It is difficult to write a review about “Perelandra”. There is so much that could be said that it is hard to know where to begin. Its story is so rich, the imagery so beautiful, the underlying themes so profound and complex, its theology so full that no summary can do it justice. I would rather simply encourage everyone to read it and let each discover its joys for themselves. But since there is no reason for anyone to merely take my word for it, I will do my best to support my recommendation.
Though the characters and names are different, the story of “Perelandra” follows the basic outline of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. Creatures made in the image of God arise on a world newly made. They live in the joy of sinless obedience until two visitors arrive from outside their world; the first to warn them of impending evil, the second to tempt them to disobey and fall. But whereas Milton’s herald is the immortal angel Gabriel, Lewis re-introduces his reluctant hero from “Out of the Silent Planet”, the very human Dr. Elwin Ransom.
There are other differences between Milton’s poem and Lewis’ novel. “Paradise Lost” is set on the Earth during the time of Genesis. Perelandra takes place long after the fall of Adam and Eve on a planet named Perelandra. Milton’s tempter is Satan in the form of a serpent. Lewis’ is the brilliant, but twisted Dr. Weston, the physicist from “Out of the Silent Planet”. But these are superficial and only thinly disguise the many similarities between these two great works of literature. It may be fair to say that just as “Paradise Lost” is a retelling of Genesis, “Perelandra” is a retelling of “Paradise Lost”.
Both Milton and Lewis dwell on what it might be like for men and women to live prior to the fall from grace. Such is the genius of both authors that they not only create a convincing image of pre-fallen humanity, they are able to communicate that image to their audience. Their understanding of what we lost in the original fall was so deep, and their longing to return so keen, that unspoiled worlds seem to flow from their pens as smoothly as ink. In one way, though, Lewis was able to do his great predecessor one better. Lewis was not constrained by the nature of Earth as Milton was. Lewis’ Perelandra is a world of many and varied delights, an otherworldly Eden. There are trees, the fruit of which are huge, shimmering, transparent orbs that burst at the lightest touch, bathing the passerby in a thrilling shower. Other trees bear fruits that are achingly beautiful to taste, both savory and sweet. There are fantastic and extraordinary creatures that rival the whimsy of Hieronymus Bosch. Perelandra is easily the most glorious world CS Lewis ever created.
Lewis and Milton also focus on the female as the vector of attack. Lewis wisely avoids speculation as to why this should be. There is no indication that the female is somehow inferior to the male. It is simply a matter of fact that in the history of Earth Eve was deceived, not Adam. It stands to reason that the tempter will follow the same plan.
The last great similarity between “Perelandra” and “Paradise Lost” I want to mention is the way language is used in the temptation of Eve and her Perelandrian counterpart, Tinidril. Both authors give their tempters brilliant speeches with which to seduce their prey. They are eloquent and persuasive, flattering but not obsequious. Their arguments are successful in making that which is forbidden seem attractive and disobedience seem heroic. The tempters are so eloquent that the reader is nearly moved to agree with them.
Which brings me now to two real and remarkable differences between “Paradise Lost” and “Perelandra”. First, unlike Eve, who’s story was carved in history long before Milton lived to set it to verse, Tinidril has a champion in the form of Ransom. He is by her side, fighting constantly against the influence of Weston. It is in their subsequent philosophical battle of words and ideas that Lewis explores a powerful theme. Ransom and Weston fight on uneven ground, with the advantage going to Weston. Ransom has reason and truth on his side, but is constrained by the absolute morals of Christianity and the rules of reason itself not to stray from those ideals. Weston is seductively irrational. He is utterly immoral and can lie in any and every way, twisting and distorting the truth to suit his ends. As the war becomes hopeless, Ransom is faced with a terrible conclusion; reason alone cannot defeat non-reason. A person who is dedicated to being irrational cannot be argued out of their position. There is no example strong enough to persuade them, no beauty in reason sweet enough. In the end, for truth to win over a lie, something extraordinary is necessary. The great example of our own world is the Cross. This is reflected in Perelandra in a surprising way.
The second great difference is the end. Ransom is successful in overcoming Weston, and Tinidril overcomes her temptation. She, along with the Tor, the Perelandrian Adam, passes the test that Adam and Eve failed. Together they “step up that step at which [our] parents fell.” Lewis takes the theme of unfallen humanity and extends it beyond what Milton conceived. He contemplates what life might have been like had we not fallen, for ourselves and the rest of creation. What would our stewardship of the world and its creatures have been like? How would our relationship with God and the spiritual realm been different? How would our transition from the physical realm to the Heaven have been different? These questions, and others like them, are asked, and answers are hinted at as the book ends with a verbal fugue that would rival the musical fugues of Bach.
“Perelandra” is a work of startling beauty that stings the heart of the reader. It was one of Lewis’ personal favorites (one supposes it still is) and it is easy to see why. In it, there is a glimpse of Paradise that stands equal to the work of Milton and Dante. If there is any justice in the literary world, it will one day take its rightful place in the literary canon by their sides.