Week Ten- Lewis and Women: Portrayals in The Science Fiction (or Ransom) Trilogy
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“Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees…Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex” (Perelandra 200)
The Space Trilogy, written between 1938-1945, chronicles the adventures of a philologist (language expert) named Elwin Ransom. As David Downing points out in his book Planets in Peril, Lewis structures his tale with elements of Classicism and Medievalism. In fact, he echoes the great John Milton in the creation of his universe. In addition, the hierarchical order of species illustrates Lewis’s preference for medievalism and his theological views of the Hierarchical Concept as portrayed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. For more information on Lewis’s hierarchical beliefs, read A Preface to Paradise Lost and“Meditation on the Third Commandment” from God in the Dock. Lewis’s works explain that the Field of Arbor is a solar system in which the “Bent One” rebelled against Maleldil (son of the Old One) and was punished by being confined to Earth. The Bent One inflicted great evil on Earth and Earth was “cut off” or “silenced” from the rest of the planets, hence the name Thulcandra or “Silent Planet”. Maleldil eventually took a man’s form in order to deliver redemption for the Bent One’s devastation. In the end, all will be made right in That Hideous Strength.
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Out of the Silent Planet
In the first installment Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped (or professor-napped?) by Dick Devine and Dr. Weston and taken to the planet Malacandra, where he is intended to become a human sacrifice (i.e. the name “Ransom”). Devine and Weston’s ultimate goal is to colonize other planets, not for scientific exploration but for financial exploitation. Ransom escapes his captors and eventually learns the language of creatures on the planet, thanks to the hross, sorns (or seroni), and pfifltriggi he encounters. Ransom discovers that these rather innocent species are quite civilized and unacquainted with evil (“bent ones”). However, Devine and Weston spoil this bliss by killing a hrossa. They are brought before Oyarsa (presiding angel or eldila) to explain/justify this action. Instead of expressing sorrow and remorse, Devine and Weston essentially “sugar-coat” their aims as well-intended, with Ransom serving as an interpreter. When this is ineffective, Devine and Weston resort to insults and threats, describing guns as “Pouff! Bang!”, and therefore, illustrating that the Earthmen are truly the savages. The three men eventually return to Earth, but Ransom’s adventures are not over yet, as we delve deeper into space in Perelandra. A fictionalized Lewis serves as the story’s narrator.
Perelandra, the second installment of the trilogy, is the first in which females are introduced to the story. Ransom returns to space in a casket (“What’s that coffin affair?” Lewis asks Ransom), and lands on a new planet, Perelandra. With his intelligence and shrewd sense of survival, Ransom acclimates quickly. When he first sees The Green Lady, she is clothed in the beauty of mystery that Perelandra possesses:
The running, the waving, the shouts, had not been intended for him. And the green man was not a man at all, but a woman. It is difficult to say why this surprised him so. Granted the human form, he was presumably as likely to meet a female as a male. But it did surprise him, so that only when the two islands once more began to fall apart into separate wave-valleys did he realize that he had said nothing to her, but stood staring like a food. And now that she was out of sight he found his brain on fire with doubts. Was this what he had been sent to meet? He had been expecting wonders, had been prepared for wonders, but not prepared for a goddess carved out of green stone, yet alive. And then it flashed across his mind – he had not noticed it while the scene was before him – that she had been strangely accompanied. She had stood up amidst a throng of beasts and birds as a tall sapling stands among bushes – big pigeon-coloured birds and flame-coloured birds, and dragons and beaver-like creatures about the size of rats, and heraldic-looking fish in the sea at her feet. Or had he imagined that? Was this the beginning of the hallucinations he had feared? Or another myth coming out into the world of fact – perhaps a more terrible myth of Circe or Alcina?
