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C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier

C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier: Science and the Supernatural in the Space Trilogy. Sanford Schwartz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xvi + 224 pp. $27.95. ISBN 978-0195374728. (The index on pp. 199-224 was not in the advance review copy.)

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher


[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 109/110.]

Schwartz’s book is the fifth book-length study of Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy written by an individual, the others being:

  • Martha C. Sammons, A Guide through C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (1980)
  • Walter Hooper, War in Deep Heaven: The Space Trilogy of C. S. Lewis (1987)
  • David C. Downing, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (1992)
  • Jared Lobdell, The Scientifiction Novels of C. S. Lewis: Space and Time in the Ransom Stories (2004)

By general agreement, Downing’s is the best of these. Schwartz matches it in value, but his approach is very different. Since the index is missing from the review copy, Scwartz’s use of his forerunners is difficult to check; but so far as this reviewer noticed he does not refer to them in his main text except for a pro forma acknowledgement of three of them at the first of the book, saying he draws heavily on them (6). Downing is cited at least a couple of times in the endnotes (194.n33, 196.n39). (Schwartz does not cite Hooper’s book in the early reference, but that may be because Hooper incorporated his material into his C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide [1996].)

Schwartz is interested in two things, mainly—a type of structural analysis explained in Mary Douglas’s Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (2007), and a discussion of the basic intellectual ideas Lewis is opposing in his three books.

The structural approach looks at first like the standard five-step Freytag’s Pyramid for plot analysis (used first for the five-act tragedies and then more broadly):

A.            Exposition
B.             Rising Action
C.            Turning Point (or Crisis)
D.            Falling Action
E.             Resolution

(This is a simplification of what Freytag actually explained, but this is the form often used in schools.) Freytag’s pyramid has been applied by critics to Out of the Silent Planet and to Perelandra, but here is what Schwartz is doing with OSP (with his terms from p. 23):

A.            Abduction on Earth (Chs. 1-2)
B.             Voyager to Mars (hero captive) (Chs. 3-6)
C.            Flight from sorns (Chs. 7-9)
D.            Boat to hrossa (Ch. 10)
E.             Residence with hrossa (cp. Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms) (Chs. 11-12)
D.            Boat from hrossa (Ch. 13)
C.            Journey to sorns (Chs. 14-16)
B.             Meeting Oyarsa (villains captive) (Chs. 17-20)
A.            Voyage home (Chs. 21-22)

He uses a diagram, but this list with the reversal of letters suggests the parallels in structure that he is proposing. His diagrams and one-page discussions for Perelandra and That Hideous Strength have seven sections each, not nine as OSP does (56, 83). All three diagrams are interesting—and Schwartz may be right that Lewis planned these structures. (Since the planetary influences were discovered in the Narnia books, who knows what cleverness Lewis may have been up to?)

Two more comments about the structures. First, a basic difference between the Freytagian plot analysis and that above is that the turning point (crisis) surely occurs when Ransom accepts his duty to go to Oyarsa at the end of Chapter 13. Schwartz’s structural analysis has a central plateau of two chapters, not a point of a pyramid—and the two in this case do not contain the turning point. But Schwartz, in his “Conclusion,” has a discussion of the crises for Lewis’s protagonists, and locates each crisis in the chapter following the book’s central plateau (117-123). Thus, although he is concerned with a different type of structural analysis, he sees the significance of the protagonist’s psychological/ spiritual shift in the meaning of each book. Second, although Schwartz does not mention it, the great example of the type of structure he is discussing appears in Homer’s Iliad. (See the elaborate diagram in Cedric H. Whitman’s Homer and the Heroic Tradition [1958].) No doubt to emphasize Homer as a model would be to distract from Schwartz’s emphasis on Lewis as involved in modern ideas—Whitman sees Homer’s structure as related to the geometric patterns of the Greek vases of Homer’s time—but the Lewisian critic needs a larger overview than Schwartz’s approach allows: which is not to say that Schwartz’s is invalid.

This brings up Schwartz’s other concern. He sums up his second topic this way: each book of the Ransom Trilogy “examines another facet of the seemingly impassable conflict between Christian tradition and the evolutionary or ‘developmental’ tendencies of modern thought” (6). In short, he rejects Lewis’s image of himself as a dinosaur and sees him as a man involved in the ideas of his period.

In OSP, in general, Schwartz sees the theme as a Darwinian “struggle for existence” vs. the Martians’ peaceful rationality. More specifically, Schwartz considers Devine and Weston as “an exposé of European imperialism and the ideological apparatus employed to legitimate it” (22). That is, Devine is the colonizer seeking profits; Weston shows the belief in racial superiority. Weston’s attitude toward Harry (the retarded boy) may link him to the Nazis and certainly links him to the “eugenics” movement of the early twentieth century. Ransom’s fears (on the spaceship and afterwards) reflect the confusion of the humane in the time of a “ruthlessly belligerent enemy” (32). Thus, in several ways Schwartz is reading OSP as a depiction of its time.

Literarily, Schwartz—not very surprisingly—sees the book as answering H.G. Wells and as using Jonathan Swift. These come in the references to Wells during the space trip to Mars and in Ransom’s fears upon seeing the Sorns and in the general allusion to Swift in the parallel to Gulliver with the Houyhnhnms (as on his structural chart). Schwartz does not point to the obvious parallel—hross is Old Norse for horse, and the Houyhnhnms are rational horses. Also, he does not discuss the dialogue with the Oyarsa in terms of Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag and of Cavor and the Grand Lunar. (The latter pair is referred to on p. 25.)

