From the Ransom Trilogy to Narnia...
In the Ransom Trilogy, then, Lewis attempts to produce a particular experience of transcendence in three ways: firstly, using Ransom as a protagonist, he takes the reader on a journey into a cosmos designed around Dantean principles in Out of the Silent Planet; then, again with Ransom as the protagonist, he lifts the reader to heights reminiscent of Dante’s Paradise using the reasoning of theology and the power of aesthetics in a fantasy setting in Perelandra or Voyage to Venus. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis tries to bring that visionary universal order down into the reality of the reader by using a split protagonist and an initially modern and ironic setting. Ransom has evolved into different archetype, the ‘wise old man’ who knows the shape of the story and directs the action.
Whether or not Lewis was successful in each book is up to the reader, of course - Lewis apparently was dissatisfied with the ending of the third novel. However, successful or not, the trilogy did not exorcise the desire within him to generate fiction which produces the religious experience he had had through Dante’s work.
Christian apologetics provided another means of arguing the reader into a position where he or she might duplicate the experience. Here, though, we are limiting our review to Lewis’s fiction, and so we must next move on to the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s extremely successful venture into the realm of children’s literature.
A psychological study would no doubt find enough material in his life to assume that Lewis, in endeavouring to convey the Dantean shift, now consciously moved towards a younger and more naive audience, one more susceptible to ‘propaganda’. Less cynical reviewers might conclude that Lewis was right to look towards children as those most open to the experience of wonder which he was engaged in imparting. We are not interested here in the mental processes but rather in the results.
In the last book of the Ransom Trilogy, Heaven and Hell meet face to face on Earth in a battle that uses imagery of the tower of Babel. Belbury, the enemy’s stronghold, has become a darkened version of Noah’s Ark, collecting animal species together for experimentation and eventual extermination - Merlin, as the agent of the gods, liberates the creatures from their captivity and they are permitted a semblance of revenge upon their human tormentors. Lewis had a soft spot for animals: his childhood fantasy of Boxen was a precursor of the much more fully developed world of Narnia. Here at the end of the trilogy it is almost as though the beasts are released to roam wild in Lewis’s imagination, ready to be rounded up by Aslan.
At the close of the battle, Perelandra, acting as a ‘mini-Eden’ stays on for a while. Ransom transcends to another world, having completed his task. Mark and Jane, the two ‘halves’ of the novel’s protagonist, re-unite to become husband and wife as they were meant to be and the birds and beasts find love as well: Mr. Bultitude the bear finds a female companion. The Dimbles leave together; Ivy is reunited with her husband. In The Divine Comedy, Dante writes:
At this point power failed high fantasy
But, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,
I felt my will and my desire impelled
By the Love that moves the sun and other stars.
The problem with That Hideous Strength, if there is a problem, is that it is supposed to be set in ‘our’ world, the realistic world of the Twentieth Century when it was written. Try as he might, Lewis could not bring down the Heavens with such convincing force when the world into which he brings them is that of the reader. Though he attempted to convince the reader that Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra were ‘real’ stories disguised as fiction, explicitly in the first book and by placing himself as a narrator in the second, in the third novel, having the gods descend into a real world setting perhaps proves too much for the supposedly modern framework of the novel to bear.
What he needed was a way of bypassing that issue altogether. How could he convincingly portray a Dantean universe and have it impinge upon readers with sufficient power to produce the spiritual transformation he was after? Two things would be needed: firstly, a world where such a thing as a descent of godly forces would be compelling and incontrovertible; secondly, an audience whose minds were still open to such a transformation. The first would mean creating a somehow separate world, not linked to our own by any usual means, historical or spatial. The second would mean lowering his gaze - not in terms of quality or condescension, but simply to perceive a group of readers whose ability to suspend disbelief was instinctive and even nascent.
Being a part of the Oxford intellectual group the Inklings meant that he had direct experience and access to other stories that were being composed at the time including, famously, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Middle-earth was a sub-created world removed from our own and yet sufficiently resembling it to remain sympathetic to readers; he had also successfully ‘targeted’ younger readers in its prequel, The Hobbit. Middle-earth, though, was supposed to be our own world in a remote past - would that be enough of a ‘gap’ for Lewis to try out a new version of his experiment? He could, one supposes, have set a story in mediaeval times when the Dantean cosmos was believed in - Lewis was an authority on that period and could have done so convincingly, it is assumed. But perhaps a younger audience would not have ‘swallowed’ such a world as easily as one which was almost entirely discrete from ours - or perhaps Lewis did not want to mirror Tolkien’s work so closely. Whatever the reason, we ended up with a universe removed from ours, as Uncle Andrew describes in The Magician’s Nephew:
I don't mean another planet, you know; they're part of our world and you could get to them if you went far enough - but a really Other World - another Nature another universe - somewhere you would never reach even if you travelled through the space of this universe for ever and ever - a world that could be reached only by Magic…
Setting fiction in our own world, or a recognisable facsimile of it, Lewis had had to begin his experiment with the Earth and then move outward to the ever-larger spheres of the Middle Ages and a remote and distant God before trying to make the whole thing ‘flip’ so that God was at the centre. In doing so, he was battling against the whole Ironic vectors of the culture around him. In The Discarded Image, Lewis, who has already invited his readers to go outside and look at the night sky twice before, lays the case out explicitly:
I can hardly hope that I shall persuade the reader to yet a third experimental walk by starlight… Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out-like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is ' outside the city wall'. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within ; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life. And, looking in, we do not see, like Meredith's Lucifer, 'the army of unalterable law', but rather the revelry of insatiable love. We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched. For in them the highest of faculties is always exercised without impediment on the noblest object ; without satiety, since they can never completely make His perfection their own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him in the fullest measure of which their nature is capable.
Even in this later description, the passion of Lewis’s language belies his fascination with this exact subject. But what if he were able to make a world in which the above principles were active, where the ‘the revelry of insatiable love’ was part and parcel of reality? It would be a world very like that inhabited by children at play - and indeed, the Mediaevals had their own simpler images to try to capture some of the essence of it:
You need not wonder that one old picture represents the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile as a girl dancing and playing with her sphere as with a ball. Then, laying aside whatever Theology or Atheology you held before, run your mind up heaven by heaven to Him who is really the centre, to your senses the circumference, of all; the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to whom all these moths move yet are not burned.
This Christian view of the cosmos is one which obviously delights Lewis, and which can, poetically at least, delight us. But for Lewis its true power lay in its metaphor: that the universe, seen one way, with goodness and anything that is desirable being remote and distant, can suddenly ‘turn’ and become orientated completely differently, centred on the objects of desire, revolving around them perpetually satisfied in the way Lewis describes above.
With Narnia, Lewis found a new way of producing that ‘turn’, as we shall see.