Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

A History of France

November 3, 2014

A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles was originally written for servicemen being deployed to France to fight in World War I who might want to know something of the history of the country. The war ended before the project was completed, so William Sterns Davis took the opportunity to update and expand the book and make it available to the members of the general public to introduce them to the history of the country we had fought alongside. I think this book serves as an admirable introduction to the history of France from the Roman conquest of Gaul down through the medieval period, the Revolution, Napoleon, and the just concluded World War I. Davis does tend to spend more time on the (to him) recent history of France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the expense of earlier centuries, but I ought not to complain. There is still plenty of material on earlier periods and I do not get the impression, as I often do of history books that the author is trying to hurry through the early history of his subject.

This book was written in 1919, well before the age of political correctness and post-modern moral relativism and the tone of Davis’s writing shows it. He does not hesitate to call groups of people barbarians or make moral judgments on the personal lives of kings. I personally find this sort of honesty refreshing, though it can be somewhat jarring, especially in the last two chapters. While discussing France’s recovery from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, Davis expounds on France’s acquisition of a colonial empire in Africa and Indochina stressing the great improvements French administration made in the lives of the people of the colonies. That may be, but no one asked of the natives of the colonies wished to be ruled by France.

The chapter on World War I reads like allied propaganda with France defending civilization against the Teutons bent on conquering the world. The Germans are clearly the bad guys throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Treaty of Versailles is represented as just and reasonable with the reparations necessary to repair the damage the Germans did to the French territory they occupied. Perhaps, but I wonder if Davis lived to see the troubles the more onerous provisions of that treaty caused to Europe and France.
In general, the book is strongly pro-France and the author seems to have a real affection for the French people. Anyone who wants a good general overview of French history will find what he is looking for here.

The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist

October 25, 2014

I was not certain I wanted to read The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist by J P Holding. I do not have any plans to begin a career as a Christian apologist, although I very occasionally write what might be considered apologetics on my blog. Also, when deciding whether to get a book on a controversial subject such as politics or religion, I generally look first at the one-starred reviews at Amazon. If I find a large number of such reviews written by people who have obvious not read the book and have an agenda opposed to that of the writer, I know it is worth reading. This may seem a strange criterion, but I haven’t been disappointed yet. Unfortunately, The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist has only recently come out and there is only one review. I decided to take a chance and I can say I wasn’t disappointed.

81g8sHmQBuL._SL1500_

The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist is a short book, only 68 pages if it were in a print edition, yet it is full of information for anyone considering a career as an apologist. In the first chapter, Holding discusses the education needed to becoming an apologist. This is not something you can just start doing. If you want to be an effective defender of the Christian faith, you had better be prepared to learn the trade. Fortunately, this does not necessarily require a PhD in theology. There are several paths you can take and Holding discusses which might be best. He moves on to learning the lost art of doing research in the following chapter.

The real nuts and bolts of a career in apologetics are dealt with in the next three chapters. Holding discusses possible career paths, whether working for someone else or striking out on your own. This section is perhaps the most important for anyone considering a ministry involving apologetics. Even the most knowledgeable academic who knows the best arguments in defense of the Christian faith will come to grief if he lacks the knowledge to set up a nonprofit ministry or is unable to share his knowledge using the Internet or other resources.

Finally, in the last chapter, Holding discusses the pitfalls of being an apologist. These include some obvious things as pride and sin, as well as some problems that might not occur to one just starting out, fundraising and making time for family.

There is no discussion of specific arguments or apologetic techniques in this book. That is beyond its scope and would perhaps take hundreds of pages. This book is not everything you need to know to defend the faith. It tells you how to get started and where to go for information. You will have to do the rest of the work.

Radical Honesty

October 20, 2014

A. J. Jacobs is a writer and journalist with a rather unusual method of getting his stories. He is not content just to research whatever subject he happens to be writing about. He immerses himself in the subject, actually living out his project to the point of obsession. As it turns out, while doubtless a lot of trouble to his wife and friends, this approach does lead to his writing books both interesting and humorous. His first such book, The Know-It-All chronicled his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, while his second book, The Year of Living Biblically, told of his attempt to live his life according to all of the rules of the Bible for a year.  These aren’t the only experiments that A. J. Jacobs has conducted upon himself. He has compiled some of his minor projects in a book titled The Guinea Pig Diaries.

Cover of "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life...

