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It’s been forever since I posted anything! I’ve really just been too busy with kids and school to work on much else. I’ve been reading a bit in the essays, as something I could leave and come back to while answering school questions, but haven’t had time to concentrate on Perelandra itself, especially as I’m working through the section with complicated arguments between the Un-man, Tinidril, and Ransom. I started this post a long time ago but tried to go right into the Bible study and, well, that’s going to take a while. I do have a bit more written, but we’ll see if school goes more smoothly or I can get away to work on it a bit. Quiet is hard to come by these days!

[Tinidril] “The King is always older than I, and about all things.” . . .

[the Un-man]  “This time, when you meet the King again, it is you who will have things to tell him. It is you who will be older than he and who will make him older.”

[Tinidril] “Maleldil would not make a thing like that happen. It would be like a fruit with no taste.”

I’m not sure I really paid attention to the above quote before this read through. I’ve had some conversations lately about gender roles in society and the family, and this time it struck me in a new way. I don’t think Lewis is just saying something about Tor and Tinidril – he’s trying to make us think about something, knowing him. So, was he saying here that men are always more mature than women? That men are more mature than their wives? I don’t think he’s really doing either one, given what I’ve studied so far. I’ve established that Perelandra and Malacandra are on the same level, and  both Jane and Ivy in THS seem to be more mature than their husbands, so that would contradict what his characters actually portray. So maybe he’s saying that in an unfallen world like Perelandra husbands, or perhaps more broadly, those in authority, would be more mature than those responsible to submit to them? That makes a bit more sense. Perelandra and Malacandra are feminine and masculine, but on the same level of hierarchy and presumably maturity. In an unfallen world, perhaps a person would never need to be in the difficult position of needing to submit to someone less mature than s/he. It does seem that way on Malacandra – the eldil Malacandra is much longer lived and more mature than the species over whom he rules. And the indication in the text is that all the eldila took part in the creation of the planets over which they rule. So, maybe, Lewis is playing with the idea that in an unfallen context, those with greater wisdom or maturity would always be higher in the hierarchy than those less mature or less wise. It’s pure speculation, but it is an interesting idea, anyway, and it makes more sense in the larger context of Lewis’s writing than the simplified and misogynist ‘men are more mature than women’ interpretation.

 Thinking about these issues of roles and authority and maturity, especially in the context of the family, has made me want to take another look at gender roles in Scripture. A recent Facebook conversation with a friend and some friends of hers make me want to dig into the topic a bit more deeply than I have before. And it could be enlightening to take note of where I think Lewis got things right, and where I think he didn’t. Why did God make two sexes – why not one, or three, or seven? Is God gendered, as Lewis thought? Which is more important – gender or sex? Where do cultural concepts of gender match up with what shows up in Scripture, and where do they not, both in Bible times and in our own? One question I’ve found very interesting lately is about how much of our interpretations of gender roles in Scripture have been influenced by cultural understandings of gender and hierarchy and how much is really in the text. 

I realize that those are some really big questions, and I’ll never be able to come to a full understanding, well, while I’m on earth! But I do think it’s worthwhile to at least ask some questions and take a look at what I see in the Scriptures so far. I’m going to start at the beginning, with Creation, and then move on from there. Here’s hoping it won’t be quite so long before I get to put up another post! 

Previous Post: Where Work Meets Life

You know how some days you just read along with not much of an impact, noting details that support what you’ve seen before or that bring up questions, but nothing very significant? I’ve had a few of those recently. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a struggle to work on Perelandra much at all. Part of it is simple overwhelm – ‘geriatric’ pregnancy with three very active older kids, the heat of summer, annoying-but-not-medically-significant discomfort, trying to get work done on the house and being unable to keep up with even the normal dishes and tidying, thanks to the aforementioned discomfort. But underlying all that is a sense that maybe I was wrong. I’ve been working at this for over two years. I’ve been in contact with some scholars, but had no recent interactions. I’ve written an academic article, and had it rejected. So lately there’s been this sense that perhaps I was wrong. Maybe I’m really not qualified to do this work. And then there’s this sense of injustice. Why did God seemingly call me to this if He wasn’t going to equip me to do the work – to do it well, in a timely manner? At this rate I’ll be lucky to get a book out in 15 years! And where is the support that I need to be able to do the work – the stamina to do this AND dinner AND the dishes; the deep conversations with people who will enjoy discussing these ideas and give valuable feedback; the ability to travel to conferences or take classes?

And then today I read this. “He [Ransom] began to smart under a sense of injustice. What was the good of sending him—a mere scholar—to cope with a situation of this sort? Any ordinary pugilist, or, better still, any man who could make good use of a tommy gun, would have been more to the purpose. If only they could find this King whom the Green Woman kept on talking about. . . .” And I made a note about how this was an indication of Ransom’s immaturity – his failure to accept the task that God had given him to do, and to trust that He would provide the tools necessary to do it.

And then I realized that I’ve been doing the same thing. “Wouldn’t somebody with a doctorate in literature from some prestigious university be better suited to this job? Or at least somebody who had more cooperative kids and a clean house who could devote more time to it – at least an hour or two a day? Or somebody who had contacts in higher education and publishing who could help get the ball rolling? If only my circumstances would change so that I could do this properly.” But, just like Ransom, that is not who God has called. He has called me – messy house, hurting hands, kids-who-get-into-everything and all. How did Lewis put it earlier in the book? “One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications.” I have no idea what qualifications I have that make me particularly suited to this work. But I can see why I had that little nudge to work on it today, even though I should really be working on dinner. (Actually, those kids-who-get-into-everything are starting dinner while I type. They can be helpful, too!) And so I’ll keep plugging away, whenever I can, trying to mature into a person who accepts all the waves with joy.

