I recently received a review copy of The Narnia Code DVD from Tyndale House Publishers. It is always a delight to review C. S. Lewis related books and products, and especially so in this case as Michael Ward, author of The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia, is a friend of mine.
That said, allow me to get one thing I don't like about this DVD out of the way right from the start, and that is: the title. I really dislike the title: The Narnia Code. The reason I dislike it is because I sincerely doubt that C. S. Lewis would want us to approach the Narnia books as pieces of literature to decode. Lewis makes clear in a number of places that the Narnia books are not an allegory. (See letter of 26 May, 1954 in Letters to Children, pp. 44-45.) Nonetheless, I believe that something Lewis said about allegory in general, in The Allegory of Love, applies to reading the Narnia books. There Lewis wrote that "allegory is not a puzzle. The worst thing we can do is to read it with our eyes skinned for clues, as we read a detective story." (The Allegory of Love, p. 333.) The very title, The Narnia Code, invites us to read the Narnia stories with our eyes "skinned for clues", which I believe Lewis would tell us, is not the way to approach these books. Of course any book which treats of the symbolism in the Narnia stories may have this effect on the reader. My own book, The Hidden Story of Narnia, could, unfortunately, produce this result. However, I prefer to think of a "hidden story" (a phrase Lewis himself uses (see Lewis' letter of 26 October 1963 on page 111 of Letters to Children), rather than a "Narnia code", a phrase rather alien to Lewis' way of thinking.
Now that we have dispensed with what I find to be the most distasteful part of this DVD, let us proceed to some more delectable items....
One of the things I like best about The Narnia Code DVD is that it begins with an excellent mini-documentary of C. S. Lewis' life. There is extensive footage drawn from C. S. Lewis: Beyond Narnia, an earlier production by Narnia Code director, Norman Stone, who also directed the BBC version of Shadowlands. This dramatic footage is used to excellent effect in The Narnia Code.
Another positive aspect of The Narnia Code is that it includes commentary from a wide range of "Lewis experts" in addition to Michael Ward. We are treated here to the powerful insights of scholars James Como, Malcolm Guite, Alan Jacobs, Don King and Eric Metaxes, BBC presenter Brian Sibley, and author Francis Spufford.
A third thing which The Narnia Code does very well is to present the process by which Michael Ward claims to have made his literary discovery, namely that each of the Narnia books corresponds to one of the planets of medieval cosmology. Whether one, in the end, agrees with Ward's thesis or not, one must admit that Ward's presentation of this theory is both cogent and compelling. The Narnia Code DVD does an excellent job of putting Ward's scholarly thesis, presented so well in Planet Narnia, at a popular level. After watching the DVD with me, even my eleven-year-old son was both enthralled and able to articulate Ward's thesis.
When I first read Planet Narnia I had the advantage, some would say, of having the author himself staying in my home. Michael and I were able to discuss his thesis as I was reading the book. By the time I got to, if I remember correctly, the third chapter of Michael's book, I told him I was convinced. However, after Michael left and I finished reading the book, doubts began to arise in my mind. I still have lingering doubts about the full accuracy of Michael's thesis though, once again, I found his presentation of his thesis, to be very persuasive in this DVD. You may read the articulation of my doubts about Planet Narnia in a previous blog here:
Despite my doubts about Michael's thesis, I still think Planet Narnia is well worth the read, and The Narnia Code is well worth viewing. One pleasant surprise I had in viewing the DVD was the application of Lewis' medieval-inspired imagination to our view of the cosmos today. Rather than spoil the surprise for my readers I encourage you to see the DVD for yourself.
In closing, let me mention briefly two more special treats included in this DVD. In the Bonus section we get to meet three friends who knew C. S. Lewis personally and hear their comments on Ward's thesis. Also, we get a tour of key locations in Lewis' life story.
In short, I must say that no brief review can do full justice to the riches presented by the BBC, Norman Stone and Michael Ward in this fine DVD on the life and thought of C. S. Lewis.