The 3 Temptations of Perelandra’s Eve and Mary’s Immaculate Conception

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

Martino Altomonte, “The Immaculate Conception,” 1719
Martino Altomonte, “The Immaculate Conception,” 1719 (photo: Public Domain)

The week before the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2018, my late husband Mark (he died Jan. 16, 2019) and I read C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra together—I read it aloud while he listened and interjected comments and questions. This was my first complete reading of Perelandra and we thought the timing of our reading about the temptation of another Eve on Lewis’ Venus was appropriate. Lewis explores images and ideas of a world without the Fall. Perelandra’s Adam and Eve were united in fulfilling the Father’s will just as Mary was at the Annunciation because of her Immaculate Conception.

            A tempter—like the serpent in the Garden of Eden—has come to Perelandra, however, to tempt Perelandra’s Eve, the Green Lady.

The three temptations of Perelandra’s Eve demonstrate great psychological insight into human weakness, even in an unfallen world. As Ransom keeps saying, “This can’t go on” (pp. 109, 114 and 119); the tempter may have found the way to weaken the Lady’s bond to Maleldil as she continues to listen to him. (All quotations of Perelandra are from the trade paperback edition published by Scribner in 2003.)


The First Temptation: Disobey to Obey

Ransom knows there will be trouble as soon as Weston arrives on Perelandra. Weston was one of the men who kidnapped him to take him to Malacandra as a sacrificial offering in Out of the Silent Planet. Ransom remembers Weston’s extreme views on human survival at the expense of any other inhabitants on that planet. He soon finds out that Weston’s rationale may have changed but he still wants to destroy the paradise of Perelandra.

Weston, or someone speaking through Weston, begins to work on corrupting the Green Lady, an innocent human in mystical communication with Maleldil, the Son of the Father. Only one thing—like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden—is forbidden the Lady and her companion, the King (from whom she has been separated by the floating islands). They must not remain overnight on the Fixed Land. Weston or the Un-man as Ransom calls him tries various methods to get the Lady to break that rule.

Weston suggests that it’s not really that important a rule since Maleldil doesn’t impose it on other planets; he tells her that she can demonstrate greater obedience to Maleldil’s desires for her becoming older (wiser) by disobeying this one command; he encourages her to think about being able to stay on the Fixed Land as a preparation for doing it. She calls this imagining things that cannot happen useless, but Weston starts urging her to “become more like the women of my world” (91) by “becoming your own” (99).

This first temptation does not seem to be working for Weston, but he has piqued the Lady’s interest about what the women of his world are like and about fulfilling Maleldil’s will for her attaining wisdom. Ransom’s greatest difficulty in these long periods of conversation between Weston and the Lady is that he needs to sleep more than they do. He tries to blunt Weston’s attacks on the Lady’s innocence by keeping her focused on remaining loyal to Maleldil and the King, but he isn’t always there to hear the whole conversation.


The Second Temptation: The Greatness of Women

Ransom does sleep for a very long time, exhausted by the interminable sessions of argument and counter-argument. Weston also torments Ransom by constantly repeating his name and then replying “Nothing” when Ransom answers him.

When he wakes he finds the tempter has started on a new line of attack. Instead of using arguments against the command of Maleldil, Weston is telling the Lady stories:

They were all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quite different circumstances ... The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal — they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, happily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often with tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. (107)

As Ransom hears the stories, told one after another, he realizes they are conveying “an image [rather] than an idea” (108)—a method more appropriate to persuading the Green Lady to disobey Maleldil. Just as the Un-man had urged her to imagine staying on the Fixed Land before, now he gives her an image of the woman she could be if she did stay on the Fixed Land.

The stories are affecting the Green Lady as Ransom sees her expression changing, becoming more like a modern woman on Earth, even like an actress portraying a tragic, heroic queen onstage.      The Un-man keeps it up as Ransom grows more and more weary, trying to protect the wildlife of Perelandra, which the Un-man tortures and mutilates (when they are not with the Lady) and attempting to thwart his aim to corrupt her. But the stories are changing the Lady:

Though the Lady had no word for Duty he had made it appear to her in the light of a Duty that she should continue to fondle the idea of disobedience, and convinced her that it would be a cowardice if she repulsed him. The idea of the Great Deed, of the Great Risk, of a kind of martyrdom, were presented to her every day, varied in a thousand forms. (112)

Then Ransom falls asleep again, waking up to find that Weston has changed tactics once more.


