Book Review: C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

I’ve gone back and forth with myself about whether to review the books in The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis (sometimes called the Ransom Trilogy after the main character) all together or separately. But I think I’ll review them together since there are comments I want to make about the series as a whole, despite the fact that this post may end up somewhat lengthy.

In the first book, Out of the Silent Plant, Professor Ransom is on a walking tour in the English countryside when he runs into an old classmate named Devine. Shortly thereafter he finds himself drugged, kidnapped, and waking up in a moving space ship with Devine and his partner, Weston. In bits and pieces of overheard conversation, he learns that they are intending to hand him over to some creatures known as sorn on a planet called Malacandra, evidently, they all think, for some kind of sacrifice. So naturally at the first possible opportunity on the planet, he runs away, even though he has no idea where to go or how to survive and thinks he will most likely never make it back to Earth.

This foreign planet is nothing like what he thought it would be. He eventually sees another creature that he thinks is a beast until he hears it speak. They begin to communicate by gesture at first and then gradually Ransom, whose specialty is languages, learns that this being is a hross, one of three species, sorn being another and the third, pfifltriggi (I do wonder how Lewis came up with that one), each with different characteristics and talents. These are, at least, the thinking, speaking, reasoning species: there are others who are more animalistic, and then the eldila are invisible except when they appear as light, something like what we would think of as angels. Ransom at first thinks of the planets inhabitants as primitive but soon finds they know and do much more than he would have thought, even having an understanding of astronomy. They call earth Thulcandra, the silent planet, because the Oyarsa (which seems something like an archangel) from that planet is “bent” (their closest term for “bad”) and no longer communicates with the others. When they hear that Ransom’s companions are bent ones, they tell him he needs to see the Oyarsa of Malecandra. As he learns more of their theology, he begins to recognize some elements, though the words describing them are different.

Finally tragedy leads him to seek the Oyarsa and find out why he was sent for in the first place.

In Perelandra, Lewis himself is a character, as he was also at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom’s friend, colleague, confidante, and the narrator of the story. Ransom and the Oyarsa of Malacandra have kept in contact and Ransom has been asked to go to Perelandra. He is not told why but is willing to help. He discovers a water-based world, meets one green woman who understands the “Old Solar” language he learned on Malacandra, learns that her mate is on the world somewhere and they are the only humanoid inhabitants.  He realizes this world has not yet been touched by sin. But an Unman has arrived to introduce it into this world and Ransom has almost more than he can do to keep what happened to our world from happening to theirs. There is quite a lot of very interesting philosophizing (to put it mildly) between Ransom, the Unman, and the woman. I don’t agree with the way Ransom finally had to deal with the Unman, for reasons which I can’t explain without giving away the plot, but going over that section a second time I did understand better the reasoning for it within the storyline.

That Hideous Strength almost seems unrelated to the series at first, but eventually Ransom and the Oyarsa come into play and we see how the events of the first two books lead to what is going in in this one. This story centers on a young married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a Senior Fellow in sociology at Bracton College in the University of Edgestow, and his penchant for wanting to be included in the inner circle makes him susceptible to being duped and drawn into a dangerous situation which he is blind to. The N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) has come to town: indeed, it is taking over the town under promises of help and improvements. Several of Bracton’s professors are in its employ and they invite Mark into their fold, which he is all too eager to accept. Jane has been having very troubling dreams which prove to be of great interest to a couple of friends in whom she confides. They invite her into an inner circle of their own, on the opposite side of N.I.C.E. Jane is more wary, though, and resists until circumstances compel her to seek their aid and protection. Jane finds that she has not been dreaming per se but seeing visions of actual events.

Thus Mark and Jane end up going different directions, without really communicating to each other about them, and end up on opposite sides in a coming war against good and evil. And another, a greater one, is also being vied for by the two different forces.

These books are sometimes classified as science fiction, but the emphasis is more on the story than the science. I don’t know how much was known about space travel in Lewis’s time, but he was clearly writing an imaginative and speculative story rather than a scientific treatise. Yet the story showcases great theological truth and philosophy.

