C.S. Lewis Finds Irish Catholics In Outer Space
Well, according to C.S. Lewis’ “space trilogy” — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength — there are.
Indeed, in Out of the Silent Planet, we learn that Earth is unique not for having intelligent life but because it is the battleground — “the Ypres Salient” — of the universe. Earth is where Satan rebelled, where Satan is bound and where God fights him.
In Out of the Silent Planet, Professor Ransom, a philologist (based on J.R.R. Tolkien) is taken hostage by an ambitious, progressive, social-Darwinist physicist named Weston — a man so advanced in his field that he is able to create (secretly) the first interplanetary spacecraft (in the 1930s). Financing Weston's explorations of Mars (or Malacandra, as it is known to the natives) is an amoral main-chancer named Devine. For Mars is rich with gold.
Mars’ leader has requested an Earthman be brought to him. As Weston and Devine assume he wants a human for a blood sacrifice or some other primitive barbarity, they try to bring a retarded boy with them. And when that fails, they bring Ransom.
On Mars, Ransom escapes and is befriended by mammalian creatures (with heads somewhat like seals) known as hrossa. The hrossa practice traditional Christian — that is, Catholic — sexual morality. They are naturally monogamous and continent, limiting intercourse to a certain period of their lives, specifically for the purpose of raising a family of cubs.
Ransom learns to love the hrossa, but one might also reasonably suspect that Lewis, as an Ulsterman, has them in mind as Catholics for another reason. A sorn —the intellectual class of ascetic nonflying bird-men — tells him, “The hrossa know nothing except about poems and fish and making things grow out of the ground.”
The hrossa, in other words, are rather southernIrish: balladeers, fishermen, potato farmers.
When the hrossa send Ransom on a short, dangerous trail rather than on a safer longer one, the sorn comments: “If you had died ... they would have made a poem about the gallant hmân[human] and how the sky grew black and the cold stars shone and he journeyed on and journeyed on; and they would have put in a fine speech for you to say as you were dying ... and all this would seem to them just as good as if they had used a little fore-thought and saved your life by sending you the easier way round.”
In other words, take an Ulsterman for practicality; take a southern Irishman for poetry, especially of a sad, heroic kind.
Morality cannot be separated from or made subordinate to science. Morality is reality — the reality of the divine order in action.
But to an hrossa Catholic or a sorn conservative Church of Englander or Irelander, the divine nature of the universe and of life is a universally understood truth. As such, all Martians are well aware — they can see and hear — the angels (known as eldila) that hover everywhere on the planet. And Mars is ruled by a sort of archangel.
This is the divine constitution; the way things were meant to be. It is because Earth lacks it — and we lack it because our archangel rebelled against God — that we suffer from war, prostitution, slavery and sin. As one sorn notes, “There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau[thinking beings] and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil [God]. These creatures have no eldila.They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair — or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it — like a female trying to beget young on herself.”
It would not surprise Ransom — or Lewis — that this last impossibility is something that science has as an objective (and has, to practical purposes, achieved). Because this is one of the lessons of Out of the Silent Planet: morality cannot be separated from or made subordinate to science. Morality is reality — the reality of the divine order in action.
Without that understanding, science becomes evil.
Written as it was just before the outbreak of World War II, Out of the Silent Planetdraws some sobering and profound conclusions. Perhaps they are less obvious now to many people because progress and science no longer travel beneath the steel of the national socialists. But this is another trend that Lewis expected.
Personally, I do not gravitate to science fiction or fantasy literature — learning new interplanetary bestiaries taxes my very earthbound patience — but if you want science fiction for a mature mind, try Out of the Silent Planet.
It offers plenty to think about and is done with real art. Perhaps in later columns we might touch on Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, for they have their important lessons, too.
H.W. Crocker III is the author most recently of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History. His prize-winning comic novel The Old Limey and his book Robert E.
Lee on Leadership are available in paperback.
- July 6-12, 2003