Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis
by Michael Ward
Oxford University Press, 2008
($29.95, 347 pages, hardcover)
Michael Ward, an Anglican priest and co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, begins his new book (portions of which appeared in the December 2007 issue of Touchstone) with a question: “How is it that seven such stories [the Chronicles of Narnia], authored by an unlikely novice and possessing little apparent coherence in design, should have become some of the best-selling and most influential fables in the world?” That is, there are three problems with the Narniad: of occasion, composition, and reception.
The heart of the book addresses the composition problem, arguing that “the Chronicles do not lack coherence, either as a series or when considered as seven individual texts, and that their ‘controversial’ elements are to be understood within the context of that coherent imaginative strategy.”
That strategy was to write each book in the series with one of the seven planets of the medieval cosmology as the presiding planet of the book and to focus imagery, plot, and characterization, especially of Aslan, around that planet’s traditional portrait.
Lewis wanted to do this, Ward says, because for him the medieval portraits of the planets were “spiritual symbols” (Lewis’s words) that could represent aspects of the imagination, reason, and the spiritual life. For instance, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Jupiter, the spiritual symbol of kingship and joviality, presides over the narrative, and Aslan reflects that in his character.
In writing with a hidden plan I mind, Lewis followed the example of the medieval literature he loved and to which he devoted his professional life. His models, in this regard, Wards contends, were Dante, Spenser (who wrote “all great truths should be veiled”), and Sidney, among others.
In addition to this, many Lewis scholars have sensed there is a secret key to interpreting the Chronicles but have not been able to find it. Ward says he has and, after initial skepticism, I am convinced he is right.
But why haven’t Lewis scholars found the secret key before now? Ward argues because they have forgotten the important distinction between something said, the logos, and something made, the poeima. Thus Lewis scholars have focused on the logos of Lewis’s works, that is, on Lewis as orthodox Christian teacher, at the expense of Lewis’s works as things made, poeima, that is, on Lewis as an artist who is also a Christian and medievalist.
“In An Experiment in Criticism,” Ward writes, “Lewis ponders, ‘who loves Dante as a poet and who loves him as a Thomist.’ A similar question could be asked in the field of Lewis studies. ‘Who loves him as a writer, and who loves him as a Christian?’ His status as a Christian too often causes a Pavlovian reaction of approval among his co-religionist readership; his interest in astrology gets overlooked in the rush to lionise him.”
Of course, in one way, this is what Lewis intended—not the lionization, but the overlooking of the hidden plan–and this takes us to the problem of reception. Ward says that the Narniad has enjoyed such a tremendous reception because, as seen above, “seven ancient archetypes [the planets as spiritual symbols] in a manner which is artistically and theologically suggestive.”
That is, “By casting . . . the planets into the genre of romance he deliberately circumvented conscious intellectual apprehension, and that was all to the good, for ‘an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.’”
The question then remains as to why Lewis wrote the Narniad at all. Ward argues that the occasion was, as many others have said, Lewis’s famous defeat in a Socratic Club debate with Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. But, instead of seeing the writing of the Chronicles as a retreat into fantasy, as A. N. Wilson has in his biography, Ward maintains the Chronicles “were a deliberate engagement with, rather than a retreat from, her critique of his theology.” This because, Ward argues (though I don’t have room to give the details here) Lewis transmuted his argument in Miracles (which Anscombe had criticized) into imaginative form in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Ward shows in Planet Narnia, convincingly I think, that just as George MacDonald baptized his readers’ imaginations, so Lewis baptized the medieval version of astrology and “put it to use in theologically imaginative ways,” throughout all his work but especially in the Chronicles of Narnia.
For, above all, Lewis wanted his readers to enjoy, beyond words, what Dante called, “The love that moves the suns and the other stars.”
Cut passages: Mars presides over Prince Caspian so the plot, imagery and characterization focus on martial themes. Sol, or the sun, shines through The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the moon casts a silvery light throughout The Silver Chair, Venus fills The Magician’s Nephew with love and humor, and Saturn fills The Last Battle with a fruitful melancholy that leads “further up and further in.”
But Lewis’s secrecy is also consistent with what is known about Lewis’s character. Following statements from those who knew him— Lewis’s physician, Humphrey Havard, for instance, said that Lewis’s memoir, Surprised by Joy should have been entitled Suppressed by Jack—Ward shows Lewis was secretive, even deceptive at times, by nature. He kept his marriage to Joy Davidman secret from many of his friends, lied to his father about his relationship with Mrs. Moore for many years, and maintained it was permissible to lie in order to protect friends of students.
In this he was following his master, George MacDonald, who wrote: ‘It is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully.’”
Another way to look at this is to remember another key distinction, one important to Ward’s argument and which he borrows from Lewis’s essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed.” This is the distinction between enjoyment and contemplation. One can look at a sunbeam or along a sunbeam. If one looks at a sunbeam, Lewis terms this contemplation. If one looks along the sunbeam then one sees things—trees, clouds, the sky—in its light, one enjoys the sunbeam. According to Ward, Lewis scholars have been looking at or contemplating what Lewis taught in his works but they have not looked along the things he wanted enjoyed. They have contemplated rather than enjoyed Lewis’s writings.