C.S. Lewis was a smart man. (Understatement of the year, I know.) He knew that in insisting on hierarchy as a natural and good part of creation, he would be perceived as prioritizing the masculine over the feminine. One way he countered this was by making the Green Lady such an attractive person, by making his readers love her, and by showing her strength. I love the scene where they’re climbing to the top of the fixed land and Ransom is surprised by her strength as she easily completes a maneuver that he injures himself attempting.

Another way he attempts to answer this misperception is with the arch metaphor. It is mentioned twice at the end of Perelandra, once in connection with the eldila and the humans, and once in reference to the masculine and feminine. I’ll quote both here. “[Ransom] saw this living Paradise, the Lord and Lady, as the resolution of discords, the bridge that spans what would else be a chasm in creation, the keystone of the whole arch.” And a bit later, as part of what I’ve christened the praise service, he says, “It is loaded with justice as a tree bows down with fruit. All is righteousness and there is no equality. Not as when stones lie side by side, but as when stones support and are supported in an arch, such is His order; rule and obedience, begetting and bearing, heat glancing down, life growing up. Blessed be He!” (emphasis mine)

In the earlier quote, the lord and lady together form the keystone of a metaphorical bridge between the animals and the eldila – the purely physical (represented by the animals) and the purely spiritual/intellectual (the eldila). Both masculinity and femininity were required to give a full picture of humanity. They are together the keystone of that arch.

When we look at the other instance of the arch metaphor, equality is pictured as stones lying in a row – to contrast with the arch, I think of a flat roof supported by columns. That’s not the kind of justice Lewis sees God as maintaining. Instead, he says the justice and righteousness God provides is more like an arch.  When you think about what makes an arch work, it’s the force of the stones pushing against each other, carrying the gravitational pull down and out. The keystone makes the whole thing work, bearing the weight of gravity and sending it in both directions as it is supported on each side. Each stone supports and is supported.  

People of both genders in this metaphor are not like the stones lined up in a row, supported by columns. They don’t either support or be supported. They both support and are supported. So each individual both obeys and rules. Think of how the Green Lady obeys Maleldil and rules over the animals, who obey her. Ransom obeys the eldila, and in That Hideous Strength, he is sent helpers who are to obey him.  All people are both in authority and under authority. In government(to simplify we’ll use the medieval system), the king is in authority over his ministers, who are in authority over the aristocracy, who are in authority over commoners. In the family, husbands are under the authority of Christ, wives are under the authority of their own husbands, children are under the authority of parents – but even my kids are in authority over their chickens! The same thing is true of the workplace. In That Hideous Strength, Chapter 5 is titled “Elasticity.” In it, Lewis contrasts the elastic  nature of the structure of N.I.C.E. with the hierarchy of St. Anne’s. I think it’s clear which he preferred. It’s also clear that no one at St. Anne’s is acting on their own authority – they are all subject to someone.  

I think, to me, the most significant aspect of this metaphor is that no one pays much attention to the individual stones in an arch.  No one cares about a particular stone’s position in the arch – being higher in the hierarchy doesn’t make you more important. No one says “Ooh. Look at that gorgeous stone near the top of the arch. It gets to sit way up there near the keystone.” That would be ridiculous. The beauty of an arch is the whole – it’s how it fits together. If any stone – no matter how high or how low its position in the arch – fails to support the stone above it, or fails to transmit the appropriate force to the stone below, the whole arch is compromised. The beauty and function of the arch depends on each and every stone supporting and being supported by every other stone. So I think that’s the idea he’s trying to apply to human beings of both genders. I can’t help but wonder if he got the idea from St. Peter referring to believers as “living stones,” at a time when Roman arches were ubiquitous.

So rather than portraying the feminine as weaker, as subject to masculinity in general, i.e. the support column for the stone lintel, Lewis says that true equality forms an arch – each stone cut to fit the space it occupies, each stone equally strong, equally necessary for the beauty and function of the arch.

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One thought on “The Arch Metaphor

  1. “The beauty and function of the arch depends on each and every stone supporting and being supported by every other stone.” I love this part. Great model if the church too.

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