Hang on to your hats for this one, folks! It’s a bit of a wild ride. And, please, if you’re not already familiar with my ideas, please read something else first! Good places to start would be With Hands Open, Something Like a Spear and Hands Open, or Musings on the Trilogy Theme. Maybe even The Arch Metaphor. This is gonna sound really weird without some background. I don’t think I’m crazy!
When I first read That Hideous Strength, I noticed that when Lewis describes a visit to Merlin’s Well in Bragdon Wood at Bracton College, he uses an abundance of feminine, even sensuous, imagery. I wasn’t sure what the implication was, but I noticed it, thought it was a definite choice, and wondered what he was getting at. Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading Paradise Lost. And now I think I’m beginning to understand.
Before I started Paradise Lost, of course I read Lewis’s Prologue and started wondering why I hadn’t done so sooner! It was published just before Perelandra, and has some obvious connections in the subject matter (temptation of Eve/Tinidril anyone?). Then I started into the actual poem and the further I get the more interesting connections I see – Lewis sharing or expanding on or avoiding or altering Milton’s concepts of God and sin and Satan and the fall and, of course, masculinity and femininity. It’s fascinating how in the Prologue he points out, for instance, the almost-laughable foolishness of Milton’s Satan, then in Perelandra describes the Unman as being like a kindergartener. His also-comparable description of Weston ignoring the existence of the eldil Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet came before the Preface, but the idea is the same.
I didn’t realize how profound the influence on the trilogy was until I got to the place where Raphael comes to warn Adam of the impending temptation. The language there uses those same tones of feminine sexuality to describe the bower in which Adam sits that Lewis used of Bragdon Wood. Raphael travels
Into the blissful field, through Groves of Myrrh, And flow’ring Odours, Cassia, Nard, and Balm; A Wilderness of sweets; for Nature here Wanton’d as in her prime, and play’d at will Her Virgin Fancies, pouring forth more sweet, Wild above rule or Art; enormous bliss. Him through the spicy Forest onward come Adam discern’d, as in the door he sat Of his cool Bow’r, while now the mounted Sun Shot down direct his fervid Rays to warm Earth’s most inmost womb, more warmth than Adam needs; And Eve within, due at her hour prepar’d For dinner savoury fruits, of taste to please True appetite, and not disrelish thirst Of nectarous draughts between, from milky stream, Berry or Grape: to whom thus Adam call’d.
In Milton, the femininity is inherent in words and phrases such as ‘wanton’d’, ‘play’d’, ‘Virgin Fancies’, ‘sweet’ (used repetitively), ‘Wild above rule or Art; enormous bliss’, ‘spicy Forest’, the ‘fervid Rays’ of the sun warming ‘Earth’s inmost womb’, and so forth. Milton has his Adam found sitting in a bower characterized by a sense of sensuous femininity.
In That Hideous Strength, even the path to the wall surrounding the wood is characterized by feminine imagery. If you think of the descriptions of the planet Perelandra, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ideas connected to femininity – water, growing things, diffuse light. In the path to the wood and the well, Lewis describes a ‘sense of gradual penetration into a holy of holies,’ ‘a cool tunnel-like passage’, green grass, buttresses giving the impression of being ‘soft and alive.’ He speaks of buildings that are ‘humble, almost domestic in character’(Lewis himself saw domestic work as something both sexes should share[see note], but it was nonetheless connected with femininity in Milton and in the popular culture of his own time), and the impression of being in ‘a sweet, Protestant world’. Then come a row of elms and the wall and the sound of running water. In fact, the path takes him over a bridge, so that ‘the dark brown dimpled Wynd was flowing under’ him. At that point he describes being ‘very near [the] goal’. The wood itself is a place of ‘sunlit green and deep shadows.’ ‘I suppose the mere fact of being walled in gave the Wood part of it peculiar quality, for when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common. As I went forward on the quiet turf I had the sense of being received.’ (This section reminds me so much of Mark at the end of the book, realizing that he has taken Jane for granted, treating her as common.) Lewis says that it isn’t a long walk, but it seems to take a long time to get to the centre, the well, the place he has been seeking. When he arrives, he doesn’t walk on the pavement surrounding the well, but says ‘I lay down in the grass and touched it with my fingers.’ Then ‘[t]he air was so still and the billows of foliage so heavy above me, that I fell asleep. I was wakened by my friend hallowing to me from a long way off.’
That’s a pretty long descriptive paragraph for the scene, but even that doesn’t include all the the feminine imagery. For instance, the words denoting fertility include florid, grass, green, soft and alive, mossy, elms, water, bowling green, wood, sunlit green, wood, turf, foliage, clearing, grass, out of doors, wood, grass, foliage. Even the word ‘sweet’ comes into play when one realizes it appears twice in the the above description in Milton, and it is the characteristic Jane doesn’t understand why people keep attributing to her.
This whole section seems almost a picture of marriage; gaining entry through the proper means (being let in through the gate by a key used by his friend seems similar to a priest presiding over marriage vows), then entering the wood and be received. The path seems long – and what engaged couple doesn’t find the waiting long? Rather than walking on the pavement (bed?), he lies down on the grass and touches ‘it’ (consummation?). Then he falls asleep to be awakened by the far away voice of a friend. Maybe. In some ways it seems like a bit of a stretch, in others it seems to fit too well to be coincidence. In any case, I have a sense that Lewis had something more specific in mind in the progression of this walk than I fully understand. But here, undoubtedly, is the masculine well, and the masculine Lewis, surrounded by the feminine garden, as in Paradise Lost the masculine Adam was surrounded by the feminine bower.
That got me to thinking. What happens when masculinity is surrounded by femininity? Fertility!! And then to realize that in Perelandra, the fixed land isn’t just land – not just a beach, not flat, but mountains! Very steep mountains! And that Ransom kills the Unman in the mountain, far above the feminine sea that covers the surface of the planet. And then he is born – borne on water out of a cave. Even the place he meets the eldil on Malacandra is an island rising out of a lake. These major moments of growth for Ransom happen when masculinity is surrounded by femininity.
Over a year ago, early in my research, I conjectured that for Lewis, one learns femininity from masculinity and vice versa. I realized that Ransom learns early femininity from the masculine planet of Malacandra. He learns further femininity, not from Perelandra itself, but from the masculine Presence on Perelandra. From Perelandra, and from Tinidril, he learns masculinity . He learns protectiveness because there is someone – a feminine person and a feminine planet – to protect. Jane learns femininity from Ransom’s masculinity. It is the conjunction of the masculine and the feminine that bring fertility – life and growth. And isn’t that a reflection of life, of creation, itself? It’s definitely something I’ll keep an eye out for as I continue my research!
Note on Lewis seeing domestic chores as shared by both sexes: Consider the fact that Milton has Eve preparing Adam’s food, but Ransom gathers his own from the bounty of the planet. The men and women of St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength share cooking and cleaning duties equally. It seems, from his letters, that Lewis himself did household chores when needed in his own home, though he usually had some form of hired help for daily cooking and cleaning. He speaks of cleaning messes made by sick dogs and people, caring for chickens, and so forth, as duties that sometimes interfered with his writing.
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