Karl J. Franklin*


The space trilogy by C.S. Lewis is used here as a basis for thinking about missionary work. In it Lewis, in the surrogate character Ransom, accompanies scientists Weston and Devine in their sinister visits to the planets of Mars and Venus. They encounter alien beings and cultures with attempts at communication that parallel many of the types of exchanges between missionaries and people of non-Western cultures. In the final book of the trilogy, Ransom is the philosopher-educator who best understands what is happening in a college town because of his experiences on Mars and Venus. This too has parallels with missionaries who examine their own cultures in the light of experience and understanding from other cultures. 


My interest in the writings of C.S. Lewis goes back to my college days. After I read Mere Christianity I was sure that it had the kind of arguments that my skeptical dad would consider and that it would challenge him with the claims of Christianity. I don’t remember that it had such an effect on him, but it was a book that prompted many conversations between us and it influenced my own thinking about the Christian faith.

I kept reading books by Lewis and when we arrived in PNG in 1958 the novel Till we have faces had recently been published (1956). I had conversations about it with colleagues and it seems like his books have been part of my life for a long time. I can remember encouraging my daughter (then a sophomore at Baylor) in her English course to specialize in books by Lewis. She read most of his books and later enrolled me as a member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. Then a couple of years ago I found a course on CS Lewis offered by the Great Courses, so I read that as well (The life and writings of C.S. Lewis by Professor Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University).

Over the years authors have looked at Lewis from various perspectives, for example: 

  • The taste for the other: the social and ethical thought of C.S. Lewis (Gilbert Meilaender, 1978)
  • Reading the classics with C.S. Lewis (Thomas L. Martin, editor, 2000)
  • The riddle of joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie, eds., 1989)
  • Surprised by laughter: The comic world of C.S. Lewis (Terry Lindvall, 1996)
  • The spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis (Terry Glaspey, 1996)
  • C.S. Lewis explores vice and virtue (Gerard Reed, 2001)
  • The question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, love, sex, and the meaning of life (Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., 2002)
  • C.S. Lewis and the Catholic church (Joseph Pearce, 2003)
  • Beyond the shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on heaven & hell (Wayne Martindale, 2005)

There are also bibliographies, summaries, encyclopedias, collections of readings, websites and so on to consult on Lewis. However, as far as I know, no one has ever suggested that C.S. Lewis championed the missionary cause, nor had much interest in it.

In September 2005 my wife and I spent a month in Ecuador visiting our family who were missionaries there and I decided to re-read the space trilogy that Lewis wrote: Out of the silent planet, Perelandra and That hideous strength. As I read the novels and listened to Lewis comment on space travel, meeting with inhabitants of other planets and the general triumph of technology, coupled with the awful consequences of sin and pride, it seemed to me that he was very much a missionary. Then in September 2006 (in Ecuador again) I re-read That hideous strength more carefully. If Lewis had been a missionary, or if I could pretend he was in a vicarious sense in his space encounters, what did he say that had parallels to the missionary work that I was acquainted with? So I started thinking and writing. My wife tells me that some of my connections are a bit far-fetched, but then, what a lot of what missionaries say is far-fetched, so bear with me in this exercise.

Of course, to even consider the question, I have had to speculate about Lewis as an author and about his characters and plots. Nevertheless, what he wrote in the trilogy—his many characters and events—reveal a great deal about cross-cultural communication, something missionaries are supposed to excel in.

Readers know that Lewis’s books speak of fantasy, myth, devils, other worlds and planets, and that his letters reveal his more personal side, but here my context is his space trilogy, although I may occasionally refer to some of his other writings. I do not want to imply that Lewis considered himself a missionary or thought deeply about missionaries. In fact he was frightened that, if humans should contact an unfallen race somewhere on another planet in space, we would soon corrupt them. In an interview with Sherwood Wirt of Decision magazine (September 1963, and probably the last interview Lewis had before he died) he said:

I look forward with horror to contact with other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and acquisitiveness and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all that would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite another matter.

Some definitions and background

The word “missionary” has both positive and negative connotations, so let me explain how I am using the term and why I want to see if Lewis fits the bill. Although the work of a missionary is most naturally related to religious tasks, it does not have to be. A businessman, nurse, teacher or terrorist can have a mission to fulfill, so they could fit that aspect of the missionary profile as well. I therefore go further and qualify the definition by saying “Christian missionary,” thus immediately adding certain additional constraints and facts.

Put simply, a Christian missionary represents (serves as an ambassador for) the Christian faith; secondly, he is motivated by God to do the task; thirdly, he is willing to undergo hardship to accomplish the task; and finally, he carries the message for the benefit of a particular audience.[1] A missionary is therefore one with a mission, a purpose to fulfill. In the Christian context the mission is to tell groups, most often those that are culturally different than one’s own, about the good news of Jesus Christ–how he came into the world to die for sinful people, was killed and then rose again. It is a message of hope because it offers forgiveness, redemption and resurrection.

In thinking about how Lewis portrays the missionary cause, I have imagined him leaving his homeland of England, going to a non-English speaking country, learning the language and customs of the country, all with the goal of conveying to the inhabitants a message of hope and reconciliation. 

