The story starts with the philologist Elwin Ransom, some years after his return from Mars at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, receiving a new mission from Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Mars. Ransom is to travel to Perelandra (Venus), where is located a new Garden of Eden and a new Adam and Eve, to oppose the diabolically-inspired human physicist Professor Weston, who has been sent to corrupt the Eve figure. He is transported in a boxlike vessel seemingly made of ice, which contains only himself.
Ransom arrives in Venus, which he finds to be an oceanic paradise. One day is about 23 Earth hours, in contrast to the (roughly) 24 and 25-hour days of Earth and Mars. The sky is golden and very bright but opaque. The sun cannot be seen; hence the night is pitch black with no stars visible.
Strange, mythical creatures roam the planetary sweet-water ocean, which is dotted with floating rafts of vegetation. These rafts look like small islands, and actually have plant life growing on them and animals living on them; however, having no tectonic foundations, they are in a constant state of motion. A single mountain, called the Fixed Land, exists on the planet.
Ransom quickly meets Tinidril, the Queen of the planet; a cheerful being who soon accepts him as a friend. Unlike the inhabitants of Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, she is human; this is said to be the preferred form assumed by civilized animals as a result of the manifestation of the story's God, Maledil, in that form. She and the King of the planet, who is largely unseen until the end, are the only human inhabitants and are the Eve and Adam of their world. They live on the floating rafts Ransom has seen and are forbidden to sleep on the "Fixed Land".
The rafts or floating islands are indeed Paradise, not only in the sense that they provide a pleasant and care-free life (until the arrival of Weston) but also in the sense that Ransom is for weeks and months naked in the presence of a beautiful, also naked woman without once lusting after her or being tempted to seduce her.
The plot thickens when Professor Weston arrives in a spaceship and lands in a part of the ocean quite close to the Fixed Land. He at first announces that he is a reformed man, but appears to still be in search of power. He pledges allegiance to what he calls the "Life-Force", and subsequently shows signs of demonic possession. Weston finds the Queen, tries to tempt Tinidril into defying Maledil's orders by spending a night on the Fixed Land. Ransom, perceiving this believes that he must act as a counter-tempter.
Well versed in the Bible and Christian theology, Ransom realizes that if the pristine Queen, who has never heard of Evil, succumbs to Weston's arguments, the Fall of Man will be re-enacted on Perelandra. He does his best during day after day of lengthy arguments illustrating various approaches to temptation, but the demonic Weston shows super-human brilliance in debate (though when "off-duty" he displays moronic, asinine behaviour and small-minded viciousness) and moreover appears in no need of sleep.
With the demon/Weston on the verge of winning, the desperate Ransom hears in the night what he gradually realises is a Divine voice, commanding him to physically destroy the Tempter. Ransom is highly reluctant, and debates with the divine (inner) voice for the entire duration of the night. A curious twist is introduced here; whereas the name "Ransom" is derived from the title "Ranolf's Son", it can also refer to a reward given in exchange for a treasured life. Recalling this, and recalling that his God would (and has) sacrifice Himself in a similar situation, Ransom decides to confront the Tempter outright.
Ransom attacks his opponent bare-handedly, using only physical force. The Tempter, unable to withstand this despite his superior abilities of rhetoric, flees, whereupon Ransom chases him over the ocean, both riding the backs of giant fish. During a fleeting truce, the 'real' Weston momentarily re-inhabits his body, and the conversation between himself and Ransom displays Lewis' horrific vision of Hell, wherein the damned soul is not consigned to the pain of flames, but is absorbed and "digested" by the Devil, eventually losing its personality completely.
While Ransom is distracted by his horror and his feelings of pity and compassion for Weston, the demon takes control of the body, surprises Ransom, and tries to drown him. The two continue the chase and enter a subterranean cavern, where Ransom seemingly kills Weston and having done so searches for a route to the surface. Weston's body, horribly injured but still animated by the Devil, follows him. When they meet for the last time in another cavern, Ransom smashes Weston's head with a stone and consigns the body to volcanic flames. Slightly prior to this point, Weston had begun to lose his humanity and began acting more like a mandrill, and resembling like a balding orangutan. He also at some points acts like a cat.
Returning to the planet's surface after a long travail through the caverns of Perelandra, Ransom recuperates from his injuries, all of which heal fully except for a bite on his heel which he sustained at some point in the battle, which continues bleeding for the rest of his life.
Ransom meets the King and Queen together with the Oyéresu of Mars and Venus, all of whom celebrate the prevention of a second biblical "Fall" and begin to create their utopia. The story climaxes with Ransom's vision of the essential truth of life in the Solar System, and possibly of the nature of God: strongly paralleling the journeys of Dante in the Divine Comedy.
