Well, I finally got a definitive answer. Some time ago I sent an article out for publication. After quite some time the journal requested that I revise and resubmit. I revised according to specifications and last week I finally learned they’ve decided against publishing it. Though I am somewhat disappointed, it is in some ways freeing – at least I don’t have to wonder anymore! And I’m trying to not speculate much on why the rejected it. It may reflect on my premise (though I don’t think I would have been asked to revise it if that were the case), my writing style (not horribly formal), or really not related to either (politics). Instead, I’m looking at it as a chance to step back and decide where I’m going with this. I kinda feel like I’ve been knocking on the door of academia and finally had the door firmly closed. So I’ve decided to step back for a bit (maybe a month or so), focus on some other things (spring cleaning, anyone?) and post the article here, in case anyone is interested in perusing a more formal version of my basic premise. It is in a British format, and I don’t feel like altering it – I often use a mix of British and American formats here, anyway. So, without further ado, here it is!
‘The Real Meaning of Gender’: The Eldila in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra as Representations of Masculinity and Femininity
Unity in diversity if possible – failing that, mere unity, as a second best – these are the norms for all human work, given, not by the ancients, but by the nature of consciousness itself. . . . When the design was modest – as in Gawaine and the Green Knight or in some parish churches – or when the resources were adequate – as in Salisbury Cathedral and the Divine Comedy – then medieval art attains a unity of the highest order, because it embraces the greatest diversity of subordinated detail.(C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Kindle edition: HarperOne, 2013), 174.)
C.S. Lewis gloried in the ‘unity in diversity’ he described in The Allegory of Love. One can see evidences of it woven throughout his works, both in his academic writings and letters, and in the way he emulated it in his own fiction. His ability to execute this ‘unity in diversity’ is perhaps seen most clearly in the complex layers of his Ransom Trilogy. He began the first book as part of a wager between himself and J.R.R. Tolkien, because they agreed that no one was writing the kind of books they liked to read, so they had better write them themselves.(Diana Pavlac Glyer, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (Kent, OH: Black Squirrel Books, 2016), 39.) Lewis liked to read books with multiple layers, such as those by his friend Charles Williams, so he wrote a book with multiple layers.
The diversity of subjects covered in the trilogy is astounding: philosophy, education, medieval cosmology, hierarchy, ecotheology, science, gender, and more. Which of these themes is primary may depend to some degree on the reader. But a fair claim can be made for gender to have at least one of the primary roles. The first two books are set on Mars and Venus, long recognized as symbols of masculinity and femininity, and the final book begins with the word ‘matrimony’ and has a married couple as joint protagonists. So when, at the end of Perelandra, the godlike rulers of Mars and Venus take on forms resembling humans, thirty feet tall and glowing, with the phrase ‘the real meaning of gender’ (C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 1944), 171) attached to their description, one gets the impression that Lewis wanted us to sit up and take notice.
The aim of this paper is to examine the text of the final scene of Perelandra, as well as selections from the rest of the novel and trilogy, to delineate Lewis’s perspective on ‘the real meaning of gender’, as illustrated by his description of the eldila in Perelandra.
First we will examine why this scene is pivotal to understanding Lewis’s approach to the idea of gender as a whole. Gender is one of several themes woven throughout the trilogy, but the argument could be made that it is the primary theme. Monika Hilder wrote a book on her understanding of gender and its importance in the trilogy. (Monika Hilder, The Gender Dance, Ironic Subversion in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).) Michael Ward outlined in Planet Narnia the masculine characteristics of Mars and the feminine characteristics of Venus in the trilogy, in the process of defining those deities and their planetary influences as they pertain to Narnia.(Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008) 80-83, 169-171.) Indeed, both Ward (Michael Ward, ‘The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God’ Lecture, The Lewis Festival, September 23, 2018. In answer to a question about themes in works other than the Narnia Chronicles, Dr. Ward said gender was the ‘primary focus’ of the trilogy.) and David Whalen (David Whalen, ‘The Space Trilogy: A Cosmos of Old Worlds and New Battles’ from the online course ‘An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writings and Significance’ https://online.hillsdale.edu/courses/cs-lewis/lecture-5 31:40.) have pointed in lectures to the centrality of gender for the trilogy. It is unknown if Lewis intended to write about gender as he began writing Out of the Silent Planet, but when he decided to take his hero to Mars, the subject of gender was likely unavoidable. His familiarity with and love for the medieval conceptions of the heavens and planets and gods made it impossible to avoid such connections. It seems likely that for Lewis, as mentioned earlier, when he set his trilogy on Mars, Venus, and Earth, the theme of gender was towards the forefront of his mind.
