Floating Islands

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Of This and Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper
    Collins, 192 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 00 215608 3
  • George Orwell: A Personal Memoir by T.R. Fyvel
    Weidenfeld, 221 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 297 78012 3

The ‘other worlds’ of the title here given to a gathering of miscellaneous pieces by C.S. Lewis are presumably Malcandra and Perelandra – Mars and Venus as they are revealed to Lewis’s space-traveller, Elwin Ransom – and also perhaps the spiritual world as set against the natural. In the USA, however, the same collection has been published under the title On Stories. This is equally valid, since what Walter Hooper has usefully brought together is a score of essays and reviews in which Lewis outlines his theory of fiction and affords commentaries both on his own individual romances and on related depictions of imaginary regions and societies as varied as The Wind in the Willows, Nineteen Eight-Four and The Lord of the Rings. Two pieces, an admirable discussion of the novels of Charles Williams and a slightly odd ‘Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers’, are printed for the first time. Near the conclusion of the essay on Williams, he expresses himself as ‘horribly afraid’ that he may have given the impression that Wiliams was a moralist, and in several places he shows himself as anxious to obviate a related misconception about himself. In writing fiction he has never started off with any didactic intention, and much less any eristic impulse, but always simply from a picture or pictures swimming up in his mind – he doesn’t know from where. ‘All my seven Narnian books,’ he says of his stories for children, ‘began with seeing pictures in my head. At first there was not a story, just pictures. The Lion [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.’ And similarly with his three ‘science fiction books’ for adults. ‘The starting-point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then of course the story about an averted fall developed.’

What does one do with floating islands when one has belatedly discovered that one is rewriting Genesis? Lewis finds no difficulty. Maleldil has decreed that Perelandra’s primal pair must always sleep on such an island, never on fixed land: an injunction immensely significant and wholly arbitrary. ‘Fixed land’ is to be the equivalent of the crude apple that diverted Eve. But this time, thanks to Ransom’s flying in from Thulcandra, there is no transgression. Satan has possessed himself of the body of an atheistic scientist, Weston, in order to prosecute his temptation of the Lady. Happily, Ransom manages to bash in the face of this equivocal being with a stone and hurl him into a lake of fire. So all is well on Perelandra.

Even when handling a theme as momentous as this, it seems, Lewis can rely predominantly upon his visual imagination:

In a certain sense, I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together. Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all that) a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story, without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing, have to contrive reasons why these characters should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way of writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first.

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