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Close Encounters of a Mythical Kind: C.S. Lewis’s “Forms of Things Unknown”

Suzanne Bray
p. 215-226


Depuis sa publication posthume en 1966, la nouvelle « Forms of Things Unknown » de C. S. Lewis suscite une certaine polémique. Des doutes ont été exprimés quant à son authenticité et des questions ont été posées sur la raison pour laquelle ce texte n’a pas paru du vivant de l’auteur. L’originalité de l’intrigue, ainsi que le genre littéraire employé ont également suscité des débats. Dans cet article, Lewis sera défendu en tant qu’auteur de la nouvelle et l’histoire comprise comme un écrit fantastique bien déguisé en œuvre de science-fiction. Tout en acceptant que personne ne saura réellement pourquoi la nouvelle ne fut pas publiée avant la mort de l’auteur, une tentative sera faite d’expliquer cette situation à partir de la vie personnelle de Lewis à la date supposée de la rédaction. Il est également possible que le message plutôt sombre véhiculé par la nouvelle semblait à Lewis être en contradiction avec l’espérance chrétienne qu’il essayait habituellement de communiquer dans ses écrits.

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1C.S. Lewis’s “Forms of Things Unknown” has always, since its posthumous publication in 1966, been a controversial and, in some ways, mysterious short story. Doubts have been raised over its authenticity and questions asked about why it was not published during Lewis’s lifetime. With regard to the plot, its originality has been questioned, as has its precise genre. In this article, Lewis’s authorship will be defended and the story presented as a work of fantasy disguised as science fiction. While accepting that nobody shall probably ever know for certain why the story was not published until after Lewis’s death, an attempt will be made to explain this from the circumstances of the author’s life at the time of writing and the rather depressing and fatalistic message the work conveys to the reader.

2Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’s secretary at the time of his death in 1963, tells the tale of how, with the help of Lewis’s gardener, he saved a whole pile of the author’s documents and manuscripts from Major Warnie Lewis’s 1964 bonfire (11-12). Among these, he claims, was the manuscript of the short story “Forms of Things Unknown,” which had never been published during Lewis’s lifetime. In 1966, Hooper published it, first of all an abridged version in August in Fifty-Two: A Journal of Books & Authors, then a month later, together with two other short stories, the beginning of a novel Lewis had abandoned and several literary essays, in the collection Of Other Worlds. Hooper particularly admired the descriptions of the moon in the story, which he later described as “brilliantly imagined and described” (Lancelyn Green and Hooper 181). Charles Brady, at the time head of English at Canisius College, Buffalo, and a correspondent of Lewis’s, agreed with this appreciation and considered “Forms of Things Unknown” to be “at once the most finished and the most arresting” (8) of Lewis’s short stories.

  • 1 “The Shoddy Lands” (February 1956) and “Ministering Angels” (January 1958).

3However, in addition to several other of Lewis’s posthumously published works, “Forms of Things Unknown” has been the subject of debate. In her highly controversial study The C.S. Lewis Hoax (1988), Kathryn Lindskoog claims that Hooper made up the story of the bonfire and that the works he claimed to have saved are, in fact, all forgeries. Included in her reasons for coming to this conclusion are several theories as to the origin of the story. On April 14 1978, Richard Hodgens, a founder member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, addressed the society and gave it as his opinion that “Forms of Things Unknown” is “simply Lewis’s attempt to write—not for publication, but simply for his own amusement—a sort of fictional illustration of a particular science fiction magazine cover” (qtd. in Lindskoog and Wynne 89), the cover in question being on the October 1958 edition of Fantastic Universe magazine, which shows a couple of astronauts encountering a gorgon. Part of Lindskoog’s argument comes from the fact that it is unlikely that a professor of English at Cambridge University would have actually seen this relatively obscure American publication. This is probable, although by no means certain, as Lewis had had two short stories published in the American Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction1 in the 1950s and also felt able, in a speech in November 1955, to comment on the quality of American science fiction magazines in general (Lewis, “Other Worlds” 80). A similar argument, which could also explain why the story was never published, concerns William Sambrot’s now famous “Island of Fear,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1958. As Bruce Edwards, among others, has observed, “with the exception of the locale—an island near Greece—this tale’s basic plot and that of ‘Forms of Things Unknown’ are the same” (166). If “Island of Fear” is seen as a possible inspiration for “Forms of Things Unknown,” it is indeed relatively unlikely, although still possible, that Lewis would have read it when it first came out. However, it is more than probable that any magazine editor to whom Lewis submitted his story would have been aware of it, making him unlikely to risk publishing the later work so soon afterwards. However, even if he had read Sambrot’s work, Lewis himself would not have been bothered by the similarity of plot to “Island of Fear.” In his opinion, and that of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien:

[Some people] are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folklore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are the “same story.” . . . Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but . . . they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. (48)

  • 2 Lewis refers to The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the only things of (...)