As we are learning was typical for Lewis, he carefully crafted his books to give the astute reader clues as to the frame underlying the work. He took three full pages at the end of the second book, near the centre of the actual page count of the trilogy, to describe two figures. He calls attention to their appearance as he first describes their unsuccessful attempts to take on an appearance understandable to human senses. Then he describes their chosen appearance in vivid detail – their similarities and their differences; their color, height, hair, posture. You could almost say he put up a pair of thirty-foot tall neon signs on a mountain top in Perelandra, with a little arrow pointing to them: the phrase, ‘what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender.’ The statement comes just after describing how the two figures appear and how they affect Ransom, as he is trying to puzzle out the reason for and significance of their differences. Since it is the focal point of this paper, it seems helpful to quote this section in full.
Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try – Ransom has tried a hundred times – to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don’t know that any of these attempts has helped me much. At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.)
Following this neon sign calling our attention to the scene, Lewis inserts a kind of homily on the primacy and pervasiveness of gender. This important address will be discussed in the following section.
In case that was not enough to make his point, Lewis gave a few other hints as to his intention in this scene. For instance, this contrast between the genders provides the only clear reason for the presence of Malacandra on the planet Perelandra. None of the Oyéresu of other planets attend the coronation. He has no part in the ceremony. His only other function is to introduce Ransom to Perelandra and assist in their initial understanding of one another. His appearance at all seems a bit superfluous. But the presence of Malacandra is absolutely necessary so that he can serve as the masculine counterpart to Perelandra’s femininity.
One further indication that Lewis’s goal in this scene was to delineate his views on gender is a scene earlier in the book. In chapter ten, the Un-man commences telling stories to Tinidril as a way to encourage her to rebel against Maleldil. At first Ransom sees no connection between the endless stories, but eventually, ‘what emerged from these stories was rather an image than an idea’. (Lewis, Perelandra, 108.) An image, a picture, is exactly what Lewis later creates with the eldila. The picture given by the Un-man is of a sort of anti-woman, soon followed by an anti-man. So the Un-man offers Tinidril an image of ‘bent’ masculinity and femininity, and the eldila provide the contrasting image of true masculinity and femininity. So Lewis first shows us an image of his ideal’s opposite, and later presents an image of the ideal itself, after we have absorbed the examples of these characteristics from the other characters in the novel.
An important consideration in our discussion of the significance of this scene in the novel is its significance to the author. Following the initial description of the eldila quoted above, Lewis, as the narrator, says Ransom has convinced him of the reality of the views he expresses. If we remember that he refers to himself as the narrator, by name, in the first chapter of the book, (Lewis, Perelandra, 22.) it would seem that he wants his readers to know that this perspective on gender is his personal view. He talks of how most languages include gender in their names for inanimate objects and indicates that male characteristics, even in inorganic objects like mountains, are a manifestation of masculine gender rather than the reverse. ‘Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless.’ He goes on to note that the differences between male and female ‘partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171-172.)
So, for Lewis, gender is ‘a more fundamental reality than sex’, a ‘fundamental polarity’, which is partly obscured by the physical realities of sex. To Lewis, gender is not the purely social construct it is considered by many scholars today – the social application of the physical differences of sex. Instead, he saw gender as permeating all of creation – organic and inorganic – and in some sense being more fundamental than sex, with physical sex being a mere outworking of this ‘real polarity.’ Gender seems to have a kind of priority in time as well as being more pervasive, since for physical sex to be an outworking, gender must in some sense precede it. His planetary deities are masculine and feminine, and their work of under-creation results in planets that reflect those genders. But, it is interesting to note, each planet also has elements of the other gender, and both are necessary for life on both planets. (It is also significant in connection with these planetary deities that Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, made a reference to the possibility of seven genders – perhaps considering the possibility that all seven planets of the medieval solar system had a similar kind of influence over their planets and perhaps other aspects of creation. The reference implies that the other five are less understood by humans because the biological sexes connected with the genders of Venus and Mars assist us in understanding them.) This will become clearer as we examine Lewis’s conception of gender and sex.