Cover via Amazon

One of these projects, and the subject of this post, is a concept called “Radical Honesty“. Radical Honesty is a technique developed by a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. Radical Honesty is just what the name might implies. Dr.Blanton teaches that we should always be completely honest with one another. This might not seem to be a particularly new or radical concept, sages and moral teachers have been telling for centuries that we ought not to tell lies. Dr. Blanton takes the idea further, however, by insisted that we should always be honest. We shouldn’t tell those little white lies that help to smooth our relationships with others. If your wife asks if the dress she is wearing makes her look fat, say, “yes”. If you don’t want to go out to dinner with a friend, say so and don’t make up, “other plans” or imaginary headaches. If you find yourself desiring your friend’s wife, say so. In fact, Dr. Blanton believes in simply removing the filter between what we think and what we say and do.

Is this a good idea? Well, we should be honest in our dealings with others. As a matter of justice and charity, we ought not to take advantage of people by deceiving them. Honesty, by itself, is not necessarily always necessary or desirable. Honesty is a virtue when it serves the greater virtues I mentioned. It is not necessary to be honest if being honest leads to an evil outcome. It is not necessary to tell the Nazis that you are hiding a family of Jews in the attic, or to tell the robber where you have hidden your money. Even Dr Blanton agrees with this. It is also not necessary to tell the truth if doing so will lead to hurt feelings.You do not have to tell your wife she looks fat and you probably shouldn’t tell your friend you desire his wife. No good can come of such confessions.

There is a subtle line here, though. A. J. Jacobs wrote of an old widower who sent him some poetry he had written and asked Jacobs for his opinion of his writing. Jacobs didn’t think the poems were very good, but wrote an encouraging reply. He could not bring himself to tell the man he though the poems were badly written. Ought he have told the truth about his Opinion. Dr. Brad Blanton thought he should have. He argued that he was not, in fact, doing the man a kindness by lying to him. If his poems weren’t much good, he ought to be told the truth so he wouldn’t waste his time trying to get them published. I sort of agree with Dr. Blanton. Back when Simon Cowell was on American Idol, he was generally disliked  for his cutting criticism of the contestants’ singing, especially during the tryouts. This seemed to be very cruel, yet perhaps he was doing them a kindness by showing them that they lacked the talent to sing professionally, and that they would be well advised to try something else. Perhaps the real cruelty would be to encourage someone to follow a path you know they have no ability to complete simply to spare your own feelings. Perhaps.

I cannot help but feel that what Dr. Blanton has really done is that he has discovered a way to be obnoxious to his neighbors and to have avoided the usual consequences by pleading that he was just being honest. In any event, I am not convinced that getting rid of the filter between the brain and the mouth is such a good idea.A. J. Jacobs was not convinced either, as he explained while describing his life as George Washington.

That was another one of his projects. Jacobs did not go about dressed in a colonial costume. Instead, he decided to try to live up to George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. The thing that most impressed Jacobs while studying the life of Washington was the tremendous restraint the Founding Father displayed over his emotions. By nature, Washington was a passionate man with a fierce temper. In his youth, he was a rather arrogant, entitled aristocrat who flattered his superiors in person while undermining them behind their backs. Yet, Washington possessed the strength of will to remake himself into a model of decorum and decency. George Washington was supposed to be unable to tell a lie in the famous legend, but I somehow doubt he would think much of Radical Honesty. If Dr. Blanton advises us to remove the filter, Washington spent much of his life creating the filter and making it stronger.

I think the idea behind Radical Honesty is that we ought to be “authentic” or “natural”. Washington would disagree. If he had acted authentically and according to his basic nature, Washington would have remained just another Virginia planter and we would still be a colony of Great Britain. The simple truth is that civilization depends on people restraining their impulses and not doing and saying whatever comes naturally. I said civilization, but I shouldn’t have. The members of any society of human beings, no matter how primitive, must learn to restrain their more selfish feelings and work with the other members of their group. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideas about “noble savages” who lived entirely with nature were myths. If anything, a tribe of primitive hunter-gatherers would have to have even less tolerance for individual eccentricities than a modern society. I think we are losing this idea of restraint. Any impulse felt must be acted upon and someone else will clean up the mess. I wonder where it will lead us. Nowhere good, I imagine.

I guess the only thing I can say about Radical Honesty is that being honest is a good thing, being radically honest may not be.

