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.

It is not altogether easy to harmonise this and its suggestion of freewheeling fantasy with much that Lewis has to say about the character and purposes of his fiction. He hopes that he is encouraging ‘a better school of prose story in England ... story that can mediate imaginative life to the masses while not being contemptible to the few.’ In writing the Narnia books, he says: ‘I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood.’ He had hoped that his development of space fiction ‘might be a help to the evangelisation of England: any amount of theology can be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.’

It is, I think, irrelevant that what we learn of these purposes comes to us largely in letters to Sister Penelope of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, a lady with whom Lewis maintained an edifying correspondence over a number of years. He is equally clear about the basic religious and philosophic seriousness of his fairy-tales and romances when writing about them in the New York Times Book Review. He was well aware, too, of their frequently formidable polemical content. But he did see the apparent contradiction between a dedication to Christian apologetics and that declared wellspring of his writing in spontaneous concatenations of pictures and images: floating islands and fauns with umbrellas and parcels. His resolution of this difficulty consists in making a distinction between the Author and the Man. In the Author’s mind the pictures bubble up and he seeks a form for them: ‘verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not’. ‘He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar.’ So far, the Author has merely been concerned to delight himself and others. But meanwhile the Man (‘man, citizen, or Christian’) has been looking on, and now he sees that it is his duty to take a hand.

While the Author is in this state [the jam-pouring state] the Man will of course have to criticise the proposed book from quite a different point of view. He will ask how the gratification of this impulse will fit in with all the other things he wants, and ought to do or be. Perhaps the whole thing is too frivolous and trivial (from the Man’s point of view, not the Author’s) to justify the time and pains it would involve. Perhaps it would be un-edifying when it was done. Or else perhaps (at this point the Author cheers up) it looks like being ‘good’, not in a merely literary sense, but ‘good’ all around.

This is the Renaissance doctrine of docere et delectare (or the fusion of the dolce and the utile) upon which Lewis touches without much enthusiasm in his English Literature in the 16th Century, and here it does not in itself greatly help us to understand why he wrote what he did – and particularly, perhaps, what he wrote with such immense success for children. He feels perplexed about it himself. ‘I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy-tale, but a fairy-tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write – or burst. Partly, I think, that this form permits, or compels, you to leave out things I wanted to leave out ... As these [fairy-tale] images sorted themselves into events (i. e. became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology.’ These rather negative considerations certainly take us some way towards understanding his choice, as does one small but odd confession: ‘I have long since discovered my own private phobia: the thing I can’t bear in literature, the thing which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, is the representation of anything like a quasi love affair between two children. It embarrasses and nauseates me.’ More important is the status of the fairy story as a kind. It is necessary, Lewis insists, to dissipate the notion that it is essentially a children’s affair and to be outgrown. Fairy stories have simply become unfashionable in literary circles, and have gravitated to the nursery, just as did unfashionable furniture in Victorian houses. To believe that we must scrap them for something else as we become adult is to muddle the distinction between change and growth. A train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. A tree grows because it adds rings. I may like hock but I still like lemon squash. (A coruscation of bizarre and sometimes sophistical analogies of this sort is a pleasure we are never far from in Lewis’s suasive prose.)

From all this one returns to the Science Fiction trilogy, by which – The Screwtape Letters apart – Lewis is best-known to adult readers. And here I cannot persuade myself that the ‘pictures first’ persuasion stands up well. In Perelandra the floating islands may have come to him, as his official biographers suggest, ‘subconsciously’ from a quite recent novel by Olaf Stapledon. Or their origin, as I myself prefer to believe, may be in a notable place in Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico, perhaps recalled through a fleeting reference in Herbert Read’s The Green Child. (This philosophic fantasy, published eight years before Perelandra and three years before Out of the Silent Plant, has marked kinship with the space fictions, and it is perhaps noteworthy that Lewis’s Perelandran Lady shares her coloration with Read’s troglodytic girl.) The derivation makes no matter. What appears virtually certain is that Perelandra didn’t start with the Artist having fun with his islands and the Man then nosing in. There was a war on with atheistic science, with the dangerously seductive art of H. G. Wells, with the ‘depraved’ intellect of J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane in particular was for some years Lewis’s most dangerous enemy, and indeed drove him into some tight spots. Thus, when he declared Lewis’s characters to be ‘like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left’, Lewis could only reply: ‘In my romances the “good” characters are in fact rewarded. That is because I consider a happy ending appropriate to the light, holiday kind of fiction I was attempting.’ This was disingenuous: the perfectly respectable explanation is that Lewis was fabricating his own small divine comedies, in which, at some level, a happy ending has to be. Eve’s culpa was ordained as felix from the start.

In Perelandra Ransom, when himself in a tight spot, reflects that the scientists are riding high, since theirs is ‘the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions’. But before this you only have to keep your head – as Ransom himself manages to do. ‘Part of him still knew that the size of a thing is its least important characteristic, that the material universe derived from the comparing and mythopoeic power within him that very majesty before which he was now asked to abase himself.’ Lewis will not abase himself. He is for the war: planned war. In Out of the Silent Planet he attacks the monstrous immorality of proposing to preserve the human species by exterminating an answering species on Mars. In Perelandra the whole new cosmos of science is subsumed within the veridical Christian myth, and what we have been taught to think of as the void horror of interplanetary space is revealed as heaven and the abode of angels. But That Hideous Strength is quite a different kind of book.

