C S Lewis and his (almost) non-fantasy Landscapes

Paper given 01.02.2022 to the C S Lewis Society, Oxford [draft copy]

Let me start by confessing that I am not a Lewis scholar. My usual reading around Landscape and literature sits more comfortably with children’s picture books and the ideas that their authors and illustrators convey. Having said that, I may not be a Lewis scholar, but I am a Lewis enthusiast, and have been since Mr Kilmer read us The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in something like 1967. To add a bit of detail there: I am only just coming to terms how very exciting the reading we did that that time was: the tradition of a whole-class end-of-the-day reading by the teacher was a core experience, and many teachers – certainly the teachers I had at the time – were riding a wave of enthusiasm for high quality literature. LWW sat as part of a daily encounter with high quality children’s literature that included Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels, Clive King’s the 22 Letters, Ian Serraillier’s the Silver Sword and the early work of Alan Garner. It’s interesting that the titles that spring to my mind are historical and fantasy writing – and perhaps worth remembering, as I drift into reminiscence, that books from this period that we were presented with dealt over and again with aspects of what makes Britain – well, if not great, then at least What It Was. Nostalgia and landscape hand in hand.

Jeremy Paxman, in his book, The English, talks of an English obsession with  individualism, and, at its heart, a fantasy epitomised by Stanley Baldwin in 1924:

When I ask myself what I mean by England, what I think of England when I am abroad, England comes to me through my various senses – through the ear, through the eye and through certain imperishable scents… The sound of England, the tinkle of a hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe on a whetstone, the sight of a plough team coming over the brown of a hill, the sight that has been England since England was a land…

A land, as Paxman notes where cities “sprang up like a plague of warts.”

This is not as much of a digression as it might first appear – and what I want to do tonight is present some selected passages from Lewis and make just a few connections to commentary or to sources more or less contemporary with Lewis’ own work. I hope this isn’t too much like shards of medieval stained glass jumbled back into its tracery but clearly without sense of composition, so I’m using the three books of the SciFi trilogy as a framework – At any rate here is my first gobbet from Lewis, full of light and colour:

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road. A violent yellow sunset was pouring through a rift in the clouds to westward, but straight ahead over the hills the sky was the colour of dark slate. Every tree and blade of grass was dripping, and the road shone like a river. The Pedestrian wasted no time on the landscape but set out at once with the determined stride of a good walker…

Elwin Ransom begins his adventures in the Space Trilogy on a walking tour of an unnamed or at least fictionalised part of England – “somewhere in the Midlands”, and ends the first book back – more or less – where he started. 

Of course, the land between Stoke Underwood, Sterk and Nadderby where he starts might be traced, and I am speaking as someone who has walked, sleuth-like, through the landscapes of Alan Garner to make connections, to try and bridge the gap between fiction-text and OS map…(I will come towards the end of this paper to Gawian and the Green Knight) but really it remains immaterial, and given the thirty-four million miles (and more) the travellers manage on their journey to Mars and then more to return, a landing in similar English countryside is pretty lucky – perhaps…

A Pilgrim in Narnia  makes some really good connections between Malvern with its Holy Well and Edgestow, and between St Anne’s Manor and Great Malvern; the Guardian, I notice claims that “The Malverns may not be as expansive as the Brecon Beacons or as tickable as Snowdon, but they deliver everything you need from a hill walk: a sense of achievement and a higher perspective on whatever ails you.” One of the reminisces in C S Lewis at the breakfast table writes that Lewis 

revelled in the view from the top of these old, rounded hills; the depth of his love for nature and the countryside was very clear”

Havard (1980) Philia: Jack at Ease 

C E M Joad  in his book (1946) The Untutored Townsman’s Invasion of the Countryside.puts it like this:

…it is across country that you must go, if you would get from Nature all that she can give and this, I insist, would remain true even if the roads had not been turned into an inferno of noise and stench by the cars. Through a farmyard, over a couple of fields, into a copse, down a lane, through a village, over a stile, into a park, and so through fields again that is the kind of walk I like best.

And later, with Ransom’s praise of walking ringing in his ears:

Walking alone is, as I have said, the best way to see the countryside; it is also the best way to enter into possession of oneself.

Cue a bit of music by George Butterworth or Edward Elgar? 

