Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

 

Michael Ward Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis

Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God. Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

For example, in the first and most famous of the series — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — Ward posits that Lewis  “took certain old familiar pictures in his head and threw them into a pot labelled ‘Joviality’; and as they simmered there, marinading and reducing, they began to smell somewhat of the gospel story. But only somewhat…” It would be simplistic also to suggest that Prince Caspian is only about war (Mars is also a god of vegetation) or that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is merely about the Sun (medieval cosmology and astrology were subtle arts on which Lewis apparently tried to model his creative writing); but the fundamental notes of The Silver Chair (the Moon), The Horse and His Boy (Mercury), The Magician’s Nephew (Venus) and The Last Battle (Saturn) do seem to be permeated by and resonate with the characteristics of the traditional heavens.

Has Ward found the key to the Narniad? I’m convinced by his hypothesis, more than other attempts to link the books to the seven deadly sins, the Catholic sacraments or Spencer’s Faerie Queene. Ward shows how his other work — poetry (in particular, the alliterative poem The Planets), his scholarship (such as his introduction to medieval thought The Discarded Image) and fiction (especially the so-called Ransom Trilogy, which concluded with That Hideous Strength) — prefigured or paralleled the Chronicles in the use of ideas, themes, symbolism and phraseology related to the astrological planets and their attributes. Reading the extracts and quotes from these other writings illuminates not only the seven novels but also strengthens Ward’s arguments.

Ward also tackles head on the question of why Lewis wasn’t more explicit about the way he structured his heptalogy. First he establishes Lewis’s love of secrecy, which is encapsulated in the writer’s concept of the ‘kappa’ element in literature, from the initial Greek letter of κρυπτóν (“krypton”, meaning hidden or cryptic); Lewis chose not to signpost his approach except in the most allusive of ways. Secondly Ward shows how Lewis was impressed by the essential difference between looking at a shaft of sunlight and looking along it to its source, and how it underpinned his personal philosophy and illustrated the move along a continuum from allegory to symbolism. The contrast between explicit and implicit perception which Lewis held and which Ward draws attention to can be tabulated, but I can personally appreciate it by recalling a childhood worry: that by analysing musical compositions I would lose my instinctive emotional response when listening to pieces. Of course such intellectual dissection (“contemplation” as Lewis calls it) in the longer term can deepen one’s understanding without necessarily destroying the enjoyment of the innocent ear. Ward sensibly structures his own analysis by referencing each book’s logos and then its poiema.

Contemplation

Enjoyment

Looking at the beam

Looking along the beam

Mode of expression

Expressed mode of thought

Allegory …..

….. Symbolism

Magistral metaphor / master

Pupillary metaphor / pupil

Concepts expressed in

corporeal form

Corporeal form derived

from archetypes

Explicit / logos

Implicit /poiema

Planet Narnia is extremely detailed and very dense, and it’s almost impossible to do justice to it in a short review, but its very complexity echoes that of the Narniad. For example, The Horse and His Boy (a portrait of the mercurial essence) is rich in allusions to Mercury’s attributes: speed, language, twins (drops of quicksilver regularly combine and separate, reflecting the closeness of such siblings) and the trinity — Hermes Trismegistrus (“Thrice-Great”) was seen as a prefiguration of the Christian Trinity — are all adduced as evidence of Lewis’ purposes in this novel. The Magician’s Nephew, the literary embodiment of Venus, caused Lewis much grief. Though begun after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe it was the last to be completed (and the penultimate Chronicle to be published) because, Ward argues, the story of a boy trying to save his mother’s life with an apple was intimately bound up with the death of Lewis’ mother when he was only nine years old. And I can scarcely begin to summarise the several motifs that underscore the difficult Saturn-inspired final novel, The Last Battle.

This study has certainly illumined my understanding of the Chronicles, and allowed me to appreciate intellectually what makes the series tick as a whole and in its individual parts. But has it changed my personal response to the Narniad? My criticisms, quite divorced from my rejection of Lewis’ Christian ideology, were principally in three areas: characterisation, plotting and sense of place. I find that understanding has not increased my liking of the Chronicles. The characterisation remains weak: ideology cannot affect that. As for plotting, a remark by Lewis is revealing: for him, “understanding a story” is not just about comprehending a linear chain of events (explains Ward) but having the ability to discern a story’s hidden meaning, “something that has no sequence in it” (149). The linear chain of events seem to me to be subservient to each story’s kappa element, its secret or cryptic intent. Lewis draws on myriad seasonal, astrological and pagan themes to reinforce his grand design of Christian salvation, but this doesn’t seem to me enough to craft a satisfyingly plotted novel: this is the tail wagging the dog.

That leaves a ‘sense of place’, which was the most positive aspect of the series that I initially identified but an area that Ward scarcely touches on, if at all. For example, he doesn’t seem to need to explore the sort of real geography that may have inspired Lewis as much as his mental maps, places such as Dunluce Castle in Country Antrim which the child Lewis would have known and no doubt explored and which may have been a model for Cair Paravel. But this was clearly not Ward’s intention in this book, which — as a Anglican priest — he largely only directs along a fixed theological path.

As a study Planet Narnia makes its points exceptionally well. But it doesn’t make me like the Narniad any more than I did before.

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?
An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?
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11 thoughts on “Contemplating the Narniad

  1. It seems that he has many valid points – but at the core of it all is the fact that Lewis wrote an exceptionally entertaining and satisfying series. His motivation and sources are merely incidental to that, in my opinion. Still, it is always interesting to look at influences.

    1. Lewis’ Chronicles certainly evoke equal and opposite reactions — I was neither entertained nor satisfied by them — but I recognise that his is a distinct voice and that he approached this undertaking with a consistent vision. However, even Ward recognises that not all the novels reached the high standard of storytelling that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe achieved. Still, I will give them another go, and then tackle the Ransom Triology, which I last read (along with the related fragment The Dark Tower) in the 79s or early 80s.

      1. Beware! Beware! For that could lead to floating hair …
        Swallows and Amazons infected me, in extreme youth, with an incurable attack of Yachtitis. I was, alas, only able to indulge the compulsion well into adulthood – but then I did a thorough job!

        1. Oddly, I never succumbed to the charms of Arthur Ransome’s kids’ books when young, thus avoiding yachtitis. You of course know that I was really referring to Elwin Ransom, the central character in Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy aka the Space Trilogy.

  2. Although I devoured the Ransom trilogy in 11th grade, I tried rereading it a couple of years ago and couldn’t get past page 20. I couldn’t remember or find what had so enthralled me nearly 50 years ago. Like Col, I’m not a Narnia fan, but I can strongly recommend Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, in which the protagonist discovers that a world very much like Narnia is real. His adventures there are much more thrilling than any the Pevensie family go through.

    1. Ooh, I’ve got the first Grossman book on my TBR shelves–what a treat in store! I’d read that these books were a lot better than the rather dire Codex he’d penned earlier.

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