C.S. Lewis, in his imaginative reconsideration of a problem at the core of Paradise Lost, finds beauty and mystery in the properties of angels. As a consequence, his Out of the Silent Planet, and the Space Trilogy, of which it is a part, falls squarely into the realm of science-fiction. Angels alone do not put it there; but it is the fact of other worlds, and of the creatures who live on them, rather than the physics of space-travel that does so.
Science fiction needs technology because technology represents the human mastery over the physical world, but also the human boundedness to it. It is plausible to believe Milton’s poem to be a classic of the sci-fi genre even though it lacks rockets and advanced technology because it is very much about, and conditioned by what is physical and material; the poem is indebted to empirically-grounded conceptions of the universe, as well as the stuff of earth, and Adam and Eve’s daily routines, their feeding, sleeping, and the Angels’ likewise, are never long out of focus.
(Fantasy, by contrast, is an idealization, a representation of power, as something mysteriously separate from the physical properties of the world, within and beyond its materials; it makes power visible and concentrated, and can more easily be a puerile reduction of it than a brilliant scrutiny of it).
Milton’s originality in the epic form lies partly in staking out a distinctive subject matter for the epic–which is not so much the Protestant Christianity or the retelling of genesis, so much as what that includes more generally: the subject of “createdness.” But his sense of what it is to be created is fundamentally a matter of physics, biology, and matter, though he would not have known them by those names. But the originality is in part his doing so in a way that can be defined as science-fiction: science-fiction depends, as fantasy does not, even though it might include elves, dwarves, and whatever else, on imagining alternatively created beings, who are similar to and different from human in their physical aspects.
The crucial element of Paradise Lost on this reading is the angels, and how Milton imagines them.
In his fine introduction (still more than fine, in the usual sense of the word, now) to the poem, A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis argues that we ought to take Milton’s sense of the reality of angels at face value.
I hope it will not be supposed that I am prepared to support Milton’s angelology as science, if I suggest that it improves poetically when we realize that it is seriously intended–even scientifically intended. It should be approached as we approach similar scientific material in Dante. The Commedia combines two literary undertakings which have long since been separated. On the one hand it is a high, imaginative interpretation of spiritual life; on the other hand it is a realistic travel-book about wanderings in places which no one had reached, but which everyone believed to have a literal and local existence. If Dante in one capacity is the companion of Homer, Virgil, and Wordsworth, in the other he is the father of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Moderns must not be shocked at this; the ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ branches of almost every art are usually specializations from an earlier and more fully human art which was neither or both. And something of this old unity still hangs about Paradise Lost. The angels are not to be judged as if they were the invented gods of Keats, but as poetizations of the glimpses which contemporary scientific imagination thought it had attained of a life going on just above the human level though normally inaccessible to direction observation.
Lewis attests to the stirrings of imagination that became his own series of fantasy and science-fiction novels. But he does not make a crucial distinction between Milton and Dante, which, though not immediately relevant to the main point at hand, is relevant to a secondary point about Milton’s motivation for writing about the angels quite as much as he does (he needn’t have made Raphael squeamish and evasive when asked about sex among the Angelic orders; he needn’t have had Adam ask the question at all). Milton, unlike Dante, treats the angels as beings that were created out of the stuff of the universe, just as man; what is more, the question of the angels’ creation, the fact that they do not recall it, that being a ground for Satan’s rebellion, and the difference between their place in the material order of the cosmos and man’s place, all vex Milton’s poem, excitingly. Dante’s subjects are judgment and pity, the possibility of an order in which created life, man, finds a place; Milton’s subject, createdness, inspires other treatment of the angels than Dante provides.
Milton’s decision to treat them as he does was not required; Adam’s speech in Book X, turning in accusation from God to himself, would be a moving reflection on the theme whether or not the angels were offered up as an alternative instantiation of God’s creative powers.
It might be possible to place his imaginative act in the history of European literature. One of the great concepts of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis is the “creatural.” It emerges in the chapter on “Madame du Chastel,” on the late medieval period. A translator’s note tells us that it is a neologism from the 1920s, and Auerbach defends it:
And finally a third point must be stressed as being of essential importance for late medieval realism–the very point which induced me to employ in this chapter the new term “creatural.” It is characteristic of Christian anthropology from its beginnings that it emphasizes man’s subjection to suffering and transitoriness…Certain it was that during the last centuries of the Middle Ages there are to be observed symptoms of fatigue and barrenness in constructive-theoretical thinking, especially insofar as it is concerned with the practical organization of life on earth, with the result that the “creatural” aspect of Christian anthropology–life’s subjection to suffering and transitoriness–comes out in crass and unmitigated relief. The peculiar feature of this radically creatural picture of man, which is in sharp contrast to the classico-humanistic picture, lies in the fact that it combines the highest respect for man’s class insignia with no respect whatever for man himself as soon as he is divested of them. Beneath them there is nothing but the flesh, which age and illness will ravage until death and putrefaction destroy it. It is, if you like, a radical theory of the equality of all men, not in an active and political sense but as a direct devaluation of life which affects every man individually. Whatever he does and attempts is vain. Although his instincts oblige him to act and to cling to life on earth, that life has neither worth nor dignity. It is not in their relation to one another or even “before the law” that all men are equal; on the contrary: God has appointed that there be inequality between them in their lives on earth. But they are equal before death, before creatural decay, before God….For many in the countries north of the Alps, consciousness of their own predestined decay with that of all their works has a paralyzing effect upon intellectual endeavor insofar as its purpose is to make practical plans concerned with life on earth. Their relation to earthly reality combines acceptance of its existing forms as an intensely expressive pageantry and radical unmasking of it as transitory and vain….Average everyday life, with its sensual pleasures, its sorrows, its decline with age and illness, its end, has seldom been so impressively represented as during this epoch.
The “creatural” implies an existence that is severed from the divine order, but existing under it; it is a vision of man’s life after the fall. Milton, of course, is not writing in the late Medieval period. Unlike the French master of pure “creatural realism,” Francois Villon, he shows more than a “trace of intellectually categorizing power” and also of “revolutionizing power.” But, like Villon, he is keen, as much as possible, to remain “completely within the sensory,” and to such an extent that the representation of God totters on absurdity (as days are accounted in heaven…), and he insists on exploring the physical and sensory products of all that has been created.
It might be said that Milton attempts to reconcile the “creatural” and the cosmic: subsuming the cosmic within the standards of the creatural, rather than, as in Dante, to place the creatural within a broader intellectual framework of God’s abstract and non-creatural plan; he carries the creatural to a height of epic elevation, fitting it into the high style. It might also be said that it his expansion of the “creatural” leads him to his theme of createdness, and leads him also into the territory of science-fiction.
Whatever route he followed, the “creatural” angels, if we can call them by a term that, in their relationship to God takes on a wholly different coloring, carry solace and an acceptance of materialism that does not yield intellectual stagnation and despair. The fundamental material and physical properties of the “creatural” are not what set it at a distance from God; other forms of life might have been created that are in some sense material, but that have not fallen.
Philip Pullman, in his rebuttal of C.S. Lewis, argues not against Narnia (which is in the fantasy genre) but against the Space Trilogy; for him, too, the angels are mysterious and otherworldly in many respects, but ultimately, as much as a speck of dust, of this world’s matter, only organizing it differently, and being organized by it differently, than us humans.
Taking as his subject matter the creation of material life, Milton took as his challenge its recognition and description; as if, in his mind, hope for salvation depends on admitting that the stuff of human life can be redeemed, and that to be redeemed, it should not and cannot become alien to life other in its material possibilities, even if it alien to humans in its appearance and organization.