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When Ransom finally meets the Green Lady, he exalts her calm demeanor and beauty. The animals surrounding her seem to bask in a warm, welcoming glow she emanates. Ransom feels that he has located, even in the vast ethereal enigma of Arbol, a kindred spirit: “Under an alien exterior he had discovered a heart like his own. Was he now to have the reverse experience? For now he realized that the word “human” refers to something more than the bodily form or even to the rational mind. It refers also the community of blood and experience which unites all men and women on the Earth” (56). The Green Lady has a strong bond with Maleldil. In obedience to Maleldil, she cares deeply for the creatures who surround her. Ransom talks with her about the discrepancies of Perelandra versus Thulcandra (Earth) which seems to distress her: “I have been so young till this moment that all my life now seems to have been a kind of sleep. I have thought that I was being carried, and behold, I was walking” (68). Although she has access to all of the glory of Perelandra, she has been instructed not to travel to the Fixed Land (she resides on a Xanadu of sorts – a floating island). Meanwhile, Weston arrives. With his indomitable confidence (or more rightly arrogance), Weston whitewashes the evil of the world (there are references to Nazi Germany) and then proclaims that he is now a deity. After this, Weston contorts and essentially dies, and his body becomes inhabited by an Unman. This being attempts to trick The Green Lady with twisted logic about Maleldil’s purposes. Notice here, the obvious references to Eve and the serpent. The Unman then weaves a deceitful tale in which disobedience leads to “splendor”:
Hardness came out of it but also splendor. They made with their own hands mountains higher than your Fixed Island. They made for themselves Floating Islands greater than yours which they could move at will through the ocean faster than any bird can fly. Because there was not always food enough, a woman could give the only fruit to her child or her husband and eat death instead – could give them all, as you in your little narrow life and playing and kissing and riding fishes have never done, nor shall do til you break the commandment. Because knowledge was harder to find, those few who found it becaoe more beautiful and exelled their fellows as you excel the beasts; and thousands were striving for their love… (120).
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Despite his best efforts, the Unman is unsuccessful in persuading The Green Lady, and unlike Eden, evil does not prevail. Ransom eventually defeats him. The King and Queen take their place upon the throne and all of the creatures of Perelandra bow in respect and reverence to them.
The conclusion of Perelandra contains one of Lewis’s most profound expositions on gender. In his description of the Oyarsa of Mars and Venus, Lewis sees a deep, penetrating love that is liberated from possession and sexual perversion. The sexual element is not neutered or oppressed, mind you (J.K. Rowling accused Lewis of repressing sexuality in Narnia, but it is fully present here). They exude beauty and genuine love. They are a male and female perfectly harmonized, contented and obedient to divine design. It is a love stripped of disrespect, of selfishness, of tyranny, of jealousy, of paranoia, of envy, of the forcing of one’s will upon another. This following quote firmly illustrates that Lewis that although the female is ruled by the male in a tradition hierarchy, both male and female are cherished and of equivalent worth. They are fundamentally different but both exceptionally valuable:
Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression coul deasily be mistaken for ferocity. Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came the curious different between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try – Ransom has tried a hundred times – to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms toward him. But I don’t know that any of these attempts has helped me much. At all events that Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the world. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would simply be meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female or organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity. All this Ransom saw, as it were, with his own eyes. The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earth-ward horizon whence his danger cam long ago…But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. (200-201)
There is much to mine here, but Lewis argues that male and female are distinctions of gender, but NOT of value. The value of one sex over another is not a Godly idea, but a product of flawed humanity. We (the humans) have perpetuated stereotypes and oppressive states. Notice that Lewis’s King and Queen do not have sexual organs, which is usually the basic physical distinction between male and female. But Lewis claims that gender is much deeper than our reproductive roles; it is a fundamental and necessary difference which illustrates the beauty of versatility of both genders. By design, males and females have different strengths and weaknesses which are complementary to one another. Even in Lewis’s tale, the Mars and Venus stand side by side. Mars, the leader and protector, stands erect with his spear, while Venus, nurturing and accepting, holds out her hand to Ransom.