Next Post: “The King is always older than I”

Previous Post: Ransom and Tinidril: First Conversation

I’ve been away from the blog for quite some time, unexpectedly, but with very good reason. I’m pregnant! I had really bad ‘morning’ sickness for several weeks, so bad that lots of days I could barely get out of bed. I’m finally feeling better, and finally getting the house back in order. (With a huge thanks to my husband who kept things going while I was down. I’m so thankful for God’s timing so that he could be working from home while I was so sick!)

So I’m still re-reading, highlighting and making notes on Perelandra. Today I read the first real conversation between Ransom and Tinidril. In reading it, I remembered that some have used her as a reason to criticize Lewis’s treatment of women – as in, they see her as a simpleton, foolish and ignorant, constantly asking questions, which they sometimes read as seeking male guidance. But as I read this passage, I see something quite different.

Part of the reason people see her as ignorant is that she has no fear of asking questions. She has no shame in not knowing something, not understanding a word or phrase used by Ransom. In contrast, I see this as a strength. It’s partly because of her innocence, yes. No one has ever made fun of her or humiliated her or looked down on her for not knowing something. There is no one in her world sinful enough to do such a thing. So asking questions isn’t, for her, something shameful or childish, but something any reasonable person would do if they want to learn something. I also see it as part of her maturity in having open hands. She trusts God – Maleldil – that either Ransom or he will answer her questions truthfully, allowing her to learn and continue to mature. She also, it seems to me, trusts the reasoning ability given her by Maleldil to discern the truth or falsity of what Ransom says – and she does so even more when Ransom and the Un-man disagree later in the book. Rather than being a sign of her childishness, her questions point to her maturity. In fact, at one point in the conversation, she is so thrilled to learn something new that she claps her hands and smiles, and Lewis points out that in our world we only see that kind of smile on children, but ‘there was nothing of the child about it there.’ It is part of her maturity that she doesn’t have to hide her feelings, as her self-worth isn’t determined by her level of knowledge. She is comfortable with who she is and need not hide either her knowledge or her ignorance. I’m rather jealous of that ability, honestly, as in our fallen world we do experience shame in ignorance and either pride in our knowledge or a desire to hide it because it seems advantageous in certain circumstances (especially as a woman).  It is also important to note that the areas in which she is ignorant are areas in which she has until now had no reason to become knowledgeable. Maleldil orchestrated Ransom’s coming for her growth as well as his. But she is not ignorant in anything which it has thus far been important, or even reasonable, for her to be knowledgeable.


Another indication of the fact that she is at least on a level with Ransom intellectually in this scene is that when he provides new information, she doesn’t simply accept it at face value, or replace her perspective with his, but she considers it – she acknowledges when she learns something new, she questions him when he’s wrong, and at times she sees how both perspectives could be true in different ways. 

As an example of the first – recognizing her ignorance and learning something new – on her first meeting with Ransom she laughs at him, because he’s half red and half white – piebald. By the next morning, when this conversation takes place, Maleldil has revealed to her that Ransom’s people don’t like to be laughed at. She had no intention of being discourteous, and she acknowledges her ignorance as a way to establish good will upon first meeting him.

In contrast, when he objects that earth is too small a planet to be the corner, the hinge on which all future creation turns, she says, ‘I do not understand. Corner with us is not the name of a size.’ The implication is that the importance of something has nothing to do with its size – an idea that Lewis treats as true and puts significant emphasis on in the final scene on Perelandra. She gives him a chance to explain his perspective, in case she is lacking knowledge in this area, but as he does not we are left to assume her way of looking at it is superior. And then Lewis confirms this at the end of the book.

An example of her final response, recognizing truth in two ways of looking at an idea, comes when Ransom is confused by her assertion that she is older, her way of articulating that she has learned and grown, which to her has nothing to do with literal time. I’ll quote this bit of the conversation in full. Ransom speaks first.

“But you are very little older than yesterday.” 

“How do you know that?” 

“I mean,” said Ransom, “a night is not a very long time.”

 She thought again, and then spoke suddenly, her face lightening. “I see it now,” she said. “You think times have lengths. A night is always a night whatever you do in it, as from this tree to that is always so many paces whether you take them quickly or slowly. I suppose that is true in a way. But the waves do not always come at equal distances. I see that you come from a wise world . . . if this is wise. I have never done it before—stepping out of life into the Alongside and looking at oneself living as if one were not alive. Do they all do that in your world, Piebald?”

I love the way here that she recognizes that both ways of looking at time – time counted in minutes or hours versus time counted in experiences or growth – as having value, and is willing to leave it at that. She takes his perspective, compares it with her own, finds value in both, and leaves the question of the wisdom of both views open. Then she moves on to a wider view of their conversation that interests her. Perhaps as a way of acknowledging the wisdom of her view (though perhaps merely using her terminology so she will understand), Ransom also adopts this way of speaking at times.

She does what any intelligent, reasoning person does when faced with new ideas – compares them to her own knowledge and experience, recognizing that some are inferior to her current knowledge, some are superior, and some are on equal footing.


At the end of their conversation there’s even some indication that she learns less than he. First, in response to her understanding that the Malacandran kinds – intelligent animal-like beings – will not be made again, he says, ‘I have no more understanding than a beast.’ He recognizes her superior understanding in this matter. Soon after, Lewis writes that Ransom ‘had had enough.’ That is, he had had enough conversation and needed time to process what he had learned. He promptly fell asleep and slept until full daylight, so the conversation had exhausted him. When he woke, it was with a sense of insecurity. This seems to indicate that what he had learned had unsettled him, in a way that the conversation hadn’t unsettled her. Both had asked questions, both had learned – but what he had learned had exhausted and unsettled him. The text even indicates that he had matured in the course of the conversation, as he wouldn’t have been able to admit ‘bluntly’ that he was tired of talking ‘even an hour ago’. He is learning this ability to be straightforward, and to acknowledge weakness, from her.

