Un-man’s tales: C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra,” fairy tales, and feminism

CJSHayward.com/unman

Knights and ladies, Women and Men
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A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books

I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.

I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.

Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexist way too romantic. And this being sexist way too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off their feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…

To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying thatDealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how the desire for fairy tales is too hard to pull out, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.

Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”

The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”

The Un-man’s own tales

Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.

How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?

[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”

[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”

“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…

[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”

[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”

…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…

The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…

A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…

The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.

A strange silence in the criticism

Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.

Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.

The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.

Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.

Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups

During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.

Conclusion

G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented byDealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.

This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Aim for something better than Un-man’s Tales.

Barbara’s tale: the fairy prince

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The Sign of the Grail

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