All Blog Posts

Latest

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.

Significance

First we will examine why this scene is pivotal to understanding Lewis’s approach to the idea of gender as a whole. Gender is one of several themes woven throughout the trilogy, but the argument could be made that it is the primary theme. Monika Hilder wrote a book on her understanding of gender and its importance in the trilogy. (Monika Hilder, The Gender Dance, Ironic Subversion in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).) Michael Ward outlined in Planet Narnia the masculine characteristics of Mars and the feminine characteristics of Venus in the trilogy, in the process of defining those deities and their planetary influences as they pertain to Narnia.(Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008) 80-83, 169-171.) Indeed, both Ward (Michael Ward, ‘The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God’ Lecture, The Lewis Festival, September 23, 2018. In answer to a question about themes in works other than the Narnia Chronicles, Dr. Ward said gender was the ‘primary focus’ of the trilogy.) and David Whalen (David Whalen, ‘The Space Trilogy: A Cosmos of Old Worlds and New Battles’  from the online course ‘An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writings and Significance’ https://online.hillsdale.edu/courses/cs-lewis/lecture-5 31:40.) have pointed in lectures to the centrality of gender for the trilogy. It is unknown if Lewis intended to write about gender as he began writing Out of the Silent Planet, but when he decided to take his hero to Mars, the subject of gender was likely unavoidable. His familiarity with and love for the medieval conceptions of the heavens and planets and gods made it impossible to avoid such connections. It seems likely that for Lewis, as mentioned earlier, when he set his trilogy on Mars, Venus, and Earth, the theme of gender was towards the forefront of his mind.

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.)

Similarities

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.)

Differences

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.

Conclusion

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!

Previous Post: Lucy as Feminine

It’s been a bit crazy around my house lately. Weirdly, most of it isn’t the holidays – we didn’t decorate for Christmas because we’re going out of town and because, well, life. We’ve been trying a two day a week school, with the kids working at home the other days. It’s actually been more work than full-on homeschool, because I have 3 in different grades and they’re all doing different things and I’ve never been big on keeping on track with state standards. Consequently this work has been going pretty slowly. But I finally get to write about how I think the Pevensie girls fit with Lewis’s view of femininity.  I’ve written about how I think Peter is masculine from the beginning and Edmund becomes masculine. The girls are a bit different. I believe Lucy is the mature example of femininity and Susan, well, we’ll see about Susan.

Lucy, though the youngest sibling, is in many ways the most mature. Her maturity in femininity is demonstrated by her willingness to accept whatever God sends – facing unexpected adventure, unusual beings, truth-telling, difficult decisions. Her first words, ‘Hadn’t we all better go to bed?’ are intended to smooth over a disagreement and show sensitivity both to everyone’s feelings and to what’s right. When the children find the wardrobe and the others leave the room, Lucy stays behind because, perceptively, ‘she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe.’  When she finds herself in Narnia, she simply accepts the adventure – and Tumnus – without complaint or surprise or reluctance. She goes with the flow rather than trying to get back through the wardrobe – though she shows wisdom in making sure to leave the door open (like Peter and unlike Edmund) and making sure she could see the door from the lamp post. She doesn’t cling to safety, but accepts adventure. She enters this cold, masculine world from summer – Tumnus even says she comes from ‘where eternal summer reigns.’ She brings feminine warmth to Tumnus himself – enabling him to cry

She also shows evidence of maturity that is not necessarily related to gender. When she returns and the others disbelieve her, she shows great courage in maintaining the truth when it would have been easy to lie. She ‘prove[s] a good leader’ when all the children make it into Narnia, leading them directly to Tumnus’s cave. As we know from Perelandra, Lewis saw men and women as both capable of leadership. She recognizes that she’s the reason Tumnus was taken, is the first to notice the robin and recognize that he wants them to follow him, tells the others that Mr. Beaver is nice . . . . Well, you get the idea. She seems to intuitively recognize the right path and be willing to follow wherever it leads.

