On woven mazes
Of patterned movement as the atoms whirled.
—“Le Roi s’Amuse,” Poems 23
In his "Space" trilogy C. S. Lewis "baptized" astrology and mythology and turned them into a vehicle for his Christian message. In what ways was Lewis following the medieval astrology? Professionally, as a scholar of medieval literature, and fictionally, as a vehicle for spiritual truth.
There are [at least] seven specific ways that Lewis revived the Ptolemaic cosmology. First, medieval astronomers and theologians believed that “space” was not empty, dark, and cold. They called it “The Heavens,” and pictured the distances between planets as golden, bright, full of life and light (Discarded Image 112). When Ransom is kidnapped in Out of the Silent Planet and taken aboard a space ship, he discovers to his amazement that one side of the ship faces a sharp darkness, punctuated by glittering cold stars (Silent Planet 21). The other side basks in perpetual day, an “empyrean ocean of radiance” (p. 32) The light is golden, the heat invigorating rather than stultifying; it massages his body into health and vitality, making him feel “vigilant, courageous and magnanimous” (p. 29). It is like soaking in “a bath of pure ethereal colour and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness” (p. 31). In this golden Heaven, Ransom encounters spiritual beings very like the higher orders of angels in the system of the early church. Lewis calls them “eldila.”
The presence of these semi-divine beings fills the distances between planets with fair light and a sense of animation. In the passage from Earth to Mars , Ransom experiences a delight specifically tied to its physical stimulants: he feels “a heady, bounding kind of fear…poised on a sort of emotional watershed from which, he felt, he might at any moment pass into delirious terror or into an ecstasy of joy” (Silent Planet 23) which settles down into “a severe delight” (31). Human beings traveling through that golden essence are literally surrounded by spirits who experience sublime delight and partially communicate that ecstasy to the senses of their material fellow-beings. By describing the medieval Heavens, Lewis created a physical place in which his spiritual longing could be objectively located.
Second, Lewis made his planets match up to those of the Ptolemaic system. This is not to say exactly that he positions earth in the center of the solar system. Rather, in the end of That Hideous Strength, when the gods come to visit Ransom on earth, there are only five (not nine): Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Glund, and Lurga (p. 317). These are his names for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Aristotle did not know about Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and Ptolemy also included the Sun and Moon in his system. Thus, the planetary gods of Homer, Virgil, and Dante descend into the bedroom of Elwin Ransom of Cambridge, and turn out to be servants of the Most High God (320).
Third, each of Lewis’s planets had a sort of guardian angel: an Oyarsa (Silent Planet 119-21). The Oyarsa is the ruler of the planet and also its spiritual personification or even its soul. In The Discarded Image Lewis wrote: “each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by ‘intellectual love’ of God” (115). Lewis’s five planets literally participated in the Great Dance guided by their Archangels. By investing each planet with a supra-personal intelligence, Lewis physically manifested eternal longings.
Fourth, these Spirits or Angelic Beings are good, ultimately good in some fundamental spiritual sense. But of course, to a believer in astrology, the planets often gave “bad influences” to human beings, causing plagues, floods, and other disasters. But Lewis explains: “they are bad only in relation to us… the fault lies not in the influence but in the terrestrial nature which receives it…. ‘Bad’ influences are those of which our corrupt world can no longer make good use” (Discarded Image 116-17). The narrator of Perelandra experiences this with singular intensity when he first meets an eldil:
I felt sure that the creature was what we call ‘good,’ but I wasn’t sure whether I liked ‘goodness’ so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience…. suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I had always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my senses: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away (Perelandra 19).
He realized that Good is something other than, greater than, and even, in some sense, inimical to our fallen natures. This is something a medieval astrologist or theologian (and it is apparently possible that one individual could be both) would have understood more readily than a Modern or Post-Modern scientist or teacher of religion.