4Arguments in favour of Lewis’s authorship include the existence of a handwritten manuscript of “Forms of Things Unknown” deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which would have been very difficult for the American scholar to forge, and also the fact that Roger Lancelyn Green claims that Lewis read the story to him shortly after writing it (Lancelyn Green and Hooper 180). Other convincing elements come from the text itself. The courageous hero’s name, Jenkin, may be perceived as a homage to Lewis’s lifelong friend, A.K. Hamilton Jenkin, who was largely responsible for Lewis’s own “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature” (Lewis, Joy 160), not petrified by his past or his preconceptions. Also, the title, “Forms of Things Unknown,” comes from one of Lewis’s favourite Shakespeare plays,2 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a speech by Theseus which describes quite closely Lewis’s own understanding of the creative process:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (Act V, Scene 1)

5It may also be noted that the introductory quotation to the story, attributed to Lewis’s novel Perelandra, “… that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other” (Lewis, “Forms” 124), is, in fact, verbally inaccurate. The real quotation asks: “Were all things that appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?” (186). That Lewis should quote, from memory, from his own novel, perhaps with the intention of checking the reference later before submitting it for publication, seems more likely than that someone who was trying to fake Lewis’s style should not bother to look the passage up. It will therefore be assumed here that Lewis was indeed the author.

6When asked about how he wrote his fictional works, Lewis always asserted that these “began by seeing pictures in [his] head” (“It All Began” 79), sometimes pictures he had seen years before he started writing. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, began “with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” (79), which had been in Lewis’s mind since he was about sixteen. In the same way, “Forms of Things Unknown” probably started with a frightening dream Lewis described in a letter to his father in March 1927, a few years before his conversion to Christianity:

I dreamed I was walking among the valleys of the moon—a world of pure white rock, all deep chasms and spidery crags, with a perfectly black sky overhead. Of course there was nothing living there, not even a bit of moss: pure mineral solitude. Then I saw, very far off, coming to meet me down a narrow ravine, a straight, tall figure, draped in black, face and all covered. One knew it would be nicer not to meet that person: but one never has any choice in a dream, and for what seemed about an hour I went on till this stranger was right beside me . . . it was the sense of being on the moon you know, the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect. (Letters 1 678)

7However, both this dream, and the later short story, may have been influenced by his reading of H.G. Wells’s novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), which Lewis particularly admired and which has, in places, an atmosphere similar to the one found in “Forms of Things Unknown.” Describing the novel to the Cambridge University English Club, Lewis stated:

The first glimpse of the unveiled airless sky, the lunar landscape, the lunar levity, the incomparable solitude, then the growing terror, finally the overwhelming approach of the lunar night—it is for these things that the story. . . exists. (“Science Fiction” 86)

8Lewis also asked his listeners in Cambridge whether any man is “such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowed, sky” (85), implying that he himself had certainly done so.

9In fact, the moon, the planets and the solar system had always fascinated Lewis and several of his works make reference to them. Although he writes about the moon less frequently than about Venus or Mars, as far as it goes his lunar mythology in the short story is, as Paul Shackley has pointed out, “consistent with the Ransom trilogy” and his other writings. In That Hideous Strength, the moon, called Sulva, is described as being divided into two halves. The half nearest the Earth “shares our curse,” is “barren” (635) and shelters a troglodyte race, while the other half is fertile and has delightful fields. The villain Filostrato, who detests all forms of natural life, considers the moon, or at least the part of it he can see through a telescope, as an ideal:

There is cleanness, purity. Thousands of square miles of polished rock with not one blade of grass, not one fibre of lichen, not one grain of dust. Not even air. Have you thought what it would be like, my friend, if you could walk on that land? No crumbling, no erosion. (529)

10This, like Wells’s moon, is the land in “Forms of Things Unknown”: barren and mysterious, “the airless outer darkness” and the “sidereal loneliness” (Lewis, “On Stories” 33), which are the whole point of Lewis’s tale. It is not just that a man meets a gorgon, but that a particular astronaut meets a gorgon on the moon.

