Hnau and the Nature of Humanity in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet

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There’s a large part of Out of the Silent Planet that is centered around the impossibility of translating human thought processes to other intelligent beings in the galaxy. Ransom, our hero, is modeled after a certain professor friend of Lewis’ who loved long walks and philology. This, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. You can tell that Lewis is working hard to make sure that particular friend is going to enjoy the book. Lewis works to give the impression of a fully functioning language (or set of languages) among the Malacandrans, and includes the more deeply spiritual themes that he and “Tollers” longed for in the speculative fiction of their day.

We’ll get to the climax of the novel soon, where Ransom does his best to translate the “bent” human worldview into something understandable to the Malacandrans, but first I thought we should explore a specific Malacandran word, which the hrossa would pronounce as “hnau.”

Anyone who speaks more than a single language will gladly tell you that there are certain words that are not quite translatable. There’s a loss of precision in the meaning, or a loss of expansiveness, or a slight depreciation in the connotation or the emotion of the word if nothing else. Hnau appears to be a word like that. Once Ransom learns it, he doesn’t use another word in its place.

We tried a few different words on for size in the last article (and check out the comments for some other suggestions, too). Words like: sentience, sapience, human, mortal, rational, people (etc.). None of them quite fit. So let’s learn the word as Ransom did, by hearing it in context and feeling for the edges of what is and what is not hnau.

The first time Ransom hears hnau, it’s in the negative sense. Maledil is not hnau. “Maledil the young,” Ransom is told, made the world and rules the world. He lives with the Old One, who doesn’t live in any place in particular. As Ransom pushes for more clarity on who exactly Maledil is, the hrossa keep giving him more clues, and finally move into language that Ransom can’t quite follow. We’re given to understand that it’s religious and theological language. “It became plain that Maleldil was a spirit without body, parts or passions,” Ransom says. Maledil is, of course, God without coming out and saying it.

But Maledil is not hnau.

The hrossa start listing what is hnau: Ransom (and thus presumably humans). The hrossa. The séroni. The pfifltriggi. Now, Ransom has not really met all of these types of beings, but they are the different rational and aware people of Malacandra.

We learn there is a sort of hierarchy in the created order. There are animals at the bottom. Above them are the hnau: humans and the people of Malacandrana. There are the eldila who are a “kind of” hnau, though they have a different sort of body than other hnau (it’s suggested that there are probably animals with eldila type bodies as well). Above the hnau is the Oyarsa, a sort of planetary angel (though the text specifically says they are not angels). The Oyarsa is in charge of the hnau of their own planet and are meant to rule them. And then, above the Oyarsa is Maledil/God.

Is the Oyarsa hnau? Maybe. There is some disagreement on whether it quite fits the definition because it has “no death and no young.” But we are clear on this: animals are not hnau. And Maledil is not hnau.

The Malacandrans believe that a hnau comes with a clear and developed moral sense (what Lewis will come to call the Tao in “The Abolition of Man,” an essay which addresses many of the same points as the Space Trilogy and especially That Hideous Strength). In fact, Ransom’s hross friend, Hyoi, can’t even wrap his mind around the idea of a “bent” hnau. A hnau who is bent might work against the moral code of their people, or against the natural needs of their body, or against the needs of the community of other hnau.

Hyoi struggles to think how a bent hnau could exist, and he can only come up with two examples. One is a legend about a hross who had a strange desire to eat dirt as he grew up. The other is about—and this story he shares with almost apologetic incredulity—a hross who desired two mates.

Ransom is astonished and troubled by this. He recognizes that the hnau of Malacandra appear to have instincts that lead them toward, as he says, “the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different.” To which Hyoi can only say “Maledil made us so.”

So human beings, Ransom learns, are “bent” hnau. They don’t work the way they are meant to. There are competing theories of why this could be, but the one given the most credence is that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent himself. And if the human’s Oyarsa is bent, then maybe that has caused them to become bent as well. We learn a bit later that the Malacandran Oyarsa sees protecting his people from becoming bent as part of his job. He would either fix them or unmake them if they became bent…but the Oyarsa of Earth appears to be encouraging and even manufacturing bentness in his hnau. It’s distressing for all the Malacandrans, the more humans they get to know.

