Thelma Shinn Richard, Ph.D.: Patterns of Possibility in Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction

Human patterns of actions reflected in sacred narratives can help us understand the relevance of the Past to our lives; the literary artist provides the words that select and interpret those actions and make them available as our “other” history. Read as romantic imaginings, these narratives may even reveal hidden historical truths, offering a more complete re-visioning of reality than available from historical records. At the same time, they shift our focus to what is often dismissed as the emotional but may also be the spiritual or moral context of that moment which reflects our ideologies and motivates human actions. The historical record, in fact, may prove less reliable than the art of song and tale which reveals in process the “whole story.” It is for this narrative purpose that Doris Lessing begins her “space fiction” series with Shikasta, a “document novel” based at least as much on the sacred narratives of Western society as on its recorded and observed history. Common to the patriarchal religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the Old Testament and pre-Biblical narratives of the Middle East which play the largest role in Lessing’s reconstruction of human history in the novel. The less accessible traditions of Earth Mother cultures, however, and our British heritage of druidic and Celtic myth contribute as well to the patterns in this series.

To make the “human patterns” which undergird our experience and which are derived from these mythic traditions more evident, Lessing recreates in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five the “two ideal landscapes, male and female, somewhat exemplary in both ways” which an earlier “very beneficial fantasy” had revealed to her, one which she had later come to realize as similar to “a technique used by certain schools of therapy” (quoted in Tiger 222). In this second volume of her series, Lessing uses the Celtic Zones which defined the landscape of Ireland to concretize social ideologies and relates them to Jung’s microcosmic route to the Transcendent Self. Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis has discussed Marriages in relation both to Lessing’s interest in Sufism and to a revisionist version of the Myth of Kore, praising Lessing’s inclusivity: “It is not only an allegory of Jungian rebirth or mystical ascent; nor is it merely a sexual-political dialectic, as Katherine Fishburn reads it. Like a dream or visionary myth Marriages integrates all these levels of meaning and reference…” (100). On the other hand, George Walford’s “systematic ideology” as defined in his book, Beyond Politics, and his journal, Ideological Commentary, helps to clarify the social ideologies symbolized by Lessing’s Zones.

Lessing’s description of landscapes as “male and female” should suggest that her literary eye easily discovers concrete expressions of human consciousness in both our physical and social landscapes and consequently can reveal these correspondences to the reader. To do so, however, she has to cleanse our language of its weighted historical baggage as much as possible, and what better language for conveying basic patterns do we have than mathematics? The mathematical cities that appear at the end of Shikasta offer keys to the ways in which Lessing presents the “human patterns” of myth.

“I think that we are here for a purpose – to learn – and that there is a God: I don’t think that we are purposeless,” Lessing told a New York audience in 1984 (quoted in Tiger 223). The idyllic plans of shaped cities offered at the beginning and end of Shikasta are discussed by Claire Sprague in relation to Lessing’s ongoing architectural symbolism: “The city is always the crucial center of human collective life. Historically described as female and entered by men, it is a construction normally out of bounds to the woman. Lessing has appropriated the fact and the dream of the city for women” (184). Sprague discusses particularly the initial Round City as “Lessing’s most ecstatic example of devotional perfection” (172) then turns to, at the end of the Century of Destruction, Kassim’s discovery of a city for which Lessing says “There were no plans. No architect. Yet it grew up symmetrical and on the shape of a six-pointed star” (Shikasta 358) and his own group’s later spontaneous knowledge of “where the city should be. We knew it all at once. Then we found a spring, in the middle of the place. That was how this city was begun. It is going to be a star city, five-points” (Shikasta 363, Sprague 174-5).

We will examine further the implications of these three figures – the circle and the five- and six-pointed stars – as they translate into the mythic patterns of Marriages. We can identify the Round City, the circle of perfection, with Necessity, the universal consciousness as expressed in the embracing sphere of the physical universe; we learn that here, “because of this precise and expert exchange of emanations, the prime object and aim of the galaxy were furthered – the creation of ever-evolving Sons and Daughters of the Purpose” (Shikasta 35). Thus Lessing reminds us that the “human city” is always within and ideally corresponds to the circle of nature, embraced by the Purpose and the Necessity. Within this circle the concentric zones of Marriages can be found.