We recognize that missionaries, to be at home in another culture and communicate with the inhabitants of that culture, generally need to learn to speak another language, one that may be very different from their mother tongue. They also need to understand another culture without judging it simply because it is different than their own. The depth of their linguistic and cultural understanding will influence the range of their participation in the contacted culture, as well as the degree of friendships that they form within the culture. Their ability to see from the inside of the language and culture, like a native speaker, rather from the outside, like an alien, will provide them with a view that is cross-cultural, i.e. it crosses from their own culture to a new culture. It may turn out that their audience is not at first, or even in the end, appreciative of them or their message, so they may be treated cruelly. All of their interactions will require faith, love, and hope, but the neediest of these turns out to be hope. Many missionaries, probably most, go in faith, not knowing exactly what to expect, but are convinced that God is leading them into this new venture. They also must work at charity because their motives and behavior will be tested and often found raw and bitter. But most of all they must have infinite patience, hoping that learning the language and culture, living in an alien land, eating different foods and viewing practices that are foreign and often distasteful to them, will lead to an acceptance and understanding of the message they represent. We would expect this of missionaries, so how does Lewis do this on Mars, Venus, and then back on earth?

A Missionary to Mars?

To begin this exercise let us look at author Lewis, in the persona of his surrogate Ransom, as he visits two planets outside of earth and observe his interactions with the aliens he meets. We will then notice that what he has learned eventually influences his behavior and work back on earth.

When Ransom goes to Mars he is like some missionary spouses, going more by compulsion than desire. Although a spouse may not be put in a space rocket, he or she may go unwillingly. In this vein, when the space ship goes to Mars it is because of the intentions and desires of Weston and Divine, not because Ransom wants to go there.[2] Missionaries often do not end up where they intended: Judson ended up in Burma when he wanted to be in India; Ken Pike wanted to go to China, but ended up in Mexico; some of my colleagues in PNG wanted to be in Irian Jaya (now called Papua), and so on. “Many are the plans in the mind of man but it is the will of God that will be accomplished.”(Proverbs16:9; 19:21)

The story of Ransom, who is a philologist and a fellow of Cambridge College, begins when he is simply trying to get home before dark. As it becomes late and he seems unlikely to get to his destination, he chances to meet a woman and asks her for directions to an inn where he might spend the night. She is distressed and is waiting for her husband, Harry. Harry turns out to be dumb, but works at a place that Ransom will be passing. Ransom agrees to contact her husband and pass on her message of anxiety. Upon reaching the somewhat secluded place, Ransom has to climb a fence in order to get inside. There he is accosted by Devine (a former acquaintance) and his accomplice, Professor Weston. Unbeknownst to Ransom, they are conducting a human experiment, and want to use Harry.

Lewis uses the experiment motif as the underlying reason that Ransom is taken to Mars. God seems to conduct experiments with people, witness Job who was the experimental evidence that God offered to Satan for a righteous man. Ransom seems to be unaware of God’s ultimate purpose and yet eventually learns what God is teaching him. I have often wondered what God is doing, not if He should do it, but where the action or inaction is leading. Why would an administrator ask me to run a sawmill in 1958 when we were waiting assignment to start language work? Or why did the director choose my wife and me to supervise the opening of an airstrip? The space trilogy is an excellent metaphor of missionary work at times: into the unknown, meeting the unknown, difficulty in communication, battles with evil, questions about purpose, and so on.

Weston and Divine overcome Ransom because they decide to use him instead of Harry for the experiment. Ransom finds himself on a spaceship and as the earth recedes he learns that they are on their way to Malacandra (Mars). Overhearing a conversation on the space ship, Ransom realizes that Weston has been in contact with Mars inhabitants, known as sorn, earlier. He cannot imagine what the sorn are like but from what he overhears he believes that they are demanding a human sacrifice from earth.

Already Ransom, like any curious missionary, is observant and making deductions, even as he is puzzled about what is going on or the purpose of it. Missionaries generally know where they are going and, for the most part, are quite observant. I can remember that when we were assigned to PNG (then the Territory of New Guinea) in 1957, I found some books by Colin Simpson called Adam with arrows and Adam with plumes and read them. I wrote to Oceania and got some monographs on the people and also read back issues of National Geographic to find information on the area and learn as much as I could. All of this gave me background information from which to make deductions about the country and its people. Some were wrong: when we landed in Port Moresby and saw the men spitting out red juice we assumed that TB was rampant instead of recognizing that they were chewing betel nut and spitting out the juice. Similarly, Ransom had difficulty figuring out what was happening on his way to Mars.

Ransom’s party eventually lands on Mars. Weston obviously has been there before because he has a key to a hut that contains provisions. Later they are met by six white “spindly and flimsy things, twice or three times the height of a man,” who compel them to cross over water with them. Weston fires his revolver at them and in the confusion of the moment Ransom is able to free himself and flee.

As best he can, Ransom describes the inhabitants of Mars. Enough sign language is communicated for Weston’s party to know what these unfamiliar creatures, the sorn, want. Ransom, like most missionaries, does not own a gun, but Weston does and he fires it to scare off the natives. This has often been a universal response and tactic when invaders and prospectors have entered new territory and believed the people meant them harm. Although missionaries are in another country and their mission is to interact positively with them (and not shoot them), this has not always been historically true, so perhaps we should not be too judgmental of Weston. In the story of the first contact into the highlands of Papua New Guinea by Hides and O’Malley, they frighten the people by shooting a pig to demonstrate the power of their guns.

Ransom encounters many obstacles, creatures and personal difficulties and, as he does, is terribly afraid of the sorn. But a sorngives him liquid to drink and of course he is grateful. The sorn tries to talk to Ransom, identifying himself as hross (later Ransom learns that hrossa is the plural) and their attempt at conversation and discovery begins. Ransom deducts that the name Malacandra turns out to be the whole landscape, with handra meaning ground or earth. As a student of language, he notices a change in sounds (dialects) as well as suffixes and prefixes.