So, far from creating a childish, ignorant, unreasoning feminine character in Tinidril, Lewis created a woman who intelligently considered new information, connecting it to what she already knew, and using sound reasoning to choose whether to accept or reject what she was told. I can see why it is easy to see her as ignorant, because she is the opposite of worldly wise – she is innocent. And in our fallen world, innocence is a childish trait, because experience teaches us to hide our emotions, that to ask questions is to lose face,  to admit to a lack of knowledge is shameful. She has none of that baggage. Her knowledge and intelligence has a different quality than ours. She is free to be mature and intelligent and to ask questions without shame. And that’s exactly as Lewis wanted her to be.

Previous Post: Why So Much Gold?

I found something exciting – at least to my weird self! I’ve been re-reading Perelandra, and I keep getting interrupted (thanks to everybody being home all the time) and re-reading the same section over and over. Granted, it’s slightly irritating, but it has brought into focus something I’ve been puzzling about for some time but haven’t really pursued. I’ve talked about the significance of the ‘colours’ of the halos – not actual colors, but time of day, temperature, etc. I know I’ve also mentioned the significance of actual colors connected with Mars and Venus when talking about Narnia – Tumnus’s red scarf, the red rock his cave was made of, etc. So, red has traditionally been associated with Mars, and green with Venus. (Fascinating side note – that may be where we get the red and green of Christmas. Mars’ metal, iron, was used to make red dye, and Venus’ metal, copper, was used to make green dye, in addition to traditional association. Here’s an interesting article I came across on the subject: ) So it isn’t surprising when the water, and even the rock Ransom sees when he first arrives on Perelandra are described as green.  

But I was rather confused when I realized how often gold is mentioned in Ransom’s first few minutes on the planet. In the beginning of chapter 3, there’s a conversation which repeats the word ‘colours’ six times in three sentences. The next page describes his sensations as he enters Perelandra’s atmosphere. ‘The prevailing colour, as far as he could see through the sides of the casket, was golden or coppery.’ On the next page (on my e-book at its current setting, anyway), there are no fewer than seven references to gold. The sky is described as ‘the burning dome of gold’, then ‘the sky was pure, flat gold,’ then ‘the ocean was gold, too, in the offing, flecked with innumerable shadows.’ You get the idea. I know by now that Lewis is not going to mention something seven times on one page without it having some serious significance. I know that gold is Sol’s metal, connected with the sun, but that just didn’t seem to fit here. I had puzzled about it a bit before, but hadn’t really looked into it. This  time I did a little more digging. 

I decided to take a look at Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature as a place where Lewis may have discussed the significance of the color gold. It’s a collection of Lewis’s scholarly essays, some of which I’ve read and some I haven’t gotten to yet. Bingo! I found an essay entitled ‘Spenser’s Cruel Cupid’. It’s about a stanza in which Spenser describes Cupid, blindfolded, with his arrows, and beneath him a dragon with both eyes pierced with arrows. In the process of figuring out the meaning of this stanza, Lewis poses several possible meanings for the dragon, but he concludes that the real point of the dragon is that it is a guardian. He quotes another medieval author describing dragons as guarding things, especially young girls’ virginity. Then he talks about golden apples – especially the golden apples of the Hesperides (connected to Venus), which are guarded by a dragon – as sometimes symbolizing a girl’s underdeveloped breasts. So dragons guard things – especially gold and virginity. Now, in Spenser’s work, Lewis comes to the conclusion that Britomart symbolizes true love – she’s a virgin in the context, but we’re constantly reminded that she will be a mother, much like Tinidril in Perelandra – and this particular Cupid symbolizes lawless love, having prevented the dragon from guarding her virginity by shooting its eyes with arrows.

So here’s how I think that connects to Perelandra. Perelandra’s sky is a golden dome, described as golden pretty much every time the sky is mentioned. This hints at the idea that she is a virgin planet, untouched by evil. Ransom, in a sense, is the dragon – and dragons are connected to Mars (being killed by him, granted, but in this usage serving that masculine purpose of protection) – sent to protect the virgin planet from the fall intended by the Un-man. It just makes so much sense! It’s also kinda fun that he arrives from the sky, as a dragon would.

Once again, I am impressed by the idea that Lewis meticulously crafted his work, using repetition to call attention to images that have an underlying significance, and that significance is connected to that medieval imagery that he loved. Now I look forward to seeing if this image crops up again in Perelandra – it’ll give me something specific to look forward to in this re-reading!

Quick note – I published this yesterday, went on with my Perelandra reading today, and was reminded that the first animal Ransom encounters is a dragon – a heavy, hard, red gold (not coppery) dragon . . .

Next Post: Ransom and Tinidril: First Conversation

Previous Post: Journal Article

This year is certainly turning into a season of unexpected interruptions!  I had planned to take the month of March to do a great purge in my house, trying to make everything go a bit more smoothly with less stuff for my kids to leave lying around – or for me to have to dig through in the cabinets. Well, I got most of the kitchen cleaned out before the Covid-19 insanity hit. I live in Washington State, so we were some of the first to have kids home from school and spouses stay home from work. I’m just thankful we’ve done homeschooling and the two of my kids who go to school were only there part time, so the transition wasn’t nearly as disruptive as it was for many people – though it’s been disruptive enough! My oldest really misses the peace and quiet of being home alone.

