Ransom is a philologist at the University of Cambridge, which allows him to pick up the Old Solar language fairly rapidly. He is familiar with a wide range of English literature from Anglo-Saxon epics to The Hunting of the Snark.
He is the main character in the books Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, which are told almost entirely from his point of view. He is also a major character in the third book, That Hideous Strength, in which he plays a director of an organization resisting the demonic take-over of the world, though his role is that of mentor in the book, with the main characters arguably being Mark and Jane Studdock.
The character of Dr. Elwin Ransom is fundamental in conveying Lewis' message - i.e., to tell his 20th Century British reader that the Bible is not about things which happened to exotic people in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Rather, such things are equally real and could equally happen in the here-and-now - in token of which Lewis proceeds to show in detail how they do happen to an ordinary Englishman of the middle Twentieth Century, a Cambridge don who is likable but a very fallible human being.
By the third book, Ransom has been transformed by his experiences into an awe-inspiring Prophet or Saint, who is seen from the outside. The role of conveying to the reader that supernatural Bible-like things can happen to ordinary people in the here-and-now is transferred to a couple of younger and even more fallible scholars from whose point of view the story is then told.
In Out of the Silent Planet it is suggested that "Ransom" is not the character's true name. In the following books, however, this is unaccountably dropped and it is made clear that Ransom is his true name.
In Perelandra, he meets an entity who says that his name is "also ransom".
In That Hideous Strength Dr. Ransom appears as the leader in the book, and he earns the title 'The Pendragon' or 'The Fisher-King'.
The name Ransom name does not derive from the modern word "ransom" but rather is a contraction of the Old English for "Ranolf's Son". This may be another allusion to Tolkien, a professor of Old English.
"Elwin" means "Elf friend" in Anglo-Saxon, another possible allusion to Tolkien.
Tolkien's legendarium, the body of writing behind the posthumously-published The Silmarillion, has a frame story that evolved over Tolkien's long writing career. It centred on a character, Aelfwine the mariner, whose name, like those of several later frame-characters, means "Elf-friend" and resembles Elwin. He sails the seas and is shipwrecked on an island where the Elves narrate their tales to him
Ransom appears very similar to C.S Lewis, as he is a university professor, expert in languages and medieval literature (philologist), unmarried (Because Lewis did not marry until he was 50), wounded in World War I and with no living relatives except for one sibling. In That Hideous Strength, Ransom, with his strong charisma and casual acceptance of the supernatural, appears more like Charles Williams. C.S. Lewis intended for Ransom to be also slightly like his friend and fellow Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien, since Lewis is presented as creating novels of Ransom's journeys in the epilogue of Out of the Silent Planet and is a character-narrator in the frame tale for Perelandra.
Some casual references in Perelandra reveal that he had fought in the First World War, that he had been on the Somme and that on one occasion he had to overcome considerable trepidation before accepting - and successfully implementing - an unspecified "very dangerous job". However, it is noted that the horrors Ransom had witnessed on the battlefield did not destroy his sensitivity for suffering, even the suffering of animals.
Accordingly, Ransom's birth has to be placed in 1899 or 1900 at the latest - assuming that he had fought only in 1918, the war's last year; if he had already been on the Somme in 1916, he must have been born in 1897 or 1898 at the latest. This fits with the mention of his being "middle aged" during the events of Perelandra in the 1940s. Lewis might have conceived of Ransom as being his own age, i.e., born in 1898; J.R.R. Tolkien, one of Lewis's inspirations for the character, was born in 1892.
It is also mentioned that at some later point in his life he had "to screw up his resolution to go and see a certain man in London and make to him an excessively embarrassing confession which justice demanded" -- which Ransom eventually did, and of which no further details are given.