The term Zone identifies the mythic source of concentric circles as primarily Celtic. In Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, R. J. Stewart diagrams “THE FIVEFOLD PATTERN OR WHEEL OF BEING” as “four Zones or Directions, unified by a fifth” circle, which embraces the intersection of the other four. He parallels this pattern with the provinces of Ancient Ireland, four of which were identified with (1) east, (2) south, (3) west, and (4) north while the fifth was the “Centre [Meath]: KINGSHIP, The King and Stewards, stability, bounty, renown” and with “the bardic or Druidic universe” with its “Four Powers or Elements, unified by a Fifth Principle of Balance. “In spherical form, it provides the ground plan for the Platonic Solids, a series of mathematical topological forms which define dimensions and conditions of universal existence” (14-15).

Perhaps most importantly in connection to Lessing’s borrowings from Celtic myth, Stewart explains these intersecting circles as basic to Celtic patterns of energy:

Celtic religions was primarily associated with the sanctity of the land, and the power of certain key locations within the land . . .. The land was primarily represented by a goddess, whose shape was clear to see in the rise of the hills and whose powers were apparent in the flow of rivers, the rising of springs and the growth of plants . . . ; they had a whole vision of the sanctity of life and land, unified and harmonized together. . .. When the pattern was right, all went well; and when the pattern was disturbed, ills arose. (15-16)

Later, Stewart will offer a diagram representing that pattern, the fifth circle of unity in which the four intersecting circles of nature are indicated by a square, divided itself into four triangles by a pair of transecting lines which locate the center of the circle, and dominated by an isosceles triangle sharing the base of the square. This diagram he calls “THE TRIPLE GODDESS, AND THE FOURFOLD CYCLE,” explaining that “The Triad or Triangle of the Goddess rotates around the Fourfold Cycle, through the Four Seasons and Elements” (60). Acknowledging Robert Graves’ The White Goddess as the source of his terminology, he identifies the three phases of the triple goddess as “Maiden, Mother, and Crone” (62), while the fourfold cycle he relates to “the classical cycle of the Four Elements, Four Seasons, Four Ages, Four Directions, or the Wheel of Life” (61). Thus we have the interaction of 3, the trinity, and 4, the fourfold cycle, in 5, the circle of balance and unity. Lorelei Cederstrom reminds us that Lessing “encourages the reader to look beyond the literal meaning of myth and religion and recognize those elements in them which are eternally recurrent because they represent basic configurations of the human psyche” (195).

While the WHEEL OF BEING is the macrocosmic sphere which embraces all of nature, the microcosmic sphere (containing both the centre of kingship in the first diagram and the triple goddess in the second in the hieros gamos or sacred marriage of the king and the land) is located at the centre (as in the Round City) and continuously rebalances as it r(evolves). That Lessing should place in this all-embracing “topological form” her “two ideal landscapes, male and female, somewhat exemplary in both ways” seems more than appropriate.

In Marriages, Al*Ith, the queen of Zone Three, is directed to marry Ben Ata, the king of Zone Four. Al*Ith is presented as the human correspondent, the questing spirit, of the number 3, the triple or earth goddess. Ben Ata equally corresponds with patriarchal quests, embodied in Stewart’s designation of Zone Four (North) as “BATTLE, Warriors, conflict, struggle pride”; while Zone Three (West), Stewart explains, is “LEARNING, Druids, judgment, chronicles, story-telling” (14). Lusik, the chronicler of Zone Three, is in fact the narrator of Marriages.

