Tuesday 16 December 2014

Science Fiction Vs Religion - C.S. LEWIS: 'The Cosmic Trilogy'


The creator of the ‘Narnia Chronicles’ had an 
odd relationship with Science Fiction, and wrote 
his ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ as a Christian retaliation to 
what he saw as a dangerously atheistic genre 

Clive Staples Lewis had an odd relationship with Science Fiction.

To Lewis, myth is important. Myth embodies the aspirations and hidden truths of a culture, in a deeply Jungian sense.

Science Fiction is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be rationally quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity.

CS Lewis was a Christian.

While he was fascinated by the virile energies of Science Fiction, its mytho-poetic possibilities and awesome scope, he was repelled by what he saw as its materialistic ethos.

His answer – his retaliation, was what is now termed ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single volume edition, Pan SF/ 1990). Three novels in which, according to the original blurb, ‘using the apparatus of Science Fiction and his brilliant imaginative gifts, CS Lewis presents the problems of good and evil.’ It is a unique project, one only partially located in the unique genre it hopes to unsettle. A work totally unlike anything else within, or outside the phantasmagorical realm of Science Fiction.

‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ was published by John Lane /the Bodley Head in 1938. It introduces Dr Elwin Ransom, who is to be the central protagonist of the action. He’s a philologist – that’s linguist to you and me, and fellow of a Cambridge College. On his voyage to Mars he is pitted against the scientist Professor Weston who ‘has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast.’ And the mysteriously devious Mr Devine who, as well as being Ransom’s contemporary at Cambridge, is prone to uttering ‘strange blasphemies and coprology’s.’

‘Perelandra’ – later retitled ‘Voyage To Venus’, followed in 1943. Early mention of ‘the black-out’ locates its creation within the convulsions of World War 2, which perhaps throws its fictional moral conflict into sharper relief. One of the proofs of Weston’s evil in the novel is his professed readiness ‘to sell England to the Germans.’ And later, in a moment of reflection, Ransom muses that ‘at that moment, far away on Earth… men were at war’ in a ghastly reality far removed from the book’s delicate discourse. ‘That Hideous Strength’ arrived in 1945 with an American name-switch to ‘The Tortured Planet’ in an abridged edition ten years after. To Lewis it’s ‘a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups’, its terrestrial – or ‘Tellurian’ setting makes it more a creature of its time than its two predecessors, and it doesn’t travel well. Similarly its multiple narrative viewpoints – one of them through the eyes and brain of Mr Bultitude, a huge black bear, loses the novel its tightness of focus.

Each fictional instalment, although linked by common cosmology and characters, is distinctly different in tone. ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ draws most directly on the conventions of Science Fiction. ‘Voyage To Venus’ is a lush and entrancing allegory. ‘That Hideous Strength’, a bizarre and often unwieldy concoction of mysticism and Ealing Comedy.

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Born in Belfast, 29 November 1898, the young ‘Jack’ Lewis’ early reading included proto-SF and Fantasy from Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard, George MacDonald (‘Phantastes: A Faerie Romance For Men And Women’, 1858), and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726). While, still at school, he was so affected by HG Wells’ ‘War Of The Worlds’ (1897) that he briefly embarked on his own first juvenile attempt at interplanetary fiction. As an academic, a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he became a prolific writer and poet. His first-published work of prose fiction was ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’ (1933), a kind of obscurely allegorical rewriting of John Bunyan. Its mixed reception, and a conversation with fellow-‘Inkling’ JRR Tolkien determined that his next venture would be more accessible. So making ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ a hypnotically fascinating and luminously exciting adventure.

Its image of Mars is as distinctive as any in the extensive literature of the red planet. Many writers have personalised Mars, stamping their fictional imprint in its ochre sands. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stanley Weinbaum, Ray Bradbury. Leigh Brackett. And particularly HG Wells, who – according to Brian Aldiss, ‘awoke Lewis’ imagination and his moral dislike at one and the same time.’ And Wells’ mechanistic, socialist, atheistic vision is regularly alluded to by Lewis, by way of contrast.

Initially on a walking tour of the Midlands, Ransom is kidnapped by Weston and Devine who carry him to ‘Malacandra’ with the intention of trading him to placate the planet’s inhabitants. Critic Peter Nicholls suggests that Ransom ‘like Christ is… offered as a ransom for mankind’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’). Ransom doesn’t realise he’s on Mars until relatively late in the plot, speculating at one point that he could even be on the Moon’s dark side. Escaping his captors, his journeys on the strange world are shadowed by constant fearful anticipations of Wells’ insectoid reptilian monsters and the soulless dehumanised rule of science he’d learned to expect from ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901). Ransom even recalls specifically ‘how HG Wells’ Cavor had met his end on the Moon’ – although technically it should have been IN the Moon!

