Out of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1938)

His mind, like so many minds of his generation, was richly furnished with bogies. He had read his H. G. Wells and others. His universe was peopled with horrors such as ancient and medieval mythology could hardly rival. No insect-like, vermiculate or crustacean Abominable, no twitching feelers – rasping wings, slimy coils, curling tentacles, no monstrous union of superhuman intelligence and insatiable cruelty seemed to him anything but likely on an alien world.

The plot

The set-up

Ransom (we never learn his first name) is a harmless Cambridge professor of philology on a walking tour of the Midlands during the university holidays. It’s getting dark and when he asks an old lady at a little cottage for the nearest accommodation, she suggests a nearby house, home of another ‘professor’.

It’s now night-time and Ransom, when there’s no reply to his calls, cheekily pushes through the hedge and wanders round the back of the building where he a) comes across a surprising array of outhouses and chimneys, at least one showing the wild flames of a forge, and with some huge object looming over the buildings, and b) discovers two men struggling with a young lad.

Quickly the two chaps introduce themselves as Weston (a physics professor) and Devine (a businessman) who, to his annoyance, Ransom realises he knew at school, and disliked for his slimeyness. The pair explain that the boy is backward, and they only employ him out of charity and he was just fighting against a chore they’d asked him to do.

Now they let the boy go, to return to the old lady in the cottage, and take Ransom into the house and pour him a nice whiskey. But the whiskey is drugged. Ransom falls asleep. When he wakes, before he can even stir he hears the two men discussing their plans to ‘sacrifice’ him to someone or something. Alarmed, Ransom tries to make a bolt for it, but has barely got to the kitchen door before they’re on him and one of them coshes him.

He regains consciousness in a spaceship. Lewis is a good describer and paints a vivid picture of coming to consciousness in a weirdly shaped metal box, hot on one wall (facing the sun), cool on the other – and being almost weightless. He blunders out of the small metal room into a sort of communal space where he finds Weston and Devine. Ransom’s mind reels as they explain to him that they are going back to Mars in a spaceship.

Back? Yes, they’ve been once already and Devine darkly hints that a) there’s a lot in it for him, wealth or riches or fame etc, and b) that the things – the creatures – they met requested they bring another human back, with implications that this person would be a gift or, as Ransom fears, a ‘sacrifice’. My God, he’s been kidnapped and flown to another planet against his will!

Fantasy

The description of the journey is full of the thoughtful kinds of details of the H.G. Wells type (the continual pattering of small meteorites on the shell of the ship, the way the ship is shaped like a big sphere) – all of which we now know to be completely impractical and unrealistic.

As unrealistic as the way the ‘ship’ mysteriously ‘lands’ quite peacefully on the surface of Mars and, when they open the circular hatch (much like a manhole cover) it turns out the air of Mars is perfectly breathable (just like the atmosphere of H.G. wells’s Moon was perfectly breathable). All of this is almost too silly to be ‘science’ fantasy, is more like a medieval romance, where the sleeper awakes in a strange land full of new creatures.

Same here. They have landed near a ‘lake’ of phosphorescent blue water. Tall willowy things seem to approach from the other shore and gesture towards Weston and Devine. With a shock, Ransom realises these are the creatures his kidnappers spoke about and they are gesturing to him. He is going to be handed over and then sacrificed!

At that moment a water-based creature slip through the ‘water’ and appears to snap at Weston and Devine, who step back in a hurry, slip over and… Ransom takes the opportunity to turn and run, run, run, without looking back, across the spit of sand, up the sides of a hill or whatever it is, never looking back, into a ‘forest’ of tall swaying trunks, amid alien flora, driven by panic fear.

Meeting the Malacandrans

Forced by thirst to eventually risk drinking from a pool of Martian ‘water’, Ransom is terrified when a sleek black animal a bit like an otter arises from it. The creature barks and he is astonished to realise it is making logical, sequential sounds. It is talking. Ransom approaches, it backs away, it gestures, he backs away. Then driven by curiosity, they move closer to each other.

