Ransom is on an Adventure whether he likes it or not; a former old school chum named Devine and an unscrupulous physicist named Weston have abducted him and taken him to a planet called Malacandra for yet undisclosed reasons. But he has been strenuously trying to avoid another type of call. Weston and Devine were to hand him over to the enigmatic sorns, natives of the planet, but Ransom ran off and took refuge with the friendly hrossi, another species of Malacanrian.
He has spent the past few weeks among the hrossi, leanring their language and culture; but this idyllic period cannot last. The Call re-asserts itself in the form of an eldil, an invisible creature seemingly without a body which summons him to appear before Oyarsa, the entity which rules over the hrossi and the séroni. And as if to punctuate the message, Weston and Devine show up about this time and shoot one of Ransom’s friends.
Overwhelmed by guilt at having brought misfortune to the gentle hrossi, Ransom has no choice but to obey Oyarsa’s summons.
The journey to Oyarsa is a long one, which takes him out of the warm valleys of the hross up into the cold, high plateau regions where the enigmatic sorns dwell. He has spent several weeks now in terror of the sorns and trying to avoid them; but up on the high harandra, or plateau, he is nearly overcome by the cold and thinness of the air and is glad for the shelter of a sorn’s dwelling.
The sorn turns out to be every bit as hospitable as the hrossi, although much more grave in temperament and less gregarious. Ransom initially found their towering, elongated forms and their solemn, almost-human faces intimidating; but the sorn welcomes Ransom and offers him food and rest, and offers to carry him the rest of the journey.
We later learn that the sorns had originally been sent to greet the earthmen because, of all the people of Malacandra, they were the most similar to humans in appearance. This proved to be a mistake: their superficial humanoid shape to Ransom made their otherworldly features all the more disturbing; an “uncanny valley” effect.
The sorns are highly intelligent, and their culture values knowledge and understanding. This had initially led Ransom to the erroneous conclusion that the sorns were some kind of ruling class of intellectuals. In fact, none of the three species of hnau, the sapient races of Malacandra, rules over the other; all are subject to Oyarsa, who himself is subject to a cosmic entity known as Maleldil.
In this, once again, we see Lewis the medievalist. A Medievalist writing science fiction is bound to come up with something eccentric. Here he adopts the medieval idea of a feudal hierarchy extending downward to the animals below and upward to the angels above and God above the angels; and presents a similar hierarchy on Malacandra, with the hnau superior to the beasts and the eldil superior to the hnau and Maleldil over them all. Except that Lewis leaves out the middle part: contrary to what Ransom expects, the hnau of Malacandra are not themselves organized into ranks.
Ransom spends one evening on his journey the guest of an older sorn and his students, who question him about his world. He had been guarded in discussing Earth with the hrossi, partially because he was embarrassed by our history of destruction and bloodshed compared to the peaceful hrossi, and partially because he remembered the scene in H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon in which Cavor’s descriptions of humanity prompt the Selenites to kill him. Now, however, Ransom hides nothing; and the sorns are shocked by his descriptions of war, slavery and prostitution.
“It is because they have no Oyarsa,” one says. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” another suggests.
The sorns find it highly significant that humans are the only type of hnau, intelligent life-forms, on the Earth.
“Your thought must be at the mercy of your blood,” said the old sorn. “For you cannot compare it with thought that floats on a different blood.”Ransom’s sorn guide eventually brings him to another lowland region, lush and verdant, where there is an island in the middle of a large lake. There are many eldil here, and with practice, Ransom can almost manage to see them. Here there are also many visitors, and Ransom has the opportunity to speak with a pfifltrigg, a representative of the third type of hnau on Malacandra. If the hrossi are the poets of Malacandra, and the sorns the thinkers, then the pfifltriggi are the artisans, delighting in making intricate objects. The one Ransom meets is carving his likeness to be added to a huge frieze depicting the history of the planet.
Finally, Ransom is brought before Oyarsa himself, Ransom cannot see him – like the other eldila does not exactly have a physical body like that Ransom is familiar with – but he can hear Oyarsa’s voice; a voice “with no blood in it,” as a hross comments to Ransom. “Light is instead of blood for them.”
From Oyarsa, Ransom learns a bit more about Cosmic history. Thulcandra, “the Silent Planet,” as the Malacandrans call Earth, was not always isolated from the rest of the Cosmos.
Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world – he was brighter and greater than I – and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of which we still speak in the heavens, when he was not yet bound to Thulcnadra but free like us. It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own. He smote your moon with his left hand and with his right he brought the cold death on my harandra before its time.”And if this sounds like the Fall of Lucifer, then yes, you have been paying attention. . A running theme throughout the entire trilogy is the notion that Medieval and Classical mythology contains something almost like a racial memory of the Cosmic Order which exists beyond Earth’s sphere. And Lewis, the dedicated Christian, would not have disagreed with the designation of myth either. He had at one time argued with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien that myths were lies “although breathed through silver”, but had eventually come around to Tolkien’s assertion that a story can be mythic and yet also true.