Schwartz discusses at length the hnakra hunt, finding a dangerous hunt, in which the hunter may lose his life, to be in contrast with the three intelligent races of Mars living in peace: “The main difficulty is that the unfallen rational hrossa are engaged in a form of violence that cannot be dismissed as the consequence of an unnatural rupture of creation’s original order” (39). Next, Schwarz considers Ransom’s tendency to think that one Martian species must rule the others (perhaps another example of Darwinian “survival of the fittest”—or, rather, a rule of the fittest). Schwarz’s discussion of the rationality of the three species and its implications is carried out without reference to Lewis’s belief in Natural Law (the Tao)—probably—again—because it would threaten his emphasis on Lewis as involved in modern thought. Schwartz’s tying of Ransom’s “The animal I am is called Man” with Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (43, italics added) is clever—a way of saying “This thinking animal is Man.” But it could equally be a statement of mankind hubris, since “I Am” is God’s name (to Moses): “This God-animal (or this animal who claims to be God) is Man.”

In the meeting with Oyarsa, “Weston’s old-fashioned colonialism mutates into a cosmic version of modern racism that echoes the most militant forms of fascism” (46-7). (Oddly, Schwartz does not mention Weston’s statement “it is enough for me that there is a Beyond,” which is an echo of the end of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, Shaw’s play about Lamarckian evolution. Either Schwartz is deliberately avoiding points that have been made by other scholars or the Shavian reference complicates his treatment of the survival of the fittest in connection with OSP.) And Schwartz sees a pun in Ransom upon his return to earth asking for “a pint of bitter” (49).

The discussion of Schwartz’s treatment of the other two books will be brief, since the above discussion indicates his general approach. The chapter on Perelandra is the best in the book. Schwartz sees Perelandra as embodying Lewis’s response to Henri Bergson’s philosophy. He traces the development of Bergson’s thought through four books (46-51). In something of a digression—but an important one—Schwartz points to a section of Creative Evolution that influenced Lewis’s thought about nothingness and so undermined his youthful pessimism, as Lewis indicates in Surprised by Joy (without being certain where in Bergson’s writings he found the argument) (53-54).

Weston is at first (before he becomes completely the Un-man) a convert to a “self-serving vulgarization” of creative evolution (73), not at the level of the sophisticated version of Bergson nor the popular version of Shaw; what Lewis does is put this intellectual conflict over evolution within the context of a world which is continually in the process of change, of development. Schwartz gives many examples of this changing world—e.g., the prohibition against living on the Fixed Land, which implicitly is a denial of a static life, of security; the fairly new appearance of Tor and Tinidril on their world; passages in the Hymn of Praise (before the Great Dance) such as “Never did he make two things the same […]. After earths, not better earths but beasts […]” (qtd. 84). In other words, Lewis’s version of an unfallen Garden of Eden is not static. Lewis is presenting a Christianized version of Bergson’s belief in development. Schwartz finds the Christian understanding of “the singularity, sanctity, and divine indwelling within each moment of the creative process” (85) indebted to the Christian Neoplatonism of Nicholas of Cusa—thus Schwartz is making Lewis only half modern in this combination of Neoplatonism and continuous development.

That Hideous Strength has its ties to the evolutionary emphases of the other books. In part, N.I.C.E. wants to move beyond the physical into a human-controlled (or “macrobe”-controlled) next step. Filostrato looks forward to the time when men “reproduce [them]selves without copulation” (qtd. 112). Again, “Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.” Perhaps the keeping alive of Alcasan’s head belongs here, although that is described by Straik more as an attempt to create God. More clearly tied to the earlier emphases on evolution (“Wellsianity” as Lewis said elsewhere) is the satiric sketch of H.G. Wells as Horace Jules, the nominal director of N.I.C.E.

But a reader will find the evolutionary emphasis a minor one in THS. Schwartz spends much of his space summarizing the actions in the book, with extensive connections in the endnotes to twentieth-century movements having resemblances to the actions. The most interesting discussion in Schwartz’s chapter, however, has little to do with these matters. He treats the St. Anne’s material as that of the romance, and the N.I.C.E. material (eventually) as that of its parody, the Gothic. His discussion of the Gothic connections are the best this reviewer remembers. Consider this partial list of the Gothic conventions in THS, for example:

[T]he pervasive atmosphere of “terror,” “dread,” and “horror” (the terms occur frequently); nightmares that record actual events otherwise unknown to the dreamer; imprisonment and persecution in the “haunted castle,” the domain of oppressive authority; the interest in the relations between love and power, and the attendant problems of marriage, family, and inheritance in a changing but intractably patriarchal society; the creation of a “monster”—”that hideous strength”—associated with lust for the kind of knowledge that confers mastery over life itself; and the ancient crypt that marks the ever present threat of a “return of the repressed”—the power of the past to haunt or invade the world of the living. (93-4)

This reviewer would quibble with one item on the list as it is phrased, but the general idea is certainly there.

Schwartz has an appendix on “The Dark Tower,” in which he discusses the controversy about the work (he uses only the first edition of Lindskoog’s book, so he misses her final position); summarizes most of the action; analyzes the varied ideas about the two time tracks; and makes occasional references to cultural background. He ends with a number of questions a completed work would have had to answer.

As basically a study in ideas—how do Lewis’s ideas tie to the modern age?—this book is valuable. The style is very academic. Both Christian readers and literary readers will find the book slightly off the focus of their main concerns, but still of interest. The progressing Eden of Perelandra should intrigue the first; the structural analyses and the discussion of Gothicism, the second. But the cultural historians will find a bonanza.


Works Cited

  • Douglas, Mary Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.
  • Whitman, Cedric H. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

[See also Ryder W. Miller's review of this same work from Mythprint #334.]


C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier: Science and the Supernatural in the Space Trilogy. Sanford Schwartz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xvi + 224 pp. $27.95. ISBN 978-0195374728. (The index on pp. 199-224 was not in the advance review copy.)

Buy Online