China, A History

September 26, 2014

Perhaps nowhere is the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” more appropriate than in China. China has the honor of being the civilization with the longest continuous history on Earth. China was not the first or the oldest civilization, but while ancient Egypt and Sumer have long since vanished from history, China remains. In that long 3000-4000 years of history, China has undergone many changes. Dynasties of rulers have risen and fallen. The country has been united into an empire, only to break apart and then be united once again. The Chinese Empire has expanded its frontiers into Central Asia, and has been restricted to northern or southern China, while foreigners have ruled other sections. China has been conquered and has regained its independence. Through all the revolutions and changes, China remains China.

The Communists under Mao Zedong were determined to remake China into a modern, socialist country, yet they went about their goals in a characteristically Chinese fashion. Mao condemned Confucius and sought to end that sage’s influence on China. So did Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (previous rulers were referred to as “kings”). The Communists enforced a rigid Marxist conformity on China intellectuals. The Song Emperors enforced a rigid Neo-Confucian ideology. China, under Mao limited its contacts with foreigners. So did the Qing Emperors. The present rulers of China have converted China into a major trading nation. So did the Tang Emperors. The Communist Party does not tolerate any rival parties. No imperial dynasty was ever comfortable with parties or partisanship. Like the Emperors of old, the Chinese government thinks more in terms of taking a paternal interest in the lives of its subjects rather than in protecting human rights.

Yet, one must not think China as being unchanging or Chinese history as being boring. China has seen drastic changes throughout its history. One might think of this history of change and continuity in terms of the Chinese philosophical ideas of Yin and Yang, opposites that work together. Passive, feminine Yin might represent the periods of imperial unity and strength while active, masculine Yang might represent the chaotic periods of war and disunity that were, nevertheless, the most intellectually productive periods of Chinese history.

I think there are few resources which explore the grand sweep of the Yin and Yang of Chinese history in one volume better than John Keay’s China, A History. In his book, John Keay tells the story of the Chinese nation from its Neolithic beginning up to the modern age. Keay does not, as many writers of history books do, spend too much time on recent events while neglecting past centuries. Every dynasty gets the proper amount of attention, as do the periods of disunion. If I have any complaint at all about China, A History, it is that at 611 pages it is simply too short. Six hundred pages are hardly enough to give an outline of Chinese history. I am not complaining, however. If you want a general outline of Chinese history, China A History serves the purpose admirably and if you want to know more about any topic, there is the bibliography John Keay provides.

China

Tunnel in the Sky

August 27, 2014

I am beginning to think that a selection of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile science fiction books should be required reading in every Middle School class. Even though the science in these stories is outdated, in some cases badly so, and the social mores reflect the period in which they were published, the 1950’s, although that may not actually be a bad thing, I think the young reader can still learn a lot from Heinlein’s stories. They may not be able to learn much about science or space travel. Events have overtaken Mr. Heinlein in that respect. They will, however, learn quite a lot about virtues that will never go out of date. They will learn from Heinlein’s heroes the importance of self-reliance, honor, courage and rational thinking. They will learn that doing the right thing, even at the risk of their lives is better in the long run. Reading Heinlein may even help young readers to resist the politically correct brain washing and mediocrity they are exposed to in our public schools. I can imagine one of Heinlein’s older, wiser instructors telling a contemporary student that the universe does not care about his fragile self-esteem and that it does not hand out ribbons just for showing up.

Tunnel in the Sky, published in 1955, is typical of Heinlein’s juveniles.

It features a strong, intelligent young man, Rod Walker, as the protagonist. Rod wants to join the movement to colonize other planets, accessed through gateways that transport travelers instantly across the galaxy. In order to be a colonist, Rod must take and pass a class on survival taught by the famous explorer “Deacon” Matson. For the final exam, the class, along with similar classes from other schools, is to be dropped on an uninhabited planet for ten to fourteen days. Whoever manages to survive passes. Unfortunately, something disrupts the gate and the students are stranded. They must manage to survive for far longer than they had expected.