Fifth, there was another species of spiritual being in the Middle Ages: daemons, those who inhabited the “sublunary” sphere of the earth (Discarded Image 117). These came to be identified with demons, or fallen angels (118). These are active in the Cosmic Trilogy, too. Earth is known to the other Oyarsas as “Thulcandra,” the Silent Planet. There was a time when she spoke, or her Oyarsa spoke, to the other members of the Field of Arbol, but she or he or it rebelled and fought against the others (Silent Planet 121). This, of course, is an identification of Lewis’s science fiction universe with both the Greek/Roman hierarchy of gods and goddesses and medieval angelology and cosmology.
Sixth, Ransom was able to get about because of a convenient medieval convention: everyone speaks the same language on all the other planets, which also happens to be the same language that the Oyarsas speak. When he first realized that there were rational beings on Malacandra, Ransom hoped he might discover “the very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages” (Silent Planet 55). This is not without precedent: according to Dante, Adam spoke a language before the Fall that is now extinct (Paradiso XXVI:124-129). Lewis calls this “Old Solar,” and gives it to all extra-terrestrial beings: “The original speech was lost on Thulcandra, our own world, when our whole tragedy took place” (Perelandra 25)—which tragedy was the “bent Oyarsa” or Satan’s rebellion against the order, and his desire to corrupt other worlds, which led to our own planet’s disappearing into a state of siege and our first fore-mother’s eating “Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost III:2-4). Of course, as Lewis reminded his readers, “I don’t mean the idea of a cosmic language as anything more than fiction” (Letters 2.667).
The seventh, final, and most important association between this solar system and Lewis’s writing is not the gods themselves, but the motion inherent in Dante’s spheres and the cause of that motion. George MacDonald wrote: “The whole system of the universe works on this principle—the driving of things upward to the centre” (CSL's LettersII:616, paraphrasing MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series, pp. 194-5). In this system, one ray of light comes from God—-Aristotle’s unmoved Prime Mover (Discarded Image 113)—-and illuminates the Primum Mobile, giving it motion, power, and life (Paradiso XXX: 39-41; 52; 106-109). “All power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile and cause it to rotate… [it] causes that of the Stellatum, which causes that of the sphere of Saturn, and so on, down to the last moving sphere, that of the Moon” (Discarded Image 102). Medieval writers and thinkers projected onto the physical elements and objects of the universe our own human strivings and desires: a “kindly enclyning” as Chaucer calls it (quoted in Discarded Image 94). This carries a strong suggestion of anthropomorphism, as if apples emotionally desired to fall towards the ground and planets longed passionately to spin towards the Empyrean. Such anthropomorphism is implicit in Aristotelian physics, as Lewis shows.
Dante went one step further and personified his planets literally: each sphere spins because it loves God and ardently desires to be near Him. The best physical expression its love can manage is this glorious and dizzy orbiting in a perfect circle. Lewis discusses how this whole model, truly devotional in Dante, is apparently contradictory to the Christian idea of “I love God because He first loved me” (I John 4:10, 19), but on second thought harmonizes perfectly (Discarded Image 114, 120). Even in Aristotle’s saying, “He moves as the beloved,” Lewis liked to argue (LettersII:153), “there is, after all, an active verb.” Perhaps God is sending His love out towards the spheres, causing them to love Him and rush towards Him along their fixed paths. Immortal longing is embodied in their very orbits.
Like Dante’s, Lewis’s planets have a clear theological motive for motion: “the revelry of insatiable love” (Discarded Image 119). In the Cosmic Trilogy, it is incarnate in their persons: “Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning” (Perelandra 199-200). Perhaps this is why the Earth is stationary in Dante’s universe (cf. Discarded Image 139): it has fallen, waived its share in the Great Dance, and denied its passionate desire for God. It is “Thulcandra”; the Silent Planet.
Thus, the Interplanetary trilogy took this scattered Greek, Roman, and medieval mythology-astrology-theology and unified it into one embodied spiritual system to the enrichment of a Christian approach to these systems. It can no longer be said that “this cosmology …is not fused with high religious ardour in any writer I know except Dante himself” (Discarded Image 120); for Lewis took the heavens and the arrangement of the planets and turned them into a paean to the Christian God, embodying his immortal longings in the orbits and Oyarsa of his planets.