis would have come down hard on him for being lazy.
      Lewis was Ken Tynan's tutor.
      Tynan felt he had wasted his time in journalism and hankered for the academic life which Lewis represented with his scholarship.
      Lewis made a good point that the first English Calvinists were the privileged young, and compared them in their arrogance to the Communists of the 1930s.
      Lewis was not a fundamentalist and nor am I.
      Haggerty

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    3. I also like Betjeman, and also McNeice, and come to that what I read of C S Lewis's essays I liked them too. His biographer, the one I read, also made Lewis sound like a very kind person in his personal life as I said. I don't quite understand Haggerty's comments today but I sense a sort of hostility to some of the comments. It was not my intention to be hostile towards Lewis nor anyone else I mentioned. I am not sure why Haggerty didn't address some of his comments to me as I raised the subject of Lewis and Betjeman. I agree that Betjeman was probably lazy at Oxford, and I was merely stating what I read in his biography.

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    4. No hostility, Rachel. A bit of acerbity maybe, it's like brandy in coffee. With me it is never personal. If Lewis prevented Betjeman from resitting his exams, that was personal, and nasty. Lewis was never given the chair at Oxford, and went to Cambridge instead, but then they never gave Leavis the chair at Cambridge.

      Eliot, Auden and MacNeice are my three Moderns after Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence and Virginia Woolf; I feel a deep affinity with MacNeice, and can't understand why he and Lewis did not get on. In London I even go to a pub because MacNeice went there. Many of his poems I can recite by heart along with Yeats and Auden.

      The accusation of Christian moralising in Lewis gets my goat up.
      Women rightly demand safe spaces in campuses because of rape.
      One in three women in Scotland say they have experienced direct sexual abuse, but most don't report it to the police.
      There are worse things than Christian moralising, even though I have quarrelled with fundamentalists, usually hyper-Calvinists, not balanced Calvinists as in the Free Kirk.

      It is the Cancel Culture I fear. Young people are behaving like the young Maoists during the Cultural Revolution.
      Haggerty

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    5. Thank you for clarifying that. Have you read McNeice's autobiography, locked away only to be published after his death, and unfinished? I felt very close to him reading it and understand you in saying you go into a certain pub only because McNeice went there.

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    6. I have several copies of The Strings Are False, a first edition of Autumn Journal, a first edition of his Collected Poems, a first edition of his book on Yeats, all of his published critical writings.
      He came to my attention as a child obsessed with Ring of Bright Water; I read the end poem by MacNeice aloud, and became fascinated with the animal daemon. He gave Gavin Maxwell permission to use the poem though I do not think they met.
      Have I imagined it or does Penelope Fitzgerald mention him in her BBC wartime novel Human Voices?
      Ian Sansom has written a book on Auden's poem *September 1 1939* and I think Andrew Motion could write a book on Autumn Journal.
      I met P.J. Kavanagh twice in his home near Cirencester. He titled his early autobiography The Perfect Stranger after a MacNeice poem.
      Haggerty

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    7. P.S. Rachel.
      I have a framed glossy photo (BBC Hulton?) of MacNeice standing in a London pub drinking a pint of Guinness. After he returned from a British Council overseas trip, a pub wag said: *Home from our labours with Faber and Faber's?*
      I told this to the New Zealand novelist Maurice Gee who, like MacNeice, is published by Faber. I don't think Maurice found it funny.
      Haggerty

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    8. I always think I would like to have met McNeice.

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    9. After the poems, what better place to start than his Selected Letters, and the 1995 biography by Jon Stallworthy?
      He said that the middle period was hard for the poet; and you can see that he was emerging from his dry period, following Autumn Sequel, but it was cut short by his death from pneumonia.
      His son was an actor involved in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

      I thought about his death when I went to my doctor and requested the pneumococcal vaccine, about which there is no publicity.
      Edna Longley wrote a good study of the poems for Faber, and I have still to read *Louis MacNeice at the BBC* by Barbara Coulton.

      There is nothing much in Birmingham to recall his time there as a Classics lecturer, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of the man in Fitzrovia. Then he turns a corner and is gone.
      Haggerty

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    10. There's good essay by Derek Mahon on McNeice and the BBC and the War years in a book Studies on Louis MacNeice

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    11. Thanks. I have Mahon's Collected and a critical study published by Oxford. I cannot recall Mahon on MacNeice but I shall hunt for it. I must look again at Randall Jarrell's *Poetry and the Age* to see what he writes about Louis.
      If you can access it, there's a New Yorker essay on Jarrell with a photo of him dancing with his wife in their New York apartment. He died soon after. Walking into a car during an away trip.

      *We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
      But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.*

      Denise Levertov was the exception. Watch the old black and white film of her and Charles Olson. YouTube.
      Haggerty

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    12. *Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death.* 2019 YouTube.
      Haggerty

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  12. I loved the Narnia books when I was a child, and I am not ashamed to say that I also enjoyed the relatively recent movies they made of them. My sister and I played "Narnia" for hours, and neither of us has become a racist, classicist or moralist. We both lead lives that feminists in former times could only dream of. Not knowing much about the author, I can not judge him as a person, only by what I know of his writing. Other than Narnia, I have not read anything else by him.

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    1. I haven't read the Narnia books - think I've mentioned above I once started one, didn't like it at the time, and gave up pretty quickly. However, I know a lot of people adore them and the way they led to your imaginative play shows their power. As said to Thelma, above, it's better to read things for what they are. Setting aside the allegory, Lewis's trilogy stands up as quirky imaginative fantasy.

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  13. That's interesting. I haven't heard of these books at all. I only know of the Narnia books and some of his non-fiction. As you said, no one could argue that he lacked imagination!

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    1. I could imagine that those who liked the Narnia books would also enjoy the space trilogy. I read this because I wondered what I would remember of it after so long. I might get round to the others at some point, but other books are more appealing at the moment.

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  14. Well having read all that and all the comments I feel distinctly out of my depth.

    Whilst au fait with works such as the Chronicles of Narnia from my children's era and some of his other works simply because they were in my Mother's bookcase the only one of his books I've read is The Screwtape Letters. Sarcasm is not one of my favourite qualities even (or, perhaps, particularly) when taken to that level of excellence.

    I never, so far as I can recall, read any science fiction until I was well into adulthood. I did read some fantasy eg The Lord of The Rings though. when I was younger.

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    1. I'm not tempted to read The Screwtape Letters (was that an inadvertant clever response?)
      I read about a third of Lord of the Rings before being distracted by something else, after which I decided it was a waste of time reading the rest and never did.

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    2. If, Tasker, it was a clever response then it was definitely inadvertent.

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