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Planet Narnia

For many readers of C. S. Lewis this blog will be old news. Furthermore, this is a blog I never before planned to write. That is not because I lack an opinion about the book pictured above, Planet Narnia, but simply because I saw no point in adding my voice to the many others in the world who have already commented far more intelligently than I could about this book.

So why am I writing this blog? First of all, as I travel around and speak about Lewis and his work in various places around the United States I have started to have people ask me my opinion about Planet Narnia. Secondly, I read a blog about Planet Narnia today, written by C. S. Lewis scholar Dr. Devin Brown, that got me thinking about writing my own blog. (You can read that other blog here: http://booksbycslewis.blogspot.com/2009/05/planet-narnia-spin-spun.html.) At first I was just going to comment about Dr. Brown's blog post, but then I realized my comments were too long to be contained in a blog comment. Actually, my thoughts are too extensive to be contained in one blog, but I'm going to give it a go.

Before I comment on Planet Narnia I should say something of what the book is about. Planet Narnia and the recently broadcast BBC documentary, The Narnia Code (part of which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9Pa5uwvDig) argue that C. S. Lewis secretly constructed The Chronicles of Narnia out of the imagery associated with the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos. That's the idea of the book and the documentary in a nutshell. If you haven't read Planet Narnia I urge you to learn more about it by visiting the web site of the author, Dr. Michael Ward, here: http://www.planetnarnia.com/. Then, go out and buy the book and read it for yourself. It is a worthwhile read; no question about that.

There is one other thing I should do before commenting about the book, that is to say something about the author. Dr. Michael Ward is a fine scholar whom I would also consider to be a friend. Though we are not close friends, Michael has stayed in my home. He also addressed the Harrisonburg Virginia C. S. Lewis Society, which group I lead. Given this background I hope and expect that Michael will accept my comments about his book for what they are, an acknowledgement of continuing scholarly skepticism regarding his thesis held in tandem with deep respect for Michael as a person and a scholar.

When Michael stayed with us in February 2008 I was still in the midst of reading Planet Narnia. I told him that I began reading the book with some skepticism, but by the time I got to the chapter on Mars I was convinced of his thesis. I think what bowled me over when I read the book in February 2008 was Michael's marshalling of seemingly overwhelming internal evidence in the Narnia books to support his contention that each book corresponded to a different "ruling" planetary influence.

My copy of Planet Narnia, graciously signed by Michael, indicates my enthrallment with the subject. I have numerous statements underlined and many comments in the margins throughout the book. If nothing else, Michael's book leads the reader further up and further in to Lewis's thought in general and delightfully reveals Lewis's love for medieval cosmology in particular.

However, after reading the whole of Planet Narnia and thoughtfully considering the case for some time, I have reverted to my original position of scholarly skepticism. I have not stated my position publicly before now because I have not felt there was sufficient reason to do so. However, I have read, from the sidelines, a bit of the ongoing "debate" between Dr. Devin Brown and Dr. Michael Ward. Furthermore, I have been pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Brown raise some of the same objections to Michael's thesis that I have secretly harbored in my own mind.

So why speak out now? I do so because of what Dr. Brown has said at the end of his blog:

"As more people have a chance to carefully examine the arguments put forward in Planet Narnia, and this is something I heartily recommend, it will be interesting to see whether more of them will agree with Douglas Gresham and Paul Ford or with Michael Ward. This forum presents a great way for those on both sides of the debate to present their opinions and for each side to learn something new from this exchange of ideas."

Dr. Brown has invited Lewis scholars to respond and so I am answering that call. I agree with both the positive things Dr. Brown says about Planet Narnia and the objections he raises to Michael's thesis, namely that:

  1. the planet-related imagery does not stay rooted in its “home” book, but appears scattered randomly in all seven Chronicles.
  2. Michael's claim to have discovered the “secret, governing imaginative scheme underlying the Narnia Chronicles” does not pass what I call the “So What?” test. Would knowing that, as Dr. Ward claims, there are some Mars images in one book, some Mercury images in another, and some Jupiter images in a third significantly change the way we respond to Lewis’s stories or change what they mean to us? For me the answers are no and no.
  3. the Planet Narnia premise misrepresents the story-making process.
For more on those three points please click on the link above and read Dr. Brown's blog.
To those three objections I add three more. First of all, in a letter to Laurence Krieg written on April 21, 1957, Lewis states: "When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done the Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found I was wrong." This being the case, I find it impossible to believe that Lewis planned to write the Narnia series with each story dominated by the ruling influence of one of the seven planets of medieval cosmology.

Of course, in good scholarly fashion, Michael Ward anticipates and answers this objection in his book, on page 222, where he says regarding Lewis:

"He had not originally conceived the idea of a series that would enable him to portray all seven planets; rather, he had found a way of reimagining 'Miracles' using the imagery of Jupiter . . . 'Prince Caspian' and 'The Dawn Treader' naturally followed because Mars and Sol were both already connected in his mind with the merits of the Alexander technique." To understand Michael's answer here one must read Planet Narnia in full. (By the way, that's the challenge of even critiquing Michael's thesis, it is so detailed that it would really require a book-length critique to do it justice.)