Sometimes the people we may fear the most in another society and culture can turn out to be our best friends. When we lived in the village of Usa in the Southern Highlands of PNG, off and on, from 1958 to 1973, at first I didn’t like Yanda (not his real name). He was too demanding and always around, wanting to help. But it wasn’t long before he wanted me to train him to do some of the things that I was doing, practical things like carpentry. He became a very good friend, one I could count on for help. Our friendship was often over food and just as the sorn helped Ransom in a practical way, Yanda helped me. In respect to linguistic aptitude, Ransom was a good missionary—a quick learner and one who immediately attempted to use the language. His fear of the sorn is basically reduced through what he learns of the language. This is of course, why missionaries learn phonetics, language learning techniques, and study the basic grammatical and cultural features of other languages. Nevertheless, fear of people and learning a new language in a different culture, leads to problems common to missionaries. We find Ransom overcoming many of his fears as he begins to learn the language and customs of the sorn.

Eventually Ransom is compelled to follow the hross in a boat and he does so, although “its animality shocked him.” The hrosswere “six or seven feet high and too thin for its height, like everything in Malacandra.” However, at the same time he had a “longing to learn its language” and to understand it better. As they travel Ransom continues to learn new things: the high ground is called harandra and the low areas are handramit. The hross live in the handramit and the séroni (the plural for sorn) up on the hrandra.

The hross who first found him is named Hyoi and the one teaching him the language is the “grey-muzzled, venerable” Hnobra.I remember how difficult it was to remember the names of the villages, the clans, the rivers, the mountains, the garden areas, which were all unusual to me as a foreigner in the Kewa area in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Nevertheless, it was important for me, as it is with new missionaries anywhere, to learn the names of the areas around us. In this respect Ransom is again an exemplary learner. He continues with observations on the culture and environment, as well as observing the knowledge the Martians have of his world—Thulcandra, or the earth. Of course the Kewa knew nothing of my world but they were interested in my birthplace and where I grew up. In the same way, Ransom wanted to know about the sorn and hross. Ransom begins to learn what is of interest and importance to the sorn and hross, just as a missionary must learn what is important in the worldview of the people he works with.

In response to Ransom’s questions about “the silent world or planet”, known as Thulcandra, the answer is always that “the séroni know.” The Martian inhabitants decide that Ransom should try to meet Oyarsa, who lives in Meldilorn and who “knows everything, rules everyone, and had always existed.”

Ransom is learning about the traditional beliefs of the sorn. Missionaries sometimes are reluctant to put much stock in the traditional tales of the people, doubting the truth of their oral history. However, God does not want anyone to be lost, so there is often some knowledge about Him present in a natural environment, although it may be distorted. Once again Ransom exhibits good missionary skills by learning the names of the experts who know the answers and can represent the culture’s worldview. Worldviews are composite values and beliefs and are not easily verbalized by participants in a particular culture. Our worldview influences the way we interpret not only the Scriptures, but other cultures and languages as well. This is why we study anthropology and linguistics. I remember studying Kewa religion and asking: Who should I ask?, and “Who are the ones who know the most about this topic?” Then I would follow with, “What should I ask them?” I didn’t even know the best questions to ask.

Ransom learns, for example, that Maleldil is not a hnau (human being), that the hross, as well as the séroni and pfifltriggi, are different culture groups. The pfifltriggi like to dig, soften things with fire and make things. They are smaller than humans, “long in the snout, pale, busy.” Ransom begins to realize why Weston is so interested in the area, apparently for what the pfifltriggi can make. He also concludes that the sorns are the intelligentsia.

Here again Ransom could be considered a missionary anthropologist at work: analyzing class and social structure, determining work habits, describing the new culture group as best he can. One of our first tasks was to outline the kinship structure of the Kewa, to see how people fit into the social structure and to note how the clans and sub-clans were named and organized. We then were gradually assigned our own place in the structure and given names to use. This adoption process is essential if missionaries are going to be accepted into a culture group. However, even in the process, we make assumptions that are influenced by our cultural background and worldview. For example, the word “brother” in English can refer to a sibling, a shared parent (half-brother), a common ancestry, a fellow man, a friend, or a member of a religious order. In Kewa a “brother” refers to male siblings, parallel male cousins, the wife’s sister’s husband, the wife’s father’s brother’s daughter’s husband, the wife’s fathers’ sister’s daughters’ husband and several other similar relationships. But in Kewa my sister does not use the name “brother” for me; rather she uses a word that means “sibling of the opposite sex” and I would refer to her the same way.

In the ensuing conversations both Ransom and the hrossa learn that they have hunted the hnakra in their separate worlds and will do so now. But as they engage in the activity a philosophical discussion reveals that the hrossa have no “bent” (sinful) ones of their own species. 

This is a theological point that most missionaries would probably find unacceptable—the whole world and other worlds as well would probably be considered sinful to missionaries. But why is this so? Didn’t Jesus say that he had other worlds that the disciples didn’t know about? Are there really other places in the universe where there are princes and powers that are evil? How do our practical earth-oriented worldviews fit with the Scriptural hints of fallen angels, angel-humans, and fallen angels like Satan? Ransom is learning new things that conflict with his own experiences and worldview. And he is learning about hunting and engaging in similar cultural activities with the people. Ransom follows missionaries in this respect.

During the hunt and as they are about to see the hnakra, Weston appears and kills a hross, thinking it is a beast. Another hrossnamed Whin says this has happened because Ransom was supposed to go to Oyarsa but did not obey the eldil. The hross then explains to him how to take the five day journey to find Oyarsa. Prior to this there is a scene of ethnic and cultural superiority when Weston speaks to Oyarsa about science and human destiny. Ransom is called upon to interpret as Weston compares his civilization with the stone-age life on Mars, how his responsibility from the higher life is over the lower forms, and so on. Ransom falters when he tries to translate Weston’s view of killing the sorn as if it somehow benefited the survival of the human race. A series of conversations shows Weston speaking a kind of pidgin variety of the language in which he assumes his own cultural superiority.

