by Louis Markos
In my previous post, I discussed how Lewis, in his book Out of the Silent Planet, the first installment of his Space (also called the Ransom, or Cosmic) Trilogy, frees his protagonist, Ransom, from his modernist prejudices and invites him into a medieval world of beauty, hierarchy, wonder, and joy. In this post, I will explore how Lewis continues and perfects that process in his second novel in this series, Perelandra.
Classical Christian education, whether conducted in a classroom or in the home, seeks to accomplish far more than merely filling its charges with facts and training them in skills. It seeks to promote virtue, build character, foster discipline, and instill obedience, gratitude, and reverence. In Perelandra, Lewis sets the same pedagogical agenda for Ransom.
This time around, Ransom is carried not to Mars (Malacandra in the old solar language), but to Venus (Perelandra), a beautiful, unfallen world that still exists in a state of grace. Upon arriving on the planet, Ransom takes in its exotic sights, sounds, and smells. At one point, he encounters a strange tree; he pops one of its bubble-like gourds and is immediately drenched with a liquid that invigorates all his senses. Instinctively, he reaches out to pop another gourd so that he might re-experience the sensation, but something inside him prevents him from doing so. He will not give in to the temptation to control pleasure, desire, and joy. He will accept it as a gift rather than hoard it. Like the ideal classical Christian student, Ransom learns that he is a steward and not a possessor of the goodness, truth, and beauty to which he is exposed. “Thank you,” he learns—not “This is mine”—is the proper response to the privilege (not the right) he is afforded.
Ransom’s success in passing this test helps prepare him for the greater charge that will be laid upon him by God. He is commissioned to protect the Eve of Venus from falling prey to the temptations of Satan—or, to be more precise, to those of Weston, whose evil choices in Out of the Silent Planet have led him to be possessed by the devil. Again and again, Weston tries to get “Eve” to turn her attention away from God, her husband, and the beauty of Venus and fix it upon herself. But Ransom is at her side, and he does his best to deflect Weston’s attempts to breed narcissism, egocentrism, and self-pity in the innocent Eve.
Although Lewis loved fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales, he was strongly critical of school stories—stories, that is, in which the young, picked-on student becomes, through a melodramatic series of events, the star of the sports team or the homecoming queen or the most popular kid in school. Lewis did not like such stories because he felt they bred in children the negative emotions of envy, vanity, and self-satisfaction—exactly the emotions Weston tries to breed in Eve.
Knowledge and pleasure must be received properly, in a spirit of humility and thanksgiving, if they are to build us up into good and noble people. Like Venusian bubble trees, the great books of the western intellectual tradition are gifts to be enjoyed and shared, not assets to be seized. Classical Christian education inculcates in its students a humble respect for the authors of the past and a good Socratic sense of how limited, rather than extensive, our own knowledge is. Look at the work and not at yourself; adjust your thoughts and behaviors in keeping with the wisdom of what you read rather than force what you read to fit your narrow, self-serving agendas. That’s what classical Christian education tries to teach, and that’s the message with which Perelandra is infused.