It seems that a major reason Lewis would argue for the primacy of gender over sex is that in doing so he is also arguing against materialism, or naturalism – the perception that the physical world is all that exists. Lewis argued for the existence of a spiritual world beyond the natural one in many places – that is, after all, essentially the topic of his book Miracles. Naturalism argues that our ideas of gender are extrapolated from the physical realities of sex. In this homily, Lewis is arguing the opposite. ‘Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 172.)
Perhaps, also, Lewis was acutely aware of his own cultural biases regarding gender – and those of his audience. And, perhaps, the whole point of this scene is to remove the obscuring effect of sexual characteristics and social ideas of gender, in order to look at the ‘fundamental polarity’ of masculinity and femininity. What better way to escape the expectations and biases of twentieth century England than to do so in a science fiction novel, set on a different planet, with two individuals who are as unlike humans as one can imagine – whose bodies are made of what is to us light, who see planets as mere lumps, who must directly affect our minds for us to perceive them at all? And yet, ‘he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female).’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 172.)
A discussion of the similarities between the figures precedes the description of the differences, and we must not miss the importance of the similarities. They illustrate what Lewis did not consider to be essential differences between the genders. They remove those obscuring effects of sex. As mentioned above, part of the beauty of addressing gender in science fiction is the ability to separate characters from any sexed or gendered expectations in one’s own culture – or even one’s species and planet. Lewis could strip away, bit by bit, the layers that culture has added or removed to find what are, for him, the essential, and only the essential, differences.
The first similarity is size. Both are thirty feet tall, indicating that Lewis saw physical stature, likely also associated with strength, as non-essential to an understanding of gender. This is exemplified earlier when Ransom is surprised by Tinidril’s agility and strength as they climb the fixed land. His attitude is typical of the cultural expectations of an English human male of his time. But in the context Ransom’s surprise is taken as rather foolish, as he blurts something out in English and himself climbs much more clumsily. This would seem to indicate that feminine physical strength was not surprising or odd or unfeminine to Lewis, as he calls attention to the fact that she is stronger and more graceful than Ransom. (Lewis, Perelandra, 68-69.)
The eldila are both ‘burning white’ (This whiteness is clearly associated with the idea of heat, ‘white-hot iron’, avoiding an association with any earthly people group.) and have ‘long and sparkling hair’. (Lewis, Perelandra, 170.) So Lewis also did not see skin color or hair length or style as a significant gender difference. This is interesting, as he spent much of his time working with literature in which an essential of attractive femininity is fairness. Instead, he made his heroine green and gave both gods sparkly hair. They are unclothed and free of sexual characteristics so those aspects are removed from the equation, as one would expect from the homily discussed above.
Their faces wear the same unchanging expression. ‘He concluded in the end that it was charity’, and he describes it further as including ‘no affection at all. . . . Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) Lewis thoroughly describes charity and how it differs from affection in both The Four Loves and The Problem of Pain, though in the latter he simply calls it Love. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1960), Chapters on ‘Affection’ and ‘Charity’. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001) Chapter 3, ‘Divine Goodness’.) Affection has to do with having positive, tender feelings toward the object. Charity has to do with a desire to see others brought to their fullest potential, even if that process involves the beloved’s pain and suffering. For humans the two are often connected, but the eldila shine with pure charity, untempered by affection. This highlights their separation from humanity, further drawing our attention away from rooted cultural conceptions of male/masculine and female/feminine. It also indicates that charity was, for Lewis, an essential part of mature masculinity and femininity. His mature characters of both genders throughout his writings exhibit this characteristic.
Perhaps the most fascinating similarity, and a strong argument against Lewis being seen as a misogynist, is that they share the same status; the same level of power. Each is the ruler of the planet entrusted to her or his care. When Ransom first encounters the eldila on Perelandra, he attempts to call Malacandra by his title of Oyarsa, but Malacandra corrects him – on this planet, Perelandra is Oyarsa, and ‘I am only Malacandra.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 167.) Malacandra also stands by as a mere spectator when the ceremony begins to transfer rulership of the planet to the King and Queen. He has no authority on this planet. So Lewis makes it abundantly clear that jobs – even the highest job available to created beings in the universe (or maybe just this solar system) – are not tied to a particular gender. He did make statements in some of his letters and writings, especially in his youth, that seem dismissive of women, (I would like to note here that he made similar jokes and statements about many classes of people – including those to which he himself belonged, such as Irishmen and professors. I tend to see this failing as an inability to resist making inappropriate jokes rather than misogyny, especially as they are generally in the context of letters to close friends and we cannot know the full context.) but when describing the essential differences between genders, with the perfect opportunity to prioritize one gender over the other, he gave a feminine being in this fictional world the same status, the same responsibilities, the same power, the same role, as her masculine counterpart. And when he was on her turf, Malacandra willingly deferred to her.
