I spent a couple of hours past my usual bedtime last Wednesday evening with Corey Olsen and three dozen new friends discussing the first five chapters of Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis. I’m proud of myself for making it to the end of the discussion, which ended at 11:15 p.m. I’ve probably read the first book of the Space Trilogy a half dozen times since I first discovered it in the 70s as a pre-teen. I’ve never had an opportunity to do a serious in-depth reading and discussion so I am very excited about the opportunity presented by Mythgard Academy and a generous donation of a patron thereof.
While I participated live in the GoToWebinar session, where I could interact with Corey Olsen via chat, you can watch to the session via the Signum University Youtube channel (link to the playlist) or listen via podcast. Old habits die hard; even knowing the session was being recorded, I took transcript-like notes (because I can still type over a hundred words per minute and can easily keep up with a single person lecturing).
What follows are my notes from Wednesday’s first webinar on Out of the Silent Planet.
Table of Contents
- Slide 1 ~ “Ransom’s Calling”
- Slide 2 ~ “His Book in His Hand, and a Great Burden Upon His Back”
- Slide 3 ~ “The Path of Duty”
- Slide 4 ~ “Weston and Devine”
- Slide 5 ~ “Ransom’s Dreme”
- Slide 6 ~ “The Final Terror”
- Slide 7 ~ “Ends and Means”
9:09 PM – webinar sort of started. Still no audio/video
9:15 PM – Corey arrives; 36 attendees
26th book discussion; since Fall of 2013; this is a special request by Jennifer Pope (generous donation). Apropos with the Sauron Defeated and The Notion Club Papers. Flipped a coin – Lewis got space and Tolkien got time-travel (The Lost Road never published). Interesting to come back and look at Lewis’ response to the coin flip. Keep in mind that we are kind of going backwards in time by like 15 years from The Notion Club Papers, in the chronology of their lives (Tolkien and Lewis).
Tolkien spent a couple of months on The Notion Club Papers. He wrote a fictional parody of an Inklings meeting at the expense of Lewis. But it expands quickly into time travel and a link to his Legendarium.
This is such a short book and we could have treated the whole trilogy; but Corey states That Hideous Strength is not short at all. Mythgard Academy will be doing Morgoth’s Ring after this.
David states Out of the Silent Planet is one of the best book titles ever. Corey agrees. (emphasis added).
One of the things I would emphasize about this time and thinking about the first five chapters, starting with “Out of” . . . in some ways it’s a mind-bending title. It’s a space travel story. Often it’s about the destination. One of the classics of this genre which inspired Lewis was Voyage to Arcturus. It’s about where you are going to not where you are coming from. The title is looking back to Earth (in the case of Silent Planet). Recontextualization of our world by going out of it.
Why is Earth the Silent Planet?
Slide 1: “Ransom’s Calling”
Finding in the first couple chapters there were very few points I* wanted to talk about. Reminder of the importance differences on the genre level between Wizard of Earth Sea and this one. Good reasons for that: We had to orient ourselves. We are in a new world and we need to understand (world building in fantasy).
*The use of “I” refers to Corey Olsen in these notes, not me, the blog post author.*
This story is a story in a very different mold, which is trying to do something quite different. It’s following the model, essentially, of a traditional fairy tale, rather than that model. What I mean . . . I am here working on Lewis’ own observations – from the introduction to That Hideous Strength – in the beginning of the story you are on familiar ground. Then you travel deep into the woods and encounter someone (witch, dragon, etc.). Instead of trying to figure out where we are and what’s going on. Jennifer states it’s very pedestrian. Brian states the quality of the prose between le Guin and Lewis. Both of these writers are excellent prose stylist. Lewis has beautiful prose. I have always found Lewis’ mind extremely like germane to my own. He thinks the way I think or vice versa. Following his mind is really easy for me. It doesn’t mean I admire them more. It was awhile before I figured that out.
Reading Lewis is like talking to my brother; reading Tolkien is like talking to my wife.
Horror tangent discussion.
Stop talking about talking about the beginning … first real slide.