Now we realise why Lewis made Ransom a philologist – it gives a plausibility (well, a sort of plausibility) – to his ability to grasp key words, to separate nouns from verbs, and to quickly begin to talk to this creature.

(The idea that any of this could happen is the wildest fantasy – Mars’s gravity not very different from ours, sunshine and breathable air, drinkable water, creatures with a sort of recognisable form and who can talk. It is Middle Earth, it is Narnia, it is not our solar system.)

To cut a long story short, this creature turns out to be a hross named Hyoi. Ransom is taken to their village where he learns the plural of hross is hrossa (not very difficult, really).

The peaceful hrossa like making poetry, their young frolic around Ransom’s feet, and he goes on a village hunt for one of the few violent creatures on the planet, a hnakra, which live in the ‘rivers’. Ransom is given pride of place in the ‘canoe’ which the hrossa paddle out to find the hnakra, armed with hrossa ‘spears’ and feeling a tremendous sense of comradeship with his fellow ‘bloods’ – at which point I realised that, despite looking like otters, everything else about the hrossa is reminiscent of native Americans: they live close to the soil, in teepee-like houses, have campfires, their young running free. It is a vision of innocence.

Ransom learns that there are two other ‘intelligent’ species on the planet which, by now, he has learned the natives call ‘Malacandra’ – short creatures who love building things and are known as pfifltriggi, and tall, willowy creatures known as sorns or séroni, to give them their grammatically correct plural.

There is something wonderfully innocent about the notion of a Cambridge philologist, magically transported to Mars, then spending his time fussing and fretting about plurals and tenses. And even about placing accents over the correct vowel sounds. Sweet.

Anyway, all three of these species long ago agreed to share one common language and live in peace together, each of their skills complementing the other species – in this, as in so much else, making Ransom reflect sadly on the violence and rapacity of our human species.

Once you get past the hot lakes and phosphorescent water, past the way the waterways have carved deep dead-straight canyons across the red surface of the planet (Lewis’s explanation of Mars’s canals) past the way the vegetation, the hills and the creatures are all tall and willowy due to Mars’s weaker gravity – past, in other words, the Amazing Tales and Astounding Stories level of the setting – then the story reveals its very traditional roots, going back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, if not to Pilgrim’s Progress and beyond, in the sense that it is a highly moralised story.

The fundamental purpose of the narrative is to teach and instruct. And what is being taught is a very traditional antidote to human arrogance and ignorance. Initially Ransom judges the Malacandrans by all-too-human standards, expecting them to be rapacious, violent, competitive – and is continually being brought up short and reproved for his cynicism.

With everything he learns about Malacandra he is reminded that there is something ‘crook’, as the Aussies say, about mankind, something bent and broken.

Special insight comes in (maybe predictably) a conversation about sex – the hrossa breed only once in their lifetimes, which Ranson can’t understand since our own species, of course, has a great deal of trouble restraining itself from all kinds of wanton promiscuity.

At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man?

The ultimate message of the book is that all the universe is a dance of beauty created by a loving God but that earth alone has brought upon itself ruin and silence. By man’s Original Sin.

Back to the plot: Ransom is informed that there is a fourth ‘species’, the almost invisible eldil (plural eldila), spirits which shimmer through the world as prisms of light, as breaths of air and which, he also learns, live in space, at least what humans call ‘space’. Because now he learns that what humans take to be the big black void of ‘space’ is in fact thronged with life and life-giving energy. He learns to think of it not as black and negative empty ‘space’, but as rich and full ‘deep Heaven’.

On the hunting trip an eldil appears to the hrossa (Ransom can barely see it) and tells them to take the man (hman) to Oyarsa. Oyarsa, they explain, is the eldil who is ruler of the planet. The hrossa says they will, just as soon as they finish the hunt. They successfully capture the hnakra but, once the canoes have been pulled up on shore, Hyoi, Ransom’s friend and guide, is shot by a rifle, Devine and Weston’s rifle fired from way up in the hills – and expires in Ransom’s arms.

