I think the next question I need to answer is why the eldila? That is, why choose them as the focus of my research, other than the personal reasons mentioned in the last post? Is this scene really that significant?

Well, I’m inclined to think that when an author puts two 30-foot tall angels side by side and compares them for 3 pages, including a sentence like “what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender,” it’s like a big neon sign saying that it’s important. And, unlike some scholars, I’m inclined to think that when an author puts out a big neon sign, it’s only reasonable to unpack the image and see if the concepts actually play out in the rest of his work. You may very well find that what an author says he thinks and what his characters actually do are quite different. But even that can tell you quite a lot about the author and whether or not he was aware of his own biases. That’s, perhaps, the most obvious reason. And why it just seems strange to me that no one has really explored this before.

The other is, to me, much more intruiging. In the reading I’ve done so far from other scholars on Lewis and gender, there’s a pretty wide gamut of opinion. Some outright call him a misogynist.  Others insist he essentially viewed men and women as equal. Some say his views changed drastically in his lifetime. Others say they stayed relatively stable. That tells me that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of all of that.  Which brings me to something really, really interesting.

Lewis chose forms of writing suited to the material he wanted to communicate. He wrote poetry, scholarly books and articles, popular books and articles, children’s literature, and science fiction. I’m probably leaving something out. But I digress. My point is that he chose the form to match the subject. I won’t get too deep into that here, but it just makes sense. He chose children’s fantasy to explore the ways pagan mythology/medieval cosmology could show forth the true God, and a hymn to satirize evolution-as-religion. So, why did he choose to tackle the subject of gender in the form of science fiction?

I think it’s just exactly this: that he was aware of his bias, growing up in an Edwardian culture which had such distinct roles for men and women, and he was choosing a form which would help him escape from his own bias, and that of his audience, and help him get to the crux of the matter. He talked, I think in several contexts, about how there’s a tendency to think of one’s own civilization as the most advanced, the most knowledgeable, the most moral. In The Problem of Pain, he talked about how a more war-like civilization would look on our perception of love and kindness as pure weakness, whereas we would look at theirs as cruel and unloving.  So he knew he was biased, as everyone is biased.  His culture led him to believe femininity would look a certain way. And it was so ingrained that he couldn’t even see it. Like all of us. And he knew that he was just as susceptible as everyone else.  I’m currently reading Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s book Sword Between the Sexes?, and she frequently (sometimes almost gleefully) points out inconsistencies in what he said he believed and how he applied his ideas to different situations.  And there are inconsistencies. But what if there is an idea that could reconcile many, though not all, of those inconsistencies? What if Lewis had a view of gender that wasn’t focused on what we call gender roles, or on character traits like empathy and aggression that we associate with gender, but on something else?

And that’s where we come to science fiction. He made it clear in many different contexts that he believed that gender was a tremendously important part of the created order. In the scene I’m focused on in Perelandra, he indicates that gender “is a more fundamental reality than sex,” “a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings.” So, believing this, and wanting to escape his own bias, what more reasonable way to explore this fundamental difference than to do so on different planets – Mars and Venus, of course. There he could escape not only his own culture, but his own world, and use his imagination to see how gender might play out on worlds completely alien to ours. Note that when he was talking about the Narnia chronicles, he once described them as a what-if scenario – what if God had created worlds other than ours? I think this is much the same idea.

What made me start thinking this way was that in the scene at the end of Perelandra, Lewis speaks of how the physical differences in humans of different sexes, such as size and strength, “partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.” I think he believed that all cultures do the same.  “He made them male and female,” repeated often in the creation story, indicate that at least some differences between the sexes were not mere human inventions or developments; not merely the consequence of function or cultural development, but part of the created order.  Few people insist that there are no differences, other than the physical, between men and women. But what Lewis wanted to get at was the center, as close to true reality as he could grasp.  I think his question was, “what is essential femininity and masculinity, stripped as far as possible of cultural associations?”

I think that’s also why he chose the eldila to signify this essential difference. The Malacandrian cultures had their own perceptions of the relations between females and males (which Ransom discusses with the pfifltrigg Kanakaberaka near the end of Out of the Silent Planet). Perelandra the planet is intended to be a picture of the feminine side of things, and Ransom has very little interaction with the King. And, presumably, we can expect Tor and Tinidril to develop their own cultural applications of the difference. Therefore Lewis chose eldila, who have bodies so unlike our own that they must convey an image to our brains in order to make themselves seen; they must create avatars, if you will, that yet portrayed a difference in gender. As non-human as he could imagine, and yet gendered.

I think that the eldila are, indeed, neon signs. I think Lewis is saying, “Look! Here is the real difference between masculinity and femininity.” And he demonstrates it with a picture. An image of two figures whose primary difference is in their postures. I think the difference between the genders was, for Lewis, exemplified by posture rather than by role. And I can’t wait to dig into that image to examine what’s there and how it’s borne out (or not) in Lewis’ fiction.

Next Post: Similarity Before Difference

Previous/Introductory Post: With Hands Open

One thought on “Why the eldila?

  1. I just want to mention here that I’ve recently discovered that Lewis actually started Out of the Silent Planet as part of a wager between him and JRR Tolkien. They wondered why there weren’t more books of the kind they liked to read, so they decided they should write some – Tolkien was to write about time travel, Lewis about space travel. Tolkien never published his, though there are some fragments involving space travel and the Inklings. So now I’m wondering if Lewis got Ransom to Mars and the whole idea of masculinity that he associated with Mars gave him the idea of addressing gender. He was a medieval scholar, and practically breathed medieval writers’ connections between gods and planets and their personalities and influences. Maybe I’ll come across something more definitive later. Just thinking for now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *