Science-Fantasy: CS Lewis’ Blending of Two Emerging Genres
Just over a quarter into the previous century, two literary genres were coming into their own: science-fiction and fantasy. Certainly, there were precursor stories to these genres written by the likes of H.G. Wells and George Macdonald, but they were not the “modern” forms we recognize today. Emerging as they were, we owe a great deal of gratitude to those early pioneers who popularized the genres in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Sci-fi authors like Asimov and fantasy writers like Tolkien had few prominent, contemporary sources to borrow from and as such utilized their fantastic and creative originality to pen into existence fabulous worlds of automata and elves. Another emerging author at the time was C.S. Lewis. Known today for his wildly popular Narnia series and his many theological writings, a great tragedy has befallen his legacy. Virtually no one remembers him for his foray into science fiction; or rather, science-fantasy.
Around the year 1936 (according to Christopher Tolkien), C.S. Lewis and his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien had a conversation. The conversation likely took place in one of the many meetings of the literary group The Inklings, of which Lewis and Tolkien were prominent and regular members. The Hobbit had been written, but as of yet was unpublished, and Narnia was not even yet dreamt of. Lewis said, “Tollers,” one of Tolkien’s nicknames, “there is too little of what we like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves,” (recorded in Letters of JRR Tolkien). And so, a challenge was created between the two men: could they each pen an engaging fiction that defended historical sentiment against the modernism movement while introducing deep theology via prose without sounding like arrogant propaganda? In a coin toss, it was decided that Lewis would write a space story and Tolkien a time travel story, both starting off scientific but discovering “myth.”*
At that time the term “science-fiction” did not exist due to the precious few stories within the genre, and its colloquial usage would not take off until the 1950s. It was very much out of the norm, then, for these gentlemen to pen such stories. Lewis penned three novels that could be read as standalone or part of a larger over-arching narrative. The Space Trilogy (or The Cosmic Trilogy) as it’s known in its omnibus form, consists of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. These stories follow its protagonist Elwin Ransom Ph.D., who is argued by fans to be a fictionalized (albeit Protestant) Tolkien, to Mars and Venus and a technocratic Earth. Tolkien’s story, named The Lost Road, sadly was never finished. It was later merged into Middle Earth continuity. Lewis’s trilogy, then, is the only surviving testament to this hybridization of science-fiction and fantasy.
The Space Trilogy starts off with a very scientific feel. Staying as spoiler-free as possible, Elwin very early in the story boards a spherical spaceship and takes off towards Mars. This part of the story describes in detail a very realistic depiction of space involving zero gravity and the view of the cosmos. Upon landing on Mars, however, the planet seems very fantastic. Although clearly an alien world, it more closely resembles a fantasy realm of talking animals and complex mythology. The longer one spends in Lewis’s Malacandra (the native name for Mars) the more it seems like a fantasy world. Lewis leads us onto a planet steeped in an ancient lore of spiritual entities and enchanting creatures without ever losing that scientific, alien feel. For example, in his narrative there are angelic, spiritual beings called Eldila. They have an enchanting feel primarily to them like that of the classical faerie, yet Lewis goes on to attribute scientific theories to them. These creatures are higher-dimensional beings, and as such would not see space and time the same way we do. Upon meeting an alien, whose name is Augrey, Elwin learns that to the Eldila the material world is like a mist that they can flit through; that outer space to them is a physical plain, and our worlds are like moving cities therein. In lore, it is called the Field of Arbol, upon which the Eldila walk to and from the various planets in our solar system. Thus, Lewis has combined scientific philosophy, theology, and fantasy in one creature.
In the next story, Elwin goes to Venus (Perelandra). This story, even more than the previous one, emphasizes fantasy. Perelandra is a world of an emerald colored ocean with mountain-high waves and an unbroken golden roof of clouds; riding the waves like driftwood caught in a current are numerous archipelagos of floating islands. On these islands are miniature dragons, fish that obey human commands, and green, perfect human beings. Here, Elwin is tasked with stopping an evil Eldil from causing sin to enter this unfallen world. Although the bulk of the story is fantasy, a section towards the end plays with mind-bending, higher-dimensional ideas about time, space, and our place therein that rivals the likes of Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I want to avoid spoilers, so here are the page numbers for anyone interested: Perelandra pp. 183-188, especially the long paragraph starting on page 187.
In the last installment, That Hideous Strength, the story returns to Earth, but it is an Earth that is becoming increasingly technocratic. However, this story is not without its share of myth. The Eldila from other planets invade Earth to wage war on Earth’s corrupted and evil Eldila, while the ancient mage Merlin awakens to fulfill an old Arthurian prophecy. It is here that the over-arching narrative comes to a crashing and satisfying close blending scientific doom, mythology, and theology in one. As an aside, it seems that Tolkien’s The Lost Road and Lewis’s Space Trilogy were to be connected. In Tolkien’s story, which also features a protagonist named Elwin, the plot surrounds Numenor and his “True West” or the Middle Earth Atlantis. In That Hideous Strength Elwin Ransom speaks of Numinor (Lewis’s misspelling) nine times, and in an introduction to the book Lewis writes, “Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.” This has led many to theorize that Lewis’s tale directly ties into Middle Earth Lore; considering Tolkien’s stingy, perfectionist control over his deep mythology I tend to agree as he would not have let it happen otherwise (I can already hear the Tolkien purists screaming at their computer screens).
Anyone who reads this trilogy cannot deny the intricate complexity and masterful penmanship of Lewis. I cannot do it justice in words, nor can I fully aid the reader in realizing how perfect the blend of science-fiction and fantasy are. There simply is no way to portray it without giving pages of quotation spoiling the narratives. Instead, I implore the reader to pick up a copy of the trilogy and experience it for themselves. Fans of science-fiction, fantasy, and philosophy will be thrilled by a grand hybrid of all three and will gain an appreciation for the pioneering impact Lewis made in popularizing fantasy and sci-fi by interweaving the two.
*It is important to note that Lewis and Tolkien did not consider myth to mean, “something false to explain phenomena” nor did they view it as meaning something untrue, or a lie. Tolkien and Lewis believed myth to be stories which contained truth in them, leading to the True Myth, the myth that actually occurred, of Christ.
Written by Tripp Bond