The novel starts with Lewis narrating in first person. He is walking down a country road from a train station in Cambridge to Ransom's cottage, there to meet Ransom. It is autumn and evening is closing in. He finds himself increasingly reluctant, then uneasy, and finally frightened about the journey, because he strongly suspects Ransom has asked him down because of business with the eldila. The more he considers eldila as something he might really encounter, the more frightened of them he becomes.
Lewis reaches Ransom's door in a near panic, only to find the house empty and a note on the door, from Ransom, bidding him go in and wait. He enters and trips over something in the dark. Examination by matchlight shows a milky white box or coffin, made of some slick material. Then he hears a voice call "Ransom." But the voice is not human and the only thing he can see in the dark is a pillar of light. He realizes it is an eldil and freezes in fear.
Reflecting afterward, Lewis notes two odd things about the pillar of light: First, it was of no color he can name or remember. Second, it seemed vertical even though it was not at right angles to the floor; it made the floor and house around it seem tilted.
After a few moments of paralyzing fear, Ransom enters and speaks, not to Lewis, but to the eldil, in Malacandrian. He turns on the light and greets Lewis. The eldil is no longer visible and things gradually become more normal. Ransom tells Lewis:
Ransom is to go naked. After he undresses, Lewis reluctantly packs him into the coffin. It vanishes. Lewis is filled with dread, but there is nothing left to do but close up the house and go home.
A little over a year later, he gets a summons, presumable from an eldil. He and the doctor meet at Ransom's house and are there in the back yard when a white coffin glides down out of the sky. They open it and at first think all is a bloody ruin, but the red turns out to be a mass of flowers. Ransom rises out of them, naked and bearded, but now looking about twenty and in peak physical condition, except for a wound on the heel of one foot. He thinks Lewis and the doctor look sickly. They go into the house, Ransom gets dressed and eats, and tells them the rest of the story.
Ransom awakes in the coffin, falling. Bright white light turns golden, then there is a splash, the light goes dim green, and the coffin dissolves around him, leaving him in warm water. Ransom finds himself in the midst of an ocean, under a golden sky. There is no one and no land in sight, though after he swims for a while, he spies an island with tall peaks.
A thunderstorm comes on. The seas become rough and the waves high. He spots patches of color on the waves, which turn out to be floating islands, mats of vegetation, sometimes hundreds of yards wide, complete with forests. He struggles onto one of these and collapses. After the storm passes, he explores the exotic beauty of the island for a while and finds fruit to eat. Then night falls suddenly and he is left to sleep.
Ransom wakes to find a dragon near by, coiled around a tree. It is the size of a large dog. He tries talking to it in Old Solar, but it does not seem to be sapient. It is friendly, however; it enjoys being petted and follows him about.
While exploring his surroundings, he spots a school of dolphin-like creatures in the nearby water, with a human form riding on one of them. He shouts, to no avail. But a short while later he sees a human form on a neighboring island. The two run toward each other. As they stand, separated by a few feet of open sea, he is startled to see the figure is a green woman, naked, surrounded by Perelandrian animals. She seems equally startled, even disappointed. The waves separate their islands again.
A few moments later, they come back. Ransom tries to speak to her, but she points at him and laughs. The islands separate again. Ransom looks down at himself and finds that, apparently, he was never turned during his space flight – he is pallid down one side and sunburned down the other.
Then the other island is back again. The green woman is calm now, just staring at him. She is beautiful, her face full of unearthly calm. He says, "I come in peace," but she merely asks, "What is 'peace'?" And then the pitch-black Perelandrian night comes on. He dives into the water, trying to swim to her island, gets hopelessly confused, and eventually hauls himself out onto land.
Next morning, he finds he is still on the same island but the two islands are side by side now. He has no trouble locating the Green Lady, but rather more trouble communicating, despite the common language. Eventually, he learns that she and her husband are the only two people on the planet, the Eve and Adam of their world. She has lost track of her husband, "the King," among the shifting islands, and thought Ransom was he, hence the disappointment. She has no trouble with the idea of other worlds, but at first thinks Ransom is the Adam of our world. Her comprehension is helped, from time to time, by apparent direct inspirations from Maleldil, God.
Ransom also learns that, just as Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the King and Queen of Perelandra are forbidden to stay the night on the Fixed Land, the island Ransom spotted shortly after splashing down. They are not, however, forbidden to visit and explore it, and the Lady wants to, in case the King is there. She and Ransom ride the dolphin-like fish over to it.
They explore and meet some more animals, but find no sign of the King. As they are preparing to leave, though, something like a meteor falls out of the sky. This turns out to be a spaceship, like the one in Out of the Silent Planet, and shortly Weston himself lands on the shores of the island in an inflatable raft.
The Lady herself leaves because of her curfew, leaving Ransom to confront Weston. Weston surprises Ransom by quickly starting to lecture. He admits he was wrong to try to conquer Mars and says he is now working purely for the advance of the elan vital, the Life Force. He gets more and more heated as he goes on, identifies this Life Force with both God and the Devil, and then identifies himself with it, too. Then he has a fit and falls down unconscious.
Alarmed, Ransom does what he can for the stricken man (after throwing the pistol in the ocean), but then the Perelandrian night closes in and there is nothing to do but sleep.
