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The Best of Erik the Reddest: C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy

Erik the Reddest is not at his best;
he caught the flu, and needs his rest.

So in an effort to help we reblogged this post,
Because this is the one people like the most!

(Sorry but that’s the best we’ve got!)

__________

It is my opinion that his science fiction trilogy deserves at least as much attention and praise as his famous Narnia series.

I’m taking a short break from my “Science Fiction Problems” series to talk about… science fiction. Well, it’s something like a break, at least- I’d like to talk about one of my favorite science fiction series, which I hope I can convince every one of you to pick up. The series in question is C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy.

C.S. Lewis space trilogy

These are the covers for the copies I have and they’re the best illustrations I’ve seen yet.

C.S. Lewis is a favorite among our writers here at Lantern Hollow Press and we’ve already talked a great deal about him and several of his works, but what comes to mind most often when people hear his name is his Narnia series, especially since their recent movie adaptations. However, The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe was not my first exposure to Lewis or his allegorical ways, and it is my opinion that his science fiction trilogy deserves at least as much attention and praise as his famous Narnia series.

That Hideous Strength bear Mr. Bultitude

Yes, there is a bear involved with the story. No, the title does not refer to Mr. Bultitude’s prodigious bear-strength

I had read his good friend J.R.R. Tolkein’s work way back in middle school English when I picked up The Hobbit as my summer reading assignment, but I didn’t read anything by C.S. Lewis until my first semester at Tennessee Tech University in a British Literature class, where we read and discussed his space trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet. I had never been much of a fiction reader, usually picking my reading assignments based on which looked like it had the fewest pages or on the availability of Sparknotes (gasp!)*, and the thought of the writer of “That Story With the Jesus-Lion in it” somehow hobbling together a science fiction story seemed absurd to me… yet I was immediately sucked in as soon as I grudgingly began what I though would be an arduous read.

I loved the unwilling, misplaced protagonist Ransom and his seemingly useless expertise in linguistics (which I learned

C.S. Lewis Out of the Silent Planet Hross

A bit different from my own imagining, but I really like this rendering of the Hrossa

Lewis had a great deal of respect for), and Lewis’ descriptions of the bizarre landscape and citizens of Malacandra. I loved the unique and charmingly innocent aliens and was surprised to learn from my sagely professor that Lewis’ anthropomorphic creatures were some of the first of their kind in science fiction, designed to counter the trend of nihilism and dehumanization that had begun to run amok in the genre, much to Lewis and Tolkein’s disapproval.

Out of the Silent Planet spherical space ship

This is pretty much exactly what I imagined the spherical spaceship looks like

We moved on to the second book, Perelandra, where Ransom tried desparately to convince the new Eve of the evil that courted her, and I marveled at Ransom’s struggle to defeat the rationalizations the enemy proposed to the naive young girl. By the time we read the third book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, I needed no convincing; I wanted to see where Lewis would take the story, and I was not disappointed. Lewis used the depiction of darkness of the human heart and its inevitable defeat, the evil of the “bent” creation, and the power of Maleldil (the series’ name for God) to illustrate Christian themes in ways I had never seen or heard of in science fiction, and by the end of that semester I was confounded that the Space Trilogy was so unknown.

I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy to anyone who enjoys science fiction, but especially to those who don’t care for it- the series is exceptionally accessible and has a broad appeal to anyone who enjoys good fiction, and is an excellent primer for science fiction and C.S. Lewis both. I truly enjoyed these books, and hope that I’ve convinced you to pick them up- you won’t regret it.

*A habit I developed in public high school but dropped quickly that first semester of college, mostly because I so thoroughly enjoyed the books we were assigned in that course

LXXI

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Why did I go from seminary studying theology to graduate study in English literature?  It is a question I am often asked.  There are many good answers.  One is that Theology is the queen of the sciences, and Philology, even more than Philosophy, is her chief handmaiden.  Another is the sheer wonder of what Christians believe.  Take the reality of Christ’s Person, for example.  How would a theologian limited to mere prose try to capture it?  I have seen the results, abstract and dry, too often.  The problem is not just that they are incomprehensible; they manage to be incomprehensible without conveying any compensating sense of the beauty and mystery surrounding this most glorious of truths.  Here’s my way of doing it (published in Christianity Today, 17 October 1979).