The eldila are so similar, in fact, that Ransom has great difficulty in pinpointing where the differences lie. ‘He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) This highlights the fact that Lewis saw far more similarities between men and women than he saw differences. Many scholars have pointed out that Lewis lived in predominantly masculine contexts for much of his life, which is true. But he had strong feminine influences as well, such as his mother and his Aunt Lily, as well as some of his female students and fellow writers like Ruth Pitter and Dorothy Sayers. He enjoyed intellectual conversation and abhorred academic sloppiness in anyone – male or female. (An excellent example of Lewis commending a female writer for her work and describing how she influenced his thinking fairly early in his career is a letter of November 16th, 1934 to Janet Spens regarding her book Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It also highlights his attention to details such as clothing and the importance of images in the medieval literature he loved. C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. Walter Hooper (Harper Collins e-books, 2004), 146-149.)
After describing the appearance of both figures and their similarities, Lewis moves on to describe their differences. As the similarities in their appearance highlight specific characteristics often associated with gender in humanity of the mid-twentieth century, but which Lewis saw as non-essential, the differences delineate the essential differences – the ‘real meaning of gender’ for Lewis.
The first difference between the two beings mentioned in the text is that their ‘plumage’, or ‘halos’, are of different colours, but not colours as we see them with our eyes. Instead, they are described in terms of temperature, time of day, and texture. Interestingly, rather than calling them Malacandra and Perelandra in this context, he calls them ‘the Oyarsa of Mars’ and ‘the Oyarsa of Venus’. This could indicate that the description of the colours is a concession to traditional conceptions of Mars and Venus as god and goddess rather than necessarily relating to gender as such. ‘The Oyarsa of Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic–pure, hard, and bracing. The Oyarsa of Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) As his planets of Mars/Malacandra and Venus/Perelandra conform to traditional expectations of those deities, so this aspect of their description conforms to those and gives hints of their personalities beyond and yet including gender. Mars is a god of war, therefore hard and metallic. Venus is a goddess of life and fertility and the colours of her plumage bring these aspects of her to the fore. This difference is separated from the discussion of gender by the description of their faces, possibly indicating a degree of separation between this characteristic and the ones more definitely related to gender.
But this difference is significant in that it gives us key words and concepts that indicate when Lewis is talking about gender – or Mars or Venus as such – throughout his fiction. Mars’ halo is cold, while Venus’ is warm, and cold and warmth are in Lewis’s writings often connected with masculinity and femininity, respectively. Mars is a cold planet, habitable only because of the warmth of the water that flows through the canyons(In Out of the Silent Planet, the typical temperature of Mars is described in much the same terms used here to describe Malacandra’s halo. C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 1938) 43, 68, 79.). In the beginning of Perelandra, Ransom’s house is warm as Lewis enters, but the casket, created and brought by Malacandra, is cold, a fact he mentions several times. (Lewis, Perelandra, 19, 25, 26, 31.) Hardness, and later in the scene, mountains, are also associated with masculinity whereas plants are typically associated with the feminine. The cloud-like structures seen by Ransom early in his visit to Malacandra turn out to be made of stone, and the habitable islands of Perelandra are pure vegetation. ‘On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 172.)
Thus, the ‘colours’ of the plumage highlight instances in the trilogy and other fiction in which Lewis is connecting a scene to masculinity and femininity, or to Mars and Venus. Cold and ice, mountains and hard surfaces are often indicators of Martial influence. Warmth and vegetation are connected to Venus.
Rhythm and Melody: Integral
After pointing out their lack of sexual characteristics and the ‘curious difference between them’, Ransom attempts to explain this difference: ‘Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) It is no surprise that Lewis used a musical metaphor, as he loved music and often discussed concerts, records, et cetera with his friend Arthur Greeves in boyhood letters – almost as often as they discussed books. He loved Wagner and Beethoven but not Handel. (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. I: Family Letters 1905-1931 Walter Hooper, ed. (Harper Collins e-books, 2009), 99.) He gave Arthur advice on whether or not to attend an opera, taking into consideration who was singing what role. (Lewis, Letters Vol. I, 107.) He described a performance of The Valkyrie at length, noting vocal quality, scenery, and acting. (Lewis, Letters Vol. I, 381-2.) So it was a very deliberate choice – he knew whereof he spoke.
