As the school term was winding down this month, I was looking for some books to read at the library in Huron University College. One book I have recently come to regard as a favourite of mine is Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. I regard it (as others do) as his best work.
While venturing into the stacks to find some books on Till We Have Faces (since it, like all of Lewis's work, has been subject to a good deal of literary study), I found a book on the shelf for literary criticism of Lewis's books called Planet Narnia. The name caught my eye, as did the cover (it features Jupiter and, although I did not realise it until recently, the Earth, side by side to scale). I was also attracted by the fact that it was new, having been published just last year.
I read through the first three chapters, and was thrilled by what I read. I resolved to lay the book aside, finish some other books I was reading, and return to it later, which I did. I then composed a review of the book. I don't expect it is a very good one, but I would like to share it with you.
Planet Narnia: A Review
Lewis scholar Michael Ward, in his book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (published in January 2008 by Oxford University Press), claims to have found the skeleton key for the interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (which Ward calls the Narniad).
Ward writes: ‘[a]stonishingly, no one has ever considered whether Lewis might have built the Narniad upon what Donne called “the Heptarchy, the seven kingdoms of the seven planets.” ’ This, then, is what Ward claims to be key to interpreting the Narniad: the planets of the mediaeval cosmology: the Moon (Luna), the Sun (Sol), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Lewis knew and loved that cosmology, which was one of the central features of what, in The Discarded Image, he called ‘the Medieval Model’. There are seven books in the Narniad because there are seven planets in the mediaeval heavens.
Ward first discusses the problems with other theories of interpretation. ‘None of them’, he writes after having listed several, ‘has been advanced in a fully serious way, nor has any one of them commanded general acceptance or even the support of a substantial minority of critics.’ The possible Christological theme advanced by Chad Walsh and apparently confirmed by Lewis in a letter to a child, Ward shows to be a ‘dead-end’.
Most of the book is taken up by Ward’s answer to the question of composition. Each Narnia book, he shows, is connected to one of the seven planets mentioned above. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is Jovial, for example, while Prince Caspian is Martial. The connection, Ward is at pains to show, is not obvious, at least, not at first (it had, after all, evaded critics and scholars for fifty years). The reason this is so is, Ward explains, because Lewis intended for the influence (to be understood in its astrological sense) of each planet to be ‘tasted’, to be the ‘atmosphere’ felt in the course of reading each book. The planetary ‘flavour’ or ‘donegality’ (to use the term Ward coins, which, he writes, is ‘a new phenomenon in imaginative literature’) of each book Lewis holds up for our Enjoyment, not for our Contemplation. Moreover, Ward shows how Aslan becomes, as it were, the object of our Contemplation with respect to the governing planet of the book. Aslan is in many respects not so much a Christ-figure as a ‘Christotypical’ figure.
Ward strengthens his case by showing how often Lewis refers to the planets in his other works. In his science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), Lewis stuffs, or even over-stuffs, the books with planetary imagery. In many of his poems Lewis also referred to the planets, most importantly (from Ward’s perspective) in a poem entitled ‘The Planets’. It is remarkable how closely Lewis made the planetary ‘atmosphere’ or ‘donegality’ of each book accord with his description of the quality of the planet, by which each book is respectively governed, in the poem, as Ward shows. Ward’s own discovery of the planets as an imaginative key unlocking the secret of interpreting the Narniad occurred when he read the lines ‘winter passed/And guilt forgiven’ from the Jovial portion of ‘The Planets’ and realised that ‘those things formed the centrepiece of [Lewis’s] first Narnia tale’.
If it is not obvious by now, I should state that I, for one, am convinced by Ward’s interpretation of the Chronicles. Both at the beginning and end of Planet Narnia, Ward takes pains to show how other interpretations of the Narniad are in error, or at least in need of correction or modification. I myself had not (to my knowledge) considered the ‘mystery’ of the Chronicles, nor the difficulty in their interpretation, before. But Ward’s interpretation has such explanatory power, and shows how widely in Lewis’s work, both professional and personal, he made reference to the seven planets of the mediaeval cosmology, and clarifies the meaning of (among other things) Aslan’s appearance in each book, to the point where the least one can do is to admit that it is, to this point, the most convincing on offer.
One problem of note was that about thirty pages of endnotes and bibliography were missing and had somehow been replaced by a repetition of the first section of endnotes. This, of course, did not mar the argument of the book.
I would recommend Planet Narnia as a good book to read. If possible, before reading the chapter of Ward’s book which deals with the planetary ‘donegality’ of each book, read the book in question so that it will be fresh in your mind when you turn to Ward’s interpretation. I hope you will find Planet Narnia, as I did, an enriching exploration of Lewis’s most famous books.