When Weston and Devine first arrived in their spaceship, Oyarsa wished to speak to them, and sent sorns to teach them the Malacandran language. They would not come. Since the sorns reported that the earthmen were gathering pieces of “sun’s blood” – gold; explaining Devine’s interest in the planet – Oyarsa sent the message that they would not be permitted to collect any more until they had come to see him. Instead, to Oyarsa’s perplexity, the two packed up in their spaceship and left. Ransom recalls Devine’s comments about “human sacrifice” and realizes how the two misinterpreted Oyarsa’s request.
About this time Devine and Weston are brought forward, having been captured by the hrossi and physically brought to Oyarsa’s home. Weston, not seeing Oyarsa’s corporeal form, assumes that one of the other creatures present must be a shaman practicing ventriloquism. In a farcical scene, Weston attempts to impress and intimidate the Malacandrans by shouting at the elderly hross he mistakes for the shaman. It takes a while for Weston to grasp that there really is an invisible entity seated before him to whom he must give account.
Here follows the dialogue to which the whole novel has been leading. Weston attempts to give a speech defending humanity, and in particular, his vision of space colonization to preserve and extend the human race. Unfortunately, his grasp of the language is rudimentary and he is forced to rely on Ransom to translate for him. Ransom is somewhat more fluent, but still he can only do this by stripping Weston’s high-sounding rhetoric and colonialist assumptions down to what he really means.
I have to admit a little discomfort at this scene, because Weston’s dream of humanity spreading out through the stars is deeply-ingrained in the heart of science fiction; and Lewis does turn Weston into a straw-man in order to mock him. When Oyarsa replies that just as each person has a finite life span, so does each planet and each species living on that planet, Weston becomes angry.
‘Trash! Defeatist trash!’ he shouted at Oyarsa in English; then, drawing himself up to his full height, he added in Malacandrian, ‘You say your Maleldil let all go dead. Other one, Bent One [the Oyarsa of Earth, or Lucifer], he fight, jump, live – not all talkee-talkee. Me no care Maleldil. Like Bent One better; me on his side.’Oyarsa has heard enough to render a judgment. Devine is not just bent – the Malacandrans have no word, remember, for bad – he is broken. He lives for nothing except greed and is little more than a talking animal. Weston, however, does have some sense of ethics, be they twisted. He really does have the welfare of Humanity at heart, even if he has little or no regard for individual humans. Oyarsa would destroy Devine as one might a dangerous beast and try to cure Weston, if he had the authority; but as the Earthmen come from a different planet they lie outside his jurisdiction. Instead he orders the two to return to their spaceship the next day and leave Malacandra forever.
Oyarsa invites Ransom to remain on Malacandra, and he is sorely tempted. In the end, he decides he will risk the flight back to Earth with Weston and Devine. ‘Love of our own kind … is not the greatest of laws, but you Oyarsa, have said it is a law. If I cannot live in Thulcandra, it is better for me not to live at all.’
The trip back will take ninety days; since the planets have moved out of opposition in the past several weeks. Oyarsa commands the sorns and the pfifltriggi to outfit the ship with an additional oxygen supply to last the longer voyage. In addition, he commands his eldila to escort the ship and watch over its passengers to ensure that Devine and Weston don’t decide to extend their air supply by killing Ransom.
As they leave the planet, Ransom looks back at the valley they left.
Seen from the height which the spaceship had now attained, in all their unmistakable geometry, they put to shame his original impression that they were natural valleys. They were gigantic feats of engineering, about which he had learned nothing; feats accomplished, if all were true, before human history began … before animal history began. Or was that only mythology? He knew it would seem like mythology when he got back to Earth (if he ever got back), but the presence of Oyarsa was still too fresh a memory to allow him any real doubts. It even occurred to him that the distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside the Earth.After a long and dangerous voyage through space, the ship returns home. The spacecraft is destroyed, a precaution of Oyarsa’s to prevent Weston from coming back. Ransom is ill for some time and is not entirely sure the whole experience wasn't a dream, until a colleague of his named Lewis writes to him about a 12th Century Platonist manuscript which describes a voyage through the heavens and mentions a kind of planetary intelligence called an Oyarses. Many adventure stories of that era begin with a frame to tell how the writer of the book came to learn the story he relates; in this case, the frame comes at the end.
Before Ransom left Malacandra, Oyarsa predicted that important things would be happening during the next celestial cycle and that the long siege of Thulcandra might be coming to an end. We see some of this in the next book, Perelandra.