WIR #17: Perelandra

PerelandraLewis, C. S. Perelandra. New York: Collier Books. Copyright © 1944 C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis web sites:
Into the Wardrobe

I have now finished reading Perelandra and near the end of the book there is what I think is a fascinating passage. The narrator of the book, who happens to be C. S. Lewis himself (yes, he made himself something of a character in his own novel, but only as someone to whom the story was told), is relating to the reader something told him by Elwin Ransom, the book's main character. Each planet in the solar system have Oyarsas. (Oyarsa, in Out of the Silent Planet, is revealed to be not so much an alien-appearing and an alien-sounding name as it is a name that can be seen to have roots in an ancient Tellurian language (Tellurian being another way to say Gaian or Terran or 'of Earth'; Gaia is the Greek goddess of the Earth; Tellus, the Roman goddess, is the word from which we get Tellurian), and, actually, I'd wager that Lewis would say that the Tellurian word has alien roots, or, perhaps, heavenly roots. In brief, an Oyarsa might also be called the archangel of a planet. Ransom is relating to Lewis his perception of Malacandra, which is the planet Mars, as well as the name of the Oyarsa of that planet, and of Perelandra, the planet Venus, and also the name of Venus' Oyarsa. The passage to which I refer is this:

[Ransom] has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don't know that any of these attempts has helped me much. At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity. All this Ransom saw, as it were, with his own eyes. The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female).

Lewis addresses here something that I have always wondered about myself: Why do languages have gender? Some have said that English lacks gender in the same way that it exists in other languages, such as Spanish, French, or Portuguese, yet this is not true. To wit:

bachelor (masc.)/spinster (fem.)
boar (masc.)/sow (fem.)
drake (masc.)/duck (fem.)
lion (masc.)/lioness (fem.)
hero (masc.)/heroine (fem.)
boy (masc.)/girl (fem.)
actor (masc.)/actress (fem.)
administrator (masc.)/administratrix (fem.)
benefactor (masc.)/benefactress (fem.)
executor (masc.)/executrix (fem.)

Now, the real difference is that in English two things can be easily seen: First, the distinction of masculine and feminine seems to apply only to living things. Second, the -ess and -trix and -ine suffixes show forth the influence of French on English (English is a Germanic language, but the Norman invasion of England resulted in more than just war and the compilation of the Domesday Book, in which my family is listed, by the way).

Not all living things, real or imagined, have masculine or feminine forms, either. Boor, clown, satyr, and squire, for example, do not have feminine partners. Similarly, amazon, brunette, dame, dowager, milliner, shrew, virago, all being feminine, have no masculine forms.

Once, not too terribly long ago, editress was a female editor, doctress a female doctor, and mediatrix a female mediator, but these have all fallen out of use. The -ster suffix, as in spinster, once signified the feminine, as, for example, seamster and songster, but it has since come to mean the opposite and often denotes a profession, as in drugster and teamster. Now, however, -stress signifies the feminine: seamstress and songstress; and -ster can be either belittling or have a derogatory connotation: gamester, rimester, trickster.

The -ess, ine, and -trix endings should not be thought to be universally feminine. Clearly, address, mattress, success, doctrine, marine, quarantine, cicatrix, and matrix haven't gender. English, in many ways, is a mishmash of languages: hunter and shepherd are Anglo-Saxon, and so are clearly Germanic, but huntress and shepherdess are words with Anglo-Saxon roots married to French suffixes.

In all of this, though, it is clear that English does not say that chair is feminine and must have a feminine article. And yet . . . do we not think of nature and of earth as feminine? Mother Nature? Mother Earth? Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess, is both Earth and goddess. When it storms, do we not still, sometimes, think of it in male terms, if only because of the influence, also, of Greek mythology (Zeus) and of Norse (Thor)? Do we not also speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon? So, gender still persists in English, even in the inanimate.

It would seem, then, that Lewis's statement — Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. — contains real pith and insight. His first book, Out of the Silent Planet, takes place on Mars (Malacandra). His second, Perelandra, takes place on Venus. He makes much use of gender and mythology in these two books. The last volume, That Hideous Strength, which I shall be reading next, seems to take place on the Moon, however.

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