So instead of purging we spent the month adjusting. I have gotten back into studying Lewis – I’m just doing a re-read of Perelandra now to get back in the swing of things, so I may not have much to say for a bit.

One interesting thing I came across is in the Preface to Perelandra. At the end, Lewis says, ‘All the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical.’ The fact that he specified that the HUMAN characters are not allegorical seems to imply that non-human characters might be. This connects beautifully to the post on Allegory and Symbolism, where I argue that Mars and Venus are closer to allegory than symbolism in Perelandra. So now I’m contemplating writing an article focusing on the idea that Malacandra and Perelandra are symbolic of not only Mars and Venus (the obvious parallel), but that they also serve as an allegory for masculinity and femininity. Those places where their characteristics – both the halo ‘colours’ and the characteristics implied by their posture – show up demonstrate the characteristics Lewis attributed to masculinity and femininity. It would be a lot of work, but I do think that it would serve to focus my thinking on the subject.

It also might be more publishable, as the focus would shift from the politically/emotionally/culturally charged concept of masculinity and femininity to the more academic concept of allegory – though the ideas on masculinity and femininity would be included. At least they wouldn’t have center stage.

The other option would be for me to skip the idea of publishing articles altogether and try to finish the research I need to do for a book. I’ve pretty much given up the hope that I’ll find mentors or colleagues to interact with regularly. The advantage of going straight for a book is the possibility of laying out the whole big picture at once. This makes sense to me because the smaller ideas looked at individually may not be nearly as convincing as when you can look at the big picture. I know I’ve asked some scholars questions that they probably thought made no sense because they didn’t have the whole picture to see where that bit of information fit. If I couldn’t get a book published, I could always go back and try to publish articles after writing the bulk of a book.

Please feel free to comment or email if you have an opinion on which option might be more worth my time. Stay Well!

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’ 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.

Contextual Clues

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. 

The Homily

 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. 

Colours: Highlighters

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.)

Previous Post: Thoughts on Chivalry

[A note before I start. Ok. A long note. I’m talking about men here. I, and most of you, and Lewis, probably disagree with medieval feminine ideals. So when I say chivalry I’m talking specifically about this idea Lewis is discussing in ‘The Necessity of Chivalry.’ Not the whole system, not really thinking about men vs. women and if it applies to both. That would probably necessitate multiple posts! 

Also, Lewis quotes the word meek to describe one aspect of chivalry. I want to note why neither Lewis or I primarily use that word when we talk about it. Meekness is strength under control. Launcelot had the strength to control his fierceness and exhibit modesty, gentleness, docility, demureness. The word meek is now often used to refer to the qualities – gentleness, modesty, etc. – this control allows him to exhibit rather than the control itself, so it is often equated with weakness. I wonder if Lewis addressed that in Studies in Words? I’ll get around to that eventually . . . I’ll use words like gentle instead.]

I read Lewis’s essay ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ a few weeks ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. In it, Lewis makes the point that the ideal of chivalry – Launcelot’s meekness  in hall and sternness in battle – was the result of careful cultivation rather than a natural phenomenon. The idea is that most men fall into two classes – they are naturally either stern or gentle; lambs or lions – and to become both requires work. It is ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’. I love this summary, ‘The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate toward one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually need that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was likely as not to be a milksop.’ Not pullin’ the punches, there!

He also makes the point that people and cultures tend to prefer one or the other as the ideal. Some people think that the more violent tendencies of men will or should die out. They prefer the more modest, gentle side. Others would prefer more violent heroes, like Achilles, who came before the chivalric tradition and lack this softer side. For example, recently someone talked about one of their kids wanting to watch Sense and Sensibility, the movie, to help them understand the novel. Someone else said that was great, if it was a girl. I couldn’t resist making the point that men have enjoyed Austen for over 200 years, and only recently has it come to be considered feminine. But they thought that it wasn’t manly to enjoy that docile, gentle – and non-violent – writing.

He concludes with the idea that the melding of the two in the tradition of chivalry is in a sense humanity’s escape from either extreme. Men should strive for a balance of the two – fierce men should learn the control to become meek, and gentle (or weak) men should learn to fight when it is necessary.

The essay sparks my interest on a number of levels. One is that his point about society having a divide between people who prefer either stern or gentle men is spot on. I really think it’s a major dividing point between the political parties in the U.S. right now. The left prefers gentle men, and the right prefers the stern. I think a large part of the reason President Trump was elected is that he has that authoritative, confrontational style and apparently more people prefer that right now to the gentler, more modest style. Cultures tend to swing between the two – as Lewis also pointed out – and that’s part of how you end up with a man like President Obama being followed by someone like President Trump. People also tend to assume that if a man is one he can’t be the other. No comment on either President. It’s potentially an interesting way to look at American politics, anyway. 

