A Year of Reading Lewis: Out of The Silent Planet

Some time in the 1930s, close friends C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein apparently had a conversation in which they lamented the state of contemporary fiction. The result of that conversation was a mutual challenge: Lewis would write a space-travel story, and Tolkein a time-travel one. Alas, Tolkein’s story exists now only as a fragment, published by his son Christopher in The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987). But Lewis’ story morphed into three books, the first of which I read this month: Out of the Silent Planet. 

The cover of the book I had. Kinda misleading - those circle-things aren't in the book at all!

The cover of the book I had. Kinda misleading – those circle-things aren’t in the book at all!

This is probably best classified as science fiction, or perhaps pulp science fiction, if you want to get technical. It contains the elements of classic science fiction – a voyage in space to another world (Malacandra), an encounter with an alien species. There is no hard science in it, although Lewis does an admirable job in imagining the voyage through the heavens, where the travellers are bathed in the pure light of the sun, as opposed to the “dark” outer space the main character, Ransom, had previously imagined.

Today’s readers might find this part of the book rather primitive and silly. But I think we can forgive Lewis this, seeing as he was writing in the 1930s, long before man actually attempted such a voyage.

The main character is Ransom, a university professor of philology (the study of languages), who is inadvertently kidnapped and taken on this voyage by Weston (a physicist, who considers himself of superior intelligence, mocking any philosophy but that of the supremacy of man over all) and Devine (Weston’s accomplice, later a politician, who is motivated on this journey by the possibility of untold wealth in the acquiring of the “sun’s blood” – gold – found abundantly on Malacandra).

It is soon apparent that Weston and Devine have already been to this planet, which Ransom soon discovers is Mars. The reason they kidnap Ransom, who stumbles upon them in the process of trying to force someone else to go back with them, is because they are under the impression that the ruler of Malacandra, a being called Oyarsa, wished them to bring them another of their kind. They assume Oyarsa has some nefarious purpose such as sacrifice in mind. Ransom quickly understands their intentions for him and resolves to escape at the earliest opportunity.

This opportunity comes soon after they land. The appearance of a hostile creature, something between a shark and a crocodile, attacks them, giving Ransom the chance he needs in the confusion and he escapes.

I love the way Lewis took what was known of Mars at the time – the “red” planet, crisscrossed by canals, and made it into the inhabited Malacandra. He imagined that the canals were hand-carved deep into the Martian surface, where the three Malacandran species, the hross, seroni, and pfifltrigg live, each in their own separate areas. The hross, furry, vaguely otter-like creatures, live along the waterways and are the planet’s poets. The sorn, giant, man-like creatures, the “thinkers” of Malacandra, live near the tops of the canals, close to where the atmosphere fails. And the pfifltrigg, the shrewish, frog-like species, are the Malacandran engineers and craftsmen, who live in the forests.

Ransom finds the gravity lighter, and all the species and the landscape very tall and thin to his Earthly eyes. At first he is terrified, especially of the seroni, fearing that these were the creatures Weston and Devine planned to give him to, and he flees in terror from them, ending up amongst the hross. He quickly realizes they are intelligent beings, and, due to his experience with languages, becomes fairly adept at communication with them.

The climax of the book, and in my opinion, the place where Lewis shows his true genius, comes when Ransom, Weston, and Devine all end up before the planet’s ruler, the being Oyarsa, who rules at the behest of Maleldil, the Creator of all. It turns out that each of the planets in our solar system has an Oyarsa which rules it. Ransom begins to understand that Earth has suffered a cosmic “shunning”, in a sense, due to its Oyarsa becoming “bent” and initiating a rebellion against Maleldil, resulting in the other Oyarsa imprisoning the bent Oyarsa on Earth, which they named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Yet, as the Malacandrian Oyarsa says to Ransom, “…we know no more of that planet: it is silent. We think that Maledil would not give it up utterly to the Bent One, and there are stories among us that He has taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra. But of this we know less than you; it is a thing we desire to look into.” 