Lewis exactly inverts those expectations.

Malacandra is a world in which three sentient species – or Hnau, co-exist in perfect harmony, under the tutelage of the Eldila who are like ‘footsteps of light’, and the world-spirit Oyarsa. It is Earth – Thulcandra, which is the ‘bent world’, the Silent Planet, excluded from the cosmic dialogue because its world spirit, its Dark Lord, the depraved Oyarsa of Tellus, is insane. Devine brings greed and death to Mars, ‘we are all a bent race. We have come here to bring evil.’ While Weston brings more complex ills.

When I first read ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ as a teenager, I did so without preconceptions, and enjoyed it simply as a singularly different slice of SF, and some of its descriptions of Martian alieness remain stunning. ‘He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated him. He saw nothing but colours – colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it; you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.’ Lewis’ portrayal of Mars is largely in keeping with the then-contemporary ideas of the planet. Ransom learns that ‘the Malacandrian atmosphere lay chiefly in the handramits; the real surface of the planet was naked or thinly clad.’ The former, seen from the heights of the ‘undimensioned, enigmatic blackness’ of space, are the wide artificial valleys mistakenly called ‘canals’, cut into the harandra, or dead crust of the ancient world to extend its habitation. This accords with the consensus view of Mars still recognised by fictioneers well into the mid-1960’s. And as yet, CS Lewis’ occasional religious allusions are not highly visible, more a co-opting of religious vocabulary.

Space? ‘Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.’

Meeting the Hrossa is ‘like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world… the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational species.’ The Hrossa, Ransom considers, resemble talking animals, ‘as though Paradise had never been lost.’ And ‘ever since he had discovered the rationality of the Hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction’! The climax of the novel is a cleverly-constructed comic three-way dialogue in which Ransom (the philologist) translates Weston’s self-justification of racial destiny, social Darwinism, and scientific ambition into Martian terms that the Oyarsa can understand. His simplified paraphrase reducing the arguments – and hence the underlying premise of most Science Fiction, down to an internally contradictory nonsense.


Brian Aldiss calls it ‘one of the most delightful space voyages in the literature’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973), and Lewis returns briefly to Mars in one of two short stories – originally published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, and later incorporated into the 1966 collection ‘Of Other Worlds’. “Ministering Angel” – from the January 1958 issue, envisages a different and less ethereal planet, with a Monk who had ‘chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert,’ and the whores who arrive there to upset his calm!

But then… of course, the fiction of CS Lewis has ulterior motives. What he calls the ‘hidden story’ beneath the surface plot. It’s entirely possible to read his charming Narnia stories as delightful fantasies without necessarily deciphering the coded messages of their symbolism, although that symbolism is visible. Narnia is a ‘country of walking trees… of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants… of Talking Beasts.’ A world in which Digory picks, and is tempted to eat an apple from the magic garden (in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, 1955). A world breathed into life by the benevolently god-like lion Aslan who is resurrected from death, whose blood can revive the dead (‘The Silver Chair’, 1953), and who finally bids the fantasy world’s cessation with the words ‘the dream has ended, this is the morning’ (‘The Last Battle’, 1956).

With ‘Perelandra’ the moral is even less easily avoided. ‘Authentic Science Fiction’ magazine (no.38, October 1953) calls it ‘a rather slow, somehow boring treatise that grinds an axe so crudely you can see the chips fly off.’ The prefatory disclaimer that ‘all the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical’ is difficult to accept, for this – the second ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ novel, is a Perelandrian Book of Genesis. He playfully argues back that ‘a strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution’ – as his biographer Brian Sibley quotes Lewis as saying, yet his own stories, Lewis claims, more resemble ‘a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.’

In the emerging fragrance of his fictional cosmology Mars provides life’s rough blueprint, a first attempt at animating life-forms. Learning from its crudity, Earth creates humanity, advanced – but flawed by its ‘fall’ from grace. The Moon possesses an underground machine civilisation, suggested but never encountered, which marks the outer limits of Thulcandra’s sphere of evil. While Venus is a new world, its myths yet to be written. ‘The distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless’ considers Ransom, in much the same way that with the Eldila ‘the distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down.’