Other indications of Lucy’s feminine maturity appear in Prince Caspian, the story related to Mars in which Aslan is Martial/masculine. Lucy is the first to see Aslan, as usual. She knows he wants her to follow, but when the others refuse to believe her, she reluctantly follows them rather than Aslan. It’s interesting that Lewis doesn’t tell us in that context whether or not she has done right, but when she finally meets Aslan, he tells her that she should have followed him, even alone. She should have accepted the task he gave her, even though it meant going against Peter, who as the high king was a legitimate authority. The implication is that obeying the higher authority – Aslan – takes precedence over following the lower authority – Peter. After she spends time in Aslan’s martial presence, she becomes more mature in her femininity, willing even to accept the task of following him without the others. Oh. Now,there’s something I should probably write a full post to explain. Lewis often portrays a person learning masculinity from femininity and vice versa. As in, Ransom tells Merlin in That Hideous Strength that he learned war on Venus – he learned the primary masculine trait on the feminine planet. I’ll try to get to that soon. Anyway, to get back to Lucy, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund points out that she sees Aslan more often than any of the other children. I think this is an indication of her spiritual maturity in general and of feminine receptivity. She is consistently open to Aslan’s presence and his instructions.

Another part of Lewis’s understanding of femininity is that it had to do with encouraging growth or fertility.  Accordingly, another indication that Lucy is a picture of mature femininity is her gift from Father Christmas. He gives her the little diamond bottle of healing cordial. In Miracles, Lewis indicates that Jesus’s miracles of healing were a speeding up of the natural regenerative process which he is always enacting. Creating new life, encouraging fertility, growth, and regrowth is all interrelated. Lucy’s gift of healing, coupled with her gentle care for all living things, as when she tries to wake the trees in Prince Caspian, indicates her connection to femininity in the chronicles.

All of this, to me, indicates that Lucy is an example of spiritual maturity, and especially of feminine maturity. She’s the youngest, which illustrates the idea that spiritual maturity is not always connected to age. And she is the child with whom we most identify – the true protagonist. We have the inside scoop on the truth of Narnia’s existence through her. In a sense, that’s really what we should expect from the dedication – to Lucy Barfield, Lewis’s goddaughter. So the most consistently mature of the children – the one we identify with and are called to emulate – is the youngest GIRL! Hmmm. Maybe Pullman was wrong to call Lewis a misogynist . . . And now Lucy has taken so long I’m going to have to wait for Susan! But I have it half-written already, so if I can, I’ll get it out later this week! Thanks for reading!

Next Post: Did Susan Grow Up?

Previous Post: Peter and Edmund

Yay! I finally get to talk about the Pevensie children! Well, not all four of them today. I’m just going to tackle the boys and how they reflect Mars.

Guess where the children were when Lucy told them that Edmund had been to Narnia and he denied it. They were in the room with the suit of armor. That’s also where they were when the girls came to tell the boys they had to get out of the way of the tourists and they all went into the wardrobe. Lewis being Lewis, this isn’t a coincidence. The suit of armor naturally, especially for him, wakens thoughts of knighthood and of Mars and masculinity. It calls attention to the fact that one boy is demonstrating Lewis’s ideal masculinity, and one is exhibiting the opposite.