But before Ransom has a chance to tell Oyarsa much of Earth, they are interrupted by the arrival of Weston and Devine, brought to Oyarsa by the hrossa. Ransom, due to his greater ability with the language, translates Weston’s purposes for his visit to Malacandra to Oyarsa. However, Ransom is not completely fluent, and he is forced to reduce Devine’s high-sounding principles and ideals to more simple terms. The lofty ideal of keeping mankind alive and thriving upon Earth and beyond, is thus shown what it really is: the ultimate destruction of every other life form so that “man” may survive.

As Oyarsa says to Weston, ” I see how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain.” 

There’s a lot of fruitful contemplation to be gained out of that, don’t you think? The killing fields of Cambodia, the gas chambers in Germany, the blood-soaked soil of Rwanda, the suffering Middle East – all show us how we have elevated this love of kindred, of “those like us” over the greater laws of love and compassion.

And this is why I love Lewis. He has as way of making the reader think while telling a great story, and without the reader feeling like he is being hit over the head with a “message”.

The three humans are given the opportunity to go back to Earth, a much more difficult journey as the alignment of the planets are not quite right. But the ending finds them returning safe and relatively sound, and for Ransom, the privations of the journey and the sickness he experiences following the return make the whole episode much like a dream, so much so he is not really sure it really happened at all. Until he gets a letter from Lewis, inquiring of his fellow professor and philologist Ransom, about the meaning of the word oyarses, which Lewis encounters in reading about some of the Platonists of the twelfth century.

I read this book, and the others in the Space Trilogy, a number of times in my younger years. And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around, too. I’m looking forward to the further adventures of Dr. Ransom in the second book, entitled Perelandra, which many tout as being the best of the three.


Any thoughts? Did you read along with me? What did you think? There’s still time to join me – I’ll be looking at Book Two, Perelandra, on the last Friday of March.

To Lent, or not to Lent….

Believe it or not, this was a vitally important question back in 7th Century Britain. Not so much whether or not to celebrate Lent, but when. The whole question of when Easter began, and thus, when to start celebrating Lent, was the source of great division and controversy.*

It may seem silly to us now, but it was a serious problem for the Church. It’s a difficult one to encapsulate in one blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.

Christianity first arrived in Britain with the Romans, who conquered the island (or parts of it, anyway) in the early parts of the 1st century. By the time the legions withdrew somewhere near the end of the 4th century, the Church had established a presence in the island, but it was not a major presence, just a religion among the other pagan religions that people followed, and it likely might have died out as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded and brought their own pagan religions with them. But the Celts in the South-west and North resisted those invasions as they had resisted the Romans, and Christianity survived and indeed began to flourish in those corners of the island.

However, they were cut off from Rome, and their practice of the faith began to take on a decidedly Celtic feel. The Irish and British priests and Bishops still venerated the Roman pope, but in all practicality their allegiances were much more tribal, and the Abbots of the monastery  had more sway in spiritual matters than the Bishops of the dioceses. In some cases, the Abbot was both Abbot and Bishop.  The Abbots were often descended from ruling Irish families, and held great influence over their people.  The practice of the faith was very much centred around the monasteries, as opposed to the dioscean, urban model developed in Rome.  Due to their influence, the monastic lifestyle was held up as the ideal of Christian living in the Celtic church.

Unbeknownst to the Celts in Britain, the Roman church had abandoned the original method for dating Easter, making some changes based on astronomical calculations (and other considerations, such as wanting to distance the resurrection of Christ from the Jewish passover) which are too complicated to get into here. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 AD to convert the southern Saxon kings of England, which gave the Roman Church a firm hold on the southern parts of the island. But the it quickly came into conflict with the established “Celtic” church in the north as their differences in practice came to light.