The Third Temptation: The Mirror

He finds the Lady and Weston dressed in clothing made from feathers. Ransom is horrified because he knows that many birds have been plucked alive or killed to create these garments, although the Lady has accepted Weston’s claim that he found the shed feathers.

There is an exchange about whether or not the Lady is more beautiful with or without clothing and Ransom is rather relieved that this temptation is to vanity. Then Weston gives the Lady a mirror so she may judge for herself whether or not she is beautiful. Ransom knows “The world about him was big with change.” (116) The Lady is afraid of what she sees. While Weston tells her that her fear will go away, Ransom warns her that it will never go away if she does what Weston wants her to do. He wants her to become her own idol: to “walk alongside oneself as it one were a second person and to delight in one’s own beauty.” (117)

While the Lady throws the mirror away and does not seem to succumb to this temptation, Ransom knows that this episode of clothing and the mirror has had an effect on the Lady. When Weston offers to give her the mirror, he remarks that she really can’t keep it as long as she “would not live on the Fixed Land nor build a house nor in any way become mistress of [her] own days”; since she lives “from day to day, like the beasts” she can’t really keep anything. (118)

Nevertheless, Ransom perceives that:

the affair of the robes and the mirror had been only superficially concerned with what is commonly called female vanity. ... The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play. (118)          

While the Lady sleeps and Weston waits for her to awaken to continue his “Third Degree methods” (119), Ransom begins to understand his purpose on Perelandra. He must stop these temptations by eliminating the tempter and thus he and the Un-man engage in a great battle, one that wounds Ransom permanently.


“Not thus, but thus”

After he has defeated the Un-man, paid tribute to his fallen foe Edward Rolles Weston, and recovered from his ordeal, Ransom meets Malacandra (Mars), Perelandra (Venus), the King and the Queen. He witnesses the Great Dance and prepares to return to Earth. Before he leaves, Tinidril the Queen (the Green Lady) tells him how grateful she is for his defeat of “the Evil One” because under the Un-man’s influence she might have committed a great sin by staying on the Fixed Land:

“How could I wish to live there except because it was Fixed? And why should I desire the Fixed except to make sure — to be able on one day to command where I should be the next and what should happen to me? It was to reject the wave — to draw my hands out of Maleldil’s, to say to Him, ‘Not thus, but thus’ — to put in our own power what times should roll towards us ... as if you gathered fruits together today for tomorrow’s eating instead of taking what came. That would have been cold love and feeble trust. And out of it how could we ever have climbed back into love and trust again?” (179)

Tor the King also comments that Ransom came to Perelandra at the perfect time to save them from exchanging their ignorance of evil with the knowledge of evil by experience: “We have learned of evil, though not as the Evil One wished us to learn.” (179)

When he explained the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to his former Oxford Movement friend in his 1865 A Letter Addressed to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, D.D. on Occasion of his Eirenicon, Saint John Henry Newman described what would have happened if Eve had rejected the temptation of eating the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil as Tinidril had rejected the temptation of staying on the Fixed Land:

Suppose Eve had stood the trial, and not lost her first grace; and suppose she had eventually had children, those children from the first moment of their existence would, through divine bounty, have received the same privilege that she had ever had; that is, as she was taken from Adam's side, in a garment, so to say, of grace, so they in turn would have received what may be called an immaculate conception. They would have then been conceived in grace, as in fact they are conceived in sin.

But our Eve did not stand the trial; nor did Adam; their children were “conceived in sin.” And we would never have known how to climb back “into love and trust again” unless God the Father had sent His Son to be Incarnated in the womb of the Mother of God, prepared by her Immaculate Conception to be united to His Will.

The second volume of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy provides a creative meditation on Salvation History by imagining an alternative story of a world without a Fall, without Original Sin—but also without a Savior.

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!