The patriarchal traditions reflected so strongly in Zone Four, in which even to look at Zone Three is prohibited, demands that we superimpose yet another mythic pattern, the six-pointed star of Judah. Kassim discovers this pattern first in the mathematical cities encountered after patriarchy’s Century of Destruction in Shikasta. It is useful to visualize that pattern in the human circle of Celtic mythology, as it both absorbs and opposes the triangle of the triple goddess. This dualistic opposition and domination not only symbolically defines the lives of the women in patriarchal Zone Four, where male is placed over and against female, but it also “turns upside down” the relationship of humanity to the sphere of Nature. By placing divinity outside of Nature, patriarchy limits our apprehendable universe to the confines of the square, the box that falls within the Celtic Zone Five of the microcosmic human sphere. Nature, thus, can be fully “mapped” by the human mind from this ideological perspective; its “mysteries” are only what we do not as yet understand. In terms of the four seasons, for instance, this six-pointed star, this new configuration which has r(evolved) the human microcosmic view, suggests that our story begins with the Fall/fall rather than the spring of the Goddess, and certainly the fall and winter faces of Nature might well call forth the warrior king to ensure human survival. It might also obscure the cyclical recurrence, which is our promise as creatures of nature, however, and suggest that rebirth only occurs after physical death. Thus our bodies become our enemies; the physical world, the Celtic goddess, the female within and beside us, is opposed to our spiritual salvation. Furthermore, because of the inflexibility of this patriarchal pattern, the Zones, when Marriages begins, have become alien territories of the Other; and the Providers must re-initiate unions between them. For all its unity and harmony, for instance, Al*Ith’s Zone Three has become stagnant and needs the energy of Zone Four to revitalize itself. Once this marriage has initiated changes in both Zones, Ben Ata is directed to marry the ruler of Zone Five. That zone is ruled by the warrior queen Vahshi, whose similarities to the warrior goddesses of the early Middle Eastern religions reminds us that the physical universe, including its human predators, is not always supportive of human existence. A society based solely on living in tune with Nature weights physical strength over reason; Vahshi must learn from the other Zones. Just as Al*Ith’s mythic name (of Dame Alice or Alice in Wonderland) is seen to be opened by Lessing’s use of the asterisk to embrace that six-pointed star of Ben Ata’s patriarchy, so too it is through knowing Al*Ith that Ben Ata will be open to love and respect the “female landscape,” to accept and love Vahshi and the apparent ambivalence of Nature: “Well, Al*Ith,” he admits, “I had to love her – after knowing you!” (Marriages 244).

Marriages advocates neither a return to Celtic myth nor a rejection of Judaic traditions. Rather, it explores what each in the purity of its pattern has contributed to our understanding of ourselves and of our universe. If Zone Three represents the balance of druidic learning, Zone Four provides the passion which drives that quest for knowledge which can re-unite man and nature (Zones Four and Five) despite our stolen knowledge of Her good and evil, of life and death, of Nature the Creator and Nature the Destroyer. Eventually, we may evolve to a closer understanding of the Purpose, as is suggested by Al*Ith’s growing attachment to the mountains of Zone Two.

While the macrocosmic sphere of universal causation may well promise perfection, in our microcosmic sphere of human existence we can only strive for unity and balance, healing disturbances in the pattern and trusting each other to help keep balanced. That Lessing has given Shikasta the designation of Planet #5 is significant in her acknowledgement of this “broken” but potentially “green” place as the Celtic centre, as the human sphere of potential unity and balance. Her survivors at the end of Shikasta envision a city structured on the pattern of a 5-pointed star, which not only unites our mythic traditions but also re-asserts the flexibility all such patterns must maintain as they adapt to the “disasters” of Necessity.

In the Middle Ages, the five-pointed star was already seen as our “astral” self, with its correspondences to the human and divine images (the points outline the head, arms, and legs of our physical pattern). It was further known as the love knot since it could be drawn with no discernible beginning or end, and the ideal knight Sir Gawaine boasted this emblem on his shield to indicate his devotion to the perfect woman, the Virgin Mary. In my book Women Shapeshifters: Transforming the Contemporary Novel, I have offered a diagram to represent Lessing’s Zones (59). Adding this five-pointed pattern to the fifth circle of Celtic unity in which we earlier super-imposed the Star of Judah, we can see why a flat representation of the Celtic Triple Goddess pattern could appear to subsume the individuality of the male in its own balanced triangle as it accepts the cycle of Nature as the perhaps too simple answer to life’s mysteries. Challenging that answer, the patriarchal six-pointed star asserts its opposition and dominates Nature and the female. “Driven out” of Eden, the garden of Nature, it creates a “walled garden” to box Her (and women) in as it resists being “[s]mothered” or buried alive within Her triangular pyramid. This six-pointed pattern is potentially as flexible as its predecessor, as is indicated by the covenant and promise the Judaic God offers Noah after the Flood, a Natural rainbow of concentric circles which are only half visible to the human eye but which promise the universal balance of the sphere. As this dominant myth becomes more and more inflexible, however, the “head” or knowledge of the Other, as indicated by the tip of the inverted triangle, is ignored; man alone is acknowledged as capable of making decisions. Without her “head,” woman is completely enclosed in the “box” of this more limited perception of Nature. This static picture cannot afford to “r(evolve)”; hence, the patterns which sustain us become fixed, and dynamic growth becomes nearly impossible because of this lack of balance.

