Ward: Planet Narnia

September 7, 2010

Planet Narnia
The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
Michael Ward (Oxford, 2008)
360 p.  First reading.

Michael Ward made a big splash in the world of Narnian scholarship a few years ago with this study of the Chronicles.  His central claim is that he has uncovered the structural plan according to which the seven books were made.  Each book, he argues, is governed by, presided over, by one of the seven planetary deities of the medieval cosmos: Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  The characteristics of each planet influence the plot, the ornamental detail, and the atmosphere and mood of each book.

At first it seems a startling idea, but after a little reflection it becomes intriguing. The books do have very different atmospheres: The Silver Chair is wet and cloudy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is sunny and bright, The Last Battle is crabbed and dark, etc.  Furthermore, Lewis was a medievalist, and anyone who has read his fascinating study The Discarded Image knows that he had a great admiration for the medieval heavens, and knew the natures of the various planetary intelligences in close detail.  He called the planetary gods “spiritual symbols of permanent value”.  Certain odd features of some of the books, which have been often criticized (such as the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), suddenly seem rather fitting when viewed in this way (for, to continue the example, that book’s presiding spirit is Jupiter, and is there a more jovial figure than Father Christmas?).

Once the idea is suggested, then, it has a certain plausibility about it.  To make the case really convincing requires looking at the Chronicles in careful detail, and Ward does so.  In fact, he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything Lewis ever wrote, and he marshals it all in support of his thesis.  The most relevant books are (of course) the Chronicles themselves, followed by the Space Trilogy (especially That Hideous Strength) and The Discarded Image, but he also brings in his letters, essays, studies of medieval literature, Christian apologetics, and other works of fiction.  If you are an admirer of Lewis, the cumulative argument is a rare feast.

At the end of the argument, Ward makes the provoking claim that his theory illuminates the books to such an extent that “the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it”, and I admit that I am persuaded to agree with him.  First of all, I like the idea of the books having a secret plan, and, based on what I know of Lewis, I find it easy to believe that he would relish the artful concealment of his guiding vision.  Second, he really did love the medieval cosmos, and he must have thought himself a lonely lover at times; that he could pay private homage to the planets in this way must have seemed appealing.  Third (and perhaps I should have said this first), the theory really does fit the literary evidence: when once the character of each planet is explained, it becomes a fairly simple matter to match the books up, one with the other.

At the close of his central argument, Ward advances, more cautiously, a theory about the occasion for Lewis’ decision to begin writing the Chronicles.  The first of them was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and he began it shortly after the famous Oxford debate with Elisabeth Anscombe — famous because it was one of the few occasions in his life when he was soundly bested in debate, and he knew it.  Anscombe had criticized an argument Lewis put forth in the first version of his book Miracles about the nature of rationality.  Some commentators, noting that after this rather humiliating defeat Lewis turned to children’s literature, have interpreted the Chronicles as a kind of retreat into immaturity.  Ward disagrees completely.  Instead, he argues that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an attempt to present in fictional form his thoughts about the nature of rationality.  Jove, the kingly god, is the source of reason and order, and the book’s characters live and move in the light he sheds upon the world.  In other words, it is an attempt to go deeper into the issues that Anscombe had brought up, not to flee from them.  This is an intriguing proposal, but I agree with Ward that it is less compelling than his principal claim.

All in all, this is probably the most fascinating book that I have read about C.S. Lewis.  I am persuaded by the arguments, and I feel that my understanding of and admiration for the Chronicles, and for Lewis himself, have increased considerably.

***

This interview with Michael Ward lays out the argument concisely.  It does rather spoil things, though, if you’d like to try to guess the planet-chronicle mapping yourself.

20 Responses to “Ward: Planet Narnia”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I heard Michael Ward speak at Princeton. The title of the talk was something like C.S. Lewis on Love and Loss but it actually turned out to be about his Narnia theory. I was hooked, bought the book, and was just as impressed as you were.