“Reading,” the great critic and explorer of children’s literature Margaret Meek suggests, “demands explanations beyond the information given about the surface features of language, important as that undoubtedly is,“ and I think you can say the same about landscape, whether studied with academic outcomes in mind or simply out for a walk. “Landscape” the not-so-great critic and explorer of landscape Nick Swarbrick suggests, “demands explanations beyond the information given about the surface features of language, important as that undoubtedly is“  

Denis Cosgrove, in his book on social formation and symbolic landscape writes, for example, about “sublime romantic landscape as an ideology,” and suggests that “landscape is a social and cultural product.”  Ransom’s right to roam is being established as Lewis puts pen to paper. At the opening of Out of the Silent Planet, the Pedestrian is immersing himself in an ideology of individualism which sees itself as freedom: free from the responsibilities of his work, he is, like Ewan McColl’s Manchester Rambler (1932), ready to get all his pleasures the hard moorland way.

So I’ll walk where I will over mountain and hill

And I’ll lie where the bracken is deep

I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains

Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep

But while Ewan McColl’s Rambler is willing to have his rucksack as his pillow, Ransom is keener on a proper bed, and is, maybe,  missing the comfort of his college or the cottage we shall come to presently. 

Ransom is, perhaps a little smug about his appropriation of the landscape, revelling in his freedom from responsibility. The narrative arc that has him calling down the gods of old in the final book is one that to some extent we explore in the trilogy – and the points at which Lewis anchors his fantasy in recognisable English landscape are worth considering.

 So  with that in mind I want to take this and the following two section of Out of the Silent Planet apart for a while. In neither section do we know where Ransom – the Pedestrian – is, but we find it is countryside

I’ve suggested elsewhere that Place gives rise to story, story creates relationship with place  – and this brings us to a methodological consideration that I have to admit I struggle with: how well do we need to know a place before we meet it in fiction?  How can we “know” in some sense an anonymous landscape? In the case of the opening to Out of the Silent Planet perhaps people who know Lewis might guess at a place or places, as in the ways in which perhaps Ransom’s cottage is somewhere in the fens in Perelandra – but we are really in a position where we have to trust Lewis in his place setting – and perhaps it’s not the place itself – a nameable, mappable place in  England –  that really matters. 

But this is what makes Lewis’ landscapes on the edge of fantasy so interesting. He is starting from a recogniseable – almost generalised – place that his reader might see as rural England. When Ransom returns he comes back to somewhere he knows  – and the reader knows – is England: 

He found the manhole and slithered, drinking great draughts of air, down the outside of the sphere; slipped in mud, blessed the smell of it, and at last raised the unaccustomed weight of his body to its feet. He stood in pitch-black night under torrential rain. With every pore of his body he drank it in; with every desire of his heart he embraced the smell of the field about him — a patch of his native planet where grass grew, where cows moved, where presently he would come to hedges and a gate.

He had walked about half an hour when a vivid light behind him and a strong, momentary wind informed him that the space-ship was no more. He felt very little interest. He had seen dim lights, the lights of men, ahead. He contrived to get into a lane, then into a road, then into a village street. A lighted door was open. There were voices from within and they were speaking English. There was a familiar smell. He pushed his way in, regardless of the surprise he was creating, and walked to the bar. ‘A pint of bitter, please,’ said Ransom.

In the first section it is dull cabbage-growing countryside – in other words we, as Ransom’s fellow-travellers, are there to appreciate the ups and downs, the distant church spire, the “national commodity” (Cosgrove again) of landscape appreciation  – the picturesque vista that Constable shows in his view of Golding Constable’s kitchen garden or Badmin in his Picture Puffins in the 1960s – we are tourists (which to some extent is what Ransom learns not be in the book), uneasy in what Cosgrove calls the “tension between scenic values and [unrestricted] production.” 

In the second section, the final lines in Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom knows he is in a location where presently he would come to hedges and a gate. Look at how that is constructed: Lewis and Ransom let us know that this is the sort of place Ransom knows in some part. It might be Surrey rather than Worcestershire, but it is not unknown. He has not landed in Tibet or even Texas – although it is worth noting, too, that the voices he hears are speaking English. A lane, a road, a village street, a lighted door – as Paxman comments “To all intents and purposes this is essential England.” (The English 161)

As a complete digression, I have often wondered what Ransom is wearing at this point, and how he can afford a pint, but it really doesn’t matter. 