11Although definitions and theories of the short story vary, when examining “Forms of Things Unknown” in the context of the genre, it appears, according to most of the principal theorists, to be a fairly classic example of its kind in all ways but one. Only nine pages long, it can easily be read at one sitting, as Poe desired. It fits at least one of the principal requirements of Aristotle’s Poetics. Melville Davisson Post, in agreement with many other theorists of the short story, explains:

Aristotle laid down precisely how the short story ought to be built up. He was dealing with the structure of the drama, but what he had to say about the play applies equally to the short story. The highest type of short story will be found to follow precisely the rules laid down in the Poetics. (21)

12Although the time period covered by the story is several months, rather than the single day required for the unity of time, it could be argued that the first half of “Forms of Things Unknown” serves as an introduction or scene-setting for the key event, which lasts less than an hour. Again, there are several places mentioned in the first half of the story, a classroom, a pub and a spaceship, but none of these are evoked in any detail, while the main and final scene, on the moon, is minutely described, enabling to reader to visualise it easily.

13A strict unity of action, at least, is visible in Lewis’s tale. In accordance with Liliane Louvel’s definition, “the reader finds himself confronted with one event” (81): Lieutenant Jenkin’s trip to the moon. All else is irrelevant. Following Dorothy L. Sayers in her comparative study of the crime story and Aristotle’s theories: “the author does not trouble to say where the hero was born, or whether he was educated at Oxford or Cambridge, nor does he enter into details about incidents which—though we know they occurred—are not relevant to the matter in hand” (181). A rigorous economy of detail is observed and even those glimpses of Jenkin’s private life which, at first reading, may seem irrelevant to the plot, turn out to be hints, or clues, to understanding the surprise ending. The reader meets Jenkins at the moment when his imminent trip to the moon is made public and follows him in his project from that point onwards. For B. M. Éjxenbaum, the short story, by its very essence, “amasses its whole weight towards the ending” (81). This is certainly the case in “Forms of Things Unknown” where the suspense is gradually, but relentlessly, built up until the final climax, expressed in a brief paragraph ending in one, four-word sentence, which fixes Jenkin’s fate. The construction is such that, without the final paragraph, the story has no meaning at all, and every other paragraph points the way towards it.

14The event narrated is also a key moment in the protagonist’s life. Again, Jenkin’s tragic death and transformation correspond perfectly to Louvel’s vision of the short story as “often preoccupied with moments of transition, beginnings or ends of life, revelations . . ., metamorphosis” (86-87). Ironically, Jenkin himself perceives what is happening to him as a new beginning, an experience enabling him “to feel again, to be flesh, not stone” (Lewis, “Forms” 128), a wakening up of his petrified emotions.

15However, if “Forms of Things Unknown” includes most of the elements usually found in a short story, its originality lies in a certain confusion with regard to the genre—in the sense that there is deliberate deception on the author’s part with regard to what sort of short story he was writing. Jonathan Culler, in his detailed study of structuralist poetics, explains that the function of genre conventions is “to establish a contract between writer and reader so as to make certain relevant expectations operative” (147). W.S. Penn takes this further, asserting that a “set of expectations” is always “derived from the opening paragraph of a story,” and also from “the relations of the title to that opening” (45). “Forms of Things Unknown” starts in a classroom with an instructor and students discussing space travel and the possibility of landing on the moon, leading both readers of the time and those who encounter the story today to think they are reading a work of science fiction.

16Although Joel Heck is inclined think that “Forms of Things Unknown” was written around 1943 (11), the possibility of Lewis’s having seen the 1958 Finlay magazine cover, the fact that his two published science fiction short stories came out in 1956 and 1958 respectively, and the interest provoked by first space ships to orbit the earth in 1957 and then to reach the moon in 1959, may indicate a later date, probably between 1956 and Joy Lewis’s death in 1960, after which Lewis wrote no more fiction. If this date is correct and Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s definition that “fantasy is about the construction of the impossible, whereas science fiction may be about the unlikely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible” (1), is accepted, nothing could have seemed more possible to Lewis’s contemporaries than a man on the moon. A dog and a monkey had already travelled in space and it was obviously only a matter of time before human beings would do so too.

17Perhaps surprisingly, the story gains in credibility for the modern reader as the astronauts are seen wearing large spherical helmets, which Lewis must have invented or copied from deep-sea divers’ equipment, as the first man in space to wear one, Yuri Gagarin, did not do so until 1961 and Lewis’s description is actually closer to the now familiar American helmet for those who actually left the spaceship, which was not worn until a few years after that. Also, the surface of the moon and the atmospheric conditions described do in fact correspond reasonably accurately to what the first men on the moon discovered six years after Lewis’s death. All the realistic details about the students, the pub, pints of beer, the journalists and Jenkin’s own entirely credible reactions and emotions reinforce the reader’s initial expectation that he is reading a realistic work of science fiction set, from the author’s point of view, in the not too distant future. However, the tacit contract claimed by Culler and the expectations created by the first paragraph are, in this case, deceptive.