One aspect of this contrast is that rhythm is usually thought of as steady and unchanging whereas melody is perceived as more changeable – and this is possibly part of what Lewis had in mind. Rhythm provides the backbone of the music – the beat to which the melody conforms. But it should be noted that the melody also influences the rhythm – it stretches some measures to slow the beat and quickens others. They work together so that they are almost inseparable.
And that is a major impact of this metaphor. Both rhythm and melody are necessary to make music – or at least any music Lewis would have enjoyed. He said in a letter once, critiquing a poem, ‘I find, however, on reading the poem over, plenty of melody but not enough harmony: it does not leave a continuous music in the ear.’ (Lewis, Letters Vol. I, 471.) There was too much sameness in the poem for beautiful musicality. It needed some contrast. Masculinity and femininity provide the same kind of contrast for humanity that rhythm and melody, or melody and harmony, do for music. Humanity as only masculine or only feminine could not be as beautiful as humanity with both.
Later in the scene, Lewis says Ransom expected to see ‘a discord’ (note the musical terminology) between the gods and the humans, (He saw the animals as pure animal/body contrasted with the eldila as primarily mind/intellect, with the humans bringing the two together in one species – a theme he discussed in Out of the Silent Planet and The Abolition of Man as well. For more on this idea in the trilogy, see Katrina Bolman, ‘The Abolition of Mars: The Platonic Soul in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet.’ Journal of Inkling Studies 7 no. 2 (October 2017), 59-70.) but instead ‘he 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.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 178.) Later, when all the beings praise Maleldil so that their voices merge, he describes the Great Dance. ‘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!’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 184.) The masculine and feminine terminology in this metaphor cannot be missed, and they are pictured as working together to form an arch – a feat of architecture in which every stone must be perfectly shaped and fitted if the whole is to remain standing, and in which no one stone has priority over the others, unless it is the keystone. Lewis described the Lord and Lady together as the keystone earlier in the passage. The two are to be joint rulers of Perelandra, called by the plural ‘Oyarsa-Perelendri’ at one point in their coronation. (Lewis, Perelandra, 177.) The arch metaphor and the musical one join to demonstrate the manner in which Lewis saw masculine and feminine, as well as animal and human and eldil – and even dust, worlds, and beasts – as integral to the Great Dance. As each stone is integral to an arch, as rhythm and melody and often harmony integrate to form beautiful music, so, for Lewis, are masculinity and femininity integral aspects of complete humanity.
Quantitative and Accentual Metre: Untranslatable
‘Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) If it is no surprise that Lewis used a musical metaphor, it is even less of a surprise that he would use poetic metre as the second of his similes for describing differences between the genders. He loved poetry, read poetry, wrote poetry. His first two published books were poetry. His ambition to be primarily known as a poet ended only when his talent in other areas of literature was more publicly appreciated. But he was intimately familiar with the inner workings of poetry, in a variety of languages, and he drew on this knowledge and experience for this metaphor.
Accentual metre is that which most English-speaking school children learn – whether or not they retain the knowledge as adults. It’s the metrical pattern based on the accents, or stresses, placed on syllables in words and phrases. Quantitative metre is found in the ancient Greek and Latin poetry Lewis so enjoyed. The metrical patterns are based on the literal length of time taken to say the sounds. This long/short terminology persisted in the description of vowel sounds in English until fairly recently, and is still used in some cases.
But what was Lewis getting at when he used these terms to describe gender? The answer lies at least partly in another letter he wrote to his friend Arthur, who was not nearly as fond of poetry as Lewis. On September 26, 1914, Lewis was rejoicing at finally mastering Greek well enough to enjoy reading the Iliad. He wrote Arthur, ‘Although you don’t know Greek & don’t care for poetry, I cannot resist the temptation of telling you how stirring it is. Those fine, simple, euphonious lines, as they roll on with a roar like that of the ocean, strike a chord in one’s mind that no modern literature approaches. Better or worse it may be: but different it is for certain.’ (Lewis, Letters Vol. I, 70.)
