The Silent Planet
Out of the Silent Planet was Lewis’s first attempt to use the tool of a novel to try to convey to an audience something of his ‘almost-felt, wholly imagined’ transition from the ordinary world to one centred upon the divine. By using the contemporary device of a space journey, in the popularly accepted sub-genre of science fiction, Lewis thought he could pretend to take readers outside the orbit of the Moon and show them, ‘first-hand’, what it might be like. By making this use of a science fiction novel an explicit piece of apparatus in the story itself, ‘concocted’ by a ‘real’ Ransom and Lewis the author as a means of warning readers about the ‘truth’, we see how this was positioned for Lewis himself: it was a serious matter. He would try any literary mechanism to try to bring about some kind of realisation in an audience that what he was talking about was ‘true’ in an objective sense. Soon, he would use children’s literature to attempt the same thing, but for now, he had two sequels to write.
Before we can appreciate the second in the trilogy, though, it would help to clarify exactly what Lewis felt he was moving from, and towards. What exactly was happening culturally around Lewis that urged him to make his Dantean argument so passionately?
There are four basic genres in fiction - Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy - and each of these is paralleled in cultural terms. In other words, it is possible in examining any piece of literature, to spot certain shapes, sequences and traits which identify what sort of story it is; and it is possible to see the same kind of shapes, sequences and traits in societies over periods of time in terms of cultural trends, motifs or expectations.
‘Genre’ as a word can be misleading: category, classification, categorisation, grouping, set, type, sort, or kind could probably also be used successfully. But what we are talking about is fairly simple and falls into four broad sets:
• The set of expectations involving a somewhat-sane protagonist who moves through a relatively ordered world to confront and ultimately triumph over an antagonist. Most stories fall into this grouping.
• The set of expectations involving a more and more insane protagonist, gradually ruined by his or her character flaws, who moves through a relatively ordered world but who, due to a growing internal imbalance, fails to triumph. This is the set of stories called ‘Tragedies’. Shakespeare’s Tragedies are the obvious examples.
• The set of expectations involving a more-or-less insane or overwhelmed protagonist who moves through a disordered world, ending up defeated and isolated. This is the set of stories called 'Ironies'. This category includes horror stories and much of modern literature, including the detective tale.
• The set of expectations involving a somewhat-sane or recovering protagonist who moves through a disordered world to ultimately join or re-join an ordered society. This is the set of stories called ‘Comedies'. Comedy as a genre can be seen to include ‘Romance’ stories, involving a woman gradually falling in love with a stranger, and Comedies often end in marriage.
Stories to some extent mirror the cultures which give rise to them, and we can see that there are four broad types of human culture which track with these genres:
• cultures centred around the firmly-held notion of a providentially-ordered world
• cultures that are increasingly internally imbalanced and tipping towards disorder
• cultures where the prevalent paradigm is that of a disordered world, one in which human individuals end up defeated and isolated, at least psychologically
• cultures which are recovering and ultimately becoming more ordered.
Of course there are overlaps, frictions, areas and periods in which these things are less distinct, but it is pretty plain that in the early Twentieth Century what we term the ‘Western world’ was entering an Ironic phase in cultural terms. Particularly after the First World War, which Lewis had experienced first-hand, the social conventions and niceties of the preceding century were being decimated; ideas of Providence or any kind of divine participation in human affairs, already declining, were soon in freefall.
Human individuals were often left isolated and introverted: the breakdown of traditional religions put faith on the back foot; the collapse of social order threatened any belief in hierarchical structures; psycho-analysis had taught that even the supposedly rational mind could be subverted by unknown forces. This environment gave rise to modernist movements such as Dadaism, absurd theatre and the poetry and literature of the West, which was concerned with doom and gloom and the existential meaninglessness of the world. As Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Second Coming’ said
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
An attempt at an impossible complete objectivity, an effort to achieve the suppression of all explicit moral judgements are commonplace themes in art during Ironic periods; anything that might be interpreted as assertive, any kind of moralising, even any attempt to call attention to the fact that something is ironic, is eliminated. The purpose of art during Ironic times is to ‘tell it like it is’, to strip away anything that might be coloured in any way by fantasy or even hope. Ironic art, including literature, usually lets the reader decide on outcomes. It is intensely introverted and psychological.
Protagonists in ironic stories do not necessarily have any distinct tragic hamartia or clear flaw: they are simply isolated from society by who they are. Whereas in Epics or Comedies there is a strong element of ‘luck’ (seen in Epics as Providence) which works in favour of the protagonist, in Ironies there is an intentional misalignment: arbitrary things happen, and there is nothing that can be done. A protagonist is selected at random, no more deserving of what happens to him than anyone else; any reason given for being the central character or ‘hero’ is inadequate and raises more questions than it answers. In fact, almost all questions in an Irony are unanswered and unresolved.
When this pattern, clearly visible in art, begins to be mirrored in the paradigm of the culture itself, then the culture can be said to be Ironic.
Victims or scapegoats abound in Ironic fiction and in Ironic cultures: they are innocent in the sense that what happens to them is disproportionate to anything they may have done; they are guilty in that they are part of a guilty world where such terrible things happen unjustly and irrevocably.
Northrop Frye describes this in terms of archetypes as far as cultural images are concerned:
The archetype of the inevitably ironic is Adam, human nature under sentence of death. At the other pole is the incongruous irony of human life, in which all attempts to transfer guilt to a victim give that victim something of the dignity of innocence. The archetype of the incongruously ironic is Christ, the perfectly innocent victim excluded from human society. Halfway between is the central figure of tragedy, who is human and yet of a heroic size which often has in it the suggestion of divinity. His archetype is Prometheus, the immortal titan rejected by the gods for befriending men.
For Lewis, his childhood Protestantism was not strong enough to hold out against this cultural tide. The loss of his mother, his school life and his early years at Oxford, his experiences in the First World War, some described in detail in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, led to his abandonment of Christianity for a while. He had been caught up by the swathe of materialist philosophies which the early part of the Twentieth Century strengthened and embellished. Literature offered him a transitory glimpse of something else, something much more spiritual. His early encounter with Dante projected the possibility that there was another reality, a different kind of universe, outside, above, beyond or even within the one in which he existed.
We would see how he would triumphantly make use of the tools at his disposal to make that projection as real as he could in the fiction that he was yet to produce.
For more, see my book How Stories Really Work.