All this brings us to the date of my  novel, set in 642 AD, and the situation in of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, which illustrates some of the difficulties in having two sets of practices. King Oswy of Bernicia, who, although a Saxon, had been brought to the Church through his exile in Dál Raita, and the influence of the monks at Iona, the island monastery off the west coast of what is now Scotland. For political reasons he married Eanflead, a princess of Kent, who was a Roman Christian. Therefore, at Easter, one spouse could be celebrating Christ’s resurrection while the other was still practicing Lent. It was all very awkward and, I imagine, confusing for the lay people.

There were other differences as well, including the style of tonsure worn by monks. The Roman monks shaved the top of their heads, leaving a ring of hair, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. The Celts shaved the front of their heads from ear to ear, in what some surmise was the same haircut that the Druidic priests once wore.

This conflict between the two approaches to the faith continued until the Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD, instigated, interestingly enough, by King Oswy. He wanted to determine once and for all which practices would be the ones to follow for the Church in Britain as a whole (one wonders how much pressure his wife put on him to get it all sorted out!). Based in part on the influence of the charismatic Bishop Wilfred, Oswy ruled in favour of the Roman practices and the Celtic style began to be phased out, although the Church in Britain retained a couple of hold-overs from its Celtic monastic past, including the emphasis on missionary work and its dedication to intellectual pursuits. Pockets of resistance to this change lasted until the 9th century.

It may seem a tempest in a teapot to us, but at the time it was a vitally important matter as power, politics, and religion were all stakeholders in this conflict. The upshot of the whole thing was that the Church in England remained staunchly Roman until the marital shenanigans of Henry the VIII brought a whole new religious controversy to Britain.

*Interestingly, there is still a difference today between the Eastern Orthodox church calendar and the Western (Roman) one, but for different reasons than the ones delineated in this post.

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What do you think? How important is the dating of Lent to you? Does this seem a silly thing to disagree about? What are some practices that the Church disagrees about today that might be equally as silly?

Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman

 

Book Review: The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam

Published 2011 by Regnery Publishing, ISBN 978-1-5968-155-3

I picked up this book intrigued by the title, and soon found that it was a great treasure-trove of information. In this book  James Hannam, a physicist and historian of science, pulls back the curtain on Medieval Europe and puts short shift to many of the myths surrounding the so-called Dark Ages (which for many people means the whole of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance), including:

  • people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat
  • the Inquisition executed people because of their scientific ideas or discoveries
  • the Middle Ages was a time of intellectual stagnation, superstition, and ignorance

In this book you will discover that all of the above are not true, and in fact that medieval philosophers, scientists, and theologians did much to lay the ground work for our modern scientific methods and were well on the way to discovering many important scientific principles of their own, hampered only by faulty premises handed down to them by their Greco-Roman predecessors. It seems they revered Aristotle a little too much!

In particular I appreciated the author’s take on the role of the Church in fostering and encouraging new ideas. Hamman demonstrates how the education made possible by the Church allowed for the flourishing of science, math, and philosophy. This is a far different view promulgated by most in our society today. In fact my eldest son told me one of his recent philosophy professors taught his class the three misconceptions listed above. Hamman shows us that the supposition that the Church had a large part in suppressing scientific thought and discoveries comes from the Enlightenment and writers such as Thomas Huxley and John Draper. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, for it suited early Protestant writers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to promote the idea that the “Catholic” church had taught nothing of value before the Reformation. Writers such as Voltaire, who saw the Catholic Church as being in cahoots with the French monarchy, again cast aspersions on medieval thought and discoveries.

All of these threads bring us to today, and our assumptions that the medieval time gave us nothing of value scientifically, that the Church was responsible for holding back the progress of science, and was in fact anti-reason. Hamman does a great job of methodically showing us that this is very far from being true.

This book is fairly easy to read, given its weighty subject matter. I will admit to getting lost a time or two. Some of the philosophical debates and scientific principles covered in the book are tricky to understand, although I think the author does a good job of explaining these fairly difficult concepts to the average lay reader, like me. I’m sure that those who have more knowledge than myself on these topics would find it even more interesting!

