Perelandra is my favorite C. S. Lewis book. In my less than humble opinion it is also his best. It covers some of the same ground that he covers in his non-fiction, but in the hands of a truly great writer story makes truth shine in neon unforgettable lights. And this is what Lewis does in Perelandra. And the scene where Ransom realizes that his antagonist Weston has become more and less than a man is particularly momentous.
This is the second book of the Space Trilogy preceded by Out of the Silent Planet and followed by That Hideous Strength. In the first book Ransom travels to Mars (Malacandra) and finds intelligent life there. Now he has been sent on a mission by the Eldila (angels, kind of) to do something on the planet Venus (Perelandra). There he meets the Queen who is living in perfect ignorance of evil, she relates naturally with Maleldil (Jesus). Then shortly a spaceship lands bearing Weston, Ransom’s antagonist from the first book. Quickly it becomes clear that he and Weston will do combat for the Lady’s future and for the future of all her children (she and the King have no children yet). She has been forbidden the fixed land but given freedom to live on the floating islands. Weston spends the book seeking to convince her to sleep on the fixed land against the command of Maleldil whereas Ransom urges her to obey the command. During the course of this long argument Ransom becomes aware that Weston is not quite Weston. There is one moment in particular when all clears up.
This is the moment when Ransom comes face to face with pure unadulterated evil. A thing which he describes in such a way that it sent chills down my spine and a bit of unease with the world that I live in. Ransom had come upon Weston using a long wickedly sharp fingernail to disembowel a frog-like creature. And this is the moment when he realizes that Weston is no longer Weston, that this thing only resembles a man, that Weston is no longer in that body, that it is being preserved undecaying but without true life in it. Then when it realized that Ransom had caught it in its evil . . .
“It looked at Ransom in silence and at last began to smile. We have all often spoke – Ransom himself had often spoken – of a devilish smile. Now he realized that he had never taken the words seriously. The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with horrible naiveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice as the lady was beyond virtue.” 110-111
Weston isn’t quite Weston anymore. He is being indwelt by an entity of pure unbridled evil. What we would probably call demon possession/oppression. And this set me thinking about what it would be like to come face to face with evil. My first thought would of a vindictive schemer. But Lewis paints a very different picture. Hear Lewis again . . .
“Indeed no imagined horror could have surpasses the sense which grew within him as the slow hours passed, that this creature was, by all human standards, inside out – its heart on the surface and its shallowness at the heart. On the surface, great designs and an antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness? 123
At the bottom of this evil is a simple cruel desire to make others suffer. It is not a grand plan to storm Heaven. But, rather simply to wreak as much havoc as it can for as long as it can. According to Lewis then, evil is rebellion for the sheer joy of rebellion. I’m sure that that’s not all there is to say about the nature of evil, but this is surely more Biblical than Dante’s noble devil. Now I want to close with a last and most chilling account of the Unman (as Ransom called him) . . .
'But this is very foolish,' said the Un-man. 'Do you not know who I am?
''I know what you are,' said Ransom. 'Which of them doesn't matter.'
'And you think, little one,' it answered, that you can fight with me? You think He will help you, perhaps? Many thought that. I've known Him longer than you, little one. They all think He's going to help them -- till they come to their senses screaming recantations too late in the middle of the fire, mouldering in concentration camps, writhing under saws, jibbering in mad-houses, or nailed on to crosses. Could He help Himself?' -- and the creature suddenly threw back its head and cried in a voice so loud that it seemed the golden sky-roof must break, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.
'And the moment it had done so, Ransom felt certain that the sounds it had made were perfect Aramic of the first century. The Un-man was not quoting; it was remembering. These were the very words spoken from the Cross, treasured through all those years in the burning memory of the outcast creature which had heard them, and now brought forward in hideous parody; the horror made him momentarily sick.