‘Better or worse it may be: but different it is for certain.’ That was Lewis’s perspective on Greek versus English poetry, and it seems to be his point with this metaphor. He could, and did, enjoy English poetry. And he could, and did, enjoy Greek poetry. He enjoyed reading poetry written in both quantitative and accentual metre. But they affected him differently, which is the aspect he focused on in this metaphor – ‘Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171, emphasis mine.) The difference, as many a student has learned, is untranslatable. A quote from a poet and Greek student from Lewis’s time, but who lived ‘across the pond’ in the United States, serves to illustrate this difficulty. In the introduction to her poetry volume, Bluestone, Marguerite Wilkinson humorously described an early attempt to ‘translate the beloved hexameters of Homer into English hexameters. When I failed I trembled on the verge of the perilous thought that it was not altogether my own fault. The English language was quite unlike the Greek in quality.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171, emphasis mine.) Lewis recognized that same difference in quality and used it in his metaphor.
This understanding of the text is borne out by his extended description of the pervasiveness of masculinity and femininity, apart from sex, mentioned earlier. For Lewis, at least, they are not dependent on one another for their existence. The one is not a weaker reflection of the other. They are different in a way that is as untranslatable as quantitative and accentual metre.
Posture: The Essential Dichotomy
After Lewis has shown us what gender is not, told us how to recognize when he is highlighting gender, and illustrated the relationship between masculinity and femininity, he finally gets to the heart of the matter. The primary physical contrast Lewis provides between the two characters is that of posture. ‘He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) Later, after the homily on the primacy of gender, he adds a bit more information.
Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earth-ward horizon whence his danger came long ago. “A sailor’s look,” Ransom once said to me; “you know . . . eyes that are impregnated with distance.” But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim. (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.)
Note the continued connection to the highlight colours from the halo – ramparts and a spear for Mars, water and life for Venus. And now we come to the crux of the matter. Essential masculinity, for Lewis, has to do with holding something like a spear, looking into the distance in the direction from which danger was likely to come. Femininity has to do with hands being open, looking inward.
The Posture of Masculinity
Malacandra is pictured standing, holding ‘something like a spear’. At first glance, it seems to be simply another reference to Mars as the god of war. And that is, perhaps, why students of Lewis and gender have missed its significance. But the latter part of the description, quoted above, indicates that rather than assuming an aggressive posture as one preparing to attack an enemy in battle, he is assuming a defensive posture, vigilant for an enemy that would threaten those who need his protection. He looks in the direction of the silent planet, Thulcandra, home to the bent eldil who has already attacked Mars, who has just made an attempt on Perelandra in the body of Weston, and who will one day be vanquished by Maleldil with his army. (Lewis, Perelandra, 172, 182.)
Thus the primary characteristic of masculinity, for Lewis, is a readiness to protect others, even at great cost to oneself. This is what Ransom learns on Perelandra, as he works to protect Tinidril and the planet from the Un-man, first with his words and then with his very body. This is what he wrestles with figuratively, prior to his physical contest with the Un-man. Is he willing to attempt to rid Perelandra of the Un-man, physically, at cost to his own body, potentially at the cost of his life? This is the war he learns that becomes the answer to Merlin’s final question in their first meeting in That Hideous Strength, convincing Merlin that he is the Pendragon. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 1945.), 271.) This is how he earns the injury to his heel in imitation of the Ransom of whom he is a reflection.
This masculinity requires the development of other characteristics of a soldier, including a willingness to follow orders, courage in the face of danger, perseverance, and an ability to recognize the enemy’s strategy and develop a counter strategy. These characteristics are easily recognizable in Ransom’s war with the Un-man. He obeys the Presence by confronting the Un-man, continues to chase him in spite of fear and exhaustion and pain, recognizes the enemy’s strategy in sending fear into his mind and adapts to it, and is eventually victorious. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 1945.), 271.)
In contrast, when the Un-man tells Tinidril stories promoting his concept of femininity, his concept of manhood is described as
a huge, dim multitude of creatures pitifully childish and complacently arrogant; timid, meticulous, unoriginating; sluggish and ox-like, rooted to the earth almost in their indolence, prepared to try nothing, to risk nothing, to make no exertion, and capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females. (Lewis, Perelandra, 108.)
The contrast is clear; the unwillingness to try or risk or exert oneself could not be further removed from the image of the warrior standing with his spear, ready to defend.
But it is important to note that the goal of true masculinity in Lewis is always to protect others, following the orders of Maleldil, even at great personal cost. It is never to win glory or personal gain, or even to protect oneself. Monika Hilder points out a few of Ransom’s failed attempts to pursue a kind of selfish knightly heroism, particularly in Out of the Silent Planet. (Hilder, Gender Dance, 32-33.) In contrast with these failed attempts, Ransom succeeds in his physical contest on Perelandra. He succeeds because he is acting for Maleldil, to protect others. This is Lewis’s concept of real masculinity.
