C.S. Lewis on Telling Stories

A love of stories is knitted into the fabric of humanity.  Storytelling transcends cultures and epochs.  Bedtime stories are told to breathless children waiting to hear what comes next.  Scary stories are told in hushed tones around camp fires in the woods.  Love stories are told by poets to star crossed lovers.  War stories are told by veterans to their grandchildren.   With stories being ubiquitous, it seems odd that so few people stop to ask “what exactly is a story?”  A similar thought troubled C. S. Lewis enough that he wrote an essay, “On Stories” which examines the definition of a story and ruminates on what makes a story good.  Towards the end of the essay, Lewis distills his premise into the following two sentences.  “To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path” (17).  In Out of the Silent Planet, it is as if Lewis gives the reader an object lesson in how he believes one should approach the art of storytelling.  For Lewis, there needs to be more than excitement for excitement’s sake.  There needs to be a pleasure that comes from deep imagination, from experiencing a sense of “otherness.”  While Lewis describes several examples of this in his essay that are also demonstrated in Out of the Silent Planet, I will focus on three that the book exemplifies particularly well.

Early in the essay, Lewis sets forth a clear example of what he means by “otherness.”  After relating a conversation that he had with an American student about a book by James Fenimore Cooper, he states “For I wanted not the momentary suspense but the whole world to which it belonged – the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, warpaths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names” (5).  What Lewis was saying was that it was not simply the suspense of the situation, it was the world in which the suspense was occurring.  Lewis took enjoyment from his imagination being stoked by a world that was completely foreign to his experience.  Lewis does a masterful job of placing the reader in this position of the Other through the character Ransom.  Early on during his trip into the desolation of space, Ransom begins to contemplate the journey into otherness.  “There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” (31).  Ransom, and the reader through Ransom, are clearly on a journey to otherness.  The descriptions of Ransom’s initial flight from Weston and Devine through the forests of Malacandra expand the sense of otherness.  In addition to the brilliant description of colors, Lewis also points out geographic oddities.  “He noticed too, that even the smallest hummocks of earth were of an unearthly shape – too narrow, too pointed at the top, and too small at the base.  He remembered that the waves on the blue lakes had displayed a similar oddity” (48).  It is the sense of this overwhelming otherness that makes what would normally be a rather mundane discovery seem all the more poignant.  Ransom realizes that the creatures in this strange world can talk.    “The creature was talking.  It had a language.  If you are not yourself a philologist, I am afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realization in Ransom’s mind” (55).  As the story progresses, Ransom and the reader are reveling in the sense of imaginative otherness.

Lewis’s point about otherness is furthered – and takes a menacing turn – when he gives the example from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.  Lewis speaks about the danger in being attacked by something that is “outside.”  “What really matters in this story is the idea of being attacked by something utterly ‘outside’… If the Martian invaders are merely dangerous – if we once become mainly concerned with the fact that they can kill us – why, then, a burglar or a bacillus can do as much” (Lewis, “On Stories” 10).  A few sentences later Lewis states that “…extra-terrestrial is the key word of the whole story” (10).  Very early in Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom overhears that once he arrives on the strange planet, he is to be handed over to sorns.   This situation explicitly captures the imagination of otherness spoken of in the essay.  Poor Ransom’s mind runs wild as he tries to picture the dreaded sorn.  “He saw in imagination various incompatible monstrosities – bulbous eyes, grinning jaws, horns, stings, mandibles.  Loathing of insects, loathing of snakes, loathing of things that squashed and squelched, all played their horrible symphonies over his nerves.  But the reality would be worse: it would be an extra-terrestrial Otherness – something one had never thought of, never could have thought of (35).”  It was the extra-terrestrial otherness that played with both Ransom’s imagination and the reader’s imagination.  Without knowing what this creature was, both Ransom and the reader are forced to stretch the limits of imagination past the mundane into the fantastic.  This exchange bears such a strong resemblance to his essay that it could make one wonder if he had the one in mind when he wrote the other.

Near the end of the essay, Lewis expresses his desire for what he called a “better school of prose story in England” (17).  He goes on to explain what he sees as the difficulty of that desire.  “What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way” (17).  Lewis approaches this difficulty in Out of the Silent Planet in a clever way.  I think Lewis did a good job of capturing the sense of otherness throughout the novel, but what he does with the postscript is a wonderful exclamation point.  The frame given is that the postscript is a letter from Dr. Ransom to the author.  In it, Ransom expresses his disappointment that the book did not adequately capture the sense of otherness.  “How can one ‘get across’ the Malacandrian smells?  Nothing comes back to me more vividly in my dreams…” (155).  He then goes on to give a vivid description of the smells, sights, and sounds he experienced in Malacandra.  It is as if he wants to ensure that the reader does not forget the otherness.   He could not leave the reader with something as banal as Ransom ordering a pint of bitter.  He instead used the postscript as a final reminder that the imaginative otherness, not merely a series of events is what matters.

So what exactly is a story?  By reading Lewis, one comes nearer to the answer.  He speaks of the importance of expanding imagination with stories that have more than bare adventure; stories that revel in otherness.  Recalling Lewis’s exchange with his American pupil, we are given not snow and snowshoes, but sorns and spaceships; not beavers and canoes, but a hrossa in a small boat; not warpaths and wigwams, but harandra and handramits; not Hiawatha names, but Hyoi and Augray.  It is clear that Lewis put much thought and effort into this sub-creation and if I may quote Lewis out of context, “I believe the effort to be well worth the making” (Lewis, “On Stories” 20).

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