In preparing for this evening I dipped back into Richard Jeffries’ Wild Life in a Southern Country to find some evocative description of the countryside. This was an interesting parallel or antecedent from 1878:

…a small meadow, a well, a deep lane, with banks built up of loose stone to prevent them slipping – only broad enough for one wagon to pass at once – and with cottages hgh above reached by steps; an open space where three more crooked lanes meet; a turnpike gate, and of course a beerhouse hard by it. Ch 5 Village architecture , p75

Nearer in time to Lewis’ own writing (and his own preferred walking patches) we find a similar picture in H V Morton’s 1934 book In Search of England:

How, I wonder, have I refrained so long from praising bread, cheese and beer? The most significant, romantic, delicious, satisfying food that can pass the parched gullet of a wayfarer!…The beer was of a deep mahogany brew and sufficiently potent – and I was weary and susceptible to it – to lift me a little above the earth.

Perhaps a man who had stepped on Malacandra would not find being lifted from the earth a suitable metaphor??? But at any rate we leave him there, on his own native planet, in his own native land.

Perelandra opens with a different walker in a different countryside. 3 The walker here is supposedly Lewis, walking a long, dreary road, struggling through an aspect of landscape writing I find fascinating: the inimical outdoors:

There was a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. Please understand that at ordinary times the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less. At that moment it was nothing so definite as the thought of a ghost that came to me. It was just the word “haunted.” “Haunted” . . . “haunting” . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?

The Latin of the psalms refers to negotium perambulans in tenebris – as the English puts it the pestilence that walketh in darkness – and what M R James describes as the “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility.” Much as I would like to explore this in more detail, nodding further to M R James’ 1925 Warning to the Curious:, 

Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynes, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north…

to Gawain and the Green Knight… 

Mist mugged on the mor, malt on the mountes

Uch hille had a hatte, a mist-hakel huge…

….I am conscious of time and need to stick to my text. As Downing points out in his essay on the C S Lewis website, Lewis is concerned here with to re-energize his readers’ spiritual imaginations, to make God and angel and soul terms of genuine wonder and terror, to make the Christian life a moment-by-moment cosmic adventure,

And as T S Eliot points out  in 1948, 

When the familiar world is suddenly strange

Or the well-known is what we have yet to learn,

And two worlds meet, and intersect and change…

he is writing in his praise of Walter de la Mare, but he could be referring to the lurch into the uncanny in both Out of the Silent Planet and Perelanda.  Here as in the first book, we start with the mundane whose significance grows as we read on. I have to say that I think the lines 

the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less.

are pitch perfect: the suggestion that deep in our language and culture is something that makes a deserted house an object of terror. He deliberately avoids the sonorous, Dickensian (almost Cranmerian) Bleak and solemn was the view and medievalist though he is, Lewis is aiming at a very real, very everyday building, a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. It has power in part because these scenes are recognisable. 

The built environment sometimes gets a rough deal from Lewis. I think he had more feeling for Nature than for manufactured objects.” As Ladborough notes in his essay In Cambridge, in CS Lewis at the Breakfast Table  p101

I recognise that the brief I set myself was the “real world” in Lewis’ writing, but the disturbing buildings at the start of Perelandra are almost real world, where two worlds meet, and intersect and change.  –  The psychological disruption, the character Lewis is experiencing changes his perception (the mere word afraid ha[s] let the cat out of the bag).  Vividly we see the dark beech trees and the deserted buildings, representing the real world almost as much as the walk at the start of Out of the Silent Planet. .  

I SEEMED to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town. However far I went I found only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, hoardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, goods stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle. I never met anyone.

Perhaps less well-known is the grey town in the strange vision of The Shoddy Lands where in his vision the world is tawdry, incomplete, in itself “made up”

The full astonishment of my adventure was now beginning to descend on me. With it came fear, but, even more, a sort of disgust… I felt as if I had suddenly been banished from the real, bright, concrete and prodigally complex world into some sort of second-rate universe that had all been put together on the cheap; by an imitator.

I was just thinking to myself that some people would not find this place half as dull as I did, when the queerness of the whole thing came over me afresh. “Where the Hell,” I began, but immediately changed it to “Where on Earth” – for the other word it seemed, in all circumstances, singularly unfortunate – ‘Where on Earth have I got to? Trees no good; grass no good; sky no good; flowers no good, except the daffodils; people no good; shops first class. What can that possibly mean?”