This really brings home to Ransom just how ‘crook’ and ‘bent’ his species really is. To the hrossa it conveys a different message: that they should have obeyed the eldil straightaway. They tell Ransom how to get to the valley of Oyarsa, which requires crossing a kind of range of Martian Alps. Ransom sets off alone.

Up and up he climbs, becoming breathless, cold and observing the sky getting blacker. Eventually he realises he is climbing out of Mars’s atmosphere altogether, up to the level of the surface of the planet. He realises that all the lush life he’s been living among exists down in the ‘canals’ which are cut across Mars’s surface. Up on the ‘surface’, there is no atmosphere at all.

Before he asphyxiates he arrives at a cave where lives an ancient and wise sorn. It is one of the same creatures who had terrified him all those weeks ago, when he had first arrived, on the shore of the ‘lake’. Now he realises this species are the lofty ‘philosophers’ of Malacandra. They know about astronomy and about the planet’s history in a way which doesn’t interest the happy, hunting, singing hrossa.

The sorn (named Augray) gives Ransom a flower to press to his face, which exudes oxygen (handy), places him up on its shoulder, and then sets off across the mountains towards the valley of Oyarsa, all the way telling Ransom more about the history and life of Malacandra.

This journey on the shoulder of a wise and noble old alien creature reminds me very much of the hobbits’ encounters with the Ents in Lord of The Rings by Lewis’s lifelong friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Augray and Ransom descend into the beautiful valley of Meldilorn, the home of Oyarsa. Here he first sees pfifltriggi who build houses, make works of art and carve stones.

Oyarsa and the meaning of the solar system

Ransom is then led through a throng of Malacandrans, up a ‘tree’-lined avenue towards a circle of pillars like a temple, where he finally meets Oyarsa who proceeds, of course, to explain everything to him. For this is a format as old as writing – the quest, the journey, the odyssey to meet the Old Man of the Hills or guru or Master or god.

Oyarsa explains that:

  • each of the planets of the solar system has a tutelary spirit or oyarsa (plural Oyéresu)
  • on the four inner planets, which contain life, the local Oyarsa is responsible for that life
  • but the ruler of Earth (known as Thulcandra or the ‘silent planet’ hence – we now realise – the title of the book), has turned evil (become ‘bent’) and after some kind of great battle has been restricted to Thulcandra

Quite naturally, as in any allegory or romance or fantasy of this type, Ransom (and by extension the reader) is made to feel small and humble and ashamed of humanity and its greed and wars and so on. A bit like a schoolboy getting a telling off from the headmaster.

During this Great Explanation, there is a fuss back at the edge of the crowd and Ransom turns to see Devine and Weston being manhandled into Oyarsa’s presence by a group of hrossa, along with the corpses of Hyoi and two other hrossa who they have shot. God, is he ashamed to be human.

But it gets worse. Weston and Devine cannot in fact ‘see’ Oyarsa, having not developed the sensitivity to perceive eldila. They think the voice they can hear is being ‘thrown’ by a ventriloquist and decide a particularly sleepy old hross at the edge of the crowd must be throwing his voice. They talk to this old creature in patronising baby language, and offer him beads and cheap trinkets – exactly like the stereotypical white man encountering a new ‘tribe’.

Ransom could sink through the floor in embarrassment and mortification. Are these stupid, blundering, clumsy, patronising idiots his fellow ‘men’?

Oyarsa thinks Weston and Devine are behaving so irrationally they must be ill and orders them to be taken away and have their heads dunked in cold water to sober them up. They, with human cynicism, fear they are being dragged off to be executed and call on Ransom for help.

Then Oyarsa orders a pfifltriggi to use some kind of small crystal device, at the touch of which the bodies of the three dead hrossa disappear in a flash of light. That is their funeral ceremony.

