Imagine a world in which you live not on a body of fixed land, whether continent or archipelago, but on a floating island that moves on the waves, driven by current, tide, and wind. One might describe the island as “land” but that would misdescribe, as its surface is a perpetual undulation. The greater the ocean swell the greater the island wave. The island is sufficiently solid to allow you to stand and walk, yet it takes a special kind of skill to negotiate the rolling ground. There is always the threat of losing one’s balance as the waves come upon you and move under you. You look around and see that many such islands exist, sometimes moving toward you and sometimes away—or is it your island moving toward and away? This is the planet upon which Elwin Ransom has been deposited by the mysterious energy beings known as the eldila. Its name is Perelandra.
Ransom awakens in an emerald-green ocean. His craft, perhaps more accurately described as a “celestial coffin,” has dissolved. The water is warm and comforting. He swims toward one of the nearby “patches of floating stuff,” topped with all sorts of alien plants, and pulls himself up onto its surface. It’s dry and resilient. He has the impression that the “whole floating island beneath the vegetation were a kind of mattress.” It takes Ransom a good while to learn how to walk on the undulating island. “It was much harder,” comments the narrator, “than getting your sea-legs on a ship, for whatever the sea is doing the deck of the ship remains a plane. But this was like learning to walk on water itself.” (I wonder if our Lord experienced any such problems that morning when he walked across the Sea of Galilee.) Ransom has been brought to Perelandra to witness and participate in the creation of a new race of rational beings. We are back in the Garden of Eden but now as a garden of ocean and vegetational rafts. We control neither the direction nor speed of the islands. We cannot steer them, we cannot maneuver them, we cannot make them go faster or slower. They drift as the sea determines. All we can do is enjoy, and hopefully survive, the voyage.
I dwell on the floating islands as they are critical to one of the morals C. S. Lewis wishes to teach his readers: the essence of sin is the refusal to trust the good providence of God.
Ransom soon meets the Lady, the queen and future mother of her race, and joins her on her floating island. She is tall, beautiful, intelligent, innocent, and if not genetically human at least humanoid. Her skin color is green. I do not remember if the narrator ever remarks on the color of her hair. “Never had Ransom seen a face so calm, and so unearthly, despite the full humanity of every feature.” Though both are naked, Ransom feels neither shame nor erotic attraction. She is too different, too mythical, too royal, too pure. “Beautiful, naked, shameless, young—she was obviously a goddess: but then the face, the face so calm that it escaped insipidity by the very concentration of its mildness, the face that was like the sudden coldness and stillness of a church when we enter it from a hot street—that made her a Madonna.”
Critics of Perelandra complain that nothing happens. Instead of action what we get are conversations. Fair enough. But the conversations are substantive and interesting. When the Lady learns, for example, that the mother of the human race on Earth is dead, she wonders if Ransom had been sent to Perelandra to teach her death. “You don’t understand,” he exclaims. “It is not like that. It is horrible. It has a foul smell. Maleldil wept when he saw it.” He struggles to explain to her the critical difference between Perelandra and Tellus. That difference lies in the way fallen humanity receives existence from the hands of Maleldil:
You could never understand, Lady. But in our world not all events are pleasing or welcome. There may be such a thing that you would cut off both your arms and your legs to prevent it happening—and yet it happens: with us.
The Lady finds this quite puzzling. “But how can one wish any of these waves not to reach us which Maleldil is rolling towards us?” she asks. Unlike the children of Adam, she lives every moment in thanksgiving, expectation, confidence, even fearlessness. She gratefully receives from God every good that he presents. Each wave brings a new adventure and new challenge.
It is Ransom’s turn to be puzzled. He attempts to explain to the Lady the human experience of disappointment, how it might be possible to prefer a previous good to a new and different good. She ponders upon this possibility:
What you have made me see is as plain as the sky, but I never saw it before. Yet it has happened every day. One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before—that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished—if it were possible to wish—you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.
In that moment the Green Lady begins to understand her freedom, her capacity to turn from the good enjoyed and deliberately welcome—or not welcome!—the new and different good that Maleldil offers:
I thought that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk with it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms, as when we go swimming. I feel as if I were living in that roofless world of yours where men walk undefended beneath naked heaven. It is a delight with terror on it! One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands. How has He made me so separate from Himself? How did it enter His mind to conceive such a thing? The world is so much larger than I thought. I thought we went along paths—but it seems there are not paths. The going itself is the path.
The possibility that Maleldil does not will her absolute good does not enter the mind of the Lady. Faith is the presupposition of her life in the world of floating islands. Later in the story she will be tempted to disobey the commandment of Maleldil not to sleep over night on the one fixed island. She eventually comes to understand that underlying the temptation is a desire for control: “How could I desire to live there except because it was Fixed? And why should I desire the Fixed except to make sure—to be able on one day to command where I should be the next and what should happen to me? It was to reject the wave—to draw my hands out of Maleldil’s to say to Him, ‘Not thus, but thus’—to put in our own power what times should roll towards us. … That would have been cold love and feeble trust.”
Ransom is simultaneously repelled by the Lady’s unquestioning trust and ashamed of his own doubt and fearfulness. How can she not experience disappointment? How can she not resent the unpredictability of Perelandrian existence and not fear for her well-being? Ironically and revealingly, he finds himself disappointed in her. How like a man, my wife might say. Perhaps more accurately, how like a human being from Thulcandra.
During his visit to Malacandra, Ransom had marvelled at the sexual continence of the hrossa. How was it that they could delight in sexual union and the begetting of children and yet not seek to repeat it over and over again? Hyoi explains to him that for the hrossa love takes an entire lifetime—of anticipation, consummation, and recollection. Ransom finds it strange that one might be content only in the memory of a pleasure. Hyoi elaborates:
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. … Undoubtedly, Maleldil made us so. How could there ever be enough to eat if everyone had twenty young? And how could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back—if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day.
As alien as unfallen experience of the Good is to Ransom, he begins to experience something like this on his first day in Perelandra. He is searching for food and comes across yellow gourds hanging from a tree. He eats one and is overwhelmed by utter deliciousness: “It was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.” Upon consuming the gourd Ransom realizes that his appetite is satisfied, yet the temptation to enjoy another presents itself to him. If one fruit is good, surely two is better. But something holds him back. It seemed to him that “the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” A bit later he reflects on this experience:
He had always disliked the people who encored a favourite air in the opera—“That just spoils it” had been his comment. But this now appeared to him as a principle of far wider application and deeper moment. This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards … was it possibly the root of all evil? No: of course the love of money was called that. But money itself—perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defence against chance, a security for being able to have things over again, a means of arresting the unrolling of the film.
Here, perhaps, lies the importance of fasting in the Church—to make it possible for us to enjoy, to really and properly enjoy, the good gifts of creation. How much more delightful is our Easter dinner when it has been preceded by the long weeks of the Lenten fast. On Perelandra, though, even the smallest bowl of lentils is welcomed with joy and thanksgiving. Such is the goodness of Maleldil.