It’s also interesting to think about when considering books and movies and casting choices, especially when you consider physical characteristics as representing one extreme or the other. I mean, you could never have a slender Thor or Superman, right? But Spiderman is generally much physically – an often emotionally – on the more slender/modest side. Though that’s partly because he’s also young. But I do think that the physicality of casting often conforms to – or very intentionally creates a contrast with – those associations.  Ha! Note the Superbowl commercial with Aquaman!  More to the point, I recently saw the new Little Women – the one by Greta Gerwig. The casting kinda bothered me. In the book, Professor Bhaer is  older (40’s), like a ‘big bumblebee’, and ‘rather stout’ – rather like a bear, in fact. He wrestles with his nephews (and his children in Little Men), does physical labor (in our first introduction to him he carries something heavy for a maid), points out Jo’s flaws in a none-too-subtle way. He is much more on the stern end of Lewis’s spectrum. He is very different from Laurie, who is a gentle-man, more physically slender, prone to the flaws inherent in that kind of character – tends toward laziness and giving others their way whether or not it’s good for them. And I think part of what Alcott was doing was showing how the two very different women – Jo and Amy – were attracted to very different men. I know she didn’t really WANT Jo to get married, but since she had to make it happen, she visualized the kind of man Jo would be attracted to – intelligent, but also very different from Laurie physically and emotionally. Jo wanted a man who could stand up to her, strong enough to take her tempestuous nature – physically and intellectually and emotionally. Amy was in some ways stronger, more determined, less conflicted – she had enough determination for her and Laurie both! But Gerwig cast a young French actor known for his sex appeal as Bhaer, so that Jo ended up, well, whatever that was (chasing? kissing? marrying?), a man much more similar to Laurie. And the way he’s played is also more gentle. I think it says something about the kind of man Gerwig – and her intended audience – prefers. I think it’s difficult for this generation to imagine a girl falling for a man like Alcott’s Bhaer, so the filmmakers altered his character. But in Alcott’s day, I think it seemed much more reasonable – girls were often marrying older (hence thicker), more stable men. It could be lots of fun to apply this rubric/comparison to, say, Shakespeare or Austen and film adaptations of their work – to see how the characters fit, and how those characteristics are portrayed over time. Austen’s Darcy, for instance, is stern but learning meekness, and Bingley is meek and learning to fight for what he wants. That old BBC adaptation (still the best!) definitely reflects that in their casting.

But then, of course, we have to look at the trilogy in light of this essay, which was written between Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. The essay makes it clear that he saw his generation leaning toward a preference for the gentle end of the spectrum and away from the stern end. He said that some had expected the more violent tendencies in men to die out and that they had been surprised when it was still alive as WWII started. That may have been on his mind when he created Ransom. He’s definitely on the modest/gentle/meek end of things. He shows a distinct desire not to enter into physical violence – but he learns that it is sometimes necessary. In That Hideous Strength, Mark also shows that tendency. Merlin seems to have been on the more stern end of the spectrum, but has grown to demonstrate both qualities, as is demonstrated in his interaction with Ransom.

But probably most interesting is the fact that Lewis doesn’t associate the gentler qualities with femininity, as did most of his culture. He’s talking about men – real men; ideal men – as exhibiting qualities often associated with femininity. Monika Hilder has written three books on Lewis and gender, from a perspective that he’s turning chivalric gender ideals upside down. But I think she misses the fact that Lewis absolutely doesn’t see those qualities (gentleness, modesty, humility) as feminine – human, maybe, but not feminine. His perspective on femininity is completely different. Rather than defining femininity as demure, gentle, docile, (Um. Definitely not the words I would use to describe Tinidril!), he defines it as releasing selfish desires, accepting what God sends, doing what God calls you to do, and nurturing growth in others. To be fair, Hilder does list ‘receptivity’ among the feminine traits she sees Lewis upending. But Lewis saw women as capable and strong and intelligent and curious, and if anything MORE ferocious at times than men! (I can’t remember where but he indicated that some women were too protective of their families.)

An area I wish Lewis had addressed in the essay is the importance of knowing when it is appropriate to be fierce, and when it is better to be gentle. After all, it would be horrific if a man were fierce in hall and meek in battle! I do think he makes it fairly clear in Perelandra that a man should be fierce when protecting others. Ransom is at first fierce only in his words.  He seeks every possibility of outmaneuvering the Un-man verbally. He is reluctant to engage in physical violence, but he does so – and he battles fiercely – when he realizes that there is no other option. And I think that would be Lewis’s primary criterion for determining when that fierceness is appropriate – when protecting others. I think of Peter battling Meroz as a way to avoid bloodshed, of Edmund battling the White Witch, of Reepicheep learning that his honor is not a good enough reason to fight fiercely.

It’s a really interesting read, if you get the chance – short but sweet! Not like the pieces from Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature that I’m reading now!

Next Post: Journal Article

Previous Post: Symbolism and Allegory

I’ve been working through Lewis’s letters for a loooong time, with many side forays into books I discovered about Lewis, or that influenced him, and catching up on his essays in order up to the time period I’m reading about in the letters. I’m currently in August, 1940 – after Out of the Silent Planet but before Perelandra. I just came across a very interesting letter written to a scholar who studied German literature in response to some questions she had about The Allegory of Love, specifically about the distinction Lewis makes between allegory and symbolism. I get the impression that she was asking him about Kafka and whether Lewis saw his work as symbolism or allegory.

What’s interesting is that in the letter, Lewis adjusts his opinion of the relationship of symbolism and allegory. In The Allegory of Love, he distinguishes between the two by saying that in allegory, the author is using an unreal character to image a real passion; in symbolism, the author sees the reality – the passion or person itself – as the image of something more, which he then tries to find, or image, through the fiction. ‘The allegorist leaves the given—his own passions—to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real. To put the difference in another way, for the symbolist it is we who are the allegory.’ The real topic in allegory is the human passion. The real topic in symbolism is spiritual – or at least something beyond humanity; that which the human passion imitates. We can see how this works in Lewis’s own fiction. He tries to get at spiritual reality – ‘that which is more real’ – in a way that gets around our mere reason; the characters show us that which is more real than reality. In The Allegory of Love, he also says that ‘[t]he difference between the two can hardly be exaggerated.’

In this letter (August 18, 1940, to Professor Butler), however, he describes how he would revise that section in the book. He says he still recognizes the distinction he described, but he also takes a look at symbolism and allegory as ‘literary procedure[s]’ and describes how the two overlap. He describes them this way.