 

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may be Heinlein’s response to Lord of the Flies published the previous year. Unlike the younger children in William Golding’s tale, the high school and college age youths do not descend into savagery. They build a colony with a government. They attempt to recreate modern technology as much as possible and by the time they are rescued they have begun to smelt iron and to domesticate the native plants and animals. The young colonists do have trouble with students who refuse to do their share of the work and with dangerous animals, but they manage to overcome their difficulties. After their settlement is destroyed and their first mayor is killed by migrating animals, Rod becomes the new mayor. There is some talk of moving to a safer location that Rod had discovered earlier but he refuses to consider it, stating that they are men and they will not be moved by a bunch of dumb animals. Instead, they develop ways to defend their settlement by the time of the next migration.

I should say something about Heinlein’s supposed racism in this book. At the beginning of the story, Rod visits a gateway to watch pioneers going out to colonize new planets. First, there is a long line of Asians, poverty-stricken refugees being forced by their authoritarian government to travel to a new world. They are followed by proud pioneers from North America. I do not believe that Heinlein intended to make any sort of statement about the relative merits of Asians and Americans but was extrapolating a likely future based on circumstances at the time of publication. In 1955, most of Asia was desperately poor and overcrowded and it seemed likely to remain so for generations. I should note that it is hinted throughout the book that Rod is African-American, though at the time of publication Heinlein was unable to say so outright.

I enjoyed reading Tunnel in the Sky when I was in fifth grade and enjoyed it no less rereading it as an adult. Robert Heinlein knew how to keep his readers interested.

 

 

God in the Dock

August 4, 2014

I find that the more I read the writings of C. S. Lewis, the more I find myself admiring his skill as a writer and thinker. I do not know of another writer who is so good at getting straight to the heart of whatever subject he is considering and working out every logical implication of a position held by himself or someone else. Thus, I found this collection of essays by Lewis titled God in the Dock to be a special treat.

God in the Dock

 

These forty-eight essays written over a period of some twenty years and published in a variety of publications provide excellent examples of Lewis’s clear thinking and uncompromising defense of his Christian beliefs. Although there is some diversity of subject in these writings, the editor, Walter Hooper, has sorted them out into three parts and included a fourth part containing a few letters Lewis wrote. As he explains, the first two parts deal mostly with theology while the third has essays dealing more with Christian ethics or behavior. These essays are not so easily differentiated and Lewis is always as much concerned with Christian living as much as Christian beliefs. Ethics and theology blend together more than are separated in these essays.

 

Lewis does tackle a variety of subjects in these essays, but always he returns to the same themes.  He defends the concept of miracles against the idea that science disproves the miraculous by pointing out that science only studies the regularities found in nature. Given that the miraculous is not part of the regularities, science can tell us nothing about it. Lewis also argues against reducing everything to mechanistic naturalism. He insists that to study a thing is not the same as to experience it and one must not assume that either process tells us everything about the thing. A person in love experiences the emotion of love. A doctor studying his brain might perhaps learn something of the chemicals that produce the feelings of being in love, but cannot know what it is to be in love unless he actually experiences it.

 

C. S. Lewis defends dogma in religion against those who would do away with it in favor of a loose theism by pointing out that a religion with no beliefs is hardly worth the trouble. He writes of the difficulties of spreading the Christian message to a contemporary audience and of the necessity of speaking the common people’s language in order to teach them. The essay God in the Dock notes that unlike the pagans in first century Rome, most people today do not believe themselves to be sinners in need of repentance and instead of fearing the judgment of God, is more inclined to put God in the dock and judge Him.

 

One of the themes throughout C. S. Lewis’s writings is his contention that it is what is true that matters, not what is modern or progressive or practical. In Bulverism, he attacks the twentieth century fashion of refuting an argument not by proving it is wrong, but by attacking the motives of the debater. (Check your privilege?) He insists that a point is either right or wrong, regardless of the motives of the person stating it, and it can only be shown to be right or wrong using reason.

 

There is a lot more to this collection and I have only scratched a very shallow line on the surface of the profound riches to be found in reading these essays. I think that any follower of C. S. Lewis will find that reading God in the Dock to be a rewarding experience.

