Tom Gilson

The Comfort of Keeping the Supernatural Unreal

I’m re-reading Perelandra, where I’ve just run across an interesting insight into C.S. Lewis’s way of thinking. Turns out there’s a long excerpt available online, which includes the part that interested me. “Eldila” (plural of “eldil”) are something like angels in this fictional trilogy. The narrator is walking to visit his friend Ransom, who in the first book had been to Malacandra, known to us as Mars, and discovered there that eldila are quite real. If you’ve read Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, you may think (as I do) that this passage sounds a lot like the way he described himself before he came to belief in Christ.

I realised now that my emotion was neither more, nor less, nor other, than Fear. And I realised that I was afraid of two things — afraid that sooner or later I myself might meet an eldil, and afraid that I might get “drawn in.” I suppose every one knows this fear of getting “drawn in” — the moment at which a man realises that what had seemed mere speculations are on the point of landing him in the Communist Party or the Christian Church — the sense that a door has just slammed and left him on the inside. The thing was such sheer bad luck. Ransom himself had been taken to Mars (or Malacandra) against his will and almost by accident, and I had become connected with his affair by another accident. Yet here we were both getting more and more involved in what I could only describe as inter-planetary politics. As to my intense wish never to come into contact with the eldila myself, I am not sure whether I can make you understand it. It was something more than a prudent desire to avoid creatures alien in kind, very powerful, and very intelligent. The truth was that all I heard about them served to connect two things which one’s mind tends to keep separate, and that connecting gave one a sort of shock. We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label “scientific” and “supernatural” respectively. We think, in one mood, of Mr. Wells’ Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites. In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like. But the very moment we are compelled to recognise a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred: and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether. These things were not animals — to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified. To that extent they belonged to the first group. The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realised how great a comfort it had been — how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. What price we may have paid for this comfort in the way of false security and accepted confusion of thought is another matter.

His comfortable world was one that was able to dichotomize scientific and non-scientific as real and not-real, respectively. Lewis came to learn it wasn’t that way. So did his some of his fictional characters.

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1 thought on “The Comfort of Keeping the Supernatural Unreal

  1. I have not read the Space Trilogy yet, but it is on my increasingly expanding list of books to read. This passage has whetted my desire even more! Thank you for sharing!

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