  1. Allegory Each symbol, in isolation, has a meaning and the total meaning is built up out of these, e.g. you first know who Bialacoil is and what the Rose [means] then see what Bialacoil-guarding-the-Rose means. 
  2. Symbolical narrative or myth. What has a meaning is the total story, and the separate characters or ‘properties’ are mere products of analysis. i.e. ‘rescuing-Eurydice-from-Hell-and-losing-her-by-looking-back’ has a meaning that neither Eurydice in isolation, nor Hell in isolation has-or, if it has, you get it by analysis out of the total meaning and don’t build up the total meaning out of them. Also in a symbolical narrative the meaning usually cannot be stated in conceptual terms: it lives only in the story.

So this alternate view is focused on the level of detail or emphasis in the comparisons – in allegory, the detail is the thing; in symbolism the big picture is the thing. I think this really makes sense when you look at how he insisted that the Narnia Chronicles weren’t allegory – the important thing is not individual symbols (as in allegory), but the ‘donegality’, the atmosphere he creates with each novel as it relates to the heavenly sphere it is intended to reflect. (If you haven’t read either Planet Narnia or The Narnia Code, you really should.) You don’t have to understand the references to the gods to imbibe the atmosphere, or to have it affect you, though an understanding of the symbols deepens your understanding. To understand something as allegory, if it is allegory, requires more understanding – if you translated Romance of the Rose, but left the names of the characters in French, a person with no knowledge of French or Latin would be hard pressed to understand the allegory.

And that’s where it gets even more interesting! Just after the above contrast, he says, ‘But an odd thing follows. The same story may be mythical or symbolical to one person and allegorical to another.’ Later he adds, ‘the two things are not absolutely separable.’ He gives a few instances of this – George MacDonald, the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Kafka. He says as a child he imbibed the symbolism of George MacDonald – he got the flavor of his writings, knew that it connected to something ‘more real’. Later, becoming more learned – and a Christian – he came to see them as more allegorical. He imagines someone without any knowledge of religion reading the Pilgrim’s Progress and understanding that it’s symbolism and gathering some truth – but Bunyan was certainly writing allegory, as anyone with much Christian religious education understands. And he says that he’s read some Kafka, and to him it’s symbolism – he gets the impression of depth, the atmosphere of the thing, but to Kafka – and those more knowledgeable than Lewis – it may very well have been allegory.

So Lewis describes the difference between allegory and symbol as often having to do with the reader rather than the author. The author may be thinking primarily one way – either allegory or symbol – but for the reader, it may be symbolism unless or until they understand the specific symbols more clearly. And even writing with lots of specific symbolism, like Narnia, may not be allegory, as the distinction has more to do with emphasis.

So I’ve been thinking about how this applies to my work on the trilogy. When I described some of my ideas to Michael Ward (the maturation theme, masculinity+femininity=fertility, etc.), he said that he saw OSP as Lewis ‘establishing the masculine principle’, Perelandra as establishing the feminine principle and further describing masculinity, and THS as Mark and Jane surrendering to their ‘gendered realities’. I think part of the reason for our differences is that he sees it from that broader, more symbolic perspective. He’s breathing the air of Malacandra and Perelandra, but without seeking the origin of the fragrance, so to speak. Having delved more deeply into the masculine and feminine imagery as defined on the mountaintop, I see it as a bit closer to allegory. I’m not sure I would call it allegory per se, but I see more consistent themes having to do with the intersection of masculinity, femininity, and growth than appear from a ‘symbolic’ (as defined by Lewis in the letter) reading.

I do think Lewis intended this more allegorical reading of gender in the trilogy specifically because he gave us the key to reading the symbols when he wrote the scene on the mountaintop. Maybe he realized people didn’t get it in OSP, so he decided to be a bit more direct. By naming the eldila Mars and Venus in the scene, telling us that the difference between them was gender, and describing their appearance in a way that recalled both characteristics of the gods and of the planets/characters in the books he was doing the same thing Bunyan was when he gave his characters and places names like Christian and Hope and Vanity Fair. The symbols themselves have meaning, inside or outside the story itself, which in the letter Lewis equated with allegory. (see second note!) And they show up in all his writing! (This week I’m listening to The Silver Chair with the kids. They cross water and climb into a stone tower to free Prince Rillian. Not a coincidence. Femininity {water} + Masculinity {stone tower} = growth. Always.) I think that in the trilogy, he’s using the ‘literary procedure’ of allegory to accomplish the symbolic purpose of imaging the divine. I need to read a bit further in the letters and essays to get a better idea of Lewis’s further thoughts on allegory, especially as it relates to the trilogy, to be more certain.

What do you think? Was Lewis going more for symbolism or allegory – or at least as much toward allegory as worked in his cultural context?

[Edit] Note: My use of the word symbols in relation to gender above may be a bit unclear. I think Mars is a representation of perfected masculinity and Venus of perfected femininity. They are the equivalent of the Rose, so to speak. Lewis uses the mountaintop scene to delineate another layer of symbols that clue us in to their presence/influence, i.e. water, plants, green for Venus and red, stone, phallic symbols for Mars. Since his audience isn’t accustomed to full-on allegory (which he discusses in The Allegory of Love), he uses instead these more subtle references to the presence of Mars and Venus. But when you recognize their presence, they function the same way that he mentions in the letter – ‘you first know who Bialacoil is and what the Rose [means] then see what Bialacoil-guarding-the-Rose means.’

More Important Note: (April 2, 2020) I just started re-reading Perelandra as a way to get back into my studies after a month-long hiatus. I started at the very beginning. Here’s the last part of the Preface: ‘All the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical.’ Ha!  The HUMAN characters are not allegorical – which leaves the possibility, or even implies, that some non-human characters ARE allegorical. Like Mars and Venus . . .