Slide 2: “His Book in His Hand, and a Great Burden Upon His Back”
Paragraph that ends in “His name was Ransom.”
He’s a philologist not a literary professor. A subtle Oxford Cambridge joke here? Hard not to connect Ransom with Tolkien in someways. I’m not going to be doing an autobiographical connection. Ransom is not Tolkien, but kind of hard to ignore that connection. This explains why Lewis’ stories were the butt of The Notion Club Papers. Tit for tat.
Does anyone recognize the slide title?
Steven got it. David. Rachel. Edith. It’s from Pilgrim’s Progress.
A connection that struck me this time reading through. I think there is something there. Parallel between Ransom and Christian. Lewis knew it well and admired it. The burden is his pack, not his sin. The Hobbit follows a similar faery tale formula – from familiar to fantastical and back again. Same with Narnia book.
Slide 3: “The Path of Duty”
Interesting to me that Ransom’s entrance into the story proper. He is drawn out of his mundane world of his Don’s solitary walking tour. He is not just … yes he’s going to be kidnapped … but even before that he doesn’t want anything to do with this.
Can’t climb a hedge. It’s a barrier, but it’s a permeable one.
This is his first published piece of fiction. This is after his first scholarly work. Very early on in his career. Pilgrim’s Regress came first (Robert and Julie corrected Corey).
The workhouse in Leaf by Niggle is brilliant but most of the time Tolkien doesn’t do allegory very well.
His sense of responsibility drives him on. An encounter thrust upon him. He makes a promise in part motivated by his need to a place to stay the night. He is rewarded by finding what appears to be a crime in progress. He is conflicted though . . . charity, mercy, now leading him to commit trespass. Turns out to be important. Ransom’s story is about … he does have a destination … he is going somewhere.
What’s Christian’s Destination in Pilgrim’s Progress?
Edith the Celestial City is Christian’s final destination. Not exactly a city but the final destination of Ransom is literally in the heavens. In a more literal sense celestial. There is a path he will be going, but he does not know he’s going there and not by his own will. Yet again he doesn’t … it’s not … also not of his own will. He pushed his way through the hedge. What drives him on and leads him into the place that sweeps him away to the Celestial City is his duty. He is trying to do the right thing and that’s what gets him into this fix.
Slide 4: “Weston and Devine”
Two different complimentary villains. Clear glimpse of that from the beginning. Devine knows Ransom – they went to the same English public school. Weston is the professor. Devine doing introductions.
Weston only cares about scientific advancement. Weston dismisses humanities and philology. Not at all interested in Ransom as a person and dismissed him as insignificant.
Might be trying to steal his discoveries. Kept it secret; protecting IP (intellectual property); no good reason for someone to break into a locked secret place where he is experimenting.
Harry is smarter than he is given credit for. Weston states he is subhuman, like an animal. Except he is smart enough to know more than what Devine lets on.
Devine is more worried about the authorities (Scotland Yard reference).
The issue of the human status of Harry is not taken up as a central discussion point here. But it’s made abundantly obvious how Weston stands.
Reference to the eugenics (early 20th century – protoNazi thinking). Remember this was published in 1938. Extreme but not a caricature.
Weston is idealistic. Devine is smarmy. Conciliatory. Lies easily and often. Almost intuitively, Devine plays almost all the right cards. Weston’s thinking is inflexible. What is Devine thinking? Devine has other plans. He changes his plans instantly. Weston is kind of dense here. Devine is very much more quick witted. He immediately sees Ransom is the best test subject.
Don’t be an ass Weston, don’t be a donkey in other words. Devine trying to nudge Weston to see that Ransom is a better candidate.
Ransom is a stranger. From Cambridge (not right around the corner). They are taking a risk in trying to take Harry with them. Weston doesn’t care. Devine is worried about Harry being missed. No one will miss Ransom for months. Devine is sensible to be concerned. Ransom is out of town. Less likely to come to the attention of the police right away. But in addition, he’s put himself in the wrong, in a compromising situation.