That said, I appreciate Michael's thoughtful response to my anticipated objection. However, I find Michael’s response unconvincing. To my mind the fact that Lewis did not plan to write seven books (each ruled by the planetary influence of one of the seven planets of the medieval cosmos) militates against Michael's thesis. In other words, if Lewis had planned in advance to write seven books, I would find Michael's thesis a little easier to accept.

A second thought, which might be phrased as an objection, comes to mind. The reason I was briefly convinced of Michael's thesis while reading Planet Narnia was because of the numerous internal examples of planetary influence which Michael cites from each of the Narnia books. However, the planetary symbols which Michael cites are so diverse it has given me pause to wonder. Could such symbols be found in another series of seven books? For instance, could such symbolism be found in the Harry Potter series? Could one make the argument that each of those books is based upon one of the seven ruling planetary influences of medieval cosmology? I know this seems a fantastic idea. And I know that J. K. Rowling, unlike C. S. Lewis, is still alive to either confirm or deny the thesis. But what I would be interested to see is whether the symbols Michael Ward sees in Lewis's books are so diverse and so common to all literature that they could also be found elsewhere. For as any good reader of fiction knows, it is possible for any intelligent reader to allegorize any good story and to see in that story levels of meaning which the author never intended. Well, there you have a fun project suggested for some "Harry Potter scholar" to work on in his or her spare time.

A third objection to Michael’s thesis is this: I believe that Michael too hastily rejects Lewis’s one stated summary of the overarching themes in the Narnia books, while putting forward another theory based upon a literary secret. In his famous letter to Anne Jenkins (Collected Letters, Volume III, pp. 1244-45) Lewis states that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ” and then he proceeds to lay out the spiritual themes in each of the Narnia books. To my mind, what Lewis spells out to Anne Jenkins provides such a cohesive, thematic unity to the whole of the Narniad that we need not look for any other overarching plan. Michael states that too much significance has been attached to Anne Jenkins letter. According to Michael, “The summaries given there are so brief and general as to be of little explanatory use.” I disagree. I have written an as yet unpublished book tracing Lewis’s stated themes in the Narnia books and find them to be of great explanatory use. That is not to say that there may not be other levels of meaning in the Narnia books beyond what Lewis states in his letter to Anne Jenkins. However, to simply dismiss what Lewis says to Anne, because he is writing to a child, seems to me a bit prejudiced.

Since Michael Ward's entire thesis is based on the premise that Lewis's planetary themes for the Narnia books was a literary secret, we may never know for certain whether Michael Ward's thesis is correct. One way Michael's thesis could be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt would be if Lewis did disclose this secret in some letter or piece of writing and if that written documentation were to come to light. Short of that, the only way Michael's thesis will ever be proven, right or wrong, will be when we can ask C. S. Lewis about it face to face. I look forward to the asking of that question some day and to the delightful conversation which is sure to follow.

In the mean time let me just say thanks to Michael Ward for writing such a book as Planet Narnia which has stimulated so many people to re-read the Narnia books, to delve deeper into Lewis's work as a whole, and to consider how the seven heavens of medieval cosmology may or may not have affected the writing of The Chronicles of Narnia. I hope that after publishing these objections I will be welcome some day to stay at Michael's house in England just as he is welcome any time to stay at mine in Virginia!

Comments

Roger R. said…
Thanks Will,

very thoughtful. Pity I will miss you at the Perlandra Project weekend at Staggers (what we Wycliffe Hall alumni call St. Stephens House)... a prebooking I'm afraid - the Devon 1100 celebrations in Exeter Cathedral (1100 anniversary of the first Devon Diocese).

Blessings,

Roger R.
Will Vaus said…
Thanks for your comment Roger! I was hoping we would get to meet at the Perelandra Colloquium. Alas! Staggers--I like that. Of course I have been aware of Oxford slang for some time--like preggers for pregnant, etc. But Staggers was a new one on me. The Devon 1100 celebration sounds very worthwhile indeed. Wish I could be two places at once. I will actually be in Oxford from Monday, June 22 through Sunday, June 28.
Roger R. said…
Will, do you know about the event being held in Oxford on the 2nd July with Michael Ward? The Science faculty I think.

The 1100 celebrations we will have Rowan Williams speaking and Alister McGrath (my old professor and friend). I wouldn't miss that!

Roger
Will Vaus said…
No, I didn't know about the event on July 2. But I will be back home by then.

Your event sounds great. I would like to hear Rowan Williams. I will hear Alister McGrath at the apologetics conference at St. Stephen's House in Oxford this coming week.
Thesis Writers said…
this kind of blog always useful for blog readers, it helps people during research. your post is one of the same for blog readers.

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Will Vaus said…
Thank you! I'm glad the blog is helpful.

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