His mission accomplished, he returns, rather reluctantly, to Earth to continue the fight against the forces of evil on their own territory.
Lewis was leaving the railway station at Worchester to begin a three-mile walk towards Ransom’s cottage. He was to go meet Ransom to talk about Ransom’s previous adventures. As he walked the empty road, he tried to put his fear away. The road seemed to be getting longer and farther away from Ransom’s cottage. Then he remembered that he should be carrying something on his that he forgot on the train. He came close enough to the house that there should have been some lights or something. He arrived at the cottage and there was no one there but a note on the door that read ”Sorry. Had to go up to Cambridge. Shan’t be back till the late train. Eatables in larder and bed made up in your usual room. Don’t wait supper for me unless you feel like it- E. R.” He felt like turning around and getting on the next train, but instead, inside he went. He thought he knew his way through Ransom’s house, but he got lost. There was something like ice in the middle of the room and it was big enough for a person to fit in. The Ransom’s voice was announced, and he became scared. Then as if from God himself, Ransom walked through the door.
Ransom entered and said that the eldila of own world must of put the space ship, large block of ice or coffin looking thing, in his house. Ransom explained that an eldil had come to take him not to Malacandra, but to Perelandra. Lewis knew that this planet was Venus. He was chosen because he knew the language and because he has proven himself worthy of strange creatures. He has no idea what exactly what his mission is, but he must do it. After discussing Ransoms future plans, they both retired for the night. Ransom chose to sleep in his coffin for the night. Lewis locked him up, and then he was alone. It was a long time afterward until Ransom returned home to tell a story.
Ransom began to relay his travels to Lewis and Humphrey, and they could barely follow in the beginning. He talked about how the trip in the coffin was painful and odd. On the landing, he felt as if he was falling, and he had just woken up too. As he got closer he could feel himself gaining weight, but not as badly as the decent to Mars. He was falling through white puffy stuff, and then the casket was gone and he was on Perelandra. This planet was as beautiful as Malacandra. He looked around to find somewhere to sleep. He continued walking around the place until he found the perfect spot.
Ransom was walking and he found a lizard and began to talk to it. The lizard ignored him as if to show it could not talk, and his direction of interest was automatically shifted to an odd tree. It held little spheres almost like little bubbles, and he touched one. He was immediately showered in a cold splash of water. It instantly woke him up. He turned to notice the ocean was rising. He had breakfast and went to the waters edge where he met the Green Lady on another island, and he tried to jump from island to island to get to her. He jumped in the water and swam over to her.
Ransom fell asleep the second he got to the other island. He looked up to see the Green Lady’s island floating next to him. He began to talk to her and she called him Piebald Man. After a while, the conversation drew to a conlusion and Ransom told the Green Lady he wished not to talk any more. Afte a break she invited him over to his island, and he got up and felt weak, but right away fell into a deep sleep. He woke refreshed and renewed. They talked about the creatures on this planet. Then Ransom wished to see the others on the planet. She decided that they had talked enough and she got up and left into the farther wood.
Ransom explored the new island the whole next day. He did not see the Lady until the next morning. He had breakfast and a swim and sat there starring at the Fixed Land when he heard her voice behind him. She was astounded when she found out that his whole planet was Fixed Land. They rode over to the Fixed Land, and there were Piebalds; flowers named after him. They had another conversation. He told the Lady that he had not seen an eldila in her world. She replied that she did not what that was. She told him to be quiet because she saw a man in a boat. Ransom could see that the man in the boat was definitely Weston, and he feared the life of the Lady, for he had seen Weston kill a Malacandrian.
Ransom started to think again and realized that Weston had been trying to talk to the Lady that whole time. She suggested that the move because the sea was rising. Weston accused Ransom of trying to seduce the Green Lady. Weston and Ransom had a conversation about the human race, and how Weston was trying to preserve it. Then they talked about God and what He does. Weston called himself God and then the evil spirits took over and he had spasms. Ransom went to sleep on the Fixed Land, and it was so uncomfortable, that he wished at home was not Fixed Land.
Ransom had slept so long that when he woke up, the light was bright and burning. He immediately was hungry and thirsty, so he went to go find food and Weston for the next couple of hours. He found some food, but Weston was nowhere around. Later he was getting a drink of water and a large silver fish came and gave him a ride. He heard voices’ talking about how to pass on the Fixed Land was forbidden. It was not until later that he realized that the man’s voice was Weston’s. He heard the soft and gentle sound of music, and he slowly fell asleep to it.
