The Oyarsa of Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic — pure, hard, and bracing. The Oyarsa of Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life….
Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try — Ransom has tried a hundred times — to put it into words. He 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 the 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). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago. “A sailor’s look,” Ransom once said to me, “you know… eyes that are impregnated with distance.” But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim.
It is the birthmark of true literature when a passage written almost 80 years ago retains supreme relevance to the most tumultuous issues of the current time. C.S. Lewis’ renowned Cosmic Trilogy is filled to the brim with such literary birthmarks. The passage quoted above is particularly striking for the person possessed by our current zeitgeist, which is obsessed with the malleability of gender and sexuality. Indeed, Lewis presents a conception of gender which is both refreshing and radical to contemporary minds; gender is not simply an arbitrary social construction, and neither is it the extension and imposition of masculine and feminine characteristics onto the social and natural realms. Gender, according to Lewis here, is a much realer thing, a quality of the very fabric of reality.
To be sure, Lewis’ realist conception of gender is more accountable to his Medievalist inclinations toward Neoplatonism. Nevertheless, this framework for understanding gender is very familiar to Christian tradition and is spiritually robust compared to our contemporary social-construct paradigm of gender. We can especially see this Christo-Platonic understanding of gender in That Hideous Strength, when the Director teaches one of the main characters, Jane, about the true nature of masculinity:
She took it for granted, half-unconsciously, that the Director was the most virginal of his sex; but she had not realised that this would leave his masculinity still on the other side of the stream from herself and even steeper, more emphatic, than that of common men. Some knowledge of a world beyond Nature she had already gained from living in his house, and more from fear of death that night in the dingle. But she had been conceiving this world as “spiritual” in the negative sense — as some neutral, or democratic, vacuum where differences disappeared, where sex and sense were not transcended but simply taken away. Now the suspicion dawned upon her that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent. How if this invasion of her own being in marriage from which she had recoiled, often in the very teeth of instinct, were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but rather the lowest, the first, and the easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated — but in ever larger and more disturbing modes on the highest levels of all?
“Yes,” said the Director. “There is no escape. If it were a virginal rejection of the male, He would allow it. Such souls can bypass the male and go on to meet something far more masculine, higher up, to which they must make a yet deeper surrender. But your trouble has been what old poets called Daungier. We call it Pride. You are offended by the masculine itself: the loud irruptive, possessive thing — the gold lion, the bearded bull — which breaks through hedges and scatters the little kingdom of your primness as the dwarfs scattered the carefully made bed. The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly.”
This is not the first time that Lewis presents a cosmology of ever increasing vibrancy and substance: Aslan’s famous imperative to go “further up and further in” the real Narnia is one such instance (also note the eagle’s explicit mention of Plato as an explanation for the true and real Narnia). The Great Divorce is another seminal work which presents a gradation of substance from God to nothingness, wherein the higher one ascends, the more real and solid things become. What Lewis is doing in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength is applying this same cosmological principle to gender, denoting that gender is not merely an imaginative abstraction without any correspondence to reality, but rather something much more real and solid.
Such a metaphysic of gender is diametrically opposed to what is commonplace today. Take one typical definition of gender from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Genders are socially constructed constitutively. To be of a gender is to have a place in a hierarchical structure and genders are constituted by the hierarchical power relations. So here we have an account of constitutive construction: genders are social statuses constituted by hierarchical power relations. How does this do justice to the aforementioned slogan? To be of a certain gender is to be taken to have bodily features presumed to be evidence of a role in biological reproduction and occupy a hierarchical social position because of that…. Haslanger’s account of the social construction of gender is an answer to the question what type of thing genders are, how they are created and maintained. According to her account, genders are social statuses within a hierarchical social structure and not, for example, biological categories.
Two major aspects of this definition differentiate it from Lewis’ understanding: 1) Gender derives from the social imagination of humanity, not from the divine imagination of the Creator, and 2) hierarchy is an obstacle to be overcome, not a blessing to be embraced. For Lewis, the very fabric of reality is hierarchical, all things descending from God in origin and all things ascending to God in value. Gender finds its natural fitting and meaning in this hierarchical metaphysic, as Ransom (also known as the Director) explains in the above quotes from Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. According to contemporary gender theorists, however, hierarchy denotes an unbalanced and oppressive power structure and struggle. Gender, as an entire concept which defines and describes the relations between men and women, is fundamentally an arbitrary power-grab, most often constructed by overruling and oppressive men.
Neither of these views exactly fit with the biblical worldview, but Lewis’ realist and positively-hierarchical understanding of gender certainly accords with what the bible teaches about masculinity and femininity. To make clear the greatest difference between this Perelandrian account of gender and the Bible’s is to distinguish the Creator-creature distinction and philosophical ideas of “the great chain of Being.” Contrary to Lewis’ metaphysic, it is not as if the nearer we draw to the being of God, the more masculine or feminine we become in some kind of ontological sense. In other words, we do not become supermen and superwomen when we increase in godliness and Christlikeness. Such an understanding seems to break down the Creator-creature distinction essential to all Christian orthodoxy. Rather, the nearer we draw to God in Christ, the more masculine or feminine we will become in an ethical and teleological sense. That is, the more Christ-like we become, men will grow in their glorious creature-masculinity and women will grow in their beautiful creature-femininity.
Passages like 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22-33, and Colossians 1:15-20 all point to the hierarchical structure of God’s created reality, which includes gendered reality. Although God has revealed himself with predominantly male language and images, both masculinity and femininity find their origin, meaning, and purpose in the One from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36). The image of God manifests in the harmony of the masculine Adam and the feminine Eve precisely because of the eternal harmony of the persons of Trinity. We may not be able to visit Perelandra to behold the oyarsas of Mars and Venus, but we have been reconciled to our Heavenly Father, united with Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Thus, having been restored in God’s image, we can manifest true masculinity and true femininity as we are sanctified by the Spirit and as we fulfill our earthly callings as men and women in Christ.
In sum, gender can be a difficult concept to grasp and a mysterious reality to ponder, but one thing that is certain is that gender is most definitely real, and Lewis has brought this out beautifully in his Cosmic Trilogy. And yet, far more important than Lewis’ brilliant depiction of the spirit of masculinity and femininity is how gender is described by the divinely inspired testimony of Holy Scripture. And from God’s Word we discover what we all already know: masculinity and femininity are not arbitrary social constructs which loosely correspond to stereotypical qualities in men and women, but rather real, substantial aspects of what it means to be made in God’s image.