Hnau What?: C. S. Lewis on What It Means to be a Person

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Hnau What? Ransom’s Martian Education

Upon their Martian landing, Weston and Devine prepare to deliver their human specimen to six tall, spindly, and flimsy things (sorns, we soon learn). They are interrupted by a Martian beast, and Ransom makes his getaway. After spending some time in fearful flight from both his captors and the sorns, Ransom has a strange epiphany, one that perhaps only a philologist could understand. From his hiding place, he sees another Martian creature emerge from the water, six or seven feet tall and looking like a cross between a penguin, a seal, an otter, and a stoat. The creature opens its mouth and begins to make noises, and the text records, “a lifetime of linguistic study assured Ransom almost at once that these were articulate noises. The creature was talking. It had a language.” Suffice it to say that Ransom makes friends with this hross, learns its language, and learns that there are at least three distinct kinds of creatures on Malacandra (as they call Mars) that he must recognize as “persons,” though none of them look like the men and women of earth. There are the hrossa, the sorns (or seroni), and the pfifltriggi, each with unique characteristics or abilities.

Ransom’s hrossa mentors help him understand that personhood, or humanity, or being “hnau” (in their language) does not correlate with looking like earthlings. So what is the distinction between hnau and other creatures, such as hnakra, the dangerous aquatic animal? And between hnau and higher beings, such as Oyarsa (the Malacandran planetary angel), Melildil the Young (the Son of God), and the Old One (God)?


Ransom’s first lesson was that being hnau was not the same as being “man.” These Malacandran creatures were undeniably “other.” It was impossible to think of the hross as mankind, Ransom reflects, “But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have-glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth-and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason” (p. 58). “Sweet reason” is not limited to creatures that look like us.

Although each kind of hnau is rational, each kind makes a unique contribution to rationality. This is something that Ransom learns later when he meets his first sorns. They explain the unique attributes of each kind of hnau on Malacandra and are curious to learn what the human contributions might be. The sorns are struck by the fact that earth has only one kind of hnau. “[T]hey thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought. ‘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'” (p. 103). Ransom ultimately discovers that, although each kind of hnau on Malacandra has its own language, they have all learned the speech of the hrossa. When he asks why, wondering if the hrossa once ruled the others, the answer given by the pfifltrigg is a puzzled, “I do not understand. They are our great speakers and singers. They have more words and better” (p. 114).

Moral Order

Hnau apprehend moral truth that is obligatorily binding, not just personally or culturally preferable. Ransom muses, “On Malacandra, apparently, three distinct species had reached rationality, and none of them had yet exterminated the other. It concerned him intensely to find out which was the real master” (p. 69). He is taught that the hnau on Malacandra are ruled not by each other but by spiritual beings and the moral order that originates ultimately from the Old One. Ransom quickly finds himself embarrassed to say too much about human hnau, because it becomes evident that they have somehow become “bent” and are clearly morally inferior to the creatures on Malacandra. Of course, Ransom’s embarrassment is evidence that humans are hnau, even though bent, since he has some apprehension of the moral order and that humans have violated it.

Malacandrans know that it is wrong to kill other hnau and cannot imagine that any hnau would do it. It is a most difficult moment for Ransom when he must tell his hross friend that he must hide from Weston and Devine because they have already killed another hross. “Why would they kill him?” the hross asks. “They would not know that he was hnau. I have told you that there is only one kind of hnau in our world. They would think he was a beast. If they thought that, they would kill him for pleasure, or in fear, or (he hesitated) because they were hungry. But I must tell you the truth, Whin. They would kill even a hnau, knowing it to be hnau, if they thought its death would serve them” (p. 82).

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