Next Post: Thoughts on Chivalry

Previous Post: Mary, Joseph, Jesus and Open Hands

We’re nearing the end of the Christmas season, and I’d just like to share some thoughts I’ve had about Jesus’s earthly family as it relates to the ideas on my blog. I’ve been looking for a picture of the Annunciation in which Mary has open hands, without success. This isn’t the first year I’ve thought of Mary that way – and I know I’ve read about others imagining her in that posture. Mary’s reaction to the news that she will bear the Messiah is to verbally acknowledge her willingness to do what God asks of her. She accepts the difficult calling of bearing the Messiah, knowing it will involve being presumed guilty of fornication and not knowing how Joseph will react. She’s a lovely example of holding your hands open for what God gives, even when He calls you to a difficult task. Lewis used the posture of open handed acceptance to represent femininity – though he saw all humans as feminine toward God and therefore believed men should demonstrate this heart-posture as well. I’ve talked before about seeing open handed submission to God’s will as a human trait rather than a specifically feminine one. And this year I’ve noticed that though Joseph’s reaction to the angel’s visit is different from Mary’s, he also exemplifies the posture of open hands.

Most of us are familiar with Mary’s reaction to being told she will be the mother of God. She submits herself to His will with words. ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ Then she goes to see her relative Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist. When John recognizes Jesus when they greet one another, she again responds with words – composing the song of praise we call the Magnificat.

Joseph’s response is different, but also full of receptivity to God’s will. He simply does what he is told. I realized something fascinating while looking at Joseph’s response to the angel’s appearances to him. There are no words spoken by Joseph recorded in the Bible. None. Nada. Zip. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t even ask how high to jump! He just does what God says.  In Matthew 1, when he’s realized his fiancée is pregnant and is deciding how to deal with the situation, he has a dream. In his dream, the angel tells him that the baby is God’s and that he should take Mary as his wife, but without consummating the marriage until after Jesus’s birth. Joseph’s reaction? ‘He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.’ (Mt. 1:24-25, ESV) When after the visit from the magi an angel tells him to take Mary and Jesus and run to Egypt, ‘he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.’ (Mt. 2:14, ESV) He didn’t wait until morning. He didn’t ask if maybe, say, Galilee would be far enough. He didn’t ask how long he should stay there, or what would happen to his extended family while he was away. He just believed and obeyed. He did the same thing when instructed to return from Egypt. And when on the way he realized the current ruler might also be a threat and started wondering what he should do, God told him before he even had time to ask and he  changed course, heading for Nazareth instead of back to Bethlehem.

I love the way Mary and Joseph exemplify holding your hands open to whatever unexpected task God calls you to. Mary’s words bear witness to her willingness to do hard things – and being pregnant before you were married in those days was a stigma that followed you around until you died, and probably until the kid died, too. People brought it up during Jesus’s ministry. Joseph’s actions bear witness to his willingness to do hard things as well. Family was everything in that culture. If he married Mary, everyone would assume that he was the father – that he didn’t have the self control to wait until marriage – ironic, given that he had to wait nine months or so after the wedding! He obeyed God anyway, at the expense of his reputation. He took Mary with him to Bethlehem, his ancestral home. They probably traveled with extended family as part of a caravan, as it is highly unlikely that Joseph had moved to Nazareth by himself. It’s much more likely that his parents, maybe even with aunts or uncles or grandparents, had moved there as well. And they all had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. They probably stayed with extended family in town. After Jesus’s birth, it seems that the young family intended to stay in Bethlehem. The text indicates that Jesus was past the baby stage – probably between a year and two years old – when the wise men finally arrived after their long journey. (I don’t have a specific source here, but the word used for Jesus refers to a young child rather than an unspeaking infant, and Herod had all the boys under the age of 2 killed – excessive if he was an infant.) They had remained in Bethlehem past the time necessary for Mary to recuperate, and it makes sense that they may have intended to stay there – in his ancestral home, among his relatives. He had presumably been working, building a customer base and a new life there in Bethlehem. Then God called him to take his wife and child, leaving behind his business and all his family connections, and travel to a foreign country where they would be minorities, refugees, probably discriminated against, for an unspecified amount of time. He simply obeyed; packed up his wife and child in the middle of the night. And just imagine how he felt when he heard of the massacre in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, knowing that giving up this one child would have prevented the deaths of others – children of his relatives (as Bethlehem was a very small town). But rescuing this child now meant rescuing everyone thirty years later.

Even the last mention of Joseph – when Jesus is found in the temple at 12 years old – does not record his words, but Mary’s. He was there – he was astonished when they found him, he listened to Jesus’s words about his father’s business, but we are not told what he said.

Another thing that strikes me about that last passage – and I love, love, love this – is that Jesus was submissive to Joseph and Mary. ‘And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.’ (Luke 2:51 ESV) They submitted to God in parenting Jesus, and Jesus – God himself – submitted himself to them.  It’s a beautiful picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5 – ‘giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.’

I think the lesson here is that God gives each of us difficult things to do – in the process of teaching us to trust Him. And we can all open our hands to His will, but we will do so in our own way, according to how He made us. I don’t see this words/actions contrast as a masculine/feminine dichotomy – there are plenty of men who respond with words and women who respond with action. But each of us can and should open our hands and our hearts in whatever way is fitting for us and the situation.

Mary gave thanks for being chosen to do hard things for God. Joseph submitted to God’s calling to husband Mary and father Jesus. And Jesus, the Christ, submitted to his earthly parents. Beauty beyond words.