The Posture of Femininity
Before we look at femininity in this scene, it will be helpful to recognize that Lewis said in That Hideous Strength, via Ransom, that all people – men as well as women – are feminine in relation to God’s masculinity. (Lewis, Strength, 313. He also refers to God as ‘the masculine force beyond’ Nature, impregnating Nature with miracles. [C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), 98.] So all of Nature is feminine to God’s masculinity for Lewis. Yet another reference to this idea is in his essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’, in which Lewis’s primary objection to women as priests is that priests represent God and God is predominantly portrayed in Scripture as masculine. He also postulates that men often fail to be good priests because they are not masculine enough. This understanding of masculinity as primarily protective illuminates that statement wonderfully.) Thus we should expect to see his masculine as well as his feminine characters demonstrate femininity towards God. Ransom, in particular, will provide several illustrations of Lewis’s concept of femininity.
Perelandra’s hands ‘were open, with the palms towards him.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 171.) It is a posture laden with meaning. A woman holds her hands open to release what she is holding as well as to accept a gift, a task, or a person. It is a posture exemplifying a lack of fear or defensiveness. It can also be a posture of giving, of holding something out to another for them to receive. A final key aspect of femininity is emphasized in the second part of the description – she is looking ‘inward’, to a ‘curtained . . . world of waves . . . of life’. (Lewis, Perelandra, 172.) This encapsulates the idea of fertility. All of these meanings are reflected in the character of the Green Lady of Perelandra, Tinidril.
The primary aspect of femininity for both men and women in Lewis’s writings seems to be releasing what one has or wants and accepting what God sends. In a letter of March 31, 1958, responding to a question about prayer from a frequent correspondent, he said, ‘St. Augustine says “God gives where He finds empty hands.” A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift. Perhaps these parcels are not always sins or earthly cares, but sometimes our own fussy attempts to worship Him in our way.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S, Vol. III Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper (Harper Collins e-books, 2009), 930. He also mentions this saying in The Problem of Pain, p. 94. Keep in mind that The Problem of Pain was published between Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.) The idea of holding one’s hands open for what God gives can include several aspects, as illustrated by Ransom and Tinidril in Perelandra. They talk repeatedly, for example, of accepting the good Maleldil sends, often illustrated by fruit, rather than the good one had anticipated. (Lewis, Perelandra, 59, 71.) They also speak of accepting trials or difficulty – waves that are too big to swim through. (Lewis, Perelandra, 59-60. King Tor also mentions this idea in connection with himself on page 181.) Tinidril often stops in the middle of a conversation to listen to what Maleldil tells her, accepting his words, then reporting this communication to Ransom. (Lewis, Perelandra, 53-54, 64-65, 71.) Ransom especially illustrates accepting a task given by Maleldil – as simply going the direction he is bidden, (Lewis, Perelandra, 55.) or telling the truth when his reason tells him lying would be more effective. (Lewis, Perelandra, 103-104.) An excellent summation of this idea is when, soon after his arrival on Perelandra, Ransom has an urge to assert his independence and feels the pressure of the Presence uncomfortably surround him.
But when you gave in to the thing, gave yourself up to it, there was no burden to be borne. It became not a load but a medium, a sort of splendour as of eatable, drinkable, breathable gold, which fed and carried you and not only poured into you but out from you as well. Taken the wrong way, it suffocated; taken the right way, it made terrestrial life seem, by comparison, a vacuum. (Lewis, Perelandra, 62-63.)
Monika Hilder, in The Gender Dance, also notes this first aspect of femininity. She frequently mentions ‘feminine submission’ in her chapter on Perelandra. In her chapter on That Hideous Strength, she calls it ‘receptivity’ and sees it as the primary metaphor of that novel. (Hilder, Gender Dance, chapters 3 and 4.)
Another feature of open hands, giving, is hinted at by the above quote. The gold ‘not only poured into you but out from you as well.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 62.) An example of this from Tinidril is in the way she interacts with the animals. As Maleldil gives to her and makes her older, she in turn makes the animals older, or helps them to maturity. (Lewis, Perelandra, 56.) The king also refers to this idea in his prophecy in the final chapter. (Lewis, Perelandra, 181.) We should note that there is considerable overlap here with the idea of charity, which also seeks to help others grow. This giving may be a distinct facet of charity in that it is characterized by passing on to others what one has first received from Maleldil.
