October 11, 2010

Perelandra: A Metaphorical Midrash on Genesis

I’m pleased that Dr. April Middeljans, Assistant Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, has written a post for the CBTE blog which relates to this week’s lectio on Genesis 2:4 through chapter 3. Enjoy!

The narrative of Adam and Eve’s “fall” in Genesis is perversely sketchy. We might expect more detail about an event that plunged the world into sin. Why would God cordon off part of his “Good” creation with caution tape? Why is knowledge, of any sort, a bad thing? Why would it be a sin for a human being, purposely created in God’s image, to be “like” God? What is the serpent’s motivation in all this, anyway—especially if it, too, is God’s creature? To fathom the story’s puzzling gaps, many scholars have turned to the literary imagination. (John Milton wrote his ten-book poem Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men”—feeling, perhaps, that the biblical account left a little to be desired.) While literature, by its own nature, resists absolute and explicit answers, it can provide a metaphorical midrash that helps plumb the depth of complex Scriptural truth.

In Perelandra (1943), C.S. Lewis imagines an alternate Eden on Venus where he can explore the nature of innocence, the psychology of temptation, and the ambiguous line separating good and evil. Here a sinless Green Lady and her King have been forbidden by their creator, Maleldil, to sleep overnight on a certain island. A malevolent force inhabiting a human body (the Un-man) has entered this world, and Elwin Ransom has been sent from Earth to help the new Eve resist corruption. While scripture makes no mention of Satan in the Garden, Lewis’s Un-man is an explicitly evil antagonist (perhaps an avatar of the Nazi threat during World War II). At the same time, Lewis reveals evil to be insidiously banal at heart: as Ransom endures the Un-man’s ceaseless taunting, he muses that “if the attack had been of some more violent kind it might have been easier to resist.” He is horrified by the thought that “on the surface, [there were] great designs and antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within. . . was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness . . . ?” (123). These immature, ignoble tactics suggest that the cause of humanity’s downfall lies not in some overwhelming external force but rather some weakness within.

As Lewis imagines it, evil may arise not only out of banality but also, ironically, out of good intentions. We tend to think of temptation as something that appeals to the baser part of our nature. But those in a state of innocence would not yet have a baser nature, or a full comprehension of evil or wrong. Thus a tempter would need to appeal to the innocent’s sense of good and right in order to turn her from it. The Un-man tries to convince the Green Lady that breaking Maleldil’s interdiction will in fact fulfill his will—that to disobey would help her become what Maleldil desires her to be: “He longs . . . to see His creature become fully itself, to stand up in its own reason and its own courage even against Him. But how can He tell it to do this? That would spoil all. . . . Do you think He is not weary of seeing nothing but Himself in all that He has made? If that contented Him, why should He create at all?” (117). The Un-man follows this tactic by building a dramatic image of noble sacrifice, arguing that it is the Lady’s “duty” to risk this disobedience for the sake of making the King and their unborn children free. Here he paradoxically uses the Lady’s love for others to cultivate a sinful egotism.

Ultimately Lewis suggests that the path toward or away from sin depends on the precarious balance between free will and obedience. Ransom works to convince the Lady that the seemingly arbitrary interdiction actually ensures human freedom: “In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are his will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” (118). Ransom himself struggles with “joy of obeying”; when his mission seems in peril of failing, he berates Maleldil for not intervening. But he eventually comes to realize that God has in fact intervened through him, by sending him to Perelandra; and as the free-acting, material embodiment of God’s will, he concludes that he must physically destroy the Un-man—the evil incarnated in Eden. While it may seem a simplistic, even totalitarian solution, through it the novel insists that the war over the human soul is fought not just in the mind, but within material creation. The earthly death and resurrection of Christ—freely given to the world—is the supreme testament to this truth.

-April Middeljans

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