09 October 2007

The Mythology of the Space Trilogy

Jove gazed
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.


Steve Hayes said...

Very good.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of these types of myths out there. An ancient greek civilization once nicknamed Jesus Christ Abraxas - and derived the phrase Abracadabra from the word Abraxas. Meaning to reappear and disappear. Having trouble keeping all of this stuff straight.

It's a crime to that we went to war over all these different mythologies.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Steve! How does this tie in with your own researches in neo-paganism?

Dear anonymous: Thanks for your comment! Yes, there are a lot of myths with similar characters, stories, etc. Would you share more information about this "Abraxas" myth? Sounds fascinating.

What war are you talking about? I can't remember a war over mythologies; although "we" (if by we you mean human beings) certainly do fight over any (or no) excuse.

Rosie Perera said...

Perhaps anonymous simply meant that religions are derived from differing myths about the origin of the world (some more true than others), and humankind has often gone to war over differences in religion (not specifically over their differing interpretations of the myths, necessarily, but over more complex things for which religious identity is merely a convenient banner to fly).

Some references to Abraxas:
Entry in The Mystica (an on-line encyclopedia of the occult, mysticism, magic, paranormal, etc.)

Excerpts on Abraxas from The Gnostics and their Remains by Charles William King (1887):

Excerpt from The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall:

"The Alexandrian Basilides inculcated Egyptian Hermeticism, Oriental occultism, Chaldean astrology, and Persian philosophy in his followers, and in his doctrines sought to unite the schools of early Christianity with the ancient pagan Mysteries. To him is attributed the formulation of that peculiar concept of the Deity which carries the name of Abraxas. In discussing the original meaning of this word, Godfrey Higgins, in his Celtic Druids, has demonstrated that the numerological powers of the letters forming the word Abraxas when added together result in the sum of 365. The same author also notes that the name Mithras when treated in a similar manner has the same numerical value. Basilides [t]aught that the powers of the universe were divided into 365 Æons, or spiritual cycles, and that the sum of all these together was the Supreme Father, and to Him he gave the Qabbalistical appellation Abraxas, as being symbolical, numerologically, of His divine powers, attributes, and emanations. Abraxas is usually symbolized as a composite creature, with the body of a human being and the head of a rooster, and with each of his legs ending in a serpent. C. W. King, in his Gnostics and Their Remains, gives the following concise description of the Gnostic philosophy of Basilides, quoting from the writings of the early Christian bishop and martyr, St. Irenæus: 'He asserted that God, the uncreated, eternal Father, had first brought forth Nous, or Mind; this the Logos, Word; this again Phronesis, Intelligence; from Phronesis sprung Sophia, Wisdom, and Dynamis, Strength.'

"In describing Abraxas, C. W. King says: 'Bellermann considers the composite image, inscribed with the actual name Abraxas, to be a Gnostic Pantheos, representing the Supreme Being, with the Five Emanations marked out by appropriate symbols. From the human body, the usual form assigned to the Deity, spring the two supporters, Nous and Logos, expressed in the serpents, symbols of the inner senses, and the quickening understanding; on which account the Greeks had made the serpent the attribute of Pallas. His head--that of a cock--represents Phronesis, that bird being the emblem of foresight and of vigilance. His two arms hold the symbols of Sophia and Dynamis: the shield of Wisdom and the whip of Power.'" []

Section §124 of "History of the Christian Church" by Philip Schaff gives an account of Basilides, an early Gnostic who developed the Abraxas myth:

"Basilides (Βασιλείδης) produced the first well-developed system of Gnosis; but it was too metaphysical and intricate to be popular. He claimed to be a disciple of the apostle Matthias and of an interpreter (ἑρμήνεύς) of St. Peter, named Glaucias. He taught in Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (A. D. 117–138). His early youth fell in the second generation of Christians, and this gives his quotations from the writings of the New Testament considerable apologetic value....
His...system is based on the Egyptian astronomy and the Pythagorean numerical symbolism. It betrays also the influence of Aristotle; but Platonism, the emanation-theory, and dualism do not appear.

"Basilides is monotheistic rather than dualistic in his primary idea, and so far differs from the other Gnostics, though later accounts make him a dualist. He starts from the most abstract notion of the absolute, to which he denies even existence, thinking of it as infinitely above all that can be imagined and conceived. This ineffable and unnamable God, not only super-existent, but non-existent, first forms by his creative word (not by emanation) the world-seed or world-embryo, that is, chaos, from which the world develops itself according to arithmetical relations, in an unbroken order, like the branches and leaves of the tree from the mustard seed, or like the many-colored peacock from the egg. Everything created tends upwards towards God, who, himself unmoved, moves all, and by the charm of surpassing beauty attracts all to himself.

"In the world-seed Basilides distinguishes three kinds of sonship, of the same essence with the non-existent God, but growing weaker in the more remote gradations; or three races of children of God, a pneumatic, a psychic, and a hylic. The first sonship liberates itself immediately from the world-seed, rises with the lightning-speed of thought to God, and remains there as the blessed spirit-world, the Pleroma. It embraces the seven highest genii, which, in union with the great Father, form the first ogdoad, the type of all the lower circles of creation. The second sonship, with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom it produces, and who bears it up, as the wing bears the bird, strives to follow the first, but can only attain the impenetrable firmament, that is the limit of the Pleroma, and could endure the higher region no more than the fish the mountain air. The third sonship, finally, remains fixed in the world-seed, and in need of purification and redemption.

"Next Basilides makes two archons or world-rulers (demiurges) issue from the world-seed. The first or great archon, whose greatness and beauty and power cannot be uttered, creates the ethereal world or the upper heaven, the ogdoad, as it is called; the second is the maker and ruler of the lower planetary heaven below the moon, the hebdomad. Basilides supposed in all three hundred and sixty-five heavens or circles of creation, corresponding to the days of the year, and designated them by the mystic name Abrasax, or Abraxas, which, according to the numerical value of the Greek letters, is equal to 365. This name also denotes the great archon or ruler of the 365 heavens. It afterwards came to be used as a magical formula, with all sorts of strange figures, the "Abraxas gems," of which many are still extant...." [Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1997). History of the Christian Church. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.]

Chapter XXI of St. Jerome's Lives of Illustrious Men: "Agrippa surnamed Castor, a man of great learning, wrote a strong refutation of the twenty-four volumes which Basilides the heretic had written against the Gospel, disclosing all his mysteries and enumerating the prophets Barcabbas and Barchob and all the other barbarous names which terrify the hearers, and his most high God Abraxas. whose name was supposed to contain the year according to the reckoning of the Greeks. Basilides died at Alexandria in the reign of Hadrian, and from him the Gnostic sects arose. In this tempestuous time also, Cochebas leader of the Jewish faction put Christians to death with various tortures." [Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. III. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historial Writings, etc. (368). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.]

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Rosie! Very interesting and compelling, weird and fascinating ideas.

Rosie Perera said...

Ha! I love your new avatar photo.