How do we justify or explain war, conflict, and conquest in space in terms of social benefits accruing for others? During the career of a missionary many unusual and unacceptable things happen. How should they to be interpreted: Does the missionary always know God’s will? How should he respond to unacceptable behavior? There is no lack of cause and effect in cultures of PNG. There are no accidents: sickness and death (including old age) happen because of sorcery, magic can enhance a love relationship, and so on. In this instance Ransom has disobeyed what he was told to do and this has resulted in something wrong happening. But we have to be careful: when there is an accident, the missionary disobeyed God in some way? Are there accidents? A building collapses and the good and the evil people die. 

Philosophical questions like these do not seem to trouble Ransom as he continues to try and understand what he has seen and heard. As he journeys on he reflects on the nature of Oyarsa: is he an arch-sorn? Was he a real person? He is looking for Augray’s tower, unsure of what this might be or mean. 

I have already mentioned that missionaries are often confronted with the names of beings that they do not know or understand, living in places that they cannot comprehend. Should they enter new territory, according to some theologies, places likely to be ruled by the devil? How far does one go in the quest for cultural understanding? Ransom, it turns out, goes further than most missionaries would. Similarly, I once attended a garden ceremony where the head man cooked some pig parts over a small reflective pond as he chanted the names of certain spirits. It was an eerie feeling for me and when I reported the incident to some missionaries afterwards they cautioned me to be careful of what ceremonies I took part in. That may have been good advice, although it is difficult to learn about a cultural event without participating in it.

Eventually Ransom meets a sorn, one who decides that Ransom is from Thulcandra (earth), rather than Glundandra(Mercury?) Ransom in turn discovers that the sorn called Augray speaks a dialect different from the hrossa. Ransom describes how Augray looks and there follows a discussion on Oyarsa, who “is the greatest of eldila who ever come to a handra.” Augray and Ransom continue their discussion, although Ransom finds that he has insufficient vocabulary to find out much about the political and economic background of the Malacandrian people, in particular the pfifltriggi

Ransom’s interest in language contributes to his identification of dialect differences, but it also shows him how weak he is in certain cultural domains, such as politics and economics. Ransom seems to assume that the division of vocabulary and culture into economic, religion and so on are natural rather than an artifact of Western culture and analysis. Missionaries are just as likely to assume that their cultural domains are more reliable than those of another culture. In Kewa we found that there was no word for “religion” or “economics” or of course “psychology” because these have arisen out of our Western educational complex. Ransom is tied to his educational background and finds it difficult to communicate along the lines that the sorn do.

Travel is difficult for Ransom so Augray carries him across the landscape, a new handramit that is spectacular in beauty. Later Ransom goes by boat for a distance, then resumes walking. He sees pictures on stones that suggest an earlier evolution of the sornshrossa and pfifltriggi. It is the latter who turn out to be the sculptors, and one does a portrait of Ransom.

The picture of Augray carrying Ransom is symbolic of how in an unfamiliar place and culture, he must rely completely on the “natives”. Despite how observant missionaries and anthropologists may be, they must rely completely upon members of the cultures they study. Ransom is able to appreciate beauty–even when it is unlike that of his own world. He also is able to connect the relationship between groups of people from pictographs that he notices. 

Ever the linguist, Ransom makes another discovery: the sorns, hrossa and pfifltriggi can all speak the same language, despite differences in their speech organs. He is told that once they had their own languages but now everyone has learned the language of the hrossa. Ransom continues to stay and learn more of their culture until finally Oyarsa appears from the long lines of sculptured stones. Oyarsa has an inhuman voice, but unshaken, sweet and remote. From Oyarsa Ransom learns that he has been brought to Mars for a purpose and that he met sorns so that they could teach him the language. Oyarsa had not expected the strangers (Weston and Devine) to bring Ransom, although he knew from the sorns that Thulcandrians were mining on Mars. Oyarsa sent for someone of Ransom’s race so that he could find out as much as he could about Maleldil’s wars with the Bent One. 

Ransom finally discovers the purpose that took him to Mars. It has taken a leader from a culture not his own to make this clear. Similarly, many missionaries do not find out their true purpose for being in another land until they have deep philosophical and religious discussions with inside leaders. We should try to discover what God has in mind for us. Why are we in this culture? What does God have in mind? How can we communicate effectively without knowing both the language and the culture?

As Ransom is explaining what happened with Maleldil on Thulcandra, Weston and Devine arrive in a procession. They deposit three dead hrossa before Oyarsa. Weston then attempts to converse with Oyarsa by using a kind of Pidgin that is a condescending variation of the Malacandrian, which he learned from the sorns. He tries to intimidate them but in the end he is ignored. 

Talking down to people is common, even by missionaries. But when done in an inferior manner by using the language incorrectly, it shows a lack of respect. Weston and Divine are good examples of what missionaries should not be: condescending in both attitude and language, indicating their feelings that the inhabitants are culturally and linguistically inferior, subject to control and intimidation. Lewis obviously recognizes this when he has Weston using a Pidgin variation of the language.

Ransom listens to the songs of memory for the dead sorns. Because of his knowledge of the culture and his love for the creatures he begins, ever so little, to hear the songs with their ears. Oyarsa makes a sign and the pfifltiigg (plural?) touch the three dead sorns and they disappear.

