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