If you’ve read much of Lewis you may have learned that he felt that the old Greek, Roman, and Norse myths wove together with Christianity, maybe a pre-Christian manifestation (he says in Perelandra, “Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was – gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility. His cheeks burned on behalf of our race when he looked on the true Mars and Venus and remembered the follies that have been talked of them on Earth.”)  I don’t think I’d agree with him on that point, but it’s quite interesting how he ties all those elements together here, along with Arthurian legend and the Pendragon, especially in the last book.

I listened to these via audiobooks, and though I enjoy audiobooks and thought this would be a good venue since I had read these books before, it turned out to be a poor choice. The same narrator for all three books had sort of a droning voice which made it hard to listen to and easy to drift from except in the most exciting parts of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most important parts of the philosophizing got lost in the shuffle. But that may have happened no matter what the voice: I think these books’ most valuable sections need to be read and reread and pondered over, which audiobooks don’t allow for (unless one wants to keep hitting ‘rewind.”) I ended up getting the books from the library and looking up certain parts, and reading them was a whole different experience from listening to them. I’d definitely recommend reading these.

Lewis is a master at language, at characterization, and at creating fantasy worlds. At first I would have said this series is not as charming as Narnia, but it does have its own charm, especially in the first two books and felt when Ransom longs to go back to the worlds he has visited.

But Lewis is first and foremost a thinker, and all of these books ponder great truths on the nature of man, the wiles of the evil one, and God’s grace. He also touches on feminism, love, childbirth, false intellectualism, false spirituality (much of that in Perelandra sounds very much like New Ageism of our day), emergent evolution, and much more. These are not cozy bedside fairy tales, especially the last two: these are best read with minds fully engaged.

I can’t close without sharing a couple of favorite quotes. I have more marked in Perelandra than the other two, so I’ll share a few from it.

This first one I loved not for any philosophy behind it but just for the humorous reaction in a conversation between two beings who are new to each other, the Green Lady and Ransom (whom she calls Piebald, for reasons you’ll discover in the book): “And why, O Piebald, are you making little hills and valleys in your forehead and why do you give a little lift of your shoulders? Are these signs of something in your world?”

From one Oyarsa to another about Ransom: “Look on him, beloved, and love him. He is but breathing dust and a careless touch would unmake him. And in his best thoughts there are such things mingled as, if we thought them, our light would perish. But he is in the body of Maleldil [God] and his sins are forgiven.”

When Ransom, before the Oyarsa, realizing the enormity of what he has done to rid the planet of evil, falls to the ground, he is told, “Be comforted. It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! it is beneath your head and carries you.”

Speaking of parts of worlds that God created for His own glory and no man has seen or experienced: “Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come.”

David C. Downing has well-written reviews of these books on the C. S. Lewis blog: Out of the Silent Planet: Cosmic Voyage as Spiritual PilgrimagePerelandra: Re-awakening the Spiritual Imagination, and That Hideous Strength: Marriage, Merlin, and Mayhem. He also has what looks like quite an interesting book himself in which Lewis and Tolkien are characters — I might put that on my Christmas wishlist.

Have you read any of the Space Trilogy books? What did you think?

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

12 thoughts on “Book Review: C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

  1. These are some of my favorite books and definitely require effort. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts… I reread them a couple of years ago and won’t be ready again for awhile, but your post gives me pleasant memories and reminds me of how rich they are.

  2. It has been a long time since I’ve read these books. I do remember them being, as Janet said, stories which require more effort to read than Narnia. Truthfully, I was confused by much. I have thought many times I ought to go back and give them another go. Loved reading your review and thoughts.

  3. I read some of these (maybe? It’s been so long I can’t remember which and whether it was more than one) so long ago that all I remember is being in over my head. 😉. Reading your thoughts makes me think I might want to try them again!

  4. My husband and I read the trilogy aloud to each other-though it has been several years, the bent hrossa still stick with me, a testament to Lewis’ ability to help us see ourselves clearly. I just stumbled upon your blog this evening. You are a voracious reader! Wow.

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