When a missionary begins to understand and respond internally like one of the people there is hope that his message will be listened to and, perhaps, accepted and adapted within the culture. But the motive of missionaries should go beyond simply the salvation of the people. A missionary’s reactions and feelings need to be spontaneous and genuine. Funerals and mourning were not one of my favorite times with the Kewa. I can still occasionally hear the death wails during the night. But listening to the songs and dirges enabled me to understand the depth of feelings of the people. Ransom began to do this. Of course one does not have to be a missionary to have this kind of response, but a cross-cultural view of death can be terrifying.

Oyarsa has Weson’s head dipped in cold water with the hope that it will help him understand the ways of the Malacandrians, but instead Weston lectures them on their primitive ways. He claims that life is greater than “tribal taboos and copy-book maxims” and that she [Life] “has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” When Oyarsa extols the benefits of Maleldil, Weston rubbishes the concept and, in his Pidgin version of the language says, “Me no care Maleldil. Like Bent One better: me on his side.” Oyarsa allows Weston’s party to leave, saying that the sorns and pfiftriggi will give them enough food and air for the 90 days it will take to reach Thulcandra.

Despite their most degrading speeches and actions, foreigners, including missionaries, are often given more grace and good will than they deserve. This is certainly the case for Weston and Devine. An inherent cultural view of hospitality in many cultures will often overcome the negative response that outsiders could expect. Of course this is not always true: James Chalmers went to the Gulf of PNG at the turn of the 19th century and was killed by the Goaribari people. The five martyrs in Ecuador were killed despite their good intention. Ransom and Weston could have expected retaliation and revenge but are allowed to return to earth instead. 

The three return to earth and it is at this point that Ransom’s friend takes up the story again, remarking that Ransom has abandoned his idea of a Malacandrian dictionary and telling his story to the world. The author remarks that this record, however, gives much of the story, even if it does not do justice to Ransom’s experiences.

Ransom, or Lewis as Ransom, clearly portrays a number of positive characteristics of a missionary. These include linguistic aptitude and cultural curiosity, coupled with empathy, friendships, and deep discussions about the important matters of sin, life and death. The whole story is not told to the world—no TV or DVDs in those days. Like many missionaries returning home, Ransom also realizes that he will not get some of the linguistic work done that he had planned. Many missionaries have shelves of data that they will probably never analyze.

There are a number of practical things that Ransom learns from his to Mars that are similar to what missionaries learn from their overseas experiences:

  • When we describe our experiences we learn more about ourselves
  • We learn from cultures and people that are quite different from our own
  • When we examine aspects of our culture we may be ashamed
  • We get uncomfortable or even frightened in new cultural situations
  • Traditional beliefs from other cultures may encapsulate truth and knowledge
  • The ultimate encounters we have are in the hands of God
  • Attempting to use the language is a way to make friends
  • Social organization is a universal aspect of cultures
  • Degrees of empathy come from cultural immersion and participation
  • Cultural imperialism is an aspect and sometimes a fact of missionary work

A Missionary to Venus?[3]

The sequel to Out of the Silent Planet begins with the thoughts and journey of a man (who, not incidentally, is named Lewis) who is summoned to go to Ransom’s home. He already knows that Ransom has been to Mars and met creatures called eldilaand their ruler, the Oyarsa of Malacandra. The man knows something of their physical characteristics as well: “They do not eat, breed, breathe, or suffer natural death, and to that extent resemble thinking minerals more than they resemble anything we should recognize as an animal.”

Like a missionary returning on furlough, Ransom has re-told his Mars experiences to Lewis. Lewis also recognizes that Ransom has come back from Mars a changed individual: he has met and communicated with the eldil, who now do not leave him alone. The narrator (Lewis) is even afraid that he might meet one and indeed as he travels to meet Ransom at his home he finds it difficult to think of any thing but the eldila. Lewis exemplifies the missionary-storyteller par excellence. He tells his bizarre stories with great effect. The missionaries who are sought for the banquet circuit and official functions are most often the storytellers, not the academics—unless they too can tell stories.

In addition to the eldila, Lewis knew of the sorns, giants that Ransom had met and described. Ransom had also told Lewis about the pfiftriggi and the hrossa, as well as additional named beings. All of this background information contributed to Lewis’ own cultural perceptions of haunted houses and superstition as he continued on his way to Ransom’s cottage.

Like a missionary, Ransom has made his stories so vivid that Lewis is terribly frightened in the dark on his way to Ransom’s house. These are Ransom’s snake and cannibal stories, themes that audiences always have in mind when they think of “primitive” cultures and the stories that missionaries tell. This kind of story can be either positive or negative, depending on the way the stories are told and the motives for telling them. What was Ransom trying to achieve by telling these tales to his friend? When missionaries tell a story, their motives and goals may not always be clear. Ransom needs someone with whom he can share his stories, and the same is true for missionaries. Ransom is fortunate that he has found someone interested.

Upon arrival at Ransom’s house Lewis finds a note expressing sorrow that Ransom will be late and that Lewis is to make himself at home. In the house he stumbles upon a long, open box and hears a voice calling the name of Ransom. He also sees a pillar of light with unusual colors, that he interprets as an eldil and is filled with terror. Just then Ransom returns and converses with the eldil in “a strange polysyllabic language” that Lewis had never heard before.

Missionaries know what it is like to be invited to a home when the host is absent. We note that when Ransom and the eldilconverse, it is a miracle to Lewis. When missionaries talk their learned languages the reaction is often similar: how did they ever learn to talk like that? Ransom undoubtedly knew the effect this language would have on Lewis when he heard it: awe, admiration, even a humbling effect. Missionaries have observed the audiences feelings of wonder when they talk or recite Scripture in an unknown language.