That Hideous Strength
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Contrast our image of Venus’s open palm to the metaphorical closed fist of a resentful and neglected modern woman. This is where we begin in Lewis’s final installment That Hideous Strength. The book opens with Jane Studdock, wife of scholar Mark Studdock, talking to herself about the purposes of marriage: “Matrimony was ordained, thirdly…for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other”. Jane, a promising scholar in her own right, is upset because her marriage is not exactly what she had expected. Her husband, who wishes to climb the social ladder, is off to another college meeting and has left his bride alone again. Jane admits that her experience has not been one of “mutual society” but rather of empty flats and ticking clocks and disappointment:
In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement. For some years before their marriage she had never seen so little of Mark as she had done in the last six months. Even when he was at home he hardly ever talked. He was always either sleepy or intellectually preoccupied. While they had been friends, and later when they were lovers, life itself had seemed too short for all they had to say to each other. But now…why had he married her? Was he still in love? If so “Being in love” must mean totally different things to men and women (13)
But just as immediately, Lewis is quick to introduce a young, ambitious husband seeking professional accolades, even if he must sacrifice Truth. Mark Studdock pours all of his time into his job, not necessarily to “provide” for his wife, but to serve his own selfish needs of academic advancement. He joins N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments) to please his superiors and ends up entering a “fog” of social and political uncertainty by writing propaganda under curious circumstances. Ultimately, he is simply a tool for their exploitation, a cog in their vehicle of gluttonous power and usurpation.
Here both the husband and wife are in the wrong. It is important to note here that Mark’s neglect of his wife is the source of her resentment. Many of Lewis’s critics wish to paint Lewis as some sort of misogynistic reactionary who preferred women to vacate the classroom and reenter the kitchen. But what Lewis is actually illustrating is how Mark’s gross neglect of his family and thus abandonment of his spiritual leadership has sown seeds of discord. Of course, Jane could have easily controlled her anger and developed lines of communication with Mark, and therefore her response to Mark’s absence is also unhealthy to the marriage.
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It is Jane’s horrible (prophetic) vision of The Head that prompts her to seek out Mrs. Ironwood in nearby St. Anne’s. While waiting to see Mrs. Ironwood, Jane peruses the book shelves and randomly plucks one off. She opens it and is immediately drawn to this passage:
The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god. To desire the desiring of her own beauty is the obedience of Lilith, but to desire the enjoying of her own beauty is the obedience of Eve, and to both it is the lover that the beloved tastes her own delightfulness. As obedience is the stairway of pleasure, so humility is the… [Jane’s reading is interrupted] (62-63)
Jane is unsure if she can trust the visions, although Mrs. Ironwood tells that her gift is vision is hereditary. Jane wishes to reveal all of this to Mark, and yet something stops her. He seemed so busy with his work and preoccupied with his professional goals:
Men hated women who had things wrong with them, specially queer, unusual things. Her resolution was easily kept for Mark, full of his own story, asked her no questions…She knew he often had rather grandiose ideas, and from something in his face she divined that during his absence he had been drinking much more than he usually did. and so, all evening, the male bird displayed his plumage and the female played her part and asked questions and laughed and feigned more interest than she felt. Both were young, and if neither loved very much, each was still anxious to be admired. (89)
**Side note: Lewis discusses this concept of males birds displaying plumage in his essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought” in Present Concerns).
Later, Jane is propositioned to join a group operated by a “Mr. Fisher-King”. Jane is reluctant, but becomes enraged when they tell her that she must obtain her husband’s permission to join since the head was “old-fashioned”. How ridiculous – these men who wish to use her skills as a seer or her hands to cook meals and wash dishes – all for their own benefit while paying her no mind. Jane sees these men as “complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children of bartering them like cattle…she was very angry” (117). Eventually, Jane will join the group, headed by none other than the “Director” Dr. Elwin Ransom. He is now the king of Pendragon and the heir of King Arthur.