As Ransom comes to understand hnau better, he begins to wonder if humans are hnau at all. When his human pursuers catch up and kill Hyoi, Ransom tells him that the entire human race is bent, that we are, at best, “only half hnau.”

Hnau do not kill hnau. Or such is the case in Malacandra. But, as Ransom tries to explain to his new friends, the other humans won’t recognize the hrossa as hnau, and even if they did they would gladly kill the hrossa or even Ransom who is both hnau and human if it meant they would get their way. This is completely alien in every sense to the hrossa. “One does not kill hnau.” Only Oyarsa holds the power to do such a thing without it being evil, because Oyarsa is in charge of the hnau of his planet…just as a hnau could kill a beast with cause.

Ransom begins to understand that there is a piece of hnau that has to do with moral action. When he is taken to the séroni, he decides to be completely honest with them because “it would not be hnau” to do otherwise. There’s an expectation that hnau are honest. So he tells them about the bentness of the human race, and specifically about “war, slavery, and prostitution.” The séroni are astonished.

The séroni are philosophers and, as Ransom calls them, “the intelligentsia” and their argument about why the humans are bent is interesting to note as we’re thinking about who or what is hnau:

‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils.

‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,’ said Augray.

‘They cannot help it,’ said the old sorn. ‘There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair—or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it—like a female trying to beget young on herself.’

They feel compassion for humanity, and see the main culprit in our bent nature to be a breakdown in the natural hierarchy of the world (a common—and Medieval—thought of Lewis’).

Indeed, Oyarsa thinks similarly. When Ransom floats the idea that Malacandra might be safest if Oyarsa killed all the humans (including himself), Oyarsa says it’s outside his clear authority and that it would be a terrible thing to kill “someone else’s hnau.”

A murdered hnau is not a thing to take lightly. Oyarsa demands answers from Weston and Devine…he asks them three times why they killed one of the hrossa. As they try to evade the question or give incomplete or bent answers, Oyarsa begins to wonder if they are ill or mentally incapacitated. He sends them off to get dunked in cold water, hoping it will bring them to their senses.

Meanwhile, there is an unmaking ceremony, where they honor the dead hnau, and Oyarsa causes the body to disappear. The body, he explains, is not what is hnau, but something within it…perhaps what we might call a soul (though neither Lewis nor Ransom use this word). The body is done, because it is temporal, but the hnau continues, because it is eternal. A dead hnau is worthy of honor regardless.

After Weston’s big speech, Oyarsa gives his pronouncement. Weston is hnau, but bent…purposely bent by the Oyarsa of Earth. A true hnau knows moral law naturally. Things like “pity and straight dealing and shame” and “the love of kindred.” Weston is missing some of these, and has been taught to value certain lesser laws as if they are the most important, and thus he does horrific things in service of what could be a virtue if put in the proper context. He’s bent, not broken, and if he belonged on Malacandra, Oyarsa would try to cure him.

Devine, on the other hand, is not hnau at all according to Oyarsa. Maybe he was once. But he is broken, not bent, because all that’s left in him is greed. None of the virtues, none of the natural law of the hnau remains. He’s a “talking animal” and if he belonged to Oyarsa he would unmake him. Oyarsa doesn’t believe Devine can be repaired.

This is, of course, a theme that Lewis will return to often in the Narnia books. He believes that the spiritual life is never static, that we have the capability to move toward greater things—to move toward divinity—or to devolve into animals.

So what is it to be hnau?

There’s not a single word for it other than hnau.

It’s to be something more than an animal but less than an Oyarsa in the hierarchy of the universe. It’s to be mortal for a time, but immortal later. It’s to have an innate moral world that has love at its core, and an unshakeable commitment to never spill the blood of another hnau. It’s connected to rationality, but there are rational and sentient and sapient beings who are not hnau.

And what of us humans?

We are hnau, most of us. Bent but not yet broken. Something more than animals. Ransom comes home from Malacandra with a deep desire to be cured, to be on the side of the unbent hnau in the galaxy. During his time with the hrossa he learned not just who he was, but who he was meant to be, and he is working to try to grow into that.

We may be bent, but we don’t have to remain that way.

So long as we are hnau, there is hope.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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