In the discussion that follows it is clear that Ransom would like to return to Malacandra (Mars) but that he has now been summoned to go to Perelandra (Venus) instead. The leader of the latter, a “bent Oyarsa” who resides somewhere in the Solar System, is going to attack Venus. Ransom has been selected to go to Venus because he learned the language Hressa-Hlab on Mars, which turns out to be Old Solar, Hlab-Eribol-of-Cordi, which is also spoken on Venus. The language was lost on Thulcandra (earth) and no human language is known to have descended from it. Additional facts are spelled out: how Venus has an outer layer of atmosphere that is thick, so the climate will be warm; the man Schiaparelli has studied the time it takes for Venus to revolve around the sun (Arbol). The conclusion is that there will be a perpetual day on one side of the planet and perpetual night on the other.

Here, like a scholarly missionary, Ransom has done his homework: he knows the linguistic history, the geography and the conditions surrounding any transportation needed for living in the new country. And like any missionary, Ransom would like to go back to Mars, where he had learned the language and was accepted by the people. However, the mission superintendent has a different and more important mission in mind for Ransom. “Going back” is a strange oddity and behavior of the missionaries. It reveals the deep feelings that allow them to refer to “our language” and “our people”. Ransom displays more knowledge about the history of the language than the average missionary, but he also shows its relevance to understanding what has  happened on the planet.

Ransom, in fact, will be sent to a place where there is a battle going on between good and evil. He will ride in the coffin by the power of Oyarsa to Perelandra. He has no idea of how this can be done but Lewis has been summoned to help launch the box. At breakneck speed Ransom is deposited in Perelandra, which seems to have an environment that is without land. As he describes it, “There is no moon in that land, no star pierces the golden roof. But the darkness was warm. Sweet new scents came stealing out of it. The world had no size now.” Then darkness, loneliness and sleep overcome Ransom.

Darkness and loneliness are two apt words for the feelings of missionaries who arrive in new countries. And, like Ransom, they believe they are involved in a battle that is going on between what is good and what is bad. The challenge is to decide what the cultural insiders consider as good and bad. (Missionaries may also feel like they have been transported in a box after 24 hours in airplanes and airports!).

After an interlude of rest Ransom awakes and realizes that he is naked and in an unknown planet. Presently he sees what seems to be a dragon-like creature that he unsuccessfully tries to engage in conversation. With considerable difficulty in communication, Ransom encounters what turns out to be a green woman. Eventually he talks to her in the ancient language of Venus telling her that he has come in peace. Her answer is as perplexing as his journey to this point. “What is peace?” she asks.

Missionaries assume that their vocabulary and viewpoint will be understood, indeed that it should be. But as surely as the green woman does not know what “peace” means (as well as many other assumed common concepts), many cultural groups do not understand the most basic points about the Gospel (redemption, forgiveness, repentance, for example). Lewis portrays this difficulty in cross-cultural understanding very well. An analogy is when translators are searching for key terms and attempt some definition from the “original” text, believing that this will explain a meaning. However, the meaning will be interpreted by the context of the message—written or unwritten, regardless of the Biblical history of the word or expression.

Their next conversation reveals that neither party understands the other’s point of view or reference. Ransom believes that when she says she is young she is referring to age. Rather, she is talking about the accumulation of wisdom. She calls Ransom “Piebald Man,” indicating the blotched nature of his skin and thanks him for the wisdom he is bringing. It turns out that she knows “that in your world Maleldil first took Himself this form, the form of your race and mine.” It is Maleldil that has provided all of the wisdom that the woman shares with Ransom.

Here Lewis is treading in deep theological water: people in other cultures are not supposed to know as much as the missionary about the purpose or nature of God. This is an important dialogue because it reveals that Lewis, now as author, appreciates some of the innate religious understanding that is present in another culture. Missionaries have to face the fact or possibility that God has been there before them. Many object to this point of view.

As Ransom’s dialogue continues with the “Green Lady”, it seems that many of his concepts simply do not make sense to her. “What is home… alone… dead?” reveal some of the terms that are unfamiliar. She wonders aloud if Ransom was sent to Venus to teach them about death. As their dialogue continues Piebald is also confused, and the Green Lady observes “little hills and valleys” in his forehead and “a little lift” of his shoulders. “Are these the signs of something in your world?” she asks.

When verbal language can’t be understood, people look closely at “body language.” What does a furrowed brow mean in another culture? People in other cultures may not only wonder what the missionary is talking about, but also why does he or she smile so much? What does it mean? What gives him such power, with goods, medicines and knowledge that is far beyond what our own ancestors had? The dialogue with the Green Lady illustrates some of the confusion and cross-assumptions that occur and shows Lewis’s skill in presenting them.

The next day they meet and talk again, this time of the Fixed Land, where Ransom lives. Ransom attempts to outline some of the laws of that land and of the people who live there, about the beasts on Venus and about what has fallen out of Deep Heaven. Ransom and the Green Lady ride on a fish she summons to the fixed land. Once there Ransom comments that he has seen no eldila, “the great and ancient servants of Maledil,” who neither breed or breathe and have bodies made of light. His questions and comments are based on his own cultural assumptions.

Ransom, like any missionary-in-learning, realizes that the laws of the land are different from his own. In PNG the world revolves around the land and water, not roads and shopping malls. But in order to understand another culture, missionaries must ask questions that make sense, observe actions and events carefully, then attempt to analyze what they find. Ransom is rightly puzzled.

