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The planetary secrets of C.S. Lewis

  • April 18, 2008

{mosimage}Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward (Oxford University Press, 347 pages, hardcover, $31.95).

Planet Narnia is one of the most creative works of scholarship I have read since I fled the murky world of graduate studies in English literature. Michael Ward sets before us one of the great mysteries of C.S. Lewis studies, i.e. what is the underlying unity among the seven Narnia stories, and solves it. It’s the kind of thing that makes a rival PhD student throw her laptop across the room and take to drink. Ward has made a brilliant discovery.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was an Irish-born professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and then Cambridge University. He was also a Christian, and although he wrote important and enduring works of scholarship, he is better known for his Christian apologetics, novels and children’s books. Some critics have compared the Narnia stories unfavourably to the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, finding them shallow, lacking in unity and weakened by jarring elements — like Father Christmas in a tale full of classical mythology. However, by thinking seriously about Lewis’ life-long interest in the medieval imagination, Ward has uncovered a symbolic structure in the seven books that deepens both their literary and theological significance. He also reveals Lewis to be a better writer than we knew.

{sa 1554680549}The key to the Narnia stories, writes Ward, is medieval planetary symbolism, a symbolic idiom that Lewis both taught and used in his earlier fiction and poems. Using Lewis’ poem “The Planets” and his Ransom Trilogy as source material, Ward argues that each of the Narnia books corresponds to one of the Ptolemaic heavenly bodies — the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The first book in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, corresponds to the planet Jupiter and, argues Ward, is shot through with Jovian symbolism.

Planet Narnia is divided into two unequal parts. The first, encompassing chapters one through nine, introduces Ward’s startling discovery and then heaps up the evidence, one book at a time. The second, quickly dealt with in chapters 10 through 12, examine why Lewis might have written an entire series of Christian stories around planetary imagery. Ward argues that it was in reaction to the “failure” of Lewis’ apologetical work Miracles. Trounced in a debate by a young philosophy student, a chastened Lewis turned to an imaginative idiom to express what he wanted to say. Ward writes:

“At this point we return to Carpenter’s question: ‛What kind of mind was it that could switch from rigourous theological argument to children’s fantasy?’ And the answer is: a mind that thought both rationally and imaginatively. Lewis, I submit, turned to romance not as a retreat from apologetics after his debate with Anscombe, but precisely as a way of explaining his case to himself in imaginative form.”

That the Narnia stories were in some ways Christian allegories comes as no surprise to Christian readers. What is surprising is that pagan imagery can be — and once often was — used to express Christian ideas. Ward is a clergyman, and he in no way neglects the theological aspects of Lewis’s books. He uncovers how Lewis uses pagan imagery to expound Christian teachings and delves into particular problems, such as why in the “Venus” Narnia story, Aslan does not become a lioness:

“Lewis was ready and willing to accept feminine imagery for the divine at the limit of the intellect. However, at the level of the imagination, his respect for scriptural precedent and his understanding of the relationship between image and apprehension prevent him from entertaining such images. The overwhelming majority of images of deity in the Bible are masculine, and for Lewis they were not allegories, but symbols or pupillary metaphors. In his view, we cannot get behind the images to some sort of imageless truth. Although rationally we have good grounds for saying that God is ‛sexless,’ it does not follow that masculine imagery is therefore dispensable and interchangeable with feminine imagery.”

Planet Narnia is an important work of scholarship. The scholarly tone of the book makes it an absorbing, serious and tiring read. But the tone, wealth of research and attention to Lewis scholarship and criticism are all necessary to convince the reader of what is at first a startling claim — that C.S. Lewis had an overarching structure to his books so secret that only he knew about it.

The ideal audience for Planet Narnia is scholars of English literature and of theology, especially Lewis’s theology. Devotees of the Middle Ages and specialists in medieval philosophy will also find this work absorbing. Finally, those lay readers who enjoyed Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels, to say nothing of the Narnia stories themselves, will find Ward’s book a source of rich enjoyment. Planet Narnia is a brilliant work to be savoured, read often and kept at hand when re-reading Lewis’ novels.

(Cummings is a regular columnist for The Catholic Register.)

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