In the discussion that follows, Ransom asks if Jane had secured permission to join. Exasperated, Jane replies, “Don’t send me back. I am all alone at home, with terrible dreams. It isn’t as if Mark and I saw much of one another at the best of times. I am so unhappy. He won’t care whether I come here or not. He’d only laugh at it all if he knew. Is it fair that my whole life should be spoiled just because he’s got mixed up with some horrible people? You don’t think a woman is to have no life of her own just because she’s married?” (146). Ransom asks if she is unhappy now to which, after some contemplation, she truthfully responds, “No.” As Ransom is about to send Jane away, she remarks that they “look” on marriage differently, but Ransom states that the important perspective on marriage lies in “how my Masters look on it”. Jane accidentally admits that she doesn’t love Mark anymore. Embarrassed, she worries that she has definitely ruined her chances of joining the group. “I suppose it would depend on how he lost your love”, remarks Ransom. He finally tells her, “You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience”. Thus follows the conversation:
“I thought love meant equality,” she said, “and free companionship.”
“Ah, Equality!” said the Director. “We must talk of that some other time. Yes, we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are fallen. Just as we must all wear clothes for the same reason. But the naked body should be there underneath the clothes, ripening for the day when we shall need them no longer. Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.”
“I always thought that was just what it was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”
“You were mistaken,” said he gravely. “That is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes, that is all very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food. You might as well try to warm yourself with a blue book”
“But surely marriage…?”
“Worse and worse,” said the Director. “Courtship knows nothing of it; nor does fruition. What has free companionship to do with that? Those who are enjoying something, or suffering something together, are companions…”
“I thought,” said Jane and stopped.
“I see,” said the Director. “It is not your fault. They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience – humility – is an erotic necessity. You are putting equality just where it ought not to be. As to your coming here, that may admit of some doubt.”
….”But you see that obedience and rule are more like a dance than a drill – specially between man and woman where the roles are always changing.”
**An important note on Lewis’s concept of “Equality” to avoid confusion:
As mentioned in an essay titled “Equality” in the collection Present Concerns, the term “equality” represents a resemblance, not an assessment of value. Therefore, we are not all “equal” because we all exhibit fundamental differences. Equality is often used in political associations to underscore the importance of avoiding discrimination. However, for Lewis, “equal” means “same”. Consider this illustration: Person A is poor at drawing but an excellent cook. Person B is a promising artist but a culinary failure. By law and before God, these two individuals are “equal”, however, are they similar? Person A cannot help that he/she is a good cook, no matter if the skill was developed through hard work and/or talent. Person B appears to have much talent in the arts, but cannot cook well. There is no doubt that with determination and effort, Person A can improve his/her artistic skill, just as Person B can take cooking classes and practice. However, in their present state, the two individuals are fundamentally different, and therefore “not equal” or “not the same”. As illustrated by the King and Queen in Perelandra, man and woman are fundamentally different, but that does not make one “better” than the other. The qualifier of “better” or “lesser” is humanity’s perversion of God’s design. We will discuss more on Lewis’s views of women in general (including his opposition to feminism) in the final post in this series.
Jane leaves the Manor and admits to feeling confused, like “four” different Janes. The first three wrestled with the message of the Director. Is he simply spewing masculine rhetoric to reassert his dominance and secure her subordination? While the three Janes seemed conflicted, the fourth and strongest one was filled with Joy. Just then, Jane is captured by N.I.C.E. officials and interrogated. She eventually escapes and returns to the Manor where Mother Dimble claims that the Director is “a very wise man. But he is a man, after all, and an unmarried man at that. Some of what he says, or what the Masters say, about marriage does seem to me to be a lot of fuss about something so simple and natural that it oughtn’t to need saying at all” (168).
Jane’s next dream involves Mark, which frightens Jane and the party at the Manor. Meanwhile, Mark is shocked to learn that Jane has been questioned. He leaves to head home and is stopped by the incorrigible Ms. Hardcastle, where more trouble ensues as the book reaches its climax.
