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.