In the morning, Ransom wakes to find Weston and the raft gone. Ransom spends most of the day stranded on the Fixed Land, but near evening a fish shows up. He rides it through the early night back to a floating island. On the way, he spots luminous merfolk deep in the water, and wonders if they are the ancestral species to the new, human-like race now starting with the King and Queen.
He returns to the island in darkness, but finds his way to a conversation taking place between the Lady and some man, whom Ransom eventually identifes as Weston, though the voice sounds odd and it is speaking Old Solar with perfect fluency. Weston is asking the Lady about the prohibition on the Fixed Land, and talking to her about how Maleldil wants her to become more independent. She is confused, and eventually everyone goes to sleep. At least, Weston says he will.
Ransom wakes alone, goes exploring, and finds a trail of mutilated frogs. Following it, he comes to Weston, or what looks like Weston, mangling another. But he's grown long claws and his facial expression looks so evil that Ransom actually faints before it. Weston is gone when he revives.
He tracks Weston down and finds him talking with the Lady again. It becomes clear to Ransom that Weston's body is demonically possessed, and that this devil is re-enacting the temptation of Eve, with the Lady. A three-way debate goes on for days, all the more exhausting for Ransom because he dare not leave the Unman (as he thinks of Weston's body and its possessor) alone with the Lady. When the Lady takes a rare break for sleep or rest, the Unman amuses itself taunting Ransom with clever psychological tortures (which he tries to ignore) or attacking the wildlife (which he has to rescue).
During one night, Ransom wonders why God has allowed Satan to attack Perelandra but made no defense. Deep in his mind, God shows him that he, Ransom, is the defense. The situation is not identical to Eden – Ransom himself is a new factor; furthermore, the Lady has still not succumbed to temptation; who knows whether or how long Eve held out? Ransom protests that he is doing no good. It slowly and painfully becomes clear to him that the only way to end this temptation is forcibly. He must fight the Unman.
The next morning, he finds everything on the island is asleep except him and the Unman. Even the Lady sleeps. He confronts the Unman, who mocks and threatens him, then swings into battle. Ransom is encouraged to realize that, on the physical level, it is one middle-aged man against another. The fight goes on for hours.
Eventually, the Unman retreats to the sea and goes riding off on a fish. Ransom follows. Night falls. Again, Ransom sees the merfolk under the water, now eating weed. Hungry, he tries eating the weed himself, but quickly stops when he finds his mind slipping into a merfolk-like perspective, to which all these issues of good and evil are simply irrelevant.
Then he finds that his fish is swimming next to the Unman's, in the dark. But the Unman is now talking like Weston again, but a Weston confused and in pain. Is this a trick, or has the demon simply left Weston's soul to cope with the situation? Ransom is never sure. "Weston" begs for help and describes, in nightmare metaphors, the horrible experiences of damnation and the disintegration of the soul.
Then they hear surf booming and know they are near a rocky coast. Their fish leave them. They are in danger drowning or being dashed on the rocks. And the demon chooses this moment to re-possess Weston (if it was ever away), grab Ransom, and pull him under.
They come up on a rocky shore, battered but still fighting. Finally, Ransom throttles the Unman.
Ransom leaves the body and collapses. Eventually, he recovers to find it still dark. Time, echoes, and eventually exploration reveal to him that he is in a cavern. The only known way out is back under the water, with an unknown path. He decides to explore the cavern in hopes of finding another exit.
He finds a subterranean stream and follows it upward. Sometimes, he thinks he hears something following him. He comes to a cavern lit by the glow of lava, the first light he has seen in more than a day. Suddenly, all the nightmare ideas related by "Weston" come flooding back. Then a giant insectile enters the cavern, followed by the Unman. It starts talking to him again. Enraged at this manipulating, Ransom knocks its head in with a rock and throws it in the lava pit.
He finds the giant insectile is no more dangerous than any of the other Perelandrian life. It wanders off and he resumes looking for an exit. After a great deal more caving in the dark, occasionally seeing enigmatic sights, he slips on a mat of weed and slides out into a little valley, high up in a range of mountains.
There, Ransom heals from his battle wounds for days or possibly weeks. Water and food are to hand, and he simply rests. Eventually, he goes exploring through mountains so paradisal, he sometimes wonders if he is dead and in heaven. Finally, he comes on a little valley full of red flowers, with a small lake at the bottom. There, he encounters two eldila.
These eldila are the Oyarsa of Malacandra and that of Perelandra. They tell Ransom that the three of them are here to meet the King and Queen, who have passed the test of obedience and are ready to assume the full rule of Perelandra. They ask Ransom to help them pick appearances, since neither is familiar with humans. Their first effort is a nightmare of whirling shapes and flames. Their second is a pair of giant concentric wheels. They settle on a pair of giant humanoid shapes, luminous with colors Ransom has never seen before.
The King and Queen arrive, letting us see the King for the first time. He has been following the Queen's experiences in a vision, and had to decide whether, if she rebelled, he would side with her or with Maleldil.
The two eldila present the planet to the King and Queen, who ask Oyarsa Perelandra to stay and help them run it. There follows an ecstatic song, vision, and celebration of "the Great Dance" of creation.
When it is over, Ransom learns that they have been standing around that lake for a full Perelandrian year. It is time for Ransom to return to Earth. The King and Queen learn the meaning of regret as they pack Ransom into another white coffin. They fill it with the red flowers, and bid him farewell, then he is whisked back to Earth.
Go to That Hideous Strength
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Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010