From the beginning of the story, Peter demonstrates a tendency to protect others, especially those weaker than himself. When Lucy goes to Narnia alone, Susan and Edmund make fun and treat her like she’s foolish, respectively. Peter comes up with a more positive explanation for her story. He protects her by arguing that she’s fooling them on purpose. After Edmund returns from Narnia and hurts Lucy further by denying that he went, Peter again steps up to protect her, giving Edmund a thorough tongue-lashing for his bullying. He also takes the lead in telling the professor, trying to get help for her if she is going mad. When they all get into Narnia, he apologizes for not believing Lucy, asks her to lead their expedition, and tells her she makes a good leader. He does all that in just the first few chapters. Throughout the books, Peter exhibits this willingness to sacrifice to protect others. Perhaps the most obvious example of this primary characteristic of Lewisian masculinity, unsurprisingly, occurs in Prince Caspian.  He offers to fight the much older and more experienced Miraz in personal combat, as a way to buy time for rescue to arrive and to prevent more bloodshed. Because of all of this, I believe that Peter is a picture of mature masculinity. He has an instinctive desire to protect others and consistently acts to do so. His only failure in this is in his treatment of his brother, Edmund. In his protection of Lucy and in his pride he fails to protect Edmund, instead hurting him with his harsh words. But when confronted by Aslan, he confesses his failure of pride and tries to make it right. He grows.

Edmund is in some ways a more complicated character than Peter. In the beginning of the novel, he is complaining, grouchy, and unpleasant. He generally seems bent on making everyone miserable. When Lucy first discovers Narnia, he makes fun of her. He actively seeks to cause her pain. This is clearly the opposite of Lewis’s portrait of ideal masculinity. When Lewis compares masculinity and femininity to accentual and quantitative metre, I believe he’s making the point that masculinity and femininity are not two ends of a spectrum but are on entirely separate spectra. Lewis uses the four children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to provide an illustration of this idea. The opposite of masculinity is not femininity but bullying – selfishly causing harm, especially to those weaker than you. And this is exactly the way Peter accuses Edmund of behaving – ‘You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.’

Edmund is so interesting partly because after Aslan offers himself as Edmund’s ransom, he becomes an excellent example of true masculinity. Aslan keeps the girls from the battle, not because they lack courage, as Lucy supposes, but I believe in part to give the boys a chance to exhibit the sacrificial protectiveness that is true masculinity. Edmund proves as wily in his protectiveness of others as he was in his bullying. When he realizes that the queen’s wand is her means of turning people into stone, he attacks and breaks it, though he knows it could cost him his life – and it almost does. The result of this is a recognition of his masculinity. ‘And there on the field of battle Aslan made him a knight.’ Edmund had exhibited the key characteristic of masculinity – of true knighthood – and Aslan recognized it as such. Now,  Edmund isn’t always protective, especially with his words, but he comes through when it really counts. So Edmund changes in the course of the novel from a boy who hurts others to one who protects them – who became masculine. It may be that Edmund grows in his masculinity in the course of the novels, but it would take a closer reading than I’ve yet done to find out.

The two Pevensie boys demonstrate the opposite ends of a spectrum of Lewisian masculinity in the beginning of the novel. Peter consistently protects others, and Edmund consistently hurts others. Edmund also demonstrates that sometimes great growth in masculinity can occur almost instantaneously. I don’t believe that gender is the primary theme of the novel, but I do believe that it was so important for Lewis that it naturally came out in his writing. He was providing examples of heroes for both boys and girls – heroes and heroines who exhibited the essential characteristics of masculinity and femininity, as well as positive characteristics common to both genders such as courage, charity, and mercy.

Next week we’ll take a look at the girls and how they fit into Lewis’s idea of femininity. We’ll finally get to Susan! Meanwhile I’d love to hear what you think about Peter and Edmund as masculine beings.

Next Post: Lucy as Feminine

Previous Post: Gender in the Wardrobe


I mentioned in my last post that I really want to write about Susan and explain her place in Lewis’s view of gender. I’ve realized that not only do I need to cover all the Pevensie kids to do that, but I should also take a look at the big picture of Lewis’s ideas of gender as represented in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So here goes!