I urge you all to read the book, so I won’t give away too much more. However, I will tell you that, in the end, Mark returns to St. Anne’s, to the marriage bed that Jane has prepared for him. As he travels, he fears that he has doomed his marriage:
But then, certain moments of unforgettable failure in their short married life rose in his imagination. he had thought often enough of what he called Jane’s “moods”. This time at last he thought of his own clumsy importunity. and the thought would not go away. Inch by inch, all the lout and clown and clod-hopper in him was revealed to his own reluctant inspection; the coarse, male boor with horny hands and hobnailed shoes and beefsteak jaw, not rushing in – for that can be carried off – but blundering, sauntering, stumping in where great lovers, knights and poets, would have feared to tread. An image of Jane’s skin, so smooth, so white (or so he ow imagined it) that a child’s kiss miht make a mark on it, floated before him. How had he dared? Her driven snow, her music, her sacrosanctity, the very style of all her movement.. how had he dared? And dared too with no sense of daring, nonchalantly, in careless stupidity! The very thoughts that crossed her face from moment to moment, all of them beyond his reach, made (had he but had the wit to see it) a hedge about her which such as he could never have had the temerity to pass. Yes, yes – of course, it was she who had allowed him to pass it: perhaps in luckless, misunderstanding pity. And he had taken blackguardly advantage of that noble error in her judgment; had behaved as if here native to that fenced garden and even its natural possessor. All this, which should have been uneasy joy, was torment to him, for it came too late. He was discovering the hedge after he had plucked the rose, and not only plucked it but torn it all to pieces and crumpled it with hot, thumb-like, greedy fingers. How had he dared? And who that understood could forgive him? He knew now what he must look like in the eyes of her friends and equals. Seeing that picture, he grew hot to the forehead, alone there in the mist. The word Lady had made not par to his vocabulary save as a pure form or else in mockery. He had laughed too soon. Well, he would release her. She would be glad to be rid of him. Rightly glad. It would now almost have shocked him to believe otherwise. Ladies in some noble and spacious room, discoursing in cool ladyhood together, either with exquisite gravity or with silver laughter – how should they not be glad when the intruder had gone? – the loud-voiced or tongue-tied creature, all boots and hands. whose true place was in the stable. What should he do in such a room – where his v very admiration could only be an insult, his best attempts to be either grave or gay could only reveal unbridgeable misunderstanding? What he had called her coldness seemed now to be her patience. Whereof the memory scalded. For he loved her now. But it was all spoiled; too late to mend matters.
This long passage illustrates Mark’s sincere regret for neglecting his family. Jane returns home and begins to clean up. Both have experienced significant shifts in perspective and now realize that marriage requires the work of BOTH INDIVIDUALS to succeed. Both spouses must be open and forgiving. Mark and Jane can now heal their relationship and continue on with renewed enthusiasm.
Here Lewis presents us with two very different portrayals of women: one is a new “Eve” and the other is a reformed, educated modern woman. Neither of these women is demonized in the stories, nor are they the only characters who “learn a lesson”. Lewis is careful to craft a story that reveals the true affliction as one that infects all of humankind, that does not discriminate by gender. The Green Lady and Jane Studdock are protagonists who do not surrender to impending evil; in contrast, they represent and fight for good. The Green Lady revels in the beauty which comes from obedience to Maleldil, and Jane is the character who possesses vision. She can detect what her husband cannot.
Lewis presents very complex, and still yet benevolent, women in the space trilogy. A thorough read of the texts show that Lewis was far from misogynistic. Rather, he shows that the traps of evil are obstacles for both men and women. This is a more holistic view, and one which, I feel, greatly strengthens the argument for women in his other fictional works (Narnia included).
Next week, we will end our literary analysis with Til We Have Faces. Lewis considered it one of his best works of fiction. This book is critical in examining and dismantling the assertion that “Lewis hated women”. It is a pivotal text and denying its exploration will greatly impoverish my argument. Join me, will you?