In listening to the podcast The Tolkien Professor I came across their wrap-up of Mythcon 45, the annual gathering of the Mythopoeic Society, an organization dedicated to the writings of the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams) and in fantasy literature in general. I’ve never attended, though it’s something that has always been on my radar.
But apparently there was a presentation by the scholar Brenton Dickieson, who presented a paper about a deleted section to C.S. Lewis’ preface of The Screwtape Letters. By deleted, I don’t mean literally gone forever, but was never published and ended up tucked away in some C.S. Lewis archive somewhere. According to Dickieson, the gist of the deleted preface offered a framing meta-narrative to The Screwtape Letters that I found immediately intriguing, in which Lewis states that the demonic letters are a document that was translated by Ransom from the language of Old Solar.
Though I am a dedicated reader of the fellow inkling Tolkien, I have not even as much picked up a book by C.S. Lewis. But I thought who the hell is Ransom? and what is Old Solar? On further googling, I discovered Ranson is the main protagonist in Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Old Solar is one of the languages that is spoken by some of the non-terrestrial creatures he encounters. So, somewhere in the back of Lewis’ mind, The Screwtape Letters comes out from the world of his Space Trilogy adventure. This bit of meta-narrative inter-textual chicanery made me think Lewis knew how to engage in some postmodern fun.
So, why did this grab my attention? I’m a sucker for novels pawned off as translations of lost and/or discovered manuscripts. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco introduced me to the concept when I was a young teenager, unaware it was a trope employed often, but once I discovered that other authors have been playing with the concept for ages, I found it a fun and imaginative way to frame fictional realities. I’m not sure why it appeals to me, it just simply does.
So in avoiding him my entire life, I finally wanted to read a bit of C.S. Lewis to see how some of this connects up, if at all. To being I started with Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in the Space Trilogy.
Ransom is an academic who is on a walking tour through the English countryside and comes across a mysterious house filled with some unpleasant characters. The novel starts off with a strong pastoral gothic tone, with Ransom helping a young man escape, but is taken prisoner himself by a mad scientist of sorts along with his accomplice. After awakening, he soon discovers he is actually now on a spaceship with his captors, on the way to the red planet called Malacandra, leaving the gothic tone behind and heading out into the heavenly darkness of space.
After arriving on the Malacandrian terrain, Ranson escapes and finds himself among a land filled with alien beings, strange flora, and disorienting landscapes. Eventually he finds shelter among a race of beings called the hross. Over time he learns enough language to get by and starts to find his way among this new life, as much as one could in such a situation. Eventually he is called to visit a super being called Oyarsa, who is some sort of god-like creature, but isn’t a god exactly. Leaving the hross behind, Ransom encounters other races on his eventual encounter with Oyarsa and ultimately facing his original captors.
Though the Space Trilogy is usually categorized as science fiction, the story sits a little outside of the usual genre boundaries of the time period. It is more of a planetary romance filled with philosophical musings and literary conceits, and even though it is an important part of the Martian literary tradition, it certainly is not a Golden Age work typical of the American pulp scene. If one is to put a label on it, I would have to borrow the name of the British publication from the 1950s/60s of Science Fantasy.
I liked Ransom’s endeavor of trying to understand the Malacandrian languages and attempting to translate them into English. This concern with translation is a common enough trope in science fiction, but in Lewis’ case, it seems to underscore his interest in philology and linguistics while attempting to put a frame around the Other, whether ineffable or alien. Trying to take an experience and pin it down into words that never do justice to the experience is Ransom’s ultimate struggle.
Dr. Ransom – and at this stage it will become obvious that that is not his real name – soon abandoned the idea of his Malacandrain dictionary and indeed all idea of communicating his story to the world. He was ill for several months, and when he recovered he found himself in considerable doubt as to whether what he remembered had really occurred. It looked very like a delusion produced by his illness, and most of his apparent adventures could, he saw, be explained psychoanalytically. He did not lean very heavily on this fact himself, for he had long since observed that a good many “real” things in the fauna and flora of our own world could be accounted for in the same way if you started with the assumption that they were illusions. But he felt that if he himself half doubted his own story the rest of the world would disbelieve it completely. He decided to hold his tongue, and there the matter would have rested but for a very curious coincidence.
The “curious coincidence” that brings Ransom’s story to public light is that he happens to meet C.S. Lewis and decides to divulge his story to the don, and in so doing Lewis decides to share it with the rest of the world. With Lewis turning out to be a character in the novel who we learn has been narrating the story from the beginning is a nice playful touch that I didn’t expect. Which this meta-fictional masking brings me back to the beginning of my post and the deleted preface, in which The Screwtape Letters was one of Ranson’s translation projects that Lewis also eventually brought to light. The literary implications of this should keep a good handful of Lewis scholars busy for a while and just goes to show there is always a way to bring fresh eyes to a seemingly tired topic.
As the first in the trilogy and as Lewis’ first novel, Out of the Silent Planet was engaging enough, but I don’t find myself needing to read the rest of the series anytime soon. I expect I’ll get around to it eventually, but the novel is a fairly self-contained story that satisfies a taste for Lewis' fantasies for now. It’s philosophical and thoughtful moments were engaging and it will be interesting to see how they play out in the rest of the series. But, instead of moving on to the next in the trilogy, I much prefer to move on to Lewis’ most popular works, The Screwtape Letters.