As soon as I realized that cold and winter are associated with Mars and masculinity, it struck me that the White Witch, who is feminine, is imposing eternal winter, masculine, on Narnia. That is, for Lewis, an oxymoron. Real femininity is connected to spring, warmth, plenty, water. So the idea that a female being would bring winter shows us that something is off kilter – things are not as they should be. In addition, at the first appearance of the witch, she is described in masculine terms. ‘Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.’ Her face is ‘white like snow’, ‘cold and stern’, and her mouth is ‘very red’. All those are characteristics associated with Mars, not Venus. So I think that Jadis is attempting to suppress her femininity in favor of imposing a kind of negative masculine domination – tyranny – over a country which is not under her authority by right.

And she succeeds. Tumnus and his house are described in non-feminine terms – it is made of reddish stone, as his face and scarf are red. There are chairs and a fire and a teapot, but none of them are described as warm or soft. While lulling Lucy to sleep, he describes a summer scene, dancing and plenty – feminine. But they are merely longed for, not present. Real femininity arrives with Tumnus’s sorrow for his sin – he weeps. And there are 6 words associated with water in two paragraphs. Tears, trickling and running and wet and making a damp patch. Lucy brings a tiny bit of femininity into this oppressively masculine world. And shortly after this, Tumnus chooses masculine protectiveness of Lucy, even believing that he’ll be captured and turned to stone. Tumnus has learned masculinity from Lucy’s femininity.

The Beaver’s house is a lovely example of my understanding that places of great growth have masculine and feminine components. The Beaver’s house is a mound or hill rising out of water – frozen water, but it’s green ice, described with words related to moving water, indicating femininity (spurting, trickling, water, wavy). It’s also made clear that there is water under the ice when Mr. Beaver and Peter go fishing. The house itself is made of wood, and the interior, like Tumnus’ house, is described without feminine warmth or softness – like having bunks rather than beds – in spite of being inhabited by Mrs. Beaver. As the fixed land on Perelandra, Meldilorn on Malacandra, and the garden in The Magician’s Nephew, places of great growth exhibit masculinity surrounded by femininity. And Mr. and Mrs. Beaver together tell the children about Aslan and the prophecies. The children’s growth is facilitated by masculine and feminine beings, in a masculine place surrounded by feminine water.

I’m still working through the specifics. I think that’s enough indication that Lewis was working this masculine and feminine imagery into the novel, so I’ll go ahead and get back to the big picture. There are four thrones at Cair Paravel, intended for two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve. I think Michael Ward is right when he writes in Planet Narnia that the book is about Jupiter, or Jove. But what Jupiter does at his coming is to restore the balance between masculinity and femininity that has been upset by the White Witch. 

I’ll just go ahead and acknowledge here, too, that Michael Ward connects cold to Saturn rather than to Mars. I think Lewis associated cold with both Mars and Saturn, as cold things are often mentioned when he’s talking about both. The best reason for this I can think of is that both are traditionally planets with unfortunate influences. Mars is Infortuna Minor and Saturn is Infortuna Major. In The Discarded Image, Lewis makes it clear that he doesn’t think these planets are unfortunate in themselves, but their influence on a fallen world can be unfortunate due to the nature of the world that receives it. In the same way, cold and winter are beneficial in their place, but they can be unfortunate indeed when taken to extremes or when unrelieved by the appearance of spring.

Given this understanding, it would appear that the White Witch in Narnia is trying to impose an unfortunate influence of masculinity – unrelieved cold, without even the warmth brought by Christmas. The coming of Jupiter doesn’t do away with winter entirely, but rather restores the balance between the seasons by bringing the long overdue spring. Spring will be followed by summer and fall and then winter, in its proper time and place. Jupiter is the king, ruler of Mars and Venus, who ensures that ‘while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’

Next Post: Peter and Edmund

Previous Post: A Quick Summary

As I may have mentioned before, I started working on a post on Susan Pevensie as related to gender, after reading someone saying Lewis ‘didn’t like women’ and talking about his ‘issues with women’ and mentioning Susan as a case in point. It’s turning out to be a bit more complicated than I anticipated, as I think she needs to be understood in context with her siblings. AND I’m not sure how much I’ve written about some of my ideas that may eventually need full posts. So I’ve decided to go ahead and write up a summary of main ideas that relate to gender and Lewis’s treatment of it in his fiction, to make my conclusions about the Pevensies a bit more understandable.