In both these fantasy worlds, the grubbiness of the built environment is given centre stage, something Lewis-as-ecopoet is explicit about in his poem The Future of Forestry 

How will the legend of the age of trees

Feel, when the last tree falls in England?

When the concrete spreads and the town conquers

The country’s heart; when contraceptive

Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,

Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,

And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from Dover to Wrath,

have glazed us over?

In the third of the Science Fiction trilogy, transitions from the everyday to the fantastic are turned on their heads as the gods descend into a post-war dystopia; we are perforce in a “real world,” and Lewis, at times, shows a highly accomplished style of place description. We begin with Jane Studdock  in the tiny kitchen of the flat and the loud, ungentle tick tick of the clock, a domestic scene. The hours before her were as empty as the flat. The sun shone and the clock ticked. The everyday of the bored housewife: enclosed and empty.

I thought hard about the inclusion of the famous and evocative passage in which Lewis leads us through Bracton College, but he takes a long time to walk us over the covered bridge, through the wood and the half a mile to ‘Merlin’s Well,’ although it is worth remembering that in this of all three in the trilogy, Lewis’ own medieval scholarship is brought out as part of the place description – which brings me to the final passage I want to share.  Towards the end of That Hideous Strength, the curse of Babel has fallen, Merlin has brought into the hateful Belbury the destructive power of the eldila, and the slimy Devine, Lord Feaverstone, whom we met first in the opening pages of Out of the Silent Planet, is making his escape.

Just before [Feaverstone] started he had the odd impression that someone had got into the back of the car behind him. “Who’s that?” he asked sharply. He decided to get out and see. But to his surprise his body did not obey this decision. Instead it drove the car out of the garage and round to the front and out into the road. The snow was definitely falling by now. He found he could not turn his head and could not stop driving. He was going ridiculously fast, too, in this damned snow. He had no choice. He’d often heard of cars being driven from the back seat, but now it seemed to be really happening. Then to his dismay he found he had left the road. The car, still at a reckless speed, was bumping and leaping along what was called Gipsy Lane or (by the educated) Wayland Street — the old Roman Road from Belbury to Edgestow, all grass and ruts. “Here! What the devil am I doing?” thought Feverstone. “Am I tight? I’ll break my neck at this game if I don’t look out!” But on the car went as if driven by one who regarded this track as an excellent road and the obvious route to Edgestow.

This is my favourite of the passages I’ve selected. With hardly a glance at the countryside, Feaverstone had driven Mark Studdock to Belbury at the start of the book (and incidentally Lewis counterbalances this event with a lyrical description of Jane Studdock’s train ride through past Bragdon Wood and Bragdon Camp [the British Camp at Malvern?]) to the village of St Anne’s; here Feaverstone is making his escape, with another, more powerful passenger. Joad suggests that The motorist straying off the main roads is driven by a need to escape from modern civilization. Feaverstone is driven by another man’s needs to do exactly that; the egotist wheeler-dealer is finally out of his own sphere of control as Merlin takes the “obvious route” away from modernising, dehumanising Belbury, and all of a sudden we are given a last glimpse into his world:we are back where the inhabitants of St Anne’s first seek him, among the wet, tangled endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island. The agrarian revolution, the formalisation of metalled roads, all count as nothing, as Merlin knows and owns his land. Kipling’s Puck (1906) and John Masefield’s Kay Harker (1935) would recognise this way of looking at landscape; characters throughout the stories of Alan Garner know it too: but if we keep off the fantastic, and stick with Feaverstone in his car, we are sharing Lewis the walker’s insights (and those of maybe Lewis the Headington Resident) into how the layers of meaning human have given the land they move through. 

Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole by a sedentary onlooker. They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens or reads…Roads are a record of those who have gone before and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there-not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market or just commuters.

Rebecca Solnit

Today roads that Lewis knew like these are not the same sort of escape: I am thinking here of the road up to and across Shotover: Old Road, which runs past my house; the short Gipsy Lane round the corner which is the address for Oxford Brookes, both suburban roads. Old Road of course, becomes rural  beyond the housing that borders the C S Lewis Nature Reserve – in fact just after a house that seems at first to called after one of the planets in his eldilic cosmology, but actually is a Derbyshire hillfort –  but a quick search for images of Roman roads in Malvern leads us to Malvern Shopping Park on Roman Way: the concrete spreads and the town conquers/The country’s heart. Cosgrove’s  “uneasy tension between scenic values and unrestricted production” writ large?