    One neat thing he did during the talk was to play about the first five minutes of the Jupiter segment of Holst’s Planets suite, of which Lewis was a great admirer. I encourage you to give the suite a careful listen after having read this book: you will recognise many of the planetary characters coming through.

    I’m not sure if it says on the dust cover or anything, but a further point of interest is that Michael Ward is an Anglican priest.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I will listen to Holst’s suite again, Adam (just as soon as I get my shiny new computer up and running). Thanks for the suggestion.

    I knew that Ward is an Anglican, but not that he is a clergyman. He certainly knows his Lewis very well.

  3. Christina A. Says:

    I am simply intrigued! Good book review!

  4. Janet Cupo Says:

    OK. I’m going to find where I put that book and read it.

    Ward is Catholic now. He’s a friend of a friend of mine.

    AMDG


  5. “He called the planetary gods “spiritual symbols of permanent value”.”

    I see I’m going to have to read The Discarded Image. I once knew more than a little about astrology, and even after I gave it up I felt that it was a really wonderful system for describing human personality–more or less the same view as Lewis’s. One of these days I’m going to write something about it.

    I had heard of Ward’s book but thought it sounded like one of those theories that reaches rather too far. But it sounds like I was wrong.

  6. Michael Ward Says:

    Thanks for these positive comments about ‘Planet Narnia’. One correction to make. Janet Cupo says I am ‘Catholic now’, by which I guess she means ‘Roman Catholic’. I’ve always regarded myself as a member of and a believer in the Catholic Church (as per the Apostles’ Creed), but actually I’m an Anglican, – a priest of that Communion and currently serving as Chaplain of St Peter’s College in Oxford.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, Rev. Ward, for that clarification. And thank you also for taking the time to read. It is always a pleasure to hear from authors I admire — even if only as a gentle corrective.

  8. Janet Says:

    Well, sorry about that. I must have heard incorrectly.

    AMDG,
    Janet

  9. cburrell Says:

    I can’t decide if your friend should be knocked on the head for spreading lies or patted on the back for spreading such pleasant ones.

  10. Janet Says:

    Well, I’ve been meaning to write and ask exactly what WAS said. I probably misinterpreted what I heard. Maybe I shoulk know myself on the head.

    AMDG

  11. Janet Cupo Says:

    I shoulk know myself on the head? What the heck does that mean?

    AMDG

  12. cburrell Says:

    I hoped you knew. When I read it, I thought that perhaps you had been knocked on the head.

  13. Janet Cupo Says:

    Well, actually it’s an esoteric code based on the periodic table. I thought that you would be able to figure it out.

    AMDG

  14. cburrell Says:

    K = Potassium, I know that much. D is Deuterium. So you think I should replace Deuterium with Potassium. Am I on the right track?

  15. Janet Cupo Says:

    Well, you might try it. You know better than I whether or not you should make sure your wife and daughter are out of the house first.

    AMDG

  16. cburrell Says:

    Caution is always my way.

  17. Rufus McCain Says:

    Fascinating. Thanks, Craig. I’d like to read this now. I’ve been working through the Narnia books with my 6-yr old daughter and we’re just coming to the end of The Silver Chair, which has always been my favorite because of Puddleglum.

  18. cburrell Says:

    Yes, Puddleglum is a favourite of mine too, and I am looking forward to the day when I can read those stories to my daughter.


  19. […] of The Narnian). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, touching on Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Planet Narnia, the film adaptations, Tolkien, and other topics, from people who know what they’re talking […]


  20. […] Planet Narnia – Michael Ward I don’t often read, much less enjoy, books of literary criticism, but for sheer pleasure nothing I read this year matched Michael Ward’s fascinating study of The Chronicles of Narnia. It is rare to read something that illuminates a well-beloved literary work the way Ward has illuminated Narnia with his theory about how the Chronicles are constructed on the plan of the medieval cosmos. It sounds right to me. A splendid Lewisian feast. [Book Note] […]


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