Suddenly they see Weston exiting from a space craft and Ransom, knowing Weston’s evil intentions, tries in vain to keep the Green Lady from meeting him. Out of courtesy she meets him, despite Ransom’s wish for them to depart from Weston quickly. Weston and Ransom end up in a long philosophical argument in which Ransom admits that he is a Christian and Weston promotes his own view on the blind purpose of life. He sees this as an upward spiral toward spirituality, an outcome of his “biological philosophy.” Weston remarks on what he has learned from his new knowledge of the extraterrestrial language. As he continues his hostile arguments, he contorts and passes out.

Missionaries sometimes engage in philosophical arguments that have a philosophical and theological basis from the Bible and revelation. In contrast, secular anthropologists or others, may have assumptions about life and creation that are quite opposite. Some of the debates are therefore not unlike those Ransom had with Weston, so much so that the arguments are indeed often “hostile.”

When Ransom awakens he hears voices that turn out to be Weston discussing Meleldil and the fixed land with the woman. Ransom realizes that Weston sounds different because he is deceiving the woman in terms of what he is attempting to learn. It will all be for Weston’s own purposes.

Recognizing the intentions and motives of an enemy through their voices and writings is essential for missionaries. (Reviews of the writings of Lewis and his comments about the reviews indicate that he had to put up with this struggle throughout his academic career.) It takes wisdom and discernment for a missionary to determine what is deceitful in another culture.

Ransom, still alone, comes across a damaged animal, a trail of mutilated frogs, then Weston, who has been mutilating them. When Weston went to Perelandra his evil accompanied him and it is about this evil that Ransom attempts to warn the Green Lady. However, Weston gets to the lady first and is already in dialogue with her when Ransom arrives. Ransom tries to warn the lady of Weston’s intentions, but she is enthralled with his arguments on death and courage, forbidding and disobedience. The Green Lady seems to understand the implications when she exclaims, “Oh, how well I see it! We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will.”

Often missionaries have tried to protect their converts from the ways and arguments of the world, believing that they are too young and naïve in the faith to counteract temptations and evil. The motivations of the missionary may be misunderstood and unintended conclusions may result, but these are a part of cross-cultural communication process. This is the case with the Green Lady and Weston—she is enthralled by the arguments and what she is learning.

Weston is clearly the enemy, called the “Un-man”, and is intent on capturing the will of the lady. And the Un-man “showed plenty of subtlety and intelligence when talking to the Lady”,  but Ransom sees clearly that Weston is using his intelligence as a weapon. Weston continues with his arguments, clothes the lady with feathers of dead birds, gives her a mirror so that she can see herself and explains, “We call this thing a mirror”. He wants her to love herself and “to walk alongside oneself as if one were a second person and to delight in one’s own beauty. Mirrors were made to teach this art.”

In order to get someone in another culture to accept a different point of view the persuader may resort to bribery and flattery. Missionaries may not recognize this but they are aware of the greed that possessions and new items promote. Lewis sees the Un-man as a theological personification of the general sinfulness of mankind, something that any missionary would also recognize. 

Ransom realizes it is Maleldil who must has to ultimately capture the Un-Man and the darkness he projects. Ransom does not know what will happen, but he can no longer resist the conviction of what to do.

Although the missionary claims that God is in charge of each situation, especially evil ones, he performs certain actions to confront the evil. Lewis represents the point of view of a missionary—even when things don’t turn out the way they expect, they must believe that God is in charge of the situation.

There follows a long battle between Weston and Ransom, over land and sea, between a true man and an Un-man, one who eventually begs mercy from Ransom, who mortally wounds him. Even in this condition Weston argues with Ransom, about evil, about God, about the meaning of life. He extols the virtues of Spiritualism, how it has taken him beyond pleasant accounts of the dead that are traditional and philosophical.

As the long and vicious battle and adventure continues, Ransom eventually overpowers the Un-man. He then begins a subterranean journey through the mountains and difficult terrain in his attempt to reach Oyarsa. However, the Un-man appears again and Ransom finally crushes him with a stone in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”.

Although allegorical, the battle between Ransom and the Un-man Weston is probably not unlike the battles that take place between good and evil in many cultures. The missionary is called upon to take part in the battle, just as Ransom does.

Finally Ransom reaches a cleared space near a cliff where he writes a sign in Old Solar to witness the remembrance of Weston, whom Ransom calls “A learned Hnau of the world which those who inhabit it call tellus but the eldila Thulcandra.” The notice also records more about the activities of Weston and the approximate time when he was born and died.

Even in the death of Weston, Lewis is kind and extols him as a person. Missionaries should also remember the contributions that non-Christians, including anthropologists and naturalists, explorers and colonial officials, have made to better understand other cultures.

After further difficulty and travel, Ransom comes across what is his own coffin. It is like a chariot waiting to return him to Earth from Venus. Near him are also two eldila who have been waiting. One is Oyarsa, representing Malacandra, the other represents Perelandra. Ransom is referred to as Elwin, the friend of the eldila who is “in the body of Maleldil and his sins are forgiven.” It is also Maleldil who has taught the two eldila to build the Fixed Island and perform other tasks.

The eldila reconstitute themselves so that Ransom can see them—they are taller than the sorns, “perhaps thirty feet high” and “burning white like white-hot iron.” The Oyarsa of Mars and the Oyarsa of Venus too have differences in their faces and bodies. “[D]o I see you as you really are?” asks Ransom. Oyarsa of Mars replies, “Only Maleldil sees any creature as it really is.”

The final scenes show Ransom with a king and a queen who represent and explain the end times of the earth. They are grateful to Ransom for explaining the nature of evil and about the people of the earth, with their desire to corrupt other planets as well. Ransom departs in his coffin and returns to earth.