Weston doesn’t care about the practical consequences of anything or anyone. From the beginning we see the idealistic scientist obsessed with his ideas and nothing else; and Devine who is slick, charismatic, smooth and practical. Two very complimentary villains. Can’t decide which one is more horrible. Two negative examples of moral corruption.
Slide 5: “Ransom’s Dreme”
A dream not alluded to anywhere else in the book. An isolated moment of vision. At a very transitional moment.
It has some bearing on the rest of the book. I don’t want to look at it from a spoiler end of the book point of view. Parallel to the scene we have just read.
Adding broken glass or broken bottles to the top of your wall, it’s like the poor man’s barbed wire. Dangerous to climb over. It is transgressive to climb over the wall. They are trying to get instead of getting in. They are in the light trying to get out into the darkness. Known/Unknown. Weston goes first, then Devine. Weston needs a hoist up. Light/Dark could be Good/Evil. Known/Unknown is probably a better reading of it because of the other people.
There is a door in the wall, but it only opens from the outside. You can’t even see it from the inside. Weston and Devine are returned by the very queer people. Ransom is left straddling the wall. One leg in light the other in darkness.
That line makes it seem like a dream “My leg will drop off if it gets much darker”
Slide 6: “The Final Terror”
Reading SF books from the first half of the 20th century – pre 1960s. Really fascinated to try to understand what outer space meant. Corey is a child of the 80s. Space meant something very different post moonwalk. The entire cultural mythos of space and what was associated with space changed. I feel what Ransom is experiencing here is common.
The idea of being in space is terrifying, but in a different way. Sense of the numinous (Lewis in other writings). Not merely practical fear. More like awe.
Lewis is not a scientist, not interested in the science. He is interested in the mythic journey.
Nancy I think it would be easier to get this story if it was a fantasy. So why space? Because that is what he is wanting to imagine. Let me explain. You could approach a book like Treasure Island and say Why Pirates? Well it could have been someone else, it didn’t have to be Pirates. It could have been highway men. or cannibals.
Imagine space. 1938. No way of knowing what space is like. How it would affect our view of what it means to be a species. Don’t forget the point about the title. One of the effects of the title … remember the title is a backward looking title. Events are outward focused. How does that change our attitude towards the Earth. Imaginative questions. Contemplate. Think upon.
Sometimes people will read old SF and either marvel at the things they predictions that came true. Several things Ray Bradbury got eerily correct in Farenheit 451. Not just predictions. What Lewis is doing is taking the premises of Space Travel to explore ideas connected with space. Starting with basic cultural fear of space. Terror and awe. I alluded to Star Trek before. The two things that I kept … other texts I came back to were Bunyon and Gene Rodenberry. Find them both interacting with the text in interesting ways.
Nancy: How do you get to that? How do you access his perpective when you know all the spoilers? Forget everything you know or think you know. Focus on what Lewis emphasizes and tells us. What are the mythic concepts.
Slide 7: “Ends and Means”
Think of the mythic … “Space the Final Frontier” … the more profound that shift seems to me. Shift from everything Lewis is imagining in 1938. Ransom doesn’t think of space as a frontier.
Stopping here at 11:15 PM
Next slide gets into the purpose of the journey.
The following morning, Thursday, January 9th, I went searching for the Of Other Worlds collection of essays and short stories by Lewis mentioned by Corey at the end of the lecture as a response to a direct chat question I posted. I found nearly all of what I was looking for via the electronic resources of the six libraries I am a patron of.
The following are my notes and links from 1/9/2020 8:34 AM:
Books referenced above:
- https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/11050707 – complete collection of Essay Collection and other short pieces ~ 39 hours of audio
- Pilgrim’s Regress ebook https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/12137491
- Selected Literary Essays ebook (I just read a print edition last month) https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/11916856
- Of Other Worlds Essays and Stories ebook https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/12458353
This week I continue reading the next five chapters. As I did last week, I will listen to the audiobook and then re-read the same chapters in either one of my paperbacks or the ebook right before we meet again Wednesday night at 9:00 PM Central.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed!