Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On the Concept Hnau

    Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis?  When Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, is kidnapped and taken to Mars, he meets three different intelligent species: the hrossi, the seroni, and the pfifltriggi.  The seroni and pfifltriggi have their own languages which have been adapted from the older language of the hrossi, and in all these languages Ransom finds the word hnau.  The hrossi, seroni, and pfifltriggi all recognize each other as hnau, and they agree that human beings are also hnau, though the only humans they have met are Dr. Ransom and the two men who kidnapped him, Weston and Devine.  The other creatures of Malacandra (the hrossi word for Mars) are not hnau.
    A useful word!  But what is hnau?
    Let's step outside Silent Planet.  I think we can identify other hnau in other stories.  For instance, in Lewis's Narnia stories many creatures would be hnau: Tumnus the fawn, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Reepicheep the mouse, Puddleglum the marshwiggle, and many others.  But before we conclude that in Narnia all animals are hnau, remember the distinction made in The Silver Chair between an ordinary stag and a talking stag; Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum are horrified that they might have eaten a talking stag.  To eat a talking stag is to eat hnau, which would be cannibalism.  But to eat an ordinary stag, or a fish (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), is unremarkable.
   I'm confident that hnau does not simply mean "uses speech."  Rather, the ability to speak is an indicator of a deeper notion.  All races of hnau are intelligent; speech is a readily noticeable mark of intelligence.  But it is not the only mark.  Just as there are people who cannot speak, we can imagine hnau of other worlds that might not speak.  So does hnau simply mean "member of an intelligent species"?
    Maybe.  I think the best meaning for hnau is "created in the image of God."  The Western philosophical tradition has often pointed to human rationality as that feature of human nature by which we are said to be made imago Dei, in the "image of God."  Lewis may well have been endorsing this very familiar idea, and in that case we would have identities: image of God = rationality = hnau.
    But imago Dei may be a richer notion than rationality.  God is a ruler, a creator, and a lover--not just a reasoner.  Dorothy Sayers, who knew Lewis, argued that in context Genesis 1:26-28 might be read as saying that human beings are like God when they make things; after all, Genesis 1 is a story of creation.
    On Malacandra, the hrossi made the poems, the seroni made the scientific discoveries, and the pfifltriggi made mines and artworks.  Each kind of knau recognized and appreciated the strengths of the others.  The image of God is not the same in each person; since we know only one race of hnau in our world, we see and praise differences in individuals.  No one race or person can exhaust the possibilities of imago Dei.


  1. I'm very late in finding this, but excellent write up! I absolutely loved the space trilogy, and I loved that you paralleled the Hnau with the "talking beasts of Narnia." Perfect.