Ransom noticed that the weather had changed over night, so he went to take a little walk. He saw that there was a trail of twenty-one frogs that had been cut, and were probably in pain. At the end of the trail was the body of Weston but it was clear that it was not his soul. The Un-Man and Ransom talked and what he had to say interested the Green Lady more than what Ransom had to. In the middle of the argument, the Lady decided that she was going to sleep, and the Un-Man sat very close to the top of her head. Ransom guessed that the Un-Man did not have to sleep, so he had to protect the Lady very closely.
Ransom saw that he needed to sleep, he was hungry, and he was thirsty, but he heard a faint conversation from behind. The Un-Man was telling the Lady of other women, and the important roles they play. Then there was a thunderstorm and the Lady wanted to sit and listen to the rain. She thought she heard something, and she would not let either of them speak. Weston started teaching her vanity, and he gave her a mirror to look at herself in, and she was frightened.
Because Ransom slept in so late that morning, it was easy for him to stay awake the following night. He felt Maleldil present, and he wanted to know exactly where he was. He began to loose it again. He was hearing things, but then thinking they weren’t real. Then something rose out of the water and attacked them. Ransom wanted to know if it hadn’t ended, would Maleldil of stopped it? He became depressed because he had to fight and immortal, and knew for sure he would die. The Voice told him that he knew his name was Ransom, but the Voices name was also Ransom. He knew that tomorrow he had to fight the Un-Man.
Ransom walked back twenty paces into the wood and found his Enemy. A little while later he found the Un-Man. The Un-Man said “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani” and began to howl and scream until Ransom was free. They had fight upon fight upon fight,until the Un-Man ran off. They ran and ran until they came to the water then the unman jumped in and swam away. Ransom followed but got on a large fish and was much faster. The Un-Man was much farther ahead that Ransom and he tried to catch up.
Ransom was tired and weary, and he saw a fish with the head of a man. He sat looking and thinking of things for a while, then he slept again. He woke and saw the Un-Man up ahead. He thought for another several hours, until he was interrupted by a human voice. It was Weston, not the Un-Man. Weston wanted to know why he had so many broken bones and cuts. They started to talk about other things. Weston began to panic and Ransom saw that the darkness of death was coming. Ransom tried to help him, but he was lifted out of there.
Ransom could not hold is breath any longer, he wanted to open his mouth and let the water flow in and drown him. Something came by to save him because, they say he was drowning and his next breath was of air not water and his lungs felt relieved. He started to wonder if the voice was really Weston’s or if he had just imagined it. He walked around to find another place to sleep, and continuously got hurt. He was very hungry now, and he went to look for food. He prayed and hoped for an end in the agony. He crawled back to the stream when he had found it, and instantly passed out.
For the rest of the journey, Ransom was hungry and lightheaded. He was in great pain, so bad he could not move. He went to find Weston, and he did, just not alive. He made a gravestone for him and buried him in a cave. He left and went on little walks until he came to another forest that looked as if it was on another planet. He walked up to the peak of a mountain, and there he saw a coffin-like box.
Voices called out to Ransom and asked him questions. They were Malacandra and Perelandra. They had come to send him home. The announced that the Queen had found the King, and it was almost as if the planet was reborn. They sent two large humans whose appearance amazed Ransom. They were all white, and did not seem to have a gender. Malacandra and Perelandra bowed to the odd looking people.
Silence fell on the two humans, and the area surrounding. The King, Queen, and Ransom started talking and the King named a bunch of stuff on the planet for Ransom. Some eldila talked to him as well. At the end of each ones speaking, they always said, “Blessed be He!”. They noticed his heal, and they tried to clean it up, but the eldila had come to take. He climbed in the coffin and in one moment, he lost all consciousness on the return home.
Perelandra was published in 1943, one year after A Preface to Paradise Lost, and deals with many of the same issues: the value of hierarchy, the dullness of Satan, and the nature of unfallen sexuality, for instance. To an extent, it can be viewed as a commentary on Milton's poem, but a commentary which is intelligible to a reader ignorant of the original.
Lewis's description of Perelandra's environment and rotation period is, of course, inconsistent with the actual conditions on Venus, but astronomical observation at the time of writing of the novel had not yet positively determined this to be the case. A Venus largely or wholly covered by a worldwide ocean was a common theme in science fiction works of the time -- a logical, though eventually proven erroneous, inference from the planet having a thick cloud cover which led to the assumption that there would be a heavy rainfall and that the water would form such an ocean.
The third volume of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is set on Earth and, perhaps inevitably, has rather a different tone from the prior two volumes; Ransom is a key character but is "off-stage" for much of the action.
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