TAC Bookshelf: Of Christians and Liberals and Greeks
Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
Matt Purple, managing editor:Earlier this month, I wrote a piece about C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, which I find to be one of the most compelling dystopias ever written. But I neglected to mention its prequel, Perelandra, the second entry in Lewis’s Space Trilogy and probably the best novel he wrote. As fiction, it’s deeply sublime (not pretty, as his dreaded Green Book might have had it). Set largely on the planet Venus, it finds the trilogy’s hero, the suspiciously Tolkien-esque Dr. Elwin Ransom, trying to save the local Adam and Eve from being corrupted by evil as happened back on Earth.
What stands out most in Perelandra is the world building. Whereas That Hideous Strength is confined largely to faculty rooms and laboratories, Perelandra allows Lewis the full breadth of his imagination, and he unfurls before us an otherworldly Eden. There are shifting islands and massive waves, vivid colors and delicious fruits, friendly dragons and strange frogs, along with the King and Queen, the planet’s first man and woman who live amid all this in harmony. Lewis crafts his world with such care—his descriptions, though extensive, are never boring—that by the time he introduces evil, you find yourself dreading that any of it might be sullied.
Beneath Perelandra’s story is a subtler version of the critique of Francis Bacon that Lewis also makes in That Hideous Strength. To be good is to fill one’s hierarchical place in nature under God; evil arises when one comes to see this as subjugation, when one heeds Bacon and tries to gain knowledge about nature and thus power over it.
What else? I’ve been on a Greek kick lately. In that vein, I recently read the Oresteia, another trilogy, this one of Greek tragedies written in the fifth century BC by the playwright Aeschylus. For those who remember the Odyssey and are curious about this Agamemnon fellow about whom none of the characters can say “hello” without extensively bemoaning, these are the plays for you. They tell the story of Agamemnon’s return from Troy, his murder at the hands of his treacherous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, the revenge of Agamemnon’s son Orestes, Orestes’ trial for murder, and his ultimate acquittal by the goddess Athena as the foundation of Athenian law. The plays aren’t just tragic but often gruesome, covering a sequence of death and revenge that began long before Agamemnon. As the chorus puts it: “The slayer of today shall die tomorrow— / The wage of wrong is woe.”
Aeschylus’s The Persians is also worth a read, if only because it so brilliantly demonstrates the suppleness of the Greek mind. It tells the story of Greece’s victory in the Greco-Persian wars, but from the Persian point of view and without devolving into cheap schadenfreude. It’s remarkable how many supposed hallmarks of contemporary storytelling were anticipated by the Greeks 2,500 years ago. We moderns are not as special as we like to think.