The characteristic of vulnerability, or a lack of defensiveness, is exemplified partly throughout Ransom and Tinidril’s conversations as Tinidril has no shame in asking questions and admitting her lack of knowledge or her forgetfulness. She sees no need to protect her reputation. Another example is when Ransom sees Weston, the scientist who becomes the villainous Un-man, on the beach and tries to warn her away from him. Rather than having an impulse to protect herself from him, even after being warned by Ransom, her impulse is to teach him – combining vulnerability and giving. (Lewis, Perelandra, 72.) This aspect is easily overlooked as, of course, Tinidril as a character has never experienced true fear. But we see it develop in Ransom and other characters throughout Lewis’s books as well. (Holding one’s hands open to God implies a trust that God will send what is good and that He will protect you, therefore negating the need for fear or defensiveness. This dynamic seems to play a part in all of Lewis’s novels.)
The idea of fertility so permeates the book that choosing examples becomes somewhat difficult. The most obvious early example is Tinidril referring to herself as ‘the Mother’, although she has no children as yet. (Lewis, Perelandra, 57.) The lushness of the planet, the floating in water, the closeness of the golden sky, and the diffuseness of the light all point to the planet as a womb. It is important to note that the Green Lady is not yet a mother, but she is open to becoming a mother when it is time. In the meantime, she acts as a sort of surrogate planetary mother for Ransom, who was never able to meet Eve, the mother of his own race. (Lewis, Perelandra, 58, 176.) This hints, as is further fleshed out in That Hideous Strength, that to Lewis this fertility is not limited to the bearing of biological children. (Of the five women associated with St. Anne’s, none have children, having children is not possible for two, and only one is definitely expected to have children. ‘Mother Dimble’ acts as a mother toward Jane, many of her husband’s students and, essentially, all of St. Anne’s, though she has no biological children. Ransom himself describes her as being closely connected to Venus. [Lewis, Strength, 27, 298-303, 311, 359-362.]) It might, therefore, be better described as nourishing life. The description of Malacandra’s eyes as ‘impregnated with distance’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 172.) hints at the idea that this kind of fertility also applies to biological males. It is further demonstrated by King Tor, Tinidril’s husband, at the end of the book. He metaphorically reverses their biological roles, saying, ‘It may be that in this matter our natures are reversed and it is you who beget and I who bear. But let us speak of plainer matters. We will fill this world with our children.’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 181.) Tinidril has provided the seed of an idea, which Tor brings forth, and both are responsible for nourishing life – the life of the planet as well as their children.
The opposite of standing with open hands, ergo the opposite of ideal femininity, would be clinging to or grasping at something. And, indeed, in one conversation Ransom indicates that the Bent One’s primary wrongdoing was to cling to what he thought was good rather than to accept what Maleldil sent. (Lewis, Perelandra, 71.) The image of the anti-woman offered by the Un-man is also described as reaching out to grasp what she thinks is good rather than waiting for Maleldil to reveal it to her. In his description of the anti-woman, the Un-man also leaves out the idea of children or fruitfulness of any kind. When Tinidril’s response includes the idea of progeny, he abruptly ends the conversation, realizing she is returning to the idea of true femininity.
So Lewis’s idea of femininity involves releasing expectations in order to accept what God sends, giving to others as God provides, vulnerability, and nourishing life. It applies to men as well as women.
Lewis’s views on masculinity and femininity are confusing to many scholars primarily because he viewed them so differently than expected. Most scholars are interested in looking at gender in terms of power or roles or sexuality. Lewis didn’t see it that way. He saw gender in terms of a picture – a contrast between Mars and Venus. And what is more, a real man, to him, was a man who was feminine toward God – no less open and accepting and submissive than a woman. No wonder, then, that Lewis famously wrote that he could not ‘bear a “man’s man” or a “woman’s woman”.’ (Lewis, Letters Vol. III, 157.) C.S. Lewis’s views on gender were far more complex than one would expect of a mid-twentieth century scholar of medieval literature. Rather than focusing on power or roles or sexuality, he saw masculinity and femininity as defined by their posture toward God and others. Men were to exhibit feminine open-handedness towards God while sacrificing themselves to protect others. Women were just as able to rule or to fight as men – as long as they were holding their hands open to God’s calling. The core, for Lewis, is that each individual must fill the space for which God has created them. ‘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!’ (Lewis, Perelandra, 184.)
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