First, I believe that the eldila scene at the end of Perelandra gives an overview of Lewis’s views on gender, which are fleshed out in the trilogy and reflected in all his fiction. The image of the masculine eldil (Malacandra, or Mars) and the feminine (Perelandra or Venus) give a visual representation of what he saw as the essential characteristics. He carefully eliminates human cues such as hair length or style, color, sexual characteristics, and strength. Both shine with charity – love that desires to see and assist in the growth of the beloved. He describes them as both integral to complete humanity, and as entirely separate from one another.

The description of the eldila’s halos give us clues to know when he’s talking about Mars/masculinity and when he’s highlighting Venus/femininity. Mars is connected with hardness, coldness, and mountains; Perelandra with warmth, water, and plants/growth.

The eldila’s posture is the primary visual representation of the differences Lewis saw between masculinity and femininity. Mars stands with a spear, facing the direction from which danger has come, indicating his watchful willingness to sacrifice to protect others. Venus faces inward, to a world full of growth, indicating her connection with fertility or nourishing life, and she stands with her hands open, indicating a willingness to accept whatever God sends.

I see the primary focus of the trilogy as growth – Ransom’s process of maturing in both femininity and masculinity. He grows in Lewis’s idea of femininity because Lewis saw God as ultimately masculine and therefore all creation as feminine toward him. (I disagree, but in my writings on Lewis, I promise I won’t always include the tedious distinction between my views and his. If I’m writing about Lewis’s ideas, ‘femininity’ refers to his views. My views are addressed here and here) OSP is ‘Ransom’s enfances’ where he begins learning femininity, in Perelandra he reaches maturity in femininity then masculinity, and in THS he charitably leads others in their similar development. 

I also believe, becoming more convinced the more I read, that Lewis saw growth as requiring the presence of masculinity AND femininity. Every setting where major character growth occurs in his fiction seems to have masculine and feminine characteristics. (I haven’t re-read everything with this in mind yet, but as I read, I keep finding it.) I need to write a post about that, but once you start recognizing those Mars/Venus indicators from the Perelandra scene, it becomes fairly clear. Moreover, the presence of masculinity encourages growth in femininity and vice versa. The major clue to that is that what Ransom actually learns on Mars is feminine acceptance of God’s will, while on Venus he learns the art of war, but it’s reflected throughout his writings. My kids and I just listened to Prince Caspian and I noticed that it’s after spending time with Aslan (in his Martial character, as I think Michael Ward is right in Planet Narnia that the Chronicles reflect the seven heavens and seven aspects, if you will, of Christ) that Lucy becomes willing to follow him, even if she must do so alone. She grows in femininity through being with the masculine Aslan.

It’s also good to note that Lewis saw everyone as both in authority and under authority in different situations, and everyone should both submit and lead depending on their God-given place in the relationship (see Preface to Paradise Lost and The Arch Metaphor).

I don’t think that gender is a primary focus of the Narnia Chronicles as it is in the trilogy, but they naturally reflect Lewis’s views on gender.  Characters reflect differing positions on a sort of gender maturation spectrum, with some exhibiting characteristics opposite their gender, some intuitively practicing their gender, and some growing over the course of the books. (Wanna guess how I see the Pevensie kids?) I’m not sure that sounds right. Lewis makes it clear that masculine and feminine aren’t opposites, but each gender has it’s opposite. The opposite of masculine protective willingness to sacrifice oneself is a selfish harming of others rather than a feminine willingness to accept what God sends. This view helps us understand Susan’s place as a feminine character,  as it helps us understand all the characters.

I hope this has been a helpful overview. I’ll try to get around to writing about the parts I’m realizing I haven’t covered in this space. Let me know your thoughts below!