Weston is brought back, head dripping with cold water, into the presence of Oyarsa where he makes a long speech justifying themselves. This is couched in a mix of imperial and capitalist rhetoric, and rises to a great vision Weston has, of Mankind colonising the other planets of the solar system and then Reaching Out To The Stars.

Ransom is called on to translate this lecture which he (and Lewis) not only regard as clumsy, crude, greedy, egocentric and completely contrary to the spirit of the peaceful ordered heavens – which we have by now learned so much about. But, on a telling linguistic level, Ransom finds that he cannot in fact translate portions of the speech, because a lot of the pompous abstract phraseology of imperialism and capitalism has no counterpart in the hrossa’s admirably practical and poetic language.

Oyarsa listens to what Ransom translates and concedes that Weston is acting out of an (admittedly misplaced) sense of duty to his species, and so decides not to evaporate him and Devine on the spot, but to allow them to proceed back to earth. Ransom must decide whether to stay or go back with them.

Reluctantly, Ransom realises he must go. Oyarsa orders the spaceship to be supplied with ninety days of oxygen, food and water, and warns that soon after that time it will be evaporated. Weston doesn’t understand, but Ransom by now realises that the entire solar system teems with life, with eldila, who can easily follow the ship’s progress and obey Oyarsa’s command, no matter where they go.

In fact the journey turns out to be pretty perilous because the earth is not in alignment with Mars and so the ship has to pass much closer to the sun than on the outward journey, becoming dangerously over-heated.

Then they discover that the moon in its orbit is between the ship and the earth. But the earthmen navigate all these perils and, after losing consciousness, Ransom eventually wakens to the most wonderful sound in the world – the sound of rain falling on the outside of the ship.

Realising the others have already left it, Ransom clambers up to the manhole cover, falls out and stumbles across fields. There is a flash behind him and he realises the spaceship has been vaporised as Oyarsa pledged. The lane becomes a road into a village and then – joy of joys – he beholds an English pub, stumbles inside, elbows his way through the crowd to the bar and orders… a pint of good old English beer!

Postscript

To my great surprise the postscript reveals that the author of this whole narrative is a man named ‘Lewis’, a friend of Ransom’s who the latter has told his story to, and who has agreed to write it up and publish it as a fiction.

To give this a plausible feel the postscript quotes a letter from Ransom to ‘Lewis’ pointing out various inaccuracies or places where Lewis has simplified the story.

It also tells that Ransom suspects Weston is going to do more mischief and has come to realise it is his mission to stop him. the struggle may take place on earth which is why Ransom has been keen to get the book published, since it will familiarise readers with key ideas which might help in the coming battle.

Key terms

Maleldil, god of all

hnau – generic for creature

Thulcandra – earth, Perelandra – Venus, Malacandra – Mars

Oyarsa, a spirit set to rule each of the inner planets

sorn, seroni

hman their name for humans

handramit the sunken canyons with breathable air where the hrossa live

Surprised by joy

Lewis was raised an Anglican but didn’t bother much about religion as an undergraduate, until he underwent a profound Christian conversion experience in 1931.

Over the next twenty years he turned himself into one of the most popular and successful writers of Christian apologetics – i.e. books and essays arguing in favour of Christianity – in the English-speaking world. These works included classics such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles.

Throughout these works Lewis makes the same central key points:

  • that the world is the product of a loving, caring God who instituted a sane and rational Moral Law for us to follow
  • that something in the world is wrong or crooked, something to do with man’s disobedience to this higher Moral Law and his ignorant pursuit of his own selfish, egotistical aims
  • and that one man greater than all men sacrificed himself in order to redeem us, in body and imagination, from imprisonment in our own petty selves – to show us a higher realm of values – and to reunite us with the creator

and he set out to convey them through all the means at his disposal.