Lewis would, I think, have understood my unease at the shopping park on Roman Way, much the same as my feeling about King Arthur’s Car Park in Tintagel. 


 No time, I’m afraid, to look at the crowds in the outdoors in That Hideous Strength (Mark Harrison; Rebecca Solnit) or more on a political/economic exploration of rambling (Solnit again, and Cosgrove) or to do an analysis of Ransom as Gawain, much as I’d like to – but draw this to some sort of conclusion by thinking about the role of the walker. 

My ramble has taken us from watching Ransom, a solitary philologist walking between Naderby and Sterk to a state where he confronts a gigantic figure with the voice of a tree, large and slow and patient, drawn up through roots and clay and gravel from the depths of the Earth. 

In Out of the Silent Planet and Perealndra we are invited to ask the questions Margaret Meek poses: What would I do if I found myself in that situation? Do I or do I not care for people like that? Is there a part of me that understands them?

Part of the way we are drawn into the fantasy is by Lewis setting the world as we know it  centre stage at important moments: we walk into the initial crisis at The Rise in Out of the Silent Planet by walking with Ransom; in Perelandra we walk with Lewis through the darkness and the fear. In doing so, Lewis invites us to drink in the descriptions of vivid natural beauty and increasingly decaying built environments that give rise to terror. Lewis’ own position as a walker and part of a generation that increasingly accesses the countryside gives him the opportunity to set his  quest in an England whose iconography is understood – we are, for example, set immediately apart from Devine’s scoffing in Out of the Silent Planet  ‘Do you do it for money, or is it sheer masochism?’ ‘Pleasure; of course,’ said Ransom, as we are in Devine’s speeding through the countryside in That Hideous Strength. That he gets his come-uppance in part because of Merlin’s understanding of deeper layers of meaning in the countryside is wholly part of the downfall occasioned by his hubris. But, as Joad remarks dismissively, let the motorist see to his own problems. 

Solnit asserts that Roads are a record of those who have gone before, and it is in book three that we address the battle between iconoclastic modernity and a land alreadyvpowerfully imbued with meaning. But we walk with Ransom and Lewis through landscapes that are endangered. In the first book it is simply by reading the slimy scorn of Devine and the imperious humanism of Weston; in the second it is through the decaying landscape of humanity invested with – infested by – some grimmer destructive power.   In the final novel, the mysterious Bragdon Wood is under threat, and yet it is the very heart of the Matter of Britain. Entirely appropriate then to see the roots of this quest as in the land where strange things, strife and sadness coexist

Where werre and wrake and wonder

Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne

(I said I would have occasion to mention Gawain again).

The world for which Ransom and his companions are fighting is the world Ransom loves at the start: a land of hills and sunsets and dark clouds, where a walker can come back and know “this my own my native land,” Lewis’ idea of landscape therefore taps into the vision of the soldier of the Great War desperate to return, and then from that to the concern for the preservation of elements of wildness:

So the final word has to go again to Lewis:

There is a wildness still in England that will not feed

In cages; it shrinks away from the touch of the trainer’s hand,

Easy to kill, not easy to keep. It will not breed

In a zoo for the public pleasure. It will not be planned.

Do not blame us too much if we being hedgerow folk

Cannot swell the rejoicings at this new world you make –

We, hedge-hogged as Johnson, we unused to the yoke

As Landor, surly as Cobbett (that badger), birdlike as Blake.

A new scent troubles the air – friendly to you perhaps –

But we with animal wisdom have understood that smell.

To all our kind its message is Guns, Ferrets, Traps,

And a Ministry gassing the little holes in which we dwell.

 Angus and Rosemary’s Miscellany of Malvern: http://www.the-malvern-hills.uk/other_malvern_history.htm accessed 27.01.22 

Cosgrove, D (1998) Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison. Univ of Wisconsin Press

Joad, C (1946) The Untutored Townsman’s Invasion of the Countryside. London: Faber and |Faber

Lindskoog, K  (1981) C. S. Lewis: mere Christian. Inter-Varsity Press

Meek, M (1988) How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. Stroud: Thimble Press

Paxman, J (1999) The English: a portrait of a people. London: Penguin