 

India, A History

July 20, 2014

It must be a daunting project for a historian to attempt to write a history of India on one volume. The grand sweep of India’s history, stretching back five thousand years with a bewildering diversity of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnic groups provides so much material that it must be very difficult to decide what to write about and what to exclude. This diversity must also make finding a common theme throughout the history of the subject difficult. If a historian wishes to write a history of France, he has only one nationality to examine. Most French speak the same language, follow the same religion and culture, and have a shared identity. China is somewhat more diverse, but a historian still has the cycle of dynasties to use as a framework. India is more difficult. The subcontinent has only been completely unified as one state under the British and as soon as the British left, the former colony was split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

Making matters more difficult the indigenous Indians, the Hindus were less interested in dating and precise dating than some other civilizations, such as the Chinese, and more inclined to mythologize their history. Thus, instead of annals of history with more or less precise dating, we have the great Sanskrit epics, which quite possible contain much true historical information. Many of the persons and events in the epics may be historical, but historians face considerable difficulty in determining just when these events occurred and how they are related chronologically, without the help of archeology. It was only when the Muslims invaded Indian that we begin to get reasonably precise dating.

 

India

Despite these difficulties, John Keay does an admirable job of telling the epic story of India in one volume, India, A History.  As someone who did not know very much about this fascinating, and increasingly important country, I was glad to read a history book that lays out the whole story, from its beginnings to the present day, in a way that holds my interest. The maps and charts are adequate, though my Kindle Paperwhite still does not handle graphics very well. I did get somewhat lost in all the exotic and unfamiliar names of princes and dynasties, and occasionally the history of a certain region of India at a particular time, or some of the less prominent kings of a dynasty was somewhat rushed through, but I think that India, A History is an excellent resource for the casual reader to learn about the history of India. Those who wish to study the subject further can use the bibliography John Keay provides. Either way, I think they will find this book useful and interesting.

 

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

July 7, 2014

I have had somewhat ambiguous feelings about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism ever since I first discovered her in college. I agree with much of what she had to say: freedom, capitalism, and the use of reason are good; tyranny, socialism, and living off others are bad. Nevertheless, I have always felt vaguely repelled by her writings. Perhaps it is because I feel a slight malevolence underlying much of what she wrote. Ayn Rand was never one to forgive an enemy or maintain a friendship with someone of an opposing philosophy. Maybe the figures in her fiction are not much like real human beings. The heroes are completely good with no flaws, the villains completely evil with no redeeming characteristics. I am sure.

It is for that reason that I read Greg Nyquist’s Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Mr. Nyquist is a critic of Ayn Rand, but he takes a different approach than most of her critics. He does not spend much time examining the details of her philosophy, except to note where Objectivism is contradictory or incomplete. He does not refute Objectivism on a philosophical basis. In fact, at some points he concedes, for the sake of argument, that Objectivism is the most ideal philosophy imaginable. He also does not criticize Ayn Rand on a personal basis, except to show where her personality characteristics shaped Objectivism.

download

What Greg Nyquist does instead is ask whether Ayn Rand and Objectivism actually works. Mr. Nyquist does not have much use for windy speculations about metaphysics or wordy conjectures about the way things ought to be. He is a practical man. He wants to know whether the assumptions about humanity and the world made by Ayn Rand that form the basis of Objectivism are actually in accordance with the observed facts. To this end, he has written Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature.

This book is divided into eight chapters, each chapter dealing with some aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, her theories of human nature, history, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. The final chapter considers the future of Objectivism. It should not be a surprise that Nyquist finds Ayn Rand’s theories wanting. In particular, he criticizes her ideas on human nature as being unrealistic. She was more concerned with human beings as she believes they ought to be rather than how they really are. She believed that human nature can be changed and that the widespread acceptance of Objectivism will cause people to think and act more rationally. Ayn Rand argued that people act according to the fundamental premises of their particular philosophy and if that philosophy is changed from one that accepts mysticism and collectivism to one that follows reason and individualism, then we can create a utopia of reason and capitalism. Nyquist disagrees, noting that human nature has changed little, if at all, throughout the centuries. People do not often follow a consistent philosophy. They act according to desires and interests and adapt their personal philosophy to justify their actions. He notes that history is less the result of various philosophical and ideological movements, as Ayn Rand asserted, but is more influenced by people’s desires and interests, particularly those of the ruling class. There is a lot more to his criticism, but the general idea is that Ayn Rand simply did not seek any sort of empirical verification of her ideas. She preferred to think about things rather than go out and see how things really are.

On the whole, I agree with Greg Nyquist’s criticism. I think that after some point, Ayn Rand lived in an imaginary world with John Galt and Howard Roarke. I have noticed in her nonfiction, she tended to refer to or quote her characters as if they were real people. She tends to make assertions that are completely reasonable and logical, but with she seldom presents actual evidence that these assumptions are true. I have also found her knowledge of history to be shallow.