Next post: Gender in the Wardrobe

Last Post: Black Bards

Today I’m going to talk about a lighter topic. Well, sort of. It’s still not Lewis, but one I think he’d find interesting. I love Black poetry. I put it that way on purpose – not just poetry by African Americans, necessarily. But the poetry of freedom – it is so powerful and gritty and beautiful. I usually read a little poetry in the morning to wake my brain up, and the other day I began re-reading The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never read any – it starts with spirituals and other slave songs and moves all the way through to 1970.

So, this morning I read one of my absolute favorites – ‘O Black and Unknown Bards’ by James Weldon Johnson. It honors the anonymous authors of the spirituals. In it, he marvels that people so oppressed, so crushed, could compose such beautiful, stirring melodies and that they should sing in praise to God. It’s full of the irony that a people thought to be lacking in intelligence could compose songs full of double meaning, and comparing their work to the classical masters. That last line, though, is the kicker. ‘You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.’ 

Just wow.

The horrible, horrible blasphemy of slavery (blasphemy because calling and treating those created in God’s image as though they were not is nothing less) brought people who had once been princes, princesses, valued members of their tribes, to a place where they were destitute, treated like animals to be bought and sold. I’m sure when many of them were introduced to the gospel, they saw it as just a white man’s religion. Some adopted it in order to placate their owners, yes. But many realized, rightly, that Jesus was much more like them than like their white masters. He also was a brown man, ruled over and oppressed by white men, treated as less-than by them, turned over by his own people to be killed by them. So many of them found in the Scriptures their hope – truly came to trust in the God who freed his people from the Egyptians. 

Most slaves were never taught to read or write. So as they learned the stories and the truths of the Bible, they composed songs about them. They began to sing of their hope – to express their joy and confidence or their sorrow and longing, and to draw others toward Christ. They wrote songs fitted to the needs of their people. Songs of comfort or encouragement, yes, but also songs of which Johnson says, ‘Such were the notes that men have sung/Going to valorous deeds’. People who read them assuming the authors weren’t genuinely believers miss out on the beautiful double meanings. ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ and ‘Deep River’ are both about dying and about escaping literal captivity. To say they are only about one or the other is to downplay the intelligence and creativity of the poetry. When they sang of Moses and Joshua, they sang of how God had freed his people and about how they hoped he would free them. They took the Scriptures and applied it to their lives in the only way available to them and they did, indeed, sing a race to Christ.

This poem made me think in a new way about Kanye West’s conversion and release of his new album. I know that some believers are hesitant to accept his conversion as real. Perhaps they have become accustomed to thinking that someone who has fallen so far is unredeemable, of being hesitant to accept any celebrity conversion as real – or of being worried about what embarrassment such a person might bring if they fall away, or if they embrace a form of Christianity unacceptable to the individual. But two things make me think his conversion to Christianity is real. The first is that from what I’ve read he’s perpetually honest, even raw, in his music – calling himself a god when he’s on a high, freely admitting his destructive tendencies when he recognizes them. And the album is full of an acknowledgement of sin and the need for grace and dependence on Christ necessary for conversion. The second is that he’s doing exactly what his forefathers and mothers did. He’s singing – composing music  that both expresses what he is feeling and thinking and urges others to come to Jesus. The composers of the spirituals created music that came from their African roots, composing new songs of encouragement, of lament, of rejoicing, of invitation that centered on their new faith. I think Kanye is doing the same, using the gospel music of the church crowd and the hip hop influences that permeate the African American community. I listened to the album. It’s not something I’ll listen to often – the changes are too abrupt, too drastic for my taste. Of course his theology needs time to develop, to grow and solidify – but doesn’t everyone’s? So I will do as he asks on the album. I will pray for him, that he will grow in Christ and that I’ll see him in that great gettin’ up mornin’.

Next Post: A Quick Summary

Last Post: A Woman’s Place