This time Ransom is summoned through space. He travels to mist-shrouded Venus in a ‘coffin’ powered by Eldila. His interplanetary voyages are all made nude. The inference is of reaching worlds ‘beyond death’, and of rebirth – never stated, but implicit in the image. He discovers Venus, or Perelandra, to be a world of ocean with few points of fixed land, but fleets of floating islands that Lewis illustrates with painterly richness and vivid attention to detail, snaring descriptions with often stunning precision of observation. ‘Great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees, clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man.’ Lewis later explains that ‘the starting point of the second novel – ‘Perelandra’, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours, in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist’ (an interview in ‘SF Horizons’, Spring 1964).

Ransom soon meets the Green Lady. The world’s Eve. And shortly after, he discovers Weston there in his familiar role as emissary of evil, but this time he enacts a more focused part. Weston’s soul is owned by the mephistophelean Tellurian Oyarsa. As the novel slowly progresses he decays further into a thing of pure malevolence, becoming first the Un-man, and later the Tempter, as his true intentions clarify. Ransom ‘had a sensation not of following an adventure but of enacting a myth.’ And Lewis adds to that myth-building process with every simile. At one point Weston’s corrupt body even tempts the Green Lady with the suggestion that ‘he (Ransom) does not want you to go on to the new fruits that you have never tasted before.’ Fruit? – what is at stake here is ‘Original Sin’, the loss of Venusian innocence, the prospect of a second Fall, all balanced on the outcome of their individual actions, ‘the sense of precariousness terrified him.’

The leisurely pacing accelerates when Ransom, losing more rounds of philosophical and theological debate than he considers fair, decides to kill Weston. The ethical equation posed by such a murder perhaps being as equally ‘sinful’ as the attempted seduction is not something that worries either the author or his character. The ensuing pursuit takes hunter and hunted to the forbidden fixed land and through a bizarre subworld of caves and their half-glimpsed monsters. A labyrinth compounded of Hades and the Narnian Really Deep Land of Bism beneath the Underland (in ‘The Silver Chair’), a domain complete with a glimpse of its waiting thrones.

Perelandra is saved. Ransom meets the ‘King’ (Adam), and the Oyarsa of both Mars and Venus, to learn more of the true nature of the solar system, and of god – ‘Maleldil’. ‘On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the land swims.’ CS Lewis extends this hard-soft imagery into a definition of male-female beyond physical sexuality, personified by the qualities of these worlds. The interplay of history, myth and morality is its ‘Great Dance’. The fact that it places the human form above all other animals – ‘a little lower than the angels’, is hardly surprising considering its context. As is its sexism. The Green Lady, although nominally equal-but-different, is treated as being of lesser importance than the king. Yet ‘Perelandra’ is a beautifully-woven tapestry of deep and subtle colouration with areas of exquisite prose. His description of ‘ripple trees’ and their tiny denizens runs ‘the wind was blowing the streamers not down the mountainside but up it, so that his course had to the eye the astonishing appearance of lying through a wide blue waterfall which flowed the wrong way, curving and foaming towards the heights.’

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Clive Staples Lewis was a strange, repressed, solitary man who – in Anthony Burgess’ memorable description, was ‘god-drunk’. And he had an odd relationship with Science Fiction. To CS Lewis the spaces separating worlds are ‘god’s quarantine’. This assertion is intended to be serious. A chapter in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The View From Serendip’ (Gollancz, 1978) amplifies his attitude. Lewis was intensely opposed to all aspects of modernism, including the Rocket Societies that were then being organised by equally fanatical enthusiasts into the grandiosely titled ‘British Interplanetary Society’. Clarke, the group’s treasurer and chief propagandist met ‘Jack’ Lewis for a pre-arranged open debate in an Oxford pub. Lewis was seconded in the confrontation by JRR Tolkien. Clarke by Val Cleaver – who was destined to become head of Rolls Royce Rocket Division!

The debate is fiercely passionate, although from a twenty-first century perspective it increasingly takes on the slightly unhinged air of two bald men fighting over a comb. Lewis contends that space flight will spread humanities crimes to other, as yet uncontaminated worlds. Reduced to absurd simplicity his attitude is of the ‘there are things we are not meant to know /humans should know their place in god’s scheme of things /if people were meant to fly they’d have been given wings’ variety. That human beings should be content with their allotted span – both racially and individually, and when it’s done they should die with dignity as the Martian Hnau will, once they’ve served Maleldil’s purpose. CS Lewis’ mind-set is as mustily pre-industrial and myth-riddled as Tolkien, his colleague in the debate.