While Greg Nyquist presents himself as a practical man, he sometimes crosses into cynicism. He seems to have a very negative opinion on human nature and regards politics as nothing more than the elite getting their way. While this is all true, it is not the whole truth. He believes that even if Ayn Rand’ s ideal of laissez-faire capitalism and the minimalist state is the best system possible, they will never come about into actuality because no political/economic elite will allow them to. Ayn Rand and her followers are idealists who fight for a cause no pragmatic politician would waste his time with.

In the end, I am going to side with the idealists. The idealist will sometimes bring about needed change because he doesn’t know it is impossible and even if he fails, he can at least push things in the right direction. The practical man knows it is impossible and so doesn’t bother to try.

That Hideous Strength

June 23, 2014

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

Perelandra

May 18, 2014

Since Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, told the story of Elwin Ransom’s journey to Malacandra, the planet we call Mars, it is fitting that the second book, Perelandra, is the story of Ransom’s voyage to the planet Perelandra, which we name Venus. The two trips could not be more unlike, however. Instead of being kidnapped and taken into space, this time Ransom is given a mission by the Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Malacandra. He is taken to Perelandra by the eldili in a coffin made of ice.

Cover of "Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book...

Cover of Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book 2)

When Ransom arrives, he discovers (in accordance with the science fiction tropes of the time) that while Malacandra is an older and dying world, Perelandra is a younger planet with a worldwide ocean. In fact, the first two people, the Perelandran Adam and Eve, had just been created. Ransom soon meets the Perelandran Eve, a green-skinned humanoid that he calls the Queen. She has been separated from her husband, the King. The King and Queen are unfallen and live in Paradise, like Adam and Eve, and like Adam and Eve, they have been given a commandment. In their case, they have been forbidden to leave the reed mat islands, which are their home and live on the only solid land on Perelandra.

Ransom is soon joined by his old enemy Professor Weston who comes to Perelandra in a spaceship similar to the one he used to take Ransom to Malacandra. Weston is not the same man Ransom knew on Earth and Malacandra. After speaking to him, Ransom realizes that Weston has been possessed by a devil, or perhaps even the Devil and he has come to tempt the Queen into disobeying the eldill and Maleldil, just as he had done with Earth’s Adam and Eve. Ransom calls this creature the Unman Ransom’s mission, then, is to prevent the Queen from falling. If he cannot persuade her, he must engage the Unman in physical combat, even at the expense of his own life.

Perelandra is more spiritually or supernaturally oriented than Out of the Silent Planet, and Lewis presents more of his theology in it, especially his thoughts on the nature of evil. Lewis does not make the mistake, as some writers do, of portraying evil as exciting or interesting or intelligent. In Out of the Silent Planet, evil is described as “bent”, some quality or thing not acting or being used according to its proper function or role. In Perelandra, as well as some of his other writings, evil is shown to be a lessening of a person or thing. The person who turns to evil becomes less of an individual. Weston as the Unman is less than he was as the scientist who discovered how to travel through space. The Unman is clever and charming while he is tempting the Queen, but when off duty, so to speak, he lapses into imbecility and childish taunting of Ransom. Towards the end of their struggle, Weston seems to temporarily regain control of himself and tells Ransom of his experience dying and coming back to life. Ransom is never sure whether Weston actually was speaking or the demon was trying to trick him. In the end, Ransom decides that it simply doesn’t make any difference. When Weston and the demon turned to evil, they began to lose the qualities that made them individuals. Eventually all that is evil becomes indistinguishable.

Lewis will also have nothing to do with the idea of a fortunate fall, the idea that Adam and Eve were ignorant of evil in their innocence and that at least they gained knowledge. The Unman does tempt the Queen with the knowledge of good and evil, yet she and the King gain more knowledge of good and evil by rejecting temptation than by falling. The King and Queen inform Ransom, at the end of the book, that the people of Thulcandra, our Earth, are more ignorant of evil than they are, because of the Fall and our own evil deeds.

Perelandra is, if anything, even more entertaining than Out of the Silent Planet and is a worthy sequel to that book, although like all of C. S. Lewis’s fiction, it is as much a work of apologetics as story, and Perelandra is, as I have said more theologically oriented than that earlier work. The reader who does not agree with Lewis’s religious beliefs may like Perelandra less well, but I can recommend it.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 429 other followers

%d bloggers like this: