C. S. Lewis’s ‘Voyage to Venus’ Opening Chapter -A Case Study
Voyage to Venus or Perelandra as it was originally called, provides in its opening chapter a perfect example of an author progressing from an accepted and ordinary reality that might be shared with readers to an encounter with the supernatural which would undoubtedly be outside most people’s experience. In this way, the reader is drawn into the novel and moved from an Ironic framework into the genre of Epic. Lewis does this with such skill that, like most fiction from great writers, we barely notice the progression. Exactly what he is doing, on a technical level, is explained further in the book How Stories Really Work, but here you can get an outline of how Lewis is ‘magnetising our attention’ without the need to refer to that book.
Chapter One begins with the author inserting himself as the first person narrator of a story in which he makes no appearance beyond the first chapter. Purposefully, we begin with the narrator’s very ordinary walk from a railway station to visit his friend Dr. Elwin Ransom. Informed readers will know that Ransom has visited the planet Mars (or Malacandra) in the earlier book in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, but new readers require no knowledge of that back-story to be affected by Lewis’s techniques:
As I left the railway station at Worchester and set out on the three-mile walk to Ransom's cottage, I reflected that no one on that platform could possibly guess the truth about the man I was going to visit. The flat heath which spread out before me (for the village lies all behind and to the north of the station) looked an ordinary heath. The gloomy five-o'clock sky was such as you might see on any autumn afternoon. The few houses and the clumps of red or yellowish trees were in no way remarkable.
Our attention is directed to very normal, earthly things before Lewis gives us a quick summary of Ransom’s earlier adventure:
Who could imagine that a little farther on in that quiet landscape I should meet and shake by the hand a man who had lived and eaten and drunk in a world forty million miles distant from London, who had seen this Earth from where it looks like a mere point of green fire, and who had spoken face to face with a creature whose life began before our own planet was inhabitable?
What Lewis then does is present that contrast -the void between the ordinary things we know and the utterly incredible things that we have no experience of, including meetings with the beings called ‘eldils’, the equivalent of angels in the story- in degrees of increasing psychological realism as Lewis-as-narrator heads down the road towards Ransom’s cottage:
At present I was going to see Ransom in answer to a wire which had said 'Come down Thursday if possible. Business.' I guessed what sort of business he meant, and that was why I kept on telling myself that it would be perfectly delightful to spend a night with Ransom and also kept on feeling that I was not enjoying the prospect as much as I ought to. It was the eldila that were my trouble. I could just get used to the fact that Ransom had been to Mars ... but to have met an eldil, to have spoken with something whose life appeared to be practically unending.
The chapter is composed of a rhythmic switching between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary in the narrator’s mind (and therefore for the reader):
As I plodded along the empty, unfenced road which runs across the middle of Worchester Common I tried to dispel my growing sense of malaise by analysing it. What, after all, was I afraid of? The moment I had put this question I regretted it. I was shocked to find that I had mentally used the word 'afraid'. Up till then I had tried to pretend that I was feeling only distaste, or embarrassment, or even boredom. But the mere word afraid had let the cat out of the bag. I realised now that my emotion was neither more, nor less, nor other, than fear.
Lewis-as-narrator then outlines his fear and in doing so explicitly brings together the ‘normal’ world of the reader and the ‘supernatural’ world into which he is attempting to draw him or her:
The truth was that all I heard about them served to connect two things which one's mind tends to keep separate, and that connecting gave one a sort of shock. We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label 'normal' and 'supernatural' respectively. We think, in one mood, of Mr. Wells' Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by ' the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like. But the very moment we are compelled to recognise a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether. These things were not animals-to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified. To that extent they belonged to the first group. The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realised how great a comfort it had been-how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context.
This important philosophic conection, large and perhaps ponderous for an ordinary reader, is immediately undercut by a reference to something very down-to-earth:
'This is a long, dreary road,' I thought to myself. 'Thank goodness I haven't anything to carry.' And then, with a start of realisation, I remembered that I ought to be carrying a pack, containing my things for the night. I swore to myself. I must have left the thing in the train. Will you believe me when I say that my immediate impulse was to turn back to the station and 'do something about it'? Of course there was nothing to be done which could not equally well be done by ringing up from the cottage. That train, with my pack in it, must by this time be miles away.
Lewis-as-narrator persuades himself to go on, but it ‘was such hard work that I felt as if I were walking against a headwind; but in fact it was one of those still, dead evenings when no twig stirs, and beginning to be a little foggy.’ This is word- and sentence-level mastery: not only is our attention as readers drawn out of the internal debate in the narrator’s mind and placed on the apparently very real and commonplace environment through which the narrator is moving, but the choice of words - ‘still’, ‘dead’, ‘stirs’, ‘foggy’ - continues to resonate with the fear that Lewis-as-writer has managed to conjure.
Lewis-as-narrator becomes so anxious in pondering the eldils and all that they connect with in his mind, that he verges on the edge of a breakdown, or at least on the point of fleeing the scene:
How if my friend were the unwitting bridge, the Trojan Horse, whereby some possible invader were effecting its landing on Tellus?, And then once more, just as when I had discovered that I had to pack, the impulse to go no farther returned to me. "Go back, go back," it whispered to me, "send him a wire, tell him you were ill, say you'll come some other time-anything."
Lewis-as-narrator reasons himself into returning home and avoiding the visit altogether:
My only sensible course was to turn back at once and get safe home, before I lost my memory or became hysterical, and to put myself in the hands of a doctor. It was sheer madness to go on.
As readers we may be following this reasoning, but Lewis-as-writer at that point ensures that he still has a grip on us by again referring to the external scenery:
I was now coming to the end of the heath and going down a small hill, with a copse on my left and some apparently deserted industrial buildings on my right. At the bottom the evening mist was partly thick.
This rhythmic referral to the commonplace and external is never coincidental in the hands of a great writer. It serves both to anchor the reader’s attention and to highlight the contrast with the uncommon.
Quickening the pace, Lewis-as-writer switches straight away back to the conflict in Lewis-as-narrator’s mind:
They call it a Breakdown at first. Wasn't there some mental disease in which quite ordinary objects looked to the patient unbelievably ominous?…looked, in fact, just as that abandoned factory looks to me now? Great bulbous shapes of cement, strange brickwork bogeys, glowered at me over dry scrubby grass pock-marked with grey pools and intersected with the remains of a light railway.
Lewis persuades himself to continue towards Ransom’s cottage, but the switching back and forth between external, ordinary objects and internal, psychological horror is swifter now:
I was past the dead factory now, down in the fog, where it was very cold. Then came a moment-the first one-of absolute terror and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from screaming. It was only a cat that had run across the road, but I found myself completely unnerved. "Soon you will really be screaming," said my inner tormentor, "running round and round, screaming, and you won't be able to stop it."
This increases until, in Lewis-as-narrator’s mind and in ours as readers, the outer and the inner world are explicitly conflated:
We have all known times when inanimate objects seemed to have almost a facial expression, and it was the expression of this bit of road which I did not like. "It's not true," said my mind, "that people who are really going mad never think they're going mad." Suppose that real insanity had chosen this place in which to begin? In that case, of course, the black enmity of those dripping trees-their horrible expectancy-would be a hallucination.
Such is the terror painted for us in words that Lewis-as-writer and Lewis-as-narrator merge in order to get the reader through to the door of the cottage. This isn’t an accident: Lewis is using a technique here, combining forces to create a more powerful drive which will literally pull the reader through:
I have naturally no wish to enlarge on this phase of my story. The state of mind I was in was one which I look back on with humiliation. I would have passed it over if I did not think that some account of it was necessary for a full understanding of what follows-and, perhaps, of some other things as well. At all events, I can't really describe how I reached the front door of the cottage. Somehow or other, despite the loathing and dismay that pulled me back and a sort of invisible wall of resistance that met me in the face, fighting for each step, and almost shrieking as a harmless spray of the hedge touched my face, I managed to get through the gate and up the little path. And there I was, drumming on the door and wringing the handle and shouting to him to let me in as if my life depended on it.
All this has served to create in us, the readers, a vacuum: an emptiness, a mystery, an unknown, which craves to be filled, to be solved. As Lewis the narrator fumbles with a match to see what he has stumbled on in Ransom’s cottage, so we as readers are desperate for light to be cast on the scene. In a masterstroke, the one flash of light from the narrator’s flickering match reveals a coffin-shaped object on the floor.
This isn’t a horror story, however. Lewis the writer doesn’t want our hole in knowledge to be filled only with dark thoughts -just, for the moment, an unutterable strangeness. Instead of dwelling too much on the image of the coffin, our attention is immediately directed to the thing which Lewis-as-narrator has been keen to avoid, but we as readers (from the safety of our own armchairs) have been keen to meet: an eldil.
It was perfectly articulate: it was even, I suppose, rather beautiful. But it was, if you understand me, inorganic. We feel the difference between animal voices (including those of the human animal) and all other noises pretty clearly, I fancy, though it is hard to define. Blood and lungs and the warm, moist cavity of the mouth are somehow indicated in every Voice. Here they were not. The two syllables sounded more as if they were played on an instrument than as if they were spoken: and yet they did not sound mechanical either. A machine is something we make out of natural materials, this was more as if rock or crystal or light had spoken of itself. And it went through me from chest to groin like the thrill that goes through you when you think you have lost your hold while climbing a cliff.
Lewis-as-narrator struggles to put the experience into words, but gives us just enough for some kind of vicarious experience to be shared. Deftly, Lewis-as-writer then shifts our attention onto another kind of vacuum, a moral vacuum:
I felt sure that the creature was what we call 'good', but I wasn't sure whether I liked 'goodness' so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?
Our attention as readers has been gripped so thoroughly that we, just like Lewis-as-narrator, have been ‘drawn in’ to the story:
Oddly enough my very sense of helplessness saved me and steadied me. For now I was quite obviously 'drawn in'. The struggle was over. The next decision did not lie with me.
Now we are ready to meet the story’s real protagonist, and this is the exact point at which Ransom makes his entrance. In this way, Lewis shifts us from the empty horror of an Irony, with no solutions and the ordered world subverted (‘suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?’) into the providential world of an Epic. We discover early in the next chapter that what seemed purely psychological terrors in Lewis-as-narrator’s mind were actually externally-sourced thoughts, planted there by dark forces.
We have moved out of the realms of Irony and into a wholly different genre, guided all the way by a master author.