18As Fred Chappell has explained, “only by the patient accumulation of verisimilitudinous detail around the fantastic element” (183) in his story can the writer of fantasy literature bring his readers to suspend their potential disbelief in what they are reading. Lewis’s story is, in fact, a work of fantasy set on an entirely impossible moon inhabited by fantastic creatures, gorgons—presumably Stheno and Euryale or their descendants, in that Medusa, being mortal, could not live in the moon’s atmosphere without a spacesuit any more than the human astronauts could (Lancelyn Green and Hooper 180). However, for the attentive reader there are clues that prepare the way for the final revelation.

  • 3 Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace at Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century, thought the (...)

19First of all, the title, taken from a play which could, not unreasonably, be described as fantasy theatre, speaks of giving reality to “airy nothing,” which hardly describes the scientific trappings of space travel and indicates that the reader is entering the world of pure imagination. The opening quotation, attributed to Perelandra, implying that he is liable to meet both another world and a myth, is even more explicit. The next sign that everything may not be entirely realistic comes in the conversation between Jenkin and his friend Ward in the pub. Jenkin evokes the possibility of some kind of life on the moon, even “masses of matter capable of movements determined from within, determined, in fact, by intentions” (Lewis, “Forms” 127). Although this is expressed in scientific sounding terminology and, for this reason, may not shock the reader, Ward understands the actual meaning of the phrase and reacts accordingly: “Jenkin, that’s nonsense. Animated stones, no doubt! That’s mere science fiction or mythology” (127). This remark should warn the reader not only that not everything that sounds scientific actually is scientific, but also that he should be asking himself whether what he is reading is mere science fiction or mythology. Jenkin’s reply that “going to the moon at all was once science fiction” (127)—which, of course, it still was at the time Lewis was writing—is merely a humorous nod to posterity, but the following seemingly rhetorical question “Haven’t they found the Cretan labyrinth?” (127) is more revealing. If the answer to that question were “yes,” it would appear that Lewis intended to say that myth could indeed turn out to be reality. However, as Lewis knew very well, for his friend Katharine Farrar had extensively researched the question for her 1954 detective novel The Cretan Counterfeit, at the time he was writing, no genuine labyrinth had yet been found in Crete.3 The question, like the story, is thus deceptive but, for those who know the correct answer, hints at the non-scientific nature of the tale.

20Furthermore, the reader is prepared for the surprise ending and its dramatic irony via the history of Jenkin’s emotional life. Having been ditched by a young woman he had intended to marry, the astronaut’s emotions seem “frozen” or, as he puts it, “a bit petrified” (125). Although the term is used metaphorically, here, the literal meaning of the word, turned to stone, provides the first clue as to what will happen to Jenkin. Once in the spaceship, alone, on his way to the moon, Jenkin becomes aware that his abortive love affair has affected him more than he previously thought. The girl’s actions have indeed “frozen him stiff, petrified him” and he wants “to feel again, to be flesh, not stone. To feel anything, even terror” (128). This repetition of the word petrified and his desire to no longer be as stone once again help the reader to see where the plot is going, especially as being petrified is referred to by Jenkin as “part of his destiny . . . he felt he could shake off” (128). Yet, by definition, if it is truly his destiny, whatever he may hope for, there is no way he can escape it.

21On the moon, Jenkin starts to come to life emotionally. He experiences “a shock of fear” (129), without being quite sure why, and the complete silence is terrifying. The sight of the man-shaped statues evoke in him “an impulse to vomit” (130), but once he comes to believe that these are works of art, sculptures by lunar creatures, he is suddenly happy and starts to enjoy striding then leaping in the lunar gravitation. He is mistakenly convinced that all is well. He has “escaped [his] destiny” (131). Exultant, with no idea of the real danger, he says to himself: “Petrified, eh? No more feelings? Feelings enough to last him for ever” (131). Although Jenkin does not know it, this is literally true. He only has a few minutes of life left to him before he will be petrified once and for all.

  • 4 In a multinational class of third year university students in the spring of 2014, about one third o (...)