While Clarke ripostes that the inevitable future of the race lies out there beyond the atmosphere, quarantine or no. Neither possibility seems any more imminent as the new century lurches into its teens. But Lewis’ opposition to his concepts did not blind him to Clarke’s qualities as a writer. A dust-jacket blurb for ‘Childhood’s End’ (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1954) quotes a Lewis book review with this barbed recommendation – ‘here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own ‘survival’.’ Clarke himself – in ‘The Coming Of The Space Age’ (Panther, 1970) refers to ‘my old sparring partner’s… theological exercises in SF’. While critic Sam Moskowitz’s essay in the same volume contends that Lewis not only borrowed from HG Wells, but from Olaf Stapledon too, and also assumed his ‘entire religious philosophy as it applied to the space age.’

There’s some evidence that CS Lewis DID admire Stapledon’s elaborate fantasies in which evolving future races hop worlds to escape the extinction of Earth, eventually colonising Neptune two-thousand million years hence – indeed, Lewis even wrote about them with some enthusiasm in ‘The Christian Herald’ (1958). But he obviously rejects what he calls the ‘desperately immoral outlook’ that puts so much faith in humanity’s own ability – in phrases from a letter quoted by Lewis’ biographer and disciple Roger Lancelyn Green, to ‘revitalise the cosmos’.

So can a healthily logical atheist still read and enjoy the books of CS Lewis? The answer is obviously yes, despite himself. In the same way that we can listen to Bach with pleasure, without sharing his faith.

With ‘That Hideous Strength’ even his most dour attitudes seems to have darkened. Prefacing ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ he’d admitted ‘…this author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr HG Wells fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.’ But the later novel portrays Wells himself as ‘Horace Jules’ – ‘a cockney, a very little man, whose legs were so short that he had unkindly been compared to a duck. He had a turned-up nose and a face in which some original bonhomie had been much interfered with by years of good living and conceit.’ The novels that ‘had first raised him to fame and affluence’ were flimsily grounded in ‘science… taught him at the University of London over fifty years ago.’ The snide character assassination ends with Jules being shot to death!

As Arthur C Clarke writes amusingly in his ‘Astounding Days’ (Gollancz, 1989) World War 2 is brought to a close with the unleashing of two SF concepts into the real world – rocketry, in the form of the V2 Flying Bombs, and atomic power, devastatingly at Hiroshima. Perhaps the muddled and unsatisfactory third instalment of ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ is presaged by this realisation? That the atheistic proponents of the space age were seeing their dreams enter the realm of news reportage.

To CS Lewis ‘That Hideous Strength’ is ‘a tall story about devilry, though it has behind it a serious point.’ Lewis had already produced a mild and amusing novel about devilry. ‘The Screwtape Letter’ from 1943 depicts a senior devil writing instructions to his young inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, on how to win human souls. Yet here, from the timeless spaces of other worlds, ‘That Hideous Strength’ reduces the scope of its vision down to a very pre-war Little England and the trivial concerns of a highly dated and class-riddled cast of terrestrials, Bill the Blizzard, ‘Fairy’ Hardcastle, Mrs Maggs – the domestic ‘woman who comes in twice a week’, and Mother Dimble. Dr Elwin Ransom doesn’t appear by name until halfway into the book. He is now the ‘Director’, in a beatific state of numinous transfiguration, with the bite on his foot – inflicted by Weston on Venus, borne as a stigmata. While Devine is also present in the form of Lord Feverstone, who becomes Emergency Commissioner of Edgestow – a ‘conquered and occupied city.’

The new protagonists are Mark Studdock – a Sociology Don at Bracton College, part of the Edgestow University complex, and his dissatisfied wife Jane. The first fully-drawn female character in the trilogy – the Green Lady of Venus scarcely counts, she discovers to her own unease that she’s capable of precognition. Aligned with the College ‘Progressive Element’, Mark is inveigled into joining a government-sponsored research centre that has bought the ancient Bracton Wood from the college. N.I.C.E. is the ‘Avengers’-style acronym for this National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. Weston may be dead, but NICE continues his work by other means, with the ultimate objective of ‘a new type of man’ achieved through ‘sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding’ creating ‘a new era. The REALLY scientific era.’ Science, equated with fascism.

