Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Cosmic trilogy completed

Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are the second and third volumes of C.S. Lewis' Cosmic trilogy of science fiction novels and I read them while in Italy.

Throughout they are an interesting medley - at one level they are wholly of their time, you feel in the 1940s and 50s both in terms of being transported there but, more vividly, being 'stuck' there (in the form of the language and the social mores), even when you are, as in Perelandra, on Venus, at the dawning of its sentient evolution!

The narrative often strays into argument as if you had slipped into a work of philosophy or Christian apologetics in a way that gives it a 'clunky, unpolished' feel.  It has nothing of the imagination of other worlds entire that his friend, Tolkien, achieves, more a patchwork quilt.

But in reading the cumulative whole, you realise you are in the presence of a myriad-minded man of imaginative depth, real scholarship and a binding sense of purpose.

The novels are books of ideas before they are of story but in Lewis ideas are living entities that make claims on us and are never morally neutral.


And he does have his moments of true poetic writing - in 'That Hideous Strength' there are two that come to mind. A conversation on meaningful marriage that carries at its heart the understanding of 'obedience' as a listening to one another that is grounded in humility and is fully mutual that foreshadows Lewis' own discovery of his late relationship with Joy Davidson. The second is a wonderfully humourous account of Mr Bultitude (the bear) making it over the wall in search of felt honey that beautifully captures a way of seeing and being that might be that of an animal: an appreciation of the world utterly vivid and real and yet framed without words.


And they are incredibly topical, not least in Lewis recognition of the way in which we despoil our own one true home and that ecological crisis (though he does not use the word) is a direct outcome of certain  materialistic and utilitarian assumptions about the world. The great conflict in the novels could be painted in traditional terms between 'good' and 'evil' (and indeed they are - angels and demons do battle through the hands and minds of men and women) but at the heart of 'evil' is 'instrumentality' a belief that things are defined by their 'use' (including ourselves) rather than our being and our beauty. A being and beauty grounded in each particular thing, that can actually only be ever fully loved and known in and for itself.


The use of anything has to be grounded in a hallowing tradition that measures its use against the demands of love and justice that dwell in actual communities.



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