TO CHRIST OUR LORD

Sonnet XXII

Thrice holy, three times spoken, meant, and heard

By one Voice speaking once, once only hearing,

One only multifold, all-meaning Word

From out of time, in time and flesh appearing;

Separate, though inseparably one,

Thou who art not the Father, yet art God,

Thou who art Son of Man, yet no man’s son;

Root of Jesse, Rock of Ages, Rod

Of Aaron blossoming in barren soil

Whose petals blades are of a burning sword

That strikes its deep wounds full of healing oil;

Servant of all and universal Lord:

With literal metaphors, we stumbling seek

To praise Thee, strong Firstborn of all who speak.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://www.createspace.com/3562314 and order Stars Through the Clouds!  Also look for Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest book from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  https://www.createspace.com/3767346.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Living Stories on the Road: Satisfying my Muse on the White Cliffs of Dover

Hello again!  After a month, I have returned to contribute my weekly posts for the month of May.  Since last I posted, I have visited three countries, taken about two thousand photographs (don’t judge me), and encountered some literature in the process.

So, for the next four weeks, I want to take you on my adventure and point out the places where novels and plays and long ago tales happened to me.

I don’t generally go off on adventures simply because ‘thus and such’ happened in that spot or was written there or about that place.  Give me a castle and I’m pretty happy.  I can make up my own stories about it.  But in my two weeks of wandering, I had some dreams.  I had goals.  I had stories that were living in my head that I needed to find.  And find them, I did, and more besides.

My first stop was Dover.  When you think of literature and the cliffs and beaches of Dover (and you paid at least a little attention in English Lit), you are probably immediately going to think of Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’.  Clearly, that must be what I was searching for.

Well, it wasn’t.  But I did find this:

The White Cliffs of Dover are fantastic, rising sheer and chalky and suddenly.  I was thrilled to have the chance to see them.  Dover Castle, grand and unyielding on the hills above the cliffs, is filled with shadows and echoes from centuries of political games and medieval grandeur, a first line of defense against enemy attack.  But what I wanted was, for once, not the castle – as much as I loved that castle.  It was the cliffs.  What I was searching for, you might be surprised to discover, was Shakespeare.

What has Shakespeare to do with the White Cliffs?  Perhaps you know the passage from King Lear:

 

There is a cliff whose
high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep
Bring me to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me: from that place
I shall no leading need.

There is a hill called the Shakespeare Cliff that is supposed to be the one described by Gloucester in these lines.  This is the famous and most distinctive connection between Dover and Shakespeare.

So, of course, I was looking for King Lear!

Actually, no, I wasn’t.  The scene that I wanted to experience as I walked along the cliffs was not from King Lear, but from Henry V.  And it was, I freely admit, from a film version and not from the play at all.

If you have not seen Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Henry V, you have missed out on a spectular film.  When I read the play, I hear the voices of those actors, particularly the bard-like voice of one Sir Derek Jacobi (just listen to him speak the first bit ‘O! for a Muse of fire!’ and you will be captivated.  Or you should be.)

Those of you who have seen it are now nodding and smiling knowingly.   You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Jacobi, as the Chorus, walks along the cliffs – these cliffs – , chilled and wind-lashed as he delivers his lines…

For now sits Expectation in the air,
  And hides a sword from hilts unto the point
  With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets,
  Promised to Harry and his followers.

This scene, for whatever reasons, stands out in my mind.  It is strange since the cliffs are not actually in the play itself.  But because of Jacobi, they are in the play when I read it.  After all, Shakespeare’s Chorus also advises us in the Prologue:

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

A play is a visual art, not just a literary one, and when we read the words or watch on a small stage, we are kindly requested by the playwright to build in our minds the armies and castles and battlefields (and cliffs!) to see the story as it is meant to be seen.  When I read a book, a really good one, I want to see it in my head, hear the voices, watch the characters play out their roles as if on a massive stage. That’s how I get to know a story.

So yes, the White Cliffs, for me, are the stage for the dramatic prologue of Act II in Henry V, and I don’t think Shakespeare would find fault with my imagination.

I climbed those cliffs, stole a pebble as a souvenir, and I will never be able watch that scene in Branagh’s film without a silly grin on my face.

I was there.

*Next week: From Dover to Canterbury, I became a pilgrim twice over.
*For more pictures: My Travel Blog

And now for something completely different: Robert E. Lee

I recently did an interview with CSPAN on my small book on Robert E. Lee, and I thought I might share it:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RobertELee

To be honest, I haven’t watched it–I hate watching myself on TV–so I’m just taking other people at their words that I didn’t make a fool of myself.  :)

So, for once, we have no elves, dwarves, or Jedi.  No Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, or Lucas.  Just something on a real person from actual history, a person who was much more human than many people like to think.

If the book intrigues you, it will be out on April 30.  Here is the link to order on Amazon.com.

Best Regards,
Brian

Message in Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Yesterday was the release day for the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, which means that it’s quite possible that most of the people liable to really care about this topic are off actually playing the game (I would be too if it weren’t for school. Spring break can’t come soon enough). Last week  (in this post) I started into my analysis of Popbioethics.com’s audaciously-titled article “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”, and today I will be focusing on the second major point of the argument: the message of Mass Effect, and what it tells us about the Science Fiction genre.