Lewis shows the reader the accomplishments of Ransom through the testimonies of the people that he has met and lived with. Ransom is seen then as a Christ-figure, representing the will and purpose of God. Missionaries too are ambassadors for Christ in another culture and the testimonies of the people they serve often affirm this. Lewis provides a wonderful farewell for Ransom—missionaries would want the same, so it is easy to draw some parallels.

What can we say about Ransom and his so-called missionary voyage to Venus? How have his efforts been like that of a missionary? Here are some parallels:
  • He has made friends with the inhabitants to the extent that he can carry on deep and meaningful philosophical arguments and conversations, including those that portray symbolism and metaphor
  • He has provided a descriptive account of the people (beings) and their cultures and languages
  • He has acknowledged and encountered evil from people of his own race and culture
  • He has taken a stand against the evil represented by his race and culture
  • He has come to grips for the purpose of his life and what he was meant to do
  • He has told others of his experiences and enlisted their support and aid in returning to Venus. 

Missionary on Earth?[4]

The final story of the trilogy centers around Mark and Jane Studdock, who are having problems in their marriage. Jane reflects that marriage is something like solitary confinement and has “proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do….

Jane, somewhat to her consternation, has the qualities of a prophet, a person who sees things in dreams that foretell or forbid the future. But her first vision is more of a nightmare and is confirmed by a notice that she reads in the newspaper.

Mark is not a visionary; he is a position seeker—a climber—at a small university, where he has been a sociologist for five years. Mark wished to be elected to a Fellowship but needs connections to make it happen. Lord Feverstone, now so called, was Devine in the story of the voyage to Mars. He is the man who has helped Mark get his fellowship at Bracton, although Mark does not learn of this until much later.

The college is engaged in the business of selling part of its property which the N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, wishes to purchase for experimental purposes. After some discussion, the board approves the motion to sell the property.

The first part of the story intersperses discussions between Mark and his colleagues at the university as they make plans for NICE to purchase its land while Jane and her friends try to understand what is happening to Mark, the university, and NICE. Although Mark has a fellowship elsewhere, he is being offered an unclear position at the university, but one that will compromise his integrity and eventually his marriage. Jane, on the other hand, is only vaguely aware of what is going on with Mark’s decision or the effects that NICE will have on her own life. Her friend,Mrs. Dimble, offers soothing advice like “Husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them to concentrate on what they’re reading.”

Mark and Jane are not missionaries—but they represent couples that are caught up in the affairs of the world around them to such an extent that they drift apart, incapable of mutual understanding and normal interaction. Missionary couples often live their own separate lives, so Mark and Jane can easily stand for such couples.

Jane continues to have dreams that foretell the happenings of NICE, as well as certain people, but she cannot tell Mark for she seldom sees him. Mark is trapped in the university setting and unable to discern what is happening around him because “his education had had the effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.”

Many missionary couples have been put in the same situation. Their work becomes so important that it is the only thing that is real in life. They reveal this in their personal.

Mark is put in charge of writing PR articles that explain the position of the university in a positive light in regard to NICE, which the rest of the community sees negatively. This is necessary in part because of a riot that was allowed and supported by the university in order to gain credibility for the NICE program.

Often missionary agencies have their publicity agents, people who are in charge of putting a spin on stories that will entice benefactors. While it may be stretching the point to compare such missionary agencies with NICE, missionary agencies should continuously monitor and examine the information they give to the public, ensuring absolute—not relative—truth on all matters.

Mark comes in contact with Miss Hardcastle, a woman who is wise in the ways of the world and the university. She gives him advice on how to curry favor with those in authority by writing the information they want and in a way that will convince the public to have good will toward NICE. Mark has scruples, but his desire for inclusion at NICE and acceptance into the inner circle there overcome his moments of questioning and any conscience about whether he is doing the right thing or not.

There are always senior missionaries who have been around “forever” and know the ropes. Sometimes their advice should be questioned before it is followed. Missionary agencies have writers whose task it is (naturally) to convince the public of their good work.

In the meantime Jane is contacted when those at NICE learn of her ability to dream and foretell events. They see her as having a gift that will aid them in their future dealings to procure the properties that they need for NICE.

Those who have gifts and talents, including missionaries, are sometimes contacted by government authorities who would like to gain the information they have on cultures and then use if for their own advantage. I recall an instance in Papua New Guinea when I was the Director. An expatriate government person contacted me about having our missionaries use their radios to obtain and covey information for the government. I objected, even if some of the material might have been useful and legitimate.


* First given as a chapel message in early 2007 at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

[1] In the name of political correctness, I declare to the reader that my ‘he’ hereby also includes ‘she’.

[2] The full story is found in C.S. Lewis, Out of the silent planet. London: Bodley Head, 1938; New York: Macmillian, 1943. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1952 and a re-issue of the 1938 edition by Scribner, 2003.]

[3] The full story is found in C.S. Lewis, (Perelandra). London: Bodley Head, 1943; Macmillan, 1944 under the title Voyage to Venus. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1953 and a re-issue of the 1944 edition by Scribner, 2003.]

[4] The full story is found in C.S Lewis, That hideous strength. London: Bodley Head, 1945, Macmillan, 1945. An abridged version prepared by Lewis was published under the title The Tortured Planet. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1952 and a re-issue of the 1945 edition by Scribner, 2003.] The website http://www.solcon.nl/arendsmilde/cslewis/reflections/e-thsquotes.htm, compiled by Arend Smilde, contains a full list and explanation of the quotations and allusions in That hideous strength.