The Reading Life, Part Five

Perelandra is another book twice-read, and much more powerful the second time.  I haven’t said much about the physical surroundings of each of these readings, but I probably should, because how a book affects you depends on where you are: spiritually, emotionally, but also physically. 

It was the summer of 1981.  I was in Chattanooga, with a husband and two small children, ages 5 and 3.  We lived in a house that faced backwards–really.  That’s how it was built, with the back of the house facing the street and the front porch turned towards a vacant lot; I have no idea why.  The advantage, I suppose, was that you could do your front porch livin’ in privacy, though that defeats the neighborhood purpose of a front porch.  Anyway, I reread Perelandra in proper order–that is, after reading the first book in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.

I remember a square paneled room we used as the den–homemade bookshelf in one corner, yellow piano in the other (we didn’t paint it; it came that way), a black vinyl couch that somebody gave us and a platform rocker in which I weaned my little boy.  A noisy window air-conditioner that we tried not to use much, even though Tennessee summers are notoriously sultry.  That was the summer of visiting churches.  Like many Christians, our life was occasionally peripatetic as we outgrew a denomination.  That summer we visited a succession of Baptists, Christian, and Disciples churches, and one Methodist that was close enough to walk to.  A few we visited twice.  The revolving-door effect was so pronounced that one Tuesday the visitation team from Forty-ninth Baptist was leaving just as the couple from God’s Family Christian arrived.  The Baptist pastor was philosophical.  “You’ll enjoy these folks,” he told the Christians, gesturing to us.  “They’re neat folks.”

We ended up at the last place we would have expected: First Presbyterian (PCA): big, wealthy, old, and fiercely evangelistic.  The traditional services were televised, and the sermons were probably the purest expressions of the gospel I’d heard up to then: man’s need, God’s provision.  Presbyterianism I’d been taught to avoid (they baptize babies!!!) but we landed there by providential intervention, following signs I don’t have time to relate.  (I’m still Presbyterian.)

All this, I’m sure, has a bearing on how Perelandra affected me.  I started reading it in the fall, after we’d settled at First Pres but I hadn’t quite come down from the floatiness of summer.  I’d long been a Lewis fan, though I’ve come to agree (not quite as fervently) with Larry Woiwode that Lewis was not a master of fiction.  Lewis himself once mentioned editors needing to tame his “expository demon,” but they didn’t always do a thorough job.  Still, his great gift to me, coming when I needed it in my early twenties, was to baptize my imagination by showing me the great drama of redemption.  It’s not a system of brownie points or theological correctness: it’s a transfer from darkness into marvelous light, an invisible kingdom sprung from the stuff of every day, where we follow bloody footprints to a cross and perceive glowing footsteps beyond it. 

That’s why I relate to Lewis’s own experience, described in Surprised by Joy.  The baptizer of his imagination was George McDonald (an author I’ve never been able to get into), a Christian writer of fantasy.  Encountering McDonald’s work for the first time as a young teenager, with a lot of conversion yet to go, Lewis was struck by how the consciousness raised by McDonald’s invention seemed to point homeward: “I found the light shining on those woods and cottages, and then on my own past life, and on the quiet room where I sat and on my old teacher where he nodded above his little Tacita. . . . Or more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

So Lewis did for me, more than once: rather than fomenting dissatisfaction with the world, he revealed the enchantment of the world.  In Perelandra, he writes of a Miltonic struggle and a question whose answer would settle the fate of a glorious species for all time.  But the deciding act belongs to an ordinary man who wins his final victory with a rock and a prayer: “‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost here goes–I mean, amen.”  The great compliment our Creator pays us is allowing us to participate in the divine nature (II Peter 1:4) and in the divine drama.  If that doesn’t put a spring in our step . . . .

Well, such is our clay-like nature that it usually doesn’t, but I recall a definite spring upon this reading.  The story opens with Lewis himself (the only time he wrote himself into a novel) making his way to the wayside cottage of Dr. Elvin Ransom, an academic colleague who has confided to a few close friends his strange adventures on the planet Mars.  On the way, through a dusky wood saturated with ambiance, Lewis suffers an attack of doubt and dismay which is later revealed to be the work of demons (foreshadowing what will later befall the protagonist).  At Ransom’s cottage, groping for a light, he encounters an unexpected piece of furniture which further exploration reveals to be a kind of coffin, made of an indescribable white substance.  Then, a spirit of another sort: one of the heavenly Eldila, or angels, seen only as a being of light, in a color no man can name, at an angle so definite and straight it seems to set the natural world cock-eyed.  (Expressing the inexpressible is Lewis’s great challenge in this story.)  Soon Ransom appears and explains all: he’s been called to an undisclosed mission on another planet and needs Lewis’s help to seal his mode of transportation, the coffin.  His destination is Venus, which the Eldila call Perelandra.

Of Ransom’s arrival there, the shimmering beauty of this planet where creation is new, his first encounter with a “green lady” who is the half of that creation’s crown, and the harrowing appearance of his nemesis Dr. Weston, Lewis probably takes too long to tell.  It gives nothing away to say that Dr. Weston has been possessed by Satan, who is using him to accomplish a temptation and fall similar to what happened on earth.  Will he succeed?  And what is Ransom’s mission?–merely to witness, or to persuade, or . . . could it be that he, a puny figure of flesh and blood, was sent to defeat Satan?  Like, physically, with his physical body?  At first rejecting that last possibility, Ransom at last accepts it, knowing that if he doesn’t, God will have to supply an atonement even more terrible than the cross.

Knowing all this, as I did upon that second reading, did not diminish the impact at all.  I was caught up in the story, as the victorious Ransom was in the end caught up in divine glory, both exalted and humbled, emptied and filled.  Like our house, I was turned around in perception, facing another direction altogether.  It made communication a little awkward for a few days.  Shortly after finishing the book I received a visitation team from First Pres, who had noticed we’d been attending for a month or so.  The team was modeled on Evangelism Explosion, a new technique for evangelism based on two questions, the first being: “Suppose you died tomorrow and appeared before the throne of God, and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’  What would your answer be?”  I was still glowing, awash in Perelandra light.  “Because I love you,” was my answer. 

Then I had a little explaining to do.


One Response to “The Reading Life, Part Five”

  1. Galer Dolan Says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m ready to reread Perelandra.

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