Note: I focus here on submission to God’s will as an aspect of having open hands. I do want to note, however, that it’s only a part of the picture. Having open hands involves letting go of your own expectations, accepting yourself and others, giving to others what God has given to you, and more. So while I see submission as part of having open hands, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s the whole idea. I give a very brief overview here, but I’ve realized I haven’t tried to cover all of Lewis’s idea of femininity in one place. Maybe soon!  

Previous Post: Did Susan Grow Up?

And now, finally, we come to Susan. Why is it that people have taken a few paragraphs – in a book in which she doesn’t actually appear – to represent not only her entire character, but Lewis’s attitude toward femininity, maturity, and sex? I could say what I think, but it’d probably be rude.

The simple truth is that from the beginning of the books, from the first words she speaks, Lewis makes it clear that she has a false idea of maturity and what it entails. First she says she thinks the Professor is an ‘old dear’ (more the words of a middle aged woman than a girl) and then that it’s time for Edmund to go to bed. He calls her out in both instances for ‘trying to talk like Mother.’ The next day she tells him to stop grumbling, tries to redirect him, tells Lucy to stop being silly after her first trip through the wardrobe, and generally talks as though she thinks she’s their mother. And they call her on it. The clincher is that when the Professor says that Lucy may be telling the truth about Narnia’s existence, Susan ‘had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like’ that. She can’t imagine an adult accepting the possible existence of worlds other than the one she inhabits. She has a very shallow, false idea of what it means to be grown up, and rather than being herself she tries to act that part.

Now, don’t think that I imagine Susan to be a negative character. On the contrary, she has many admirable qualities. She is kind and gentle and thoughtful – Queen Susan the Gentle. She is very sensible and practical, evidenced by her suggestion that they wear the coats from the wardrobe. She shows courage in going with the others even though she’s frightened after they find Tumnus’s wrecked house. She stands by Aslan in his death. She uses her bow and arrow to rescue Trumpkin. But when it comes to Lewisian femininity, she is immature. She allows her fear to keep her from trust – from being open to Aslan and his calling on her life.

When she acts and speaks like their mother, it seems she’s trying to control the situation. It’s war time and they’ve been separated from their parents and sent to a strange place in the country. So she tries to control what she can – trying to keep the other kids in line, keep them from quarrelling, be the mother she’s missing. In Narnia she is initially willing to explore, but when it gets dangerous she wants to go back. As I said, she is courageous; she recognizes what’s right and is willing to go along with the others in spite of her fear. But her first instinct is to shrink from danger. When she hears that Aslan is a lion, she asks if he’s safe. She consistently shrinks from opportunity when it seems dangerous. She clings to safety. And that is the opposite of having open hands.

This clinging to safety and to her own idea of what it means to be grown up is nowhere more clear than in those much-bandied paragraphs in The Last Battle. I’ll go ahead and quote the full text.

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” 

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

She’s STILL talking as though she’s the mother and they’re the children – ‘Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’ And according to Jill, she’s only interested in ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations.’ That is Susan’s idea of what it means to be grown up. That’s what Philip Pullman takes as indicating that Lewis was afraid of letting Susan grow up. But is that really what it means to be grown up -by any adult’s estimation? Was that what Pullman thought it takes for a woman to be grown up? Or is it what he thought Lewis thought it meant to be grown up?

I don’t know what he was thinking. Fortunately, however, Lewis was a prolific author and his idea of maturity is evident everywhere. I’ve written before about Ransom’s growth in the trilogy – in accepting God’s will and obeying it, in charity, and in protectiveness. In contrast, I think Susan provides a clear example of what Lewis saw as childishness. That’s why Polly – a truly mature woman – says that she wishes Susan would grow up – and the emphasis is Lewis’s. The whole point of the conversation is to point out that Susan is immature – she is so immature that she doesn’t even know what real maturity is. She is so immature that she thinks wearing lipstick and going to parties is the epitome of grown-up-ness. She thinks that people can’t be grown up and believe in what they can’t see. And Lewis’s point is that she’s wrong. Narnia exists. Truly mature people – Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy – can see it; can accept it with open hands and open hearts, no matter what world they are in currently. Susan’s hands are not open to Aslan and Narnia because she is clinging to her false ideal of mature femininity – to a refusal to believe in what she cannot see, and to a culturally based idea of femininity as ‘nylons and lipstick  and invitations.’

Something else I love about Polly’s statement is that her wish for Susan has a good chance of coming true. Susan had been looking forward to the age of lipstick and nylons and invitations and now she is trying to stay there. But tragedy has a way of maturing people. Edmund’s selfish childishness led to his betrayal of his siblings and capture by the White Witch, and that led to his forgiveness and rapid spiritual growth. Susan will stay in her world of parties as long as she can – but she probably won’t be able to stay in that world long after the death of her parents and siblings. She has been exposed to the air of Narnia and we can hope that the tragedy of losing her parents and siblings will  be the catalyst that propels her to real growth. A hint of that possibility is given by Peter immediately after the conversation quoted above. He points out fruit trees nearby and suggests that they taste them. As fruitfulness is a key component of Lewisian femininity, this may – emphasis on the may – indicate that Lewis wanted to leave open the possibility that Susan would taste the fruit of feminine growth. I had to go check the letters – as I still haven’t gotten to the time he was writing about Narnia – and I found this! ‘I could not write that story myself. Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country, but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write. But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?’ (letter dated February 19, 1960) So Lewis seems to have imagined that Susan would have eventually entered Aslan’s country – but as she was never to re-enter Narnia, it would have been a contemporary novel rather than children’s fantasy and he had no interest in writing that kind of story. Come to think of it, that’s about the only kind of story he didn’t write! It’s such a lovely comfort to imagine that Susan would have eventually truly grown up. Somebody needs to write that book!

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