In Marriages Lessing offers a social pattern that could possibly repair our “broken place.” The highlighting of a five-pointed star over the Star of Judah symbolizes that, while we may stand on our own two feet and make our own decisions, we often need the balance provided by our outstretched arms. Looking through to the underlying patterns of our myths, we discover that “our arms” are really the base of the Other and of Nature; they are meant for embracing that otherness. Furthermore, the recognition of otherness should also remind us that the “other” head, whose feet are balanced in our hands, can also be called upon for decisions which may seem “beyond our reach.” It is this dynamic marriage of the completely integrated individual to the individual other and to the whole of which we both are parts which promises the recognition of diversity in a composite pattern of unity acknowledging and encompassing earlier patterns. Only if it continues to r(evolve) in the macrocosmic sphere of Necessity, however, can it adapt and change to fit the mutual needs of the inner Transcendent Self and the outer Purpose of which we, as well as the stars, are the Sons and Daughters.

In Marriages, therefore, Lessing maps our psychological and social consciousness. Zones One and Two are beyond our human comprehension, the former constituting the universal marriage of Necessity and Purpose and the latter mountain landscape signifying our highest contemplative state, an individual striving for understanding which is the goal of our ongoing quests. Lessing focuses instead on Zones Three, Four, and Five, our evolving ideologies, which must continually rebalance as the social patterns within which we can comfortably house the human family. The parallel Jungian levels of consciousness pattern the inner story, eventually wedding anima to animus and penetrating the Shadow that obscures the beauty of Nature and the “Source.” As mentioned earlier, a clearer understanding of the social Zones can be gained by paralleling them to the three primary ideologies discussed by the late George Walford in Beyond Politics: Systematic Ideology. Lessing’s Zones seem to correspond inversely with what Walford presents as the three “eidostatic” ideologies which have progressively dominated human society: expediency, authority (or principle), and precision. Each becomes a fixed pattern, governing human society as ideologies evolve with our physical evolution. Earlier ideologies co-exist with the current dominant ideology. In fact, Walford refers to expediency, which I would argue corresponds to Zone Five, as the “only universal ideology” of the human family and the one that governs most human actions.

Authoritarian governments, such as Ben Ata represents in Zone Four, are based on principle, Walford explains, and arise when social demands grow or where nature is not as generous to her human children. While personal life is still primarily governed by expediency, the survival of the community demands limits be put on that life: “In order to function principle has to repress expediency,” Walford explains; “this pattern of two levels, one dominating the other, characterizes the many features which distinguish the new society from the old community” (83).

To correct the cyclical bias of expediency, authoritarian governments dualistically repress and repudiate the physical world – and whoever is most closely associated with that world. This defensive stance toward nature both oppresses the dualistic “other” and imbalances such societies, creating a propensity to fear and violence and a linear bias.

To bring the world back into balance, to rid an authoritarian ideology of its restrictive “grid,” Walford trusts partly to the quest for knowledge that leads to “precision.” He attributes to the advances of science the ability to monitor all aspects of life until societal limitations can be as exact as any other science “to ensure that the society operates precisely as it ought”(119). Precision I identify with Zone Three inasmuch as it is dependent upon the process of Learning, Three’s Celtic identity. Even here, though, we have evidence of the presence of the two “other” ideologies. The stagnation of Zone Three, which motivates the Providers to force change, can be seen as the survival of expediency in a comfortable environment, while her sister Murti’s confinement of Al*Ith when she returns with new knowledge reflects the resistance of authority to any other principles than the ones by which it currently operates.

