The novel serves an evangelical purpose like anything else Lewis wrote, but it can work for the secular reader too. It’s a mythological examination of how a person from an unfallen world processes thought, and what she is capable of doing as she struggles to think for herself. Try imagining a world where everything is good — there aren’t even words for “bad” or “evil” — its (two) people so in touch with their deity that stepping outside his will is impossible to conceive, at least on their own.
The paradise is planet Venus, a world populated by floating islands surrounding a Fixed Land from which the man and woman are banned: they may visit the Fixed Land, but not sleep on it, nor dwell there for too long. The devil arrives on Venus in human form, his task to achieve what he did millennia ago on Earth as a snake: persuade the woman to break the ban, and make humanity fall a second time.
But there’s a difference between what’s happening now on Perelandra (Venus) and what happened before on Eden (Earth). A human agent from Earth in the 1940s, Elwin Ransom, has been sent by an angel to combat the devil and prevent him from succeeding a second time. The stakes are higher this time, for apparently the devil has a more difficult time wrecking God’s creation with each successive attempt. Correspondingly, if he does succeed, God’s redemptive measures become increasingly drastic. Late in the story, Ransom reflects:
“If he now failed, this world [like Earth] would hereafter be redeemed… [But] not a second crucifixion: perhaps — who knows — not even a second Incarnation… some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility. For he had seen already how the pattern grows and how from each world it sprouts into the next through some other dimension. The small external evil which Satan had done [on Mars] was only a line: the deeper evil he had done on Earth a square: if Venus fell, her evil would be a cube — her Redemption beyond conceiving.” (126)
The story of Mars is related in the trilogy’s first book, Out of the Silent Planet, an adventure story that in some ways inverts the premise of H.G. Wells’ classic. Satan’s damage on Mars was minimal (there wasn’t a fall requiring redemption), and for all practical purposes the planet never had much to worry about, unlike Earth and Venus. But if Venus’ redemptive measures would require a “cube” over Earth’s “square”… that’s like asking us to contemplate The Passion of the Christ times ten.
In the next post we will begin going through the story of Perelandra and see what happens when Ransom first encounters the Lady on Venus, before the devil arrives. It’s a clash of psyches between the fallen and unfallen as they try to understand each other.