22By this time, as Jenkin starts to radio back to base before the last paragraph, Lewis almost certainly hoped that his readers would have worked out what has occurred and, by implication, what is probably going to happen next.4 The astronaut sees, projected from behind him, a shadow, with a human-looking head whose very thick hairs are “rising, writhing—swaying” (132) as if in the wind. Knowing that gorgons have live snakes instead of hair, the reader can understand the approaching danger and is aware, as Jenkin “turn[s] in terror” (132), that he is about to be turned into stone. The final phrase: “His eyes met hers” (132), with the clear feminine possessive pronoun, confirms this impression. Jenkins has not escaped his destiny. He is petrified forever. Although this is nowhere explicitly stated, it should be tacitly understood.

23When Lewis read the story to Roger Lancelyn-Green, the younger man felt that it was rather obscure and “few readers would take the point” (Lancelyn Green and Hooper 180). This is assumed by many scholars to be one reason why it was not published during his lifetime. Lewis may have originally intended to revise it but, with all the traumas surrounding his wife’s final illness and death, this could have been one of the many things which were left undone. It is also possible that, although Lewis had written a good short story, he may have been dissatisfied with the meaning behind the tale. All of Lewis’s other post-conversion works include some message of hope for the reader. Here there is none. Lewis had already used the metaphor of being turned into stone in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch uses her magic wand to petrify her enemies. However, in the children’s story, Aslan breathes on the statues to set the victims free and they return to flesh and blood (Lion 152-57). Jenkin’s tragedy is that, knowing that the other astronauts met disaster when they looked behind them, he, through terror, is unable to stop himself doing the exact same thing. His fate is sealed and no friendly lion will come and revive him. The nightmare on which the story was based comes from Lewis’s pre-Christian period and the story remains on a frightening, fatalistic level, which does not reflect the Faith Lewis came to believe and defend. Unlike Lewis’s other fictional works, myth here brings death and not life. It may be argued that Lewis himself felt, during the dark periods of the final months of 1956 or the early summer of 1960, that his wife was heading towards a cruel destiny from which nothing could save her, and that he, who had been woken to love so late in life and for such a brief period, would soon be petrified again, by grief. But this can only remain an enigma.

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Éjxenbaum, B.M. “O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles E. May. Athens: Ohio UP, 1994. 81-88. Print.

Heck, Joel. “The Middle-War Years in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.” CSL: The Bulletin of The New York C. S. Lewis Society 43.2 (March/April 2012): 1-13. Print.

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---. “Forms of Things Unknown.” The Dark Tower and Other Stories. London: Collins, 1977. Print.

---. “On Science Fiction.” 1955. Of This and Other Worlds. London: Collins, 1982. Print.

---. “It All Began with a Picture.” Of This and Other Worlds. London: Collins, 1982. Print.

---. “On Stories.” Of This and Other Worlds. London: Collins, 1982. Print.

---. Perelandra. The Cosmic Trilogy. London: Pan, 1990. Print.

---. Surprised by Joy. 1955. London: Collins, 1990. Print.

---. That Hideous Strength. The Cosmic Trilogy. London: Pan, 1990. Print.

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1 “The Shoddy Lands” (February 1956) and “Ministering Angels” (January 1958).

2 Lewis refers to The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the only things of Shakespeare I really appreciate, except the Sonnets” (Letters 1 246).

3 Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace at Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century, thought the immense palace itself, with its numerous curved corridors, may have been known as a labyrinth, although not everyone was convinced. However, a two and a half mile series of interlocking tunnels were excavated at the so-called Labyrinthos Caves at Gortyn, Crete, in 2009, providing a much more likely solution to the enigma. See

4 In a multinational class of third year university students in the spring of 2014, about one third of the class and half of the native English speakers had understood the story at this point. About another third understood when reading the last paragraph. The others still did not grasp it at the end, mainly because they were unacquainted with the mythology.

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Bibliographical reference

Suzanne Bray, Close Encounters of a Mythical Kind: C.S. Lewis’s “Forms of Things Unknown”Journal of the Short Story in English, 71 | 2018, 215-226.

Electronic reference

Suzanne Bray, Close Encounters of a Mythical Kind: C.S. Lewis’s “Forms of Things Unknown”Journal of the Short Story in English [Online], 71 | Autumn 2018, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 21 February 2024. URL:

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About the author

Suzanne Bray

Suzanne Bray is professor of British Literature and Civilisation at Lille Catholic University in the north of France. She specialises in the history of religious ideas in 20th-century Britain and the interaction between theology, literature and popular culture. She has published extensively in English and French on C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton and several other bestselling Christian literary figures.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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