Ransom is a confirmed bachelor (as C.S. Lewis himself was at the time of writing), and in none of the three books is there any mention of a woman in his life, other than Tinidril who he shows little interest in. Nor does he have many male friends, either; when first introduced, he is in the habit of spending his university holidays hiking alone through the British countryside (which facilitates Weston's kidnapping him). By the end of the series, the wound sustained at Perelandra would preclude his continuing this habit. In the introductory chapters of Perelandra, however, it is revealed that Ransom regularly provides help to a large number of neighbors and acquaintances who have fallen on hard times.
He is a philologist by profession (like Tolkien), which gives him a unique aptitude for learning languages. He speculates that this ability is the reason that he is 'chosen' for his role in the first and second books, although he notes in Perelandra that it might as well have been anyone else.
A professor in Cambridge, he is highly regarded (even by his enemies, who in That Hideous Strength mention him as among the topmost in his field, who but for his Christian convictions might have rendered very useful service to their cause).
After his sojourn on Malacandra/Mars, Ransom is mentioned as staying for a prolonged period at a cottage three miles outside "Worchester", having evidently left temporarily or permanently his Cambridge job. From there he sets out to his voyage to Perelandra/Venus.
While on Venus, Ransom becomes in effect a prophet in the Biblical sense - i.e., a person to whom God speaks and on whom a specific Divine command is imposed (and who, like Jonah, strongly resists and makes a considerable effort to avoid, before bowing to the inevitable).
Ransom receives a bite on his heel from the Un-Man in the deep caverns of Perelandra's The Fixed Land which never fully heals afterwards. It causes him continuing pain which he feels it is his duty to endure, refusing to relieve it either through medicine or through Merlin's magic. (Shortly thereafter, he receives a bequest that requires him to change his last name to Fisher-King.)
The wound may refer to Genesis 3:15, where God curses the Snake for his tempting of Eve and causing the Original Sin: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.(NIV)" The Biblical Snake is commonly considered in Christianity to have been a manifestation of Satan; so was the possessed Professor Weston. Thus, Weston could be considered an "offspring" of the Snake, and such he did bite the heel of Ransom and got his own head crushed.
This wound is also a possible reference to the unhealing wound of the Fisher King, the ailing Grail King of Arthurian legend, which was a major theme in some of Charles Williams' works, a significant influence to the Space Trilogy: in the third book Ransom has actually taken the name of "Fisher-King".
At some time between the second and third book, Ransom's life was further transformed radically by becoming the secret Pendragon, the latest in an unbroken chain of secret inheritors of King Arthur who, it turns out, had been watching over Logres and helping their country in various crisis points in its history - a role which is crucially important to his relationship with the reawakened wizard Merlin. He establishes a kind of secret community at a big house in St. Anne's Manor, which he heads and which is the polar opposite and center of opposition to the literally Satanic institute of N.I.C.E. which is threatening to take over the world. There, he is in regular contact with the descending oyarsa of the Graeco-Roman Pantheon (who are in fact no gods at all, but angels and faithful servants of the true, one and only God).
The third book, unlike the earlier two, is not told through Ransom's own eyes. He has become too much of an august and hieratic personage, seen mainly through the eyes of the book's female protagonist, who falls in love with him - hopelessly, as she realizes from the start, especially since he is a firm upholder of the sanctity of marriage and firmly wants her to be reconciled with her estranged husband.
In the end, Ransom's role as a saint or prophet is enhanced by his being taken alive into Heaven (actually, back to Venus/Perelandra), an honour reserved only to a very small handful of particularly deserving Biblical and mythical characters.
- "Excuse me," said Ransom. "But it is funny, you know. The idea of a man thinking he could become a saint as a minor detail in his scientific training. You might as well imagine you could use the stairs of heaven as a short cut to the nearest tobacconist’s. Don’t you see that long before you had reached the level of timeless experience you would have had to become so interested in something else—or, frankly, Someone Else—that you wouldn’t be bothering about time-travel?" - The Dark Tower
- “Ransom had actually experienced … how thin is the crust which protects ‘real life’ from the fantastic.” The Dark Tower