Clive Staples Lewis was born in November 1898 in Belfast, Ireland, the son of a solicitor and a clergyman’s daughter. He taught medieval literature at Oxford University and at Cambridge University and was a prolific writer. C. S. Lewis’ better known works include The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in his space trilogy.
In the novel Perelandra, the second book in Lewis’ space trilogy, the main character Ransom is transported to the planet Venus where he finds himself naked and alone. His immediate concern is finding food and shelter. Experimenting with various plants, he discovers a fruit that has a pleasant, bread-like taste and satisfies his hunger. However, he soon finds that once in a while, one of the fruit contains a red berry that is absolutely delicious.
Sometimes I find a literary “red berry” in a book that I’m reading. They are delicious; they transcend all other delights. For me, those red berries are statements of universal truth, the most wonderful thing to encounter in a text. By the way, I am referring to real truth, not a truth contrived for the sake of a story. However much I love Jane Austen, I do not believe “it is a universal truth that a young man of good fortune is in want of a wife.”
What is a universal truth? I think it is that which sets one free. It restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes. It is a rare and random treat. Some novels contain many red berries because their authors dedicate themselves to writing the truth; George MacDonald is one such writer. Other novels may contain only one such treasure, but it makes the entire book worthwhile.
In Perelandra, Ransom considers what it would be like if there were red berry fruits on Earth. He surmises that someone clever would find a way to genetically alter the fruit so that every piece would contain a red berry. Red berries would then be mass-produced. The rich and powerful would get the lion’s share of the red berry market while the poor would go without. He concludes that it is better if a red berry is a rare and random treat.
I don’t think we are in danger of mass-producing literary red berries. I think that truth will always be a rare and random treat.