'Voyage to Venus' and Transcendence
Of course, the opening chapter of Voyage to Venus, discussed earlier in this blog, is only that - the start of the adventure. Having drawn his readers into the framework of an Epic and out of the silent planet framework that they normally inhabit, Lewis sets off on the epic quest which is the basis of the novel.
As the novel proceeds, the protagonist Ransom journeys again to another world, but this time transported by the angels in a coffin-like vessel, a symbol of death in a Dantean world - a shifting from one world to the next, rather than an actual dying. Once there, Lewis, through Ransom, paints one of the better described worlds in all of science fiction:
At Ransom's waking something happened to him which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream. He opened his eyes and saw a strange heraldically coloured tree loaded with yellow fruits and silver leaves. Round the base of the indigo stem was coiled a small dragon covered with scales of red gold. He recognised the garden of the Hesperides at once. 'This is the most vivid dream I have ever had,' he thought.
Unlike his arrival in Malacandra, Ransom is not afraid but enchanted; he no longer has to overcome the mental habits of a modern man, but because of his past experiences, can occupy the heavenly world with relative ease. It is not until Chapter Seven, when the antagonist Weston makes his first appearance, that the nature of Ransom’s visit - and Lewis’s purpose - starts to become clear: having made the transition from Irony to Epic himself, Ransom must now defend that position against the onslaught of the twisted physicist Weston, who is progressively possessed by demonic forces and who has been sent to Perelandra to corrupt the otherwise completely innocent Green Lady, that world’s Eve.
The bulk of the novel then consists of Ransom’s attempt to out-argue the demonic visitor, to persuade the Queen of that world that she should not listen to Weston as he presents the case for an Ironic world. It is a battle that Ransom slowly begins to lose, as the possessed and increasingly degenerate Weston, a creature better described as the ‘Un-man’, is able to dodge and weave and exhaust Ransom over a period of time. But in terms of Lewis’s purpose and the portrayal of that great transition from the ordinary, mortal and silent world with which we are familiar as readers to the heavenly, immortal and fulfilled world which Lewis is attempting to reach, the moment of realisation occurs when Ransom sees that intellectual argument will not be enough:
His journey to Perelandra was not a moral exercise, nor a sham fight. If the issue lay in Maleldil's hands, Ransom and the Lady were those hands. The fate of a world really depended on how they behaved in the next few hours. The thing was irrefutably, nakedly real. They could, if they chose, decline to save the innocence of this new race, and if they declined its innocence would not be saved. It rested with no other creature in all time or all space. This he saw clearly, though as yet he had no inkling of what he could do.
What he comes to perceive is that the combat with his adversary must become mythological, rather than simply intellectual:
It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle ... the notion of a physical combat was only fit for a savage. If only it were as simple as that. . . but here the voluble self had made a fatal mistake. The habit of imaginative honesty was too deeply engrained in Ransom to let him toy for more than a second with the pretence that he feared bodily strife with the Un-man less than he feared anything else… Ransom decreed that whatever the Silence and the Darkness seemed to be saying about this, no such crude, materialistic struggle could possibly be what Maleldil really intended. Any suggestion to the contrary must be only his own morbid fancy. It would degrade the spiritual warfare to the condition of mere mythology…
Ransom has to step outside the sphere of mortal thinking again - he has to come to terms with the fact that a world centred on Truth, on a God who is absolutely real, must embrace that framework which human beings have come to see as mythic. In other words, arguing intellectually with the Devil is playing into the Devil’s hands by following the rules of the Silent Planet where he reigns supreme, an Ironic world in which such things as words carry all the weight; in the real world, beyond the orbit of the Moon, myths become solid.
Long since on Mars, and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial-was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on Earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance. In Perelandra it would have no meaning at all. Whatever happened here would be of such a nature that earth-men would call it mythological. All this he had thought before. Now he knew it. The Presence in the darkness, never before so formidable, was putting these truths into his hands, like terrible jewels.
Slowly, Ransom convinces himself that he must physically fight the Un-man, and, by killing the body that had once been Weston’s, thereby deprive the Devil of any foothold on the world of Perelandra. What follows is a battle across the face of that beautiful planet, and into its depths, a battle from which Ransom emerges victorious. Even with that conflict complete, though, Lewis isn’t finished in his efforts to take us to a reality in which things are orientated differently. In a triumphal final chapter, Lewis waxes poetical and takes the reader on a voyage into the upper reaches of mysticism:
And now, by a transition which he did not notice, it seemed that what had begun as speech was turned into sight, or into something that can be remembered only as if it were seeing. He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity-only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word 'seeing' is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells-peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilisations, arts, sciences, and the like - ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished.
Lewis strives here to reproduce for the modern reader a view of reality as seen from the heights to which Dante journeyed in Paradiso.
And by now the thing must have passed altogether out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure as the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such a quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awaking from trance, and coming to himself. With a gesture of relaxation he looked about him.
Our world is the trance; the encumbrances are those of our lives.
Voyage to Venus is framed so that Ransom’s journey to another world and return from it occurs in the beginning of the novel - Lewis as a narrator describes Ransom setting off in his coffin-vessel and returning about a year later, at which point he emerges and tells Lewis the tale which is the rest of the novel. Even this structure reveals Lewis’s desire for his readers to remain in Perelandra, to retain that view of things which we consider ‘mythological’ - but the book must close and Lewis must find another means to convey the great mental and spiritual transformation which he first experienced through Dante.
He does this in the final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength.
For more about Lewis, visit Tolkien and Lewis World here.