The Message: We Don’t Matter

Essentially, the general message that Munkittrick points to in the Mass Effect universe is that “human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things”. We are one of many, and unlike the universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender’s Game, and a great deal of other science fiction worlds, humanity has a very minor role. This is not something that tv and movies can usually do, Munkittrick explains, because they have to have appeal for their human audience. This is an important point because it explains the importance of the setting to the message (his first point to his second) and how each piece builds on the last, but I’ll get to that in a moment. According to the article, the world of Mass Effect is colored by its message in three major ways:

  • Humans are petulant: Humans may be the new kid on the block, but they tend to walk around like they own the place. They react with insolence to the authorities already in place (ones that have been there hundreds of years before humans even understood what space was), and many do not accept being treated  as second-class, even though there are many other races that are even further back in line. This somewhat justifies the feelings of the other races, and helps to put the humans’ struggle for significance in perspective.
  • The lowering of humankind makes it harder to be xenophobic: Since humans are not the most important species in the galaxy, the player is given a sense of kinship with many of the other races that are in the same boat. Many characters of other races are much more identifiable because they are similarly ‘inferior’, so that instead of focusing on what makes alien characters different, the player focuses on what makes them ‘human’. This also ensures that no matter Shepherd’s gender, race, or sexual orientation, the player is subjected to the same prejudices, based on species alone.
  • The undermining of human pride opens the door to new discussions: When the player is not focused on how great humanity is, examining the greatness of other beings does not threaten the perceived balance of power. In many other science fiction universes, beings more powerful and capable than humans are seen as a threat, or at least arrogant and supremacist, and the default reaction is mistrust. In the world of Mass Effect, humans are not at the top, and so the king-of-the-hill reaction is gone, letting the player see genuinely superior beings more clearly. Characters such as cyborgs, artificial life, and genetically engineered super beings (all of which are represented in the main cast in some way) are actually relatable, instead of being threatening.

These parts add up to a whole that works to change the player’s perspective, working with the setting to frame the philosophy of the world (which I will get to next week). It deconstructs the player’s preconceived notions about the importance of humanity and opens up the realm of discussion to themes beyond the basic space-faring hero story. But, does this all add up to something so unique that it can be called the “most important science fiction universe of our generation”?

Chinks in the Armor (if we can still say that)

Mass Effect 3 femshep female shepherd

Ok, seriously, I need to get this game. C'mon, Spring break!

While I certainly agree with Munkittrick that the way that Mass Effect’s world frames humans in an non-human world creates an effective equalizer, I don’t think it’s as drastically different from most other worlds as he seems to. Certainly, worlds that focus entirely on the human race’s actions and importance will tend to maintain an “us against them” mentality that can make it difficult to relate to non-human characters, but even if the world of Mass Effect isn’t too keen on humans taking over, they’re doing it anyway. While it may come off as insolence, the humans of Mass Effect really are hot stuff.

New as they are, humans have in only a few generations gone from isolation in their far-off system of Sol to jockeying for Galactic governmental authority. Shepherd himself is human, and has become a new symbol for human progress, becoming the first human Spectre, a sort of intergalactic secret agent with far-reaching authority and political clout. Not only that, but even taking into account the myriad ways the plot can turn depending on the choices of the player, humanity still plays extremely pivotal roles in the fate of the galaxy. Speaking in literary terms, Shepherd (and by extension, the human race), is the Hero from the Outside, the Beowolf of Mass Effect, coming in to change the status quo and place things back in the hands of mortals.

Humans may be perceived as being inferior, but they are far from actually being insignificant. This comes to a general rub of the article that motivated me to tackle it in the first place. In many ways, science fiction is about determining mankind’s place in the universe. Even in non-spacefaring stories, the world frames human limits in ways that identify the metaphysical position of the writer. Munkittrick commits something of a literary sin by reading into the world of Mass Effect an exclusively material, even secular humanist perspective that marginalizes mankind’s importance and necessarily downplays the audiences’ high notions of human grandeur. However, the world itself still assumes human significance, or else they could not be the agents of change and action in the story.

This is one of the reasons I believe Munkittrick is wrong about his assumptions. While Mass Effect’s message does allow for an interesting background for discussion, the discussions are not new, and can be (and have been) handled just as effectively in other stories. The medium (videogames) does not make Mass Effect meaningfully better at handling these themes, and neither does the message that Munkittrick says Mass Effect portrays make it the genre-definer that he claims in his title.

Does the conclusion of Munkittrick’s argument (as cumulative as it is) prove his claim? Next week I’ll take a look at the Philosophy of Mass Effect, and Popbioethics.com’s final arguments about its significance to the Science Fiction genre. Until then, you can still get the free demo for Mass Effect 3 here to play around with!