21 October 2009

Planet Narnia

Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, has a review in today's Times of Michael Ward's Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, a book which expounds on a theory I first heard of last year, and which the BBC devoted a show to at some point over the Easter.

It seems that at some point Dr Ward became intrigued by Lewis' penchant for games and puzzles and began wondering whether there might be another layer of meaning in the Narnia books, below the Christian allegory level which itself obvious underlies the fantasy adventure stories. After reading Lewis' 1935 poem 'The Planets', which features the influence of Jupiter in 'winter pass'd / and guilt forgiv'n', he started wondering whether the medieval understanding of the planets might have influenced Lewis's most famous works, and, after buckets of researched, has found that each of the Chronicles is thematically built around one of the seven medieval planets after which the days of the week are named.

This might sound a bit crazy, but the idea has some merit: Lewis was one of England's greatest scholars of medieval literature, and this sounds a perfectly medieval way of writing, drawing on astrology in this way. Lewis was indeed very fond of puzzles, and his science fiction trilogy, the Perelandra books, are explicitly built around the three planets of Mars, Venus, and Earth. And then if you think of how Eustace meets and chats with the resting star Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it does start to look more likely.

Allowing for this, then, Dawn Treader is clearly about the Sun, Prince Caspian draws on warlike Mars, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which deals with the banishing of winter and the forgiveness of guilt is naturally based upon Jupiter. The Silver Chair is apparently a lunar tale, while The Horse and his Boy seems to be a Mercurian work, with its emphasis on communication and its twins, reminiscent of Gemini who Mercury rules. The Magician's Nephew draws on Venus, it seems, and The Last Battle is built around Saturn, the darkest and most mysterious of planets, which could so easily go bad.

I know, it sounds like there's some crowbarring going on here to fit a theory, but I'd not be inclined to chuck the theory out straight away. Why wouldn't a devoted medievalist have embedded a medieval understanding of the universe in his books? It would just be another way, after all, of saying that the Universe was sacramental, created and redeemed by God, and that everything means something.

Wright, at any rate, is convinced by this, saying that 'This introduction to a masterpiece is something of a masterpiece in its own right,' and he's not alone in this, but I must confess to finding the whole idea very unlikely. Granted, I haven't read Ward's book, so I can't judge fairly, but it seems to me that in referring to the Chronicles as 'the Narniad', Wright identifies a fundamental problem with Ward's thesis.

Central to Ward's approach -- and Wright's review -- is the assumption that the seven books were planned as a seven-book set, and as such must be somehow unified, whether by connections to the seven virtues, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments, or - as in this theory - the seven planets. But the thing is, this assumption doesn't appear to hold any water whatsoever. Lewis wrote to a fan in 1957 saying that the Chronicles had never been intended as a seven-book set, but instead grew organically:
'The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. 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. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.'
Even if he thought up a thematic link later, which is possible, you'd expect that the planetary themes would manifest themselves far more clearly in the books that were written last, with this connecting idea in mind, than in the early ones, where he had no such idea. And if anything, the opposite looks to have been the case. And he certainly didn't rework the early books with the intention of turning his spontaneous series into a single narrative, in the way that T.H. White did with his early Arthur ones when he wrote The Once and Future King around the same time.

Another problem, as far as I can see, is that there doesn't seem to be any clear proof that Lewis was hiding anything in the Narnia books. You'd expect that if he was being so clever-clever that there'd be some record of letters between him and Tolkien, say, where J.R.R. commends him on the underlying astrological stuff, while nonetheless repeating his view that the whole thing still looks like a mish mash, and besides, he hates allegory, Christian or otherwise. You'd at least expect that there'd have been letters to people or records of conversations where Lewis talks of an extra layer of meaning. And as far as I can tell, there's no trace of him ever having made such a claim.

This whole affair looks like a typical academic fantasy, where people want Lewis's books to be more complex than they are. They're Christian allegories, and they're children's stories, and they've a clunky style enlivened by dry authorial asides, and the fifth book begins with one of my favourite sentences ever, but one thing they're not is a unified work of art. We can call them the Narnia books, and we can probably call them the Chronicles of Narnia, but we certainly shouldn't call them the Narniad. That's asking for trouble, and invites questions that simply have no business being asked.

1 comment:

CëRïSë said...

Fascinating ideas.

Also, "This is the story of an adventure that happened..." or am I in the wrong book?