NICE is an attempted totalitarianism with unconvincing Kafkaesque overtones, and it is – of course, in the sway of the Dark Eldils. They plan to revive the ancient Atlantean magics of Merlin, the great Wizard of Arthurian legend, who ‘had not died. His life had been sidetracked, moved out of our one-dimensional time for fifteen centuries. But under certain conditions it would return to his body.’ Merlin lies secretly entombed beneath the contested Bracton Wood suspended in time, a state that Lewis calls ‘parachronic’, ‘dead and yet not dead, something exhumed from that dark pit of history.’ His pagan Druidical power will be reinforced by what Lewis sees as the new demonic power of science – epitomised by NICE, in which ‘dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of man as god.’

Here Lewis states his anti-science thesis most nakedly. Science leads to a ‘despair of objective truth’ in which ‘all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of man.’ Science undermines belief. And if this conspiracy of logic, realism, and human rationalism ‘succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate.’ Needless to say, Lewis ensures that it doesn’t succeed. A convention of five Oyarsa – those from Mercury (Viritrilbia), Jupiter (Glundandra), and Saturn (Lurga), as well as the two we’ve already encountered, lend a hand. Mark sees through the beguiling pretence of ‘progress’ and returns to more traditional values, and Merlin – once revived, unexpectedly joins the side of light against darkness. 

There’s little of the prose richness of the two earlier novels, but some notes of humour en route. The ‘Head’ of NICE is discovered to be just that – a severed head maintained by a system of tubes, pipes and drips. A horror image lifted directly from the cruder Gernsbackian pulps! While NICE, in its search for the resurrected Merlin, takes an unfortunate and confused tramp into their custody believing him to be the great Druid. But it is more occult flim-flam that SF, and this third volume of the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ would have been long forgotten if not for the furnace heat of its two predecessors.

And anyway, by March 1949 Lewis’ interests had moved elsewhere. He wrote ‘once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy…’, opening ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’, with six more ‘Narnian Chronicles’ to follow until ‘The Last Battle’ in 1956.

‘I’ve never started from a message or a moral’ Lewis protests to his ‘SF Horizons’ interrogators, adding ‘of course, it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas.’ Science Fiction is an essentially atheistic medium. Perhaps it has to be. Its imagery follows HG Wells Time Traveller to the slow entropic devolution at world’s end. It crosses Olaf Stapledon’s trackless aeons of random evolutions and meaningless extinctions. Even once it had outgrown its early role as propaganda vehicle for the space race, it still conjures up intriguing blasphemies of alternative christ’s, with Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’ (1969). The ‘hidden story’ here is inconsistent with belief in god’s eternal plan, inconsistent with the CS Lewis cosmology in which ‘Maleldil was born a man in Bethlehem.’

James Blish questions religious morality by using a Jesuit priest as protagonist of his ‘A Case Of Conscience’ (1958). Anthony Boucher allegedly puts his SF short story “The Quest For Saint Aquin” (1951) at the service of his Catholic faith. Ray Bradbury’s Episcopal priests meet sinless Martians in his “The Fire Balloons” (1951, collected into ‘The Martian Chronicles’), while Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960) centres on the rituals of a Catholic monastery in post-apocalypse America. But even accepting such exceptions, Science Fiction remains the ultimate literature of rationalism. It is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be analytically quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity, with an implacably healthy atheistic subtext. What CS Lewis condemns as ‘the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientifiction’, in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe’ (‘Perelandra’).

Clive Staples Lewis died on 22 November 1963… living long enough to see Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Alan Shepard and others follow Weston and Devine in gloriously transgressing god’s quarantine regulations…


The Dark Tower And Other Stories’ edited by Walter Hooper (London, Collins, 1977) unfinished manuscript of disputed authenticity published posthumously, featuring Elwin Ransom involved in an experimental screen that enables glimpses of a parallel universe

Out Of The Silent Planet’ (1938 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, Scribner USA 1938, Pan Books 1952)

Perelandra: A Novel’ (1943 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, also published as ‘Perelandra: World Of The New Temptation’ by US Avon, 1950, and ‘Voyage To Venus’ by Pan Books 1955)

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale For Grown-Ups’ (1945 by John Lane, The Bodley Head. Specially abridged version by CS Lewis published by US Avon retitled ‘The Tortured Planet’ in 1958, first paperback by Pan Books 1955)

The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single-volume edition by The Bodley Head in March 1990, Pan SF/ 1990, ISBN 0-330-31374-6. Published as ‘The Space Trilogy’ by Scribner Paperback Fiction US 1996.

1 comment:

Larry W Bradley said...

A "Minuet" is a dance. Did you mean to use that word? If so, what does it mean that Lewis is a "minuet" of ...?