Hannam covers many fascinating topics, including medicine, alchemy and astrology, anatomical discoveries, heresy and reason, the Merton Calculators, and many more. The final chapters delve into the story of Galileo, and show that his execution was all about politics, not science.

I love books like these that can take our view of the world and turn it upside down. It’s a great challenge to examine carefully our own suppositions, to see if we are simply parroting the “party line”.

What’s your opinion of the progress of science throughout history and the role of the Church in promoting or suppressing it? Is your opinion based on fact or propaganda? This book challenges us to examine the facts, and in doing so, I learned a whole lot more about an era that I thought I knew quite a lot about already.

I recommend this book – it will certainly teach you and stretch your thinking, neither of which is a bad thing.

 

 

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Off the northeast coast of Britain, close to the border of Scotland, lies a small island, measuring three miles east-west and 1.5 miles north-south.

It encompasses nearly 1,000 acres at high tide, and its most striking feature is a large upthrust of volcanic rock (basalt) situated on its south east tip, known today as Beblowe Craig, upon which sits a castle built during the time of Henry VIII. This outcropping of rock mirrors a similar, larger, one found further south where Bamburgh Castle if found today.

This is the island of Lindisfarne, and I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last few years reading about it, peering down upon it via Google Earth, looking at countless YouTube videos and other media about it, and wishing I could visit it, as it is one of the major settings of my historical fantasy trilogy.

Unfortunately the costs of  flying to England means that I have had to make do with researching the best I can.

You may wonder why this tiny little island could possibly be of interest to anyone. Well,  it may not look like much now, but in 642 AD (the time period of my books) it, along with nearby Bamburgh, was one of the most important places in Britain.

That’s because Bamburgh (also called Din Guardi, Inis Metcaut, or Bebbanburgh, in the early medieval period) was the seat of the kings of Northumberland, and Lindisfarne the home to one of the most influential monasteries of the time.

The island is a tidal island, which means that it is technically only an island twice a day, at high tide, when the encroaching sea cuts it off from the mainland. This made  it a perfect place for Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, to situate his monastery. He and his monks could be “in the world but not of it”, in a physical and spiritual sense.

The weather there can be challenging. Battered by winds and rain, it likely was an uncomfortable place at times to live back in the Dark Ages. Of course the monks embraced the difficulties of living there – it was a fine whetstone upon which to hone their rugged, aesthetic faith.

Aidan was there at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernicia and eventually Bretwalda,or High King, of all of northern Britain. There is a fascinating story of how this came to be, but that might the subject of another blog post. Suffice it to say, I can imagine when he and Oswald were determining where the new monastery would be situated, it didn’t take them very long to realize that Lindisfarne would be perfect. Approximately 17 miles away from Bamburgh, it was close enough to allow for the king’s protection and for easy communication between the two, yet far enough (around 1-2 hours travel by horseback, or 4 hours by foot) that Aidan could untangle himself from the King’s concerns and retreat there for spiritual nourishment. The fact that Aidan could legitimately be “out of touch” due to the barrier of the ocean during high tide was an added bonus, I’m sure.

Under 200 people still live in the small village on the island today, which is now also called Holy Island. Alas, all traces of the monastery that Aidan and his monks built are gone as the buildings were made of wood. However, a monastery continued on the island until the time of Henry VIII, who destroyed much of Britain’s religious heritage during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The ruins of the priory seen on Lindisfarne today date from that time. There is still a thriving church on Lindisfarne, however; it is an important center for the Celtic Christian movement, as it was all those centuries ago.

I wonder what Aidan would think of it now? In many ways it has not changed since his time, but of course in other ways it would be unrecognizable to him.

One of the delights in writing my book was to discover this marvellous place, saturated with the ghosts of Bishops and Kings, a thin place if there ever was one. I will go there someday, and I hope to find it much as I have imagined it.

Photo credit: CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

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Have you ever been to Lindisfarne? If so, tell me about it!! Please!! Or if not, does it sound like a place you would want to go?