Because Utopia is “no-place,” even the best society must be periodically revised and repaired, Walford and Lessing both argue. To serve this purpose for his “eidostatic” ideologies, Walford traces the additional evolution of three “eidodynamic” ideologies, which try to correct the “best of all possible worlds” of precision. Revolution can “revolve” the cyclical bias, anarchy or repudiation can oppose the current hierarchy in authority and reverse the linear bias (we reverse what, noting the meaning of the root word “pudentia,” we are “ashamed of” – while the use of the same root word for female genitalia suggests what we are ashamed of in our current society), and reformation can “reform” the entire pattern. Lessing too refuses to leave our evolution to nature’s “order of chaos,” to the expediency of the Goddess. Having already identified the human purpose as “to learn,” she r[evolves] expediency to achieve ecological consciousness; returning to the Judaic Garden, she reveals walls as looking glasses, reflecting our own ideological selves, through which Al*Ith can lead us. Canopean consciousness defines human endeavor as the “Workforce” and demands that we do our Duty, drawing on all sources of knowledge and testing any answers we perceive in the life processes that shape our stories by historical lines and mythical circles.

Lessing’s utopia departs from Walford’s model in her assertion of a macrocosmic circle of the Necessity as Zone One that serves, rather than science, as the ultimate test of our quests for precise knowledge. This is an important difference, as science at any one time is based not only on observation of Nature but also on principles already accepted in its socio-cultural construct. When describing principle, Walford argues that “Precision does not eliminate principle but both completes and represses it, working to substitute for a condition in which things were right only in principle one in which they are precisely correct” (119). He assumes that current principles are therefore basically correct, allowing for linear bias corrected by the dualistic pendulum swing of repudiation. For Lessing, reaffirming the language of nature means rejecting the “grid,” the fixed hierarchy that interprets and tries to limit Nature’s cyclical and continuously spiraling story. The “Purpose” she discerns is even beyond the comprehension of the superior Canopeans because both we and as much of the universe as we are able to perceive are still in the evolutionary process of “learning.”

In the middle world of human consciousness, Lessing reveals the continuous need for adaptations and transformations. Choices must be made by integrated individuals, as the dynamics of naturalism and relativity operate to necessitate a choice from whichever part of our consciousness best understands the needs of the moment (Necessity, personified as the Providers, once again being recognized as the Mother of Invention). The balancing act of the Ego is what allows our consciousness to survive intact in this world; any lack of balance swerves it toward mental breakdown. Sanity, however, is culturally defined, and Lessing has often sided with the “madwomen” that she releases from their Victorian attics to “break down” those definitions for the collective. Ongoing awareness of naturalistic and social attachments to our current ideology seriously inhibits our ability to let it go and drives many back to “try again” in Lessing’s Zone Six, which Johor visits in Shikasta. Thus, the very attitudes that help keep individual consciousness “sane” in the face of historical probabilities might well be those that hinder our ability to transform those probabilities by discerning others from a more “Canopean” perspective.

Lessing’s title for Marriages suggests connections and relationships between each of these Zones and the two others that could balance the bias of any one. In Zone Five we learn adaptation to the needs of a harsh environment from the warrior tribes and their queen; in Zone Four authority provides order and demands that choices be made; in Zone Three commitment to precision, to ongoing education, allows the emergence of an egalitarian society which celebrates diversity. However, even this evolving release of human consciousness from cultural prejudices does not define a utopia if it is allowed to become static; rather, the “marriages” symbolize a continual rebalancing of all three ideologies as required for a healthy, ongoing society.

According to Jung, the last two states of consciousness on the journey inward are the roots of individual diversification in the Anima and Animus and the realm of Archetypes, those patterns which reveal the inner “universal truths” of the human condition. On the social level, Lessing will take us to the border of Zone Two in Marriages, where Al*Ith gazes longingly at the snow-covered mountain retreat across the border which would provide space for the contemplation necessary for the recognition of such truths. Al*Ith opens the door into this Wonderland for those ready to follow her through the Looking Glass, who each “suffered from an inability to live in Zone Three as if it was, or could be, enough for them. Where others of us flourished unreflecting in this best of all worlds, they could see only hollowness. Fed on husks and expecting only emptiness, they were candidates for Zone Two before they knew it, and long before the road there had been opened up for them by Al*Ith’s long vigil.” The “best of all worlds” – of all social structures – is not good enough, Lessing seems to conclude in Marriages, without the truths available through individual contemplation, the solitary quest for knowledge that acquaints each of us with the Purpose. Zone One, the universal society, remains an unrealized dream.


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