Thus Lewis not only wrote straightforward books of Christian argumentation but also came up with some wonderfully inventive formats or fictional frames. One example is the famous Screwtape Letters (1942), supposedly written from a wily old devil to a young apprentice, listing all the ways to entrap and ensnare humans, which sheds light on the psychology of evil or selfishness or badness.

Also famous – mega-famous since they began to be made into Hollywood movies in the early 2000s – are the Chronicles of Narnia series of seven children’s books, published in quick succession between 1950 and 1956.

So Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, could be said to stand at the start, not only of the specific science fiction trilogy, but also of Lewis’s realisation that he could convey his Christian message in a range of fictional ways.

This background goes to explain the reader’s feeling throughout the book that it is describing not just an adventurous sequence of thrilling incidents, but is promoting a very strong point of view.

From the moment Ransom meets Hyoi onwards, the book becomes steadily more laden with hints and suggestions that life can be beautiful but something about humanity spoils it.

This is perhaps the distinctive thing about Lewis’s Christianity. It is drenched in happiness. It is not a baleful Victorian Christianity morbidly banning all pleasure of body or mind. On the contrary, Lewis sees human beings created by God to be happy – but they have fallen into narrow, egotistical ways of thinking which act against their own best interests.

As soon as Ransom is outside earth’s tainted atmosphere, he feels happy and, at various moments throughout the story, the recurrent feeling is of immense happiness.

He was on the very frontier of that heaven he had known in the space-ship, and rays that the air-enveloped words cannot taste were once more at work upon his body. He felt the old lift of the heart, the soaring solemnity, the sense, at once sober and ecstatic, of life and power offered in unasked and unmeasured abundance. If there had been air enough in his lungs he would have laughed aloud.

Lewis is a surprisingly sensuous writer. He gives unashamedly sensuous descriptions of things. Not sexual. Sensual.

Stretched naked on his bed, a second Dana, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, ‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body.

Wells, anti-Wells, beyond Wells

When it needs to be, Out of the Silent Planet is a science fantasy adventure story in the absolutely traditional mode of the day. Lewis credits H.G. Wells as an influence in his short preface and Wells is referenced throughout the book, since he was by far the most dominant imaginative influence on the genre.

For example, the very shape of the space ‘ship’ they travel in, a metal sphere, is borrowed from Wells’s First Men In The Moon. And when the hrossa quiz Ransom about earth, Ransom is very careful not to tell them about the constant warfare and lethal weaponry which characterise mankind, because:

He remembered how H. G. Wells’s Cavor had met his end on the Moon… (Chapter 11)

(In Wells’s novel, Cavor tells the moon’s inhabitants, the Selenites, all about mankind’s cruel and destructive wars, with the result that theSelenites curtail his broadcasts back to earth and – it is heavily implied – curtail him, in order not to have the vile Homo sapiens come invading their planet.)

But the actual Mars that Ransom discovers is as remote as possible from Wells’s visions of cities and steel. It is a rural, albeit alien, idyll.

The old dreams which he had brought from earth of some more than American complexity of offices or some engineers’ paradise of vast machines had indeed been long laid aside. But he had not looked for anything quite so classic, so virginal, as this bright grove.

It’s only looking back that I realise that the Wellsian paraphernalia of the opening chapters is invoked in order to draw the science fiction fan into a narrative which then goes on to shed, plate by plate, its Wellsian shell and turn into something completely different – science fiction theology – a fully Christianised view of what life on other planets might be like, and a theological interpretation of how they got that way, which takes full cognizance of the Christian story on earth – the Fall and Christ’s incarnation and redeeming crucifixion – but which, imaginatively, goes way beyond that frame to imagine the forces of good and evil battling right across the solar system.

It is the beauty – of the planet, and of its inhabitants, and then of the eldila and then of Oyarsa – the transcendent sense of beauty and happiness and joy and bliss which the book radiates, which makes it so memorable and which gives Lewis’s Christian belief its distinctively optimistic and inspirational character.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on earth, until a small band of astronomers discovers the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


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