In the essay on Charles Williams Lewis distinguishes as the essential characteristic of his stories a constant mixing of ‘the Probable and the Marvellous’. ‘The writer is saying something like: “Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.” ’ The formula of sup-posals, Lewis notes, is of course no novelty, and we know that he has already exploited it a good deal himself. But in That Hideous Strength he seems deliberately to go much further on Williams’s road. The space-traveller Ransom turns up, but the action is centred on our own planet. The celebrated opening, in which an ‘inner ring’ of devious dons is exhibited manipulating the governing body of a college, might almost have been written by C.P. Snow, but before we are through, Merlin has returned from the dead (or something like the dead) and marvels are tumbling about our ears. It is as if Brave New World had got mixed up with Lewis’s most extended conception of fairy story.

That Hideous Strength is at times curiously akin in feeling to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which in fact it preceded by four years, and it is perhaps significant that Orwell is the only novelist not broadly in Lewis’s own tradition to receive substantial notice in Father Hooper’s collection. Lewis expresses admiration for Animal Farm, but Nineteen Eight-Four he doesn’t like at all. It is, for a start, too long. (This is true – but equally true, it seems to me, of That Hideous Strength, even in the abridged paperback version prepared by the author for popular consumption.) Nineteen Eighty-Four rakes in a great deal of sex in episodes so irrelevant to the master-theme of totalitarian repression that Lewis – with, for him, an extremely rare stooping to the snide – suspects simply a ‘flavouring without which no book can now be sold’. Moreover, the ‘hero and heroine’ are ‘surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them’.

These censures are surely mistaken, or at least exaggerated. Ingsoc’s sexual puritanism is exhibited as having a political motive: an instinct creating a world of its own outside the Party’s control is dangerous and ought to be destroyed. And that Winston Smith and his Julia are inevitably in large part the manikins Big Brother has made of them is an obvious postulate of the novel. Winston, for that matter, is not all that different from Lewis’s Mark, and Lewis’s NICE police, captained by Miss Hardcastle, are indistinguishable from the thought police in Orwell’s book, although Miss Harcastle gets going with torture a good deal more briskly than O’Brien. The chief difference between the two novels is occasioned by the supernatural dimension that Lewis so lavishly and expertly lays on. Both are essentially dystopias in Aldous Huxley’s manner, but in one a dystopia has been achieved and in the other is aborted because, in the last analysis, God won’t have it. Urendi Maleldil.

It is Lewis’s main judgment on Nineteen Eighty-Four that ‘there is too much in it of the author’s own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist.’ Of course, Lewis, too, has a psychology (or in simpler English a personality), and if we seek to compare the two writers in this regard we are assisted by T.R. Fyvel’s book. Mr Fyvel, whose association with Orwell was fairly close during the last ten years of his life, has produced an admiring but candid memoir, which has the edge on much biographical writing about Lewis in not sounding any loud note of discipleship. Lewis required disciples, chiefly because he was a more vulnerable individual than Orwell. That this was so, we learn from the schooldays of the two men. Orwell was extremely unhappy at his prep school, largely because he felt himself to be a charity boy. But he went on to take Eton in his stride – even if, as Cyril Connolly averred, he was there beaten in his 19th year: he has nowhere, it is true, much to say about the place, but he retained fellow Etonians among his friends to the end of his life. Lewis’s short sojourn at Malvern was a disastrous encounter with cruelty and arrogance and toadyism and treachery, about which he writes at length in Surprised by Joy, and to which he returns, with scant relevance and at a surprisingly intemperate pitch, in the ‘Reply to Professor Haldane’ in Father Hooper’s book. Again, Orwell, on Mr Fyvel’s showing, seems to have made do in later life with casually acquired acquaintances – and (as we learn in Rayner Heppenstall’s Four Absentees) he was capable of terminating any such relationship that proved irksome with a shooting-stick vigorously applied. He liked socialists of one shade or another (he didn’t mind which) and relied to some extent on a small succession of supportive women. Lewis, although he made a brave show of self-sufficiency, lacked this independence, and was fortunate in possessing, beneath a carapace of bluff geniality and tireless contentiousness, an almost charismatic power of attracting personal devotion. He found his support in the first place in a small group or coterie of Oxford scholars, for the most part traditional Christians owning a certain sense of beleaguerment within a hostile modern university. The last fact bred, I believe, a mild paranoid feeling instanced, once more, in That Hideous Strength, notably in the attempted seduction by scientists and bureaucrats of the well-intentioned but weak-willed young don, Mark Studdock.

Animal Farm may become a classic like Alice in Wonderland, but neither Lewis nor Orwell has, I think, any great prospect of permanent acclaim as a major writer. It is the more remarkable that, in breadth and force of impact upon a large educated public, neither, surely, has known a rival since the era of the two godless giants, Wells and Shaw.